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.

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TV Review: Silk, Series 3

“It’s not what any of you want”

And so it ends. A little unexpectedly, it was announced by creator Peter Moffat that this third series of Silk would be the last and whilst I would love to say that it was a fitting finale to the joys that were Series 1 and 2, I have to say I was quite disappointed in it. After showcasing Maxine Peake marvellously as the driven QC Martha Costello, here the character was barely recognisable; after securing the fabulous Frances Barber as a striking opposing counsel as Caroline Warwick, her incorporation into Shoe Lane Chambers neutered almost all the interest that had made her so fascinating; and with Neil Stuke’s Billy suffering health issues all the way through, the focus was too often drawn away from the courtroom.

When it did sit inside the Old Bailey, it did what the series has previously done so well, refracting topical issues through the eyes of the law – the kettling of protestors, Premiership footballers believing themselves beyond justice, assisted suicide, the effects of counter-terrorism on minority communities. And it continued to bring a pleasingly high level of guest cast – Claire Skinner was scorchingly effective as a mother accused of a mercy killing, Eleanor Matsuura’s sharp US lawyer reminding me how much I like this actress who deserves a breakthrough, and it always nice to see one of my favourites Kirsty Bushell on the tellybox, even if she melted a little too predictably into Rupert Penry-Jones’ arms. Continue reading “TV Review: Silk, Series 3”

DVD Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

“Eminently practical and yet appropriate as always”

I’ve been experimenting with a few DVD reviews over the past weeks –theatrical ones, charity shop bargain ones and I’ve been longing to revisit film versions of several shows that I’ve seen recently. In some cases, I knew the show before seeing the film, but in others, my first contact was on celluloid (or whatever it is they use these days) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was one of these. I actually saw it at the BFI when it was first released, with a Q+A with Tim Burton at the end of it (which was rather cringe-worthy with every question starting with ‘I love your films…’, ‘I love your work…’, ; ‘I love your socks…’). I came out of the film having rather loved it but it was only this autumn that I finally got round to seeing it on the stage at Chichester in a sensational production which has finally announced its transfer to the Adelphi from March next year.

As to be expected, it is an overtly Burton-esque piece of work with its desaturated palette allowing the red of the blood to pop even more than usual and the focus being on psychologically disturbed character. Frequent collaborators Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter take on the lead roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett and though neither of their voices are particularly strong, especially when up against Sondheim’s challenging score, Burton manages to make that much less of an issue than one might have thought. There’s a brooding intensity to the whole affair, a sense of drained weariness which subsequently finds strength in the vocal frailties. Alan Rickman makes a perfect Judge Turpin, his sonorous malevolence a highlight of the film especially in the ‘Pretty Women’ duet; Timothy Spall’s Turpin makes a strong impact too as does Sacha Baron Cohen’s would-be manipulator Signor Pirelli. Continue reading “DVD Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

Review: Collaborators, National Theatre

“It’s man versus monster Mikhail, and the monster always wins”

Apparently the play Collaborators was sent to the National Theatre on spec and as it is now opening in the Cottesloe (this was a preview) in a production directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings amongst others, it would perhaps suggest that anyone could be in with a chance of getting a play on the stage. But things are rarely as simple as they seem and although this is the debut play from John Hodge, he is a highly experienced screenwriter whose credits include Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and The Beach. His play riffs on historical fact to portray an imagined relationship between Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov and one of his biggest fans, Joseph Stalin, who commissioned him to write a play about his life for his sixtieth birthday.

Set in Moscow 1938 with the repressive regime well established and the secret police encouraging people to inform on dissident neighbours, Bulgakov had been forced into the difficult position of compromising his biggest success – The White Guard (a recent great success here at the NT) – to make it politically palatable for Stalin and accepting the banning of many of his other works due to their subversive message. Thus when he was offered the chance to write the Stalin play, it made both artistic sense – in finally getting his work on the stage again, and economic sense – in that he was able to negotiate a new apartment and a much better standard of living for him and his wife. The play imagines a series of meetings between the two, getting to know each other as the play gets written but whilst Bulgakov seems to get closer to Stalin and his viewpoints, his friends and associates are left living a life of increasing fear and intimidation. Continue reading “Review: Collaborators, National Theatre”

Review: Hamlet, National Theatre

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

It is apparently a truth universally acknowledged that any actor aiming for greatness needs to tackle Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most revered epic, and it is now the turn of Rory Kinnear, under the directorial baton of Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre to make his entry into the canon (this was the second preview). Recently we’ve had David Tennant and Jude Law, John Simm is currently performing it in Sheffield (I’ll be there on Wednesday) and Michael Sheen will be making his mark at the Young Vic next year. I don’t have a problem with this so much as just wish that there was a similar epic role for women which was restaged and revived as often to allow a comparable ticket to magnitude.

This is very much a modern-day Elsinore. Suited security guards with earpieces are ever-present, state of the art bugging technology is used, a briefcase of tools of torture is brandished and high-definition television cameras record political and battlefield broadcasts. Thus the familial quarrel at the heart of this play is firmly located in the wider political sphere of this dangerous Denmark and it is a mostly highly effective updating. Continue reading “Review: Hamlet, National Theatre”

Review: The White Guard, National

“Negativity be damned”

Maintaining a strong record of reviving Russian plays (Burnt By The Sun was a highlight of last year for me), Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard takes up residence in the Lyttleton in a version by Andrew Upton (I saw a preview, it opens officially on 23rd April). Stalin was famously a fan of this play but it should be noted that Bulgakov was no Stalinist and was pretty much a dissident, writing as anti-Soviet works as he dared whilst forbidden to leave the country and suffering much from censorship, a theme visited in another of his plays, Molière or the League of Hypocrites seen in London late last year at the Finborough.

The White Guard is a look at the price that is paid by people during wartime: both on the grand political scale, but also on the personal and family lives. Set in the Ukraine in 1918, we follow the Turbin family as they struggle to maintain their lives in a Kiev ravaged by the just-ended First World War, yet flung headlong into the Russian Civil War which ensued immediately after. The Turbin’s apartment is presided over by the luminous Lena, around whom a coterie of assorted characters gravitate, as the tumultuous sequence of events and invaders threaten to irrevocably change to everyone’s way of life. Continue reading “Review: The White Guard, National”

Review: Burnt By The Sun, National Theatre

The latest play to open at the National Theatre is Burnt By The Sun, a story set in Russia, in the days just before Stalin did bad things in the Great Purge, of a revolutionary and his wife and family whose tranquil repose is rocked by the return of a former lover of the wife. The play was based on a film which won the best Foreign Language Oscar and the Grand Prize at Cannes, but I have to admit to not being familiar with it at all.

This play exemplifies for me one of the key strengths of the National Theatre does best: putting together high quality ensemble casts and allowing them to create the necessary atmosphere and feelings in which the play can unfold. Whereas it may feel that not an awful lot actually happens in the first half, I was swept up in the genuine camaraderie of the ensemble, especially in the group scenes around the table and the time simply flew by. Stephanie Jacob deserves a special mention for her comic turn as Mokhova the help, but all the actors really deliver here and set the scene for the events of Act 2.

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