Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 4

“Donna Noble has left the library. Donna Noble has been saved”

And here we are, my favourite series of Doctor Who. So much huge wonderfulness and even its less good moments are still more than halfway decent. Key to the series’ success is Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble – gobby and one-dimensional in her introductory episode the Christmas special The Runaway Bride, her character journey throughout this season is magisterially constructed, a true awakening of self (with thankfully no romantic inclinations towards our Time Lord) and one given unbearable poignancy due to its frustratingly tragic end.

It’s also one of the best constructed series in terms of its over-arching season arc, its warnings and clues layered meaningfully into several stories and building into a momentous and properly climactic finale, which lands just about the right level of grandiosity. There’s also the first companion-lite episode (the superbly creepy Midnight) to go with the Doctor-lite one (the achingly beautiful dystopian Turn Left); a typically brilliant Moffat double-header in  Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead with gorgeous work from Alex Kingston as the soon-to-be-hugely-significant River Song; and if the return of Rose undoes some of the emotional impact of the Series 2 finale, Billie Piper’s work is spikily powerful. These are episodes I can, and have, watched over and over again.

Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 4”

TV Review: Inside No. 9 – The Devil of Christmas

“They film Doctors in much the same way nowadays”

Just a quickie for this as I’ve never actually watched Inside No. 9 before, but enough people were making positive noises about its festive episode The Devil of Christmas that I found it hard to resist giving it a try, especially as it had Jessica Raine in the cast. And not knowing what to expect only added to the fun of a piece of television that revelled in wrong-footing its audience again and again.

Opening as a pastiche of 1970s Play for Todays as an English family arrive in an Austrian chalet for a skiing holiday, all plummy accents and stilted camera moves, the first rug pull comes with the arrival of a director’s commentary over the top, arch remembrances and bloopers pointed out in real-time. And as the folktale horror of the story kicks in, based around the legend of Krampus, actual horror replaces it, more than once. Continue reading “TV Review: Inside No. 9 – The Devil of Christmas”

Review: Dead Funny, Vaudeville

“Benny Hill? Oh, for fuck’s sake…”
I started off Terry Johnson’s production of Dead Funny concerned that the comedy references on the pre-show curtain – Eric and Ernie, Carry On, Benny Hill – were outwith those to which my tastes naturally incline. Turns out what I should have been on the lookout for was an Alan Ayckbourn play in sheep’s clothing. And if that’s the way your preferences go, as it seems with the majority of the print critics, then this is the play for you.
Dead Funny was written in 1994 but is set two years earlier in the couple of days when both Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd shuffled off this mortal coil. At a time before the death of celebrities, particularly comedians, is marked with the sharing of YouTube clips and gifs of favourite jokes and comic scenes, ‘The Dead Funny Society’ marks the passing of their faves by reenacting their work. That’s all well and good for chairman Richard but his increasingly frustrated wife Eleanor who is desperate for a child.
Thus a play about the legacy of bygone television comedians is spliced with one about marriages in crisis, the link found being people seeking refuge in the celebration of the former as a way of escaping troubles in the latter. Johnson – directing his own play – finds himself in the curious position of working on an entirely period piece. Not in terms of the actual comedy material, nostalgia will always be current to fans, but as far as the specificity of its setting goes, not to mention the questionable gender politics. it’s just thoroughly dated.
Fortunately, it has been cast extremely well. Katherine Parkinson imbues Ellie with real conviction in all her marital angst, the eye-opening first scene gets down to the naked truth of her problems with Rufus Jones’ Richard in bravely full-frontal style. And her position on the outside of the group allows her to scathingly mock their antics – Steve Pemberton, Ralf Little and Emily Berrington all bringing their own quirks and issues to bear, before the whole thing collapses in farce. So you could well find Dead Funny dead funny if it ticks your particular boxes.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Alistair Muir
Booking until 4th February

Ticket provided by the lovely Theatre Bloggers with the Stagedoor app too

DVD Review: Birthday Girl

“Are you a giraffe?”

Birthday Girl is a rather odd little thing, a 2001 film from Jez Butterworth (he of Jerusalem) that seemed to slip under the radar somewhat. It’s not brilliant but by the same token it isn’t terrible either and plenty worse films have made bigger waves. Ben Chaplin’s John is hapless in St Albans (is there anything else you can be there? ;-)), having no luck in love and so resorting to getting himself a Russian mail-order bride called Nadia. She turns up in the form of Nicole Kidman, who else, and though she can’t speak a word of English, she indulges his S&M fantasies and so job’s, it would seem, a good’un.

But it’s no happily ever after, Nadia’s two rough cousins soon turn up on the doorstep (played by Frenchmen Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz, assumedly because the Russians were out on the day they were casting?) and John’s job as a bank clerk turns out to be rather important. Their unpredictable violence pulls John deep into a morass of deception and criminality but after the mid-film twists take place, the movie runs out of energy and trundles towards a rather uninspired ending that no amount of random Brit cameos (Ben Miller, Reece Shearsmith) can rescue. Continue reading “DVD Review: Birthday Girl”

DVD Review: Match Point

“I’m so sick of this acting thing, it’s just not working out”

If Woody Allen’s Match Point had been set in the Hamptons as it was originally meant to be, I think I would really like this film but as it is, its relocation to London proves to be a constant distraction as this glossily cinematic version of my hometown is often ludicrous. Yes it is fiction and yes it is set in the world of the idly uber-rich with all their casual trips to Ralph Lauren and chauffeured cars but as with James Bond surfing down the escalators on the tube in Skyfall it’s the little things that draw the attention. 

From the unrelenting RP accents to scarcely believable dialogue in the “London Police”, the revelation that being “born in Belgravia” is the key to a lifetime of cultural invitations and the insistence on only showing postcard-pretty shots of London, Match Point has little anchoring in the real world and especially not in the city where it is now set. Putting aside the unlikelihood of shop workers being able to afford cabs home everyday and even worse, neighbours actually talking to each other in a friendly manner, it’s all just so superficial. Continue reading “DVD Review: Match Point”

TV Review: Happy Valley

 
“Why would he do something like that? We’ve got caravans, we’ve got a games room that caters for people in wheelchairs”

My favourite thing about Happy Valley is actually the association the title has for me and my family – it was the name of the Chinese takeaway opposite my Aunty Jean’s house where we’d often get our Saturday tea. It’s a lovely fond memory that sits rather at odds with the realities of this recent TV series which I finally caught up with and which reunites what looks like becoming one of the best creative partnerships we have in the country – writer Sally Wainwright and actor Sarah Lancashire. Baftas all around I shouldn’t wonder.

The location may be similar to the rather more bucolic Last Tango in HalifaxHappy Valley is set in nearby Hebden Bridge – but we’re in a much grittier world of suburban disillusionment as this police drama takes in kidnap, rape and murder, all underscored by the pervasive influence of a spiralling drugs problem throughout the town. Wainwright being a more sophisticated writer than most though, ensures that her drama takes in the full breadth of the experience, examining the aftermath of the crimes just as much as the deeds themselves. Continue reading “TV Review: Happy Valley”

Review: She Stoops to Conquer, National Theatre

“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no fibs”

Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century comedy She Stoops to Conquer was last seen at the National Theatre in 2002 in an Out of Joint co-production, but has now been revived by the seemingly tireless Jamie Lloyd with a star-studded ensemble dripping with talent, both established and new, and breathing an entirely fresh energy into the Olivier theatre.

This comedy of manners centres on the Hardcastle clan, a family of means in the country: daughter Kate is due to be married off to young Marlow, the son of a friend of Mr Hardcastle’s but she is determined to ensure the match is to her liking; Mrs Hardcastle is determined to have her heiress ward Miss Neville married off to her own son Tony in order to keep her fortune in the family though Miss Neville’s attentions are focused on Marlow’s friend Hastings. But when Marlow and Hastings get lost on their way from London and end up in a bawdy inn frequented by Tony, he espies an opportunity to make mayhem and sets in chain a series of mischiefs, misunderstandings and mistaken identities as convoluted courtships and class differences collide in the countryside. Continue reading “Review: She Stoops to Conquer, National Theatre”

Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse

“Can I get a definition please?”

A musical comedy at the Donmar? From the moment you enter the auditorium and see how Christopher Oram’s design has been translated down to the tiniest of details to create a school gymnasium, it is clear we’re in for something different and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a self-confessed scratching of an itch to do something fun for director Jamie Lloyd, is just that. Based around the tradition of spelling competitions at US high schools, it follows a group of six kids aiming to win this contest and qualify for the place at the national final. It also takes the step of inviting audience participation, four people were selected to take part and so the first third of the show is taken up with the early rounds of the competition and the increasingly amusing ways in which they made sure that timely exits were secured from the newcomers.

Originally conceived by Rachel Feldman and with music and lyrics from William Finn (I’ve never seen any of his shows, but a song from Falsettoland, What More Can I Say, is fast becoming a cabaret staple – Simon Burke, Reed Sinclair and London Gay Men’s Chorus just last year – and is utterly gorgeous) and book by Rachel Sheinkin, the show takes the form of a spelling competition but as each child takes their turn to spell, a flashback gives us the opportunity to learn more about these characters, their youthful angsts and ambitions as they struggle to decide who they really are in a world that doesn’t consider them normal. This was a preview performance from Tuesday 15th February, watched in the midst of a large group, not all of whom I sadly got the chance to talk to. Continue reading “Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse”