Theatre Review: The Kindness of Strangers

“Most people think it’s like a bloody episode of Holby City”

The sheer inventiveness with which companies approach the world of immersive theatre is just breath-taking. Even if it isn’t always completely successful, the idea of a sleepover Macbeth, a literal rollercoaster ride, a Kafka-esque legal nightmare or an office party pushes the boundaries of how we experience theatre and in a first for me at least, Curious Directive’s latest show takes place in a moving ambulance, which travels the streets of Southwark to give a taste of the frontline of the NHS.

Given that my only previous experience in ambulances has been a) being hit by one (my fault) and b) being transported in them whilst in a coma, there might have been something mildly poignant about being escorted into the vehicle but the amnesia put paid to that. Instead, there’s a genuine sense of thrill to The Kindness of Strangers as we’re handed headphones and in our group of five, taken on a journey which marks the final shift for driver Sylvia and the first day on the job for newly-trained paramedic Lisa. Continue reading “Theatre Review: The Kindness of Strangers”

DVD Review: The Politician’s Husband

”Sometimes you have to do bad things to get into power, in order to do good things when you get there”

18 years may have passed since Paula Milne wrote The Politician’s Wife so it was something of a surprise to hear that a companion piece called The Politician’s Husband was in the works. Shown on BBC2 last year, it followed the same 3 episode miniseries format as its forefather and directed by Simon Cellan Jones, had a splashy cast in David Tennant and Emily Watson as a high-flying political couple forced to navigate tricky ground when her career starts to outshine his. But for all the expectation that may have surrounded this, it sadly didn’t feel like a worthy follow-up, satisfyingly excellent performance from Emily Watson aside. 

It’s not immediately clear why Milne decided to write this sequel of sorts. The surnames of her characters pay homage to the West Wing (Hoynes, Gardner, Babbish…) and the Machiavellian manipulations of those in power and those who would be speak of many a political thriller gone by. But it is a very British kind of politics that is being interrogated here, the expenses scandal looms large in the public disillusionment with the establishment. And though no affiliations are made with any particular political parties, it is hard not to see echoes of an imagined Balls/Cooper household here, though it is a universal truth that the power-hungry are not restricted to any one ideology. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Politician’s Husband”

Review: In The Next Room, or the vibrator play, St James Theatre

“Your mouth is dry, and you lick your lips, and your face makes an ugly expression…”

Even its very title seems designed to shock – In The Next Room, or the vibrator play – but truth is that Sarah Ruhl’s play, seen in Bath last year, does little to hit the spot or indeed do much to arouse much attention. A lengthy exploration of the arrival of portable electronic devices for the treatment of women’s…hysteria, Ruhl eschews the chance of delving into the ins and outs of medicine of the time, the elusiveness of genuine understanding of female biology, or the quivering anticipation of the explosive social change on the horizon, and plumps instead for a bog-standard sex farce based on marital relations.

And for all that it is filled with the moans and groans of female (and male) “paroxysms” – Flora Montgomery’s Mrs Daldry charged with the thankless tasks of producing the vast majority of them – it is a curiously sexless enterprise. The focus remains instead on the disappointments of the marital bed, as Jason Hughes’ Dr Givings – the inventor of the new-fangled device – finds more satisfaction in treating his increasingly eager patients than connecting with his own wife, Natalie Casey’s pinched Catherine, and Mrs Daldry is happier with her doctor than has ever been with her own husband.

Ruhl takes a long time to say very little and though Laurence Boswell’s production has inspired moments of sprightliness, they are too far between. That said, Ed Bennett is great casting as a liberated artist keen to experience what all the fuss is about, Sarah Woodward is criminally under-employed as a nursing assistant and Madeline Appiah finds the rare moments of genuine insight as the wet-nurse who has to try and keep the wheels on the Givings’ family harmony. But it’s not particularly clever, or sexy or shocking, one should look elsewhere for satisfaction. I like the idea of Tuesday matinees though.


Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 4th January

Review: Bracken Moor, Tricycle

“I think most of us are walking around in a sort of slumber really”

With a revival of The Pride just announced as the next production in Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Studios residency, it seemed like a good time to visit Alexi Kaye Campbell’s latest play Bracken Moor at the Tricycle. That said, I have to admit to not being the greatest fan of this ambitious mash-up of political/economic drama and ghost story which is co-produced by Shared Experience and directed by their own Polly Teale. In the midst of the 1930s financial crisis, Yorkshire landowner Harold and his wife Elizabeth are still shell-shocked by the ghastly death of their young son Edgar ten years since and only now are they acquiescing to an extended visit from their old friends Vanessa and Geoffrey. But as they retrace their old friendship, the presence of the visitors’ son Terence awakens something more sinister.

Terence was Edgar’s boyhood best friend and within a few nights, appears to become possessed by Edgar’s restless spirit. This provokes his parents to finally start to deal with their buttoned-up grief but in hugely different ways. Helen Schlesinger’s extraordinarily affecting Elizabeth clings to every possible shred of hope that she could actually be communicating with her lost son and the rawness of her grief is spell-binding. And the much more pragmatic Harold, Antony Byrne in classically old-school English mode, finds himself questioning the decisions he has to make about a dispute over pit closures, his capitalist certainties challenged by this brush with the unknown. Continue reading “Review: Bracken Moor, Tricycle”

Review: Rough Cuts – Bytes, Royal Court

“It’s on the internet…”

Just a quickie for this as the Royal Court’s Rough Cuts season is a space for short plays, experimental readings and works in progress and so I’m just including it here for the completeness of my theatregoing records. It has previously taken place in the upstairs theatre but as this is currently occupied, they have converted the Wilson rehearsal studio – right next to the main building – into a public performance space for this group of four pieces, all based on the theme of our relationship to the internet.

This year’s cohort of writers made this a must-see from the moment it was announced, featuring as it does Alia Bano, DC Moore, Penelope Skinner and Nick Payne, and with an ensemble of six actors including Sarah Woodward and Al Weaver, I was confident of enjoying the performances too. And it was an agreeable evening from start to early finish – such a rarity to be home well before 9pm on a theatre night – and a pleasing indication of the vibrancy and variety in new theatre writing in the UK.  Continue reading “Review: Rough Cuts – Bytes, Royal Court”

TV Review: Loving Miss Hatto

“Young people make promises because they don’t know what life is like”

Housewife, 49 was one of the highlights of my TV viewing last Christmas, quite how I had missed it first time round I do not know and so once I saw that Victoria Wood had penned a new drama, Loving Miss Hatto, I was determined not to leave it quite so long this time round. Based on a story from the New Yorker on the strange but real-life case of classical music fraud around pianist Joyce Hatto, this was a beautifully modulated piece of drama with a light sweetness and just enough of the trademark Wood humour, interwoven with such melancholic depths of human tragedy.
 
Starting in the 1950s, we meet Joyce Hatto as a rehearsal pianist in whom self-described musical impresario William Barrington-Coupe (or Barrie for short) spotted much potential. But as something of a wideboy and of a conman, his dreams of moulding Joyce into a top-rank concert pianist never quite came to fruition, something exacerbated by her stage fright. The story then flicked forward to the 2000s where embittered by the frustrations of life, Joyce is now dying of cancer and unable to play. With the dawn of the digital age and in light of a flurry of interest in Hatto on a messageboard, Barrie hit upon the idea of satisfying the demand for recordings of her work by releasing a series of CDs. Only problem was, there were no recordings and Barrie was passing off other pianists’ work as his wife’s.

Continue reading “TV Review: Loving Miss Hatto”

Review: Love and Information, Royal Court

“What do you mean when you say it has meaning now?” 

One of the things I love most about blogging is the honesty with which it allows one to write. So much ‘official’ theatre reviewing (as in for a publication) is predicated on the basis of a perceived authority, on the acceptance of received truths, which due to space constraints are rarely articulated. But I’m not bound by any that here and so I can say I honestly don’t get what all the fuss is about Simon Russell Beale – I’ve yet to see him myself, in a performance that is worthy of being named one of our greatest ever actors – and likewise, I can say that I’m not sure that I get Caryl Churchill as a playwright. I don’t doubt or challenge her position as one of the UK’s most influential playwrights or her impact on contemporary theatre but rather, in the six plays of hers that I have seen, I haven’t had that kind of epiphany that made me stop in my tracks and say ‘this is amazing theatre’.

I’m constantly educating myself theatrically though and that’s where the informality of a blog – my theatrical education in progress if you will – comes into its own, tracing how my opinions can change (I’ve learned to love Chekhov) or not (I still dislike Ibsen, in the main). Thus I happily took the opportunity to see Love and Information, a new Churchill play at the Royal Court, her first since 2009’s controversy-baiting Seven Jewish Children, not least because it features an ensemble cast of extremely high quality. Continue reading “Review: Love and Information, Royal Court”

Review: Jumpy, Royal Court

“Well it’s been a bumpy ride hasn’t it”

A new play by April De Angelis and directed by Nina Raine, Jumpy has all the makings of another success for the Royal Court and great word of mouth has meant that it is now sold out for the run. It’s a portrait of a fractured family: Hilary is under pressure at work, her husband Mark is becoming increasingly distant and her relationship with her bolshy teenage daughter Tilly is practically non-existent. Despite having just turned 50, life doesn’t seem to be getting any easier and it plays out in a mixture of comedy and moving drama.

Tamsin Greig is brilliant as Hilary, going through something of a midlife crisis as her disillusionment with so much of her life catches up with her, distant memories of protesting at Greenham Common provoked by the antics of her sexually precocious daughter, a terrifyingly convincing turn from Bel Powley, who even at 15 dresses highly provocatively, goes clubbing looking for footballers yet overestimates her capacity to deal with the responsibilities of such behaviour. Dealing with the inevitable ramifications brings Tilly’s boyfriend and his parents in to the picture, another couple fractured in their own way and whose interactions impact just as much on Hilary as they do on Tilly. Continue reading “Review: Jumpy, Royal Court”

Review: The Cherry Orchard, National Theatre

“Everything that people say is so much fluff and nothing”

The Cherry Orchard was Anton Chekhov’s final play and although the Old Vic saw Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project tackling it a few years back with a version by Tom Stoppard, it was last seen at the National Theatre a decade ago with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave. This production though sees director Howard Davies reuniting with Andrew Upton with whom he worked on Philistines and The White Guard as they continue to explore 20th century Russian theatre writing and also with leading lady Zoë Wanamaker after their wildly successful collaboration on last year’s All My Sons.

Telling of the terminal decline of the Russian ruling classes at the beginning of the twentieth century, Chekhov’s play is presented in a new version by Andrew Upton which provides a straightforward directness to the text, which is at time effective but also intermittently problematic. For me, it was just too modern for its own good, laced through with random words, colloquialisms and phrases that kept jolting me out of the period setting with some really strange choices, the Nina Simone song lyric being a particularly jarring example. When Upton imposes less on the writing, beautiful and powerful moments arise, it would just be nice if they were allowed to flow better. Continue reading “Review: The Cherry Orchard, National Theatre”

Review: Snake in the Grass, The Print Room

“We can’t live in a caravan”

Snake in the Grass is the London premiere of this Alan Ayckbourn play which is a rarity in itself as it marks one of his forays away from his more usual comedy. It is described by Ayckbourn himself as ‘a ghost play’, but it is more obviously a psychological thriller, threaded through with recognisable hints of class struggles and flashes of mordant humour. Directed by Lucy Bailey, who with Anda Winters have converted this Notting Hill warehouse into one of London’s newest new fringe venues, The Print Room.

Set in the grounds of a large country house, the play follows two sisters who are reunited after 20 years following the death of their authoritarian father. Annabel escaped her father’s clutches to Tasmania only to find new devils there, whilst Miriam stayed to care for their father but was driven to extreme measures. Finding themselves back together and then visited by a vindictive former nurse of their father’s who was dismissed, they find themselves having to deal both with the haunting ghosts of the past and the psychological threats of the present. Continue reading “Review: Snake in the Grass, The Print Room”