Review: Operation Black Antler, Southbank Centre

Daring and detailed, Operation Black Antler is a powerfully thought-provoking piece of immersive theatre booking out of the Southbank Centre

“Let’s go for a deep swim”

When a company sticks the term ‘immersive’ on its marketing copy, it can too often be a wishy-washy attempt to lure its audience in without really making them engage on any meaningful level. There’s no danger of that with Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s Operation Black Antler though, as your undercover police mission to infiltrate a suspect protest group means you have to get right in there, really challenging yourself to see how far you can, or should, go in the name of national security.

So much of the thrill of the event comes from the unknown (is it time for more You Me Bum Bum Train yet?) so no spoilers here, but I will say that there’s something shockingly effective about the set-up, the ease with which one can slip into someone else’s shoes and adopt a voice full of abhorrent messaging, ostensibly for the greater good. You can choose how much or how little you engage with the process but let’s face it, no-one is booking an immersive show to embrace your retiring wallflower side! Continue reading “Review: Operation Black Antler, Southbank Centre”

TV Review: Bodyguard Series 1

Bodyguard reaches a thrilling climax that is sure to disappoint some but left me on the edge of my seat

“I wanted to know who did it, I don’t know who did it”

Except we do finally know who did it. Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard – an unexpected massive hit and a reminder that the appointment-to-view model is far from over – reached its climax tonight in typically high-tension style, confounding expectations to the end and dashing the dreams of many a conspiracy theorist to boot. Seriously, so glad that Julia Montague remained dead (at least until a sequel is announced and we have to go through this whole farrago again). 

And though it is bound to have its detractors, I have to say I found it all hugely entertaining. If it just wasn’t realistic enough for you, then WTF are you doing watching dramas? If you’re getting swept up in locations in this fictionalised version of London not being where they are in real life, turn the damn thing off! Its not for everyone, that’s absolutely fine, but you don’t have to drag everyone else down with your misery. Continue reading “TV Review: Bodyguard Series 1”

TV Review: Bodyguard, BBC1

Jed Mercurio hits the mark once again with new drama Bodyguard, led by two excellent performances from Kelley Hawes and Richard Madden

“Looks like the Home Secretary couldn’t be in safer hands”

The weather taking a turn for the blessedly British feels like a most appropriate herald for the return of proper drama to our tellyboxes and first out of the gate for this year’s slate of autumn dramas is Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard with a properly nail-biting opening 20 minutes which serve as a remarkable statement of intent for this series.

In an expertly tense sequence, Afghan vet turned special protection officer David Budd (Richard Madden) negotiates the peaceful surrender of a suicide bomber of a train in Euston. The perpetrator(s) (as it turns out) may be Islamists but its the gung-ho approach of the police that emerges as much as a threat to a peaceful resolution. Continue reading “TV Review: Bodyguard, BBC1”

Review: Saint George and the Dragon, National Theatre

“You hunt them where they live”

There’s something interesting about a community that can simultaneously urge the need to talk constructively about failure and also gloat endlessly about the its possibility. Where the National Theatre is concerned, the stakes feel considerably heightened and following a summer that contained the divisive Salomé and Common, sadly you could almost feel the knives being sharpened in advance for Saint George and the Dragon.

Two contrasting viewpoints from two contrasting people, to be sure, but you wonder how open-minded people are being, particularly when the start to this press night was delayed by 30 minutes or so adding fuel to certain people’s fire. But all this dancing around is doing, is delaying the inevitable, in that I found Rory Mullarkey’s new play really quite tough-going and had it not been for an effortful performance from John Heffernan keeping it afloat from the front, it would have been worse. Continue reading “Review: Saint George and the Dragon, National Theatre”

Full cast announced for Saint George and the Dragon

 
A village. A dragon. A damsel in distress.
 
Into the story walks George: wandering knight, freedom fighter, enemy of tyrants the world over. One epic battle later and a nation is born. As the village grows into a town, and the town into a city, the myth of Saint George, which once brought a people together, threatens to divide them. Rory Mullarkey creates a new folk tale for an uneasy nation.

Continue reading “Full cast announced for Saint George and the Dragon”

Review: Operation Black Antler, Home

“Get a drink, stay calm, assess the room”

The heart sinks a little bit when you get a reviewing assignment which ends with the request not to reveal too much about the production. You Me Bum Bum Train is the perfect example (especially as it was my entry into the world of immersive theatre) and looking back on it, from first to second to third time around, it is clearly a skill I had to learn (and am still learning).

Which is all by means of building up to [not] talking about Operation Black Antler, a Blast Theory and Hydrocracker production running out of Manchester’s Home. In select groups, we’re thrown into the world of undercover surveillance on the streets of Manchester where we’re to “question the morality of state-sanctioned spying” – basically like an episode of Spooks if it were written by Paul Abbott and made by Channel 4.  Continue reading “Review: Operation Black Antler, Home”

TV Review: Happy Valley Series 2

“Yet another everyday story of country folk”

And so Series 2 of Happy Valley winds to a close and you have to hope that the people who acclaim Scandi-noir as the high point of today’s television recognise that this slice of Yorkshire-bleak is just as good, if not better. Sally Wainwright might have thrown some people for a loop by moving (even further) away from straight police procedural to something much more intimate and emotionally complex, placing Sarah Lancashire’s utterly magnificent portrayal of Sgt Catherine Cawood at its very heart. (My thoughts on episode 1 are here.)

“Omnipotent and ubiquitous, God I’m good” she wryly notes as a younger colleague drunkenly praises her at the end of a boozy evening and as the multiple strands of this series slowly began to converge, it was her presence that knitted the whole thing together. Wainwright’s closer hand on the tiller (directing four of the six episodes, all of which she wrote) allowed for some of the bolder moment to really shine, notably the two-handers that opened so many of the shows, a scorching stillness and quietude that underscored much of the horror of policing the Dales. Continue reading “TV Review: Happy Valley Series 2”

TV Review: Happy Valley

 
“Why would he do something like that? We’ve got caravans, we’ve got a games room that caters for people in wheelchairs”

My favourite thing about Happy Valley is actually the association the title has for me and my family – it was the name of the Chinese takeaway opposite my Aunty Jean’s house where we’d often get our Saturday tea. It’s a lovely fond memory that sits rather at odds with the realities of this recent TV series which I finally caught up with and which reunites what looks like becoming one of the best creative partnerships we have in the country – writer Sally Wainwright and actor Sarah Lancashire. Baftas all around I shouldn’t wonder.

The location may be similar to the rather more bucolic Last Tango in HalifaxHappy Valley is set in nearby Hebden Bridge – but we’re in a much grittier world of suburban disillusionment as this police drama takes in kidnap, rape and murder, all underscored by the pervasive influence of a spiralling drugs problem throughout the town. Wainwright being a more sophisticated writer than most though, ensures that her drama takes in the full breadth of the experience, examining the aftermath of the crimes just as much as the deeds themselves. Continue reading “TV Review: Happy Valley”

Review: Orpheus Descending, Royal Exchange

“I’m not interested in your perfect functions”

It is often the case with lesser performed works by well-known playwrights that there’s a reason why they don’t occupy the same place in the canon, and so it was with this production of Tennessee Williams’ 1957 play Orpheus Descending which I managed to squeeze into the end of a hectic work trip to Manchester. It is unmistakeably his work: elements like the oppressive heat of the Deep South, repressed passion and a mismatched couple are present and correct. But there’s also a lugubrious pace and a patchwork quilt of superfluous supporting characters which helps to explain its relative obscurity.

Lady Torrance is an unhappily married Mississippi store-owner whose head is well and truly turned with the arrival of handsome young drifter Val. He’s escaping his past but finds himself in the most stifling kind of narrow-minded community as they react against him. At the same time though, he offers the potential of a way out for Lady who dares to dream of a more liberated future, but the constraints of her present circumstances and the ever-powerful echoes of the horrific past mean nothing is easy. Continue reading “Review: Orpheus Descending, Royal Exchange”

DVD Review: Housewife, 49

“What actually is mass observation?”

I have no earthly idea how this passed me by first time round containing as it does, two of my favourite things: the experience of everyday people in the Second World War and national treasure Victoria Wood. That Housewife, 49 was also written by Wood makes it even more remarkable I missed it, but catching it on the tv was one of those experiences that simply filled me with warmth, joy and a fair few tears as I utterly loved it.

It is based on the real-life wartime diaries of Nella Last (played here by Wood herself) , a Barrow-in-Furness housewife recovering from a nervous breakdown who participates in a national scheme to document the lives of normal people – Mass Observation – as a way of helping her recovery. Society is rather unforgiving of her inability to ‘cope’ especially as war starts, her marriage to the taciturn ’Daddy’ is constrictive and it is only when she is persuaded to give voluntary work a try by her younger son, that she finds the opportunity to slowly flourish as her confidence is built and she becomes an integral and vital part of the community. Continue reading “DVD Review: Housewife, 49”