Sunday, 22 December 2013

2013 in review: top 10 theatre

One of the best things about living loser to London now is the opportunity to go to the theatre much more.


There's nothing quite like live theatre. The atmosphere, the anticipation that you're going to see something incredible and the emotional connection with the characters and the story just can't be replicated in any other form.


I've been incredibly lucky to see some genuinely outstanding shows this year (and also The Cripple of Innishman which was utterly dreadful). Here's my top 10...

1. Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival

Making my introduction to this post ironic, the best show I've seen this year was actually staged in a deconsecrated church in Manchester. Now, if I was making a list of best theatre I've ever seen in my life this show would still be number one. Starring Sir Kenneth Branagh (who also co-directed) and Alex Kingston - I mean I may as well end the review there, what more do you need to know?! - this raw, passionate and violent version of Shakespeare's Scottish Play is just the best thing ever. Staged on a muddy dirt track with the audience seated very close to the action in pews along the sides, the production values were sky high, the acting the best I've ever seen and the staging innovative without being pretentious. Incredible stuff and I can't wait to see the production again in New York next summer.

Top moment - the opening battle scene was exhilarating, violent and expertly staged. And because we were sat in the front row and so close to the action Ken Branagh spat on me which, frankly, was just awesome.

2. The Scottsboro Boys

Read my detailed review of this fantastic musical in my previous post.

3. Book of Mormon

A musical about Mormon missionaries in Africa by the guys who wrote South Park really should be hilarious. And so it proved. Taking aim not just at Mormonism but organised religion in general, casual racism and female genital mutilation (yes, really), Mormon combined hilariously dirty songs with big Broadway dance numbers. A fantastic ensemble cast - headed by a great performance from Gavin Creel - topped it off.

Top moment - very hard to pick, but personally I really enjoyed the two versions of opening song Hello that bookend the show. Hilarious in their own right and even more so if you've ever done any political door knocking.

4. Othello

Another fantastic Shakespeare adaptation - and of my personal favourite of his extensive back catalogue - that National's Othello was excellent. Set in the present day, the production was made by two powerhouse performances from Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear both pitch perfect as Othello and Iago respectively. A fantastic supporting cast and some clever updating of characters - I loved the idiot Roderigo updated to a 'red chinos and loafers without socks' city boy - and clever staging meant this much hyped production was every bit as good as everyone said it was.

Top moment - Iago's 'I am not what I am' soliloquy is probably my favourite bit of Shakespeare and seeing Rory Kinnear deliver it was magical.

5. Privates on Parade

This 'play with songs' was the first production in Michael Grandage's West End season at The Noël Coward theatre and also, for my money, the best. Mostly this is because of the dialled-up-to-eleven performance of Simon Russell Beale as an army drag act. A part that could have descended into awfulness very quickly in the wrong hands, SRB delivered it with warmth, humour and a knowing wink. And his drag was incredible - he has great legs!

Top moment - all of the musical numbers were top notch, I can't pick a favourite.

6. Peter and Alice

Another Grandage season show and another included on this list due to cracking central performances. This time it's Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw I'm singling out for praise; both excellent as the real life figures behind Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. The play explored the nature of fame - or perhaps notoriety is more accurate - through these two quite damaged people and their life experiences and was heartbreakingly well observed. If you saw it and didn't cry then you and I can't be friends.

Top moment - the scenes exploring the relationships between the two central characters and the authors who'd made them famous we're amazingly well written and acted.

7. The Pride

A triple-hander exploring the nature of what it is to be gay - and what it is to be homophobic - set in the1950s and the present day, simply staged and impeccably acted. An uncomfortable watch this one, but all the more valuable for being so. The scenes in the 1950s where one of the characters goes to get 'cured' were amongst the hardest to watch that I've ever seen.

Top moment - the scene stealing series of cameos by Matthew Horne as a rent boy, a lads mag editor and the doctor in the 'cure' scenes were all excellent. I was expecting not to like Horne but he was exceptional.

8. Edward II

A bit Marmite this one - no one else I saw it with thought it was any good. Another National production, this modern version of Marlowe's play was fantastically well staged. I loved the innovative use of video cameras to get up close and personal with the characters at key moments and make the (very) minimal staging seem to expand to fill the story. Fantastically acted too.

Top moment - the meetings between Edward's rebellious lords, staged inside a wooden box on the stage with the action being filmed and shown on screens in the theatre. Pretentious? Yes. Effective? Yes.

9. Sweet Bird of Youth

Two words: Kim Catrall. Samantha from Sex and the City was red hot as a faded movie star having a breakdown in the sultry south. Exploring many of Tennessee Williams' favourite themes, this excellent Old Vic production is also notable for introducing a London audience to Seth Numrich who was fantastic as Cattrall's young saviour/sponge/whothehellknowswhat. Watch out for more of him I'm sure.

Top moment - not really a moment, but I went to this show expecting to be severely underwhelmed by Kim Cattrall. I was very much not. A really exceptional performance from an actor I now have a lot more time for.

10. Judas Kiss

Rupert Everett was on career best form in this play about Oscar Wilde. It felt like this was the role he'd been waiting all his life for and he was exceptional in it. Fantastically lit and staged too, definitely one of the best looking productions I've seen for some time.

Top moment - Everett commanded the stage at all times. It was great to see him actually living up to his potential, something that is depressingly rare.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Review: The Scottsboro Boys

I went to see a musical last night and I left the theatre viscerally angry.


That's not a sentence you see very often is it? In fact it's not very often that I see anything at the theatre that makes me feel as angry, as outraged and as sad as The Young Vic's superlative production of The Scottsboro Boys did.


Written by Kander and Ebb (of Cabaret and Chicago fame) and directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman (one of my theatre heroines, probably most famous as the director-choreographer of The Producers on Broadway), The Scottsboro Boys tells the disgusting true story of a group of nine young black men arrested on a baseless charge of raping two white women on a train in 1930s Alabama. The group were thrown into jail, tried multiple times and always found guilty despite the fact they had done nothing wrong and one of the women admitting that the rape accusation was an outright lie. Eventually some of the group were released and all of them were finally - posthumously - pardoned this year. (There are obviously far more detailed histories of the story online and you should read one of them.)


Not an obvious choice for a musical right? But in the prodigiously talented hands of its creative team it totally works. The story is told in the form of a traditional minstrel show, subverted by having an all black - with one exception - cast playing both black and white roles. The set consists of a semi circle of chairs (traditional in a minstrel show) which the cast use to create all of the settings for the story from the train the group are arrested on to the prison cells they're held in. The staging is devastatingly simple and effective and the subversion of the minstrel show stereotypes done very cleverly to really highlight how insidious and hateful the racism the group faced was.

The songs, as you'd expect from Kander and Ebb, are universally excellent. From the heartbreaking ballad Go Back Home to the defiant and angry Nothin' every one is skilfully written to combine the very necessary point the song is making with a cracking Broadway tune. Nowhere is this done to better effect than in Electric Chair, which combines the horror of the youngest of the group's (he was 13, think about that for a minute) nightmares about his death sentence with an absolutely mind boggling tap number. It really shouldn't work, but it does.

But the most devastating moment of the piece for me is the final titular track which combines the traditional minstrel cake walk with the story of what happened to the group. It's performed in blackface make up - how was that ever acceptable? - and combines the hopes and promises that the group would be free and live fantastic lives with the reality of life as an emotionally scarred black youth with a criminal record in the 1930s Deep South. The way each member of the group lists off what happens to them isn't overplayed or overdramatised and as a result is horrifically effective.


The quality of the staging and material is enhanced by an utterly superb ensemble cast. Standout performances for me came from Adebayo Bolaji as the group's angry young man Clarence Norris and Kyle Scatliffe as Haywood Patterson, effectively the group's leader. Scatliffe has the majority of the heavy lifting acting and singing-wise and carries it off faultlessly. His raw anger at the injustice done to him is electric and permeates everything he said, did or sang. If there's any justice in theatreland then he'll be a huge star. Bolaji was equally assured as Norris - the angriest of the group to begin with, desperate to take violent revenge on the white authority figures surrounding him who is heartbreakingly broken by the end of the piece. Every member of the - very young - cast deserves some recognition though as there really isn't a weak link amongst them.


All in all, I think The Scottsboro Boys is the best thing I've seen in London this year. I'd implore you to get a ticket, but sadly the run finishes tonight. Hopefully it will come back at some point and if it does you'll find me at the front of the ticket queue.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

2013 in review: top 10 TV

Well everyone else in the world is doing 2013 review posts so I figured I'd join in. And TV is a great place to start because I love it.

I'm such a couch potato it's ridiculous. Generally, though, most of what I watch consists of either repeats or complete trash. Or both if I'm having a bad day. My current favourite things in the world are the sensationalised American crime documentaries that populate the ID channel (as I write I'm watching something called 'Manhunt: Search for a Serial Killer'). Not big, not clever, very entertaining.

Anyway, just occasionally I watch something that isn't awful. Here's a (largely spoiler free) list of my favourites from this year...

Best in Show: Boardwalk Empire
If this were Crufts, some minor royal would be handing Steve Buscemi a big trophy and a rosette. I love Boardwalk. I love everything about it - the writing, the cast, the acting, the way it's shot and lit, the music, the costumes etc etc etc. It's the most consistently brilliant thing on TV and series four is fantastic. Top, top stuff.
Top moment - Michael K Williams' Chalky White vs Jeffrey Wright's Dr Valentin Narcisse is by far and away my favourite Boardwalk rivalry since Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson vs Michael Shannon's Agent van Alden in series one.

Best for the lolz: Parks and Rec
One of the inumerable reasons I love BBC4 is that it introduced me to Parks and Rec, and this year I've got properly into it watching the first three series back to back over a series of very happy weeks. Another case of great writing and a fabulous ensemble cast combining to make something lovely. And lovely is the right word for Parks and Rec - it's funny without being mean, well observed without being cruel and incredibly optimistic in outlook. Now to start watching the next few series...
Top moment - anything said or done by Ron Swanson

Most improved lolz: Veep
I watched series one of Veep and found it a bit meh. Series two is so much better and as a result completely hilarious. It feels like the writers have really hit their stride and focused in on giving the fantastic cast some amazing one liners. And the second great comedy on my list whose lead character is female, which is more noteworthy than it should be.
Top moment - so many fantastic quotes and insults to choose from, but as a cheese lover I particularly enjoyed Gary's vaguely psychotic girlfriend declaring "quit being so hot, you're melting my cheese".

Best for epicness, nudity and dragons: Game of Thrones
I adore the Song of Ice and Fire series of books and, so far, Game of Thrones has been a fantastic and (more or less) faithful adaptation. Probably the best ensemble cast on TV at the moment with amazing effects and great writing, it's the grand and sweeping scale of GoT that makes it so spectacular. And all the nudity. Gotta love the nudity.
Top moment - loved the addition of Diana Rigg to the cast, but the highlight for me has to be The Red Wedding. What's that song I hear?

Best for gore (and hotties): The Walking Dead
A good, old fashioned post-apocalyptic zombie yarn, The Walking Dead is definitely more than the sum of its parts thanks to some fantastically well constructed characters, great writing and uniformly excellent big set pieces. Another great cast too, particularly Andrew Lincoln's Rick (good hotty) and David Morrisey's The Governor (psycho hotty).
Top moment - the excellent mid-season finale showdown between Rick's group and The Governor's. Gory, exciting and heartbreaking in equal measure with a couple of great twists and a fantastic cliffhanger. Can't wait to pick the series up again in February.

Best old fashioned thriller: The Tunnel
English language adaptations of European crime thrillers are rarely great (the superlative Wallander aside) but Sky's take on Scannoir murder mystery The Bridge was really well done. Stephan Dillane and Clemance Posey were fantastic leading a British-French hybrid production in this well written, dark, funny and unpredictable drama about a serial killer with a grudge and a point to make. The Bridge has just been renewed for a second series. Hopefully The Tunnel will follow suit.
Top moment - the incredibly tense sequence with the (ultimately fake) bomb in cretinous tabloid journalist Danny Hillier's car in episode one set the scene and the pace really well. I was hooked from then on.

Saddest goodbye: Borgen
The fact that there's no more Borgen, ever, makes me sadder that it reasonably should. I love this series mostly because I love the characters and I'm genuinely sad to say goodbye to them, especially Birgitte. A believable, rounded and strong female politician character is so achingly rare, as indeed is a believable and rounded depiction of politics in general, and I'll miss Borgen's take on both so much. Bring on the box set!
Top moment - I have two (beware spoilers ahead): the moment when Bent follows Birgitte to the New Democrats and the moment when Nete - who I loved - is revealed to be the one leaking information to the Moderates. The former made me cry happy tears, the latter made me viscerally angry. I love that TV can do that.

Best one off: Burton and Taylor
Dominic West as Richard Burton and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Taylor - need I say more? Well if you insist: fantastic central performances with a great script and did I mention Dominic West as Richard Burton?
Top moment - the hotel room workout flashback scene was adorable. But my favourite scenes were the 'I love you but we can't be together' finale. Heartbreaking stuff.

The 'Not as good this year but still pretty fucking ace' award: The Great British Bake Off
Basically, I really didn't like any of the final contestants, didn't care who won and found all the tabloid nonsense really tiresome but Bake Off is still one of my favourite shows. And as long as Mary, Paul, Mel and Sue are still involved I'll always love it. The contestants and baking are kind of peripheral at this point.
Top moment - custardgate. Poor Howard.

The 'this is basically porn' award: Paul Hollywood's Bread and Pies and Puds
Pretty self explanatory really. Any show that involves a lot of old blue eyes is going to feature on my list. Several of my lists actually, but the others aren't for public consumption.
Top moment - all the close ups of his hands. Don't even care how creepy that is.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Back in business (don't all cheer at once)

Well it's been knocking on for two years so I thought I'd better have another crack at this whole blogging thing. Who knows maybe I'll even stick with it this time. Third time lucky etc etc.

A few things have changed in the 20 months plus since I last posted. Here's some headlines...

Vital issues of the day first, Dominic West has been supplanted at the top of my man-obsession tree (best tree ever) by Paul Hollywood. Never let it be said that I have a type.

What else? Oh yeah, I got made redundant, was unemployed for six months, got a new job and moved 250 miles down the country. A genuinely horrible experience, unemployment, that changes your perspective on life and the people around you a fair bit. The feeling of uselessness is something I won't forgot in a hurry. It's something that really shows you who you can rely on too. I have an amazing family and some awesome friends, and the ones who turned out to be less awesome aren't a loss. But that experience is thankfully in the past and I'm fantastically happy in my new job (doing campaigns for an animal welfare charity) and new adopted home in Horsham, West Sussex. It's small, it's leafy and it's fabulously middle class. My kind of town.

I'm mad into baking now. Possibly this is related to point one above. More than that though it was a bit of a lifesaver when I was unemployed. It started out as something to do, y'know, a way to fill the day. I quickly realised how much it was making me feel better - there's something about the sense of accomplishment you get from baking that's instantly therapeutic. Plus you get cake/bread/biscuits and cake/bread/biscuits is always good. Expect to see a fair few 'look I baked a thing!' posts from now on.

My newfound proximity to London means I'm doing a lot more cultural stuff now, especially theatre trips, and seeing a lot more of a wider group of friends. Expect lots more theatre reviews and general London shenanigan posts now too.

There's a whole lot of other fun stuff I've done, seen and eaten this year, but I'll save all of that for later. Don't want to use up all my A material in one go after all. There's really not that much of it to begin with.