Review: Promises Promises, Southwark Playhouse

“That’s what you get for all your trouble”

On the face of it, you could see why reviving Promises Promises would be an appealing prospect – written by Neil Simon from a Billy Wilder film and featuring a score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. But digging even just a little deeper – a running time of nearly 3 hours and an antiquated set of gender politics made it a tough one to watch, and an even tougher one to excuse in today’s society.

If you were so inclined, you could argue that Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s original screenplay for the 1960 film The Apartment is “a triumph of 1960s sexual work-place politics” but quite what that has to say to audiences today is very unclear, (apart from gentlemen d’un certain âge craving the good old days natch). I have liked much of director Bronagh Lagan’s previous work but I can’t help pondering the choice here. Continue reading “Review: Promises Promises, Southwark Playhouse”

Album Review: Love Birds (Original Edinburgh Cast 2015)

“Today is yesterday’s tomorrow”

If anyone should be allowed to write a musical about the 4 penguins from Mary Poppins, then it makes sense that it should be a man who is the son and nephew of the composers from that film. For Robert J Sherman is very much continuing in the family business – his father Robert B and uncle Richard being the Sherman Brothers who are among the most successful film songwriters in history, a legacy explored by Robert J in his A Spoonful of Sherman show – with his own venture into musical theatre with Love Birds.

The show premiered to generally great acclaim in Edinburgh last summer and a cast recording was subsequently made, allowing the show to live on in hopeful anticipation of further life. And on first listen, it’s no grandiose claim, for Love Birds captures much of the easy but deceptively simple charm that served his forebears so well. The show centres on a 1920s avian vaudeville run by a dinosaur (stay with me…) struggling to deal with the necessary changes to stay with the ever-changing times. Continue reading “Album Review: Love Birds (Original Edinburgh Cast 2015)”

DVD Review: Cambridge Spies

“Ponces and spies, Anthony. The people with most to hide never have moustaches.”

In retrospect, I can’t even begin to comprehend why it has taken me so long to getting round to watching Cambridge Spies (the obvious lack of time given how much theatre I see aside) – a quality BBC drama with a properly thesp-heavy cast about spies, with gayness involved, and Imelda Staunton as the Queen (Mother). But regardless, it has taken me this long and of course I’m kicking myself as I thought it was a brilliant piece of drama. Over four parts, Peter Moffat takes us through the key years of four of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies from their recruitment at Trinity College through to the defection of two of them nearly 20 years later.

It was a story I knew little of, so there was a genuine frisson in watching how it all unfolded, not knowing what would happen next, but the real thrill was in the excellent character work from the four leads – Toby Stephens as Kim Philby, Tom Hollander as Guy Burgess, Rupert Penry-Jones as Donald Maclean and particularly Samuel West as Anthony Blunt. From their idealistic anti-fascist student days when the Soviet Union seemed like the only real option to stand against the encroaching terror, the wisdom of the KGB’s recruiting plan was borne out by the ascendance of these four into the higher echelons of the British state, from where they would be able to provide the most important of secrets. Continue reading “DVD Review: Cambridge Spies”

Radio Review: The Last Breath / The Diary of a Nobody

“What is it? A drama, a documentary?”

A couple of short radio reviews, as with having to have done a fair bit of travelling over the last weeks, I’ve had ample time to listen to things. First up was a fascinating piece called The Last Breath, which I particularly admired for being something quite challenging, both in subject matter and form, even in the afternoon drama slot on Radio 4. Created by Ben Fearnside with Anita Sullivan and set in a 2018 UK where assisted suicide has been legalised, it chronicles the attempts of a radio producer – Anita – to profile an artist – Ben – who is making a piece of modern art which will be the capture of someone’s dying breath in a jar and displayed for all to see.

Fearnside and Sullivan’s work sits somewhere between documentary and drama – real people and real names are utilised in the telling of what is a fictional story (I couldn’t quite work out why there had to be one fictional character, though it was pleasure to get to hear Nicola Walker’s sonorous voice again) which posed and worked through, if not providing necessarily neat answers, to some powerful questions. The ethics of ending one’s own life, the ethics of representing that in whatever form, the role that art has to play in peoples’ lives, to entertain, to educate, to provoke. I wasn’t mad keen on the use of music as I couldn’t quite see what it added to the show as a whole, but overall I found it a rather strong piece of radio drama. Continue reading “Radio Review: The Last Breath / The Diary of a Nobody”

Review: No Naughty Bits, Hampstead Theatre

“You’re concerned about the logic.
‘I’m concerned that it looks f**king terrible.’”

No Naughty Bits continues the slightly odd trend at the Hampstead Theatre for new plays that are fictionalised versions of real events. Set in December 1975 after Monty Python’s Flying Circus had been broadcast on US television by ABC but in an edited and censored version that cut out the ‘naughty bits’. It follows the legal struggles of Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam as they fly out to New York to battle the network and defend their show, arguing in court for the freedom of artistic expression, against censorship and demonstrating how far apart senses of humour can be. Steve Thompson’s play is fictional, described as a ‘fantasy version’ of what happened though quite what that means, I am not entirely sure.

Harry Hadden-Paton is the one carrying the weight of the show on his shoulders here as Michael, the driving force behind the defence of their beloved television show even if, or maybe because of, the fact that it is not their best work, John Cleese having left the group and so something of the unique magical mixture gone forever. Hadden-Paton shows us the man before the fame really kicked in, still in disbelief that he’d come as far as he had but not yet successful enough to be able to afford the Christmas presents he wants to get his kids, and he does sterling work throughout, his rather plaintive naïveté in dealing with this new commercial world is most appealing. The main problem though is that too often the writing just isn’t funny enough, especially in the first half. Continue reading “Review: No Naughty Bits, Hampstead Theatre”

Review: Betrayal, Comedy Theatre

“I don’t think we don’t love each other”

Spread over nine years, 1968 to 1977 to be precise, Betrayal traces the affair between Emma who is cheating on her husband Robert with his best friend Jerry but tells the story in reverse, starting two years after it ended and working its way back to how it all started but exposing the many other betrayals that have plagued the lives of all three protagonists. Harold Pinter’s 1978 play took inspiration from his own extra-marital activities and was seen in London as recently as 2007 at the Donmar but this Ian Rickson-directed production is most notable for marking the return of the luminous Kristin Scott Thomas to the London stage along with co-stars Douglas Henshall and Ben Miles. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I was offered the chance to see this preview from the dress circle which was nice (though I was surprised at how little leg-room there was).

Full disclosure here, I love Kristin Scott Thomas I really do: she epitomises elegance for me but I most admire how she has really embraced her bi-lingual position, mixing intriguing French film work in with her English-language performances to develop into a most interesting actress of confounding depth. And here at the Comedy Theatre she displays a delightful girlishness and emotional vulnerability at times which is unlike anything I’ve seen her do: the jealousy in her eyes as Jerry talks of his wife and her fulfilling life is a wonderfully sparky moment. Ben Miles has a fine commanding masculinity about his performance and Douglas Henshall has the most, if not all, of the witty charisma of his jet-setting literary agent. To these ears (which have largely avoided Pinter to be honest) the dialogue sounded impressively natural, as opposed to the poised theatricality exemplified by Deborah Findlay and David Bradley in the recent Moonlight, though I am no unsure what the intended effect here is or indeed if Pinter’s writing in these plays can be so directly compared. Continue reading “Review: Betrayal, Comedy Theatre”