TV Review: Humans Series 2

“All we can do is what feels right”

There’s been something really quite moving about the second series of Humans, the Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley Channel 4 drama which has just wound to a close. In a world that started off examining the diametrically opposed differences between humans and synths (series 1 review), the stark black and white palette of the show has moved markedly to a murky shade of grey on both sides, complicating the actions of both parties to make us really appreciate the difficulties in deciding right and wrong.
So where the renegade synth Niska (a brilliant Emily Berrington) has decided to subject herself to human justice in order to try and find some common ground, newly awakened Hester goes fully rogue in defining humans as the absolute enemy, to brutal effect in a chilling performance from Sonya Cassidy. And questions of identity are no less complex on the human side, as the show toys with ideas of humans opting to live life as a synth and experimenting even further with technology.

Continue reading “TV Review: Humans Series 2”

TV Review: Humans Series 2 Episode 1

“I don’t deem your remark pertinent”

I came late to Series 1 of Channel 4 drama Humans but I’m making no such mistake this time round. And perhaps conscious of the show’s enormous critical and commercial success, creators Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley have considerably upped the ante on this second series, spreading the reach of the story from the UK to the US, Berlin to Bolivia. And though its scale may be becoming increasingly epic, the writing has thankfully maintained its startling intimacy in its explorations of what it means to be human.

To catch you up, the show centres on the invention, and subsequent evolution, of anthropomorphic robots called synths, designed to serve humans but a certain number of whom have become ‘conscious’. This second series sees that group on the run from the authorities, dealing with the ramifications of Niska’s decision – made early on here – to grant that same life to other synths, uploading code that is gradually deactivating their conditioning worldwide. Continue reading “TV Review: Humans Series 2 Episode 1”

TV Review: Ripper Street Series 4

“Edmund Reid did this”

As I might have predicted after the soaring heights of Series 3, the fourth season of Ripper Street didn’t quite live up to its forerunner. Then again, how could it after the epic sweep of the storytelling had so much of the finale about it in terms of where it left its key characters – Matthew Macfadyen’s Reid, Jerome Flynn’s Drake, Adam Rothenberg’s Jackson and MyAnna Buring’s Susan – picking up the pieces to carry on was always going to be difficult.

To recap, Reid had given up the police force after being reunited with his previously-thought-dead daughter Mathilda, and Susan’s momentous struggle against the patriarchal strictures of society (and also the nefarious entanglements of her actual father) saw her and Jackson end up behind bars, having also drawn Reid and the promoted Drake into the exacting of an individual kind of justice.  Continue reading “TV Review: Ripper Street Series 4”

Short Film Review #64

“Hope and memories go together”

A hotch-potch of video clips for your pleasure!

The Lion King gets a new ex-rugby playing Kiwi Simba.

The latest short film in the Young Vic’s series is Astoria, supporting their newly announced strand of work around refugees.

Anthony Neilson’s new play Unreachable at the Royal Court is going to be trailed by a series of shorts, hopefully making the most of the interesting casting of Matt Smith.

An audio play rather than a film but I’m sneaking this in anyway, a prologue of sorts to the Gate’s The Iphigenia Quartet, written by Clare Slater and read by the endlessly sonorous voice of Hattie Morahan. You’ll be careful about putting together the guest list for the next party you hold after this.

Review: The Lion in Winter, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“You will take what Daddy gives you”
I have to start this review off with an apology to my Medieval History A-Level teacher Mrs Grist. Despite having spent two years studying the subject, and writing an extended essay on the Capetian King Philip Augustus (who appears as a young man in this play), precious little of the detail has remained in my head. Fortunately James Goldman’s The Lion In Winter, Trevor Nunn’s latest entry in his Theatre Royal Haymarket season, has a rather loose basis in history, coming from the Philippa Gregory-type school of soapy melodrama rather striving for historical accuracy, and so the vagueness of my recollections was just fine as this ends up being more of an Ayckbourn-style domestic conflict piece – Season’s Greetings but with a cast of historical royals instead.

Things get off to a rather shaky start with a huge amount of backstory text scrolling up the screen, which is surrounded by the cheapest-looking holly border straight out of a clip-art folder. It is a rather unwieldy way to convey a ton of information which if significant, ought to be clear anyway from strong playwriting. But in a nutshell, the play is set at Christmastime 1183 in the château of Chinon, Anjou in Western France where Henry II of England has kept his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, prisoner for a decade after she led a rebellion against him. Accompanying the warring couple are their three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John, who are all competing for their father’s favour in order to be named his successor and their guest, King Philip II of France, whose half-sister Alais just happens to be Richard’s fiancée and Henry’s mistress. And for two and a half hour, they all jockey for position with each other, trying to work out who will end up on top.

Despite the historical context, it’s actually quite a light-hearted romp which revels in its anachronisms – there’s a Christmas tree complete with neatly wrapped presents – and its modern approach to motherhood and love. Nunn has cast quite cleverly in employing Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley as the central couple as they both seem to be having a ball and fit quite neatly into the entertainment role – this isn’t heavyweight, serious stuff by any means, but then it has no pretensions to be so and Lumley in particular is fantastic as the most regal yet still slightly camp Eleanor. Instead, we get the battle of wills between Henry and Eleanor as he flaunts his mistress in front of her and the squabbling between the three sons: Richard (the Lionheart), his mother’s favourite; John (he of the Magna Carta), his father’s preferred son; and Geoffrey, the other one. The play burbles along quite nicely for the first half and reaches its comedic heights early in the second with an excellently executed scene, almost akin to farce, set in the King of France’s bedroom, full of unexpected twists, revelations and hiding places.

This is then followed by a rather touching scene of rueful reminiscence between Henry and Eleanor: Lindsay and Lumley bringing their experience to bear to suggest the passion that once lay there and the world of recriminations now in its place. But Goldman’s writing quickly begins to lose steam from here on as this scene goes on for far too long and the rest of the second half then lumbers its way to its end point, dragging its heels without any real sense of building to a dramatic crescendo. Tom Bateman makes a charismatic Richard, James Norton’s overlooked Geoffrey and Joseph Drake’s petulant John all have fun as the warring siblings (although I think Drake could afford to tone the spoilt brat notes down a little) in what end up as characters of relatively limited scope. Sonya Cassidy has an initial sweet naïveté but needs to work a little on a more convincing shift to the coldly calculating woman she’s meant to become; Rory Fleck-Byrne emerges well as the young French King learning quickly about his English rival’s game playing and stepping up to the mark himself.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design opens up the stage to some considerable depth to evoke the vast expanse of the castle chambers and corridors yet also keeping a claustrophobic intimacy as these family members drive each other up the wall. Once it becomes evident that The Lion in Winter is having fun with history and creating an immediately recognisable family drama, it actually becomes rather good fun, up to a point. There’s little that Nunn’s production can do when the play falls away at the aforementioned point early in the second half meaning that there was something of a slog to the end for me, but there’s definitely some entertainment along the way.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 28th January

Review: The Prince of Homburg, Donmar Warehouse

“Your face isn’t the most cheerful today”

The Prince of Homburg  by Heinrich von Kleist is this year’s summer play at the Donmar Warehouse marking the return of Ian McDiarmid after Be Near Me last year. Presented in a new version here by Dennis Kelly (who I still haven’t quite forgiven yet for The Gods Weep), it was written in 1811 just before the German Romantic playwright committed suicide, and apparently was one of Hitler’s favourite plays. In order to squeeze this in before my holiday, I ended up seeing the second preview which should be acknowledged when reading my comments.

The play follows the titular Prince of Homburg, a shining light in the Prussian Army but possessed of a dreamy waywardness which flies in the face of the strict obedience of the law that typifies Prussian military behaviour and when he defies an order from his father-figure the Elector, matters of courage and honour push them both to a horrifying point of no return.

It just didn’t work for me. I wasn’t a fan of the underlying messages of the play, about authority and adhering to the rules at all costs, about facing death with honour and what courage really is. It didn’t help that I didn’t care for the Prince as a character, or Charlie Cox’s rather too earnest interpretation, but the language used throughout was overly florid and felt unnatural and prevented me from caring much about any of the characters.

I’ve never felt quite so much like I’ve been watching an actor try out different ways of playing his character in front of me before. Yes, I know it was a preview but these were still £20 tickets and it was just quite a surprise to see McDiarmid seemingly flirting with different characterisations, or perhaps he was just acting and I didn’t get it: the portrayal ended up feeling quite schizophrenic, an authoritative dictator one moment, a comic buffoon the next.

In the rest of the ensemble, Siobhan Redmond does well in too small a part, I can never quite get used to her talking without a Scottish accent but she pulls it off fine here; Harry Hadden-Patton delivered a fine performance and Julian Wadham and William Hoyland were also good, but few of the supporting roles are particularly well defined.

Visually, it fits into the Donmar aesthetic perfectly but it does just leave the feeling of having seen it all before. It is actually the younger sibling of the Danton’s Death set, all starkly unadorned material (in this case concrete), lighting from on high and a sneaky little gallery moment: all impressive but ultimately uninspiring. The use of music is also predictably ‘epic’, sweeping strings and an ethereal female vocalist, effective but heard so many times before.

So all in all a bit of a damp squibfor me: I suspect it will be much smoother by opening night and those expecting a more cerebral, psychological evening will not be disappointed. It just didn’t click for me or deliver enough the freshness that I would have expected from a new Donmar production.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (with interval, but subject to change)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 4th September
Note: loud noises and flashing lights throughout

Review: Inherit The Wind, Old Vic

“I don’t want to believe that we come from monkeys and apes, but I guess that’s kinda besides the point”
Inherit The Wind is a courtroom drama, based on the true life story of a Tennessee schoolteacher who was threatened with imprisonment for teaching Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution, in direct contravention of school policy. A highly strung court case then follows, pitching creationists against evolutionists, and bringing two legal titans to a small town in Tennessee to argue the case, the ramifications of which clearly extend beyond that classroom in the Deep South. Its timing seems uncanny: even on the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species, a highly recommended (by me at least) film Creation, about Darwin’s struggles with his own faith as he wrote it, has not been able to find a distributor in the US because it is considered too ‘controversial’ in a country where allegedly barely a third of the population actually believe in evolution.
The scale of this production really is admirably epic: the staging is superb, with the Old Vic’s stage being opened up to a great depth (you could probably fit the stage for Annie Get Your Gun on there 15 times over!), the already healthy cast is ably bolstered by a phalanx of supernumaries, bringing the total company to 50 bodies who bring an authentic air of claustrophobic small-town living to several scenes, most notably the prayer meeting just before the trial. The use of hymns sung by the company during scene changes further reinforces this strong sense of a community joined by the power of their faith.
Such largesse however does need to be matched by strong acting, and in the two leads of David Troughton as the Bible-bashing and frustrated politician Matthew Harrison Brady and Kevin Spacey as the more free-thinking and sharply comic Henry Drummond, Inherit The Wind more than delivers with two powering, barn-storming performances. It is a sheer delight to watch these two go at each other during the trial scene which is worth the ticket price alone, but they both delivered throughout, Troughton’s subtle hints of humanity through the bluster of his people-pleaser just edging it for me. And in a sea of supporting roles, Mark Dexter as the sceptical visiting journalist was a standout for me, with a cracking line about rancid butter that I can’t quite fully recall.
As for the play itself, whilst it contains little in terms of intellectual debate on the key issues (or maybe because of this) it is highly entertaining, and offers a strong argument for tolerance in an ever-more polarised world. My only real criticism would be the use of a real monkey on stage. I felt it added nothing of value to the performance, and it looked desperately unhappy, clutching onto the leash about its neck throughout: I’m not even particularly an animal lover, but this made me sad. That aside, I would highly recommend this show (and then go and see Creation at the cinema).