past dramas…

For many dull and generally uninteresting reasons I’ve not been writing about the theatre productions that I’ve enjoyed for a while.  Inevitably that means that I can’t actually remember everything I’ve seen!  That was one of the main aims of writing these posts, as well as a well established tendency to pick over, analyse and otherwise over think anything I enjoy…

Time to restart methinks, particularly as I’ve just seen an excellent production which I do want to try to sort through my thoughts about. (Watch this space!)

Thinking back over the various productions I’ve seen in the lengthy writing free gap there are a few that stand out.  It’s a little too daunting to think about writing at length about them all but as an aide memoir to my aging memory bank a few thoughts on the ones that made an impression.

Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange

e548149a-3df5-11e4-_769682cHamlet will never be one of my top choice Shakespeare, but Maxine Peake is one of my top choice actors – and so this was a must see.

It wasn’t perfect.  It was a little uneven and I did have some concerns about the Primark stocked graveyard – and more about the piles of clothes left for the rest of the scenes.  The gender changes worked well and became largely irrelevant once the play began – although I couldn’t help wondering if a male Ophelia could make such a terminally unlikable character any better!  It didn’t seem in the slightest bit important that a woman played Hamlet, it is the character we’re watching after all and this Hamlet was wary and watchful, cutting and direct and gained in power the longer we watched.  It was a mesmerising performance.  The staging was sparse but the lighting design was fabulous and the forest of flickering lamps that descended to show the approach of the ghost was a beautiful image that still lingers.

The Crucible at the Old Vic

Crucible-old-vic

The Crucible was originally about McCarthy’s paranoia about communism but it seems to me it’s shifted to warn against the extremes of belief in its tale of a mostly good man damned by the god-fearing.  (Yes, I know that’s an oversimplification.)  The staging was deceptively simple, the lighting and sound designs both impeccable and in an ensemble cast no one put a foot wrong.  Sitting in the round, and we were very close to the performance area, you feel as if you are sitting in judgement and it adds to the intensity. The tension is ratcheted up and up, reaching a peak in three and a half hours.  It just didn’t let up.

And neither did Richard Armitage – and let’s be honest, a fair proportion of the audience did buy their tickets to see him!  He gave us a John Proctor of essential decency overlain with guilt pushed into growing and righteous anger and it was a performance of incredible intensity.  I have no idea how he managed to do this day in day out, never mind twice a day!

The Elephant Man at the Haymarket, London

THE ELEPHANT MAN - ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST PRODUCTION IMAGES. PHOTO CREDIT JOAN MARCUS. .. handout ... Elephant Man, The Booth Theatre Cast List: Bradley Cooper Patricia Clarkson Alessandro Nivola Anthony Heald Scott Lowell Kathryn Meisle Henry Stram Chris Bannow Peter Bradbury Lucas Calhoun Eric Clem Amanda Lea Mason Marguerite Stimpson Emma Thorne Production Credits: Scott Ellis (Direction) Timothy R. Mackabee (Scenic and Projection Design) Clint Ramos (Costume Design) Philip S. Rosenberg (Lighting Design) John Gromada (Original Music and Sound Design) Other Credits: Written by: Bernard PomeranceThe Elephant Man is really quite a slight play which relies heavily on good performances.  Luckily this one came up trumps on that.  Bradley Cooper delivered a reminder – often necessary – that some of those labelled with stunt casting of ‘Top TV Totty’ to lead shows (and ticket sales) can actually act.

The lasting memory of this show though was “Bleedin’ ‘ell, it’s high up here!”   Front row, upper circle and yes, the view was excellent – especially of the ceiling.  The steep walk down to the seat was rather less than excellent and I could have done with roping myself to an usher!  That seemed a little forward so I’ll just put the momentary vertigo down to age and pack crampons for m y next visit…

Farinelli and the King at the Duke of Yorks

melody-grove-mark-rylance-and-edward-peel-in-farinelli-and-the-king-photo-credit-marc-brennerThis was one of the most gorgeous looking productions I’ve seen in a long time – and made me wish I;d managed to see it at the Wanamaker Theatre lit entirely by candles.  Mark Rylance seems incapable of being less than excellent and he duly delivered here in a show that was rather funnier than I’d expected.  Starting with the King fishing in a goldfish bowl on the end of his bed and providing the memorable image of a castrato singer flying across the stage sprinkling glitter on the cheap seats.  It also included a lot of thought-provoking issues about sanity, loneliness, the healing power of music – and the less than healing effects of other people.

The Skriker at Manchester’s Royal Exchange

JS67380131Top of the list for impact, enjoyment and sheer audacity was The Skriker with Maxine Peake.  One of my favourite performers I’d watch her in anything but this freewheeling avalanche of sound and fury and pathos was amazing.  The Skriker – a shape-shifting malevolent spirit – is in the centre of everything, constantly drawn to humans but why?  To torment, to own, to punish?  Nothing is clear.  The language is dense, pun filled and as fast moving as the way Maxine Peake shifts the Skriker from ageless faerie to bag woman to child to glossy corporate.  The mix of the language and the stunning visuals – especially the Skiriker’s underworld banquet – were almost overwhelming and the experience teetered on the edge of overtaking the ultimately bleak message.

Truly immersive theatre, the stage level of the Royal Exchange was filled with long tables, benches and chairs where the watchers were seated to see the drama played out around and about and above them.  At one point there was an unexpected shower of water when a fountain sprayed up from the table, at others you worried an actor would end up on your lap.

An incredible performance from Maxine Peake – making the alliterative avalanche of words as accessible as it could be and bringing a physicality to a role that veered across the emotional range but never for a moment let you forget that the Skriker is evil; ancient, formidable evil.  Utterly marvelous.

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Oh, and for those who say that I’ve missed Doctor Faustus, I can only say that I rather wish I had…

“Birdland”

by Simon Stephens at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court, 3 April – 31 May 2014

“Everything can be quantified. All worth can be quantified. Artistic worth. Human worth. Material worth. Everything. Some food is simply better than other food. Isn’t it? Some clothes are better than other clothes. Aren’t they?”

birdland7You give a man everything he ever has – or ever could – dream of, then follow it up with enough money to buy anything and anyone he chooses…  That’s going to fuck him up a bit.  Right?

The tale of the rock star as spoilt brat is a well trodden path and while Birdland doesn’t stray too far from familiar territory it leaves one thought uppermost.  Does true nature always out in the end?  Was it fame and money that corrupted Paul or was he always a nasty, twisted little toe-rag?

In the beginning Paul behaves badly, is demanding and demeaning just because he can.  He has no fear of payback.  These people adore him, they’ll do anything he wants and most of all, they need him.  Or so he thinks.  As the play progresses actions begin to have consequences.  The tipping point is his wilful destruction of Johnny’s relationship.  His best friend, the one who has been with him all along, the Guy to his Robbie, the one who knows him and the only one who challenges him.  There’s a wonderful chemistry between Andrew Scott and Alex Price and compared to the stylised choreography of the rest of the play the initial scenes between Paul, Johnny and the best peach in Moscow are incredibly natural.  There are hints that Johnny is coming to realise that his friend may not have his interests at heart.  But he lets it go.  It’s Paul.  That’s just what he’s like.

andrew-scott-paul-and-alex-price-johnny-87718

But what is Paul like?  Is he jealous of Johnny’s happiness, of the stability of his relationship with Marnie (Yolanda Kettle) and the trust and love he says he has for her.  Or does he want Johnny to be focussed on him and only on him?  The ‘double date’ with Annalisa (Charlotte Randle) and Johnny and Marnie makes it obvious that not being the centre of attention makes Paul acts even more of a cock than usual.  And he knows it.  He just doesn’t care – why should he?  When Marnie and Annalisa are having a perfectly normal conversation that doesn’t include him he derails it by offering Annalisa £100,000 to kiss Johnny for their amusement.  She walks out.  Not the first and definitely not the last to do that.

“Sit down.  Don’t go.  You’re embarrassing yourself and you’re embarrassing me.  Sit down now.  Everybody is looking at you.”  “No.  Everybody is looking at you.”  “Everybody always looks at me.  There’s absolutely nothing different about that.”

charlotte-randle-nikki-amuka-bird-and-yolanda-87717Did that abortive plan to see Johnny kiss a stranger in front of the girl he loves give him the idea to have sex with Marnie – although to be fair she doesn’t seem reluctant.  His pillow talk leaves something to be desired as it’s a cold, rational explanation of how he will have to tell Johnny all about it.  Inevitably it ends badly and she kills herself, jumping off the hotel roof.  Suddenly there’s a deeper force here than ‘because he can’.

“He told me he loved you. He told me he trusted you completely.  I told him he was being ridiculous.”

Paul’s manager David (Daniel Cerqueira) is happy to enable his excesses, whether that’s buying him a helicopter or administering cocaine via eye drops.  What he’s less prepared to do is make sure his client knows the level of debt he’s in – or at least not until the golden goose shows signs of getting out of the egg business.  I’m quite sure that David’s 10% is safely tucked away, why should he care if Paul has £9 million to make back?

birdland5At times Birdland is darkly and uncomfortably funny.  The conversation between Paul and two self-confessed adoring (but in reality slightly underwhelmed) fans in a Paris hospitality area made my toes curl.  The inanities and obsessional behaviour foisted upon the famous are not shown to excuse Paul’s behaviour although he could choose to use that to dodge the blame.  If he has any concept that there is blame to be laid, which I doubt.  Instead the conversation takes a darker turn and talk of surprising Martin and Claudie’s 14-year-old daughter foreshadows what is to come.  Paul’s treatment of adoring fan Louis is cruel, drawing him in and then kicking him.  It’s like a cat playing with a mouse and Paul has that same dangerous feline grace.

The scene where he takes Jenny (Nikki Amuka-Bird) to meet the late Marnie’s parents is a tough one.  What did he think he was doing?  He introduces Jenny, the room service waitress he acquired in Moscow as his wife and that – what a coincidence! – her name is Marnie too.

“Thank you.  Please, could I have a larger glass?”  “A larger?”  “More brandy.”

andrew-scott-paul-87715Compared to the preceding scene when Paul avoids every question with a variation on “It’s great, yeah” with Marnie’s parents he’s like a child, no editing, just saying whatever is in his head, however hurtful.  He knows Johnny won’t be visiting – he never met them, it would be odd – so he lays the blame, carefully painting Johnny as shallow and later telling him of Marc and Sophies’s (non-existent) anger.  If the world isn’t arranged as he would like he’s become accustomed to remaking it to suit.

But the remaking no longer sticks.  He’s still calling Jenny Marnie and she won’t take any more.  She leaves.

“Just because you sing a few songs and you can hold a bit of a tune is no reason to treat anybody the way you treated them or me or Johnny or anybody and if you can’t see that then, Paul, you really need to sort your fucking head out.”

Birdland4So does he?  Sort his fucking head out that is.  To be honest I think the jury’s out.  The painful meeting with his Dad, the very definition of a normal bloke, throws Paul’s posturing and pretence into sharp relief.  He can’t believe the level of worry over what to him is a tiny debt.  Pocket money.  Barely worth bothering with.  Little does he know.

Then  he’s arrested – even the police are fans – for sex with an under-age girl.  A 14-year-old who was looking for Johnny but finds Paul instead.  Or was that all there was too it?  David thinks he might not go to jail, or not for long at least.  He’s far from the unctuous servant now he’s telling a few home truths.  He knows what Paul did to Johnny and he knows Johnny was “really annoyed about that“.  He tells Paul how much debt he’s in, he can’t give it up, walk away and be something else, something normal.  And anyway – he’s not normal, not now the world’s about to find out he’s been fucking little girls.

So Paul is stuck in the world he’s created.  Justice?  Maybe.  But Johnny is there too, tied together by the millstone of debt – of advances and fees and the “flowers and miscellaneous” bill.

Did Johnny set him up as revenge for Marnie?  In the play as performed it’s less clear but in a cut scene Johnny says he sent her although he claims to have no idea she’d press charges.  He didn’t do it for revenge though, but to make him stop, rein him in.  That made me realise that maybe Johnny isn’t entirely the good cop in all this, he’s been with Paul too long and some of the excesses have rubbed off.  Paul’s twisted world is more normal to Johnny than he’d ever admit.  Just how does planting an under-age girl between Paul and his bed make him behave better?   All it really does is cement the despair and the dread they both feel at a lifetime of tolerating each other to pay off the record company.

Birdland1Birdland looks fantastic – a shifting fake proscenium making a roof, a room, whatever was needed and an amazing lighting design.  No set and few props – five turquoise chairs the only constant feature.  I particularly liked the bubbles (I think they were bubbles!) that were flown in, giving an almost whimsical edge to some scenes.  Water rose around the final scenes – symptomatic of rising madness or of unstoppable forces perhaps.   I’d rather like to see it again just to watch the shifting colours and patterns on the stage.

Andrew Scott plays Paul to perfection – a showy part but equally one that needed to be carefully contained.  He combines stillness with cat-like grace and menace and offered glimpses of the rock star, the adoration of whom was at the root of it all.

It was far from a one man show and he had more than able support from a great ensemble cast; Daniel Cerqueira in particular placed a range of diverse characters with real distinction between them.  Alex Price’s Johnny took all the sympathy and for a while my heart broke with his until I started to suspect he didn’t entirely deserve it – any more than Paul did.

Where did Paul end up?  Ostensibly alone but tied to the people he’d tormented.  Was he mad or bad?  Perhaps a little of both although to my mind a short step away from psychopathy.  He was certainly deluded – and maybe haunted.

I don’t think I am going to die soon

I think I’m going to live for years and years and years.

When you can do the things that I can do.

When you can see the thing that I’ve seen and go to the places I’ve been to.  When you can do all that you don’t die.

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“Pests”

by Vivienne Franzmann, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, 27 March – 3 May 2014.

“Pink loves Rolly.  Rolly loves Pink. And Pink loves getting bombed off her face.”

87653Pregnant Rolly has been released from prison, her few belongings in a transparent plastic bag and she’s knocking at the door of her sister Pink’s shabby ruin of a flat.  Pink is a volatile mass of energy, attitude and twitches; still on the needle and still on the game.  In contrast Rolly is clean or at least on methadone, has support and the prospect of a job and a future.  An escape.  But can Pink let her go?  She loves her – that much is clear – but resentment and jealousy grows; she knows Rolly won’t need her any more.  Just as she left Pink behind in the children’s home when she was fostered, now she’s going to leave her again.  Pink needs to keep her close, keep her in the world she knows, pull her back under.  Does she do it from malice or spite or does she truly believe it’s for the best?  And for whom?  I really don’t know.  Love comes in many guises and who am I to say that this isn’t one of them.

Pink sabotages Rolly’s chances, makes sure the job and the flat fall through leaving her with no choices and nowhere to go.  She makes sure she knows just how much she suffered while Rolly got all the breaks – dance lessons, fostered, looked after away from the home where the men lined up with Mars bars and teddy bears and pound coins.

As the play progresses both sisters unravel further and the scenes get shorter and more aggressive.  We don’t know exactly what abuses brought them to this point but we can see the effects.  Some scenes are powerful – Pink forcibly taping the “red rouge shimmy ‘no place like home’ shoes” to Rolly’s feet – while others seem underplayed.  The removal of Rolly’s baby is almost thrown away – deliberately? – and the impact is muted.  Maybe that’s how it was for her – to think about the baby is too much, too painful, too inevitable; best to carry on as if it never happened.  That’s what Pink did after all.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Joanna Scotcher’s set design is more rat’s nest than home – abandoned mattresses, grubby duvets, places to burrow and hide.  Lit by a flickering strip light, surrounded by bars and littered with the detritus of poverty it feels more of a jail than any cell.  I was less convinced by the creeping video images, representative of Pink’s increasing mental disintegration.  Sinead Matthews’ performance didn’t need any help from trickery.  The physicality she brought to the role, constantly moving, all twitches and tics, said it without the effects.  When the scars of self harm are revealed at the end you see the broken woman she keeps hidden under the bravado and you see that Rolly is sometimes the strong one.

34971Ellie Kendrick showed us the vulnerability of Rolly, the softness.  Compared to manic Pink she was still, deliberate and slow but there were hints of a hardness underneath from the beginning.  She seems to have had the better life but the four years she had with Mike and Jayne didn’t keep her out of jail.  She has a containment, a protective shell,  that contrasts perfectly with Pink’s open energy.  What was she thinking?  Was she thinking?  Pink had always done the thinking for her, for both of them and while May took on that role for a while Pink wouldn’t – couldn’t – allow that to continue.  Rolly is hers.  And she is the one who can always break open whatever cocoon Rolly gathers around herself.

Despite the clever set and the energy Kendrick and especially Matthews bring to their performances it isn’t a perfect play.  The plot is overly signposted and it could have lost at least ten minutes.  At times it’s savagely funny, at times heartbreakingly hopeless – it’s the wrong word to say I enjoyed it but I’m very glad to have seen it, despite its imperfections.

If I wanted to be uncharitable it’s a stylised version of drug addiction for the theatre going middle classes, sanitised just enough to allow us to care about Pink and Rolly.  It’s not that simple though – it can’t be – and as it is the result of Franzmann working with Clean Break it must be given more validity.  Clean Break work with women who have been in prison or who are in danger of being imprisoned.  Wisely the dialect of Pink and Rolly is part invented, although it has the layered flavours of the real thing – a hint of patois and pigin and a nod to the outsiders of A Clockwork Orange.  And it’s very cleverly written; I did wonder for the first few minutes if I’d follow the words at all but it soon dropped into place.  The addition of a more complex vocabulary for Pink gave depth and hinted at an education, a women more widely read than it’d be too easy to assume.  References to Gulliver’s Travels and Ernest Hemingway slipped seamlessly into her often unstoppable flow of words.

Ultimately Pests gives no answers, suggests no solutions and shows little hope.  Neither sister can escape their environment and seem destined to repeat the circle of abuse and addiction, loyalty and revenge until one – or both – of them die.  In fact I did expect the final scene to be a death but that would have been too neat and tidy.  It would have been an end, a resolution of sorts.

For Pink and Rolly there is no end.

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the boys are back in town… Ripper Street 2.01 “Pure as the Driven”

I adored series one of Ripper Street.

Despite the occasionally predictable plot lines and over-abundance of female flesh.   This left me happily expecting great things of series two and equally dreading it would be dumbed down and not quite so grimy.  After all S1 opened with the invention of snuff films and bare knuckle fighting – including a tooth embedded in the dogged Sgt Drake’s bare knuckles.

Luckily my fears were unfounded.  So far at least, and we got a fast paced, potential filled opener.  Not the best ever but the language was still that wonderful mix of flowery Victorian with the odd modern anachronism but delivered so well it always feels authentic.   Yes, you have to concentrate and listen properly but that’s not a hardship.

S1 did raise questions about the portrayal of female characters, mainly that it showed women as either wives or whores.  I can’t entirely argue with that but it isn’t the whole picture – we also got to see a female engineer, ruthless businesswomen and the redoubtable Deborah Goren.  And some wives and quite a lot of whores…

Ripper Street Drake Reid Jackson S2

It’s a little early to judge the female representation in S2 but let’s be honest, Ripper Street is a (grown up) boy’s own adventure.  The Three Amigos are back, striding through the streets of Whitechapel in perfect formation with their coats and their bromance in full swing.  To be honest their various partners aren’t that important – we’re just mad about the boys.

Apart from the formation striding there have been changes since we were last at Leman Street.  Reid’s wife is absent and unmentioned and Long Susan is offering him a chop for his pantry.  I don’t think that’s a euphemism.  Jackson and Long Susan, now outed as man and wife, seem less settled when you might have expected a modicum of matrimonial harmony.  Jackson has itchy feet and no more reason to linger among the bedclothes – and underclothes – of the staff.  I suspect conventional domesticity is not his thing.

Drake on the other hand is positively wallowing in Ripper Street drake fighting 201domestic  harmony with new wife Bella (when we all know it should have been Rose).  Is he happy?  He thinks so but is he in love with the idea of love and marriage more than the reality?  Sadly, I saw little real chemistry between him and Bella and I’m looking forward to seeing how Rose views the one that got away – and the one that got him.  Jackson accuses him of going soft and he does seem a little further from the streamlined fighting machine than before.  He needed help in the cell altercation from an amused Jackson and his arse was getting properly kicked by Brother of Blush.

Ripper Street ArthertonAmong the changes I’m relieved to see Sgt Atherton’s beard remains present and correct, yet sadly still without its own billing.

We get to escape Whitechapel and venture into Limehouse – the Chinatown of the day – in search of the mysterious Blush Pang and her frankly magnificent earrings.  After Sgt Linklater got a bit hung up and ended up in hospital on a diet of cold turkey our boys got suspicious.  A plot was afoot.  Forsooth.  After a dose of the shiny new wonder drug from Reid – the administering of which which rather dented his moral superiority – he provided useful information to speed the plot along before being bumped off by the wonderful Jedediah Shine, witnessed by the Elephant Man and about to be blamed on the morally upstanding (yet chop-less) Reid.  Sounds totally perfectly sensible and logical doesn’t it?!

But that’s the real joy of Ripper Street.  It’s histrionic, overblown and historically dodgy but it gathers us up in its flouncy skirts and hustles us along in the story, not letting us catch enough breath to go “But hang on a minute…”

Ripper Street Jedediah ShineJoseph Mawle swept in as corrupt Inspector Jedediah Shine, the antithesis to the upright moral decorum of Inspector Reid.  He clearly had a ball playing Shine with the loudest checks and the best moustache and he’s a character that could so easily tip over into panto villain.  But he got it pitch perfect, a mwah-ha-ha short of parody and it felt as though he’d been there all along, just out of shot.  And just what is he actually up to?  The drug smuggling plot seems done and Blush has hopped from Shine’s bed to Reid’s cells.  I hope we see her again.  I think they’d be a formidable partnership.

Shine also got one of the best lines: “You think him caught getting his jollification?

There are a lot of seeds sown in this hour to be harvested over the next seven.  So many that I suspect I’ll have missed some but here are a few of my thoughts on what’s to come.

  • Long Susan is in debt and under threat.  Of course she could confide in her husband and take a sensible approach.  And no, of course she won’t.  What terrible price will nasty landlord extract?
  • Reid is apparently wifeless.  More to come on that one.  And how long can he keep his suits pressed and his linen pristine if Long Susan gets distracted from his laundry?  And just who will be filling his pantry?
  • Bella has dark secrets and/or a dark past.  I think we can take that on trust.
  • Jackson was just a little too keen to try shiny new wonder drug heroin on himself, especially as he’d seen the effects.  The BBC treated us to some rather gruesome close up injections and vomit but we’ve already seen Jackson’s cocaine based hangover cure.  Now the excitement of his life of deception is gone will he try to find new thrills at the end of a needle?
  • Jedediah Shine of the twirl-able moustache.  So openly venial there has to be so much more going on than general corruption and a sideline of drug smuggling.  Hopefully.

So onwards into series two, with hope in my heart, a chop in my pantry and the smell of Whitechapel under my finger nails.  Such jollifications!

Afterthought…

Given that both Drake and Shine are fighters I will be lodging a formal complaint if we don’t see them pitted together at some point.  Preferably shirtless.  And sweaty.  I’m quite prepared to come over all kinds of unnecessary.

OK, I hear you.

You are quite right.

That is shameless and shallow objectification of two very fine actors.

So shoot me.

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I’m sure just about everyone has already seen this but if it doesn’t make you giggle you need to get your funny bone tested…

“if you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep”

imagesCAUIK3Z3by Anders Lustgarten, the Royal Court Theatre from 15 February 2013

I was expecting to be challenged by the subject matter of “If you don’t let us dream…”  and the bare stage added to the impression of a soapbox performance.  The trouble is that I wasn’t challenged as much as I would have liked.

In this fast-moving ensemble piece of just 75 minutes all the actors acquitted themselves well.  The heart of the play is Susan Brown’s Joan, one of the two actors who play the same character throughout.  Joan – hard up pensioner, long serving nurse, vociferous opponent of the new debt taxes – gets our sympathy straight away although it cleverly turns when she viciously abuses an immigrant who gets the hospital treatment denied to her.  The racism from her was far more shocking than from Damien Molony’s Jason as it was so unexpected.  It was pretty obvious what Jason was, although a credible start at a cockney accent slipped into something akin to South African which was a little imagesironic.   I assumed that his rather ineffectual mate Ryan (Daniel Kendrick) took the fall for him – again – and by the end I still wasn’t sure if his guilt was for what he did to McDonald himself or what was done in his company.

That was much of my problem with the play – I wanted to know more than we were permitted to see.  The targets were largely easy and obvious ones, the radical solutions to austerity and debt  have been widely written about.  Yes I see the horror in incentivising crime and poverty, making it target driven but it didn’t take it anywhere.  The flash of an abandoned child, a pensioner in poverty… let’s be honest we’re getting hardened to these stories.  It wasn’t enough to make me angry.  The sole opposer of the bonds – and yes, what are bonds? – was a slightly ditsy entrepreneur who stood the team chocolate rather than stand by her principles.

Where the play came to life was when the politics and humour combined.  Politics IS farce after all and it glides the message home in a way that didacticism doesn’t.  When the lines are sharp and funny there are moments when the show takes off and flies.  It made me realise what it might have been and I was sorry that it wasn’t.

“It takes a true revolutionary to make it through an affinity group”

“I’d rather gargle with Michael Gove’s urine”

“I cannot believe, as a revolutionary automatist movement, that we have to abide by Health and Safety legislation”

Interesting that these three quotes which came straight to mind are all from Part Two, where the characters and the words had a chance to stretch out and develop a little more.

The short sharp scenes gave little chance to connect emotionally – especially not knowing if you’d see that character again.  I read the playscript on the way home and found some scenes incredibly moving on the page which I hadn’t on stage.  McDonald’s (Lucien Msamati) Shona monologue about his family for example.

Moments stood out; Joan’s racist ranimagest, the battery acid, the extension of bonds to reproduction and rape – they were powerful and engaging but generally the targets are predictable and the characters too shallowly written to impact consistently.  One image that stayed was a simple one – the debt collection box – incessantly beeping, light flashing.  Pay up or go mad.

The actors changed their clothes, shoes, hair and hats between roles – and I wonder if they needed to?  I’ve seen multi roles played without it and the acting was more than enough to differentiate.  Maybe it’s deliberate that everyone ended up looking so similar in every role, we’re all in it together after all – but maybe not.  If not, then the suits should be sharper – and the shoes sharper still – and the radicals less clichéd.  And that despite some of the worse items of knitwear I’ve seen in a very long time.  Since an 80s sit-in at any rate – which says it all.

I’m not a great fan of the Pickfords School of Acting – it can break the flow to have the actors lifting and shifting, especially when they play a number of characters.  I find it jolts me out of the text into wondering which person they are when they bring on a table. It’s a feature of this stripped down style that everything happens within the bounds of the stage but sometimes it is just too distracting.  The movement of the actors changing costume catches the eye and I found in one case it pulled me out of a particularly intense moment.  That was a shame and given that the actors are behind the clothes rails surely it wouldn’t have been such a compromise for them to have been totally out of sight?

index1The final scenes of the preparation for the trial could have come from a  totally different production.  Wordier, longer, much more of a story than a series of snapshots and it was crying out for a second act.  Where were the new solutions, the fresh ideas and the new leaders?  Not here and it left the questions unanswered.

I was expecting a polemic, a rant, a feel of agit-prop and by hell that’s what I got.  What I didn’t get was a well-rounded and complete piece of theatre.  It was a good way down the road but while I left feeling thoughtful I wasn’t angry or outraged, there was a lingering sense that there should have been something more, of potential unrealised.  I can’t argue with the sentiments – I agree with pretty much all of it but I wanted more than validation.  I wanted to be pushed towards new thought, new ideas – and most of all I wanted to be entertained.  It is theatre after all.

Or maybe that was the whole point.

room on the sofa… christmas telly 2012

Maybe I’m not sentimental enough for Christmas telly.

Writing in the left-overs strewn lull between Christmas and New Year my favourite character so far is the grumpy cat in the rather lovely Room on the Broom.  There was a certain amount of fellow feeling there as he shrugged and sulked and then gave in…  Gracelessly…

catIf you didn’t see it seek it out and have a watch – it’s only half an hour and really nicely done although I’ve never seen such a clumsy witch! If she’d invested in a decent handbag instead of dropping everything it might have been a different story.

Alas, the big hitters of Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey both left me dry eyed and not purring.

Call the Midwife had all the traditional triggers – destitute ex-workhouse woman redeemed by penicillin and a good wash, young girl secretly giving birth in an old shop – not quite a manger but yes we got it thanks.  It added a grittier edge – birth in the communal toilet, lots of emerging plastic heads and a chunk of missing placenta but I’m afraid I was left mostly unmoved. It also managed the most resolutely un-cute Nativity yet seen.

I will say that it was beautifully written and not a foot was put wrong in the performances but just not my thing.  I do like the period detail – when did you last see a row of babies out in prams unsupervised? – but the snowy scenes felt very fake and the sun was much too high for winter.  Maybe that is what added to the feeling I had of being a step removed.

CTMI did learn a useful medical fact.  You can catch pneumonia from lino.  It was on the BBC so it must be right.

The nurses do seem a slightly po-faced lot – I think I’d prefer to share a festive mince pie with the nuns!  Maybe Sister Evangeline could be persuaded to give us a tune…

EntsDowntonWomen_1639457aThere were lots of lovely hats, fabulous frocks and gorgeous interiors on Downton Abbey but sadly that wasn’t enough to get us through two tedious hours (was it really only two hours?) of lack of plot and tension.

Downton Abbey has become such an unstoppable juggernaut that I’m guessing no one quite had the nerve to suggest a bloody good edit.  An hour might have spared us the Yorkshire stereotype with his eyes on Mrs Patmore’s hams.  And why Scotland?  Apart from a couple of new characters whom we’ll presumably never see again it seemed a complicated ruse to allow the lethal Lady Mary to pod unaccompanied.

The Bates’ marriage, now it’s jail free and saccharine sweet, has lost any dramatic impact and the grand surprise was that – wait for it, you may want to sit down – Anna had learned to reel.  Yes.  I did too.  The cheeky new maid setting her cap, apron and pretty much everything else at Branson would have been more fun if we’d had a chance to get to know her first.  I was briefly curious about why she was so blatant and so sure of not needing to know her place but no one else was.  Not even the redoubtable Carson took her aside for a word before she attached herself to the junior master’s trouser buttons.

DABy the time the fourth decade of watching approached there was only one thing to do.  Kill someone.  Anyone.  I was ready to volunteer. The great big massive huge shock was sadly spoiled by the papers so I was far more perturbed to see that Cousin Matthew went so far as to drive in his shirtsleeves.  How terribly uncouth.  At least he had to decency to expire before any of the lower orders saw him…

I surprised myself by enjoying Doctor Who. I’m not much of a Whovian (and wasn’t a fan of Amy Pond AT ALL) and many of the references go straight over my head but the schmaltz free parts of the Christmas episode were fun.  I could happily do without the tears save the world twaddle or whatever that was and the icemen/snowmen seemed to be rather easily defeated despite their fearsomely toothy grins.

There were some wonderful images – the spiral staircase to the cloud was just lovely and the subtitles assure me that walking on the clouds made a metallic springing noise!  Richard E Grant always makes a good villain although he was sadly underused here and I’d like one of those giant snow globes for growing malevolent snow.  Please.

DW2Not sure if the new companion is going for the record held by Rory for repeated dying but it’s an intriguing set up.  Just what/who/when is Clara Oswin Oswald?  Despite the characteristics taken straight from the ‘feisty, slightly sexy, a bit clever’ stereotype box I like Clara and – if they skip the faux-romance which is always so dull – it’s a good set up for the new series.  I’m interested to see how they develop the character once she gets more settled – introductions are always a bit frenetic.

I do like the sparse makeover of the TARDIS interior but I’m really going to miss the giant glass dildo cheerfully going up and down (don’t tell me you didn’t notice).  It made me snigger childishly every time…

I still have a few things to catch up on – Miranda, The Girl and the documentary on the creator of the Moomins. I’m also looking forward to Restless and Ripper Street.

Hopefully at least one of those will batter my cynical head into some nice uncritical enjoyment.

That would be nice…

…although I haven’t a clue what I’d write about then!

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what’s up doc…

One of the TV shows I should have written about last year was ITV1’s Monroe.  As the second series starts in a week it seems a good time to revisit series one.

I didn’t intend to watch it.  If I’m honest it sounded dreadfully derivative.  Maverick, sharp-tongued surgeon with disastrous private life; faithful but very slightly drippy best friend poised to point out the error of his ways; cold-hearted, damaged female surgeon with no private life at all to speak of and a sprinkling of trainees seemingly selected on the tick box system.

So far, so House

I was wrong.

I should have known I could trust Peter Bowker.  Monroe does have all those potentially clichéd characters but it does something very clever with them and twists them in ways that makes them properly three-dimensional.  Within the classic medical drama case of the week format there’s a lot to get your teeth (or scalpel) into.

Gabriel Monroe (James Nesbitt) is provided with the traditional touch of tragedy and ravaged home life but it’s easy to find some sympathy.  His wife calmly leaves him after they see their son settled in his University rooms, a move she’s planned for six years, since Monroe had an affair.  It seems cold and calculating but as we learn more about the family it’s hard to see how else she could have done it.  The death of their daughter Charlotte was always going to fracture the family eventually.  It’s warming to see how the three do manage to find some kind of new relationship throughout the series and the scenes of Monroe and Anna after he’s failed to save a girl a similar age to  Charlotte are touching and real.

Of course if this were a proper clichéd drama there is the perfect set up for an unlikely romance between Monroe, the brain surgeon ruled by his heart, and Bremner, a heart surgeon ruled very firmly by her head.  As it isn’t, there isn’t and Bremner actually gets entangled with the oh-so-nice Shepherd (Tom Riley), much to Monroe’s amusement.  Although he does seem to take just a little too much pleasure in seeing them floundering.  Monroe’s plea to Bremner that she and Shepherd join their damaged souls together to form “one great big damaged… thing” falls on determinedly deaf ears.

When I started writing this it took me by surprise how little we know about the lead characters.  There’s a but of back story for Monroe and his family and something that Bremner reluctantly confides to Shepherd? But there’s not a scrap of detail about Shepherd.  he’s the proverbial good sort; popular, kind, funny, good at his job, probably a bit of a romantic – but how has he managed to stay so nice?  Charmed life?  Genie in a lamp?  No idea…  I’d like to know more about him.

He can’t be as good as he seems, can he?  Bremner calls him a rescuer and I can see that but I wonder why he is?  Did something happen in his past to make him that way?  The occasional flashes of anger hint at a much darker side to Shepherd that we’ve yet to see.

Jenny Bremner (Sarah Parish) can’t see why anyone feels the need to fix her or why Shepherd wants to rescue her.  She’s fine as she is.  The suicide of her father when she was 16 taught her to keep people at arm’s length, that way no one gets close enough to hurt her.  I’m sure she thinks of herself as firm but fair although her trainees certainly find her daunting.  When she finally tells Whitney she had no doubts about her competence it obviously comes as a relief and a shock.

She gets some of the best lines though, especially when she – well, I was going to say consoles but that’s not the right word at all – Mullery when Fortune is in surgery for the aneurysm that Mullery blames himself for.

Masculinity requires many myths to sustain it but there is no orgasm on earth that caused an aneurysm all by itself.  Fortune’s condition cannot be put down to your unbridled passion.  I’m sorry to disappoint you.

The moment when Mullery tells her that he’s happy to be talked about tells much about both of them.  It’s a glimpse of his ambition and a certain ruthlessness that lurks below the surface.  For Bremner, I’m sure she’s content enough with professional accolades but the thought of her personal life being discussed and dissected is anathema and she looks at him as if he’s a new and unknown species.

It’s Sally Fortune (Manjinder Virk) who shows us the side of Monroe that teaches and cherishes his protégés.  He’s sarcastic to her – as he is with everyone – but encouraging and supportive.  If he’s on your side that must feel like a good place to be.  Sadly Fortune is sacrificed to a convenient (plot wise) brain operation after some – presumably enthusiastic – sex with Mullery much to the surprise of pretty much everyone.  The sex, that is, not the operation.  On top of that she also has a heart complaint and Monroe and Bremner get to fight and then bond over her treatment.  When I say bond I mean they talk about each other quite nicely to other people, not any of that sloppy face to face stuff!

A more cynical person – like Springer – might wonder if trainees Whitney (Christina Chong) and Wilson (Michelle Asante) were chosen to round out the ethnic balance.  Although he does concede that Whitney isn’t “ethnic ethnic”. How she managed not to slap him is a mystery.  Wilson moves on from fainting to being quietly competent but she lacks confidence and you wonder how she’ll ever elbow her way past the brash Springer.  Whitney, however, has the confidence and the backing of Bremner and – out of the four – seems the most successfully integrated into hospital life.  She goes home occasionally for a start!  And she’s invited to the poker nights, a privilege that Springer takes time to earn.  Were Wilson and Mullery ever invited?  Somehow I don’t think so.

Springer (Luke Allen-Gale) is weighed down by the terrible burden of being white, male, middle class and affluent.  It’s a nasty affliction with the side effect of being snidely and viciously competitive.  Basically he’s a slug and I rather enjoyed despising him until he made me laugh in episode six.

I could say something tactless and offensive if that would help?

Damn him. I can’t possibly get to like Springer, house colours for Bridge forsooth.  I shall have my little red book confiscated…

my blog hat…

With my other blog hat on (the rather lovely one that I wear when I write about Being Human) it would be remiss of me not to give a slightly disproportionate amount of space to Andrew Gower as Mullery.  Monroe was his first professional role and he followed it with a rather different doctor in Frankenstein’s Wedding.  He then went on to play an absolute blinder as nasty vampire solicitor Cutler in series four of Being Human.

Mullery – AKA Dozy Bollocks – doesn’t get a great deal to do for a while except be slightly vague and rather endearingly ineffectual.  It’s to Bremner’s credit that she doesn’t make total mincemeat out of him as she well could!  He strikes me as better academically than practically or maybe the confidence in applying his diligent research just needs to catch up a bit.  He’s an awkward mixture of eager to please, ambition and foot in mouth.

It’s interesting that there are a number of characters who give no hint of any life outside the hospital, Mullery being one of them.  Always in scrubs, never seen in street clothes, but I suspect there’s a determination and a steely edge somewhere under that fluffy head of hair – or possibly a level of petulance that we’ve only glimpsed.  (And it’s not fair…)    Will he stick with Fortune? Or she with him?  I doubt it; I think his ambitions go further than that.

And for those fans of Andrew Gower’s music did you spot the song played when he invited Fortune on a date after her operation?  It was “Better of Me”, performed by Emerson, co-written and sung by Andrew Gower.  Nice touch!

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Only a week until series two starts so what am I looking forward to?

Neil Pearson.

Seeing what happened to Shepherd and Bremner and maybe seeing more of the darker Shepherd that I suspect he’s been hiding.

Slightly concerned about Mullery’s development as ‘quirky’ and I really hope the writing stays good enough to pull that off. Please don’t let quirky = zany, ‘I’m mad me’ or the acquisition of unusual hobbies.  No taxidermy.  No casseroling road kill.  No morris dancing…

Neil Pearson.

Please let Springer be vile so I can happily resume despising!  The glimpse of braces bodes well on that front.

Series two starts 18 months on from the end of series one – that’s a really good gap to get a whole new set of challenges and stories started.

Oh, did I mention I’m looking forward to seeing Neil Pearson back on my TV?

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