Film Review: Official Secrets (2019)

Keira Knightley is excellent in the all-too-relevant Official Secrets, a film full of theatrical talent 

“Just because you’re the Prime Minister doesn’t mean you can make up your own facts”

I’m not quite sure how I managed to let Official Secrets pass me by late last year, given how thesp-heavy its cast is. Practically every scene is filled with familiar faces of much-loved actors, so getting to catch up with it now was a real pleasure. Based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War by Marcia & Thomas Mitchell, Gavin Hood’s docudrama is eminently watchable  and a salutary reminder of how far governments are willing to (over)reach in the face of uncomfortable truths.

It is based on the true story of Katharine Gun, a low-level GCHQ employee who leaked a secret memo that exposed the lengths that the US and UK were willing to go to in order to secure backing for their invasion of Iraq in 2003, in the face of the lack of any tangible WMDs. She copies the memo for a media friend, a front-page scoop follows and thus the consequences of breaching the Official Secret Act are brought to bear. Continue reading “Film Review: Official Secrets (2019)”

Review: Again, Trafalgar Studios 2

“It’s like asking a halibut to understand a panther”

Most families have a story or three, the kind of tales that go down in folklore, destined to be repeated at family events no matter embarrassing for the parent/sibling/etc involved. I doubt many will have as good an anecdote as the Barcelona suitcase story which crops up midway through Again, making its world premiere at the Trafalgar Studios 2 in this Mongrel Thumb production.

The ways in which families tell and retell stories, communicating or struggling to communicate to each other, lies at the heart of what writer Stephanie Jacob is trying to achieve here. Married to a playful theatrical structure that emphasises how tricky saying the right thing can be (or unsaying the wrong thing…) but also which allows for infinite possibility, Again makes for an intermittently striking evening. Continue reading “Review: Again, Trafalgar Studios 2”

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 3

“You 
Are 
Not 
Alone”

There’s something perhaps a bit perverse in some of the strongest episodes of new Who emerging from the series which (arguably) had the weakest companion. Freema Agyeman was ill-served by writing that couldn’t let her be a companion in her own right, as opposed to the-one-in-Rose’s-shadow, and consequently never felt entirely comfortable in the TARDIS.

Series 3 has real highs and certain lows – the introduction of Doctor-lite episodes (to ease the production schedules) produced the inventive wonder that was Blink (and further proved Steven Moffat’s genius), the unashamed grab for the heartstrings was perfectly realised in the Human Nature / The Family of Blood double-header, and the re-introduction of one of the Doctor’s most enduring foes was well-judged. That said, we also had the inevitable return of the Daleks who already feel like they’re in danger of over-exposure.

Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 3”

DVD Review: Valkyrie (2008)

“We have to show the world that not all of us are like him”

I have to admit that my hopes were not high for Valkyrie, the assumption prevailing that Hollywood couldn’t manage a nuanced film about the Nazis. But I do have to commend Bryan Singer for at least exceeding those expectations. It’s still not a film that I particularly enjoyed though, not quite tense or suspenseful enough for a thriller, not quite psychologically intense.

The film concerns the failed assassination of Adolf Hitler by German officers of the Wehrmacht in 1944. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg returns from a grisly battle in Tunisia gravely injured and is identified as a key target by the German resistance after getting a desk job that puts him in the ideal position to destroy the Nazi high command from the inside. Spoiler alert – things, however, do not go to plan. Continue reading “DVD Review: Valkyrie (2008)”

TV Review: Coalition, Channel 4

“No Lib Dem leader has ever had this kind of exposure and opportunity”

James Graham definitely seems to be having a moment – the noted playwright has been branching out into film and TV and with some serendipitous timing, is showcasing his talent in all three avenues. The Vote will soon be hitting the Donmar, X&Y is in cinemas as we speak, and his television film Coalition aired on Channel 4 last night. I’ve yet to catch X&Y but if Coalition is anything to go by, then there’s absolutely no fear that he is overstretching himself as it was a cracking bit of telly.

One of the reasons it worked so well for me was its basis in more-or-less contemporary events. His play This House was a sterling piece of political theatre but for someone who had no knowledge of the 1970s politicking it portrayed, there was always a sense of catch-up whereas the more august members of the audience could enjoy the nuances of Graham’s skilful writing and observations without the niggle of also trying to work out just what was going on.  Continue reading “TV Review: Coalition, Channel 4”

Review: Stevie, Minerva

“I don’t care what they think”

The quality of theatre that the Chichester Festival Theatre produces on a regular basis can barely be questioned. Big musicals aside, it may rarely be heart-thumpingly exciting or shine with innovative flair, but rather the focus is on meticulously constructed productions of the more traditional side of drama. Which goes to say that CFT couldn’t be more MOR if it tried, at the top end of the middle of the road to be sure, but still lacking something of a cutting edge.

In some ways, it might be an unfair suggestion. Christopher Morahan’s production of Hugh Whitemore’s 1977 play Stevie is impeccably put together and features a fantastic performance from Zoë Wanamaker at its heart but the speed at which that heart races rarely gets above resting pace. The Stevie of the title is Stevie Smith, a poet and author who has been somewhat forgotten, whose work sprang from the minutiae of her daily life and the play goes about realising moments from that life. Continue reading “Review: Stevie, Minerva”

TV Review: WPC 56, Series 1

“Never forget your sole responsibility is to help the men”

I somehow managed to let the first series of WPC 56 pass me by last year. It may have played in the afternoons on BBC1 but anything starring Kieran Bew ought to have been much more firmly on my radar. So in advance of the new series starting, I was pleased to see a rerun which I was able to catch on the good old iPlayer. Created by Dominique Moloney, it tells the story of Gina Dawson, the first Woman Police Constable to join Brinford Constabulary in the West Midlands.

The show managed a great balance between following Dawson’s struggles to be accepted in such a male-orientated work environment – battling not only misogynistic colleagues but also an uncomprehending family and partner – and the series-long narrative about a potential serial killer and the disappearance of two local boys. Over five episodes of 45 minutes, I have to say I really enjoyed it, and not only for Bew’s DI Burns (although that was something of a boon). Continue reading “TV Review: WPC 56, Series 1”

Review: The Whisky Taster, Bush Theatre

“Never to live a single day
Without being painfully reminded
That one is not like others…”

The Whisky Taster centres around a pair of young executives at an advertising agency trying to win an account to promote a new brand of vodka. Nicola, a brash Croydonite, is a grafter but her colleague Barney has the condition synaesthesia, where the senses are somehow mixed up so that sufferers end up feeling colours for emotions and words have their own colours, which he utitlises to create winning ads. Under pressure from their boss to land this customer, they decide to employ a whisky taster to add a new depth to their campaign, but he ends up showing them a lot more about life than they were expecting.

The play literally crackles into life with the first meeting between Barney and the whisky taster. As Stahl gives a wonderfully written spiel about each of the whiskys they are tasting, we see a visual representation of the synaesthesia kick in spectacular fashion. James Farncombe’s lighting design snakes around Lucy Osbourne’s cleverly designed set in a scintillating manner reaching heights which are never really matched again. The interactions with the whisky taster are what makes this play special as there’s a genuine connection between this pair which is really interesting to watch. The romantic melodrama thread and the satirical elements on the advertising world didn’t feel quite as unique, although still being well-written, feeling sparky and contemporary and all fitting together nicely. Continue reading “Review: The Whisky Taster, Bush Theatre”

Review: The Lady From Dubuque, Theatre Royal Haymarket

When Edward Albee’s 1980 play The Lady From Dubuque opened on Broadway, it lasted for just 12 performances. So I imagine they are hoping for a little more success with this production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket featuring a largely American cast, augmented by our very own Dame Maggie Smith. It is a much more challenging work than say Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but director Anhony Page is clearly up for the challenge.

The play starts at a strained party in Connecticut at which three couples have been playing 20 Questions with increasing rancour. It ends when Jo, the hostess who we find out is dying of cancer, can no longer bear her pain. Afterwards, a mysterious woman, the “lady from Dubuque”, who insists she is the mother of the hostess, arrives with a companion and raises more difficult questions. Continue reading “Review: The Lady From Dubuque, Theatre Royal Haymarket”