Review: Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, National Theatre

“I see a change in this Trinidad”

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl is a 1953 play by Trinidadian playwright Errol John which has rather fallen into neglect, due to a rough time with contemporary producers who wanted it changed. But Michael Buffong has unearthed it in its original state for the National Theatre and given the Cottesloe an intimate Caribbean-infused flavour in this rather gentle production which I found to be rather enjoyable.

We find ourselves in a run-down part of Port of Spain where a group of neighbours are introduced to us along with the travails of their lives, disrupted somewhat by the raucous  troops returning from the Second World War, as some concentrate on getting through the daily grind and others dream of escape. Two main characters exemplify these differing approaches: Martina Laird’s empathetic Sophia, a stalwart matriarch figure rooted in this homestead and whose heart beats for everyone , and Danny Sapani’s Ephraim who is determined to carve out a better life for himself in England, even as family responsibilities loom large. Continue reading “Review: Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, National Theatre”

Radio Review: Dickens in London

“It seems that I would be an uncommercial traveler”

The bi-centenary of Charles Dickens’ birth has been marked in several different ways across a variety of media and Dickens in London, this collection of five short radio plays by Michael Eaton was one which entertained me nicely. Adapted from some of Dickens’ journalistic essays, the plays deal with his changing impressions of London as he grew up, was stimulated by and then grew tired of the great city that inspired so much of his writing.

We start with A Not-Overly-Particularly-Taken-Care-Of Boy where the boy Charles gets lost on his very first visit with his uncle, then move to Boz, where a young man has secured himself employment as a Parliamentary Reporter for the Morning Chronicle but dreams of writing his own stories. Samuel Barnett is particularly good in these two first stories, his voice is particularly well suited to radio, so full of character and crackled emotion. Continue reading “Radio Review: Dickens in London”

DVD Review: The Tempest (Julie Taymor)

Behold the wronged Duchess of Milan, Prospera”

Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest sank from view rather quickly on its original release, despite having the eye-catching coup of Helen Mirren taking on the lead role – renamed here Prospera. It wasn’t the best of times for Taymor at the beginning of 2011, riding a rather torrid time over the debacle of the much-delayed Spiderman musical, and perhaps people didn’t take this work as seriously as they might have done otherwise. Her previous Shakespeare adaptation – the fierce Titus – was a film I found endlessly intriguing and so I was actually quite keen to see this and thus frustrated when I realised I would have to wait for the DVD to be released.

Was it worth the wait…well, I’m not sure it was to be honest. The casting of Mirren is inspired and the text carries the little tinkering it needs to accommodate the gender switch very well – she’s the Duchess of Milan whose husband is murdered and title usurped by brother Antonio – and there’s an interesting shift in emphasis of the parenting relationship, the testing of Ferdinand feels more rooted in ensuring he’s an ideal suitor for Felicity Jones’ willowy Miranda. And Mirren speaks the verse with an intense passion, a burning fervour of injustice never far away but underscored with a measure of warmth. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Tempest (Julie Taymor)”

Review: Britannicus, Wilton’s Music Hall

“She loves my brother – I’ll have to console myself with his pain”

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new translation of Racine’s Britannicus updates the action to the modern day even though the story remains centred on a day in the life of Roman Emperor Nero. His power-hungry mother Agrippina manipulated things so that the succession passed to her favourite son Nero rather than rightful heir Britannicus after the death of Emperor Claudius, but her lust for power has passed down the bloodline. Rome shudders as Nero establishes himself politically, leaving Agrippina feeling increasingly marginalised, made worse by setting his gaze on his brother’s lover Junia.

Wilton’s Music Hall is such an atmospheric and idiosyncratic venue that I always want productions there to utilise it to its best potential so I have to admit to being a little disappointed by Chloe Lamford’s design which feels too modern and out of place. But Irina Brown’s direction makes inventive use of the space and also does make sense of the updating, Siân Thomas’ Agrippina channelling Thatcher vibes throughout as a woman battling in a male-dominated arena and the political intrigue that dominates everyone’s life whether they want it or not is immediately recognisable, no-one knows who to trust in this world of slippery political double-speak. Continue reading “Review: Britannicus, Wilton’s Music Hall”

Review: The Faith Machine, Royal Court

“Certainty is a state of mind, faith is a state of heart. There’s a marked difference, I believe.”

I wavered about the status of this review/not-a-review as the performance of the Royal Court’s The Faith Machine that I saw had to be delivered under house lights without any of Neil Austin’s lighting design since a heavy downpour in the afternoon had put the lighting rig out of action which was a shame as Mark Thompson’s design looks intriguing. Indeed, the rain continued to drip onto the stage throughout the show and so the actors had a fair amount to contend with whilst still working things out in this preview. We did still pay full price though so I am not feeling totally forgiving: so I’ve called it a review, but the focus will mainly be on the play itself rather than the production.

Alexi Kaye Campbell scored a massive hit with his first play The Pride back in 2008 and the play recently had its regional premiere which I was able to catch in Sheffield and I was vastly impressed by the maturity of the writing and its refusal to settle for easy answers. Thus the anticipation for The Faith Machine was quite high, especially with a cracking cast like the one put together here for Jamie Lloyd’s production. Continue reading “Review: The Faith Machine, Royal Court”

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