Lockdown TV review: The Dresser (2015)

Sirs Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins do much to banish my bad memories of Ronald Harwood in a spectacular version of The Dresser

“One Lear more or less in the world won’t make any difference”

Despite its stellar casting and excellent notices, it has taken a while to bring myself to watch the TV version of The Dresser.  In advance of the 2016 production which toured before hitting the West End, playwright Ronald Harwood took precisely no prisoners and gave exactly no shits in giving a series of interviews (#1, #2) which, to put it lightly, did not endear him to me. And rightly or wrongly (only being human), I let that colour my appreciation of his art.

A little distance has softened me though and I have to say, I found much to appreciate in this televised version, not least the presence of Sirs Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins  and Ian McKellen in the two central roles of an ageing Shakespearean and his manservant. Its the middle of the Second World War and their production of King Lear is still touring the regions, even though its leading man is perilously close to losing his faculties. Continue reading “Lockdown TV review: The Dresser (2015)”

Review: Dear Brutus, Southwark Playhouse

“I am not the man I thought myself”

There’s a knack to finding the kind of long-neglected plays that respond well to a revival, as opposed to the ones that are deservedly collecting dust, and Ashley Cook’s Troupe seem to have nailed it. Making a name for themselves with the likes of Rodney Ackland’s After October and James Shirley’s The Cardinal, Troupe has now turned to JM Barrie – best known of course for sharing the same birthday as me, oh, and Peter Pan – to shine a light on the little-performed 1917 play Dear Brutus.

It is undoubtedly a curious thing. It is set in a country house where the Puckish figure of its owner – Robin Hooper’s Lob – has invited a group of strangers for the weekend, with the intention of luring them into the enchanted wood that appears every midsummer to explore the lives that they might have led. A piece of magic-infused escapism that shifts tonally between whimsical frivolity and real psychological acuity, tear-jerking drama and comic romps and as such, can feel hard to pin down.  Continue reading “Review: Dear Brutus, Southwark Playhouse”

DVD Review: Quartet

“I do hate getting older, I hate every bloody moment of it” 

Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut on film came last year in the form of an adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play Quartet, set in a retirement home for gifted musicians and singers. At Beecham House, the residents attend various classes and activities, teach visiting youngsters the tricks of their trades and participate in the yearly gala concert necessary to boost the finances and keep it open. And this ability to fulfil their love for performance is what makes it a special place and where the film finds its greatest successes in the midst of its otherwise inoffensive charms.

The main thrust of the story is around the arrival of grande dame Jean Horton, a retired opera singer who is struggling to come to terms with her new circumstances. She keeps herself to herself, refusing to join in with the communal activities, even though she is now living with former friends, colleagues and husbands. This is particularly pertinent as her arrival completes the quartet of performers from the most acclaimed version of Rigoletto since the Second World War and everyone is alive to the fundraising potential of such a reunion. But Jean has bridges to build, most notably with her bitter ex Reg, and with Cissy and Wilf hoping they’ll all get to sing together again, they get to the business of putting the past to rest.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Quartet”

Review: Versailles, Donmar Warehouse

“Democracy…such an un-English word”

Expectations for Peter Gill’s Versailles were quite low due to a number of factors – a five star review from Billington; my reaction to Making Noise Quickly, Gill’s last directorial intervention at the Donmar; the announcement of a running time of 3 hours; and decidedly mixed chatter from friends who had already seen it. And as it often the way with these things, I ended up rather enjoying it. It certainly helped that I was prepared for the extreme steadiness of its pacing and the dip of the second act of this self-directed play.

Set in the aftermath of the First World War, Gill examines and contrasts the impact of the peace process of Versailles on a Europe ravaged by conflict and also on a slice of middle-class English society, notably Kentish families the Rawlinsons and the Chaters. Leonard Rawlinson is a young civil servant involved in the negotiations for the treaty but he is haunted by both his doubts of whether a lasting peace can be achieved through these means and the ghost of his fallen soldier lover Gerald, who just happened to be the son of the neighbouring Chaters.  Continue reading “Review: Versailles, Donmar Warehouse”

Review: The Recruiting Officer rehearsed reading, St James Theatre

“Two and twenty horses killed under me that day”

Accompanying their production of Our Country’s Good, Out of Joint have put together a programme of rehearsed readings of various of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s plays and threw in a bonus reading of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer for good measure. It is a natural choice as it is the play which the convicts of Our Country’s Good are performing and in using the same cast here, the actors are able to play the characters they are ‘rehearsing’ in the other piece which has a lovely neatness about it.

Farquhar’s play is deliciously dry and funny, impressively so for a 1706 Restoration comedy, and even with the limited rehearsal time and the cast having scripts in hand, there was a real sense of the rich comic potential of the material. And having seen it fairly recently at the Donmar Warehouse, it was interesting to see the different choices and dynamics that a new company brought. Ian Redford’s older Kite had a weariness of the soul that felt entirely appropriate, John Hollingworth’s take on Brazen was straighter than Mark Gatiss’ out-and-out fop but no less hilarious for it and the doubling that most of the actors did was impressively done and added to the humour quotient. Continue reading “Review: The Recruiting Officer rehearsed reading, St James Theatre”

Review: Our Country’s Good, St James Theatre

“In my own small way, in just a few hours, I have seen something change”

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good was first produced 25 years ago by Max Stafford-Clark and his Out of Joint company and as it has remained an evergreen success, in no small part due to regular appearances as a set text for students, a revival makes good sense. And with Stafford-Clark taking on directorial duties once again, it makes for a fascinating chance to see an impresario revisiting a work with which he is inextricably linked.

Much of the appeal of Wertenbaker’s work lies in its celebration of theatre as a cultural medium but also as something more, something that can heal and restore the soul. And so as a group of convicts newly transported to Australia are convinced to put on a play – George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer – by an officer of reformist tendencies, we see the transformative power of drama and a subtle shift in the way that punishment is viewed as the idea of rehabilitation comes into play. Continue reading “Review: Our Country’s Good, St James Theatre”

Review: The Last of the Duchess, Hampstead Theatre

“I’m trying to get at the truth.
‘Your truth, not hers.’”

The Hampstead Theatre continues its trend of featuring plays concerning real people with The Last of the Duchess by Nicholas Wright, which is based on the book of the same name by Lady Caroline Blackwood detailing her attempts to secure an interview with the Duchess of Windsor towards the end of her life in 1980 to complete her literary profile of her. But though it is Wallis Simpson who is at the heart of the issue, the central figures are her lawyer Maître Suzanne Blum who staunchly defended her client from any outside influence or visitors with something of a siege mentality and Lady Caroline Blackwood herself, commissioned by the Sunday Times to interview the reclusive Duchess but also battling her own personal demons. This was the second preview so feel free to disregard everything written here if you are so inclined.

The play focuses on the battle of wills between these two women as Caroline senses a scoop in the mysterious atmosphere that permeates this Parisian household, intrigued by this powerful figure who now completely dominates the life of the Duchess and sees an opportunity to tell the story a different way. Anna Chancellor plays the disheveled aristocrat beautifully, determined to unravel the mystery she begins to uncover but barely able to keep herself from unraveling too, the glass of vodka that is never far from her hand failing to keep the turmoil of her personal life at bay. And in the other corner, Sheila Hancock exudes a Gallic imperiousness as the fiercely protective Blum, her every breath inexplicably dedicated to protecting the legacy of her employer and clearly relishing the power of attorney she now possesses, yet even she cannot resist the lure of a moment in the spotlight, becoming increasingly susceptible to the overtures to have herself interviewed and photographed by Lord Snowden instead. Continue reading “Review: The Last of the Duchess, Hampstead Theatre”