Tuesday, 23 December 2014

2014 in Review: Theatre

Undoubtedly my favourite thing about 2015 has been the amount of fantastic theatre I've managed to cram in. But then I suspect you know that already, given the amount I blog about it.

This is definitely the most difficult year end post I've written. Although I knew instantly what my top picks would be, sorting out the rest of the fantastic (and not so fantastic) stuff I've seen this year into a rough order has been really hard. I feel like I need to apologise to the shows that narrowly missed the cut, which is clearly all kinds of ridiculous.

So, after much agonising, here are my top ten shows of 2015…

Macbeth (Park Avenue Armoury) 
There is no way that any other show was going to get a look at the top spot in this list. I travelled half way round the world to see this production at New York’s astonishing Park Avenue Armoury, which you'll recall I’d already seen in 2013 at the Manchester International Festival. With standout performances from Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston and jaw dropping staging (remembering the opening fight scene still gives me goosebumps), I genuinely believe that this is the best production I’ll ever see. And it’’s a complete privilege to have seen it (twice).

Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies (RSC)
Ok, so having two shows as one entry is sort of cheating (get used to it, I’m going to do the same thing again in a few places time) but it’s kind of impossible to separate these two given they were staged on the same set with the same cast, and I saw them on the same day. I love these books so it was thrilling to watch them come to life, in a largely very faithful adaptation, with such a superb cast. Ben Miles as Cromwell is probably my London performance of the year (and Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII would also be on that list) but the whole cast was superb, with a fantastic script to work with too.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers (National Theatre) 
The first of many NT productions to make my top ten, I just loved this show. The script, the set, the fantastic sound and lighting effects (still not over that plane) were all fantastic. The NT’s first ever all Asian cast were fantastically strong, especially Shane Zaza in the (sort of) lead role. This one is still playing so if you haven't got tickets yet then, really, what are you waiting for?

Medea (National Theatre) 
Bleak but brilliant would be my three word review for the NT’s new adaptation of this Greek classic. Included so high on this list thanks to an absolutely stonking performance from Helen McCrory in the title role - such an underrated actress - this one was a really hard watch, but totally worth sticking with. Also without doubt the best use of music this year thanks to an electro tinged soundtrack from Goldfrapp.

My Night With Reg (Donmar Warehouse)
If Medea was all about one standout performance, then My Night With Reg was a masterclass in ensemble acting. Very funny, very poignant and very effectively staged, it was the acting from the small but perfectly formed cast that really made it something special. Also some of the best stage nudity of 2014 - looking at you Julian Ovenden. This production is transferring to the West End so no excuse not to check it out.

Great Britain (National Theatre)
Much hype and secrecy surrounded this savagely funny satire, which opened without previews just a few days after lawyers had finished checking the script in the wake of the phone hacking trial verdict. I'm always suspicious of anything that attracts hype, but this show certainly lived up to it. Very, very funny - if slightly preachy in the final third - and full of excellent performances, especially from Aaron Neil as the hapless Police Commissioner, I enjoyed this much more than I was honestly expecting to. Another one that has had a West End transfer and definitely well worth a watch.

The James Plays (National Theatre) 
Yes I am counting three plays in one. Definitely cheating. In this independence referendum year, the James Plays definitely felt like a proper theatrical event. Fantastically well written and acted throughout, it was the first two - the less outwardly political - that I found the most interesting, both in content and tone. That said, the third was definitely lifted by a fantastic star turn from Sofie Grabol. And some more great if completely gratuitous nudity, which always helps.

A Small Family Business (National Theatre) 
My first brush with Alan Ayckbourn was definitely a happy one. A very funny comedy with a pleasing amount of slapstick, there was a dark undercurrent to this that made it much more interesting. Another fantastic central performance too, this time from Nigel Lindsay. Also worth mentioning the brilliant set which saw the NT build a scale - largely working - model of a house on the huge Olivier stage.

King Lear (National Theatre) 
Another first for me, I didn’t know King Lear at all well before seeing this production. Not sure I'm a fan of the play, but I was certainly a fan of the phenomenal central performance (isn't that what Lear is all about, basically?) from the great Simon Russell Beale. If I never see Lear again I won't exactly be devastated, but I will be really glad that the Lear I saw was SRB.

Stephen Ward (West End) 
Yes I am taking the piss a bit here, but this was without question one of the most fun nights at the theatre I had this year. Utterly terrible in every way, this turd of a show was the embodiment of the phrase ‘so bad it’s good’. And given the amount of time I've spent laughing at its expense since seeing it, it seemed rude not to include it on this list.

Friday, 19 December 2014

2014 in Review: Top TV Shows

I've watched a frightening amount of TV in 2014. And not all of it has been repeats of Friends. 

Continuing my ‘best of 2014’ blog series, here’s a rundown of the best TV I've watched this year. I've limited myself to ten again and it was much harder to choose than I thought. So bad luck to The Walking Dead (which I've left off because its full series hasn't been on this year so it seems a bit unfair), Penny Dreadful and the two documentary series I mention later on who just missed the cut. I'm sure their respective production teams are gutted.

Here, in no particular order, are the lucky ten who made it...

Doctor Who
Peter Capaldi has completely changed my opinion of Doctor Who. Before it was a show I might watch on a Saturday if I was in, with Capaldi in the lead role it’s become must see. His Doctor is perfect for me - brooding, sarcastic, socially awkward and emotionally unavailable. The end of the ridiculous and boring Doctor/companion love stories was particularly welcome. Capaldi aside, I also really got into some of the storylines for the first time in many series too, especially the series closer with the fantastic Michelle Gomez as a basically perfect female incarnation of the Master. More of this please. 

The third series of Veep saw terminally gaffe prone Vice President Selina secure her party’s nomination for the Presidential election, but suffice it to say the course did not run smooth. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is my home girl and she is outstanding in Veep, but then she has to be because her supporting cast are all equally good (Tony Hale’s put upon PA Gary is a personal favourite). After a slow start, the Armando Iannucci penned series is going from strength to strength. The idea of a Selina Presidential campaign - in a fourth series which also features Hugh Laurie - is just too much.

Game of Thrones
Whilst series four has made some missteps (the Cersei-Jamie rape scene was awful on many levels) Game of Thrones is still one of the best series on TV. The acting is excellent across the board - Peter Dinklage's Tyrion and Pedro Pascal’s Oberyn Martel were my stand outs in season four - it looks stunning and the writing remains top notch. The thing that’s really interesting about Thrones now is how far it’s moving from its source material; every season feels less and less like a book adaptation and more like an original drama. I'm quite excited by this, even as a huge fan of the books, and can’t wait for the next season to start to see where the characters are going.

The Great British Bake Off
If ever proof were needed that Bake Off mania is fully set in, I think this year’s Baked Alaska-gate was it. Personally, all that angsty nonsense annoyed me (though I was Team Iain all the way) as did some of the more tenuously themed weeks but I will always love this show. Pleasing, too, that its move to BBC1 didn't dent anyone’s enthusiasm for some good old fashioned innuendo. I also continue to love the judges’ Masterclass spin off mini-series, mostly because Paul.

Strictly Come Dancing
It’s amazing how much the removal of Bruce Forsyth as host rejuvenated my love of Strictly. Claudia Winkleman is the best replacement too - I absolutely love her. This year’s series has been textbook classic Strictly: the good dancers are excellent, the bad dancers are funny, the boring dancers got voted off first and there have been some genuinely surprising eliminations. Even the themed weeks haven’t been too awful. It’s so great to feel enthusiastic about Strictly again. Long may it continue.

My Shakespeare
The only documentary to make this list (BBC4’s Len Goodman/Lucy Worsely dance history show Cheek to Cheek and BBC2’s three part history of sci fi Tomorrow's World just missed out) My Shakespeare is a Sky Arts series where prominent actors and directors discuss their favourite Shakespeare plays and characters. It’s perfect viewing for me, and just the right side of pretentious! My favourite was Kim Catrall on Antony and Cleopatra, but all of the ones I saw were really good - informative, accessible and interesting.

Boardwalk Empire 
My favourite TV show ever bowed out this year, which makes me sad but also happy that it went out on such a strong season. As ever with this show, the writing, acting (Stephen Graham’s Al Capone was my stand out this year), production and everything else were all fantastic. Although the ending was ultimately a bit predictable - no spoilers though - the series built up to it perfectly and it was the right ending, unlike so many other shows. Still kind of hoping for a Lucky Luciano spinoff...

Remember Me
Even though it trailed off in the final third, this BBC take on a modern ghost story was incredibly effective. Which is to say the first two episodes were fucking terrifying. The thing that got me into this show was the idea of Michael Palin playing not only a straight role but a pretty morally ambiguous one at that and he was completely brilliant at it. Ditto Mark Addy (I’m really enjoying his late career renaissance) as the world weary policeman so desperate to find a rational explanation for everything that was happening. The writing was solid and the Yorkshire scenery looked so beautiful, but the twisty turny plot was the most compelling thing about this show. I’d love to see the BBC do more of this sort of short series drama.

True Detective
A cop show that avoided all the clichés of a cop show, looked beautiful and was phenomenally acted? Yes please. I think this show was probably slightly over hyped, but it was still very, very good. Matthew Mcconaughey (continuing his baffling run of excellent form) and Woody Harrelson were both excellent as the mismatched Detectives forced to work together on a string of dark, ritualistic murder cases. The best thing about this show was the way it eschewed all the usual cop show plot devices, character stereotypes and stock scenes and presented something much more interesting and with far loftier themes. The only disappointment was that they couldn’t continue this into the series finale.

24: Live Another Day
Jack Bauer comes to London and mayhem ensues - what’s not to love? Ok, so there were some issues with the way the show was Anglicised (anything to do with transport for a start), the allusions to Wikileaks were about as subtle as a brick to the face and some of the plot details extremely dubious but it’s 24 and it was so much fun. It also inspired the most brilliantly snarky Guardian episode blog which is still worth a read months after the series has ended. Hopefully the cliffhanger ending - no spoilers - means we haven’t seen the last of Jack just yet.

Monday, 15 December 2014

2014 in Review: Best Dressed of the Year

Somehow it's nearly 2015. I have literally no idea how that happened. Terrifying.

Anyhoo, the end of another year means it's time for the annual 'best of' blog posts to be dusted off and I'm starting mine with a run down of my top 10 best dressed of the year. I've set myself a golden rule for this one: each person can only appear once. This is harder than you might think.

Here, in a rough order of preference, are my picks:

Angelina Jolie in Saint Laurent

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The best tailoring of the year, and I'm still majorly crushing on that bow tie, but mostly I'm in love with her 'yeah I'm a girl wearing a suit on the red carpet, what of it?' attitude. Few people, of any gender, have warn a suit so well this year. Major moment.

Blake Lively in Gucci Premiere

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Picking just one Blake Lively look from this year was very hard, but in the end this one pipped her Cannes double for me because she just looks that bit more perfect. Plus the cape is super awesome.

Elizabeth Banks in Elie Saab Couture

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A proper princess moment. I love the dreamy print - florals don't have to be boring - and it's so refreshing to see an Elie Saab gown without a sequin or a bit of lace in sight. And another awesome cape. Love a cape.

Rihanna in Zac Posen

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I am unrepentant in my love for Rihanna's edgy, punky style but this old school glam look just blew me away. The colour is divine on her, the draping is beautiful and don't even get me started on that necklace. Perfection.

Lupita Nyongo in Ralph Lauren

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Lupita + colour, any colour =winner. I have just loved her style this year and this caped (have I mentioned I love capes?) beauty from Ralph Lauren is the pick of the crop. I'm a sucker for a red dress. 

Lily Collins in Elie Saab Couture

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Another non-sequin Elie Saab creation, I'm obsessed with the stunning, dramatic ombre effect on this beauty. And her styling? Top notch - I love the faux bob.

Kate Hudson in Atlelier Versace 

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Capes. Have I mentioned capes yet? Seriously, I love this. It's old school Hollywood via the 1980s, which is to say it's perfection.

Amy Adams in Antonio Berardi

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Two things: cut (outs) and colour. Red hair plus blue dress is always a lush combo and this is no exception. And another top faux bob. 

Keira Knightley in Valentino Couture

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Almost everything that Keira Knightley's worn this year is worthy of a best dressed mention but this is my favourite. The dress is self evidently exquisite and the styling is perfect. I especially love the unexpected raspberry pumps.

Emma Watson in Ralph Lauren Collection

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Again, someone who could've made up the entirety of this list. I love this look in particular because it's so simple and so sophisticated. And I do love a crisp white shirt. Beautiful updo/berry lip combo too.

Ooh I enjoyed that. Aren't they all fabulous? Here's to an equally fabulous 2015.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Theatre Review: Treasure Island

Dullsville, snoozefest and megayawn aren’t words I would usually associate with a trip to the theatre. I mean obviously they’re not words I particularly associate with anything because they’re not actually words, but you get my point.

They’re also not words I would tend to associate with Treasure Island, that classic of the swashbuckling, Boy’s Own Adventure genre. Treasure Island is a fun, exciting story. It’s got sword fights, buried treasure, mystery upon mystery and the archetypal pirate in its iconic anti-hero Long John Silver. It’s also my third favourite* Muppets movie, but that’s probably not that important right now.

It’s a real shame, and an almost impressive feat, then that the one word that best sums up the National Theatre’s new production of Treasure Island is: boring.

Adapted from Robert Louis Stephenson’s original text with no particular flair by Bryony Lavery, the production is so flat you could use it as a coffee table and it’s difficult to explain precisely why. For me, probably the biggest problem is one of scale. The production feels like it’s designed to be intimate in some respects, but any impact that this may have had is lost on the cavernous Olivier theatre stage. In the big set piece sequences, such as Long John Silver's mutiny, the lighting, sound effects and set (of which more later) are epic and huge; the on-stage action tiny and safe. It’s jarring and instantly sucks the life out of the story as you sit and wonder what these huge effects are introducing, then realise sadly that whatever was supposed to have happened already has.

A major contributor to this sense of smallness is the cast. Now I loved Rory off of Doctor Who as much as anyone else, but Arthur Darvill is woefully miscast as Long John Silver. Having neither the presence to play a traditional buccaneer pirate nor the swagger to play a more modern Jack Sparrow type (which I think is what he was going for), his Silver just sort of disappears into the scenery, instantly robbing the play of its narrative force. I'm not sure what having a female Jim Hawkins (or a female Doctor Livesey for that matter) is supposed to add to the story but Patsy Ferran is by no means strong enough to carry the show either. Everyone else in the company is fine, but it’s difficult for a supporting cast who don’t really have anything to support! As a result, there's very much a sense of 'going through the motions' in places where there really needs to be high drama. The mutiny is again a prime example of this, and contains some of the least exciting sword fighting you'll ever see. In Act 2, Joshua James offers a glimpse of life as a pleasingly mad and antsy Ben Gunn and there’s a nice turn from Lena Kaur as Silent Sue who gives her one line some real emotional force. Other than that, it's slim pickings for anyone looking for the kind of great acting that usually graces the Olivier stage.

The tweaks made to the text, such as they are, don’t add anything at all to the story. As mentioned, the changing of gender of several key characters is an uninteresting distraction, as is the occasional knowing and unsubtle joke about pensions or some other contemporary issue, presumably inserted to give the grown ups in the audience a chuckle that their kids don’t understand. If they were funny I wouldn't mind, but…

The one bright spot in the production is the incredible set. I've never seen the Olivier stage’s huge revolve used to such fantastic effect as it is in this show. It transforms from Jim’s country inn, to the docks, to a two tier Hispaniola complete with sails and rigging, to a two tier island complete with caves and tunnels. It’s stunning to watch and it’s stunning to think of the technical expertise that must go on behind the scenes. It really does need to be seen rather than described to appreciate, and is probably the only reason I'd recommend anyone going out of their way to see this show. There are some extremely effective sound and lighting effects too - especially during the Act 1 storm sequence - and a very clever use of light bulbs suspended over the audience to portray the night sky. Also worth mentioning is Captain Flint, Silver’s ever present parrot, who is either a puppet or an animatronic (I couldn't work out which) but either way the most fun performance of the piece.

So there we go, a production at the National that I didn’t like. I suppose it had to happen eventually. It is probably worth saying, though, that this is one of the NT’s famous family shows and as such I'm probably about twenty years older than the target audience; certainly the kids in the audience seemed to be enjoying it more than me. Perhaps the conclusion is go and see this should if you're eight.

Treasure Island opens on December 10th and runs until April - in rep - in the Olivier theatre at the NT.

*My favourite Muppet film is obviously A Muppet Christmas Carol, followed by The Muppets (from 2011).

Friday, 5 December 2014

Theatre Review: Off The Page

My relationship with the Guardian newspaper is tricky. On the one hand, their factual news coverage is great and I love their culture section. When I’m looking for a theatre review, I always look for theirs first (Michael Billington is my homeboy). On the other hand, I almost exclusively hate their self righteous, indulgent, lefty nonsense comment pieces with a passion. I’m middle class and pretentious but don’t vote Labour or Green. The Guardian and I will never completely get on.

It was for this reason I had distinctly mixed feeling about their collaboration with the Royal Court theatre (also pretentious, middle class, lefty) on the Off The Page project. The idea behind Off The Page was to team up some of the Royal Court’s best talent with Guardian writers to create short, around four-to-nine minute, microplays on some key topics - music, education, fashion, food, sport and politics - essentially creating dramatised versions of Guardian comment pieces.

Alarm bells ringing? Yep, me too. My first reaction to Off The Page was to recall this Russell Howard bit and I can’t say, having watched all six plays, I’ve ever been able to lose that cynicism. Four-to-nine minutes is really not a long time to make a point, certainly not with any subtlety (and let’s be honest Guardian writers are hardly known for their subtlety at the best of times). The experience of watching some of these plays is akin to someone hitting you repeatedly in the face with the Guardian for four-to-nine minutes. Certainly almost none of them have anything particularly interesting to say about their topic and in a few cases the thing they try and say is achingly banal.

Four-to-nine minutes is also not a huge amount of time to do anything interesting performance or production-wise either, though the plays have attracted an impressive line up of (presumably Guardian reading) acting talent. Just a shame that, with a couple of exceptions, they weren’t given anything interesting to do or say.

Below are six short reviews - microreviews? - of the individual pieces ranked in my order of preference.

You know that thing they about jokes that if you have to explain it then it’s not funny? I think the only interesting thing about this piece is that it proves the same is true of microplays. This few minutes of nonsense is literally impenetrable if you’ve not read the accompanying blurb. According to said blurb, it’s a musing on politics which shows how politicians have lost touch with the public after the global recession. It shows this through the medium of dance. Yes, really. The most Guardian thing that’s ever happened? Possibly. A worthwhile endeavour? No.

School GateThe education piece features Anna Maxwell Martin as an awful middle class pushy mother who’s worried about the free school that’s opened next door to her (presumably) awful middle class child’s traditional school because the free school is run by an Islamic organisation. Her slightly less awful middle class friend isn’t worried about this and sends her daughter there, who then duly emerges from her after school club dressed in a hijab. The fact that there are some people who don’t like anything to do with Islam in their backyard is sadly not a revelation worthy of a play, however micro.

Britain Isn’t EatingThe food microplay (sick of that word yet? Yep, me too). A politician says something stupid about foodbanks, attempts to prove that they’re unnecessary by cooking a meal with only the supplies that someone using foodbanks might have (including no gas or electricity), fails, goes on another rant about foodbanks. Another uninteresting plot - and the one that tries to ram the Guardian the furthest down your throat. A nice performance by Katherine Parkinson as the politician though.

Devil in the DetailHere’s another earth shattering revelation - some fashion designers won’t lend a dress to a reality TV star going to the Pride of Britain awards but will lend to an up and coming actress off to her first BAFTAs, despite the fact that the former knows more about fashion and the latter doesn’t actually want to wear one of that designers dresses anyway. To be fair, I guess if you’re not interested in fashion then this might be an earth shattering revelation and, in that case, the fashion microplay might be an interesting illustration of the politics of fashion. And it is a well constructed and sweetly acted little thing too. Not bad.

Death of EnglandA stereotypical, prejudiced England football fan goes off on an epic rant at his dad’s funeral in the sport microplay. The rant takes in the state of the England football team and English identity more generally, ending up in a massive brawl. I liked this one quite a bit, not because it had anything hugely interesting to say, but because Rafe Spall’s performance as the central character is fantastic, if quite a difficult watch. The whole piece, more or less, is his monologue and he imbues it with real emotional depth and a sense of being wounded on oh so many levels - pretty impressive given the time he’s on screen. Worth watching.

Groove is in the HeartBy miles, the music microplay is my favourite and the only one that has anything genuinely interesting to say about it’s subject. This one takes on ideas of memory, love and grief and the way we associate them with music. Almost scriptless, and with a lovely performance from Tobias Menzies, this one genuinely moved me and is the only one I’ve watched repeatedly. Especially recommended for people who have made a mixtape on an actual tape, but generally recommended for everyone.

Overall Off The Page was an interesting experiment, but not one I’d like to see repeated. All of the microplays (if it’s the last time I ever have to see that word I would be so happy) along with interviews and other background content are available on the Guardian website for your viewing pleasure. Or otherwise as the case may be.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Theatre review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Are you bored of my blog posts extolling the virtues of every play the National Theatre ever stage? Then move along, there’s nothing for you here.

This weekend I headed to my beloved concrete block with stages in it to check out one of their new season plays, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The play is based on the award winning non-fiction book of the same name by journalist Katherine Boo. It’s not an obvious choice to be adapted for the stage - an intimate account of the lives of the families living in Mumbai slum Annawadi, built on land owned by and in the shadow of Mumbai’s multi-million pound international airport, where Boo lived for three years to gather the material for her book. The implications on this for the play are clear: the characters it portrays are real, ordinary people, the events really happened and all of this only a few years old (Boo lived in Annawadi between 2007 and 2011). As I say, not an obvious choice and one that needed great sensitivity and skill to stage effectively.

The play (and book) follow the trials and tribulations of the Hussain family, kingpins of the local rubbish sorting business who are keen to get on, improve their home and eventually move to a new one where people won’t regard them as “shitty Muslims”. Matriarch Zehrunisa (Meera Syal) and eldest son Abdul (Shane Zaza) are the driving heart of the family; Zehrunisa for her take-no-prisoners business dealings and Abdul as the most skilled rubbish sorter in the district. Their lives are affected by their interactions with two other families in Annawadi. Jealous neighbour Fatima (Thusitha Jayasundera), AKA One Leg (for obvious reasons), renowned as the village whore, hates Zehrunisa and is determined to bring down her and her family. And ambitious local fixer Asha (Stephanie Street) is using every tool at her disposal to become a “first class person”, regardless of what corruption that might entail. The three families’ worlds collide dramatically when Fatima’s jealousy of the Hussains adding a shelf to their kitchen leads her to set herself on fire and blame it on the family. Abdul and two other members of his family are arrested for inciting her suicide and Zehrunisa refuses Asha’s offer to fix the situation before it becomes, well, a situation - for a fee, of course. The resulting court case threatens (and nearly succeeds) to ruin the Hussains and lays bare the hypocrisy, corruption and paradoxes of modern Mumbai.

As a story, it feels huge, epic. And the fact that it’s a true story just gives it more power. I really loved this play for a whole host of reasons, but the dramatic sweep of its truelife narrative is definitely one of the biggest. It’s a great, tragic, thought provoking story and the stakes are so much higher because it’s all true.

Unusually for me, another huge reason why I loved this play is the production, in particular the sound and lighting effects. Directed with verve and pace by Rufus Norris (incoming Director of the National of course, so no pressure) this is a loud play, both in its incidental music and soundtrack - banging bhangra - and its effects. It looks loud too. The Mumbai bit of the set occupies the back of the stage and intrudes into Annawadi (the front of the stage) via a huge, ever present neon billboard, looming luxury tower blocks and the imposing fence that separates the slum from the airport beyond. Annawadi itself is stark and simple, strewn with plastic bottles and the occasional muted burst of colour (which sets off the beautiful jewel coloured costumes perfectly).

Now, if you’re planning on seeing the play yourself please do not read the next paragraph. It contains spoilers for a couple of serious production pieces that will lose their impact for you if you're expecting them. Ok? See you at the paragraph after next.

The fact that the play is set next to an airport is something that the designers really have fun with. They create a lighting/sound/video effect that has a jumbo jet coming into land across the ceiling of the theatre. It is visually stunning, so loud it made my seat shake and, frankly, terrifying when you’re not ready for it. This happens twice - I was glad, as the second time I definitely appreciate the artistry more - and the first time is made all the more spectacular and disorientating by the fact that as soon as the plane has ‘landed’ hundreds of plastic bottles are dropped onto the stage from the ceiling above. It’s noisy and chaotic and perfectly creates a sense of what life in Annawadi must be like. The final scenes of the play see half of the revolve retracted leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the stage into which one key character jumps in search of his next big rubbish picking opportunity. Epic staging for an epic story.

Hi people who are going to see the play - welcome back!

There are two other reasons to love this play, and ones that put me back on more comfortable territory. David Hare’s writing is, in short, excellent. The play is structured as a series of monologues (which I guess are verbatim passages from the book, or at least very closely adapted) joined up by punchy, fast paced, sweary dialogue. The use of the monologues to make and emphasise major points and themes could feel clunky or preachy in a lesser writer’s hands but here they seem natural, give a rhythm to the play and allow insight into the huge cast of characters that we otherwise just wouldn’t get.

Moreover the acting, from the National’s first ever all Asian company, is pretty much faultless. For obvious reasons, Meera Syal is being billed as the star of the show and she is fantastic; her monologues in particular are incredibly strong. For me though the real stars of the show performance-wise are Shane Zaza as Abdul and Anjana Vasan as Manju (Asha’s daughter, on course to be Annawadi’s first college graduate and passionate about the right of everyone, girls in particular, to an education). Both deliver fantastically nuanced performances, pitched and paced exactly right, with real emotional strength (translation: they both made me cry). It is a universally strong cast though, there isn’t a weak link beyond the occasional dropped accent.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a play that I think will stay with me for some time (and if its quality is indicative of what Rufus Norris’ tenure as the NT’s Director will be like then bring him on). It’s themes of what does it take to get on in life, what happens when everyone is trying to get on in life in the same finite space and how you be a good person in terrible circumstances all invite one question: if it were you, what would you do? We might not approve of Asha’s corruption or Abdul’s decision to stop handling stolen material even though it generates a lot of his family's income, but in the same situation why would we act any differently? Why would our way be better? And there’s no easy answer to that.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers opens at the National on 18th November and runs all the way through to April. No excuse, then, for you to not go and see it.  

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Review: The James Plays

I spent eleven hours in the theatre on Saturday.


It was bliss.

But why, I hear you ask? Surely you have better things to do with you life! Well a) no, I really don't and b) it's not every day you get to see three sequential history plays in order on the same day, especially when those plays are the critically lauded James Plays at my beloved National Theatre.

The James Plays, the first ever collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre (of everywhere else), premièred to rave reviews at the Edinburgh Festival. They tell the story of the first three Stewart Kings of Scotland and, more fundamentally, of the formation of Scotland as the country we recognise today.

The NT is showing the plays individually in rep and also held a limited number of trilogy days, the last one of which is where I found myself on Saturday. As an aside, I loved the experience of seeing al three plays on the same day (as I did seeing Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies on the same day a few months ago) and highly recommend this sort of thing if you ever get to do it. But I digress. Here's some brief (as I could make them) thoughts on all three plays.

(Spoiler: I loved them.)

James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock
Poor old James I had a bit of a rough start in life. Specifically, he was captured by those pesky English at age 13 and held prisoner for 18 years, including a long spell as prisoner of Henry V (whose brief cameos in this play are significantly less flattering than other accounts of his life). James is restored to his throne by Henry as a ploy to stop the wayward Scots from fighting with the French against Henry's army and tasked with repaying Henry's 'kindness' with a hefty ransom to be paid in Scottish gold. He's also married to an English bride, Henry's cousin Joan Beaufort, to further secure his loyalty. Mistrusted by Scottish nobles who don't know or especially care who their young King is, James makes it his mission to deliver peace to Scotland and enforce the law of the land, even against the noble families who have seen their power grow exponentially in his absence. Suffice to say said nobles are not universally behind his plans...

It's a cracking, busy story which I found the most compelling of the three, narratively speaking. It's also unexpectedly funny, almost a comedy of manners, as James struggles to fit in with both his English Queen and his Scottish subjects. The scenes with Joan are some of the most enjoyable, especially their fantastically awkward marriage scene which contains some of the most delicious extended silences I've seen on the London stage. The production beautifully evokes a Scottish medievalness (clearly not a word) too, all wild Celts, chanting, booze and complaints about the weather. It's certainly the play of the three that felt the most Scottish to this outsider.

Performance-wise, it's top notch. James McArdle is hard not to warm to as a strong, stoic and principled King James. His performance does take some adjusting to - his stumbling over words and taking long pauses mid-sentence initially came across to me as someone struggling to remember their lines - but ultimately he gives James a nervousness and a sense of outsiderness which makes him a more believable character. He is also phenomenally good looking. Shallow, but true.

The strongest acting of the trilogy comes from Blythe Duff and Gordon Kennedy. They play several parts each across the three plays but are introduced in James I as Isabella and Murdac Stewart, the chief rivals to James' throne. Kennedy's Murdac is an unsentimental pragmatist whilst Duff's Isabella is a dangerous she-wolf. They're a fantastic couple and their performances provide much of the comedy and much of the sense of danger throughout the play. Credit also to Peter Forbes' Balvenie, a nervous minor noble in this play who is loyal to James as long as he can help elevate his status, intelligently played in James I as a real, desperate nonentity.

It's a great start to the trilogy and sets the ground nicely for...

James II: Day of the Innocents
We next pick up the story after James I has been assassinated, with his son and heir James II suffering terrible nightmares about his childhood. Abandoned by Queen Joan as a boy, he is 'cared for' by the warring whims of noble families desperately vying to control him and his throne. Amidst this chaos and danger he makes one friend, William Douglas (Balvenie's son and heir), and the two dream of the day they can rule Scotland together. As they grow up, this picture becomes more complicated and James and his demons must fight to hold on to his crown.

This play is an entirely different kettle of fish. It's use of nightmare sequences, puppetry and, for want of a better word, spooky lighting gives an altogether more otherworldly atmosphere. It's notably more serious and with a much smaller plot. It feels less Scottish somehow and much darker, which I suppose is appropriate for a play which deals extensively with ideas of madness and what affect it can have. And, contrary to the generally accepted critical view that it's the weakest of the three, it was actually my favourite part of the trilogy, if I was forced to choose.

The acting is universally great again, as you'd expect given it's the same cast. Blythe Duff and Peter Forbes both return in the same roles they had in James I, although both characters are so changed that you could argue it's only the name that's the same. Duff's Isabella now has much more of a supernatural role, almost like one of the witches in Macbeth, telling the young King how evil his family is and how awful he's destined to be. Forbes' Balvenie is transformed into the great noble he wanted to be and, as a result, is a bit of a shit; violent to his son and awful to basically everyone else. (I kind of loved him.) Gordon Kennedy returns too, this tine as scheming chief noble Livingston whose control and manipulation of the child King ultimately quickens his downfall. Murdac is a more sympathetic character, but Kennedy is excellent again and does snakelike very well.

Andrew Rothney is a really sympathetic James II. Given the amount of this part that is spent in nightmare sequences and flashbacks, it would be easy for him to become a completely unbelievable character but Rothney manages to avoid this. I found the nightmare scenes amongst the most effective in the whole trilogy and this is in large part due to his utterly believable sense of terror. The final nightmare where - spoiler alert - he brutally murders longtime friend William Douglas is genuinely quite scary, but also very touching. Mark Rowley is an excellent Douglas too; by degrees sweet and caring, funny and swaggering, arrogant and dangerous and carrying all off with a lightness of touch which makes his development and ultimate downfall thrilling to watch.

Ok, keeping up? Good. Onwards...

James III: The True Mirror
Generally agreed by critics to be the highlight of the trilogy, James III is actually more concerned with the women of the Stewart court. It follows our third James - a camp, charismatic, cultured non-conformist intent on spending money that his nation can ill afford and shagging anything with a pulse - and his intelligent, politic and loyal Queen, Margaret of Denmark, as she attempts to hold his country together.

As my flippancy there may suggest, I don't agree with the critics that this is the best of the trilogy. In fact I found it the most tedious. This is not to say it's a bad play in any way, shape or form (it isn't) but it is the most overtly political and the one that seeks to tap into the pre-referendum introspection in Scotland the most. In a post-referendum world (remember those three weeks where we all cared about the referendum?) it's a less interesting, less insightful prospect and in places I found the lack of subtlety - 'hey, this could still apply today!!!!!' - irritating at times. This wasn't helped by the sudden and jarring leap to the cast being in modern dress after two plays in period costume.

I also found James III by some distance the least sympathetic James. He is essentially just unpleasant; a sort of Gilderoy-Lockhart-meets-Mercutio-in-Baz-Luhrman's-Romeo-and-Juliet preening peacock with very few redeeming features. It's not that the acting was bad, it really wasn't, but the character is just an arse. It was frankly a relief when - spoiler alert again - he was stabbed to death by his much maligned son James IV.

The person who's generated the most buzz and comment around this play is Sofie Grabol, of The Killing fame, who plays Margaret. And credit where credit's due she is magnificent, an instantly likeable and kick ass foil to her husband who gets most of the best written dialogue in the trilogy. She is an arch bitch - the way she destroys one of James' more inconvenient mistresses by simply pointing out that she's not as pretty as he says she is is just perfection - but also a fantastic, principled and funny leader. It's a great performance which really lifts the play. Blythe Duff and Gordon Kennedy return for a third run, as a funny and wise court aunt and an ambitious courtier/potential lover for Margaret respectively - and are excellent again, as are the rest of this ensemble cast who really must've earned their money on three show days!

Special mention also to the music used in this play. If you feel like a folksy version of Don't You Want Me Baby and/or Born This Way is something you'd enjoy - and it damn well should be - then go and check out James III and make sure you're in your seats in good time for both acts.

Overall, the James Plays are just brilliant. Any one of them taken on its own is a fantastic work of drama but taken together they're a thrilling, fascinating thing. There are just a couple of shows left now - and only of II and III - but if you can get your hands on a last minute ticket you definitely, definitely should.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Book Review: Mary Boleyn - Alison Weir

If I say the name Mary Boleyn to you, what instantly comes to mind?

I'll give you a minute.

If anything, I'm guessing you got as far as Anne Boleyn's sister? Henry VIII's mistress? Francois I's mistress? Well done, because that's about as much as anyone knows about her.

She's also a really interesting and sympathetic character in Wolf Hall which is why I decided I wanted to devote my precious free time to reading a whole book about her. Plus I really enjoyed Alison Weir's Six Wives of Henry VIII (featuring, of course, a Mary Boleyn cameo). An Alison Weir biography of Mary Boleyn seemed right up my street.

And it was, to a very large extent. Weir's book - Mary Boleyn: 'the Great and Infamous Whore' - is extremely compelling and immaculately researched. The writing is, as Weir's books always seem to be, some of the best in popular history; accessible, intensely readable and assuming only the most basic prior knowledge. Drawing on contemporary sources, and often discrediting later ones, the book paints a much fuller picture of 'the other Boleyn girl' than you'll get from any fictional account. She's not just Anne's sister or Henry's mistress, she's an interesting character in her own right who Weir clearly feels affection for.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the book is its comprehensive debunking of many of the accepted facts about Mary and her life. Did Francois I ever called Mary 'the great and infamous whore'? Nope, there's no credible evidence for that. Think her son, Henry Carey, was Henry VIII's bastard? Sorry, wrong again. Despite a lot of academics, contemporary and modern, suggesting that he was there's no credible evidence for that either. (Interestingly, Weir builds a very credible case that Mary's daughter, Catherine, is a much more credible potential Royal bastard.)

How about Mary herself, was she stupid and unimpressive? Well, she clearly had some questionable taste in men in her early years but the idea that she was the slack jawed yokel of the Boleyn clan is a gross oversimplification. And she was the last of the Boleyn siblings to die, happily married and in obscurity, so she can't have been that stupid now, can she?

The examination of contemporary sources to provide the evidence for all of this debunking is incredibly impressive, almost forensic. It's difficult to argue with any of Weir's conclusions without doing some serious research yourself. Who has time for that, really?

I suppose the only thing that spoiled my enjoyment of this book is that the contemporary sources on Mary are so few and as a result there are so many things that we will just never know about her. I'm no historian - this much is probably apparent - and I like my pop-history books to be able to give me some definitive facts. There are just so few of these about Mary Boleyn. After a while, I found the constant uncertainty frustrating. This isn't Weir's fault, clearly, but I just found it annoying that there's no way to prove all of her excellently constructed arguments right or wrong. I dropped history at AS level for a reason, I suppose.

Weir has written extensively on the Tudor period and, since I'm still going through my Tudor phase (though how long that will last since I've just picked up Hilary Mantel's French revolution set A Place of Greater Safety remains to be seen), I intend to read more. I'd certainly highly recommend Mary Boleyn to anyone interested in learning more about its much maligned subject, the Boleyn family generally and Henry VIII's court.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

10 Books that have stayed with me

Have you seen the '10 books that stayed with me' Facebook meme? You know, the one where - funnily enough - you name ten books that have stayed with you in some way and explain why. I mean, the clue's in the name really.

Anyway, I got tagged in it and as an avowed bookworm of 28 years standing I thought I'd give it a bash. I cannot abide long Facebook posts though - they make my page look messy and upset my OCD - so I've decided to do it as a blog post instead. I'm a rebel like that.

So here are my ten, in some kind of rough chronological order sort of:

1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar - Eric Carle
The first book I ever remember reading by myself. It's not big and it's not clever, but my god did I love it. If you're unaware of the highly complex plot, a caterpillar is born and proceeds to eat a lot until it turns into a butterfly. On the way, your author (aged approximately three at the time) learned numbers, days of the week and different fruit. The collage style illustrations are gorgeous too. Apparently this is also George W Bush's favourite book. Make of that what you will.

2. Sam's Sandwich - David Pelham
Another high brow option, Sam's Sandwich is about a boy making a sandwich for his sister and putting lots of bugs and gross stuff in it in the process. This one has stayed with me because I strongly remember my mum reading it to me and I know it's one of her favourite kids books that she's always used in her teaching career, which makes it doubly special because I know what an amazing teacher my mum is and how many other kids loved hearing her read my copy of this book as much as I did.

3. The Jolly Christmas Postman - Janet and Alan Ahlberg
I swear we get out of kids books in a while. Another one that I remember reading with my parents and I loved it because it was reading but it also had little surprises and games in it (I remember a jigsaw in particular) which I thought was basically magic at the time.

4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
I think this is the first 'grown up' book I read by myself. I read all of Roald Dahl's books when I was growing up - either for school or for pleasure - and it was hard to pick just one for this list. The Twits, Matilda and The BFG could easily be on here too. I went with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the end because it was the first one I read and I can still remember exactly what my copy looked like (hardback with a purple and orange striped spine if you were wondering). Plus it's just such a lovely story. I think it should be mandatory that everyone read it at least once before the age of 18.

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J K Rowling
My relationship with Harry Potter got off to a slow start. I didn't read any of the books and was initially fairly ambivalent to the films (apart from the second one, because Lockhart). Then when the final book was released my dad bought it for me for me basically as a joke (and because it was only £5 at Asda). I reluctantly sat down to have a read through...and from about page 7 was completely hooked. I've subsequently read all the books several times and become obsessed with the series and the world around it. Thanks dad (and Asda).

6. The Liar - Stephen Fry
I read this by the pool on holiday in Greece (Zante, because I am a deeply classy person) and loved it. Stephen Fry's novels are fantastic and this was my gateway into them. It's a fantastically written, fantastically weird story (no spoilers - you should read it yourself) with fantastically realised characters that I think I read in two days, if that. This one isn't included for any sentimental reason or anything, just because it's one of the books I've most enjoyed reading.

7. Beginning - Kenneth Branagh
I love autobiographies so there had to be a couple on this list. I've reviewed this on the blog recently and I just love it. I'm not much of a re-reader but this is one I've read all the way through a couple of times and dip into whenever I need a bit of a motivational shot in the arm. As I've said, it's such an inspirational book (KenBran is my hero on so many levels) and it also contains the following epic quote about being 28 that I just adore: "at twenty-eight, the chances of really knowing something are slim, and the possibility of losing what grasp you do have, great". Preach. 

8. Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins - Rupert Everett
Another autobiography, another book I've reread and another I'm including just because it's so enjoyable. I dip into this one whenever I need a pick me up or am in the mood for some grade A bitchiness. The follow up, The Vanished Years, is also utterly fabulous.

9. Bread - Paul Hollywood
Do cookbooks count? I'm going to say that they do. I mean, it's a book right? Arguably, this book is the one on the list that's had the most impact on me as a person. See, I had a long period of unemployment in 2012/3 and I did not care for it. Which is to say I utterly, utterly hated it and spent a huge amount of tine feeling completely miserable and useless. One of the things that really helped me get through was learning to make my own bread and this was the book that inspired - and taught - me to do that. I've made loads of the recipes from this book and they're all super easy to follow and basically idiot proof. And much cheaper than therapy.

10. Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
The best book I've ever read, full stop. Pretty easy really.

Now I know I have some bookworms amongst my readers, so step up people. You know who you are...

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Emmys Best Dressed

I miss awards season.

There's just not enough pretty in the world without it, y'know? People need more excuses to wear ridiculously expensive OTT gowns and for that to be ok. We've had nothing like that since Cannes. Sigh.

Luckily, for reasons best known to someone else, the Emmys (and the MTV VMAs but OMG did you see the car crash that was that red carpet?!) have their ceremony outside of awards season providing a little glamour fix to keep me going. It's not high high fashion - no Dior, no Chanel, no Gucci Premiere, only one Armani Prive - but it's something.

Here's my pick...

January Jones in Prabal Gurung

Image source
My favourite of the 8 million red dresses on the very red Emmys carpet. I love the detail of the fabric, I love the high-low hem and I love the overall impact that this gown has. It's definitely the biggest 'fashion moment' of the lot.

Jessica Pare in Lanvin

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Opting not to wear a gown, this classic Lanvin LBD is gorgeous. No fuss, no messing around, just understated elegance. There wasn't much black on the carpet this time so nice to see it being used to effectively here.

Heidi Klum in Zac Posen

Image source
Heidi so often looks like mutton dressed as lamb so it's nice to see her in something much simpler. This dress is all about the fit - which is perfect - and finding the right shade of red to match her skin tone. I'm also a tiny bit obsessed with the cape detail. Good to see something less structured from Zac Posen getting a red carpet outing too.

Amy Poehler in Theia

Image source
We don't often see Amy P in all out glitz but man does this look work for me. I love the delicate beading, minimal styling and the silver against her skin tone is beautiful.

Sarah Paulson in Armani Prive

Image source
One of the few people to wear a traditional fashion big gun, I love this intricately detailed gown. Red and black is a fantastic combination and this is such an effective way of using it. The Gothic net overlay is to die for.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Review: Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies

As I imagine I've mentioned many times before on this blog, Hilary Mantel is my favorite author and Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are my favourite books. Ever. (Sorry, A Song of Ice and Fire.)

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way. Both books have legions of fans and have won the Booker prize. And now both have been adapted for stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company (and screen too - the BBC’s take is currently in production).

The phrase ‘adapted for’ is often enough to strike fear into the heart of book lovers, particularly when the book or series in question is one you really love, but when it’s done well it’s exhilarating to see the characters you love so much brought to life. It’s a risky business though, especially with books as popular and critically acclaimed as Mantel’s. I doubt I’d have been the only one who would've been devastated if these plays hadn't done justice to the books.

Thankfully, this isn't a concern: the plays are utterly, utterly fantastic.

Unusually for me, the first thing I want to rave about is the direction. The source books are long, there’s no getting away from this fact. There’s easily five or six hours of material in each and I was concerned about how this would be condensed into watchable plays. Obviously there are some cuts - mainly to secondary characters and their scenes - but the action is so swiftly paced that these are kept to a minimum. But the action doesn't feel at all rushed though, it just feels urgent. This sense of momentum is helped along by clever stage direction in which characters who are in successive scenes rarely actually leave the stage. They walked to the edge of it, turn round and come back, which sounds daft but actually really works in keeping the play pushing forward. The completely bare ‘concrete’ set helps here too - as there are no changes in scenery, and only the occasional prop, the idea of the characters entering and leaving different rooms or buildings is visually less important. Who cares if they go off stage or not?

With source material as good as these plays have, it would be deeply depressing if they weren't well written. And thankfully they are. Mantel writes excellent, punchy dialogue and much of this is incorporated wholesale into the script, which is uniformly brilliant. The thing that really struck me about the writing though was the difference in tone between Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. This is evident to an extent in the books but was really emphasised in the plays, with Wolf Hall being almost a knockabout comedy while Bring Up The Bodies something much darker. That’s an oversimplification of course, most of my blogs are, but there was a marked difference and it was worked very effectively, really adding depth to the characters’ development and story.

Excellent writing deserves excellent acting and these plays have the latter in spades. I said in a post earlier this week that My Night With Reg must have one of the best ensemble casts in London and surely Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, who share one cast, have the other. There’s not a single weak link amongst them, even though most also have the challenge of playing multiple roles (often multiple important roles too: the actor who plays Cardinal Wolsey in both plays also has Archbishop Warham in the first and Sir John Seymour and the jailer at the Tower of London in the second for example!) It feels rude to single any one person out from such an outstanding ensemble, but Nathaniel Parker and Lydia Leonard are a perfect Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn capturing with fantastic effect the arc of their relationship. Parker’s Henry was particularly good, I felt, in Bring Up The Bodies where he’s allowed to show a bigger range of emotion - from besotted to angry via afraid and injured (physically and emotionally).

The one person who it would be rude not to single out, though, is Ben Miles. His Thomas Cromwell is spectacular. It’s a huge part in terms of sheer amount of lines, he’s rarely off stage in the entirety of the almost six hours combined running time, but it’s even huger in terms of the range and depth of character. He plays Cromwell as an East End wide boy type - in no way how I imagined him but, if you think about it, exactly what he was - all quick wit and cunning. In Bring Up The Bodies the character effortlessly develops into something darker and more ruthless. Nothing about his performance feels forced or obvious, it feels natural and completely believable. It’s genuinely scintillating stuff to watch and a performance that demands attention (and surely some awards). I could rave about him for days but I imagine you’d all get bored and wander off. Suffice to say I was impressed, almost Branagh-levels of impressed.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, taken as one piece of work as they should be, is by some distance the most enjoyable, exciting and technically accomplished theatre I've seen in London this year. I would also recommend seeing the two plays in one day as I did because I can only imagine how awful the anticipation of seeing the second one is if you have to wait. I mean I only just lasted the three hours between matinee and evening. It’s really, genuinely great stuff that everyone - familiar with the book or otherwise - should definitely see. 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Review: My Night With Reg

First things first, this post is about a play. Not anything else you might have been thinking of. Just to clear that up. 

Moving on...

My Night With Reg is an early 90s play by British playwright Kevin Elyot. It follows a sextet (great word) of gay men over four years of their collective life and individual lives. Over the course of the play (a short course it should be said, the play is only about 110 minutes long and runs sans interval) it is revealed that all but one of the group - uptight, chaste, sweet Guy - have slept with the titular but absent Reg. There’s flamboyant David, who is Reg’s long term partner; rich kid John, the object of Guy’s unrequited love, who is having a 6 month affair with Reg; odd couple Benny (an alpha male bus driver) and Bernie (“he redefines dull”) who’ve both had one night stands with him; and naive new kid in town Eric who also has a one stand stand with Reg but doesn’t even get to know his name. In the second scene of the play it is revealed that Reg has died of Aids.

This isn’t an ‘Aids play’ in the same way that, say, Angels in America or The Normal Heart is though. It’s not angry and it’s not political. Aids is never directly mentioned once, the power and weight that the word undoubtedly carries is implied through the excellent writing and acting instead. It is a tragic play, certainly, but it’s also a very funny comedy of manners. A tragicomedy that actually works, that rare thing.

This is a phenomenally well crafted play with beautiful dialogue, both funny and tragic. It plays on its themes of love, loss and betrayal subtly but fully. The scenes between Guy and John in particular are fantastic, Guy’s all consuming love for John being both the source of much of the humour and even more of the tragedy of the play. Trying very hard to avoid the dreaded spoilers, there are two deaths in this play and the contrasting ways that John reacts to them is heartbreaking. Although the play is set in the 1980s, the way it deals with its themes so sensitively allows it to still be 100% relevant today - despite it’s love of The Police.

It helps that the cast must surely be one of the finest ensembles on the London stage right now. They are all excellent, but special mention must go to Jonathan Broadbent’s adorable, neurotic Guy and Julian Ovenden’s complicated John. The former in particular could easily become an unbelievable stereotype in less skilled hands, something that would be a disaster for the heart of the play and that Broadbent deftly avoids. Ovenden’s John almost crumples before your eyes over the course of the play, starting off as the cocky, unreliable cad about town but ending as a heartbroken, scared shell with every single one of his insecurities, fears and losses written on his face. He also looks pretty damn good naked, just FYI (if you’re not ok with some fairly prolonged male nudity then this is not the play for you).

If I had to criticise, then the play’s third scene (which I’m trying very hard not to spoil) is fairly predictable once you realise what situation is being played out. That doesn’t diminish its emotional impact for one instant, though. And I did have some issues with the character of Bernie, who is so boring and socially unaware that he does at times feel a bit like a caricature. That said, his moment of real emotion (again, avoiding spoilers) is beautifully written and acted. Minor quibbles aside, this is a really excellent evening of theatre.

I’d urge you to go and see My Night With Reg, but as it’s playing at the tiny Donmar Warehouse the whole run is already inevitably sold out. The Donmar does do seated and standing day tickets though if you have the patience for such things. It’s certainly worth it.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

A day out at Arundel Castle

West Sussex is a lovely part of the world. Really, properly lovely.

I’ve lived here for just over 13 months now - that’s gone crazy quick! - and I love it. It was a big risk for me packing up my life in York (also really, properly lovely by the way) and carting it 250 miles down south but it was absolutely the right move for me. I’m 100% happy here.

That said, I definitely don’t make the most of living here. I have a list of places in I want to visit and explore that’s as long as my arm and just keeps growing. My average week goes thusly: I work 9-5 Monday to Friday, fall asleep on the sofa after doing some yoga most evenings and then spend the weekend either in London or catching up with sleep and housework. I really must try harder.

For once, though, this weekend I managed to cross somewhere off my ‘to visit’ list. And it was one from the very top of that list too - Arundel Castle.

Before we start let’s just get one thing clear: this is not the castle from Frozen. Similar name, different spelling and, crucially, Arundel is actually real. Arundel is a medieval castle dating back to the 11th century and the seat of successive Dukes of Norfolk from the Howard family. Although the original castle is medieval - and some of it still stands - the majority is the result of centuries of renovations, most notably in the Victorian period.

And it is stunning. Approaching the castle from the entrance to the estate is like approaching Hogwarts from Hogsmead.

Look at that. A proper castle! It’s a shame that photography inside the building wasn’t allowed as that was beautiful too. In particular the chapel - the big rectangular bit with huge stained glass windows on the left by the tower in the photo above - is breathtaking. The stained glass is so beautiful (and I went on a gloriously sunny day which really showed it off) and the vaulted ceiling constructed from stripes of white and grey stone made me almost literally drool. I love a good vaulted ceiling, me.

I also neglected to take any photos in the separate FItzalan Chapel - a smaller, less ornate but no less interesting chapel in the grounds of the castle which houses the remains of generations of Howards - because I always feel a bit weird about taking photos of tombs, however beautiful they might be. You’ll see it’s pretty exterior in several of the following shots though.

I did manage to take some photos from the castle’s keep. One of the oldest parts of the building, the 144 rickety stairs are well worth it for the beautiful views.

The view out to sea, across Arundel town
I’m not much of a gardener, but the grounds at Arundel are amazing. They’re fantastically varied for a start. Some parts are left almost wild, there’s a traditional rose garden, a fantastic kitchen garden (with the best purple sprouting broccoli I’ve ever seen!) and fascinating glass houses growing everything from chillies to peaches.
Apples growing in the kitchen garden
But the undisputed highlight must be the Collector Earl’s Garden. What looks like a traditional formal garden turns into much more than that on closer inspection of the beautiful, colourful plants and novel display.
Apples growing in the kitchen garden

Impressed with the intricacy of the stone work in all these photos, right? Wrong - none of that is stone, it’s all carved wood. Such a simple, clever and unexpected idea!

One of my favourite parts of the garden were the innovative grottos.

The inside of this grotto was thatched in moss and dried leaves

The stunning shell covered one was originally constructed for a performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream as a grotto for Oberon. Isn’t it cool? I love the ‘floating’ crown.

The gardens also offer superb views of Arundel’s beautiful cathedral, which I didn’t have time to visit on this occasion but will definitely go back to check out.

The cathedral and with the Midsummer Nights Dream grotto in front

So basically I’m a big fan of Arundel Castle. And the rest of Arundel for that matter. I’d highly recommend a visit - there are direct, reasonably quick trains from London Victoria - and at £18 for the whole castle, grounds and ‘out buildings’ it’s a great value day out.













Thursday, 31 July 2014

Book Review: Blood and Beauty - Sarah Dunant

How to get me to read your book step one: put a review on the cover from the New York Times comparing it to Wolf Hall.

How to get me to read your book step two: put it in a Waterstones two for one offer.

This is essentially how I found myself reading Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty this month. The book tells the story of the Borgias - focussing on Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia - over a pretty eventful few years. The story starts with patriarch Rodrigo scheming his way to becoming Pope and tells the story of everything that the family do to preserve and increase their own power and wealth. This includes six tactical marriages (three to Lucrezia), the fathering of four children (half by the Pope), several murders (including the eldest Borgia son, Juan), a bloody war on the Italian states north of Rome waged by Cesare and more political scheming than you can shake a stick at. It’s certainly not an uneventful book.

It’s already easy to see why the book could be compared to Wolf Hall: broadly similar historical period, similar themes, even a similar plot in some ways. But the way both books treat their central figures that really makes the comparison stick. Wolf Hall is of course famous for it’s ‘rehabilitation’ of Thomas Cromwell as a well meaning, family orientated, loyal lieutenant rather than the brutal bully which he is more often portrayed as. In the same way, Blood and Beauty offers a much more rounded and less hysterical portrayal of the Borgias than they usually receive. Lucrezia in particular is a much more human character than usual, though admittedly the book only deals with the early part of her life.

The book definitely benefits from this. I have read some Borgia-based fiction before and, basically, it was just porn and people getting stabbed with very little regard for anything resembling a plot. Not really what I’m looking for in my historical fiction, y’know? Blood and Beauty gives an actual, complete story about actual, complete people and gives them believable motives for what they’re doing, even if they’re motives and actions which are difficult to defend. The characterisation is great throughout.

It’s generally well written too. It’s engaging, pacy and really readable. The 500-odd pages fly by so before you know it you’re half way through. I can’t remember the last time I read a book so fast. That’s not to say it’s perfect though and the comparison to Wolf Hall certainly doesn’t stretch as far as the quality of the writing (but then very few books do). There are times when Dunant’s writing style - third person but clearly representing the viewpoint of a specific character - becomes a bit muddled and on a number of occasions I had to read back to work out who the ‘he’ or ‘she’ she was referring to was. That’s a small point though and certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book overall.

Whilst Blood and Beauty isn’t a genre defining work in the way that Wolf Hall is, it’s certainly a good example of historical fiction and a really good read. I was glad to see in Dunant’s closing note that there’s a sequel to come. I’ll definitely be picking that up.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Review: Medea

I do love a bit of depressing Greek tragedy, don’t you?

Yes? Good. You should check out Medea at the National then.

The plot of Medea is a textbook Greek tragedy. Medea falls madly in love with Jason (of Argonauts fame), marries him and murders her family to keep him happy. Funnily enough, the latter part doesn't go unnoticed and Medea and Jason flee into exile - Medea bearing Jason two sons in the meantime - eventually ending up in Corinth where Jason promptly leaves his wife for the resident Princess. Medea doesn’t take this fantastically well, and decides that the best way to get revenge on Jason is to murder first his new bride (via a poisoned gown that also takes out the King) and then her own children. Lovely.

As that brief synopsis suggests this is not the play to see if you want a light evening out (in which case try Great Britain since it’s playing in the same building) but it is an excellent production and well worth a little of your time. And it is only a little - the play positively zips along in a shade over 90 minutes (no interval) with excellent direction ensuring that it doesn’t feel rushed. This is a new version of Euripides’ ancient play and the translation and tone are excellent; thoughtful, horrific and frightening plausible. The production looks fantastic too - on a split level stage with Medea’s home and garden (completely with really unsettling empty swings) downstairs, Corinth upstairs where a clever use of slightly opaque glass and lighting means that your view of what’s taking place is always a little obscured.

It’s rare that I’d mention the music in a ‘straight’ play but the score here is a) important and b) really, really good. Written by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp (yes, that one) the score is an electro-infused joy that pulses through the production, driving the action on to its inevitable conclusion. In key scenes the music is so integral that it almost feels like a character in its own right. Seriously, seriously good stuff. I’d love to buy the soundtrack.

The music is also important as it backs a number of dance sequences in the show. Yes, dance sequences. Unlikely, but true. It’s probably overcooking it a bit to say that these sequences constitute interpretive dance but they’re certainly very modern and very otherworldly. At first I thought I didn’t like them but on reflection they definitely contribute to the overall tone of the unnatural that pervades throughout the play and as such are actually quite effective. I doubt it’ll be to everyone’s taste but, after some mulling, it ultimately worked for me.

As high as the production values are, the reason why you should definitely go and see Medea is Helen McCrory’s extraordinary central performance. She is quite simply superb. Medea is not by nature a hugely sympathetic character - although the way she is treated by Jason is shitty, I’m still inclined to think murdering four people is a bit much - McCrory makes you feel for her. She also makes you feel with her, which is much harder. It’s a brilliantly judged and nuanced piece of acting; frighteningly unhinged, coolly calculating and heartbreakingly sad all at once. One of the standout things about the plot of the play is that all other Greek tragic heroines-turned-murderers are given some kind of cosmic or magical justifications for their actions. Medea has none of this and sets out her reasons quite clearly and plainly for the audience to hear and understand. It would be very easy to write Medea off as evil or suffering from some kind of madness (just as it is for Lady Macbeth, with an obviously much stronger case in the end), but McCrory makes it much more difficult to reach these lazy conclusions. Her Medea is a fully realised character and acted impeccably. One of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen for a long time, possibly the best from someone whose surname isn’t Branagh.

Of the rest of the cast it’s only really Danny Sapani’s Jason who gets a considerable amount of stage time and he’s very good too, especially in the post-murder scenes. He is exceptionally good as the angry, grieving husband and father and the rawness of his grief, sometimes howling sometimes quiet, in these scenes is genuinely upsetting. His pre-murders Jason is suitably ambiguous - I’m pretty sure I don’t believe that he’s only acted in his family’s best interests but I wouldn’t put money on it. The Chorus (a large group in this case) are also used frequently, especially in the dance sequences which they manage well, and are generally very good as the conscience of the play. Also, Joyce Barnaby off of Midsomer Murders is in it which is just cool. I bet the Midsomer Parva AmDram Society have never done this one!

Medea actually opens at the National tonight and runs until September 4th (getting the NT Live treatment on its closing night). It’s not an easy watch, but it is a great one and Helen McCrory’s performance is not to be missed. Top stuff.