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”

Review: The Machine / The Masque of Anarchy, MIF

“And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain.
Heard again—again—again—“

A sneaky brief return trip to Manchester allowed me to take in two more of the shows in this year’s Manchester International Festival and whilst one was definitely world class, the other didn’t quite match up for me. Starting with the latter, Matt Charman’s play The Machine dramatises the iconic chess series between Garry Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue and delves way back into their respective pasts to see how they came to be – Kasparov driven to grandmaster status by his determined mother, Deep Blue brought into being by an equally fierce creator, the Taiwanese Dr Feng-hsiung Hsu.

In Campfield Market Hall, Josie Rourke’s production of this sprawling play feels very much like a sub-Enron pastiche, borrowing heavily from the visual audacity of that Headlong play but floundering in the far greater space of this stage. The scale means that the play often achieves the level of spectacle but it rarely feels like great theatre. Multiple scenes wind back through history to trace the progress of the entities that would contest this match-up and there’s undoubtedly strong work from Hadley Fraser and Francesca Annis as Kasparov and his fearsome mother, and Kenneth Lee as the prof, helped out by Brian Sills’ grandmaster employed to teach strategy to the computer.  Continue reading “Review: The Machine / The Masque of Anarchy, MIF”

Review: Purple Heart, Gate Theatre

“Why would I need to hurt myself?”

The scabrous humour of Bruce Norris’ last play Clybourne Park was a huge success seeing a West End transfer from the Royal Court and a clean sweep of drama awards on both sides of the Atlantic. He returns to the Royal Court very soon with The Low Road but the Gate Theatre has mounted a revival of his 2002 play Purple Heart. Set in an anonymous Midwestern city, a family struggles to rebuild their lives after the death of Gene, a soldier in the Vietnam War, the impact of such a terrible loss affecting his mother, his wife and his son in different ways.

Norris dissects the complexity of grief on the different members of this family with his customary excoriating insight, challenging what society deems to be the correct emotional responses with the unconventional Carla. Rejecting the conventional tropes of mourning, the generic platitudes and proffered casseroles from oppressively well-meaning neighbours, she lounges in her dressing gown, swigging as much booze as she can. But there’s little escape at home – her son Thor is acting out on his increasingly violent imagination and mother-in-law Grace is relentless with her forced good cheer barely masking a concern or propriety. It is takes the arrival of a stranger at the door, a veteran with his own agenda and a box of doughnuts, to really shake up the broken dynamic of this family. Continue reading “Review: Purple Heart, Gate Theatre”

DVD Review: The Line of Beauty

“So what are you doing about sex just now?”

As a young gay, reading Alan Hollinghurst novels felt like the height of sophistication, and whether true or not, there was an air of exclusivity about those of us who knew him (at least in the circles I moved in). So his ‘breakthrough’ with winning the Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty was a validation tinged with disappointment that I now had to share that something special. His journey into the mainstream was completed with the requisite television adaptation, but with Andrew Davies at the helm for BBC2, it did feel like the right hands were on the tiller.

Hollinghurst’s story centres on a five year period in the life of Nick Guest, a fresh-faced Oxford graduate who moves to London in the summer of 1983. His offer to house-sit for the family of a university friend leads into an odyssey of personal and sexual discovery as he becomes a full-on lodger, thrust into the world of Tory politicians and old money, around which he fits furtive encounters with men as he explores his sexuality in a world in where homosexuality is far from being widely accepted in public. Thus the two main strands overlap and complement each other: Nick is given a window into the privileged lives of the wealthy upper classes in the Thatcherite boom years and in which he is allowed to play his own supporting part, but in the shadow of the emerging AIDS crisis, he discovers just how barely tolerated gay life is and just how hypocritical this society can be.  Continue reading “DVD Review: The Line of Beauty”

Review: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Apollo

“None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”

In seven days time, I will have seen Cate Blanchett onstage at the Barbican and this is something that I am inordinately excited about and I’ll probably nominate her for a Best Actress fosterIAN for just simply being Cate Blanchett no matter how the show is. But in watching Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which has arrived at the Apollo theatre after a short UK tour, I was witness to my first cast-iron certainty for a nomination this year. Indeed, I might go as far to say that Laurie Metcalf’s extraordinary performance as Mary Tyrone is one of the greatest feats of acting I think I’ve ever seen.

The play is a portrait of a deeply troubled and traumatised Irish-American family, its four acts taking place over the length of a single day, during which lifetimes of regrets, recriminations and rancour are revealed and rehashed. Mary has just returned from a stay at the sanatorium to deal with her morphine addiction yet remains in a delicate state; her husband James is an actor whose potential has wasted away and who zealously guards the money he has earned. He has placed his hopes and dreams in his two sons but is frustrated by their lack of ambition, something underpinned by a familial tendency to alcohol abuse, and blame swirls increasingly dangerously around the drawing room. Continue reading “Review: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Apollo”

Review: On The Record, Arcola

“I just think it’s my right to talk, to be free, to write. I’m not special, I just decided to do this”

iceandfire are a theatre company dedicated to exploring stories about the struggle for human rights through performance. Their latest work, which has now just closed at the Arcola, was On the Record by Christine Bacon and Noah Birksted-Breem, a mixture of verbatim work and theatrical reconstructions following the stories of six investigative journalists battling to expose their horrific stories from across the globe.

Their reports are first given under the pretext of a conference on press freedom, indicating the importance of reporting free from undue influence, to tell the stories we might not want to hear but which we simply must. Then from Sri Lanka to Iraq, Mexico to Russia and the Middle East, we see each of them at work, risking their lives in a multitude of ways from a multitude of enemies. Continue reading “Review: On The Record, Arcola”

Review: Red Bud, Royal Court

“Red Bud makes the pressure better: it’s the excitement”

Slotting in upstairs at the Royal Court, Red Bud is a play by upcoming American writer Brett Neveu. Five friends make their annual trip to a motorcycle championship in southern Michigan but more than twenty years down the line, the attraction is beginning to wear thin, middle-aged concerns are taking over from high school dreams and not even copious quantities of alcohol and dope can paper over the cracks that have developed in their friendship. This is a review of a preview performance.

Initially full of the forced bonhomie, banalities and those easy recollections of the past that are the fallback of people who have drifted apart, the paper-thin veneer of this camaraderie is severely challenged by the introduction of a raft of drinking games from their youth which quickly darkens the mood as tensions rise to the fore, brutal truths are revealed and frustrations worked out as the evening degenerates into bitterness and violence. It is very well done starting off with an amusingly effective stunt and playing out the fast-unravelling scenario resulting in some convincing fight sequences and great use of fake blood given how exposed the actors are in this set-up. Continue reading “Review: Red Bud, Royal Court”

Review: Enron, Royal Court

Premiered this summer in Chichester and now making the move to Sloane Square’s Royal Court, Lucy Prebble’s second play Enron has achieved a quite astonishing level of success. Bolstered by four- and five-star reviews earlier this year, the entire run at the Royal Court sold out before opening and a West-End transfer has already been announced. Fortunately, the play lived up to its billing and provided a highly entertaining and educational evening.

Telling the story of Enron, a much-feted energy corporation whose surprise collapse in 2001 leaving billions of dollars of debt, Prebble has done a fantastic job in making the subject of financial manoeuvring very accessible and engaging, whilst never patronising her audience, and her work is given extra strength due to the current state of the economy and our subsequent realisation that this was not an isolated incident as first believed. Continue reading “Review: Enron, Royal Court”