Review: Mosquitoes, National Theatre

“I can be anything I want. 

I can be a Hufflepuff if I want.”
Just a quickie for this as it closes this week (I had the unfortunate accident of being in Vienna for its press night). Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes has been a sell-out success for the National, packing out the Dorfman perhaps initially for its deluxe casting of two Olivias – Colman and Williams – but latterly due to some superb word of mouth as well. And given that this is largely a play about two sisters who can’t help but bicker all their lives, it is brilliantly well cast.
Williams is Alice, a scientist working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and Colman is Jenny, a medical sales rep living in Luton. Nominally, the former is a success, the latter a fuckup, an idea reinforced by Jenny arriving in Geneva to recuperate from a devastating personal loss. But Kirkwood’s writing is far too nuanced to let that be all, she thoroughly interrogates our preconceptions as she whirls through a universe-ful of ideas including anti-vaxxers, revenge porn, society’s inherent misogyny, science and religion and much more besides.
If anything, this is where Mosquitoes is perhaps weakest, in its sheer surfeit of content. It is undoubtedly nice to be able to wrestle with a complex play with so much within it, but Rufus Norris’ production has a lot of wrangling to do and the resulting abrupt shifts in tone take some getting used to, particularly in the way the strong sense of humour is cheek by jowl with the harrowing plot developments that drive the narrative as the sisters deal with each other and the other family members drawn into their orbit.
The depth of this sibling relationship is a real joy though, repeatedly tested over the three years of the play as scientific intelligence proves no match for emotional candour, as the rigours of fact are severely challenged by the foghorn of feelings, suggesting that we might just be best surrendering to the unpredictability of it all. The introduction of universal theories as interludes adds to the momentous feel of Kirkwood’s writing, aided by Katrina Lindsay’s design, Paule Constable’s superb lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound to create a superb piece of theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 28th September

TV Review: The Halcyon Series 1

“Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm. I’m sure it’s just another false alarm “

Oh The Halcyon – shafted by the overwhelming desire for it to be the new Downton, or maybe the unfriendly Monday evening slot, or maybe the fact that Charlott Jones’ serial never quite honed in on what it wanted to be. Following the fortunes of a luxury London hotel during the first couple of years of the Second World War, it took all possible opportunities to explore a society on the cusp of major change. But between the aristocrats who owned it, the aristocrats who stayed there, the lower classes who work there, and the multitudes of people affiliated to all these lives, the canvas was far too wide.
The hints were there right from the off in episode 1 which struggled to introduce even just its leading players in its running time, whilst still proving most tantalising, due to its cracking cast and its sumptuous design (those costumes!). At the heart of The Halycon lay the antagonistic relationship between Olivia Williams’ Lady Hamilton and Steven Mackintosh’s Mr Garland, owner versus manager as they butted heads over practicalities in the face of an ensuing Blitz but though their scenes were electric, they were given too little too late together to exploit this to its fullest. 
Across the eight episodes, subjects covered included international espionage, the difficulties of securing a goose during rationing, the consequences of appeasement, homosexuality, inter-racial relationships, inter-class relationships, the ethics of war reporting, US reluctance to get involved in WWII, women’s rise in the workplace, just to name a few. And naturally, it dealt with the vast majority of them briefly, on the surface, an issue to be wrapped up neatly rather than investigated thoroughly which would have been fine if The Halcyon had leaned into its soapy side as much as its dramatic tendencies.
Similarly, the series suffered from the insistence on infusing more modern attitudes than would be strictly historically accurate into its scenes. So scenes dealing with the intolerance directed towards Nico Rogner’s Austrian Jewish refugee working in the kitchen were improbably wide-eyed; the build up to Edward Bluemel’s Hon. Toby Hamilton and Akshay Kumar’s barman’s illicit liaisons was sweetly done but once they started boning, they were ridiculously indiscreet (purely in service of the plot); Garland’s daughter Emma’s rise from receptionist to assistant manager to active WVS member was simplified and unproblematic and less interesting for it.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy The Halcyon, it was occasionally extremely good fun. The music always set the scene well, led by Kara Tointon’s cheery singer Betsey, Liz White’s telephonist eventually got a satisfying amount to do, and Charles Edwards’ Lucian D’Abberville had a most entertaining plot which unfolded as well as anything did in the show. Throw in cameos from the likes of Fenella Woolgar, Matthew Marsh, Beverley Knight, Danny Webb, Charity Wakefield et al, and no matter how nonsensical it got, things were always watchable.

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things

Christine Edzard will be writing and directing a new version of The Good Soldier Schwejkbased on the satirical Czech novel by Jaroslav Hašek, and creating a daring theatrical and filmic experience.  

Published in serial form, The Good Soldier Schwejk became an instant success. Hažek died in 1923 leaving the novel unfinished. By 1926 it was translated into German and spread across Europe, acquiring cult status. Since then, the good soldier has appeared in many forms across the world, as a powerfully comic symbol of anti authoritarianism, anti militarism and resistance.

Edzard will present a contemporary ‘take’ on Hašek’s original, in an unconventional, rule-breaking adaptation. The subject of Edzard’s film is in fact a play, a comedy, which she has scripted as a live, cabaret style performance. Her Schwejk will be filmed from curtain up to curtain down as performed over the course of a week in the intimate wooden theatre at Sands Studios in Rotherhithe. The compression of Hažek’s sprawling novel into cabaret form will add bite and contemporary relevance to the satire. The Cabaret form also reflects the background of Schwejk’s original creator – Jaroslav Hašek was a frequent performer of politically engaged cabaret in Prague.
A small cast:

Alfie Stewart 

Joe Armstrong
Kevin Brewer
Sean Gilder
Michael Mears
Aaron Neil
Andrew Tiernan

Michele Wade 

will take on multiple roles and there will be live music and (partially scripted) audience participation. Editing will take place after the shoot in the normal way
It all sounds very intriguing indeed (follow their Twitter here for more info) and I’m pleased to be able to share some rehearsal images for Good Soldier Schwejk with you below.

Following on from his success with Daytona at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket Oliver Cotton, has written a new play for our time, Dessert, running at Southwark Playhouse from 12th July til 5th August.

Directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Teresa Banham, Alexandra Gilbreath, Stephen Hagan, Stuart Milligan, Michael Simkins and Graham Turner, Dessert is a thought-provoking play about wealth, greed and the lengths to which people will go to claim what’s theirs.

A British financier and his wife host a lavish dinner party for their affluent American friends. The food is delicious, the conversation animated and dessert is on its way – when, from one second to another, the evening takes a sinister and alarming turn…

Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood will have its world premiere in the Dorfman Theatre in July with Rufus Norris directing. The rather exciting full cast is Amanda Boxer, Olivia Colman (Jenny), Cait Davis, Vanessa Emme, Yoli Fuller, Paul Hilton, Joseph Quinn, Sofia Stuart and Olivia Williams (Alice). And creatively, the show is designed by Katrina Lindsay, lighting design by Paule Constable, music by Adam Cork, sound design by Paul Arditti and video design by Finn Ross & Ian William Galloway.

‘Alice is a scientist. She lives in Geneva. As the Large Hadron particle collider starts up in 2008, she is on the brink of the most exciting work of her life, searching for the Higgs Boson. Jenny is her sister. She lives in Luton. She spends a lot of time Googling. When tragedy throws them together, the collision threatens all with chaos.’

The combination of the two Olivias will make this a must-see and most likely, difficult to get tickets for so I’d get booking now!

The Donmar Warehouse announced two new plays for the 2017 autumn period and whilst they have a certain appeal, I can’t say they are making me to rush to get my booking diary to hand… 

Internationally-acclaimed theatre artist, Yaël Farber, makes her Donmar debut directing David Harrower’s haunting Knives in Hens with full casting that includes Christian Cooke, Judith Roddy and Matt Ryan. This will be the play’s first major London revival since its premiere in 1995, when it instantly established Harrower as one of the UK’s leading playwrights (apparently the Arcola’s second studio doesn’t count!).

Kwame Kwei-Armah then returns to the Donmar stage after his hit production of One Night in Miami… to direct Ibsen’s masterpiece, The Lady from the Sea, in a new version by Elinor Cook. BAFTA-nominated Nikki Amuka-Bird will lead the cast, playing Ellida. Masterpiece or no, it’s still Ibsen…

Making theatre accessible to as many people as possible is at the heart of the Donmar’s mission. Knives in Hens and The Lady from the Sea will have KLAXON tickets available throughout the run: an allocation of tickets, starting from £10, put on sale every Monday for performances in the following three weeks. Tickets will be available across the auditorium at every price band.

TV Review: The Halcyon Episode 1

“Gin please.
‘Of course.'”

Billing something as the new Downton Abbey is all well and good but for someone who only ever watched the Christmas specials because his parents commandeered the telly on Christmas Day, it’s not actually that much of a pull. What I can’t resist however is Olivia Williams, and Olivia Williams in a period drama in particular, and so I put on ITV for what feels like the first time in ages for The Halcyon.
Set in a swish London hotel of the same name in 1940, The Halcyon looks to be your regular upstairs-downstairs as the aristocratic residents lounge about talking about Nazi sympathisers and swigging gin, while the honest-guv staff scurry around being decent and hard-working and dull and thoroughly unbelievable in the way that they chat so easily with their employers and clientele (just one of the things that bugged me about the little of Downton that I saw).

Writers Charlotte Jones and Jack Lothian possibly attempted too much in this opening episode by introducing far too many characters with far too little to do. It’s no mean feat to fill 48 minutes with so little action and yet so many people but the cumulative effect was largely inconsequential for me. I didn’t believe in any of the characters, or care that much, though I am sensitive for the need to give it a little more time to bed in yet.
Williams’ Lady Hamilton looks set to be an interesting character, as long as the writing is more consistent for her, and the tension with Steven Mackintosh’s general manager Garland looks set to be a big narrative driver going forward. I did enjoy Charity Wakefield’s Mitford-esque troublemaker and Alex Jennings’ soon-departed Lord but it’s a crime to have Liz White in your show and give her nothing to do but look exasperated by a phone. So we’ll see, I’ll check in again to be sure but I’m hedging my bets on this one.

The Complete Walk, from the comfort of your sofa #2

“I would you were as I would have you be”

Our journey along the Complete Walk, at our own speed and from the comfort of our own home, continues apace. Here’s my thoughts on the first suite of films and now there’s four more for your delectation.
Twelfth Night comes to us from Parham House, West Sussex, with the glorious Olivia Williams and Susannah Fielding playing Olivia and Viola/Cesario. And directed by Jessica Swale, it’s deliciously exciting and erotic as the former is utterly thunderstruck by the latter, both actors hitting the mark perfectly and suggesting that this would be a production for the ages were it ever to happen in full. It is spliced with Tim Carroll’s 2012 production which saw Mark Rylance reprise his Olivia, a performance of which, in all honesty, I was no real fan back then and remain so now.
Interestingly, this was the first of the films that felt heavier on the Globe production rather than the new clip. In the atmospheric gloom of Glamis Castle, Adele Thomas directs a forcefully weird Joanna Scanlan as the Porter but the majority of the action comes from Eve Best’s 2013 production, (sadly not the Elliot Cowan-starring one from 2010) with Joseph Millson’s beautifully spoken M and Samantha Spiro’s vibrant Lady M. It was nice to see them again but the final result did thus feel a little unbalanced.
Now this one was good. Sheila Reid’s storytelling Gower, reprised from the Swanamaker production earlier this year, enhanced by wordless excerpts from the National Theatre of Greece’s version from the Globe To Globe season and illustrated animation too, Dominic Dromgoole’s direction took Reid all around the Globe complex and beautifully so.
One of the cushier jobs in this series, Douglas Hodge’s achingly voiced Prospero finds himself marooned on Bermuda and shot gorgeously by Jessica Swale mostly in voiceover to beautiful effect, And it was nice to revisit Jeremy Herrin’s Roger Allam-starring version for the Globe in 2013, even if I remain unconvinced by its Ferdinand and Miranda, a sterling combination of old and new.

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.

The Iliad took place on the day I came back from holiday so I was only able to watch the tail-end of it so I was determined to catch more of The Odyssey, intending to drop in and out of it all day (as technically I was at work…) but it was so seductively brilliant and relentlessly interesting that there was barely a moment I was able to tear my eyes away. From an impassioned Simon Russell Beale beginning at the fall of Troy to the glorious Lia Williams bringing us to the climax 10 years later, it was an absolute triumph.

Highlights from this treasure chest of wonders were many and varied – Ian McKellen giving forth from the Council Chamber of Islington Town Hall, Stanley Tucci orating on the choppy waters of the Thames, Miranda Richardson, Janet Suzman, Toby Jones… But The Odyssey really came into its own when certain actors had to deal memorably, and unbelievably professionally, with the vagaries of live performance combined with the unpredictability of a city that doesn’t stop for anyone, not even Juliet Stevenson.

Stevenson delivered her Cyclops-bashing segment from a capsule on the London Eye and tussled magnificently with the automated voice in there, reminding her to smile and take her belongings with her to which the text gave her the perfect riposte. And a medal should also be awarded to Stephen Fewell who came up against a jobsworth who wouldn’t let him on the boat he was due to take yet barely batted an eyelid. Andrew Scott and Anna Madeley also both stood out with fiercely committed recitations, bringing blistering life to the text. Another stunningly audacious theatrical treat from what has been a five-month-long highlight of the year.

Review: Waste, National Theatre

“The stateman’s task is the accommodation of stubborn facts to shifting circumstance and in effect to the practical capacities of the average stupid man. Democracy involves admission of that”

It’s always a bit tough to forge one’s own opinion of something already lauded as a masterpiece, the assumption being if you don’t like it then you’re missing something, but this is the second time I’ve seen a solidly good production of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste and it’s the second time that I just haven’t been blown away by it. Seven years ago saw Samuel West tackle it for the Almeida and now it is Roger Michell’s turn in the Lyttelton as Rufus Norris continues his balancing act of reinvigorating the National Theatre without scaring the regulars off.

But spread over a goodly three hours with a pace that could be described as stately at best and glacial at its worst, it’s hard to see Waste converting any newcomers to the joys of theatre. And even with the quality that emanates from the female-centric first scene – Olivia Williams, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Doreen Mantle and Lucy Robinson (forever in my heart as my first Lady Macbeth) doing fine work – the energy is just singularly lacking even as sex, sleaze and suicide pop up on the menu for this slice of the Edwardian political elite. 

Hildegard Bechtler’s design is partly culpable, its evocation of elegant loucheness looks a treat but spread across the vast swathe of space of the Lyttelton stage it simply dilutes. The chairs of the opening drawing room scene are set so far apart they may as well be in separate rooms, the length of the table in the parliamentary office is just impractical, seemingly that way just to fill the void. It also doesn’t help that the political machinations of the play, set in a hung parliament where a radical Independent MP is persuaded by the Tories to push through a divisive Bill, aren’t the most gripping.

It’s always a pleasure to see Charles Edwards on the stage and as the calculating Henry Trebell, he effectively captures the innate arrogance of the upper classes as his affair with married woman Amy O’Connell, the captivating Williams, leads to an abortive pregnancy that also threatens the life of much more beside. But be it a masterpiece or not (and I can theoretically see why it appeals to some), it just didn’t move me once again, this production just didn’t make me care enough even with excellent work by Le Touzel among the large ensemble, and that seems the biggest waste of all.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)

Booking until 19th March

Blogged: Olivia Williams

I do love me a bit of Olivia Williams, so was more than disappointed that Waste at the National Theatre didn’t float my boat. Fortunately, she has a prolific body of work in both the UK and Hollywood with which I was happy to reacquaint myself, alongside some titles I was watching for the first time, like Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Now Is Good and Peter Pan (the 2003 version). 

I’d loved her work in
An Education, The Ghost and Hyde Park in Hudson but was also really impressed by The Heart of Me, To Kill A King and Miss Austen Regrets. Hanna has a special place in my heart so I was glad to return to that film for the first time and she has a cracker of a role in Salting the Battlefield, the final part of David Hare’s Johnny Worricker trilogy.

There’s also some from the poorer end of the spectrum, not least the Channel 5 horror film
Altar, dodgy Brit flicks like Born Romantic, Lucky Break and The Last Days on Mars, and dubious TV specials like Krakatoa The Last Days and Agatha Christie – A Life In Pictures




DVD Review: Salting the Battlefield

“It’s not a question of how it is, it’s a question of how it appears”

Salting the Battlefield is the third and concluding part of the Johnny Worricker trilogy, following on from Page Eight and Turks and Caicos, and sees David Hare wrap up the dramas that he both wrote and directed. Worricker is an ex-MI5 analyst who is on the run from the British authorities after exposing a couple of massive secrets that threaten PM Alec Beasley, a marvelously slimy Ralph Fiennes. From the Caribbean he’s ended up in Germany with former lover and current conspirator Margot but the net is drawing ever closer for an endgame to settle all scores. 
It’s grand to see original players from Page Eight returning. Saskia Reeves’ ambitious Deputy Prime Minister still precarious as ever in her position but finding opportunity in the chaos of her personal and professional life; Judy Davis’ plain-speaking MI5 head still bemoaning the old boys’ club of an institution she appears to have firmly by the balls; and Felicity Jones as Worricker’s under-used daughter. And as stakes are raised in order for scores are settled, there’s a fantastic amount of Machiavellian manipulation by all parties, chillingly conversational confrontation the order of the day here.
Which means it does get rather talky (one can definitely see these dramas as plays) and the viewpoint of an external director might have addressed that a little. Real joy comes from the quality of the supporting cast. The office of The Independent is run by Olivia Williams’ bold editor-in-chief Belinda Kay with the marvellous Pip Carter as a journalist, MI5 has Leanne Best working for them, the PM has James McArdle as his PPS, and naturally the friendly priest who Worricker turns to in a crisis is Malcolm Sinclair.
Nighy is excellent in a role designed for his world-weary but wickedly cool persona, still not quite the hero even as he tries to resolve things, and this film also finds Bonham Carter in the rich vein of form that is seeing some brilliant work from her (cf Suffragette). An ambitious trilogy that is a shiny, if not quite essential, showcase for the BBC which could equally be used, not without some justification, as a stick to beat it for profligacy. 

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.