Review: Alys, Always, Bridge Theatre

Nicholas Hytner finally directs a play by a woman but Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation of novel Alys, Always is a disappointment for me at the Bridge Theatre

“I’m going to bake a cake”

In well over 30 years of being a director, it seems scarcely credible that it is only now that Nicholas Hytner is turning his hand to directing a play written by a woman. For all of his considerable contributions to the British theatre ecology, it is a startling and sobering statistic that demonstrates the scale of the problem faced by those who would (rightfully) change the status quo.

The play in question here is Alys, Always, written by Lucinda Coxon from Harriet Lane’s 2012 novel. And it proves a serviceable psychological thriller of sorts that sits a little too cosily in the middle class-baiting madeleine-scented air of the Bridge Theatre. It is glossy and magazine-spread chic, undoubtedly shinily cast (Joanne Froggatt, Robert Glenister) but rarely essential. Continue reading “Review: Alys, Always, Bridge Theatre”

Review: Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre

With Allelujah! at the Bridge Theatre, the return of Alan Bennett leaves me less than enthused 

“Still, it was better than this”

In some ways, Allelujah! is perfectly symptomatic of the problem I have with the Bridge Theatre. Does London really need any new theatres, no matter how much people think they want interval madeleines? Does it especially need ones that put on large-scale Alan Bennett premieres? It is nice to see Nicholas Hytner maintaining the long-gestating creative relationship he has with Bennett but at the point where his new venture is now just a carbon-copy of his former home down the South Bank, except with premium seating, it is increasingly hard to make the case for it.

It doesn’t help that this isn’t vintage Bennett. His first play in six years, Allelujah! takes place in the crowded geriatric ward of the Bethlehem, a Yorkshire hospital threatened with closure. A camera crew are filming a documentary, allowing many of the patients to wax lyrical about lives that have passed on by, the England that once was. And in the corridors around the hospital, Bennett similarly lets rip, on the loss of compassion in our society, a social care system on its knees, an NHS in an even worse state, privatisation, gentrification, the downright stupidity of an immigration system that is leaching away the very talent we need to stay. Continue reading “Review: Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre”

Review: Husbands and Sons, National Theatre

“How is a woman to have a husband when all the men belong to their mothers?”

You have to respect the huge ambition behind Husbands and Sons, Marianne Elliott and Ben Power’s adaptation of three DH Lawrence plays which sees each of them run simultaneously in the round in the Dorfman. It manages this by taking the Holroyds from The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, the Gascoignes from The Daughter-in-Law and the Lamberts from A Collier’s Friday Night and imagining them living on the same street in the East Midlands village of Eastwood. And spread over three weeks in October 1911, the interlocked, if not intersecting, dramas of their lives play out, dominated by the long shadow of the pit. 

Initially it’s a dizzying affair, as the eye and the ear deals with the three separate domestic establishments. Bunny Christie’s design takes a visual cue from the Lars von Trier film Dogville with the fully furnished houses demarcated by white lines on the floor and labelled by name, doors (and coats, weirdly) are mimed with accompanying sound effects. And with a nod to the fixedness of this arrangement, ticket-holders in the pit swap seats at the interval, getting to sit in the corresponding place on the other side of the auditorium, offering an alternative perspective on the goings-on. Continue reading “Review: Husbands and Sons, National Theatre”

DVD Review: I Give It A Year

“Is it possible that some people just aren’t supposed to be married”

Joseph Millson having a threesome and Jane Asher swearing are the main high points in Dan Mazer’s I Give It A Year, a film that could do with a whole lot more. The sheen on Nat and Josh’s whirlwind marriage has worn off a little, leaving them facing serious questions as they approach their one year anniversary. With former loves reappearing, new current attractions popping up and friends and family placing bets on whether they’ll make it to the landmark 12 months, the odds seem unlikely.

Which adds up to the film’s major problem, a distinct lack of any real dramatic imperative in hoping that Nat and Josh stay together. Rose Byrne does her best with a thanklessly constructed part who seems solely designed to frustrate Rafe Spall’s hangdog novelistic intentions but as the film opens with a fast-forward through the heady days of early romance, we’re not left with anything to convince us that we should be rooting for them to actually make it to a year, hell, even the end of the film! Continue reading “DVD Review: I Give It A Year”

Review: Billy Liar, Royal Exchange

“You’ll need a clean shirt, they don’t have dirty necks on the BBC”

Hmmm. Trekking my way through this list can prove a little hard-going when it throws up plays like these… Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s Billy Liar might have been acclaimed as a Great British classic but in Sam Yates’ production for the Royal Exchange, its charms weren’t immediately clear to me. Much of it lies in the play itself I feel, a slice of late-1950s northern life from which dreamer Billy frequently escapes through the flights of fancy in his mind.

Trapped by immutable social strictures and parental expectation, he fantasises and lies his way through the day, as he dreams of leaving the day job (at the undertakers) and moving to London to become a writer for comedians. But the excitement is in the dreaming rather than the doing, so a strange state of affairs exists where he spins and invents and even destroys his actual world without any real sense that he might actually get up and go. Continue reading “Review: Billy Liar, Royal Exchange”

Review: Emil and the Detectives, National Theatre

“No-one has time for other people’s troubles in a city”

It’s a rare occasion that I get to go to the theatre not knowing anything about a show in advance and so when the opportunity comes, it makes for a nice change. And in this case a huge surprise as Emil and the Detectives turned out to be a show with a cast full of kids! I now know that Erich Kästner’s 1929 novel is a much beloved children’s classic, though it never found a home on my bookshelf, and adapted here by Carl Miller, the tale of smalltown boy Emil going on a life-changing journey through the scary metropolis of Berlin and finding an unexpected solidarity with an army of street kids – the Detectives – is a solid entry in the National’s roster of family shows.

On the face of it, Bijan Sheibani seems an odd choice of director, an undoubtedly patchy track record leaving huge question marks but the National’s faith has been largely repaid here with a mercifully flaming skeleton-free production. Bunny Christie’s set design is a glorious masterpiece, using Constructivist angles and a stark spareness to allow for a range of different atmospheres and locations to be evoked, and the collaboration with Sheibani really pays off in key moments when the simplest solution is often used to great effect. Lucy Carter’s precise lighting comes into play in ingenious chase scenes with Ian Dickinson’s sound adding suitably creepy notes. Continue reading “Review: Emil and the Detectives, National Theatre”

DVD Review: Housewife, 49

“What actually is mass observation?”

I have no earthly idea how this passed me by first time round containing as it does, two of my favourite things: the experience of everyday people in the Second World War and national treasure Victoria Wood. That Housewife, 49 was also written by Wood makes it even more remarkable I missed it, but catching it on the tv was one of those experiences that simply filled me with warmth, joy and a fair few tears as I utterly loved it.

It is based on the real-life wartime diaries of Nella Last (played here by Wood herself) , a Barrow-in-Furness housewife recovering from a nervous breakdown who participates in a national scheme to document the lives of normal people – Mass Observation – as a way of helping her recovery. Society is rather unforgiving of her inability to ‘cope’ especially as war starts, her marriage to the taciturn ’Daddy’ is constrictive and it is only when she is persuaded to give voluntary work a try by her younger son, that she finds the opportunity to slowly flourish as her confidence is built and she becomes an integral and vital part of the community. Continue reading “DVD Review: Housewife, 49”

Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I hope, upon familiarity will grow more contempt”

Hoping that the above quote doesn’t ring true, this revival of Christopher Luscombe’s 2008 The Merry Wives of Windsor slips back into Shakespeare’s Globe ahead of a US and UK tour taking in Santa Monica, New York, Milton Keynes, Norwich, Richmond and Bath through to December.

The only of Shakespeare’s plays to take place in his contemporary England, it takes some of the characters familiar from the Henry IV plays, most notably Falstaff and creates a pleasing romp as he chases after the wives of two gentlemen from Windsor but doesn’t reckon on just how cunning the women are. There’s also a young couple straining to be together in the face of parental disapproval, some comedic foreigners, some funny business with a laundry basket and a whole load of farcical fun. It plays here, as nicely explained in the programme, as a bit of a forerunner of the modern tv sitcom and it really does work.

A nice thing about this play is its balanced treatment of women, with 3 strong, funny female characters all of which are played with aplomb. Sue Wallace’s Mistress Quickly is nicely knowing in her manipulation of Falstaff and compassionate in rearranging the love affairs of the youngsters. And Sarah Woodward and Serena Evans as Mistresses Ford and Page respectively are just an absolute delight as the mischievous cohorts with a visibly strong friendship. Andrew Havill’s Basil Fawlty inspired mugging as Ford fits in perfectly with the tone of the piece and as Falstaff, Christopher Benjamin wins our sympathies as well as making us laugh.

The only slight disappointments for me was the sagging of the pace in the first half and Ceri-Lyn Cissone and Gerard McCarthy as the rather bland lovers, typified by their overlong duet. William Belchamber’s fey Slender and Philip Bird’s linguistically-challenged Caius were much funnier and more interesting and there was no hint at all of the former drinking buddy of Prince Hal in McCarthy’s Fenton, meaning he came across as just dull.

As a little aside, I do find it curious programming that this sits alongside the two Henry IV plays this year. With the crossover in characters but not the casting and the fact that this doesn’t really square with the timelines of the history plays, it just sits a little odd in terms of the season as a whole. And with Allam’s Falstaff so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but compare, however this is but a minor quibble.

It is clear why this production has been revived though: it is superbly acted throughout the ensemble, it is huge amounts of fun and once it gets started it just romps through its proceedings with a vibrancy and energy that should win over audiences no matter where it plays.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 2nd October

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: Pygmalion, Royal Exchange

“You have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being…”

A fortuitous set of circumstances combined to enable me to go see Pygmalion at the Royal Exchange with Aunty Jean and my father, being up near Manchester for the weekend, and how glad am I that I did. I used to visit the Royal Exchange quite often when younger but it is years since I have been and I was also quite intrigued to see the play itself, never having seen it before, only in its adapted musical form as My Fair Lady. (I was on the lookout for the links between the two in particular around the songs, but the only song title I picked up from the dialogue was ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face’).

When Henry Higgins makes a bet with Colonel Pickering that he can turn a cockney flower girl into a lady, he sets out to change Eliza Doolittle completely and equip her for life in high society – but he reckons without the spirit and strength of Eliza herself. It is a scathing comment on the class structure of Britain at the turn of the century and a surprisingly modern take on the gender politics of the time, but above all highly entertaining and really rather funny. Continue reading “Review: Pygmalion, Royal Exchange”