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.