Tuesday, 4 August 2020

TV review: Talking Heads -
Nights in the Garden of Spain / The Hand of God

I do like a random connection in my shows and the new 2020 remake of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads has featured Martin Freeman, plus Sarah Lancashire, his intended co-star in James Graham's 2017 comedy Labour of Love, and now Tamsin Greig, who actually appeared as his sparring partner in that play when Lancashire had to pull out. Greig appears in the latest of my double bills, a pair from the second, 1998 series, and although still laced with sadness these are two of the most straightforwardly funny monologues from the collection. The comedy is very dark in Nights in the Garden of Spain, which Marianne Elliott directs, as Greig's quietly unhappy Rosemary uncovers the dark underside of her bland suburban neighbourhood. And all it takes is helping her neighbour deal with the sudden death of her husband - because she's just shot him.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Reasons to be Cheerful

Punk and jukebox musicals don't seem obvious bedfellows, unless the music comes from Ian Dury and the Blockheads and the theatre company doing the adaptation is Graeae, who champion the work of D/deaf and disabled actors and creatives: Not only did Dury himself have disabilities caused by childhood polio, but he regularly referenced them and celebrated his difference in his songs (most famously "Spasticus Autisticus.") Paul Sirett's book for Reasons to be Cheerful keeps the story very simple as a hook to hang the songs on - not a bad move, given what can happen when a jukebox show overcomplicates its story - and follows Vinnie (Stephen Lloyd) and his best friend Colin (Stephen Collins) as they try to get tickets to a sold-out Blockheads gig in Hammersmith, at the height of their popularity in 1979.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

TV review: Talking Heads - A Chip in the Sugar /
The Outside Dog / Bed Among the Lentils

It's hard to separate Alan Bennett's Talking Heads from their original performers but my next selection of remakes sees their actors put a new stamp on them. In among the collection of current and future dames each of the two original series had one male monologue, and the original series opened with Bennett himself in A Chip in the Sugar. So if any piece is associated with the writer's distinctive voice even more than the others it's this one, and Martin Freeman is the actor taking on the role of Graham for director Jeremy Herrin. Like most of the actors in this remake Freeman isn't trying too hard to emulate the original accent, which might lose something in authenticity but helps avoid too many direct comparisons. Graham is a closeted middle-aged man who lives with his mother, having had trouble living alone in the past due to paranoid schizophrenia. He's now on medication but his mother's chance meeting with an old boyfriend from her youth unsettles his routine and he starts to think the house is being watched again; except maybe this time it actually is.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Radio review: I Am the Wind

I guess we're now reaching the point where I'm starved enough of theatrical content to be seeking out stuff I strongly suspect I won't like: Nearly ten years ago the Young Vic staged an elaborately designed and directed production of Jon Fosse's I Am the Wind, which came with much discussion of how the Norwegian playwright was one of the most frequently staged throughout Europe, except for the UK where he was virtually unknown. Well in the subsequent decade I haven't seen another Fosse play, nor do I even think I've heard of any major production being staged, so it's probably safe to say the play wasn't the hoped-for London breakthrough. I think the reviews were generally scathing, and my own opinion was that while the production was spectacular I remained unconvinced that there was much of substance underneath it. Now the same English version by Simon Stephens gets a radio production from Toby Swift, and what better way to see if my opinion's changed than by stripping the play down to just words and sound effects?

Sunday, 5 July 2020

TV review: Talking Heads - Her Big Chance /
Playing Sandwiches

Of the collection of current and future dames in the new version of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads the most zeitgeisty is surely Jodie Comer - even with the discussion about Killing Eve largely focusing on how much it falls foul of the law of diminishing returns, she's still one of the biggest names to emerge in recent years. The other big name she replaces in these monologues is Julie Walters, as Comer takes on Her Big Chance. She plays young actress Lesley, who's not very bright but still isn't quite dim enough to fool herself that she's not really being used and abused by the film industry she's trying to break into: More by luck than judgement she lands a role as the villain's mostly-naked girlfriend in a low-budget German crime thriller being filmed in Lee-on-Solent, a distinctly chillier location than the Riviera setting it's meant to be. Her Big Chance is a very cleverly balanced tragicomedy - there's a profound sadness to the inevitability with which every man Lesley meets uses her for sex while pretending to help her career, not just on a one-to-one level but the entire cast and crew barely registering her as a person and walking out on her the morning after the night before.

Monday, 29 June 2020

TV review: Talking Heads - A Lady of Letters /
An Ordinary Woman / Soldiering On

I can't realistically brand the new Talking Heads as "stage-to-screen" since they originated on TV in the first place; but Alan Bennett's beloved '80s and '90s monologues have occasionally been produced on stage as well, and this new lockdown version corralled by Bennett's regular collaborator Nicholas Hytner features a new collection of current and future dames who are mostly stage regulars, and some big theatre names directing. So I think we can call them stagey enough to keep my blogging muscles exercised on. Monologues filmed on an existing set - the Eastenders complex - are a clever way of making socially-distanced TV without resorting to the ubiquitous Zoom calls, and while I agree that giving some out-of-work playwrights the job of creating new ones might have been a better way of supporting talent, there's nothing stopping the BBC from doing that as well, and if something's acclaimed as a modern classic it should be able to stand up to reinvention.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Stage-to-screen review: It Is Easy To Be Dead

If UK theatres had anything to celebrate at the moment, the Finborough Theatre would be celebrating its 40th birthday today. Still, it's a milestone worth marking for the ambitious fringe venue, hence my second virtual trip this week to Earl's Court. The Finborough had a unique take on marking the centenary of the First World War, and instead of doing a full season of work in 2014, its THEGREATWAR100 strand staged relevant work intermittently over five years, between the points 100 years from the war's beginning, and 100 years from its end. Even so I was probably still worn down by many shows on the subject when It Is Easy To Be Dead came along in 2016, as despite rave reviews, a transfer and an Olivier nomination, I didn't get round to seeing it live. It now forms part of their online fundraising drive, and despite being inevitably heartbreaking the play has more of a bittersweet edge to it.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Jane Clegg

It's one of my own personal clichés that the Finborough Theatre approaches programming as if it's the fringe's answer to the National, with the ambition if not the budget to match. It proves true too during lockdown, with the room above an Earl's Court pub matching some of the country's biggest venues, by offering up archive recordings on YouTube for people missing their theatrical fix. Jane Clegg falls into the venue's remit that 50% of its shows be revivals of forgotten classics, as the play was a hit when it debuted in 1913, and its original star Sybil Thorndike kept returning to the title role throughout her career, but the play hadn't been seen in London since 1944 until David Gilmore's revival last year. St John Ervine's play was written with the Suffragettes in the news, and it reflects a new reality where a man might still legally be the king of his castle, but can no longer necessarily rule unquestioned.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Madness of George III

National Theatre At Home, which uses recordings made during the NT Live cinema screenings that have become very popular internationally in the last ten years, has been at the forefront of online theatre in lockdown, with whole shows being made available on YouTube for one week only. I only haven't mentioned them on this blog yet because, being predominantly shows from the NT itself, I'd already seen them live and reviewed them at the time*. In recent weeks the NT has expanded the project's horizons though, offering shows from other venues, and with it the opportunity to share in the fundraising drive. This week this means a trip to Nottingham Playhouse, and Adam Penford's production of The Madness of George III. Alan Bennett's enduring play looks at the institution of royalty in all its alienness and pomp, and the frail, sometimes banal humanity holding it up.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Beast Will Rise - Wound / Telescope / River / Eclipse / Performance

Back to Coronavirus, lockdown and isolation as seen through the uniquely, romantically twisted viewpoint of Philip Ridley, as I go back for a second selection of online premiere monologues in his The Beast Will Rise series (my review of the first four is here.) The next five feature both the longest and the shortest so far, and while most of them can be seen as having a specific significance to the circumstances under which they've debuted, they all could easily remain interesting taken out of context. Probably the least obviously tied to the theme of lockdown is Wound, in which Mirren Mack gives us a journey into a troubled mind in pain, escape into both self-harm and fantasy worlds, but also a resilience that keeps her coming back to reality. A few months into lockdown and everything being done on Zoom has become visually boring, but director Wiebke Green gives Wound  its own identity with a stark clinical whiteness and maintaining an extreme close-up on Mack's face that heightens the sense of anxiety.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Macbeth (Shakespeare's Globe / Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank)

Playing Shakespeare is the Globe and Deutsche Bank's annual education programme tying in with the GCSE curriculum, creating 90-minute productions aimed at teenagers. Tickets are exclusively given free to schools, and while it's not entirely impossible for regular audience members to get hold of them - I know people who've raved about past productions' playful, irreverent tone - I've never managed to get round to one. Now this year's production, which played in February and March just before the theatres closed, is the latest addition to the Globe's online offerings on YouTube. Ekow Quartey plays the title role in Cressida Brown's modern dress production of Macbeth, as the previously loyal Scottish general whose ambition is fired up by a supernatural prophecy, kills the king and steals his throne, only to find that having unleashed his inner darkness he becomes a tyrant with enemies everywhere.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Grounded

I didn't so much miss Deafinitely Theatre's revival of Grounded when it played at Park Theatre as actively choose not to see it: Not out of any dislike for the company, but because it was only two years since I'd seen the UK premiere of George Brant's monologue, and I knew there was no chance I could realistically watch another version without comparing it to Lucy Ellinson's extraordinary performance. Even another five years down the line it's hard to feel entirely unbiased towards Paula Garfield's production, despite it inevitably having its own identity because it makes the one-woman show a two-hander, or perhaps two one-woman shows happening concurrently: As part of Deafinitely's aim to produce shows that can be enjoyed together by D/deaf and hearing audiences, Nadia Nadarajah performs The Pilot's lines in BSL, while Charmaine Wombwell provides the English language version.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Radio review: Blithe Spirit

One of the first shows in my diary to get cancelled because of lockdown was the latest revival of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, but as with so many things the BBC comes to the rescue, with a 2008 radio adaptation by Bert Coules returning to the BBC Sounds app. Roger Allam plays Charles, the novelist who hires a local medium in order to copy her language and mannerisms for a fraud in his upcoming book; but Madame Arcati turns out to be the real thing, and after playing her favourite song in the room where she died, his first wife Elvira's (Zoë Waites) ghost materialises. Unfortunately for Charles, only he can see her, which causes much confusion with his second wife Ruth (Hermione Gulliford,) and soon a rivalry causes chaos in the house between the two wives, one of whom is dead, and possibly turning homicidal.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Great Apes

Remember that time when Will Self was a team captain on Shooting Stars? It's a thing that actually happened (I googled it and it's definitely not just something I dreamed) but feels about as surreal and unlikely as one of the novelist's plots. Great Apes is one his best-loved books but also one based on one of his most bizarre and complex high concepts; essentially unstageable, which in some ways makes it inevitable that someone would attempt to stage it. Two decades after the book's publication the Arcola gave it a go, and director Oscar Pearce has shared an archive recording of the 2018 production to add to the list of lockdown theatre available. Over the millennia human beings have found their way to the top of the evolutionary tree, and with dominance comes a sense of superiority and the assumption that our instincts and behaviours are the ones that make sense.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: The Beast Will Rise - Gators / Zarabooshka / Chihuahua / Origami

A lot of exciting-sounding shows got cancelled or postponed for the current lockdown, but some losses hurt more than others; a new Philip Ridley play is always something to look forward to and the blurb for The Beast of Blue Yonder made it sound like a particularly crazy, epic ride. Let's hope it's not too long after Southwark Playhouse reopens that they reschedule it, but in the meantime Ridley lost no time providing an alternative. And frankly, who better to whip up something for quarantine out of nowhere than a writer who deals in the apocalyptic as his bread and butter? With The Beast of Blue Yonder's production company Tramp, director Wiebke Green, and intended cast, he's put together The Beast Will Rise, a series of 14 monologues for the actors to record in their own homes, released on a weekly basis. But I couldn't wait that long for the whole set to be available so I'm going to be catching up with it every few weeks, beginning with the first four.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (BBC Wales)

Russell T Davies' TV adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream first aired in 2016 as part of the BBC's commemoration of the fourth centenary of Shakespeare's death. I had planned to watch it at the time but never got round to it - that summer was one of those particularly full of competing productions of the play and I'd seen quite enough of them. Apart from that, it was clear from the opening shot of Athens as a fascist state draped in red, white and black ersatz-swastika insignia that Davies' version was going to be one of those defined entirely by the line "I wooed thee with my sword" (not necessarily a problem in itself, by this point I think I was mainly tired of people thinking they'd discovered a uniquely dark take on the play, when in fact I would say bad-guy Theseus was the standard interpretation of the 2010s.) In any case, with "Culture in Quarantine" the latest BBC strand to heavily feature Shakespeare, the film got repeated on BBC Four, giving it another month on iPlayer for me to finally catch up.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: What the Butler Saw

A second virtual trip to Leicester, where the Curve Theatre has actually been ahead of the curve so to speak as one of the first venues to get its online alternative to live performances up and running. As with Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual the next show they've made available has a Leicester connection, as it was the birthplace of Joe Orton (I don't think he had much good to say about the place, but in fairness he was Joe Orton, he didn't have much good to say about anything.) What the Butler Saw was his final play, in which he delivers every beat of the perfect farce while breaking all the genre's unwritten rules. The setting is the Hampstead mental health clinic run by Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound) and his wife, and as the curtain rises the doctor is "interviewing" prospective secretary Geraldine (Dakota Blue Richards,) a process which involves making her strip for a medical examination with a view to sexually assaulting her.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Radio review: Elizabeth and Essex

A few words about an odd little (but in some ways huge and epic) audio drama, written by Robin Brooks as an original Radio 3 play but feeling like it has a strong theatrical connection in the sense that I can imagine Simon Russell Beale was probably going to find a way to play Elizabeth I sooner or later. Although technically in Elizabeth and Essex he's playing the writer and Bloomsbury Group member Lytton Strachey, whose writings the play is based on, and reveal him as a drama queen imagining himself as the Virgin Queen while writing his book about her relationship with the Earl of Essex. Strachey has recently become besotted with Roger (Harry Lloyd,) a much younger man who's star-struck by the writer and becomes hugely fond of him, but clearly doesn't feel anywhere near as strongly about him as the older man does, and who is gradually drawn away from Strachey as he falls for fellow Bloomsbury Group member, the economist John Maynard Keynes (Julian Harries.)

Monday, 13 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Twelfth Night
(RSC / RST & Marquee TV)

Christopher Luscombe's Shakespeare productions tend to have a touch of the Merchant/Ivory to them, and so it is with this 2017 production of Twelfth Night, one of the few productions of the RSC's current run through the complete works that I'd missed until now, when it's just been added to Marquee TV's roster. Simon Higlett's set and costume designs are of a sumptious, solid kind a thrust stage like the RST rarely seems to need or bother with, and Nigel Hess' music is used like a movie score, much like he and Luscombe experimented with a decade earlier in their Merry Wives of Windsor for the Globe. The period movie they're making here is a Victorian one, where Shakespeare's fictional Illyrian coast becomes London and the countryside, by now comparatively easily accessible by train.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: Flowers for Mrs Harris

My latest virtual visit to a regional theatre is to one I've been to before in person, although not for a couple of years: Chichester Festival Theatre, and Daniel Evans' production of Flowers for Mrs Harris, which he transferred there in 2018 after a run at his previous job in Sheffield. Rachel Wagstaff (book) and Richard Taylor's (music & lyrics) musical is based on a novella by American author Paul Gallico better known as Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, which is perhaps a helpful indicator of the kind of salt-of-the-earth working-class image of a London charlady Ada Harris (Clare Burt) is. Widowed in the Second World War and childless, she has little in her life except making ends meet through the various ungrateful clients whose houses she cleans. She ploughs through stoically until one day she covers a friend's shift cleaning for a deluded minor aristocrat (Joanna Riding,) where she spots a Christian Dior dress and becomes determined to own one some day.