TV Review: Trying (Apple TV)

Rafe Spall and Esther Smith impress in British comedy Trying, helped by the likes of Imelda Staunton and Cush Jumbo

“Hitler?
‘Badminton?'”

Just a quickie for this, as I’ve only just started to actually have a look at what is on AppleTV since they decided to extend my free trial. Created and written by Andy Wolton, Trying is a rather sweet and very typically British sitcom that follows Jason and Nikki, a 30-something couple as they struggle to conceive naturally and decide that they would like to adopt. Led by Rafe Spall and Esther Smith, the show is lots of fun and is blessed with some wonderful supporting performances.

Forever skirting that comedy/drama line, Trying is unafraid of tackling some rather meaty issues. Infertility and what that does to a couple, the inequities of the adoption system, funding for ESOL classes… And even the simplest idea of how relationships grow and are tested by the act of self-reflection – how do you measure achievement when London property prices lock you into renting forever and opportunities to climb the job ladder are way too few and far between. Continue reading “TV Review: Trying (Apple TV)”

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 4

“Donna Noble has left the library. Donna Noble has been saved”

And here we are, my favourite series of Doctor Who. So much huge wonderfulness and even its less good moments are still more than halfway decent. Key to the series’ success is Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble – gobby and one-dimensional in her introductory episode the Christmas special The Runaway Bride, her character journey throughout this season is magisterially constructed, a true awakening of self (with thankfully no romantic inclinations towards our Time Lord) and one given unbearable poignancy due to its frustratingly tragic end.

It’s also one of the best constructed series in terms of its over-arching season arc, its warnings and clues layered meaningfully into several stories and building into a momentous and properly climactic finale, which lands just about the right level of grandiosity. There’s also the first companion-lite episode (the superbly creepy Midnight) to go with the Doctor-lite one (the achingly beautiful dystopian Turn Left); a typically brilliant Moffat double-header in  Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead with gorgeous work from Alex Kingston as the soon-to-be-hugely-significant River Song; and if the return of Rose undoes some of the emotional impact of the Series 2 finale, Billie Piper’s work is spikily powerful. These are episodes I can, and have, watched over and over again.

Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 4”

Review: The Lower Depths, Arcola Theatre

“Living is fucking impossible and that’s the truth of it”

The Arcola launch their Revolution Season, marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and exploring its considerable impact, with a new production of Gorky’s The Lower Depths played by an ensemble who will remain on duty for the subsequent play in the main house The Cherry Orchard. And whilst I do enjoy getting to visit and revisit an ensemble, I have to admit to really not enjoying this.

Translated by Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter-Blair and directed by Helena Kaut-Howson, The Lower Depths focuses on the downstairs from Chekhov’s upstairs, the angst of the aristocracy replaced by the desperation of the downtrodden and it really is as much fun as it sounds. A cast of nearly 20 play an assortment of misery-bound miscreants passing through a Moscow lodging house for the destitute, complaining volubly about their lot in life. Continue reading “Review: The Lower Depths, Arcola Theatre”

DVD Review: Wolf Hall

“By the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus”

Peter Straughan’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies into a six-part TV serial has no right to be this good but somehow, it manages the extraordinary feat of being genuinely excellent. I didn’t watch it at the time and so caught up with its complexities and nuances over a binge-watch at Christmas. And though I’m no real fan of his acting on stage, there’s no doubting the titanic performance of Mark Rylance as the almighty Thomas Cromwell.

Mantel charts the rise of this lowly-born blacksmith’s boy through service as lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey (a brilliant Jonathan Pryce) to the heights of the Tudor court as Henry VII’s (Damian Lewis on fine form) chief fixer, predominantly in the matter of securing the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon to enable him to wed Anne Boleyn. Rylance really is very good, subtler than he is onstage as he negotiates the world of ‘gentlemen’ – in which he is constantly underestimated – from the sidelines, wielding increasing amounts of power, though with it fewer and fewer scruples. Continue reading “DVD Review: Wolf Hall”

Review: Othello, Crucible

“Men should be what they seem; Or those that be not, would they might seem none!”

Forming part of the 40th anniversary season at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre is a production of Othello which continues their ability to attract top-notch televisual talent: last year saw John Simm taking on Hamlet and here we find both Dominic West and Clarke Peters. But for all the draw of these stars of The Wire, the reason that I actually booked in the end was the casting of Alexandra Gilbreath, one of the few actresses for whom I would travel just about anywhere to see, indeed I’ve not actually got round to watching any of The Wire yet (I was all about Battlestar Galactica y’see).

It is actually the first time I had seen this play on stage, it wasn’t one I ever studied and held little interest for me since then if I’m honest, but I thought I would give this one a try and the decision paid dividends for this was a truly superb production. Directed by Daniel Evans, it is a traditional rendition but far from old-fashioned as this tale of deep betrayal pulses with life and energetic drama on the wide open stage of the Crucible. Continue reading “Review: Othello, Crucible”

Review: Cymbeline, Tabard Theatre

“Hath Britain all the sun that shines?”

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, occupying an uneasy middle ground between tragedy, romance, comedy with a loose smattering of history thrown in for good measure and thus garnering the reputation as one of his problem plays. New London-based theatre company Avanti have taken up the challenge with their 1970s re-imagining though which is currently playing at the Tabard Theatre in West London.

It’s essentially a romance, with tragic overtones, focusing on Imogen, a princess of Britain who has secretly married her lowly childhood friend Posthumus, frustrating the plans of her wicked (step)mother. Upon finding out, her father King Cymbeline banishes him from the kingdom, and thus a whole merry load of confusions start. Posthumus is tricked into believing Imogen has been unfaithful and orders her murder, Imogen is forewarned and dispatched to Wales in the guise of a boy, there she meets two random boys who turn out to have a very strong connection to her, more betrayals and murder ensue, there’s a bit of a war, the god Jupiter pops down for a chat and then there’s an incredibly neat, yet interminably long ending in which every single plot strand is recapped and then resolved.

Perhaps it is not the most considered of opinions but it is all a bit bonkers really, incorporating so many Shakespearean devices that are familiar to us from other plays – cross-dessing princesses, potions that feign death, long-lost children, wagers about virtue – and folding them all into the one huge narrative, but matters aren’t necessarily helped by some of the creative decisions. It is set in a loose version of the 70s, all flares and flowery shirts, and in large part this is surprisingly effective: Posthumus’ defiance of society’s norm, Imogen’s rebellion against the convention’s of her parents’ generation, the singing of the young princes over a dead body feels a heartbeat away from Godspell, but these all fit well with the concept. It is less successful later on though when history kicks in as Rome invades Britain, some vaguely fascist-looking uniforms appearing lending a slightly surreal air.

Continue reading “Review: Cymbeline, Tabard Theatre”