Review: Queer Theatre – Bent, National

#4 in the National Theatre’s Queer Theatre season of rehearsed readings
“I love you… What’s wrong with that?”
Perhaps one of the better known of these plays but still a new one to me, I really wasn’t prepared for the emotional trauma of Martin Sherman’s Bent whether I was hungover to fuck or not. Harrowing is barely the word to describe this dramatisation of the way in which the Nazis persecuted gay men in Germany before and during World War II and with this reading, directed by Stephen Daldry, taking place on Pride weekend, its impact was all the more emotional. 
Russell Tovey (continuing his graduation into a properly fine actor) and George Mackay took on the lovers Max and Rudy, their coming together in the hedonism of Weimar Berlin shattered by the dawning of the Night of the Long Knives, the realisation of just how insidious the Third Reich is, and the astonishing lengths that people will go to in order to protect themselves at the expense of all they hold dear.
The second act shift to the concentration camp at Dachau provides an unexpected ray of something that could be called sunshine in the face of such adversity but obviously that turns traumatic too, especially in the hands of Paapa Essiedu here. Sterling support came from Simon Russell Beale, Giles Terera, a rare stage appearance for Pip Torrens…and the brilliance of Sherman’s writing sang through as clearly as it would have done in a full fledged production, the visuals more than made up for by the commitment of a director and cast determined to ensure that the play’s message of the endurance of the human spirit is as true today as it ever was, more so even.

Cast for the 1979 Royal Court production directed by Robert Chetwyn
Jeremy Arnold
Peter Cellier
John Francis
Richard Gale
Ken Shorter
Haydn Wood
Tom Bell
Ian McKellen
Andy Roberts
Gregory Martyn
Jeff Rawle
Roger Dean
Simon Shepherd

Review: The Philanthropist, Trafalgar Studios

“I’d much prefer to have honest criticism than your, if you don’t mind me saying so, negative remarks”

The list of the NT2000 top 100 plays has proven quite an interesting one to keep to hand as it has often made me choose to see things I wouldn’t necessarily normally have gone to (with both good and bad results). The result of consultation with 800 playwrights, actors, directors, theatre professionals and arts journalists, the list purports to give us the 100 most significant plays of the 20th century, a subjective exercise at the best of times and one which throws up some real curveballs, like this play.

Written by Christopher Hampton in 1970, The Philanthropist was conceived as a response to Molière’s The Misanthrope, it’s the lead character’s unflappable amiability that causes havoc around him here. But for all the intertextuality, it feels a horrendously dated piece of writing that you can scarcely believe has had revivals in 2005 at the Donmar and 2009 on Broadway. With the likes of Simon Russell Beale and Matthew Broderick at their helm, they may have been better acted but in its gender politics, in its treatment of sexual abuse and suicide, how this play has got the reputation it has is beyond me.
But even if you put reservations about the play itself to one side, deeper problems arise in this fatally misjudged production. Simon Callow is credited as director but his cast of young TV faces are marooned on Libby Watson’s elegant, book-lined set, unable to make meaningful connection with each other, with the text, indeed with any discernibly human emotion. The show opened a good few weeks ago now so there’s no excuse for such onstage awkwardness, a palpable sense that they don’t know what to do with their bodies, and Callow surely has to shoulder most of the blame here.
For even if the cast lack considerable stage experience, there’s TV and comedy chops aplenty here which are just wasted. Matt Berry, resplendent in a suit the very shade of Vimto, is the worst offender as his arrogant writer falls flat (snapping at the cast member who helped him with a forgotten line didn’t much endear him) and as lead character Philip, Simon Bird is scarcely more than a ripple on a pond, his nerdish appeal only getting him so far into a script that requires far more emotional heft. Lily Cole is doubly shafted by a terrible accent choice and a terribly written character but even then, contrives to sap any life out of her interactions.
Charlotte Ritchie manages to imbue Celia, Philip’s scarcely credible fiancée, with what heart she can and I did enjoy Tom Rosenthal’s sock choices as Philip’s archly amused friend and neighbour. But it is a real shame to think that those tempted in by the cast – quite possibly non-traditional theatregoers – are ending up with this lumpen mess. 

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Booking until 22nd July

Bridge Theatre new season – excited by new writing or disappointed by lack of diversity?

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr have announced the opening programme for their The Bridge Theatre venture – the 900-seat commercial venue near to Tower Bridge which marks their re-entry into the London theatre landscape. The first three productions, all booking now, are:

  • Young Marx – Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s new play about German philosopher Karl Heinrich Marx which will star Rory Kinnear in the title role alongside Oliver Chris as Engels. Directed by Nicholas Hytner it will have designs by Mark Thompson and music by Grant Olding;
  • This will be followed by Julius Caesar directed by Hytner in promenade, starring
    Ben Whishaw (Bakkhai, Skyfall) as Brutus, David Calder as Caesar, Michelle Fairley as Cassius and David Morrissey as Mark Antony;
  • a new play from Barney Norris called Nightfall, directed by Laurie Sansom.
Further ahead from Summer ’18, we can expect:
  • a new play by Lucinda Coxon based on the novel Alys, Always by Harriet Lane;
  • a new play by Nina Raine about JS Bach, played by Simon Russell Beale; 
  • flatpack, a new play by John Hodge; 
  • The Black Cloud, a new play by Sam Holcroft from the novel by Fred Hoyle; 
  • Carmen Havana, a version of Bizet’s opera by Lucy Prebble with choreography by Miguel Altunaga and directed by Nicholas Hytner.
The focus on new writing is something exciting, all but one of these are new works. And if we count them altogether, there’s pleasing gender parity in their number. And that’s good enough to get luminaries like Sarah Crompton and Michael Billington fawning over the season ahead.
But looking at all those playwrights, there’s not a person of colour among them. And delving into the cast and creatives of the opening three shows, all of them are being directed by white men. Furthermore, of the headline casting announced, six out of seven of them are white men. We can cling to Michelle Fairley’s cross-casting as Cassius as a sole beacon of hope but let’s not forget that Robert Hastie is already doing this much better and bolder in Sheffield.
There’s no doubting that there’s a number of issues intertwined here but once again, a big commercial theatrical season is being launched on the back of safe, safe decisions. I don’t deny the harsh realities of the commercial world but it is just so dispiriting to see how little is being done to address these issues by the people who can affect them, whether Messrs Hytner and Starr, or Branagh and Grandage in previous years.

  • The Kenneth Branagh season (2015-6) – 5 plays initially, all written and directed by white men; 5 people in opening publicity shot, 2 women including Dame Judi Dench
  • The Michael Grandage season (2012-13) – 5 plays all written and directed by white men; 7 people in opening publicity shot, 2 women including Dame Judi Dench
  • The Donmar in the West End season (2008-09) – 4 plays all directed by white men and all but one written by white men; 4 people in opening publicity, 1 woman who was Dame Judi Dench!

Some thoughts
– Magnificent as she is, Dench is far from our only star actress but without the requisite support, how is anyone else supposed to join her above-the-title as it were.
– Same with any actors of colour 
– If you’re going to focus on new writing, how do commissioning decisions remain so stubbornly white as well? Delving into (white) history won’t help.
– And how the f*ck is the status quo ever going to be challenged if the commentary acquiesces so easily – the race to label this season as “thrilling” or “mouth-watering” leaves little room to call into question the age-old biases that are once again being reinforced here.
It’s hard not to feel a little disillusioned by this all. Attitudes don’t change overnight, they need to be persuaded, and yet the opportunities to change minds remain few and far-between. So the commercial imperative to keep programming ‘safe’ remains intact and so the vicious cycle repeats itself ad nauseam. The power and influence that the two ‘Nicks’ wield is an awesome thing in the world of UK theatre, I just wish it was being used here in a more creative and forward-thinking way.

News (and photos): National Theatre gala (plus actors in suits!)

The National Theatre last night hosted its biennial fundraising gala, Up Next, raising over a million pounds to support access to the arts for children and young people across the country. I think they forgot to invite me though… 😜

Performances commissioned especially for the event included a new piece by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, alongside performances by Sir Lenny Henry, Anne-Marie Duff and hundreds of talented young people from across London.
The Up Next Gala was held to raise vital funds for the NT’s Learning Department, ensuring that young people from across the country have the chance to access the arts, develop new skills and experience live theatre performances. NT Learning works with schools, young people, families, community groups and adult learners from all corners of the UK and in 2015-16 engaged with more than 181,000 participants. The nationwide youth theatre festival Connections has helped to launch the careers of many of the UK’s brightest and best actors, from Andrew Garfield to John Boyega.
Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre, who hosted the gala evening said:

‘Every child has the right to a creative education and the opportunity to fully participate in the arts. Theatre gives us the chance to stand in other people’s shoes, to tell compelling stories and to be able to see the world from different perspectives.
It’s our responsibility as one of the leading arts institutions to help fertilise the creativity of this country, giving more children the chance to experience and take part in theatre, and to enable them to fulfil their potential as human beings and as members of society. We thank everyone who helped raise vital funds at the 2017 Up Next Gala and look forward to working with children and young people from across the country, thanks to the overwhelming support we received this evening.’

The event was generously support of the Pigott family and the Wall Street Journal, and in-kind support from Berry Bros. & Rudd, Floris Van Den Hoed, Nyetimber, Umbrella World and Voss Water.
Now let’s have a look how some of our top actors scrub up in their finest on the red carpet… (all photos courtesy of Cameron Slater)

Oliver Chris and Lois Chimimba

Oliver Chris and Lois Chimimba
Adrian Lester
Jonathan Bailey
Billie Piper
Elliot Cowan

Denise Gough

Hal Fowler and Kim Wilde. KIM WILDE!

Hattie Morahan and Blake Ritson
John Heffernan

James Graham

Jessica Raine
Indhu Rubasingham and Dominic Cooke

Jim Carter

Kate Fleetwood

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

Lenny Henry

Lily James

Lucian Msamati

Miles Jupp

Monica Dolan

Nathan Lane

Olivia Colman

Pandora Colin and Rory Kinnear

Penelope Wilton

Rosalie Craig

Rufus Norris

Simon Callow

Tamsin Greig

Tim McMullan

TV Review: Penny Dreadful Season 3

“Why would the devil be interested in you?”

And so the penny drops, John Logan’s Penny Dreadful comes to an end after 3 highly atmospheric seasons of gothic drama, anchored by a sensational performance from Eva Green that ought to have been way more recognised that it was. It’s taken me a little while to get round to watching the series after writing about the first episode so apologies for that, but sometimes, life (and summer holidays) just get in the way. Beware, spoilers will abound.
In some ways, the ending of Season 2 acted as a finale that really worked, the key characters left shell-shocked by what had befallen them and scattered across the globe, as manifested in a gloriously down-beat last half-hour of Episode 10. And so the main challenge of Season 3 was to find a way to reconnect their stories in a way that was at least thematically interesting, if not necessarily the most dramatically satisfying.
For me, this was the key weakness, the stretching that the scriptwriters had to go to re-establish a world in which everyone co-existed, the final result never quite landing. But if you’re happy with the dramatis personae all getting on in their separately dastardly ways, then there’s much to enjoy here for when it is at its best, this is Penny Dreadful at its most affecting, particularly in the tour-de-force that was A Blade of Grass, the should-have-been-award-winning flashback episode in which Green’s Vanessa and Rory Kinnear’s John Clare explored their hitherto unknown connection. 
Naturally, Vanessa remained at the heart of the story and the focus of the Big Bad, this time being Dracula in the silkily sexy form of Christian Camargo, and I loved the bringing back of Patti LuPone as a ballsy New York therapist (with Irish ancestry, natch) to aid her quest for inner peace. Samuel Barnett’s Renfield, serving first the latter then the former, added greatly to the quality here, the Dracula myth thoroughly reinvigorated.
I was less keen on Ethan Chandler’s journey of self-discovery in the Wild West, stranding Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm over there with him, but there was extremely powerful work from Billie Piper’s Lily, raising a feminist army (including a sparky Jessica Barden) to crush the ways of man – thus rendering both Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray and Harry Treadaway’s Victor Frankenstein helpless, almost pathetic in her wake. The philosophical discussions inspired in both were also very well done, culminating in some strong moments, not least the tragic farewell between Lily and Dorian.
I’d’ve loved to have seen more of Shazad Latif’s Jekyll, though the revelation of his ‘other’ self was very neatly done. And even if the point of Kinnear’s Clare was the hopelessness of his isolation, again I just wanted more of so fine an actor doing such fine work. Finishing off the series in the way that Logan did is probably the best way for Logan to go, on his own terms, and given the shocking sacrifice that capped it all off, you do wonder what future Penny Dreadful could have had without Eva Green at its quiveringly haunted heart.

The Complete Walk, from the comfort of your sofa #7

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Gemma Arterton and Michelle Terry (almost) in the same play, how my heart doth beat. Sam Yates’ Love’s Labour’s Lost combines Arterton and David Dawson dashing delightfully through the corridors of the Royal Palace of Olite of Navarre, Spain as Berowne and Rosaline, whilst drawing in elements from the gorgeous 2009 production at the Globe – one of my favourite clips from the whole Complete Walk.
Measure for Measure

Queer as Folk hits Austria (I suppose I’m showing my age, the more contemporary reference would be Game of Thrones) as Aidan Gillen takes on Measure for Measure at Vienna’s Burg Liechtenstein. Last year’s production at the Globe gets a look in too and reminds me that I think it was much maligned for trying a more comic take on the play for once. 

The Two Gentleman of Verona

A slightly different take from Christopher Haydon here as he has location footage – filmed at the Scaligero di Torri, Verona with Meera Syal and Tamara Lawrance – but opts to explore the play’s dramatic links to the rest of the canon. So we get clips of 10 of Shakespeare’s other plays and are shown how devices and plots are reused time and time again. 


Possibly one of my most favourite potential productions in the making here, as James Dacre takes David Harewood and John Heffernan to Othello’s Tower in Famagusta, Cyprus where they nail it. Please make this happen somehow.
Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens sees Dromgoole go for the similar star wattage of Dominic West in Coriolanus, opting to focus on Simon Russell Beale wandering through atmospheric parts of Athens with no other actors or productions to distract. And it works wonders again, even if I’m not sure I need to see the play again in a hurry. 

TV Review: Penny Dreadful Season 3 Episode 1

“The cycle goes on, the snake eating its own tail”

The focus may be elsewhere with regards to returning cult TV shows this spring but to my mind, there’s something more satisfying about the Victorian Gothic psychodrama of John Logan’s Penny Dreadful than we’ve had recently in Westeros. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a turn on the Game of Thrones as much as the next Lannister child but the greater focus and emotional intensity of Penny Dreadful’s supernatural solemnity has kept me gripped over the last two seasons (Season 1 review; Season 2 review) and had me keenly anticipating the third, showing on Showtime (USA) and Sky Atlantic (UK).

The catastrophic climax of Season 2 saw our cast of characters fleeing the gaslit darkness of London and scattering across the globe, each ruminating over their lot. Josh Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler is extradited back to New Mexico under Douglas Hodge’s wonderfully taciturn supervision as Inspector Rusk, Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm finds himself in Zanzibar after burying the unfortunately deceased Sembene, Rory Kinnear’s John Clare aka Caliban aka The Creature is stuck on an ice-bound ship in the Arctic, and in a London caught in mourning for Alfred Lord Tennyson (the episode is called “The Day Tennyson Died”), Eva Green’s Vanessa and Harry Treadaway’s Frankenstein are each trapped in their own emotional paralysis.

With a considerable ensemble cast that only keeps growing, I did have my fears about a loss of the tightness of the narrative that I have so admired but what was impressive, both in Logan’s writing and Damon Thomas’ direction, was how the connective threads between these parties, though pulled far apart, remain strong as ever. The decision to rest Dorian Gray and Brona for the episode is bold but pays off well as little time is wasted in beginning the machinations of a new season and all its possibilities and whilst the New Mexico strand seems intriguingly promising, it is in London where it’s all happening really. 

I’ll try to avoid spoilers here by not mentioning character names, as the reveals are fun (and come at different times, depending on how strong your literary references are!) but the arrival of Frankenstein’s old schoolfriend should reinvigorate his strand, not least in the sexual charge Shazad Latif is bringing to his character. And Vanessa’s decision to seek help from the new field of alienism (psychiatry by an archaic name) brilliantly brings her back into contact with an unexpected face from Season 2 and throws Samuel Barnett into the bargain too – win win! The episode’s final flourish sets up the drama for the series ahead in typically gothic style and I can’t wait to see where the ride takes us this year.

TV Review: Shakespeare Live, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“I am a spirit of no common rate”
The culmination of the BBC’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was the 2 and a half hours of Shakespeare Live, a veritable landslide of multidisciplinary performances of and responses to his work. From theatre to opera, jazz to ballet, hip-hop to musicals, the enormous scope of his influence was showcased in a very well put together (royal) variety show (Charles and Camilla were in attendance) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and hosted by David Tennant and Catherine Tate.
And like anything with variety, a selection box or tub of Quality Street, there are the ones you love, the ones you can tolerate and the ones that you really don’t care for (the Bounty, or the purple hazelnutty one). And I have to say as impressive as they were, the dance, jazz and opera sections really didn’t do it for me whether Berlioz or Duke Ellington. I was predictably much more interested in the theatrical side of things, particularly as such an august cast of performers was in the offing along with the thrilling thought of a Dench and McKellen reunion.

There were of course moments of brilliance, some recalling previous productions and others tempting the possibilities of the future. Who now doesn’t want to see Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear do Macbeth, or Roger Allam’s King Lear. And as pleased as I was to be reminded of Dame Judi Dench’s flirtatious Titania, Alexandra Gilbreath’s glorious Olivia and Meera Syal’s melancholy Beatrice (though sad to be reminded of the untimely passing of her Benedick, Paul Bhattacharjee), there was even more pleasure in seeing the likes of Harriet Walter’s Cleopatra and Henry Goodman’s ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, classic performances I have not seen before.
A comic highlight was the Hamlet sketch, current Hamlet Paapa Essiedu arriving onstage to deliver ‘To be or not to be’ only to be interrupted by a series of well-meaning folk with notes. That those people were Tim Minchin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harriet Walter, David Tennant, Rory Kinnear, Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, and then Prince Charles made it a memorable moment indeed, transformed into a superlative one by Essiedu then re-composing himself to deliver a stunning rendition of the speech. How that Hamlet isn’t transferring to London I do not know.
Personally I wasn’t much of a fan of the Joseph Fiennes-narrated historical video clips, though I appreciate they were probably needed to cover set changes, but the musical interludes were lovely, Alison Moyet, The Shires and Ian Bostridge standing out for me. I could have done without an extended look at Antony Sher’s Falstaff too, though again I appreciate that he is part of the package deal these days, I took that opportunity to refresh my gin and bitter lemon. 
The majority of the finale was excellent though, Ian McKellen’s speech from Sir Thomas More, making the argument for the humane treatment of those forced to seek asylum; Helen Mirren reprising her Prospera all too briefly, and David Suchet joining Dench as her Oberon. Yes, it would have been nice to see a little more adventure in the casting – Harriet Walter’s ‘not yet’ in response to being asked whether she’d played the Dane was cute but telling – though perhaps this wasn’t the time or place. A varied celebration of varying strengths then.

DVD Review: My Week With Marilyn

“I thought you hated all that Royal Court stuff” 
I never quite got round to watching My Week With Marilyn when it was released in late 2011: it came out at a busy theatre time (as if there’s any other time for me) and clearly I wasn’t in a particularly cinematic frame of mind as this kind of film would normally be catnip to me with its combination of old-school Hollywood and a British thesp-heavy cast. So I’ve only just gotten round to watching it now and though it clearly contains a performance of exceptional grace and ingenuity in Michelle Williams’ portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, I was surprised at how lightweight the film was as a whole. 
Based on two books by Colin Clark, a young man so determined to make a career for himself in the film industry that he managed to wangle his first job as a production assistant on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, a film directed by and co-starring Lawrence Olivier. But working with such a megastar as Monroe does not prove easy: her personal demons constantly threaten to overwhelm her, exacerbating her already-troubled new third marriage to Arthur Miller, and her over-reliance on her acting coach causes much tension as she ends up delaying the making of the film time and time again. In the midst of all the chaos, she lights upon Clark, who is completely bewitched by his idol, as an emotional crutch and he ends up spending a week escorting her about and providing some light escapism from her life. 
Though there’s much to enjoy here, I couldn’t help but feel that the perspective of the whole thing was a little skewed. It’s such a rose-tinted view of Marilyn, always through the eyes of a lovesick boy, and so consequently we never lose the haze of fantasy, the idealised portrait. By presenting her as so much of a victim, never seeing her as a manipulator of people and circumstances, there’s something of a shallowness that tests even Michelle Williams’ great talent, too few moments of genuine emotional drama for her to work with. Only in her final words to the cast and crew of the film set is there a sense of the selfishness, necessary or otherwise, of the person, of the artist, that the postscript celebrating her success can’t quite gloss over. 
Eddie Redmayne fits the aristocrat-manqué Clark perfectly well and also suggests the wonder of a young man who can’t believe his luck throughout and I rather liked Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier, though I was reliably informed he was completely miscast. Across the large ensemble cast, it was nice to see familiar faces like Miranda Raison as a wonderfully self-confident secretary, Simon Russell Beale as a fatuous homeowner, Julia Ormond’s Vivien Leigh racked with insecurities and Peter Wight’s disbelieving publican. The casting isn’t all great though: Dominic Cooper feels a little miscast as Marilyn’s business partner Milton H Greene though I’d be hard-pressed to identify just why I felt that way and Emma Watson did little to convince me she has much range as an actress, too much of an anachronistic presence.
So a perfectly watchable film, one I had thought might be a little more satisfactorily revelatory and so I can’t say I’d rush to watch it again any time soon, but enjoyable nonetheless.