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: The House of Mirrors and Hearts, Arcola

“There’s beauty in the breaking of things”

Despite sounding like a lost novel by Gabriel García Márquez, The House of Mirror and Hearts is actually something a lot closer to home, although no less rare, an original British musical. Written by Eamonn O’Dwyer and Rob Gilbert with music and lyrics by O’Dwyer too, it is the tale of a household torn apart by grief, where secrets have been held unspoken for nearly a decade, and resentments allowed to fester into toxic antipathy. The arrival of a nerdish lodger threatens to upset the fragile balance but it is far from clear if this will bring release to the Keanes or just another seven years bad luck and misery. 

Developed by Perfect Pitch and co-produced with Aria Entertainment, it is clear that much love and care has gone into nurturing this piece of musical theatre into life, in all its challenging, angular beauty. O’Dwyer’s score has a pleasingly complex bent to it – those who judge musicals by their instant hummability will be left (mistakenly) disappointed – full of intensely unexpected harmonies and contrapuntal melodic lines that demand rapt attention and richly reward relistens (head to the Arcola’s website where 8 of the songs can be heard) – the music emerges as a thing of a jagged beauty. Continue reading “Review: The House of Mirrors and Hearts, Arcola”

Review: Anna Karenina, Royal Exchange

“Love is just a better way to hurt each other”

Ellen McDougall’s debut production for the Royal Exchange is actually a trans-Pennine affair as once Anna Karenina wraps up in Manchester, the show will be heading over the hills (stopping at a Betty’s Tea Room en route as must surely be done) to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, along with Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone with which it plays in rep. It is always pleasing to see this kind of regional collaboration actually coming to fruition as it does provide reassurances that the arts are finding the best ways to work through these financially straitened times.

It helps of course when the work is of this quality. Jo Clifford’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s famed novel is very much unafraid to cut and reconfigure the story into something overtly theatrical as characters break out of the narrative to introduce themselves and provide short cuts through the author’s tangled web of nineteenth century Russian aristocracy. Clifford, and McDougall, also pull in the focus so that the counterpoint of Anna’s fast-burning passion with the dashing Vronsky and Levin’s hard-fought love for Katy becomes the beating heart of the matter. Continue reading “Review: Anna Karenina, Royal Exchange”

Review: Two Gentlemen of Verona, RSC at Theatre Royal Newcastle

“Foster’d, illumin’d, cherish’d, kept alive”

I’ve become a bit of a dab hand at making work trips coincide with theatrical opportunities and as with last year, the stars aligned to put me in Newcastle at the same time as the RSC, and to see a Shakespeare play I’d never seen before as well (only six more to go and one of those will come this weekend). Two Gentlemen of Verona doesn’t get anywhere near as much exposure as some of the others, a recognition that as an early play – possibly even the first he ever wrote – it bears the marks of a playwright still very much working his way into his craft.

It also plants the seeds of what would grow into several of his hallmark devices – the liberating freedom of the forest to solve the problems of the town or court, a woman dressed as a man, sudden and random declarations of love – but they’re deployed here with a little clumsiness as the quartet of lovers here wind their way through the trials and tribulations of love’s young dream. Where Simon Godwin’s production succeeds though is in embracing these issues and shifting the tone of the play from a comedy to more of a problem play.

This ambiguity really does work and is clearly emphasised in the final reconciliations – it is no given that this is a genuinely happy ending and this complexity, paired with a modern-dress version from Godwin, manages to make the play work in a way I can’t imagine a traditional one ever would. Mark Arends’ Proteus is darn well near to being a dastardly villain as he betrays Pearl Chanda’s appealing Julia something rotten, and Michael Marcus’ Valentine matches well with Sarah MacRae’s Silvia, even with a less fascinating storyline.

Then there’s a dog. Which seemingly everyone loved but me. Thank the Lord that Will got out of that habit early on as there’s something bizarre in the hold that animals seem to hold over theatre-going audiences, to the point where there’ll happily ignore everything and everyone aside from the canine critter. (I’m not an animal person, can you tell.) I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to see this play again but I’m pleased that my first experience thereof was with as intelligent a production as this.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 11th October

Review: From Morning to Midnight, National Theatre

“Well, that was a bit odd”

Sometimes, one knows from the first moments of a show that it just isn’t going to be your cup of tea. And so it was with the opening montage of Melly Still’s new production of From Morning to Midnight, a landmark of German expressionism apparently but for me, a hugely ambitious piece of stagecraft that indulges far too much overt theatricality at the expense of dramatic integrity. It is worth noting ‘twas a preview that I saw and one in which understudy Jack Tarlton had to step in for the injured Adam Godley in the lead role.

Georg Kaiser’s 1912 play uses an episodic form to tell the story of an everyday clerk who is jolted from the mundaneness of his existence when a sultry Italian wanders into his bank, inspiring him to seize the day and make a change to his dull family life. That he does by stealing 60,000 marks from the bank with the intention of eloping with this woman but when she rejects him, the clerk delves into a journey of the soul – both actual and metaphysical – that lasts for a day but feels like a lifetime. Continue reading “Review: From Morning to Midnight, National Theatre”

TV Preview: Sinbad

“Are you running to, or from, something?”

I’ve never been to the cinema to watch a TV programme before but there’s always a first time for everything and last Sunday we found ourselves in the midst of hordes of children during a family film funday to preview the new Sky 1 series Sinbad. The most expensive show Sky have ever commissioned in the UK, it was filmed over 9 months in Malta and marks a determined attempt to capture the family-friendly Dr Who/Merlin market from Impossible Pictures, who also produced Primeval.

As you may have deduced from the pictures, my motives were not entirely artistic, as the show also marks the return of one of my favourite actors, Elliot Cowan, to the screen (plus introduces another nice-looking gentleman called Elliot into the bargain). And as I don’t have Sky and will have to wait for the DVDs to come out at the end of the 12 episode run, this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss to catch the first episode and attend the subsequent Q&A session. Continue reading “TV Preview: Sinbad”

Review: Blood and Gifts, National Theatre

“Russian soldiers being shot with Chinese bullets, sometimes the world is so beautiful”

JT Rogers’ Blood and Gifts started off life as one of the short plays that constituted The Great Game, the Tricycle’s hugely ambitious cycle of works about Afghanistan. He withdrew it from the recent re-run of that set of shows to work it up into a full length play which now premieres at the Lyttelton in the National Theatre. It has apparently had a few teething problems resulting in the first preview being cancelled, so this is a review what became the second preview.

The play starts off in 1981 in Pakistan, in the offices of the Intelligence Services there and up in the mountainous borders with Afghanistan, as James Warnock a CIA agent is sent to the region to try and stop the Soviets in their aggression. In order to do so, Warnock needs to negotiate with the Pakistani Intelligence Services, the KGB and MI6 presence there and most trickily, with the slippery Afghan warlords whose loyalties are easily bought but just as easily lost. We then track events for the next 10 years as the war continues, relationships develop over money and arms, watching appeals at the US senate for Stinger missiles, then finally moving to Afghan foothills for a blistering climax when some serious truths are finally revealed. Continue reading “Review: Blood and Gifts, National Theatre”