2017 Oscars – pre-ceremony thoughts

“For whatever reason, he spared a hamster”

When you see as much theatre as I do, it can be difficult to keep up to date with cinematic releases – if I have a night off, I rarely want to spend it in a dark room… – but I have tried my best this year to see at least some of the Oscar-nominated films, so that I can chip in once they’ve been distributed in a way that will doubtless cause some controversy or other.

Continue reading “2017 Oscars – pre-ceremony thoughts”

Review: All My Sons, Rose Kingston

“That’s why there’s a God; otherwise anything can happen”

Arthur Miller’s titanic All My Sons has been well served in recent years – the late Howard Davies reviving his National Theatre production to stunning effect in 2010 and Michael Buffong illuminating it anew for Talawa Theatre in 2013 – so any new production has big boots to fill. And though seasoned director Michael Rudman comes with quite the track record (including a Tony for his work on Death of a Salesman in 1984), this production doesn’t quite howl with the anguish it could.

Part of the problem lies in Michael Taylor’s design which, whilst superficially impressive, works against the idiosyncratic space of the Rose Kingston and Rudman’s pacing negates far too much of the inherent tension in Miller’s depiction of the souring of the American Dream. So much comes from its slow-burning intensity that it is hard to believe that so many key moments get fudged, their drama fudged into melodrama or in some cases, just missing the beat entirely. Continue reading “Review: All My Sons, Rose Kingston”

Review: Rabbit Hole, Hampstead

“People want things to make sense”

Anchored by a barnstorming central turn from Imelda Staunton (as if there were any other kind), David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People was a huge success for the Hampstead Theatre, so they’ve returned to this American playwright with his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rabbit Hole. The suburban comforts of Becca and Howie Corbett’s family life are wrecked when their four-year-old Danny is killed in a road accident outside their home. Tragedy swallows them whole and grief tears them apart, the divergence in their individual journeys threatening what’s left of their family. 

The 2006 Broadway run got multiple Tony nominations and won for lead Cynthia Nixon and in 2011, the superb film adaptation garnered an Academy Award nomination for Nicole Kidman, so the stakes could be considered high for Outnumbered star Claire Skinner here. Edward Hall’s production never quite launches into the stratosphere though; whereas Good People depicted an authentic-feeling US working class life, Rabbit Hole’s middle class milieu doesn’t convince, too stagily British for its own good. Continue reading “Review: Rabbit Hole, Hampstead”

Radio Review: Denmark Hill / Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight / The Day We Caught The Train

“I have to write an essay on Shakespeare’s view of the family, it’s a bugger”

Denmark Hill is something of a rarity, a 30 year old Alan Bennett television play that never saw the light of day and so remained unproduced until this radio version brought it back to life. A suburban riff on Hamlet which sets it in a contemporary South London, it’s more of an interesting curio than an essential addition to the Bennett canon but it still has many points of interest. A nifty turn of phrase when it comes to a joke, the often ridiculous behaviour of human beings at times of crisis, and a top-notch cast that includes Penny Downie’s Gwen, her new lover George played by Robert Glenister and her angst-ridden son Charles, the ever-lovely Samuel Barnett.

Sadly not a dramatisation of the Ocean Colour Scene song, Nick Payne’s The Day We Caught The Train is a predictably lovely piece of writing from one of our most reliable new writers. Olivia Colman’s Sally is a GP mourning the recent death of her mother, trying hard not to let being a single mother rule her life even if the fact is she hasn’t had sex for a year. We join her on a regular day full of mini-dramas which seem designed to keep her from something special, a date with Ralph Ineson’s kindly David. Naturally, it doesn’t quite go to plan but the way it unfolds into something beautifully moving is skilfully done indeed. Continue reading “Radio Review: Denmark Hill / Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight / The Day We Caught The Train”

DVD Review: Silk, Series 1

“245 women silks ever, out of tens of thousands”

I do love a legal drama and so too does Peter Moffat. I’m forever grateful for him for the Helen McCrory-starring joy that was North Square and I’ve recently caught up with the two series of Criminal Justice that he was responsible for, so it was only natural that I should be a big fan of Silk. But as the time pressures of a busy theatre schedule rarely let go, it wasn’t something I had time to watch live and it was only with its arrival on Netflix that I was able to catch up with it. The show focuses on a single chambers with two leading lights both hoping to be appointed Queen’s Counsel, “taking silk” as it were, and dealing with the pressures of life at the Bar.

Casting Maxine Peake and Rupert Penry-Jones as the rivals Martha Costello and Clive Reader works extremely well – her fierce intelligence and emotional counterbalance being perfectly portrayed by the ever-strong Peake and Penry-Jones making Reader something of an arrogant buffoon yet one with some redeeming qualities as he competes and consoles, seduces and shines his way through life. Over the six episodes, the focus is mainly on Martha and her dilemmas as she finds herself pregnant at a time of huge professional significance, but the series as a whole makes for a modern and exciting version of a legal drama. Continue reading “DVD Review: Silk, Series 1”

Review: Storm in a Flower Vase, Arts

“It could be the end of flower arranging, it could be the end of everything”

When I found out that Storm in a Flower Vase was about the woman who invented the recipe for Coronation Chicken, I assumed it was going to be a tragic story of mental illness. After all, what kind of sick and twisted mind would put raisins in a savoury dish. But no, instead it’s about that age-old combination of flowers and lesbians. For some people, Constance Spry will be “a household name”, I know this is true because the flyer for the show says so. If like me you hadn’t heard of her, here’s her Wikipedia page

Anton Burge’s play focuses on her life in the 1930s, when she jacked in her job as a teacher to become a florist and set about revolutionising the world of flower arranging, becoming the preferred choice of high society but also democratising it in a way that had never been done before through the use of everyday materials, like using a pickle jar to prop up a collection of wild flowers and grasses (basically she invented Blue Peter too). And in amongst all her business affairs was a remarkably complex personal – living secretly in sin with men, becoming the patron and more of a noted lesbian artist, this ought to be a fascinating tale of a fascinating person.

But it isn’t. The play’s structure is far too messy – Burge intersperses various scenes from Spry’s life with tiny snippets of talks she gave at various girls’ schools and women’s institutes which add nothing of value and break up any real sense of atmosphere. And Alan Strachan’s over-literal direction just increases the bittiness of these short sequences with endless substantial scene changes, stagehands are forever popping bits of furniture here and there, rolling out carpet on the floor, shifting bucket after bucket of flowers and foliage. It’s all so busy and yet achieves nothing really substantial. Only the nifty reveal of a painting as the first half closes has the stylish grace the production aches for and it is over in a heartbeat.

And the writing is difficult, often veering into just overblown nonsense as sentences that no human being has ever uttered are forced into the characters’ mouths. Part of the problem is the crowbarring in of umpteen floral analogies for life, which might have worked in a lighter piece with a knowing sense of humour, but delivered here with all the seriousness of an outbreak of aphids are just chronically bad. And it doesn’t get better elsewhere, the potentially interesting take on women pushing their boundaries, both professionally and personally, is reduced to broad pronouncements rather than subtly convincing debate, its message hammered home like the unforgivable way Carolyn Backhouse’s Gluck confirms her lesbianism.

The presence of Penny Downie in the cast was one of the main reasons for booking and I’d love to be able to say she redeems it but that would be a lie, as her performance has been infected like mildew by the toxicity of the production. Her Constance is far too overwrought far too easily as if shouting IT’S ALL SO DRAMATIC might actually make the play so – it just doesn’t work. She’s constantly forced on the move physically and emotionally by the play’s structure that generally by the time she’s wrung her hands several times, emoted out loud and shoved a flower into a block of oasis, the scene is invariably over and so whatever flower arranging skills she must have picked up are kept hidden from us.

There are some brief highlights – Carol Royle’s Syrie Maugham (sometime wife to a philandering Somerset) spits high society disdain with amusing venom and Christopher Ravenscroft twinkles gracefully in the underwritten part of Shav, Constance’s husband of sorts – but they are few and far between. For me, this play was like grasping a nettle but it may well appeal to others who consider it like holding a rose – I’d still watch out for the thorns though… 
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)

Programme cost: £3.50, playtexts also available at £10…
Booking until 12th October

Review: Red Enters the Eye / Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear / Feather, Radio 4

“Come, I’ll make you some lamb cutlets”

A friend recommended Red Enters The Eye to me mainly because the too-long-absent-from-our-stages Siân Brooke was in it but she also knew it would be just my cup of tea, and she was right. Jane Rogers’ 2011 radio drama follows the story of Brooke’s idealistic Julie, a volunteer heading to a women’s refuge in Nigeria to teach sewing classes. From nervous beginnings as the strict manager Fran – Penny Downie donning an Aussie accent – outlines all the rules and regulations, Julie soon makes a huge success of the classes, revelling in their popularity, the way the women respond to her work and the potential opportunities that open up as they realise the marketability of these new-found skills.

But her untempered enthusiasm fails to take into account the gravity of the situation in which these women have found themselves, so that they were forced to seek refuge. Rogers carefully threads in a necessarily weighty level of detail about the various threats that women face in this part of the world, explaining also how the volatile socio-religious situation has a huge part to play in Nigeria. But it is never heavy-handed and instead emerges as a sensitive and thoughtful piece of drama which I’d heartily recommend. Brooke is excellent as the breathlessly naïve volunteer, Downie grimly pragmatic as Fran and there’s also great work from Adjoa Andoh as her partner and Demi Oyediran as Sarah, one of the women in the refuge.


Written by Alistair McGowan, Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear also sees him taking on the lead role of French composer Eric Satie. Probably best known for his Gymnopedies, Satie was actually one more innovative than one might have given him credit for, pushing creative boundaries and challenging the establishment. But he was an eccentric figure with it and McGowan has focused on the three most pivotal people in his life and how they were able to see through his peculiarities and peccadilloes to the man within, even if only for a brief while.

It’s an engaging, if somewhat slight, piece of writing, but one which is full of genuine affection and respect for its subject. From the seemingly ridiculous quirks – at one point, he will only eat purely white food – comes the beginnings of an artistic movement, from hopeless infatuation with a singer comes a fruitful creative partnership. McGowan bubbles gently as the composer and swirling around him Nathaniel Parker’s friendly rival Debussy, Imogen Stubbs’ Suzanne and Charlotte Page’s Paulette are all charming as the significant trio.

And last up was Rachel Joyce’s Feather, recommended to me as Claire Price formed part of the voice cast. A delicately beautiful tale narrated by Maisie Cowell’s Fern, it’s an acutely observed child’s-eye view of the separation of a couple and the tug of war that ensures over their daughter. It’s a disarmingly effective technique of probing human behaviour as each parent starts to bring a new partner into their life whilst sussing out what is going on with their ex, all the while Fern finds herself in the middle, collecting enough feathers so that she can make the biggest wish in her life.


She believes in magic you see, and that feathers can grant you wishes, but Joyce’s drama is rooted entirely in the messiness of real life, the pain of broken homes and broken relationships and the difficulties in starting over again. It’s beautifully acted by Cowell, heart-breakingly so at times, and Claire Price and Jot Davies as the warring exes, trying not to manipulate their daughter ‘too’ much are both strong, along with Shaun Dooley as the kindly Finn, who offers hope to both mother and child. 

TV Review: Ripper Street Series 1

“Whitechapel calls you back”

Victorian crime procedural Ripper Street burst onto our screens at the beginning of this year with a blood-spattered élan and a perhaps more violent streak than many were expecting, but it grew to be a most successful series with audiences (and me) and has since been renewed for a second series. Set in Whitechapel, the first episode had a Jack the Ripper focus, which with the title of the show, proved a bit of misdirection in terms of the series as a whole as the crimes that H Division ended up investigating were of a hugely wide-ranging nature and not just focused on the notorious serial killer (although the Ripper’s exploits did form a backdrop to part of the series-long arc).

It’s a period of history, and particularly social history, that I have long found interesting (I studied it as part of my degree) as notions of crime and punishment were rapidly changing and the nature of policing was also changing with the introduction of a more scientific approach to solving crimes. So Matthew Macfadyen’s DI Reid and Jerome Flynn’s DS Flynn are joined by US army surgeon Captain Jackson, played by Adam Rothenburg, as they work their way through the serious crimes, civil unrest, and personal vendettas that crop up on a weekly basis. Continue reading “TV Review: Ripper Street Series 1”

Review: Judgement Day, The Print Room

“Critics! Do I work to amuse them? Can they judge me as equals? – when they are themselves without my gift.”

Part of the The Print Room’s artistic mandate has been to unearth little-known works by major playwrights to bring them new life and after Alan Ayckbourn and Tennessee Williams, it is Henrik Ibsen’s turn. Here, his final play When We Dead Awaken has been adapted by Mike Poulton into a new version named Judgement Day and in James Dacre’s production, features some luxury casting in both Michael Pennington and Penny Downie working hard in this intimate theatre.

As with much of his later work, Ibsen casts an excoriating self-reflecting view on the life and longevity of the artist. Arnold Rubek is an ageing sculptor, hugely successful with his early work yet now lacking inspiration with both his work which has become perfunctorily commercial and in his personal life, his young wife Maia cares nothing for art and their’s appears to be a mutually antagonistic relationship. However, the arrival of his long-lost muse Irena and the animalistic Baron Ulfheim offers challenges and possibly renewed hope for both of them. Continue reading “Review: Judgement Day, The Print Room”

Review: Butley, Duchess Theatre

“You’re having a terrible day…but you’re only making it worse”

The best laid plans oft gang aft and having pretty much decided not to bother with the Simon Gray play Butley, opening now at the Duchess Theatre, as I have been trying (and admittedly failing) to try and cut down on the amount of theatre I’m seeing, sure enough an offer I could not refuse popped up (courtesy of @bargaintheatre – a chap well worth a follow on Twitter for his ferreting around for some great deals) and so 10 English pounds for the best available seats in the stalls were spent for this first London review, the play having done a week in Brighton already.

Ben Butley is an academic stuck in an English department in a university at some point in the 1970s and having a frankly horrific first day of term. His wife wants a divorce, he is struggling to write his book on TS Eliot whilst his colleague has got a publishing deal, his students expecting their tutorials are impinging on his time but most significantly of all, his protégé Joseph, with whom he shares his office, his flat and frustratingly vague hints of further intimacy, is seeking his independence both professionally and domestically, about to move in with his lover Reg. In response to this turn of events, he turns up the irascibility and petulance as he flails against a world moving on without him, masking his fear of failure through some thoroughly obnoxious behaviour and a scathing line in rapier-sharp wit. Continue reading “Review: Butley, Duchess Theatre”