TV Review: Top Boy – Summerhouse (Series 1)

Top Boy – Summerhouse easily makes a mockery of my previous decision that this wasn’t my type of thing. 

“We’re gonna need some more time, and we’re gonna need some guns”

With the renewed vigour behind the Black Lives Matter movement and people’s determination (myself included) to do better at recognising black talent, it’s interesting to look back at the challenges they have faced. You’d imagine that Top Boy, a crime drama set in the heart of a fictional estate in Hackney, East London, would have been written by a black writer but as it turns out, Ronan Bennett is white and hails from Northern Ireland.

The series dates back to 2011 and I can’t speak to the realities of Channel 4’s commissioning process but it merits a raised eyebrow. Fortunately, Bennett’s assiduous research means that Top Boy (renamed Top Boy – Summerhouse on Netflix) does better than most at evoking the brutality and bullishness of gang life in the East End, where conventional notions of good and bad are cast aside in the name of survival by whatever means. Continue reading “TV Review: Top Boy – Summerhouse (Series 1)”

TV Review: Liar Series 2

Series 2 of Liar shifts the focus from rape to murder but does little to raise this from bog-standard thriller territory

“Sometimes bad things happen and we just have to deal with them”

Was the world calling out for a second season of Liar? When the first apparently did such great numbers for ITV, it seems the decision was inevitable but it has taken more than two years for it to arrive and I’m not sure that it carries the same level of impetus with it – I don’t imagine ratings will have held up to anywhere near the same degree.

That first series did show much promise, complicating a rape story by presenting a he said/she said narrative that asked some big questions. But midway through, Liar tipped its hand and ended up as a bog-standard thriller and it is in that same spirit that it continues here. A bit of story-telling trickery allows for Ioan Gruffudd’s Andrew to return alongside Joanne Froggatt as Laura but I have to say I really wasn’t gripped. Continue reading “TV Review: Liar Series 2”

Review: A Kind of People, Royal Court

Not much festive cheer around at the Royal Court, but plenty of grimly insightful writing in Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s A Kind of People

“This will bleed and bleed”

Opening with the kind of house party you’d be quite happy to end up at after a few drinks down the pub, you can kinda see where the Royal Court is coming from in programming Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s A Kind of People over Christmas. But as in the tradition of all good parties – and most good plays – something goes wrong, conflict must arise, and any sense of festive cheer is soon Scrooged away.

Bhatti’s play is set in the bosom of a tight-knit multicultural, working class community, with mixed-race couple Gary and Nicky at its heart. With friends and family forever knocking on their door, their home doesn’t lack for conviviality but it is lacking space – they’re bursting out of the seams of their council flat. But Gary’s up for a promotion at work, with a serious pay rise, so things could be looking up. Continue reading “Review: A Kind of People, Royal Court”

TV Review: Liar (Series 1)

A strong opening concept makes the first half of series one of Liar a must-see, until convention creeps in to mar the second.

“I feel like I’m in Dawson’s Creek

From the very beginnings of Liar, it is tough to like central character Laura Nielson. She’s the type of person who goes canoeing in the morning before going to work, she’s the kind of secondary school teacher who happily flips the bird to unruly students, heck she even sings to Sam Smith in the shower. But before you can get too annoyed with her for being someone who doesn’t prebook her taxi before going on a date, the hammer blow of date rape lands heavily to reshape our preconceptions.

The cleverness of Harry and Jack Williams’ series, at least for its first few episodes, is how it toys with those expectations. As Laura reels from the aftermath of her dinner with handsome surgeon Andrew Earlham, the shattered narrative structure flits repeatedly from present to past as it also switches perspective. It’s a neatly disorientating device that constantly calls into question the ‘truth’ of what we’re hearing or seeing, really ramping up the ‘he said she said’ format as consequences unravel dramatically for the both of them. Continue reading “TV Review: Liar (Series 1)”

Review: They Drink It In The Congo, Almeida

“Give me the history of the Congo in four and a half minutes”

There’s an ingenious moment in the middle of They Drink It In The Congo when a PR guy has to step in for an ailing colleague at an imminent press conference and utters the line above. The answer he gets exposes not only the vast complexity of the socio-political issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo but also the way in which Westerners seek to reduce them to manageable soundbites so that they can be dismissed as problems easily solved

Which in a nutshell is the key issue at the heart of Adam Brace’s new play for the Almeida. Aware of the impossibility of doing Congolese history justice in a couple of hours, he approaches the issue from an alternative angle, the impossibility of “doing something good about something bad”. Daughter of a white Kenyan farmer, Stef now works for a London NGO and is excited to be given the opportunity to organise ‘Congo Voice’, a new arts festival raising awareness of the issues there. Continue reading “Review: They Drink It In The Congo, Almeida”

Review: Lower Ninth, Donmar Warehouse at Trafalgar Studios 2

“Can you actually name a livin’, breathin’ hermaphrodite?”

Lower Ninth is the first play in a new season of plays that Michael Grandage, the recently announced now outgoing head honcho at the Donmar Warehouse, has put together to showcase the work of its Resident Assistant Directors in a 12 week residency of three plays at the 100-seater Trafalgar Studios 2 basement theatre. Grandage has done wonders in working with the Donmar brand: before this, we had the West End season at the Wyndhams with Ivanov, Twelfth Night, Madame de Sade and Hamlet allowing for much bigger audiences to witness Donmar productions and various in-house shows have been exported to other countries meaning that whoever takes over has quite the act to follow.

The first play in this season though is Charlotte Westenra’s take on Lower Ninth by American Beau Willimon, a tale of two men trapped on a rooftop with the body of a friend and waiting for rescue after some catastrophic unspecified event. But as the title refers to a less-than-salubrious neighbourhood of New Orleans, I think it is safe to infer the play is set just after Hurricane Katrina wound its destructive way through that part of the world in 2005.

It is at its best when it is the story of the relationship between the two men and the ways in which they kill time, there is though an amusing take on the story of Noah’s Ark with a hysterical rationalisation of how there’s both black and white people in the world if we’re all descended from Adam which one could easily believe is told by many an old-school evangelist. But Willimon is determined to shoehorn in a whole raft of issues despite a running time of just over an hour. There’s pointed digs at the George W Bush administration’s slow response, he also touches on the brutal reality of gang life, drug running and the important role of father figures in young Black America, but fails to say anything of real value about these things. And given the realism of this play, it stretches credulity to think that the absence of Dubya would have been noticeable to them, never mind in their thoughts whilst slowly dehydrating on a roof.

Anthony Welsh as E-Z and Ray Fearon as the older Malcom (I’ve used the programme spelling) are mesmerising. Their relationship percolates and develops beautifully as they try to kill time in their endless wait and struggle to keep their spirits up and the desperation out of their eyes and we discover the true nature of the connection between these two characters. They each bring their own strengths, Fearon’s warm-eyed paternalism almost hiding the dark violent past of his character and Welsh’s edgy but impassioned energy of a teenager desperate to be a man particularly impressing and as things get worse, the sacrifice and strength in adversity that emerges is just beautiful to watch. And there’s also a demonstration of amazing endurance (you will see what I mean) from Richie Campbell as Lowboy.

Westenra’s direction is nicely unobtrusive, teasing great performances from her actors and allowing for the effective passage of time as the hours pass by. But she does need to get a stronger grip on the limitations of the space before opening night: one particular moment which should be extremely powerful was ruined for me as I was convinced that an actor was going to fall onto me and my predicament made people around me and across from me giggle somewhat inappropriately (although my facial expressions did not help as I was told in the bar afterwards!) And more care needs to be taken to hide the stagehands controlling the lights from the sides, it ruins the illusion somewhat to see exactly how they made the theatre so dark.

Ben Stones’ design is simple but starkly effective: one battered, shingle-covered rooftop with hints of the detritus following such a calamity like the corner of a submerged car just poking up off to one side and Hartley T A Kemp’s lighting subtly suggests the passage of time and the star-lit night-time sequence was beautifully atmospheric. So an affecting little of theatre that does not outstay its welcome and despite the limitations of the writing nevertheless manages to pack quite a punch due to the quality of the production and the acting.

Running time: 65 minutes (without interval) This was a preview performance
Programme cost: £2.50 (it must be said that it is poor quality, shoddily produced and content wise has one short piece by a New Orleans writer and biogs and that is it, no mention of the Donmar @ Trafalgar season or what it is trying to achieve: very disappointed and a bit of a rip-off)
Booking until 23rd October