DVD Review: Coriolanus (2011)

“What would you have, you curs that like nor peace nor war?”

Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave will be starring together in the Almeida’s Richard III later this year but it’s not their first time doing Shakespeare together – Redgrave played an excellent Volumnia to Fiennes’ Coriolanus in this 2011 film adaptation which was directed by Fiennes himself. Scripted by John Logan in a trimmed and taut two hours, it’s a fiercely contemporary retelling that draws heavily on modern conflicts such as the Balkans and the Arab Spring.

The brutal sense of savage civil war is apparent from the shocking outset, there’s a real sense of the nervy tension on the streets of this version of Rome as warrior Caius Martius defends it from the invading Volscian army, simultaneously barely holding off a riot from within as the public rise up against an out-of-touch ruling class. But persuaded to run for office and unable to conceal his contempt for the mob, he is exiled and Rome’s biggest hero becomes its most unpredictable enemy. Continue reading “DVD Review: Coriolanus (2011)”

TV Review: The Sound of Music Live

“It’s quite different after you’ve grown up”

The hills are alive, with the sound of questions. Like, why. The UK’s first fully live musical theatre television broadcast saw ITV produce Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music though the result was a curious experiment that fell uneasily between two stools. Lacking the crucial energy that propels the best live theatre (which comes from an audience too), the production values (though often impressive) naturally fell short of the opportunities of filmed work

Which ultimately begs the question, what’s the point. Is the UK hankering for a new production of the show? It’s hardly as if we’re lacking for productions popping up regularly in theatres across the land. Is it showcasing the best of British musical theatre talent? In that case why cast someone like Strictly winner and former Eastender Kara Tointon as Maria and shunt the likes of Julie Atherton (one of the most outstanding performers we have, bar none) into the nun ensemble. Continue reading “TV Review: The Sound of Music Live”

Review: The Moderate Soprano, Hampstead

“The people of Tunbridge Wells seemed strangely indifferent to Parsifal”

Urgh. The presence of national treasures Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam meant that there was never any doubt about booking a ticket for The Moderate Soprano at the Hampstead Theatre. But sequestered in the salubrious surroundings of Swiss Cottage, David Hare’s tale of the life of John Christie – the founder of the Glyndebourne opera festival – has the feel of ultimate #firstworldproblems with zero theatrical imperative behind it, unless of course you’re the ones dropping £200 plus for tickets there.

The very fact that Glyndebourne were involved in the commissioning of the play tells you what level we’re operating on, a self-congratulatory tome of rose-tinted biography and operatic in-jokes but even that makes it sound more interesting than it actually is. Jeremy Herrin’s production is extraordinarily, fatally, lacking in anything resembling drama for a large proportion of its running time, its staid storytelling quickening no pulses, its static staging troubling no snoozers. Continue reading “Review: The Moderate Soprano, Hampstead”

Film Review: Mr Turner (2014)

“There’s no room for cynicism in the reviewing of art”

One might equally say there’s no room for cynicism in my reviewing of Mike Leigh’s work, such a fan of his oeuvre am I and the laidback, gruff charms of Mr Turner are no exception, confirming the iconic director in the full flush of his prime. Timothy Spall has already been deservedly rewarded for his wonderfully harrumphing performance of the last 10 years of the life of this most famous of painters and it is a compelling portrait, of a man established in his world as a bachelor, a master painter, and later a lover. Leigh’s episodic style fits perfectly into this biographical mode, dipping in and out of his life with the precision of one of Turner’s paintbrushes, colouring in a captivating collage of his later life.

Spall is excellent but around him, the women in his life provide some of the most hauntingly beautiful moments of the film. As Sarah Danby, the mistress and mother of the two daughters he would not recognise, Ruth Sheen is piercingly vivid, her barely contained fury resonating deeply. As Hannah Danby, her niece who was Turner’s long-suffering and long-serving housekeeper, Dorothy Atkinson is painfully brilliant as a woman subjugated and subdued by his wanton sexual advances, the psoriasis that afflicted her, and her deep love for the man. As “self-taught Scotswoman” and scientist Mary Somerville, Lesley Manville near steals the film in a simply beautiful self-contained vignette. Continue reading “Film Review: Mr Turner (2014)”

Review: Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies, Swan Theatre

“He needs to be on the side of the light”

Hilary Mantel became the first woman to win the Booker Price twice when the literary behemoth that was Wolf Hall was followed up by the equally considerable Bring Up The Bodies. And whilst we wait for the third part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy – The Mirror and the Light – thoughts have turned quickly to adaptation. The BBC will be airing a six-part version by Peter Straughan in the future but the RSC have readied a theatrical interpretation of the novels by Mike Poulton which is now playing in the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The shows can be seen separately, but are clearly designed to fit together (Wolf Hall has as close as the theatre gets to a cliffhanger ending!) and there are opportunities to see them on the same day.

At first glance, they may not seem the most likely choice for staging – set in the court of Henry VIII as he looks for ways of getting rid of his first wife Katherine of Aragon so that he might plant Anne Boleyn in her stead, these are all-too-familiar events. But Mantel’s magic was to tell the story through the eyes and mind of Thomas Cromwell, the wily commoner who worked his way up through the ranks to become one of the most influential man in the realm. Additionally, her magnificent present-tense prose brought Tudor England to life like never before, a rich attention to detail making this universe feel new-minted, as if anything could happen, not just what the history books say. Continue reading “Review: Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies, Swan Theatre”

Review: Love and Information, Royal Court

“What do you mean when you say it has meaning now?” 

One of the things I love most about blogging is the honesty with which it allows one to write. So much ‘official’ theatre reviewing (as in for a publication) is predicated on the basis of a perceived authority, on the acceptance of received truths, which due to space constraints are rarely articulated. But I’m not bound by any that here and so I can say I honestly don’t get what all the fuss is about Simon Russell Beale – I’ve yet to see him myself, in a performance that is worthy of being named one of our greatest ever actors – and likewise, I can say that I’m not sure that I get Caryl Churchill as a playwright. I don’t doubt or challenge her position as one of the UK’s most influential playwrights or her impact on contemporary theatre but rather, in the six plays of hers that I have seen, I haven’t had that kind of epiphany that made me stop in my tracks and say ‘this is amazing theatre’.

I’m constantly educating myself theatrically though and that’s where the informality of a blog – my theatrical education in progress if you will – comes into its own, tracing how my opinions can change (I’ve learned to love Chekhov) or not (I still dislike Ibsen, in the main). Thus I happily took the opportunity to see Love and Information, a new Churchill play at the Royal Court, her first since 2009’s controversy-baiting Seven Jewish Children, not least because it features an ensemble cast of extremely high quality. Continue reading “Review: Love and Information, Royal Court”

DVD Review: All or Nothing

“Love, it’s like a dripping tap”

First up was 2002’s All or Nothing, though it was a little of an inauspicious beginning, as I’m not sure how much I actually liked this film in the end. Set on a modern-day London council estate, it circles the fortunes of three working-class families and their everyday lives, so far so Leigh, but it doesn’t really develop into anything that gripped me. There are several outstandingly strong elements in here, but they never really coalesce into an effective whole but rather remain too separate and thus end up losing some impact.

The focus settles on one of the families: Phil, Timothy Spall, is a taxi driver who has long lost ambition for life and is reduced to scraping pennies from his family in order to pay his retainer for the taxi firm; Penny, Lesley Manville, works the checkout at a supermarket and is struggling to remember what it is she ever loved about Phil. Alison Garland plays their daughter Rachel who works as a cleaner in an old people’s home and is being semi-stalked by Sam Kelly’s much older colleague and James Corden is their unemployed and belligerent son. There’s a whole lot of misery, which is then alleviated by tragedy, which ultimately suggests that life might hold something more. Continue reading “DVD Review: All or Nothing”

DVD Review: Vera Drake

“She’s gonna get herself in trouble one of these days”

I’m pretty sure that Vera Drake was actually the first Mike Leigh film I saw, and what a cracker it is. It really is an extraordinary performance from Imelda Staunton as the perma-humming cheerful soul with a positive word and deed for everyone around her, the nice suggestion of putting the kettle on being the remedy for everything and her kindly demeanour drawing people close to her.

Vera’s family life is perfectly drawn too: the drudgery of post-war working-class existence in no way stinted on and the different ways it has affected people clearly evident in her children, Daniel Mays making the best of things as a cheery chatty tailor and Alex Kelly’s cowed Ethel, somewhat diminished by life as a light-bulb tester. With Phil Davis completing the family unit, there’s such genuine connectivity to these scenes, a real sense of family life being lived and a gorgeous flicker of romance brightening Ethel’s life, that the knock on the door as the law finally catches up with Vera really does come as a genuine heart-wrenching kick as their lives are shattered by the revelation that she has been carrying out illegal abortions, or just ‘helping some girls out’ as she puts it. Continue reading “DVD Review: Vera Drake”

Review: Travelling Light, National Theatre

“I don’t like it when he calls it a movie”

Perhaps I am more ignorant of Jewish terminology than I ought to be, but I do find it a little surprising that the blurb for Nicholas Wright’s new play for the National Theatre, Travelling Light, simply states that it takes place in “a shtetl in Eastern Europe”. I’d no idea what a shtetl was, didn’t notice any explicatory reference in the text and over the last couple of days have asked a few people, none of whom knew either. The internet informs me it is a small town with a largely Jewish population, but it does seem an odd assumption of knowledge to make (or perhaps it is just indicative of how few Jewish friends I actually have…) In any case, that this is the detail that sticks most in my mind after seeing the show is indicative of how little I cared for it.

Set in the early 1900s, the play – still in previews – centres on Motl Mendl, a young Jewish photographer whose dreams and ambitions as he discovers the burgeoning art form of motion pictures set him on a path that will see him end up in Hollywood. But before he makes it big, he needs to extricate himself from domestic village life and that is easier said than done as they are a group of real ‘characters’ one and all. Chief among these is Jacob Bindel, an illiterate timber merchant who is so enthused about the potential of film-making that he stumps up the money needed to keep Motl from emigrating (for the time being at least) and to make a movie in their very own village. Or shtetl. Continue reading “Review: Travelling Light, National Theatre”