Review: Network, National Theatre

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”

 With Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, Ivo van Hove re-asserts his place as one of the premier theatremakers working, anywhere. A satire that managed to predict just how powerful a tool populist anger can be when leveraged effectively, it is transformed into the immersive bustle of a TV studio, that of UBS Evening News where old hack Howard Beale – a transcendent performance by Bryan Cranston – has been handed his notice. Though initially appearing to accept it with good grace, he causes an almighty media stir when he declares, on air, that he’s going to kill himself, triggering a most unlikely rebirth as a truth-spilling ‘prophet’.

And as ever, van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld challenge our notions of theatrical space and how it is used. An onstage restaurant puts (some) audience members right in the thick of the action, the fourth wall gets well and truly shattered, and the use of live video and big screens forces us into the role of active observers – as Beale goes live on air, do you watch Cranston himself, do you watch him onscreen, do you watch the team observing him from the producers’ box…the multiplicity of perspectives reminds us how easy it is to manipulate media, how there can always be other sides to the story. Continue reading “Review: Network, National Theatre”

Review: Sweet Bird of Youth, Chichester Festival Theatre

“‘I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding”

There’s something a little depressingly predictable about my inability to resist a neat bit of star casting – Marcia Gay Harden’s long-in-the-making UK theatrical debut being the guilty party here. It’s depressing because Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth is a play I wasn’t much of a fan of the one time I saw it before and the heart wasn’t beating any faster at the prospect of sitting through it once again.

And maybe there’s an element of self-defeating prophecy at work because I was bored rigid by Jonathan Kent’s production here for Chichester Festival Theatre. A quiet audience (never seen the upper seats curtained off like that before) sweltered in the stifling atmosphere but sadly, there was no heat being generated on the stage of Anthony Ward’s distractingly-conceived design. Continue reading “Review: Sweet Bird of Youth, Chichester Festival Theatre”

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)”

DVD review: About Time

“Get ready for spooky time”

To criticise a film about time travel for not possessing the most stringent internal logic might seem perverse (though it has never stopped those who watch Doctor Who…); to criticise a Richard Curtis film for being utterly daft feels likewise misintentioned, his work is what it is. But there’s something really rather frustrating about his 2013 work About Time that is determined to have its cutesy cutesy pie and eat it, saccharine sweetness and all.

It is as much a father/son love story as it is a boy/girl romance in which Domhnall Gleeson’s nerdishly appealing Hugh-Grant-a-like Tim, is the son of an upper-class boho family – troubled-but-not-too-much sister (Lydia Wilson), check; slightly doolally uncle (Richard Cordery), check; perfect parents (Lindsay Duncan and Bill Nighy), check. And wouldn’t you know it, it turns out the men in this family have the power to travel back in time by closing their eyes and squeezing a fist. Continue reading “DVD review: About Time”

Film Review: Les Misérables

“Life has dropped you at the bottom of the heap”

For many people, myself included, it is nigh on impossible to approach a film version of stage behemoth Les Misérables with a blank slate. It’s been a mainstay of the musical theatre world since its 1985 London debut – it is most likely the show I have seen the most times throughout my lifetime – and after celebrating its 25th anniversary with an extraordinarily good touring production, has been riding high with a revitalised energy. So Tom Hooper’s film has a lot to contend with in terms of preconceptions, expectations and long-ingrained ideas of how it should be done. And he has attacked it with gusto, aiming to reinvent notions of cinematic musicals by having his actors sing live to camera and bringing his inimitable close-up directorial style to bear thus creating a film which is epic in scale but largely intimate in focus.

In short, I liked it but I didn’t love it. I’m not so sure that Hooper’s take on the piece as a whole is entirely suited to the material, or rather my idea of how best it works. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score has a sweeping grandeur which is already quasi-cinematic in its scope but Hooper never really embraces it fully as he works in his customary solo shots and close-ups into the numbers so well known as ensemble masterpieces.  ‘At The End Of The Day’ and ‘One Day More’ both suffer this fate of being presented as individually sung segments stitched together but for me, the pieces never really added up to more than the sum of their parts to gain the substantial power that they possess on the stage. Continue reading “Film Review: Les Misérables”

Review: Money, Radio 3

“Men are valued not on what they are, but what they seem to be”

The term ‘all-star cast’ is bandied about quite a bit these days and the more I go to the theatre, the more I realise how subjective a concept it is for me at least. Looking at the performer credits for this Radio 3 production of the Victorian satirical drama Money by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, I went into paroxysms of delight at the names contained within, but chatting later that evening to a group of non-theatre-going friends (for indeed I do still have some!), my excitement was hardly shared.

But for those of you in the know, and I’m counting all you readers of this blog, this is a great collection of actors. Celia Imrie, Roger Allam, Ian McDiarmid, Bertie Carvel, Tom Goodman-Hill, Phoebe Waller-Bridge to name just a few and all directed by the estimable Samuel West, making his radio directorial debut – how could anyone resist. For this version, the play, given a major production by the National Theatre in 1999 which also featured Allam, was recorded on location at Knebworth House which was inherited by Bulwer-Lytton himself just after he wrote this very work in 1840. Continue reading “Review: Money, Radio 3”

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest, Rose Kingston

“When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people.”

 
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest follows the Rose Theatre Kingston’s tried and tested formula of mounting classic plays for their homegrown productions. We’ve had Dame Judi in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Celia Imrie in Hay Fever and now we have Jane Asher taking on Lady Bracknell and her handbag under Artistic Director Stephen Unwin. Hayden Griffin’s spare design on the wide stage is framed within a proscenium arch of sorts, a giant picture frame containing a few pieces of furniture scattered around, but largely the stage is left free to be dominated by Wilde’s witticisms.

And how witty it is. Wilde’s play may not tackle any deep societal issues or serious topics but his clever plotting and incisive humour skewers the English obsession with class and the grasping social ambition of those who have clambered their way up the ladder, keen to keep others in their place. There’s also a touch of feminism in a trio of strong female characters determined to get what they want and fully cognisant of how to get it whilst the men mess around with their false identities and get increasingly flustered. Continue reading “Review: The Importance of Being Earnest, Rose Kingston”

Review: Farewell To The Theatre, Rose Kingston

“Shall we go and get lunch?”

At the Rose Theatre in Kingston, The Importance of Being Earnest is playing in rep with another play, Farewell To The Theatre by Harley Granville Barker. A short 50 minute one-act piece, it stars Jane Asher as a famous actress who has decided to bow out from the theatre who visits her lawyer, Richard Cordery, to explain her reasons and revisit their shared past of missed opportunities. Written in 1916, this is the European premiere of this play and I am not sure that it is one which really merits this production: it is hard to see any real connection with Wilde’s piece, it is only on for just a handful of performances and it completely failed to engage me.

Granville Barker’s writing has some attractive moments but the abiding theme of the importance of the theatre feels a little too self-regarding and quite frankly, not as interesting as all that. Asher does wear a fabulous aquamarine satin dress in it and I do love Richard Cordery, but the static nature of this piece, also directed by Stephen Unwin, worked against it. So it was hard to shake the feeling that this was a curiosity that perhaps could have continued to collect dust on the shelf, though there may be some interest for theatre historians. Continue reading “Review: Farewell To The Theatre, Rose Kingston”

CD Review: Love Story – Original London Cast Recording

“What can you say about a girl who seemed to run before she walked”

New musicals are sometimes difficult things, audiences don’t always respond straightaway and in the cut-throat world of the West End, there’s little tolerance for something that isn’t an instant hit. Though it was amazingly well received in Chichester, Howard Goodall’s Love Story suffered such a fate in its brief run at the Duchess late last year. There’s not much more to be said about this much-missed show whose run in London was sadly curtailed than to say how grateful I am that they were able to make a cast recording as it really was one of those scores with which I fell in love straight away. My reviews of the show can be read here and here, I probably would have gone again had it continued to run.

Howard Goodall’s luxurious string and piano music stretches elegantly over the story, little riffs and motifs repeating so that a sense of familiarity is gained with just one listen. Emma Williams is just perfect as the strident Jenny, fiercely independent but unable to resist the entirely charismatic Michael Xavier as Oliver, and together they make such sweet music. Continue reading “CD Review: Love Story – Original London Cast Recording”

Review: Where’s My Seat, Bush Theatre

“They kiss reluctantly; they kiss enquiringly; they kiss passionately”

Though the Bush Theatre has gained a huge reputation as one of London’s top fringe theatres, balancing the charm of its intimacy with the severe limitation of the venue perched above a pub in Shepherds Bush has been something of a trial and so the opportunity to relocate to an old library just around the corner was gratefully seized and a new chapter in the Bush’s history commenced. Where’s My Seat offers audiences a preview of what the theatre will become, as it is still under construction and development, as three short plays test-drive the space and feedback from the audience actively sought from compère-for-the-evening Ralf Little.

There’s a real playfulness to Where’s My Seat that is evident from the moment one walks into the old Shepherds Bush Library: the walls are covered with scribbles of what will eventually be there or marked ‘knock through’. The programming also reflects this: 3 playwrights were invited to write short plays, utilising one of three different seating configurations and up to nine of the most random props that had been selected at random from the National Theatre’s archive, but the challenge did not even end there. Three theatrical luminaries were then invited to create a set of challenging stage directions which had to be incorporated into the plays, so outgoing Donmar supremo Michael Grandage, outgoing Bush supremo (and going to replace Grandage) Josie Rourke and Alan Ayckbourn did their best (Ayckbourn displaying something of a lack of humour about his efforts though, providing three pages worth where the others had about 6 each!) Continue reading “Review: Where’s My Seat, Bush Theatre”