Film Review: The Lady in the Van

“You wouldn’t see Harold Pinter pushing vans down the street”

It is more than 15 years since Maggie Smith starred in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van in the West End but one can only imagine that the intervening years have deepened and enriched her performance as in this cinematic version, directed by Nicholas Hytner, she is just fantastic. The titular lady is Miss Shepherd, a cantankerous homeless woman who sets up shop on a Camden street in her junk-filled camper van and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bennett, in whose driveway she eventually convinces him to let her park.

This happened in real life to Bennett, she spent 15 or so years there in the end, and amping up the realism, the film was shot on location in the real street but it is also a highly theatrical version of events. Alex Jennings plays two iterations of Bennett, one the somewhat timid man, the other the acutely observational writer inside, and they often argue with each other, disagreeing on whether things happened a certain way, and debating his various reasons for letting Miss Shepherd so totally into his life. Continue reading “Film Review: The Lady in the Van”

Review: As Is, Trafalgar Studios 2

“You have HIV, you’re not radioactive” 

William M Hoffman’s As Is has the distinction of being the first play to be written about the Aids epidemic but what is more impressive about this production, which comes 30 years after its 1985 New York debut, is that it doesn’t feel a dated period piece. Director Andrew Keates respectfully looks to the past – a memorial wall is provided for audience members to pay tribute to those that have been lost – but firmly anchors us in the present with a wide range of post-show activity exploring the sexual health issues that are still a major part of our world today.

It also helps that Hoffman’s play is really rather well constructed. It may be set in the middle of a New York gay scene slowly coming to terms with its decimation but at its heart, it is a poignant love story. Self-satisfied and sexually voracious, Rich swaggers through the world but as he contracts the disease that is afflicting so many of those around him, his relationships with friends, family and society in general are forcefully redefined. Clinging to devoted ex Saul, it’s a deeply affecting personal odyssey but a defiantly proud one too. Continue reading “Review: As Is, Trafalgar Studios 2”

Film Review: Pride (2014)

“To find out you have a friend you never knew existed, well it’s the best feeling in the world”

I kind of knew that I would like the film Pride, I hoped that I would really like it, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how much I loved it – the kind of joyous, timeless film-making that makes you want to trot tired old clichés like Great British Classics. But it’s true, it really is. And it is also factually true – based on the real story of an unlikely alliance between a group of gay activists from London and a small Welsh mining community in the heart of the 1984 strike.

Written by Stephen Beresford (whose Last of the Haussmans probably ranks as one of my favourite new plays of recent years), there’s something just straight up lovely about the culture clash that emerges between the two groups, but also in the way that the assortment of odds and sods on both sides who are completely changed by the experience. I don’t think a coda has ever affected me quite so much in the revelation of finding out what actually happened to these people in real life. Continue reading “Film Review: Pride (2014)”

Review: The Duchess of Malfi, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“Are you out of your princely wits?”

Review the seat or review the play? Whilst I’d love to just focus on The Duchess of Malfi, the experience at the newly constructed Sam Wanamaker feels so inextricably entwined with the level of (dis)comfort that comes from the seating and exacerbated by ticket prices that are best described as hefty and take little real account of the relatively restricted view many of them offer. It’s all very well for critics to dismiss such concerns when they’re not having to compromise on sightlines due to cost but it all adds up to a very real part of one’s theatrical experience. 

So safe to say, I was hugely uncomfortable for large parts of the afternoon and bitter about the price I was paying for the privilege. But having been exhorted to go and see the play due to it being a decent piece of drama (and crucially far superior to Jamie Lloyd’s recent version which I loathed) I kept reminding myself that the tip was a good one. And it is impossible to deny that Dominic Dromgoole’s production is a strong one, well suited to the unique charms of this new theatrical space which is lit entirely by candles.  Continue reading “Review: The Duchess of Malfi, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse”

Review: People, National Theatre

“People spoil things”

Were I watching Alan Bennett’s new play People at home on DVD, I would probably make it a drinking game, with a shot to be taken every time the title appears. Except it wouldn’t last very long at all, no matter how strong your liver, as it is repeated, repeated and repeated in this lament for the fading fortunes of the English aristocracy. Dorothy Stacpoole, a former model who now lives a semi-reclusive life with her companion Iris, is being forced to decide the fate of her near-decrepit South Yorkshire stately home: should some of the contents be sold on to private investors, who are also interested in buying the whole house, or should it be given to the National Trust, who Bennett has decided to take aim at with this piece of writing.

In an incredibly slow-moving opening 30 minutes or so, it becomes apparent that Dorothy – Frances De La Tour oozing hauteur – favours the former option, whilst her Archdeacon sister June is determined that it should be the latter. Bennett rails against the commodification of history and the creation of ‘experiences’ but curiously he makes Dorothy the mouthpiece with her fears of having people traipsing through her home and disrupting her life. Quite why we’re expected to feel sympathy for this poor little (formerly) rich girl whose inability to take responsibility has left the house, and her life, in the state it is in, I’m not sure. Continue reading “Review: People, National Theatre”

Review: Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Must I bite?”

Marking the final entry in the Globe to Globe festival is the UK with this production of Henry V which reunites Jamie Parker with the role of Prince Hal that he played in 2010’s Henry IV Part I and II. The boy has now become king and the play covers his attempt to reconquer the English gains in France, most notably at the battle of Agincourt, and his growth into a leader who can inspire men to follow their duty to their country. Parker clearly has a close affinity to this character and it was a clever move to wait a couple of years before taking on this particular part as he is able to bring even more clear-spoken gravitas, colour and detail to this very human king.

Around him though, is a production by Dominic Dromgoole which errs very strongly towards the broadest crowd-pleasing comedy it can manage. Bríd Brennan’s beautifully versed Chorus and Olivia Ross’ poised Princess Katherine impressed as did the multi-part antics of Chris Starkie and Beruce Khan (additionally stepping in as understudy for an indisposed Matthew Flynn). But too often, the overreliance on the comic tone just fell flat for me. The Pistol, Bardolph et al antics were as bawdy as they have ever been, which ended up undermining their darker side (is the treatment of the French soldier really a subject of comedy?) and the tragedy of their fates (Boy is particularly hard done by). Continue reading “Review: Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Great Expectations, ETT at Watford Palace

“I want to be a gentleman”

English Touring Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations relocates the story of Pip’s advancement to nineteenth century India in this thrilling adaptation by Tanika Gupta. A poor village boy, Pip is given the chance to better himself after a frightening encounter with a convict and an engagement to regularly visit the reclusive Miss Havisham sets him on a new path that allows him to dream of being more than a village cobbler’s assistant. And when an anonymous benefactor allows him to move to Calcutta, the heart of the British Raj, he is free to pursue his dream of becoming a proper gentleman, part of the educated elite, in order to win the heart of the coldly alluring Estella.

Gupta’s reimagining works extremely well because Pip’s journey, with his aspirations to rise above his class and status, is given even greater impact by the fact that he is casting aside his cultural identity too, his Indianness, in the search to become the perfect educated gentleman, just like one of the ruling English. This makes the transformation he seeks to effect upon himself all the more dramatic, as depicted in a wonderful scene where he dons the waistcoat and cravat of his new station, and then provides a powerfully meaningful final transition in the last scene as he ultimately comes to recognise what his true self is. But also mixed in is another layer of racial tension: Magwitch becomes a black African convict, Estella is Miss Havisham’s “African princess” and so Gupta keeps the interplay much more universal than a simplistic Asian updating and she is unafraid to show both the comedy and violence in the story in its starkest forms.


Director Nikolai Foster (no relation!) manages the achievement of a great sense of fluidity to proceedings which is all the more remarkable when one considers that there’s 31 scenes here, reflecting the serialised way in which the story was originally published. Pulling in elements of traditional dance from Zoobin Surty and music from Nicki Wells (with Nitin Sawhney onboard as musical advisor too), the atmosphere is set perfectly and well-matched by Colin Richmond’s design with its saffron-dyed gauzy curtains which allows us to move effortlessly from murky graveyards to the burning sun of the village, from shadowed dusty corridors in mansions, to the bustling city streets of Calcutta and much more. Energy crackles from all aspects, from cast members bursting through the stalls to bowls of incense being lit in front of us, to create a real theatrical experience.

Tariq Jordan is exceptional as Pip, starting off as the naive youth oblivious to anything but his own desires and progressing slowly as experience is acquired, hearts broken, friends gained, dreams shattered, charting his maturing from boy to man and never letting us forget Pip’s humanity even when he is at his most blinkered. But this is a strong ensemble throughout: from Tony Jayawardena’s beautifully warm Joe Gargery and Kiran Landa’s wise-beyond-her-years Biddy, to Lynn Farleigh’s near-dessicated Miss Havisham and Simone James’ emotionally estranged Estella, there’s a real sense of clarity to all the characterisations here. Giles Cooper’s ever-so-English Herbert Pocket was a particular delight, as was Jude Akuwudike’s raw energy as Magwitch.

The only real criticism I found was that a couple of the more emotional moments were too heavily underscored by the swelling score that felt more akin to a Hollywood film, yanking at the heartstrings instead of playing to the more subtle poignancy of the actual play. But minor quibble aside, this is a superbly effective reimagining of Great Expectations which breathes a new vibrancy into this well-known story, which remains highly recognisable (the character of Orlick was the only one I could think of that has been omitted) and provides it with a timeless resonance, none more so than at the beginning of the final scene where a public speaker exhorts his crowd of listeners to “rise up brothers…break the shackles…we must argue our case for our right to determine the affairs of our own country”.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50
Booking until March 12th then touring to Cambridge, Brighton, Richmond, Guildford, Oxford and Malvern

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: After the Dance, National Theatre

“It’s the bright young people over again, only they never were bright and now they’re not even young”

After the Dance is one of Terence Rattigan’s lesser-performed plays; its less-than-stellar original reception due to its unfortunate timing, opening in 1939 as it did, meant it was a relative commercial failure. Rattigan’s personal antipathy to the piece because of this led to the play being excluded from anthologies of his work and it is only really after his death that it has been considerably re-appraised and now considered one of his masterpieces (according to the National Theatre website anyway!).

A cast of 25, under Thea Sharrock’s direction, tell the story of a group of wealthy London socialites, and their hanger-ons, as they set about the business of partying and just generally having a right rollicking good old time. The year is 1938 though, and these are the people who survived the horrors of the Great War, bright young things of the 20s unwilling to let go of the illusions of their youth even as the world tumbles towards another major conflict. At the centre of pile of empties are the Scott-Fowlers, Joan and David the ultimate party couple who got married for kicks and giggles yet find themselves 12 years later still together. Continue reading “Review: After the Dance, National Theatre”