My 10 favourite shows of 2019

I barely saw 250 shows this year, quiet by my standards! And as is the way of these things, here’s a rundown of some of the productions that moved me most…

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Southwark Playhouse
I haven’t lost it in a theatre as much as this in a good long while. I cry at all sorts but this superlative musical had me trying, and failing, to choke back huge, hacking sobs. And I can still sing some of the songs – it has to come back, surely. “It’s all just a matter of time…”

2. Call Me Fury, Hope Theatre
“This is the history we should be teaching, these are the stories we should be sharing”, this striking and soulful piece gave voice to so many whom history have ignored, and was bloody entertaining with it. 

3. West Side Story, Curve Leicester
A musical I love, in a production that I simply adored. Getting to see two WSSs in one year was a privilege and for me, it was the emotional heart of Nikolai Foster’s production that won out.

4. As You Like It, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
The second year of the Public Acts programme comes up trumps once again with this gorgeous musical version of the Shakespeare classic, community theatre at its finest.

5. Islander, Southwark Playhouse
The magic of musical theatre distilled into two voices and a loop pedal – a marvellously inventive and endlessly moving. 

6. Amélie the Musical, Watermill Theatre/UK Tour/The Other Palace
As sweet-sharp as a diabolo grenadine, something truly gorgeous emerges from this film adaptation that simply demands you come up with better words than quirky to describe it.

7. & Juliet, Shaftesbury Theatre
Tell me why… About as much fun as you can have in the West End right now, this is a particularly fine example of the jukebox model and I want it that way.

8. Sexy Lamp, VAULT
A standout piece in a standout festival, Katie Arnstein’s brutally honest monologue about navigating the patriarchy may be lightened with songs and sweets but is no less effective for it.

9. Karaoke Play, Bunker Theatre
Deeply confessional and subtly magical, Annie Jenkins’ inter-connected monologues combined to become so much more than the sum of their parts.

10. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, National Theatre
A magical family tale, perfect for kids of all ages. Not even reading the exit poll as I left could ruin the feeling! 

Shows 11-25 under the cut

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Review: De Kersentuin, Stadschouwberg Amsterdam

Of course a British director doing Tsjechov in the Netherlands makes The Cherry Orchard as watchable as it has ever been – Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s De Kersentuin proves a real success

“Als ie echt verkocht moet worden verkoop mij er dan bij”

It’s not often that Jimi Hendrix and Creedence Clearwater Revival make their way into Chekhov but it is precisely this kind of refreshing approach that makes this production feel so alive in a way that is rarely achieved (in the UK at least). So it is somewhat perverse that it is a British director responsible, as Simon McBurney directs Internationaal Theater Amsterdam in De Kersentuin, in an adaptation by Robert Icke.

Shifted to the Netherlands in the 1970s, a real sense of liberation permeates the production, and crucial details shine anew to substantively alter the emotional palette. I’ve never felt the presence of Amanda’s drowned son so strongly, which really makes you consider her feelings towards her former home. And as Miriam Buether’s design discards conventional representation, the focus falls as much on the relations of people as it does on property. Continue reading “Review: De Kersentuin, Stadschouwberg Amsterdam”

The 2016 Manchester Theatre Awards nominations

Best Actor
Rob Edwards, To Kill A Mockingbird, Octagon Theatre, Bolton
David Neilson, Endgame, HOME, Manchester
Daniel Rigby, Breaking The Code, Royal Exchange, Manchester 
Don Warrington, King Lear, Royal Exchange

Best Actress
Niamh Cusack, Ghosts, HOME
Kaisa Hammarlund, Sweet Charity, Royal Exchange
Julie Hesmondhalgh, Wit, Royal Exchange 
Kathryn Hunter, The Emperor, HOME

Best Production
Breaking The Code, Royal Exchange 
Ghosts, HOME
The Emperor, HOME
Wit, Royal Exchange

Best Supporting Actor
Daniel Crossley, Sweet Charity, Royal Exchange 
Raad Rawi, Breaking The Code, Royal Exchange
Marc Small, To Kill A Mockingbird, Octagon Theatre
Miltos Yerolemou, King Lear, Royal Exchange

Best Supporting Actress
Natalie Dew, Breaking The Code, Royal Exchange 
Sharon Duncan-Brewster, A Streetcar Named Desire, Royal Exchange
Natalie Grady, Martha Josie and the Chinese Elvis, Octagon Theatre
Amy Nuttall, The Winter’s Tale, Octagon Theatre

Best Visiting Production
946 – The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tipps, HOME
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Lowry, Salford
Love’s Labour’s Lost / Much Ado About Nothing, Opera House
The Encounter, HOME
The James Plays, Lowry 

Best Actor in a Visiting Production
Edward Bennett, Love’s Labour’s Lost / Much Ado About Nothing, Opera House
Rufus Hound, The Wind in the Willows, The Lowry 
Simon McBurney, The Encounter, HOME
Michael Pennington, King Lear, Opera House

Best Actress in a Visiting Production
Lisa Dillon, Love’s Labour’s Lost / Much Ado About Nothing, Opera House
Aoife Duffin, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, Lowry 
Lisa Maxwell, End Of The Rainbow, Opera House
Zizi Strallen, Mary Poppins, Palace

Best Newcomer
Daisy Badger, Look Back In Anger, Octagon Theatre
Ben Hunter, The Girls, Lowry
Norah Lopez Holden, Ghosts, HOME 
Kirsty Rider, Pride And Prejudice, Lowry
Holly Willock, The Wind In The Willows, Lowry
Young “Michael” cast, Billy Elliot, Palace 
Young “Scout” cast, To Kill A Mockingbird, Octagon Theatre 


Best Opera

Andrea Chénier, Opera North, Lowry 
Billy Budd, Opera North, Lowry
Don Giovanni, ETO, Buxton Opera House
Tamerlano, Buxton Festival, Buxton Opera House

Continue reading “The 2016 Manchester Theatre Awards nominations”

Film Review: The Theory of Everything

“One simple, elegant equation to explain everything”

Alongside The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything offers a double whammy of Oscar-baiting, British-biopicing filmic goodness – Benedict Cumberwhatsit’s Alan Turing and Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking seem dead certs for Academy Award nominations alongside their respective films – and for my money, it is the latter has the edge on the Cumbersnatch-starring film as something slightly less Hollywoodised and thus more interesting. That’s not to say that James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything is all rough edges – it is based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir of her marriage after all and both she and Hawking have ‘blessed’ the film – but it is a complex love story that doesn’t shy away from too much challenge.

The focus of the film is in fact the relationship and marriage between physicist Stephen and Jane Wilde, his contemporary at Cambridge University where she studied literature, and the severe pressure that it came under after his diagnosis with motor neurone disease and then his increasing fame as his discoveries broke exciting fresh ground. Redmayne’s physical performance as Hawking is undoubtedly astounding as his condition worsens but there’s something deeper there too that comes across later on, in the merest flicker of the lips and glints in the eye that come before the synthesised voicebox kicks in, an enigmatic level of emotion that we never get to truly discover and that is entirely beguiling.

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DVD Review: Bright Young Things

“Reader, be glad that you have nothing to do with this world. Its glamour is a delusion, its speed a snare, its music a scream of fear.”

Whilst recently sitting through the 1930s-set play I Am A Camera at the Southwark Playhouse, I had that frustrating sensation of being reminded of a film that I couldn’t quite recall, mainly in the carefree attitudes of its lead characters. A post-show drink or three finally got me there, the film was Bright Young Things and so I popped it onto my Lovefilm list as it had been quite a while since I last saw it and I was keen for a rewatch.

Based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies which written in 1930, the film marked the screenwriting and directorial debut of a certain Stephen Fry. Positioned as a satire on this section of society, the plot circles around a fast-living decadent set of aristocrats and bohemians living the high life of cocaine and champagne-fuelled parties completely divorced from the realities and responsibilities of the real world around them. Would-be novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes and party girl fiancée Nina Blount are the central couple whose wedding is forever being put off as he keeps losing the money for it, but the Jack and Karen in their lives – the Hon Agatha Runcible and the fey Miles – are much more fun. Continue reading “DVD Review: Bright Young Things”

DVD Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“Things aren’t always what they seem”

My anticipation levels for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy were rather high, I didn’t make it to the cinema but its award-winning pedigree backed up by several people recommending it to me, assured that I would love it. And though it is a genre I have neglected, I do love a good spy thriller. That said, I’d not read the 1974 John Le Carré novel it was based on or seen the TV show, so I was coming to it with completely fresh eyes. I’d been warned that I’d need to concentrate so I took care to ensure that distractions were kept to a minimum as I watched the DVD, but I have to say that I really wasn’t carried away by the film or swept up into its world of intrigue.

When an MI6 agent is gunned down mid-meet in Hungary, the head of the secret service Control and his lieutenant George Smiley resign in acknowledgement of the failure, but Smiley is soon covertly rehired to look into the possibility that it was a mole that gave the game away. With the help of two colleagues, he begins to investigate the shortlist of suspects to find out who is the one who has betrayed his country. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson brings a measured solemnity to the densely complex plot which comprises of a bewildering number of characters and details which I struggled to take in and sustain the requisite level of interest. Continue reading “DVD Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

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”

DVD Review: The Duchess

“As they say, the Duke of Devonshire is the only man in england not in love with his wife”

Another of the films that I revisited in my period drama splurge over Christmas was The Duchess. This Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes vehicle did fairly well in 2008 and I quite enjoyed it at the cinema, though I remember being a little tired of the marketing shtick that overplayed the title character’s familial connection with the late sainted Diana, Princess of Wales and rather unnecessarily sought to draw huge parallels between the two. The film is about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who delighted and scandalised late eighteenth century society with her extravagance, forward fashion sense and a soft spot for gambling. Her marriage to the Duke though was far from happy though and as her public persona rises and rises and she becomes beloved of most everyone, behind closed doors infidelities and terrible betrayals push the Duchess to extreme measures.

I did enjoy watching this again for the most part and it is strongly acted, but for a film that covers at least ten years, it is surprisingly slow moving. Knightley in particular is excellent as Georgiana (I’ve never understood why she is such a polarising figure), a woman ahead of her time in many ways with her intellect and political nous having no official outlet in the society of its time and also challenged by being unable to contain her passion for Dominic Cooper’s Charles Gray (great casting choice!). Her portrayal deepens as the film progresses too, she becomes a convincing mother and pained victim faced with a harrowing choice as Fiennes’ passive-aggressive Duke finally rouses into action. He is superbly controlled throughout, almost terrifying with his impassive domination of all around him and the best scenes of the film, in my opinion, are the masterful shots at the long dinner table with husband and wife at either end and his mistress in the middle – beautifully, excruciatingly done. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Duchess”

Review: A Disappearing Number, Complicite at the Novello Theatre

“Some patterns are more difficult to find than others”

I’m nothing if not contrary: I refused endless invitations to see The History Boys despite many people raving about it, I’m just odd like that sometimes. But when someone who really ought to have known better(!) tried to prejudge my response to Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, I was resolved to enjoy it no matter what! After touring India, it is returning to London for a limited engagement after a well-received run in 2008. And fortunately, I really did find it to be contemplative, moving and ultimately most beautiful.

It is incredibly hard to describe just what the show is about as it is impossible to do it justice. On the face of it, it is two love stories: in the modern day, bookish maths lecturer Ruth and stockbroker Al are desperate to start a family as they’ve both turned 40, and then in the 1910s we see the developing relationship between father of modern mathematics G.H Hardy and prodigious Indian maths genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. But it is so much more as well, with a staging of breathtaking invention that works in elements of movement, vocal effects, chanting, Asian dance, and a slick technological aesthetic with some outstanding projection work, beautiful lighting effects and a smoothly everchanging backdrop that seamlessly changes from blackboard to whiteboard to screen to wall and much more besides. Continue reading “Review: A Disappearing Number, Complicite at the Novello Theatre”