DVD Review: Miss Austen Regrets

“That’s what it says in all of your books”

In 2007, the cinemas got the Anne Hathaway-starring Becoming Jane but television got Miss Austen Regrets, featuring Olivia Williams in extraordinary form as the feted author in the final years of her life. Close to 40 and looking unlikely as ever to get married herself, Jane is the favourite of her beloved niece Fanny who is dipping her toes into the world of liaisons and engagements and can’t think of anything more fabulous than an aunt whose romantic novels ought to make her an expert able to give perfect advice. But as Jane reflects on her life lived, the opportunities missed and rejected, and the perilous state those choices have left her mother and sister in, she is forced to consider if insecurity is too great a price to pay for her ambition.

For though her success is bringing her much renown, financial security eludes her as an unwed woman. She can’t own the property in which she lives, she can’t negotiate a better deal with her publisher, the independence she craves is held frustratingly just at arm’s length. But for all that, this is an unashamedly romantic and sparkily humourous piece of film which holds huge delight. Olivia Williams is impeccable as Austen – the flirtatious glint in her eye as she cuts a swathe through the stuffiness of convention, the nervous hesitation as her status sweeps her up in society, the oceans of emotional intelligence in her eyes as she has to deal with the concerns of the family and the ramifications of her choices – she is endlessly watchable and perfectly cast. Continue reading “DVD Review: Miss Austen Regrets”

TV Review: The Hollow Crown Part I, Richard II

“Take honour from me and my life is done”

And so finally it arrives, the culmination of the BBC’s Shakespeare fest in The Hollow Crown, the four history plays from Richard II through to Henry V filmed by some of our most exciting directors and bringing together a simply astounding company of actors of the highest (theatrical) pedigree. Having been spoiled by an excellent Richard II from John Heffernan at the Tobacco Factory, the subsequent Eddie Redmayne-starring production at the Donmar suffered a little by comparison, but the sheer star quality on offer here, directed by Rupert Goold no less, meant there was no way I would be missing it.

Leading the cast as the feckless monarch undone by his own grandiloquence, Ben Whishaw imbues Richard with a capricious feyness – his camp is filled with handsome serving boys, juicy figs and a monkey – and a fateful contempt for the affairs of men. This leads to his downfall as his harsh punishment of cousin Henry Bolingbroke and his unlawful seizing of his family’s land and money provokes a righteous retribution from Bolingbroke, who returns from exile supported by many a nobleman and seizes the throne. As the tide turns against him, Whishaw’s king graduates to a heart-wrenching too-late maturity, as the only life he has ever known (he was crowned aged just 10 after all) slips from his grasp. Goold lays on this transformation a little too thickly with an inescapable religious iconography but plays a masterstroke in having the scene of Richard’s return to England played out on a windy beach, his petulant hopelessness washed away with his name in the sand, Whishaw embracing the text exquisitely.   Continue reading “TV Review: The Hollow Crown Part I, Richard II”

DVD Review: Appropriate Adult

“I’m not your friend Fred”

Not strictly a DVD review as I watched this on Netflix, finally getting round to using it having signed up a while back, and part of an impromptu Monica Dolan weekend – having seen her on stage for the first time with a magnificent turn in Chalet Lines and watching a DVD of her in She Stoops To Conquer. Her role as Rose West in Appropriate Adult is actually quite small across the two hour-long (ish) episodes but given how ferociously foul-mouthed and genuinely terrifying it is, this is probably a good thing.

The focus is on Fred West and Janet Leach, the trainee social worker drafted in to be the ‘appropriate adult’ whilst he is being questioned at a Gloucestershire police station on suspicion of the murder of his daughter. Her presence was requested to ensure that there could be no suggestion that West did not understand anything being asked of him, but we see a strange relationship building up between the pair even as increasingly horrific details about the number and nature of the crimes committed by the Wests came to light. Continue reading “DVD Review: Appropriate Adult”

DVD Review: Happy Go Lucky

“En-ra-ha, EN-RA-HA!”

This was actually the first Mike Leigh film I saw at the cinema and I absolutely loved it, so it was interesting revisiting it on DVD, especially so in the context of his other films. To my eye Happy-Go-Lucky sticks out as being a bit different to the others, and not just because it doesn’t feature Lesley Manville (or Imelda Staunton for that matter), but because its general aesthetic feels in a different key.

Sally Hawkins’ Poppy is a permanently chirpy primary school teacher whose life we follow throughout the film and though Hawkins is exceptional, as ever is the way of things with me, it is the second female lead that really grabs me and it is Alexis Zegerman’s Zoe Poppy’s best friend and flatmate that really wins me over with her drawled-out, deadpan delivery proving surprisingly alluring. That said, there is endless comedy gold in Hawkins’ face throughout the film, whether trampolining, the reactions to having her back massaged to find out where some pain is coming from, or responding to Flamenco teacher’s request, it is just beautiful to watch. Continue reading “DVD Review: Happy Go Lucky”

DVD Review: Housewife, 49

“What actually is mass observation?”

I have no earthly idea how this passed me by first time round containing as it does, two of my favourite things: the experience of everyday people in the Second World War and national treasure Victoria Wood. That Housewife, 49 was also written by Wood makes it even more remarkable I missed it, but catching it on the tv was one of those experiences that simply filled me with warmth, joy and a fair few tears as I utterly loved it.

It is based on the real-life wartime diaries of Nella Last (played here by Wood herself) , a Barrow-in-Furness housewife recovering from a nervous breakdown who participates in a national scheme to document the lives of normal people – Mass Observation – as a way of helping her recovery. Society is rather unforgiving of her inability to ‘cope’ especially as war starts, her marriage to the taciturn ’Daddy’ is constrictive and it is only when she is persuaded to give voluntary work a try by her younger son, that she finds the opportunity to slowly flourish as her confidence is built and she becomes an integral and vital part of the community. Continue reading “DVD Review: Housewife, 49”

Review: The Kitchen, National Theatre

“What is there more?”

The Kitchen was one of Arnold Wesker’s first plays and follows on from the Royal Court’s well-received (if not by me) Chicken Soup with Barley in a year which has been something of a revival for Wesker. Written in 1959 and inspired by his own experiences of working in the catering industry, it is set in 1957 in the basement kitchen of a large London restaurant, the Tivoli. The dynamics of a swirling multi-cultural mass of chefs, waitresses and kitchen porters are exposed as they slowly build to the mad rush of a huge lunchtime service. Playing in the Olivier at the National Theatre, this was a late preview performance.

Director Bijan Sheibani has assembled a cast of 30 who rush about Giles Cadle’s circular kitchen set with increasing fervour as prep turns into service and the banter with all its personal enmities, tribal groupings and rivalries between kitchen staff and dining-room staff becomes increasingly fraught, and of course largely forgotten as the rush passes and the calm of the afternoon allows for a more reflective atmosphere. The less intense evening service provides a final act is no less dramatic though as slow burning stories finally explode. Continue reading “Review: The Kitchen, National Theatre”

Review: Henry IV Part II, National Theatre

Continuing from Part I, Henry IV Part II lends itself to a lighter interpretation due to the even higher comic content in its examination of the quirks of the human being, in particular of the Englishman. With one insurrection quashed by Hal’s victory over Hotspur, another mounts up to threaten England and in quashing it, Henry IV hastens his own death. The young Prince Hal now has to step up even further to the mark as his heir, all the while resisting the ever-present grasping hands of Falstaff who wants to milk his relationship to the future King for all it is worth.

I’m not sure what it was about this show that made me like it so much more than Part I, but I felt that the whole ensemble was pulling together much stronger: Susan Brown as Mistress Quickly and Eve Myles as Doll Tearsheet,the two women hankering after Falstaff were both good, Jeffery Kisoon as a fading Lord Percy roused great emotion for his fallen son and Gambon continues his excellent comic work. Continue reading “Review: Henry IV Part II, National Theatre”

Review: Henry IV Part I, National Theatre

Forming a six hour epic, Nicholas Hytner’s productions of Henry IV Part I and Part II take up residence in the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre. You can see them on the same day if you so desire (and your bum can take it) but we went on different days as a small thing called work got in the way!

The plays deal with the troubled reign of King Henry IV as he deals with rebellion and civil war, while his son and heir, Prince Hal, prefers to hang around East London with small-time criminals led by the aged, corpulent alcoholic Falstaff. They cover the whole breadth of English society at the time they were written, from aristocratic infighting right the way down to sleazy prostitution. Continue reading “Review: Henry IV Part I, National Theatre”

Review: His Dark Materials Part II, National Theatre

Most of what I wanted to say about His Dark Materials have been made in the earlier review of Part I, but I wanted to separate the reviews out as they are treated as separate plays although I can’t imagine anyone would just see Part I, especially with its cliff-hanger ending, and I know I couldn’t have waited any longer than the couple of hours that we did to see Part II on the same day.

This part is where some of the more obvious changes to the original books are more evident. Much of the third book has been excised, the character of Mary Malone not used here and the amber spyglass becomes less important as a result. But the story still works nonetheless, and the trip to the Land of the Dead has to rank as one of the most beautifully realised pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, haunting and incredibly moving. Likewise, the ending to the whole story was devastatingly done, leaving me crying for a good 10 minutes after we had left the theatre even though I knew what was coming. Continue reading “Review: His Dark Materials Part II, National Theatre”