Review: Diminished, Hampstead Downstairs

“I’m not trying to justify it…that’s the fucking point”

The next couple of shows programmed at the Hampstead Downstairs are two shows that have previously done well – Deposit and Alligators, which interestingly have press nights scheduled, contrary to the usual practice there. For the moment though, it is the thought-provoking and morally complex Diminished – Sam Hoare’s debut play – that is occupying the experimental space.

In Polly Sullivan’s starkly uncompromising arena, designed in the round and directed by Tom Attenborough, we first witness a psychiatric session between the high-functioning Mary and her clearly intrigued doctor. They banter almost flirtatiously, dancing around diagnoses and discussions, as we edge closer to the revelation that she’s being held in a secure facility after the death of her severely disabled young daughter. Continue reading “Review: Diminished, Hampstead Downstairs”

TV Review: National Treasure, Episode 1

“Is he supposed to be nice?”

Just a quickie to cover the first episode of this new Jack Thorne drama on Channel 4, and I’ll review the series as a whole once all four episodes have aired. National Treasure takes its inspiration directly from Operation Yewtree and its revelations about the nefarious activities of veteran TV personages, to give us an exploration into how such a scandal could unfold, sweeping up everyone in its path and uncovering a painstakingly hidden past.

Robbie Coltrane takes the role of Paul Finchley, one half of a much-loved TV comedy duo, whose world is rocked by a historical accusation of rape. Placed under investigation by the police, his personal life is shaken, not least his marriage to Julie Walters and his shaky relationship with recovering addict daughter Andrea Riseborough. And once the news conveniently slips into the media, his professional life is also called into question as the number of accusations multiplies. Continue reading “TV Review: National Treasure, Episode 1”

DVD Review: Legend

“It took a lot of love to hate him”

On the one hand, Legend has a pair of cracking performances from Tom Hardy, who plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, that makes it an instantly interesting proposition. On the other, it’s a rather shallow, even sanitised version of events that delves into zero psychological depth and smacks of a irresponsibly glamourised take on violence that plays up to the enduring roll-call of British crime flicks that just keep on coming.

Writer and director Brian Helgeland begins with the Krays already established as East End hoodlums and tracks their rise to power as they seek to control more and more and have all of the capital under their thumb. This is seen through the prism of Reggie’s relationship and eventual marriage to Frances Shea, the teenage sister of his driver, a sprightly turn from Emily Browning when she’s allowed to act but too often she’s forced to deliver syrupy voiceover.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Legend”

TV Review: Life in Squares

“We’re living in extraordinary times Virginia”

I think Rachel Freck and I would be very good friends, given the exquisite job she did in casting BBC1 miniseries Life in Squares very much according to my preferences. Phoebe Fox and Eve Best, Lydia Leonard and Al Weaver, James Norton and Rupert Penry-Jones and Elliot Cowan, plus bonus Deborah Findlay and Emily Bruni amongst many more – the stuff of my dreams. So I was already very well-inclined towards this retelling of the travails of the Bloomsbury set, written by Amanda Coe and directed by Simon Kaisjer, before it had even started.

Fortunately it also delivered well over its three hour-long episodes, giving us costume drama with a bit of a difference (and a smattering of raunch as its publicity campaign unnecessarily blurted). Kaisjer’s vision was less opulent fantasy than lived-in reality, albeit through an artistic filter, and so handheld camerawork mixed with everyday costumes to achieve this more rooted ethos. And Coe’s script putting one of the lesser celebrated of the set – Vanessa Bell née Stephens – at the heart of the narrative gave the narrative the freedom to stretch out across multiple timeframe, remaining fresh all the while. Continue reading “TV Review: Life in Squares”

TV Review: An Adventure in Space and Time

“No-one knows how long it is going to last. No-one’s irreplaceable.”

Originally broadcast around the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, Mark Gatiss’ docudrama about the creation of the long-running sci-fi TV programme was repeated over Christmas and so I couldn’t resist watching it over again. The programme itself ends up being a little constrained by its format at times like these, the expectations of a ‘special’ sky-high when the strength of the show (for me) is in its richness over the length of a series. And so the anniversary ‘special’ (and indeed the regeneration episode in the Christmas ‘special’) operate almost as stand-alones which aren’t always as successful as a storyline built up over numerous episodes.

And in the case of the anniversary, this was exacerbated by the sheer quality of Gatiss’ An Adventure in Space and Time which told the story of the birth of the series, from its genesis at the BBC, through the young guns who drove it to transmission and the tale of William Hartnell, the actor who took on the unknown role and started one of the enduring successes of the televisual era. It was full of details and grace notes that would have delighted the fanbase but more importantly, it also worked for the uninitiated as a powerful piece of drama with huge emotional impact (its finale was more moving than anything given to the real Doctor Who). Continue reading “TV Review: An Adventure in Space and Time”

DVD Review: Jane Eyre (2006)

“We’re not the platonic sort Jane”

The 2006 BBC take on Jane Eyre marked Ruth Wilson’s major television debut and in quite some style too. Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous heroine is surely one of literature’s most loved but it is a challenge that Wilson rises to excellently, with the kind of nuanced sensitive portrayal that will ensure that this version will remain near the top of the ever-growing pile of adaptations of this story. Alongside Toby Stephens as Rochester, she drives this clear-sighted, uncomplicated retelling over four hour-long episodes as Jane negotiates the many travails of her life.

From being abandoned as a poor relation with a dour aunt to the unfriendly walls of Lowood School and then on to her first job as governess to a young girl in a household where the promise of love and genuine affection offer a first chance at happiness, but also where secrets abound and threaten to snatch it away before it has even started. Wilson makes Jane a straightforward girl, always pragmatic in the face of adversity and even as she melts in the face of kindness, whether from Lorraine Ashbourne’s kindly Mrs Fairfax or the one that eventually comes from Rochester, she has enough nous to be able to retain her poise. Stephens really is good here too, balancing the macho arrogance of the man with a more romantic sensibility that comes through but always keeping each element in play so we never forget the complexity of the man, yet remaining entirely drawn by his charisma.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Jane Eyre (2006)”

Review: Relative Values, Richmond

“I know nothing and just pretend to know a great deal”
I think I might be falling out with Noël Coward, or rather producers’ insistence on frequently remounting the same plays of his, so I had to be persuaded to go and see this production of Relative Values making a short tour to Richmond after a well-received run at Theatre Royal Bath. And it was nice to see a Coward play that I had never seen before, even if it was Trevor Nunn directing – running time is 2 hours 45 minutes and you do begin to feel it – even if it doesn’t really offer much new either in plot or characterisation.

Where it is strongest is in satirising the class hang-ups of post-war Britain as the stately home of Marshwood House tries to deal with the news of the impending nuptials of the son of the house to a flighty Hollywood actress. Not only that, it turns out the beloved maid has a particular connection to his wife-to-be that makes her position untenable. So in order to keep her companion, the Countess decides to elevate the reluctant Moxie from member of staff to family friend, something made more difficult by her sister’s reinvention of her past and the arrival of an old suitor who wants to stop the wedding.

The TV name-friendly cast also serve better than one might have expected. Patricia Hodge brings genuine depth and warmth to the typical battleaxe role, giving us a real sense of a woman struggling to come to terms with change but determined to do so, Caroline Quentin’s Moxie is a comic delight and stage debutant Rory Bremner also fares as the observant butler, full of bon mots as if it has all been seen before.


For the more theatrically inclined, Katherine Kingsley is a hoot as the would-be Hollywood star and Ben Mansfield as the man pursuing her and Stephen Boxer’s louche nephew Peter are both strong. But the ensemble are good across the board and there’s a tightly honed comic precision that keeps the show pointedly sharp and light on its feet, keeping away – for the most part – from too farcical a mood. It looks superb in Stephen Brimson Lewis’ swish design and one can well imagine it resurfacing soon in the West End.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 13th July

Short Film Review #9

It’s been a little while since I’ve watched any short films but I had a few link sent to me last week so I thought I’d cast my ever-beady eye over them to see what treasures might be unearthed. As ever, click on the ‘film’ tag to see more short films.

First up was Babysitting, written by Lucan Toh and Sam Hoare and also directed by the latter, but most attractive for its cast including Romola Garai, Dan Stevens and Imogen Stubbs. And from its opening shots of a bedraggled Garai and a super-glam Stubbs, it is rather a bundle of subversive fun. There’s a bit of a twist to the title that I won’t reveal here but it is one that sends Garai’s Maggie on a bit of a journey, where she bumps into arrogant ex Spencer, Stevens in fine West London toff mode and her priorities are pulled skewiff as old feelings rise to the surface. The pair are well-matched and amusingly styled and if the film as a whole comes across as a little slight, it is highly entertaining.    Continue reading “Short Film Review #9”

DVD Review: The Golden Compass

“There are worlds beyond our own”

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials are amongst my favourite novels ever, and the National Theatre’s adaptation of the stories into a two-part play was a stunning interpretation that also ranks amongst my all-time favourites (I also trekked to Bath to see a youth theatre production and to the Lowry for a touring version). So the news of a film version of the first story, The Golden Compass (as it was renamed for the North American market from its original title Northern Lights) left me quite excited, though a little trepidatious at how Pullman’s writing would survive the Hollywood machine.

As it turns out, it didn’t really. Studio politics, script issues and intense pressure from Catholic organisations meant that the project had a most difficult genesis and creative process, Chris Weitz ending up writing and directing despite leaving the project and several other people working on it. So the tale of Lyra Belacqua’s brave journeying to the frozen north in a parallel universe to rescue her friend Roger as the mysterious Lord Asriel sets about a discovery that will challenge the highest Authority in the land which is so incredibly rich and detailed in the novel loses depth and magic to become just another special effects-laden fantasy flick. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Golden Compass”

Review: Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the latest film adaptation to hit London’s West End, taking up residence in the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Not having seen the film, I had to be informed that this adaptation is actually much closer to the original Truman Capote novella than the Hollywood version, so namely there is much less coyness about how the leads make their money and the timeframe is restored back to 1943. A young writer, Fred, makes his way to New York City where he meets Holly Golightly “a charming, vivacious and utterly elusive good-time girl” who lives in his building and we follow their developing relationship for a year, in the shadow of World War II and her need for a rich sugar daddy.

Events did not start off well by the first main scene seriously evoking the recent corpse of Too Close To The Sun with some pointlessly fast revolving sets, followed by a metal lampshade that lost control and clanged endlessly against a bit of the set, and then by a cringeworthy dance routine which left most of my party helpless with the giggles. This triple threat should have warned us to leave then and there: the evening did not get any better. Continue reading “Review: Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Theatre Royal Haymarket”