Film review: Downton Abbey (2019)

Baron Fellowes of West Stafford stretches not a single muscle in pumping out more of the same in the tiresomely dull Downton Abbey the movie

“I want everything to stop being a struggle”

To crib the tagline of a certain jukebox musical (here we go again…) you already know whether you’re a fan of Downton Abbey the movie. By any stretch of the imagination, it is just an extension of the TV series and so is guaranteed to maintain that same level of comfort that you have always got from the Granthams et al, whether that’s good or bad.

For me, it means a thoroughly unchallenging film and one which proves increasingly dull. (For reference, I’ve only ever seen (some of) the Christmas Day episodes as my parents are fans.) The hook of the film is that it is now 1927 and King George V and Queen Mary are coming to stay for the evening and heavens to Betsy, we’re all of a dither. Continue reading “Film review: Downton Abbey (2019)”

Review: Faith, Hope and Charity, National Theatre

A blistering indictment of austerity and what it has done to all of us, Faith, Hope and Charity is unmissable at the National Theatre

“When we’re hungry, we go to sleep”

A time when the much-abused sobriquet state-of-the-nation is actually entirely appropriate, Alexander Zeldin completes his excoriating triptych of plays about modern Britain with Faith, Hope and Charity. Beyond Caring looked at zero hour contracts and Love homeless hostels, Zeldin now turns his focus onto community centres and their role in holding society together.

As before, there’s little that is inherently ‘dramatic’ in Zeldin’s play, rather scenes are episodic and lean heavily into naturalism – silences as tables are put off, dialogue that interrupts and tails off but rather than feeling empty or clumsy, the cumulative effect is one of deep rumination. And such is Zeldin’s skill, you can’t help but ponder the state of the nation from the seemingly smallest of incidental details as presented here. Continue reading “Review: Faith, Hope and Charity, National Theatre”

News: the National Theatre announces 15 new productions for 2019 and 2020

So much goodness! The National Theatre have just announced details of productions stretching deep into 2020, and with writers like Lucy Kirkwood, Kate Tempest, Roy Williams and Tony Kushner, and actors like Lesley Manville, Maxine Peake, Conleth Hill, Cecilia Noble and Lesley Sharp, it is hard not to feel excited about what’s ahead.

Olivier Theatre 

Following a sell-out run at Rose Theatre Kingston, the acclaimed two-part adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by April De Angelis is reworked for the Olivier stage by Melly Still (Coram Boy). When the most important person in her life goes missing without a trace, Lenu Greco, now a celebrated author, begins to recall a relationship of more than 60 years.  Continue reading “News: the National Theatre announces 15 new productions for 2019 and 2020”

TV Review: Doctor Who Series 11

Series 11 of Doctor Who comes to an end and it’s a big yes from me – a hugely successful refresh for this beloved series

“I have to lay down the rules if someone’s new”

From the opening episode, I knew that Series 11 of Doctor Who was going to do it for me. New head writer and executive producer Chris Chibnall’s reset was most obvious in the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor but it was his other changes – namely a real widening of the pool of writers and a pronounced shift in tone – that really defined the shape of this new Doctor Who.

For all its sci-fi nature, that shape was decidedly human. The tragic death of Sharon D Clarke’s Grace was a defining moment in that opening episode, providing the trigger for this TARDIS crew to come together. And rather beautifully, the series really allowed for a full exploration of everyone’s different grief at her passing, culminating in the brutal power of Ed Hime’s ninth episode It Takes You Away.

And pivoting away from the oft-times densely packed complexity of the show’s mythology, the storytelling pointed less at grand alien threats but rather to the foibles of human nature – the enemy within. The racism of Rosa, written by Malorie Blackman with Chibnall, Vinay Patel’s exploration of the British colonial legacy around Partition in Demons of the Punjab, this was science-fiction as its most powerful, commenting powerfully on contemporary society (and naturally provoking the kind of outrage you’d expect). Continue reading “TV Review: Doctor Who Series 11”

TV Review: The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012)

The Secret of Crickley Hall is a disappointing ghost story that not even Suranne Jones can rescue 

“Hands up who wants to move out of here
‘Hands up who wants to know where Cam is?'”

You know how it is. You nod off while you’re watching your son at the playground and then he disappears. And then 11 months later you move to the north and find yourself in a haunted mansion where his spirit starts talking to you. Such is the world of The Secret of Crickley Hall, which flits between affecting family drama and haunted house hokum as it follows its parallel timestreams.

Adapted by Joe Ahearne from James Herbert’s novel (airing on the BBC on 2012), the current-day trials of the relocated Caleigh family run alongside the experience of the group of orphans who were evacuated there in 1943. At the heart of the story lies Eve, wracked with guilt over the disappearance of her son Cam, the conviction that she has some kind of sixth sense leaving her susceptible to the torrid history of her new home.  Continue reading “TV Review: The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012)”

TV Review: Doctor Who Series 11 Episode 1 – The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Jodie Whittaker more than lives up to expectations as Doctor Who in Series 11 Episode 1 – The Woman Who Fell to Earth – plus Bradley Walsh may well make you cry

“Half an hour ago I was a white haired Scotsman”

“Change my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon”. From the mouth of the Sixth Doctor himself, the very nature of Doctor Who (both the programme and the Time Lord) has always been its infinite variety. So it’s about bloody time that we now have the first female in the role – the excellent Jodie Whittaker – as new show-runner Chris Chibnall makes his definitive mark on the BBC serial.

And on the evidence of this first episode (and, let’s face it, to anyone with common sense), the Doctor’s gender is of little consequence. The ability to act as if you have two hearts knows no bounds, who knew, and the hints of Whittaker’s Doctor that were allowed to peek through the regenerative funk suggest we’re in for something of a real treat with an effervescent sense of personality shining through. Continue reading “TV Review: Doctor Who Series 11 Episode 1 – The Woman Who Fell to Earth”

TV Review: Apple Tree Yard

“Before I met you I was a civilised woman”

Based on the novel of the same name by Louise Doughty, psychodrama Apple Tree Yard has proved itself most watercooler-worthy with its twisting plot, classy cast and yes, controversial moments making it a hit thriller for the BBC. The story revolves around Yvonne Carmichael – celebrated scientist, mother of two, wife to Gary – who, when a chance encounter at work leads to an unexpected quickie with a literal tall dark and handsome stranger, finds her entire world tipped upside down by the consequences that follow.

Written by Amanda Coe and directed by Jessica Hobbs, the first episode plays out as a rather marvellous exploration of a 40-something woman rediscovering her sexuality and having the kind of illicit affair that makes you write naff diary entries (as Yvonne does…). But by the end of the first hour, the drama takes the first of several hard turns as [spoiler alert] she is brutally raped by a colleague. The use of rape as a dramatic device is one which should always be interrogated but here, coming from the text as it does and its devastating impact detailed as painstakingly as it was in episode 2, it felt appropriately handled and never gratuitous. Continue reading “TV Review: Apple Tree Yard”

TV Review: Happy Valley, Series 2 Episode 1

“This is sheep-rustling, north-Halifax style – just the one sheep and three lads off their heads on acid”

One of the televisual highlights of 2014 was Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley, anchored by an astonishing central performance from Sarah Lancashire as pragmatic Yorkshire sergeant Catherine Cawood. So the return of a second series on BBC One is good news indeed, especially given Wainwright’s decision to also direct considerably more of the episodes this time round.

It’s obvious from the off that she is entirely at the top of her game. Reintroducing the startlingly mordant vein of humour on’t’moor, this opening sequence sees Cawood recounting a day’s work to her sister, namely sheep-rustling gone unfortunately wrong on a housing estate but leading to an even grimmer discovery, one which links directly back to James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce, the father of her grandson after raping her daughter (who then committed suicide) and Catherine’s nemesis from the first series. Continue reading “TV Review: Happy Valley, Series 2 Episode 1”

TV Review: Great Expectations

“If you can’t beat a boy at Christmas when can you beat him?”

One of the centrepieces of the BBC’s festive television schedule was a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations by Sarah Phelps. Dickens could well loom large in the coming months as it is the 200th anniversary of his birth in February, but I’m not yet aware of a deluge of programming, whether on television or in the theatre, though I am reliably informed that there’s many radio serialisation on at the moment. As is often the case with new productions of classics, the key word is adaptation and though purists may baulk at some of the changes instituted by Phelps and director Brian Kirk, but that would be a shame as I found this to be a rather special piece of television, the BBC doing what it does best.

From the gorgeously, hauntingly atmospheric landscapes of the beginning – Magwitch rising from the mists of the wetlands was a perfect opening scene – the show looked a treat. The splendid isolation of the Gargerys’ house making for some beautiful shots (though it did pose the question of who exactly used that forge…) and the faded glamour of the dust-covered Satis House was excellently judged, the perfect receptacle for the casting choice that caused the most headlines prior to transmission: Gillian Anderson as Miss Haversham. Continue reading “TV Review: Great Expectations”

Review: Dancing at Lughnasa, Old Vic

Still utilising the in-the-round format introduced for The Norman Conquests, the Old Vic now hosts the first revival of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. Telling the story of five unmarried sisters living in rural Ireland, the play is actually narrated from the memories of a seven-year-old Michael, the illegitimate son of the youngest sister, now grown up: a framing device which initially proves very effective. The play looks at the struggles faced by the women to subsist in increasingly uncertain economic times, exacerbated by their unwell brother recently returned from Africa and Michael’s father’s unexpected visit to their cottage.

The five actresses playing the sisters have a great chemistry, and I longed for more scenes with all five of them simultaneously on the stage, but Simone Kirby as Rosie is given much less stage time than the others. Niamh Cusack came close to stealing the show for me, she effortlessly showed the great strength in her character who assumes the responsibility of keeping spirits high in the household, whether it be through cooking (she displays some great bread-making skills on-stage), through her melodic singing, or just her joie-de-vivre. Her scenes with Michelle Fairley’s more matriarchal Kate were spine-tingling as their frustrations at their ever-worsening situation threaten to take over, but they can’t allow their feelings to explode as they have the rest of the family to think about. Continue reading “Review: Dancing at Lughnasa, Old Vic”