Thursday, 31 December 2015

TV Review: And Then There Were None

"This is for a play in the West End?"

Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None may not have seemed like the most obvious festive programming but Sarah Phelps' three-part adaptation was an unalloyed success for the BBC. It was a particular surprise for me, as having seen it a couple of times on the stage, most recently in a rather creaky touring production, I wasn't sure how it could be done well. But Phelps and director Craig Viveiros have managed a remarkable job, transforming the murder mystery into a dark, oppressive psychodrama.

From the off, swooping camera shots (of the Cornish locations standing in for the Devonian Soldier Island) take us out of the dusty drawing room, and haunting flashbacks take perfect advantage of the medium to suggest the oppressive weight of guilt that is being brought to bear here. For those new to the story, a microcosm of English society is invited to an isolated country house, under varying auspices, and once fully assembled, find themselves being picked off one by one by an unknown killer.

Cast of And Then There Were None continued

My 10 favourite shows of 2015

So here we are, 304 plays later (nearly a hundred less than last year doncha know!) and it's time to reflect and put them in some kind of order, because that's what we do at this time of year. Overall, I think it was a good rather than exceptional year of theatre, there didn't seem to be the same degree of breathtaking moments as in 2014. Which made ordering this list really hard, I could honestly say the top 10 were all of a standard and could easily have swapped places with each other...

Anyhoo, here's my selection of my favourite productions of 2015 (small order of business - eligibility is based on when I saw the show first, so Gypsy and In the Heights both fall into last year's cohort, and it's pronounced fos-tîr'ē-ən ;-))

I saw this around the same time as the all-white, all-male American Buffalo and the difference could not have been more pronounced. Danai Gurira's excoriatingly powerful writing bristled with truths barely-acknowledged in the wider world, the complex way in which wars (here the Second Liberian Civil War) are fought and 'won', ignoring the inconvenient reality of lives on the ground. For the women of this rebel army base, the consequences of their different choices were undeniably compelling and outstandingly performed by a cracking ensemble (Letitia Wright and T'Nia Miller particularly memorable), well directed by Caroline Byrne for the Gate, securing its reputation as one of the best places to go for new writing in the UK.

I don't think anyone dared imagine that the #AlmeidaGreeks season would be this good but from the off, Robert Icke's boldly contemporary adaptation of Aeschylus' trio of tragedies had an incendiary quality that burned bright all season long. Key to Oresteia's power was foregrounding Iphigenia's sacrifice, making us watch a father kill his little girl reframed Klytemnestra's rage and its consequential outpourings most effectively and in Lia Williams' hands, devastatingly.

Not a million miles away from Eclipsed in subject matter, but an altogether different theatrical beast. Jude Christian's production of Cordelia Lynn's scorching new play thrust the audience into a dangerously playful environment (I'll never look at candy floss in the same way again) and then kept us tumbling further into the darkness of the rabbit-hole. Unforgettable stuff.

One of the joys of blogging is the opportunity to be unabashedly personal when the mood strikes, and so it was with this most beloved of shows from my childhood. Little Shop... was actually the Royal Exchange's festive show from last year but I only made it up in January and boy, was I glad I did.

5 hang

You can tell a lot about a person by their reaction to debbie tucker green's choice of stylisation but no matter where you stand on capital letters, there's no denying the power of hang. Taut, intelligent, slippery and challenging, and with an uncompromising Marianne Jean-Baptiste at its heart - powerful stuff

I've not always totally loved Philip Ridley's writing but frequent director David Mercatali has become increasingly keenly attuned to its hypnotic rhythms, making it a more appealing prospect . And with this (slightly) more playful piece, which allowed acting tours-de-forces from Gemma Whelan and Sean Michael Verey, nailed it for me.

Small but perfectly formed, this touring two-hander from Box of Tricks thoroughly broke my heart. You felt every twist of Ella Carmen Greenhill's keenly observed writing and with the devastating power of Remmie Milner and Jamie Samuels' acting, the show wielded an extraordinary power.

Martin McDonagh's long-awaited return to the theatre didn't disappoint, brilliantly mining a mordantly dark vein of tragicomedy (even if audiences do seem to be focusing exclusively on the latter part, in their determination to have a hilariously good time!)

Everybody say yeah, yeah! YEAH!

One of Daniel Evans' many innovations during his time in Sheffield has been to turn it into a hotspot for some cracking regional premieres - shows like Penelope Skinner's The Village Bike, Deborah Bruce's The Distance and next year's Contractions by Mike Bartlett have ensured exciting new writing doesn't remain the province of London theatres and in the case of Lucy Prebble's The Effect, actually gave us an utterly gorgeous production that improved on the original.

15 Xanadu

And my least favourite shows...
The unthinking cultural insensitivity of Thoroughly Modern Millie
The baffling West End bow for The Mentalists
The well meaning but misguided cancer musical Happy Ending
The show that did exactly what it said on the tin, The Trial
and the best worst thing I saw, Flames, the show that made me laugh the most, though I really don't think it was their intention

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Review: Into The Woods, Royal Exchange

“Let the moment go, don’t forget it for a moment though”

As with Shakespeare, plenty of people have strong ideas about how Sondheim ‘should’ be done, so I’m always interested to see a director striking out a little to establish their own vision. Inspiration often comes from the local surroundings – memorably so with Into the Woods at the Open Air Theatre a few years back and intriguingly so with Matthew Xia’s production of the same show for the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Taking Sondheim and James Lapine’s conflation of well-known fairytales and their unseen epilogues and relocating it to a contemporary here and now, this enchanted forest may have lost a little of the overtly magical but gains plenty in an evocation of Mancunian community spirit.

It may not have been the most precisely sung version of the show I’ve ever seen but the depth of performance here with all its colour and heart more than made up for it, rooting these characters perfectly in Xia’s landscape. ‘Agony’ has indeed been camper but Marc Elliott and Michael Peavoy’s modern-day Princes make you listen to the intricacy of the lyrical references like never before, Gillian Bevan’s Witch – a woman truly released from her curse - grows in impressive vocal stature throughout the show, and Natasha Cottriall (who in the interests of full disclosure, is my mother’s cousin’s wife’s sister’s daughter) brings real pathos as well as petulance to her Little Red Ridinghood.

Cast of Into The Woods continued

Monday, 28 December 2015

DVD Review: Romeo & Juliet (2013)

"For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo" 

It takes a special sort of person to substantively rewrite the dialogue of Romeo and Juliet yet Julian Fellowes still took it on himself to declare Shakespeare's writing as too impenetrable for da kidz and so replaced it with his own cod-Elizabethan script. It's a baffling decision - the sheer wrongheadedness aside - as since the narrative of the play remains the same, and the story remains set in vaguely age-appropriate times, nothing intelligent has been done with the adaptation to mark it out as a worthy enterprise.

It's not helped by a fatally miscast Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet, underpowered in her delivery of the text and mismatched with Douglas Booth's Romeo, there is precisely zero chemistry between these "star cross'd lovers". There's always something a bit tricky about how to play the ages of these two (Juliet is meant to be 13...) but as long as they're cast well together, it works. Here though, they are not, there's never any danger of believing that they've tumbled hard and fast in love (Steinfeld being 15 would make that illegal of course!) and director Carlo Carlei is clearly at fault along with his casting directors. 

Sunday, 27 December 2015

DVD review: Nativity 3 - Dude, Where's My Donkey

"I said hip, hop, Santa's gonna stop"

Has ever a movie franchise fallen from grace quite so sadly as Debbie Isitt's Nativity films? It was made worse for me as I watched them all for the first time this year and so the decline has been compressed into a couple of weeks. The first film utterly enchanted me, the second somewhat disappointed by the third - Nativity 3: Dude, Where's My Donkey - thoroughly junked everything that worked about the original.

Once again, a new teacher is introduced to St Bernadette's (this time, Martin Clunes' Mr Shepherd) and once again, inimitable (and irritating) teaching assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) is on hand to cause mayhem with his unruly antics leading his class astray. But where the first film was rooted in the universal appeal of school nativities, this sequel opts for the bandwagon-jumping of focusing on flashmobs, which meant it was probably out-of-date as it arrived in cinemas last winter, never mind now in 2015.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Review: Austentatious, Leicester Square Theatre

"I want to see you do the worm"

If you haven't heard of them, Austentatious are a cracking improv troupe who, having taken title suggestions from the audience, improvise an "eloquent but irreverent" tale in the style of Jane Austen. This festive iteration saw the group tackle Phil and Fallibility, a tale of haughty cousins, French speakeasys, complex welcoming hand gestures and communication channels to the's all a lot funnier in the watching of it obviously, in fact it is downright hilarious and a definite recommendation for a fun night out that won't break the bank or keep you up too late. 

Running time: 1 hour
Photo: Idil Sukan
Various booking dates at the Old Queen's Head and Leicester Square Theatre

Re-review: Bull, Young Vic

"Don't you feel any guilt?"

So having succumbed to the temptation to see Jim Broadbent in A Christmas Carol despite vowing not to do Christmas shows this year, I also went back to see the vicious Bull at the Young Vic for my fourth time in seeing Mike Bartlett's drama. Recast since its first run at this theatre, I couldn't pass up the chance to see actors as fine as Max Bennett, Susannah Fielding, Nigel Lindsay (in a suit!), and Marc Wootton and at just £10 for the ringside standing spots (which is the only way to see the show), I'd recommend catching it before it closes. See more about the show in this post.

Running time: 55 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 16th January

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Review: A Christmas Carol, Noël Coward

"Bah humbug"

Thing with resolutions is that it is terribly easy to break them. And having resolved to see no Christmas shows this year, Jim Broadbent only went and decided to do A Christmas Carol in the West End. Not having seen him on stage before, I decided to take the plunge just before heading back up north for the 25th and truth be told, I probably should have left it. 

This adaptation (for there are many around) is by Patrick Barlow, him of The 39 Steps, and has much of the same knockabout energy of that recently departed show. And in Tom Pye's set of a miniature Victorian theatre in which the play is a play-within-a-play, puppets fly in and out and a genteel atmosphere of old-fashioned fun reigns, overseen by the indubitable twinkle in Broadbent's eye. 

TV Review: The Sound of Music Live

"It's quite different after you've grown up"

The hills are alive, with the sound of questions. Like, why. The UK's first fully live musical theatre television broadcast saw ITV produce Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music though the result was a curious experiment that fell uneasily between two stools. Lacking the crucial energy that propels the best live theatre (which comes from an audience too), the production values (though often impressive) naturally fell short of the opportunities of filmed work 

Which ultimately begs the question, what's the point. Is the UK hankering for a new production of the show? It's hardly as if we're lacking for productions popping up regularly in theatres across the land. Is it showcasing the best of British musical theatre talent? In that case why cast someone like Strictly winner and former Eastender Kara Tointon as Maria and shunt the likes of Julie Atherton (one of the most outstanding performers we have, bar none) into the nun ensemble.

Cast of The Sound of Music continued

Cast of The Sound of Music continued

10 of my top moments in a theatre in 2015

The inevitable end-of-year lists of favourite plays and performances will be soon be coming (I just have to, you know, stop seeing shows…) but something I did last year which I really enjoyed was a compendium of “top moments in a theatre”, the breath-taking, show-stopping aspects of productions that have etched themselves in my mind over the past year. 

Made in Dagenham final night
Not everyone loved Made in Dagenham as much as me and mine and so it closed six months after opening at the Apollo. But something about it really worked for me and so I kept going back for more, seeing it four times in total, the last of which - on its closing night - was fittingly, a really special occasion. It was so nice to see the show get the raucous reception (I felt) it deserved and Gemma Arterton's eloquent speech at the end should have been recorded for posterity and as a cautionary note to those who delight in spreading negative publicity.

The atmosphere at the Arcola for Octagon
It is of course close to the height of #firstworldproblems to complain about the audiences at press nights but they are funny beasts - over-enthusiastic friends and family, critics professing a disaffected attitude, bloggers pleased just to be invited, etc etc. So I do find myself opting to see a good few shows on alternative evenings and the difference can be amazing - a Saturday night crowd that were definitely up for it transformed Octagon into a joyously communal affair that elevated the material into something special (and completely different to the press night atmosphere by all accounts).
See also: the raucousness encouraged at the Old Red Lion for Lardo

Lela & Co.'s darkness
Sometimes, the pre-show warnings that one receives seem a little excessive (is anyone actually affected by haze?) but for Lela & Co., but being advised that part of the drama would play out in darkness was both unsettling and intriguing. And once it started, the knowledge it was coming added an extra layer of darkness, director Jude Christian expertly employing the blackouts to represent and respect the almost unbearable happenings. I haven't felt theatre quite that intensely for a long time.
See also: Jon Bausor's sci-fi set at the same theatre for You For Me For You

Andrew Wright's choreography for Mrs Henderson Presents
There was lots to love in Mrs Henderson Presents and so it's great that it will soon be opening at the Noël Coward. For me, the highlight was Andrew Wright's gorgeous choreography telling so much of a love story in 'What a Waste of a Moon', Emma Williams and Matthew Malthouse sketching out more romance than you could shake an ostrich feather at in this beautiful sequence. 
See also: Wright worked additional wonders with the showgirls of Follies

(c) Tristram Kenton
Lee Proud's choreography for Grand Hotel
And speaking of choreography, there was great work too from Lee Proud at Grand Hotel. Lee Newby’s design wasn’t the first to put the Southwark Playhouse in traverse but it was the first to really make it work, thanks in no small part to the strutting confidence of Proud’s imaginative routines which made full use of the space, even in unexpected directions.
See also: Drew McOnie’s work in Bugsy Malone, especially that finale

'The Schmuel Song' finally making sense
I’ve seen The Last Five Years on stage three times now and though there’s much to love in Jason Robert Brown’s score, ‘The Schmuel Song’ has always been something to endure rather than enjoy. But something miraculous happened in Richard LaGravenese’s film of this two-hander (definitely benefitting from his choice to have both actors present in each song), whereby it becomes hugely charming and almost unbearably romantic – Jeremy Jordan’s delivery is the definition of swoonsome and Anna Kendrick’s adlibbed reactions offer the perfect counterbalance.
See also: Emily Blunt’s utterly delightful ‘Moments in the Woods’ in Into the Woods.

(c) Tristram Kenton
Lizzie Clachan’s design for As You Like It
Part of the cleverness of Lizzie Clachan's design for the National's As You Like It is that it poses its essential question straightaway - how will the corporate office environment that opens Polly Findlay's interpretation transform into the Forest of Arden, answers it by throwing everything into the air in one of the most memorable scene changes you'll ever see.
See also: Stewart Laing's striking design choices for The Hairy Ape 

Anastacia McCleskey’s ‘Don’t Make Me Over’
Probably my favourite vocal performance of the year. I found all of Close To You unexpectedly lovely but McCleskey’s soul-stirring rendition of this Bacharach classic brought tears to my eyes almost from its opening notes. Simply stunning.
See also: Preeya Kalidas' infectious enthusiasm powering Bend it like Beckham's engagement party scene

(c) Z.Warzyński
Songs of Lear at the Battersea Arts Centre
I thoroughly enjoyed Song of the Goat’s atmospheric Songs of Lear at the time but the experience was deepened by the desperately sad news of the fire at the Battersea Arts Centre just two weeks later which caused several structural damage, including destroying the beautiful Grand Hall where we’d just seen Grzegorz Bral’s production. Fortunately, sterling work by the London Fire Brigade limited the amount of damage to the building as a whole and the #BAC phoenix campaign saw a magnificent community spirit rally round to keep BAC looking forward.

(c) PND Productions
The musical loveliness of Sincerely Yours
Some of the best moments in a theatre come when you're least expecting them. I went to WWII-themed revue Sincerely Yours with half a mind on packing for my holiday that began the next day but its, ahem, sincerity won me over, in particular the gorgeous Andrews Sister-style arrangements. The sequence of 'We’ll Meet Again’, ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ and ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs' was just spine-tingling, revivifying these hoary standards with real emotion. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

TV Review: Luther (Series 4, Episode 2)

“So, because you can’t believe it’s true, logically it’s false”

So the second and final part of Series 4 of Luther is done and well, it's hard not to feel a little shortchanged. There's been chatter about a movie and given that we only got 2 hours of screentime here, it's hard to see why creator Neil Cross and star Idris Elba opted for a single two-parter split over two weeks as opposed the fiercer energy that a feature-length epic would surely have borne. 

Episode 1 aired last week and did a decent job of pulling us back into the world of DCI John Luther, delving back into the show's mythology and the tangled web of his own past but also moving forward with the dastardly exploits of a new serial killer, which proved to be the main hook for Luther's return from semi-retirement. Part Two continues the blend, as John Heffernan's marvellously malevolent cannabalistic killer continues his rampage and Luther deals with the past impinging severely on his present.

How-could-it-be-a-review: The National Theatre Theatre Quiz 2015

“It's from that play with lots of words..."

My first ever trip to the institution that is the National Theatre Christmas Quiz saw teams of four from current shows Husbands and Sons and doing battle for the honour of, well, several bottles of fizz as it turned out. With Emma Freud as Quizmistress and Angus Deayton keeping the scores, it was a light-hearted 45 minutes of festive fun.

Rounds varied from odd-one-out, working out song lyrics from a dry line reading by Deayton, guess which NT show the costume was from, to Taboo-style-guessing-games, and a surprising array of knowledge troves and hidden talents soon came to life - Anne-Marie Duff was very up on her theatrical knowledge, Julia Ford is clearly itching to do a musical and Anna Francolini bossed everything (apart from Katie Mitchell...)

DVD Review: Nativity 2 - Danger in the Manger

"You can be our Justin Bieber"

After being pleasantly surprised by how much fun Nativity was, it seemed only natural to watch the sequel Nativity 2 - Danger in the Manger when it appeared in the festive TV schedule too. Sad to say it didn't live up to its predecessor, its attempts to replicate the formula losing much of the charm that made the first movie something of a real treasure. Writer and director Debbie Isitt returned to the improvised style that saw her company of kids and adults work without a script or advance knowledge of how the plot would unfold, but the problem lies in that uninspired narrative. 

We're still at St Bernadette's, but Martin Freeman's Mr Maddens has been replaced by David Tennant's Mr Peterson, the school nativity has been replaced by a national 'Song for Christmas' competition and Marc Wootton's irrepressible teaching assistant Mr Poppy remains very much in situ. And it is the nonsense that his actions provokes that proves the tipping point here - from purloined babies and donkeys to reckless child endangerment and the very fact that he's teaching a class alone, Poppy's character is a huge ask even when not taking it too seriously and for me, he was too grating too often.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Review: Legally Blonde, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

"You need to see me in a brand new domain"

A bit of a change over at Upstairs at the Gatehouse has seen their customary Christmas musical take on a more modern bent after recent successes with classics such as Guys and Dolls, Crazy For You and Singin' in the Rain. Over the past years, many a West End musical has been cleverly refashioned for this intimate space in Highgate, where fringe premieres of The Drowsy Chaperone, Buddy, and Avenue Q have previously been seen, and it is to the latest of these that the in-house Ovation Theatres have turned with Legally Blonde the Musical.

Like protagonist Elle Woods herself, the show might easily be dismissed on superficial grounds but it is worth remembering that it managed over three years at the Savoy in the cutthroat world of the West End musical and also took home the Olivier for Best New Musical. A good deal of that was due to the winning charms of Sheridan Smith but there's also no denying that Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin's ebullient score and Heather Hach's adroitly pitched book from Amanda Brown's novel and the Reese Witherspoon-starring film taps into something irresistible.

Friday, 18 December 2015

20 shows to look forward to in 2016

2016 is nearly upon and for once, I've hardly anything booked for the coming year and what I do have tickets for, I'm hardly that inspired by (the Garrick season has been ruined by the awfulness of the rear stalls seats, and I only got Harry Potter and the Cursed Child tickets due to FOMO). Not for the first time, I'm intending to see less theatre next year but I do have my eyes on a good few productions in the West End, fringe and beyond.

1 Escaped Alone, Royal Court

The promise of a new Caryl Churchill play alone was good enough for me, never mind the amazing casting of Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson. The reaction to the divisive Here We Go adds a little extra spice too, how will the critical establishment cope with a work about older women?!

Scott Rylander

2 Grey Gardens, Southwark Playhouse

Reuniting the crack team who have delivered so many musicals at this theatre, the tale of the Bouvier Beale women should provide intriguing material for stars Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell.

3 The Rolling Stone, Orange Tree

Seen in Manchester and Leeds last year, Chris Urch's new play sees a welcome return for visionary director Ellen McDougall.

4 Clickbait, Theatre503

Is there another theatre as strong as the 503 in responding to contemporary issues with genuinely thought-provoking work as opposed to click-baiting scandal. A new perspective of women in porn is next under the spotlight.

5 Wit, Royal Exchange

Julie Hesmondhalgh's post-Corrie career has seen her make some cracking choices and emerge as a most thoughtful actor - Margaret Edson's Wit will only further her reputation.

6 The Faction's Richard III, New Diorama

Sad news as this rep company bring their six year tenure at the New Diorama to a close but upping their ensemble to 21 and increasing its diversity should ensure they go out with a bang.

7 The Long Road South, King's Head

With a cast that includes Imogen Stubbs and Michael Brandon, the intimacy of the King's Head should be well suited to the intensity of Paul Minx's play.

8 Nell Gwynn, Apollo

It's a shame Gugu Mbatha-Raw couldn't transfer with Jessica Swale's show from its spectacular run at the Globe but it will be interesting to see how Gemma Arterton adapts to the title role.

9 Phaedra(s), Barbican

Isabelle Huppert. ISABELLE HUPPERT!

10 The Maids, Trafalgar Studios

Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton, with Laura Carmichael? One of the most exciting casts to hit the West End in ages.

11 Mrs Henderson Presents, Noël Coward

I loved this in Bath and was glad news of a transfer soon followed, even if new movie-based musicals can get treated harshly in the West End. This should run and tun though.

12 My Mother Said I Never Should, St James

"The most performed play by a female playwright" but the first revival in London for 25 years from the creative team behind Land of Our Fathers (which will be touring).

13 Talawa's King Lear, Royal Exchange/Birmingham Rep

Marking Talawa Theatre's 30th anniversary year, Don Warrington takes on this most mountainous of Shakespearean roles for director Michael Buffong.

14 Filter's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lyric Hammersmith

It'll be four years since I saw this at the same theatre and I can't wait to get to revisit its lovable anarchic spirit.

15 Hamlet, RSC

Stratford-upon-Avon isn't always the first place you look for innovative casting but Simon Godwin's choice to have Paapa Essiedu as the Prince of Denmark along with Tanya Moodie and Cyril Nri in the cast should make this a production to look out for.

16 Long Day's Journey Into Night, Bristol Old Vic

Getting Lesley Manville and Jeremy Irons onstage is one hell of a way to celebrate your 250th birthday and guaranteed to get me there.

17 Headlong's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

Headlong always offer up interesting work and so it'll be intriguing to see what Jeremy Herrin makes of Frank McGuinness' 1985 play.

18 Toneelgroep Amsterdam's Kings of War, Barbican

Ironically, there were more British journalists and critics at the performance I saw in Amsterdam than you'd see at any fringe venue, all of us too impatient to wait a year to see this iconic company at work.

19 Yerma, Young Vic

With two productions late last year (The Wild Duck and Medea), Simon Stone's directorial innovation saw him shoot up my list of must-see people. Now he takes on Lorca.

20 The Flick, National Theatre

Details are still frustrating thin on the ground for this highly acclaimed play but keep your ears to the ground as tickets are likely to fly off the shelves.

Honourable mentions

Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard
Tim Minchin's musical of Groundhog Day at the Old Vic
Helen George in the newly announced After Miss Julie
Nick Payne's latest for the Donmar, Elegy 
and Ivo van Hove directing The Crucible in New York City....

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Donmar Warehouse

“The longer I live, the more I'm tempted to think that the only moderately worthwhile people in the world are you and I"

It’s 30 years since Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ extraordinary epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses premiered in Stratford, took the West End and Broadway by storm and was turned into the most seductive of period movies in Dangerous Liaisons. Since then, the emotional war games of former lovers the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont have rarely been seen but Josie Rourke’s has revived them just in time for Christmas at the Donmar.

The decaying grandeur of the French aristocracy in 1782 – just a few years away from révolution breaking out remember – is neatly suggested by the peeling walls and dust sheets that litter Tom Scutt’s set. And their enduring decadence remains obvious in the still-luxurious quality of their clothing (some gorgeous costume work here) but Scutt and Rourke make clear that the lifestyle being pursued by Merteuil, Valmont and their ilk is doomed, regardless of how their games play out.

Review: Show Boat, Crucible

“We drink water from a dipper,
You drink champagne from a slipper”

Christmastime is often one for traditions and one of the better theatrical ones has proven to be the big musicals that Sheffield Theatres produce. From Me and My Girl to My Fair Lady to a never-better Company and last year’s Anything Goes that went on to tour, the outgoing Artistic Director Daniel Evans has proved a master at big-hearted, large-scale productions that skimp on nothing to create some of the best musical theatre the country has to offer.

This year sees Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat as Evans’ final show (as AD at least) and it is an undoubted success, a fitting festive farewell. It's a brave choice too, an unwieldy beast of a story based on Edna Ferber’s novel about the backstage drama onboard the Mississippi show boat Cotton Blossom, using the performing troupe as a prism through which to view several decades of momentous change in the USA from the late 1800s.

Cast of Show Boat continued

DVD Review: Nativity

"As if Hollywood would come to Coventry”

For whatever reason, I hadn't ever gotten round to watching festive film Nativity since its release in 2009 but its broadcast on BBC1 meant I finally got the opportunity to be thoroughly won over by its lo-fi festive spirit. Written by Debbie Isitt but also partially improvised by the cast, it nails that typical (successful) Brit-flick style with all its deprecatory charm and underdog spirit, along with an unexpectedly effective original musical score.

Nativity centres on an inter-school rivalry in Coventry, where private primary school Oakmoor consistently produce the best-received nativity show. This year, the headteacher of St Bernadette's has something to say about that and so puts curmudgeonly Christmas-hater Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) in charge of their show, aware that his old drama school friend and rival Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) is the one succeeding at Oakmoor,

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

TV Review: Cuffs Episodes 5-8

“Are you one of those? They’re everywhere in Brighton aren’t they.
‘Yeah, not so many in Halifax though, cos of the weather’”

I really enjoyed the opening half of new BBC police drama Cuffs and so whacked up a review of those four episodes whilst they were still watchable on the iPlayer. The show has now finished its run, 8 episodes being the default setting for a ‘long’ series here in the UK, and whilst it may have lost a little of the fast-paced energy that characterised its arrival, its bevy of boisterous characters ensured I was fully engaged right through to the end of the last episode.

With such a large ensemble making up the South Sussex team, Cuffs did sometimes struggle in giving each of them a fair crack of the whip. For me, it was Amanda Abbington’s Jo who got the shortest end of the stick, too much of her screen-time, especially early on, being taken up with the fallout of her illicit affair instead of showing her as the more than capable police officer we finally saw in the latter episodes.

Cast of Cuffs continued

Cast of Cuffs continued

Review: The Lorax, Old Vic

If Dr Seuss stories are what makes you tick,
Then this Christmastime you should hit the Old Vic.
The Lorax adapted by scribe David Greig
is so damn delightful for tickets you’ll beg.

Director Max Webster has served up a treat
with such charm no panto could ever compete.
A show for all ages, it’s also a musical,
I had my doubts but it’s something quite beautiful.

A magic tale that’s pro-environmental
hits corporate greed in a manner not gentle.
It’s clever and prescient (dates from ‘71),
pertinent as ever, these fights still not won.

Charlie Fink’s music may not sound like Dvořák
but it’s perfect for a show that is based on The Lorax.
He’s also the frontman of Noah and the Whale,
so diverse his songwriting but perfect to scale.

Cast of The Lorax continued

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

TV Review: Luther (Series 4, Episode 1)

"What do we do with something like this?"

It doesn't quite seem right, calling this a new series of Luther when it is just two episodes, but the return of Idris Elba's maverick DCI is something to be celebrated nonetheless. Neil Cross' two-parter finds John Luther on a leave of absence from the Met (as opposed to having jacked it all in as we might have thought), sequestered in a coastal cottage hideaway and still reckoning with the loss of his cop partner DS Ripley after the events of the last series. Almost straightaway though, the show runs into the problems that mark the whole episode.

Two of Luther's colleagues (Rose Leslie's DS Lane and Darren Boyd's DCI Bloom) turn up to inform him of the demise of the totemic nemesis/saviour figure of Alice Morgan (the glorious Ruth Wilson, never better than in the first ever episode way back when). They're both new to the franchise (though weirdly not unfamiliar to Luther) but as there's so little time, we have to assume an instant familiarity with them, and with the circumstances of Alice's death and a new serial killer who is eating his way through East London. 

Review: The Dazzle, Found111

“Tragedy is when a few people sink to the level of where most people always are”

For all the trumpeting of the finding a new theatrical space at Found111 – the former Central St Martins School of Art building at 111 Charing Cross Road where The Dazzle is playing – I’ll tell you what they haven’t found, a half-decent pre-theatre experience. It’s all very well cultivating a hipsterish air with your pop-up bar and swanky cocktails but at the point when over 100 theatregoers are being corralled into a space which barely fits them, with no FOH controlling the crowd or at least guiding them into a queue as there’s unreserved seating to boot, it makes for a deeply unpleasant beginning to the evening.

And given that ticket prices are £35 (the earlybird £10 seats have long gone though day seats are being released from 6pm each night) it’s a shoddy way to do business and one which fails to recognise that for many, the show starts long before the curtain rises. After the crushing rush to get into the actual theatre, it was hard not to be a little underwhelmed by the space – there’s nothing that particularly commends it to theatrical use and certainly nothing that pertains to the play in question, so it’s a little baffling as to why the Michael Grandage Company and Emily Dobbs Productions chose it in lieu of one of London’s many, many theatres. 

Monday, 14 December 2015

Review: No Villain, Old Red Lion

“The trick is to deliver when it’s hard”

It seems scarcely believable that as well regarded a playwright as Arthur Miller could have unproduced work lying around but director Sean Turner has played a blinder in unearthing his first ever play No Villain from the University of Michigan archive. Written for a playwriting competition there, it languished unpublished until Turner’s well-researched discovery and so now the Old Red Lion have quite the coup on their hands – a bona fide Arthur Miller world premiere.

And befitting the occasion, Turner’s creative team have produced some genuinely transformative work in the intimate space of this pub theatre, Max Dorey’s ingenious design doubling most effectively as a cramped New York apartment and the claustrophobic office of a failing garment company. The switch between the two is elegantly facilitated by Jack Weir’s lighting and both sets conjure living, breathing environments that work brilliantly as an extension of the drama. 

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Review: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, West Yorkshire Playhouse

“Scrumptious as the breeze across the day”

Who knew that Leeds would be a musical theatre hotspot this December but between The Girls and this Music & Lyrics and West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it’s been the place to be for big, warm-hearted musical fun. This is the first new version of Chitty Chitty… since its original 2002 West End production and its many regional tours but in James Brining’s clever and wondrous adaptation, it’s thoroughly revitalised and as lovely as any cherry peach parfait.

Ian Fleming’s novel was adapted by Jeremy Sams, via Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes’ own reshaping of the story for the cinema, and with a glorious score from the Sherman Brothers (as if they could do any other kind) beefed up with new songs by them as well, it captures much of the Disney noir feel of the film whilst bringing its own depths too. I’d forgotten how much sadness there was in the tale and that’s something Brining never lets us forget, even whilst delighting us with flying cars and fun.

Cast of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang continued

Cast of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang continued

Review: The Girls, Leeds Grand

“It's not naked, it's nude"

If all you do each night is pray that you can see a Gary Barlow musical in the UK (I do find it surprising that Finding Neverland hasn’t made its way back over here from Broadway yet) then you’re in luck as The Girls has now arrived. Opting for a premiere at the Leeds Grand and then skipping over the Pennines to the Lowry in the New Year, the show is clearly testing the waters with regards to any potential future plans as it only takes a minute to end up with a big theatrical flop on your hands. 

Not that that seems likely for The Girls (though whoever made the choice to lose the ‘Calendar’ from the title must be living in a world of fools). For it is a musical adaptation of the now-famous story of that group of Yorkshire WI women casting off their inhibitions, and their clothes, to create a nude calendar for a very personal fundraising campaign for Leukaemia Research. Tim Firth has already adapted his film into a successful play and remains onboard here – could it be magic third time round? 

Cast of The Girls continued

Friday, 11 December 2015

Review: Macbeth, Young Vic

“Let not light see my black and deep desires”

Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin employed their dance-focused aesthetic on their production of Medea for the National Theatre last year and have now returned to it for this Young Vic, Birmingham Repertory Theatre and HOME co-production of Macbeth. It’s a unique approach which has moments of real visual acuity in Lizzie Clachan’s infinity tunnel staging but also pulls awkwardly at the play itself, dominating the verse to its detriment.

Which is a real shame, as a Macbeth with John Heffernan and Anna Maxwell Martin ought to have been a scorching thing, their interesting casting offering worlds of new possibilities for this old warhorse of a play. But Cracknell’s staging and Guerin’s choreography offers little room for them to explore their characters in a deeply satisfying way. Instead, a lack of palpable chemistry haunts their scenes whilst the dancing mainly distracts.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

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.

Cast of London Spy continued

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Review: You For Me For You, Royal Court

“Perhaps a flock of cranes will appear soon, winging their way from Pyongyang”

One can imagine co-stars Kwong Loke and Andrew Leung at a Christmas party or somesuch, making conversation with someone else who asks them who they are playing in the Royal Court show they’re both in. Loke would say 'Doctor/Well/Rice Musician/Farm Hand/Disembodied Voice/Delivery Person/Neighbour/Teacher' and Leung would say well I’m only a 'Smuggler/Frog/Man In Bear Suit/Soldier/Clerk/Youngsup' and the other person would nod politely and then say 'but have you seen Hangmen'.

This gives you something of a sense of the mystical scope of Mia Chung’s You For Me For You and the journeys that her protagonists, two North Korean sisters, take in her delicious confection of a play. Minhee and Junhee want nothing more than for the other to be strong and healthy but under the unblinking eye of Great Leader Kim Jong-Il, food and medicine and hope are scarce and so they decide to flee. But as they make the arduous journey to the border and are asked to make a huge sacrifice, the sisters are torn apart.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

CD Review: Heart of Winter

“It’s 5.30 in the morning and I’ve realised my boyfriend is a prick”

Tim Connor’s musical The Stationmaster (with book by Susannah Pearse) recently had a starring role in the From Page to Stage season at the Tristan Bates Theatre and there’s now another opportunity to listen to his work with the CD release of Heart of Winter, a new one-woman song cycle. Produced by Auburn Jam Records and with story and dramaturgy by Lia Buddle, it continues the strong showcasing of new and interesting British musical theatre writing.

Heart of Winter tells the story of Kate, a Northern primary school teacher in her mid-twenties picking up the pieces after the end of a 3 year relationship and from the very beginning of ‘Opening’, Connor’s forthright way with a lyric gives a brilliant sense of Kate as a character (the parental advisory note should most definitely be heeded!). Yes she’s hurting but she’s astute enough to know that this is just a phase, something to be worked through and Buddle’s story takes us vividly through the various stages of mourning a relationship.

DVD Review: Soft Lad

“It’s your choice to play happy families”

Produced, written and directed by Leon Lopez, Soft Lad is a newly released Brit flick that takes a look at gay life in contemporary Liverpool. Twenty-two year old dancer David seems to have a bright future ahead of him having just been accepted to a prestigious dance school but a secret affair with an older man threatens to derail everything for him and those around him. For the man he’s been sleeping with for two years just happens to be his sister’s husband Jules.

David may be out but trapped in this toxic relationship (the highlight of which appears to be dirty weekends in Lake District), has barely explored his sexuality and when Jules reacts negatively to the prospect of him moving on, a trip to a gay club leads to a one night stand with the more experienced Sam. Their lustful encounter soon moves to a deeper connection, enraging Jules further but no-one is prepared for the revelations that spill during a climactic, abortive dinner party at his sister’s.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Review: Jack and the Beanstalk, Hackney Empire

“He said, I've bought you a selfie stick. I said, do I have to do everything myself?”

I haven’t booked much Christmas-themed theatre this year in an attempt to try and reclaim a bit of a social life but also because I do find it quite hard to write reviews about pantomimes. By and large I’ve been quite lucky in the few I’ve been to in recent years, sticking to the venues who know what they’re doing (Hackney Empire, Lyric Hammersmith, New Wimbledon) but even with this logic, my fingers were burnt a little with this year’s first festive foray.

Marking Susie McKenna’s 17th panto for the Hackney Empire, Jack and the Beanstalk is a raucous, rambling affair indeed, but one blessed with the return of Clive Rowe as the Dame, the actor famed at the only one to win an Olivier for panto. And I have to say that the audience around us were largely loving the whole thing which is kind of the whole point, even if you’re bribing the kids with handfuls of free sweets (it’s only like giving critics drinks vouchers for the interval ;-))

Friday, 4 December 2015

Review: Teddy Ferrara, Donmar Warehouse

“The piece is supposed to be a complete picture of who Teddy was, right?”

You can almost feel the checklist of issues ready to be ticked off as we go through Christopher Shinn’s gay student play Teddy Ferrara and its dramatis personae – the president of the Queer Students group, the campaigning journalist, the faux-liberal authority figure, the one in the wheelchair, the transgender one, the hot, maybe closeted straight guy… And sure enough, each issue gets its moment in the spotlight, the show being faithfully representational to the last.

But issues alone do not a good play make. And though Dominic Cooke’s production for the Donmar looks good and is powerfully acted, it never truly engages the emotions, it never converts those issues into believably human stories. Which is particularly pertinent as the main inspiration for Shinn was the real-life case of Taylor Clementi, a student who took his own life after his college roommate broadcast webcam footage of him kissing another man.