TV Review: Luther (Series 4, Episode 1)

“What do we do with something like this?”

It doesn’t quite seem right, calling this a new series of Luther when it is just two episodes, but the return of Idris Elba’s maverick DCI is something to be celebrated nonetheless. Neil Cross’ two-parter finds John Luther on a leave of absence from the Met (as opposed to having jacked it all in as we might have thought), sequestered in a coastal cottage hideaway and still reckoning with the loss of his cop partner DS Ripley after the events of the last series. Almost straightaway though, the show runs into the problems that mark the whole episode.

the first ever episode way back when). They’re both new to the franchise (though weirdly not unfamiliar to Luther) but as there’s so little time, we have to assume an instant familiarity with them, and with the circumstances of Alice’s death and a new serial killer who is eating his way through East London.  Continue reading “TV Review: Luther (Series 4, Episode 1)”

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Stafford Castle

“Through the forest have I gone”

The impressive ruins of Stafford Castle make a grand setting for the Stafford Festival Shakespeare, now in its 23rd year, and for this year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, successfully transported to a Victorian England of colonial conquest, starched manners and a healthy dose of Gilbert and Sullivan. An open air stage, with covered seating on three sides, expands up the grassy slope to the castle itself and is used highly effectively, whether for a royal procession to make a strong impact or a torch-bearing fairy horde to swarm over the hillside, a constant reminder that so much of this story is about the strange happenings that will ensue if you end up in a mysterious forest on Midsummer eve. 

Peter Rowe’s choice to set this in the Victorian era is an effective choice and one which works well across all the earthbound levels of the play. It makes a convincing case for the quarrelling quartet of lovers – Craig Fletcher (so very good in last year’s Boy Meets Boy) and Eamonn O’Dwyer all prim posturing and carefully rolled-up sleeves as Lysander and Demetrius, Jennifer Greenwood a spirited Hermia and a confident Georgina White coming close to stealing the show as an expressively comical Helena. And the Rude Mechanicals, led by Eric Potts’ bumptious Bottom, become a group of G&S-playing minstrels, the silliness of light opera suiting them perfectly as they build up to an extended musical version of Pyramus and Thisbe, which has to be one of the funnier treatments it has ever received.  Continue reading “Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Stafford Castle”

Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Southwark Playhouse

“Here’s a snip and nip and cut and slish and slash”

Robin Norton-Hale has been responsible for reinvigorating (or even inventing) the genre of pub opera with the wildly successful La Bohème, followed up by Don Giovanni this year and now turns her hand to Shakespeare with this adaption of The Taming of the Shrew at Southwark Playhouse. The modernisation sees us located in 21st century Brixton, the train map in the programme guiding us through stations such as Mantua Hill, Old Naples Road and Milan House allowing the Italian place names to remain in situ. And in Cherry Truluck’s cluttered market stall design, there’s a raft of amusing little touches: Katherine is first seen reading Margaret Attwood, Hortensio woos in his music lesson with a rendition of Mad World, Grumio serves up microwaved lasagne for dinner and there’s a mobile phone gag which is still making me chuckle now.

But the updating is merely cosmetic in the final analysis, the text – although considerably trimmed and reshaped here – doesn’t really impose any new interpretative framework onto the play and so the problems that can be found remain, and in some cases are exacerbated. Times have changed (although some might say not enough) and so the story struggles to connect in the modern-day context: Katherine doesn’t need to get married and could strike out on her own whenever she wanted – the opportunities available now are worlds apart from the 17th century, the economic and social pressures just aren’t there and so the motivation behind her actions is not particularly evident in this production. Continue reading “Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Great Expectations, ETT at Watford Palace

“I want to be a gentleman”

English Touring Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations relocates the story of Pip’s advancement to nineteenth century India in this thrilling adaptation by Tanika Gupta. A poor village boy, Pip is given the chance to better himself after a frightening encounter with a convict and an engagement to regularly visit the reclusive Miss Havisham sets him on a new path that allows him to dream of being more than a village cobbler’s assistant. And when an anonymous benefactor allows him to move to Calcutta, the heart of the British Raj, he is free to pursue his dream of becoming a proper gentleman, part of the educated elite, in order to win the heart of the coldly alluring Estella.

Gupta’s reimagining works extremely well because Pip’s journey, with his aspirations to rise above his class and status, is given even greater impact by the fact that he is casting aside his cultural identity too, his Indianness, in the search to become the perfect educated gentleman, just like one of the ruling English. This makes the transformation he seeks to effect upon himself all the more dramatic, as depicted in a wonderful scene where he dons the waistcoat and cravat of his new station, and then provides a powerfully meaningful final transition in the last scene as he ultimately comes to recognise what his true self is. But also mixed in is another layer of racial tension: Magwitch becomes a black African convict, Estella is Miss Havisham’s “African princess” and so Gupta keeps the interplay much more universal than a simplistic Asian updating and she is unafraid to show both the comedy and violence in the story in its starkest forms.


Director Nikolai Foster (no relation!) manages the achievement of a great sense of fluidity to proceedings which is all the more remarkable when one considers that there’s 31 scenes here, reflecting the serialised way in which the story was originally published. Pulling in elements of traditional dance from Zoobin Surty and music from Nicki Wells (with Nitin Sawhney onboard as musical advisor too), the atmosphere is set perfectly and well-matched by Colin Richmond’s design with its saffron-dyed gauzy curtains which allows us to move effortlessly from murky graveyards to the burning sun of the village, from shadowed dusty corridors in mansions, to the bustling city streets of Calcutta and much more. Energy crackles from all aspects, from cast members bursting through the stalls to bowls of incense being lit in front of us, to create a real theatrical experience.

Tariq Jordan is exceptional as Pip, starting off as the naive youth oblivious to anything but his own desires and progressing slowly as experience is acquired, hearts broken, friends gained, dreams shattered, charting his maturing from boy to man and never letting us forget Pip’s humanity even when he is at his most blinkered. But this is a strong ensemble throughout: from Tony Jayawardena’s beautifully warm Joe Gargery and Kiran Landa’s wise-beyond-her-years Biddy, to Lynn Farleigh’s near-dessicated Miss Havisham and Simone James’ emotionally estranged Estella, there’s a real sense of clarity to all the characterisations here. Giles Cooper’s ever-so-English Herbert Pocket was a particular delight, as was Jude Akuwudike’s raw energy as Magwitch.

The only real criticism I found was that a couple of the more emotional moments were too heavily underscored by the swelling score that felt more akin to a Hollywood film, yanking at the heartstrings instead of playing to the more subtle poignancy of the actual play. But minor quibble aside, this is a superbly effective reimagining of Great Expectations which breathes a new vibrancy into this well-known story, which remains highly recognisable (the character of Orlick was the only one I could think of that has been omitted) and provides it with a timeless resonance, none more so than at the beginning of the final scene where a public speaker exhorts his crowd of listeners to “rise up brothers…break the shackles…we must argue our case for our right to determine the affairs of our own country”.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50
Booking until March 12th then touring to Cambridge, Brighton, Richmond, Guildford, Oxford and Malvern

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews