Review: Parents’ Evening, Jermyn Street

A two-hander full of game-playing – Parents’ Evening is an intriguing new play at the Jermyn Street Theatre

“This isn’t a game”

Bathsheba Doran’s Parents’ Evening starts off in the aftermath of a fraught game of Cluedo, quality family degenerating into chaos because a father can’t lose gracefully to his daughter. Or perhaps it’s the daughter who needs to learn to dial back on the crowing. Either way, mum’s home now and she’s smoothed over the waters and there needs to be an even keel because tonight is that all-too-familiar spot check for kids – parents’ evening.

But though it is their 10-year-old who is nominally under the microscope, a shock revelation from a teacher shatters the uneasy peace. And the playing field turns into something akin to high-stakes Jenga as the couple start to tear each other apart in a risky blame game, each upping the ante in a desperate attempt to diagnose the suspected malaise. It is a deceptively slight play, one which lures you in and then is unafraid to change the rules. Continue reading “Review: Parents’ Evening, Jermyn Street”

Review: Mrs Orwell, Southwark Playhouse

“So what you want, in a nutshell, George, is a mistress, housekeeper, nurse, literary executor and mother for Richard?”

Tony Cox’s play Mrs Orwell did sufficiently good business in its run at the Old Red Lion last month that it has quickly transferred south of the river, to the Southwark Playhouse for an additional few weeks. Based on actual events but with a fair measure of artistic license thrown in, as with all the best stories, it sheds light on the final weeks of George Orwell’s life, as tuberculosis ravaged his lungs.

Coming from near Wigan as I do, I had heard of Orwell long before I really knew who he was, as much for the pub named after him as his famous book. So Cox provides an interesting biographical slant on the writer, looking at him through the eyes of assistant magazine editor Sonia Brownell, who became a constant visitor to his University College hospital bed and eventually received the most platonic of proposals. Continue reading “Review: Mrs Orwell, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – A Play For The Nation, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“Nor doth this wood lack worlds of company”

Surtitled A Play For The Nation, Erica Whyman’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the RSC has fully embraced the communal spirit that the best theatre can summon and across its UK tour over the next few months, will undoubtedly prove a wonderful tribute for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. For at each stop across the land, different local amateur theatre companies will take on the part of the Rude Mechanicals and local primary schools will make up the numbers of Titania’s fairy train, getting their moment to shine in a repurposed final scene.

It’s a rather lovely way to share the warmth of this most loveliest of plays and in Whyman’s hands, it really does succeed. Key to its inclusiveness is the relocation to 1940s Britain and a design from Tom Piper that subtly evokes the Tower of London poppies installation on which he collaborated, the suggestion of a society pulling together permeating every aspect of the show, even Oberon’s fairies muck in as live musicians. And the social disruption of the time allows for an interesting reading of the text which, while emphasising English bumptiousness over sexuality, is witty throughout. Continue reading “Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – A Play For The Nation, Royal Shakespeare Theatre”

DVD Review: Wolf Hall

“By the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus”
 

Peter Straughan’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies into a six-part TV serial has no right to be this good but somehow, it manages the extraordinary feat of being genuinely excellent. I didn’t watch it at the time and so caught up with its complexities and nuances over a binge-watch at Christmas. And though I’m no real fan of his acting on stage, there’s no doubting the titanic performance of Mark Rylance as the almighty Thomas Cromwell.

Mantel charts the rise of this lowly-born blacksmith’s boy through service as lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey (a brilliant Jonathan Pryce) to the heights of the Tudor court as Henry VII’s (Damian Lewis on fine form) chief fixer, predominantly in the matter of securing the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon to enable him to wed Anne Boleyn. Rylance really is very good, subtler than he is onstage as he negotiates the world of ‘gentlemen’ – in which he is constantly underestimated – from the sidelines, wielding increasing amounts of power, though with it fewer and fewer scruples. Continue reading “DVD Review: Wolf Hall”

Review: The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s Globe

“She is spherical – like a globe”

There’s something lovely about the exposure that director Blanche McIntyre is now receiving (see this interview, if not the comments) although some of us may have been aware of her talent for a wee while now. She now makes her directorial bow at the Globe with a nifty take on The Comedy of Errors. As two sets of identical twins rattle around an evocatively near-Eastern Ephesus, there’s a good deal of humour but cleverly there’s also an underlying tone of real pathos that McIntyre gradually brings to the fore.

Matthew Needham and Simon Harrison’s Antipholuses (Antipholi?) have a marked similarity that excuses Hattie Ladbury’s Adriana’s case of mistaken identity as she enthusiastically tries to iron out another rocky patch in her marriage and as their manservants, Brodie Ross and Jamie Wilkes make a fine pair of Dromios as their hapless helplessness in the face of much confusion allows for some of the funnier, slapstick-inflected moments of the production to come forth.

As is often the case at this venue, the comedy is broad, extremely so, but the usage of turkeys and octopi would surely put a smile on even the most churlish of faces, and there’s a delightful strangeness to the work of Stefan Adegbola as a mysterious Dr Pinch. And as the physical bluster eventually subsides, there’s a charming deal of affection that comes shining through in the end as the mayhem subsides, even if just for a moment.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 12th October

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: Gabriel, Shakespeare’s Globe

“It may suit the crude palates of ruffians, but there’s more tune in the one derisory ditty my flunkey can play on his fiddle called ‘Lumps of Pudding’ than there is in an entire afternoon of this inflated chronicle of Purcellian shit”

Alongside their much-vaunted productions of Shakespeare’s work, the Globe theatre is a sterling champion of new writing for its theatre as well. The results have arguably been a bit patchy (Globe Mysteries…) but in some cases simply divine (the glorious Anne Boleyn) and so I approached the new first offering of the season – Samuel Adamson’s Gabriel – with cautious optimism. The caution came mainly from hearing that this wasn’t so much as a play as “an entertainment with trumpet”, and I have to say that for me, only the second part of the description was true.

Adamson has written a series of playlets set in late-Restoration period London (1690s) about life and love and sex and music, which are threaded together by a series of musical interludes from the English Concert Orchestra led by trumpeter Alison Balsom who takes us through a selection of Purcell’s music. It’s a strange mixture and one which never really quite finds a satisfying balance – the snippets of drama mainly crude and banal, the rare moments of enlightenment over far too quickly to really give gratification. And the music feels constrained by its setting here, constantly interrupted by the dramatic diversions and of a far superior standard.


One can hear the creative thinking behind this ‘entertainment’, hoping to cast off stuffy stereotypical images of classical music and bringing it to a new audience, but the format precludes genuine engagement with the material on either side – neither the drama nor the music can really flourish with all the chopping and changing. And with the levels of bawdiness at almost unbearable levels – I simply do not understand why people find farting jokes so funny – I found this a most trying afternoon indeed. That said, I did go home and buy Balsom’s album of Purcell and Handel music Sound the Trumpet, so maybe it did the job after all!

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 18th August

Review: The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Globe

“The isle is full of noises”

It’s always nice to be surprised by a night at the theatre, especially with a play with which one is rather familiar. And more importantly in the case of The Tempest is the feeling that I have already seen a production of the play that will rank as one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen in Cheek By Jowl’s extraordinary Russian interpretation back in 2011 – Caliban and Miranda’s parting is forever seared on my mind. But The Globe is nothing if not reliable and in casting Roger Allam as Prospero, director Jeremy Herrin knew exactly how to get me along in hope of a genuinely brave new world.

And in some ways it does it. Allam brings a studious humanity to the exiled sorcerer – less anguished magician and more concerned father, making his reading of some of Shakespeare’s most evocative writing almost unbearably moving. His control of the language is just superb, imbuing even the most innocuous of lines with worlds of meaning, so often restrained but flaring magnificently like a bearded Brunnhilde when provoked. He’s wryly amusing too, his insistence on protecting his daughter’s virtue particularly well-observed as a running gag. Continue reading “Review: The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire / The Colour of Milk, Radio 3/4

“I know what you think, but I cannot turn away”

For reasons not entirely clear, Mark Ravenhill is curating a season of three classic plays that he likes for Radio 3, the first of which was Carol Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. It’s an interesting choice as it is a fairly challenging piece of historical drama and as I observed when I saw Polly Findlay’s production for the Arcola back in 2010, it is a highly theatrical one as the company of actors rattle through a large number of short scenes and an equally considerable cast of characters. Consequently, I don’t think it suited the medium of radio as the differentiation between them all didn’t really come across.

And being such a cerebral play, focusing on the tumultuous period in English history during the Civil War when huge social and political change was in the offing and tracing its impact on all levels of society, it needs a deal of clarity for it to be most effective and for me, the announcement of scene titles wasn’t enough. Which was a shame as the cast that Ravenhill gathered for this was brilliant – Amanda Drew and Monica Dolan, Justin Salinger and Paul Rhys, the kind of company I would pay extremely good money to see. You can’t win them all. Continue reading “Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire / The Colour of Milk, Radio 3/4”

Review: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe

“And all is semblative a woman’s part”

Mark Rylance’s much-trumpeted double-bill return to Shakespeare’s Globe this summer started with Richard III but it is now the turn of the belated second part to make its bow. Tim Carroll’s revival  of Twelfth Night, originally seen in 2002, largely uses the same all-male company and the same Original Practices approach of ‘doing it like it’s 1601’ for a short run – all sold out – before transferring into the West End. With a view to this, official press reviews will come from the Apollo rather than the Globe, so heaven know if this counts as a preview or not. Oh and in the interest of full disclosure and as heretical as it may be, I am not really a fan of Mark Rylance, just so you know. I do try to test my dislikes though, in the spirit of open-mindedness, something made much more palatable here by the £5 groundling tickets.

The choice of interpretation might strike a casual observer as typical for the Globe, even a little unimaginative, given the wide variety of Shakespearean re-imaginings on offer, but that would be underestimate the incredible level of detailed work that has gone on here at all levels. Liam Brennan imbues Orsino with a much greater deal of personality than is often granted to this lovesick Lord, making him a constant point of interest; Colin Hurley’s Sir Toby Belch reins in the boisterousness to construct a much more interesting character; Feste’s presence possesses an intriguing ambivalence in Peter Hamilton Dyer’s hands; and James Garnon makes one notice Fabian more than I’ve ever done before. Continue reading “Review: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe”