Oscar Week Film Review: Darkest Hour

No amount of prosthetics can stop this from being my…Darkest Hour

“The deadly danger here is this romantic fantasy of fighting to the end”

Eesh. The world already has too many Churchill films, never mind the fact that two big ones were released in the same year (Brian Cox’s Churchill was the lower profile one here). And for me, there’s nothing here in Joe Wright’s direction or Anthony McCarten’s writing that merits the retread over much-covered ground.

That is not the prevailing opinion obviously, as the film’s seven Oscar nominations testify, but it is what it is. No amount of latex makes Gary Oldman’s performance palatable (and isn’t it odd that he’s getting such acclaim for a role in which he is unrecognisable), and it is a crime in the ways in which the likes of Patsy Ferran and Faye Marsay are under-utilised, nay wasted. Continue reading “Oscar Week Film Review: Darkest Hour”

Review: The Winter’s Tale, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

 Thou metst with things dying,
I with things new-born”

It’s easy to feel a little jaded when it comes to Shakespeare, the same plays coming round with regularity and not always inspiring such great theatre. So I’m delighted to report that Michael Longhurst’s production of The Winter’s Tale for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is probably the best version of the play I’ve ever seen. The Kenneth Branagh Company’s The Winter’s Tale was a staid disappointment for me, previously the Crucible had let me down too but in the candlelit atmosphere on Bankside, something truly magical is happening.

It’s a tricky play to get right in its split of two very different worlds but where Longhurst really succeeds is in suggesting that Sicilia and Bohemia perhaps aren’t too separate at all. Modern designers often highlight the dichotomy between the chilly stateliness of Leonte’s Sicilia with the freewheeling japery of Polixenes’ Bohemia but in the simplicity of Richard Kent’s design, they’re both very much on the same sliding scale – psychological darkness pervading the light in both worlds, the promise of redemption ultimately illuminating one and the other too. Continue reading “Review: The Winter’s Tale, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse”

Review: Pericles, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“Few love to hear the sins they love to act”

A New Year, a new chance for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a venue that critics love to describe as beautifully atmospheric because they’ve never had to sit anywhere apart from the good seats that press agents put them in. For it is a difficult theatre for the regular theatregoer – recreating as it does the candlelit ambience of a 17th century indoor playhouse, it also has that (possibly) Jacobean feature of premium seating at over £60 a pop. At the other end of the scale, £10 standing spots are available in the upper gallery but there, one has to deal with considerably restricted views. 

As a result, it’s thus been a theatre I’ve easily decided not to frequent that often – the levels of discomfort in the backless seats not endearing me much either – but the lure of the last Shakespeare play I’ve yet to see in Pericles and Rachael Stirling, John Light and Niamh Cusack in The Winter’s Tale has tempted me to bite the bullet. That said, I will be unflinchingly honest about the experiences, as it is a theatre where you want to be forearmed with as much knowledge as possible. For reference, I saw Pericles from standing spot D32 in the upper gallery.  Continue reading “Review: Pericles, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse”

TV Review: London Spy

 “People lie Danny, they lie very well” 

Well this was a disappointment wasn’t it, there’s no two ways about it. Tom Rob Smith’s London Spy started its five episode run most promisingly with its forthrightly modern gay love story – between emotionally reclusive Secret Service operative Alex and Danny, a shift worker and regular on the hard-partying Vauxhall gay clubbing scene. Edward Holcroft and Ben Whishaw made a powerfully effective couple, negotiating their differences beautifully and believably so that by the time Alex went missing, the substance of the emerging conspiracy theories actually meant something.

But as the plot wound vaguely into labyrinthine dead ends and red herrings, it became increasingly hard to get a handle not just on what was happening but what Smith was trying to say. And directed in would-be sepulchral (but actually just frustratingly dark) gloom by Jakob Verbruggen, the joys of recognising bits of my local Vauxhall soon wore off as you realised that such a stunning supporting cast as Adrian Lester, Clarke Peters and Harriet Walter were indeed being criminally underused or landed with heinous dialogue and what started off irresistibly disintegrated into implausibility. Continue reading “TV Review: London Spy”

Review: Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Foul-spoken coward, that thund’rest with thy tongue, and with thy weapon nothing dar’st perform!”

The Globe must be loving all the attention that Titus Andronicus has gained as Lucy Bailey’s claustrophobically gory production returns and once again brings with it numerous fainters at every show, that in turn providing an easy hook for feature writers to focus on, garnering the kind of free publicity other theatres could only dream of. That people faint fairly regularly at the Globe is by the by, and far be it from me to get in the way of a good story…

And in some ways, that is kind of the point. It isn’t too far of a stretch to suggest that Titus isn’t one of Shakespeare’s strongest works and so directors have to work hard at making it work and much of what Bailey introduces is excellent. William Dudley’s design manages that all-too-rare thing of actually doing something completely different with the Globe’s space, brilliantly evoking hellish blackness throughout, and Django Bates’ score is superbly eerie. Continue reading “Review: Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Outside on the Street, Arcola

“You must have a Christian name you little pessimist”

As the Edinburgh Festival disgorges shows left right and centre into London theatres, it can still be a bit of challenge what to go and see – the cacophony of critical voices only really allows a small handful of must-see shows to emerge and the rest are left to fight for their own bit of London’s crowded turf. The choice to go and see Invertigo’s Outside on the Street at the Arcola was largely guided by my previous experience with the company when they brilliantly brought a Welsh-language play – Saer Doliau – to the Finborough earlier this year. But their mission to adventure into all kinds of unfamiliar European work and so this play sees them tackle this post-WWII tale by Wolfgang Borchert.

Partly based on his own experiences of escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp and returning to a war-devastated Hamburg, Borchert delves into something of the effects of a cataclysmic war, where not only physical destruction but emotional damage has been inflicted in the most overwhelming of ways and whether there is any possible way back from there. The central character is Sergeant Beckmann, who returns from Siberia to find his wife has taken a lover, his parents are dead, his city is ruined and in an act of desperation, decides to take his life by throwing himself into the Elbe. But the river sends him back into the world from whence he embarks on a torrid journey full of characters both real and imagined, surreally searching for any kind of solace he can find. Continue reading “Review: Outside on the Street, Arcola”

Review: Saer Doliau, Finborough

“Ma’ rhaid I ni symud hefo’r oes, Ifans”

It is often on the fringes that boundaries are pushed the most and West London’s Finborough continues to do just that by hosting the English premiere of Gwenlyn Parry’s Welsh play Saer Doliau, translated as Doll Mender. Performed entirely in Welsh, with English surtitles available for those whose command of Welsh is not so strong, it really is a unique opportunity to take in a vibrant expression of Welsh linguistic and cultural history in a season which has already covered the sad decline of another British minority language, Scots Gaelic.

Set in the timewarp that is Ifans’ studio in rural Wales where he is surrounded by broken dolls and painstakingly repairs them one by one with the tools that his father used and his grandfather before him, the doll mender’s tranquillity is shattered by the arrival of two strangers. Merch, a young woman who is determined to drag the business into the twenty-first century and then Llanc, her accomplice and putative apprentice doll mender, thoroughly shake up this world, smashing Ifans’ certainties and playing mind games to unsettle him. But all is not quite so straightforward, Ifans constantly makes calls to talk to his gaffer yet there’s no phone line in the building and so we’re left to question if the visitors are real or just manifestations of Ifans’ imagination. Continue reading “Review: Saer Doliau, Finborough”