Monthly Archives: July 2014

Medea (National Theatre) review

The National Theatre has never staged a production of ‘Medea’ before, and this version with minimalist set and modern dress is a short and snappy ninety minutes – quite a relief after my recent run of 3+ hour shows.

Euripides wrote the original play in 431 BC, and this new production is presented in a version by Ben Power, and directed by Carrie Cracknell.  It focuses on the tragic force of fate which drives the central character (played by Helen McCrory) to commit the ultimate sin of filicide, murdering her two small sons to gain revenge of their father, Jason, who has abandoned her to take a new wife, the daughter of the King. 

Although some of the cast may be a little underpowered, especially Michaela Coel as the Nurse (I doubt her voice can reach the top tier of the Olivier), McCrory is on rip-roaring form as she plans her revenge while being so duplicitous in oozing charm to her ex-husband, prostrating herself before the King who plans to send her into exile, or playing the loving mother to her TV-watching, gadget-playing boys.

The chorus, led by Midsomer Murders actress Jane Wymark, build up the tension with their ticks and twitches leading into wild dancing, while of the three main male roles, Martin Turner is an imperious Kreon, Danny Sapani a curiously detached Jason, and Dominic Rowan an underused Aegeus. 

Although the wedding sequences, seen through glass walls in the top of the set, are well-done, it is the closing moments you will remember – the off-screen screams of the boys as their mother approaches with a knife, Jason’s sense of loss as he realises his sons have been snapped away, and Medea’s final and literal shouldering of blame, heartbreaking as she eventually only achieves in destroying herself and all she holds dear.  It’s in this sequence where McCrory reaches the pinnacle of this performance – I saw this play in 1992 with Diana Rigg and didn’t think it could be topped, but this final scene touched and appalled me in a way few performances have.

We have two emotional powerhouses going on in London at the moment, with McCrory’s Medea and Richard Armitage’s John Proctor in The Crucible.  I highly recommend you try and see both.

Monty Python Live (Mostly), 2014

Watched on Sunday July 20, 2014.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

We elected to watch this final show from the now septuagenarian Python team at Vue cinemas, where proceedings were unfortunately transmitted with a weird yellow hue throughout (but kudos to the cinema, who gave everyone in the audience a voucher to come back to a screening for free).

However, on making that choice we got to see the ‘naughty’ song and dance number snipped from the live TV broadcast, which was replaced by Palin in drag wittering on about sheep. What the TV audience missed was a glorious celebration of naughty bits (but why slang names for female genitalia could not be broadcast and slang names for male ones could is a bit of a mystery, as it would have been simple enough to bleep the offending c-word).

The show begins with orchestral overture with John Du Prez, long time musical collaborator with Eric Idle, conducting, before we see a headshot of the late and much-missed Python member Dr Graham Chapman kicked like a football into space to welcome a ‘re-tardis’ holding the five remaining members of the team. ‘One Down – Five To Go’ is the nominal title of the show.

All the classic sketches are present and correct – Parrot/Cheese Shop crop up in the second half with Nudge, Nudge (which turns into a sleazy hip-hop number leading into the ‘Blackmail’ show), and we have the Spanish Inquisition, The Death of Mary Queen of Scots, The Argument, and a reboot of the Silly Walks idea with the song ‘money is the root of evil’ (ironic given the Pythons are all millionaires who will make another cool £2.5m each from these shows).

First up though was Four Yorkshiremen, perhaps a little creaky now but still funny, and a queerly poignant Lumberjack song (probably Palin’s last hurrah in this role, and he did it well). Whizzo Chocolates was a blast, especially Gilliam’s ailing policeman, despite a bit of corpsing and losing the thread of the sketch. Anne Elk, not performed on stage before, suffered from the absence of Graham Chapman IMO, although Cleese’s spluttering theorist was amusing.

This show sometimes felt like it was ‘Eric Idle and friends’. He’s clearly in good form and has the bulk of the songs (The Galaxy Song, I Like Chinese, etc.), and of course ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. Terry Gilliam has more to do than usual and seemed to be enjoying himself, although Terry Jones was muted and his line deliveries were not what they were at his peak – John Cleese though was better than I expected, growing into the rhythm of the sketches and especially good in the Michelangelo sketch: ‘what in God’s name possessed you to paint three Christs?’ – a sketch which segues into the Roman Catholic/Every Sperm is Sacred piece from ‘The Meaning of Life’.

The energy of the young singers and dancers give this show the life which might be missing had we simply been watching a quintet of pensioners reliving their greatest hits, although all the team have their chance to shine, as well as rib each other (Palin and Idle’s camp judges discuss ‘the Cleese divorces’; the two Mary Queen of Scots pepperpots talk about Palin’s travel programmes, suppressing yawns).

Carol Cleveland was here, too, and for a while it almost felt as if we were back in the 1970s at the peak of the show. The team were on fine and cheeky form, from the Bruces song through to the final ‘piss off’ slide letting the audience know it was over. Nice reference to Graham too in the Parrot sketch, accompanied by thumbs up to heaven from Palin and Cleese for their absent colleague.

I enjoyed this. I was in two minds about whether it would work, but Idle’s decision to stage this as a huge spectacle was inspired, as was Arlene Phillips’ choreography (for those who missed it on GOLD, the sailor’s dance had British Sign Language accompanying the naughty words). What a lovely and fitting way to say goodbye – my only change would be to run the ‘Christmas in Heaven’ film in its entirety as a tribute to Graham, whose presence was felt throughout this show even though he was not physically there.

Richard III (Trafalgar Studios), review

The ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season of plays aimed at an audience who knows little about theatre has been the brainchild of director Jamie Lloyd over at the Trafalgar Studios (formerly the Whitehall Theatre), and at £54 a ticket and £4.50 a programme it isn’t a cheap excursion.

This time around ‘Richard III’ is played by Martin Freeman, who is currently in the ascendant after playing Dr Watson in the ‘Sherlock’ reboot and Bilbo Baggins in the film franchise ‘The Hobbit’.  His appeal has always been a bit of a mystery to me, although as Watson he is a lot better than I would have expected having only seen him before as Tim in ‘The Office’ and in the poor-quality TV sitcom, ‘Hardware’.

It seems a little like stunt casting, but after seeing Richard Armitage in ‘The Crucible’ recently I was prepared to give Freeman the benefit of the doubt.  Richard III is one of the great theatre roles and one of the strongest Shakespeare leads, and many actors have made the part their own (notably Antony Sher, Simon Russell Beale, and my particular favourite, Ian McKellen).

The theatre programme’s introduction informs us that we are probably not used to attending theatre performances, are unlikely to know much about history, and are likely to be strangers to Shakespeare (which might explain why he gets a writer’s bio under the list of creatives).  This isn’t actually true (or isn’t for me, anyway), but if that’s the assumption, perhaps it explains why this muddled production tries to move the War of the Roses and Richard’s court into the late 1970s (the ‘Winter of Discontent’) and brings in all manner of political intrigues from that time as well of those of the last years of the Plantagenets.

The set is a simple one, two tables facing each other with seating, microphones, old televisions, reel-to-reel tape recorders, a lift, a couple of old-style telephones, and harsh fluorescent lighting.  King Edward IV is a sickly man with an oxygen cylinder and mask ready for his periods of lack of breath, while the yes men of the court (Catesby, Ely, Buckingham – well-played as an oily spin-doctor by Jo Stone-Fewings) have identikit glasses and moustaches which unfortunately brought to mind the Monty Python ‘Whicker Island’ sketch but I assume was meant to convey that these men were without independent thought and instead were bland sycophants who blindly followed the seat of power.

Before the play started, we saw Queen Margaret, whose husband and son had been slaughtered in the conflict and coup which brought Edward to power, grieving just to the side of the main action, with a portrait of her late husband obliterated by a bloody cross.  Maggie Steed plays Margaret but she seems to belong in another play – initially resembling Mrs Thatcher with coiffed hair and handbag, she becomes more dishevelled as the play progresses and she learns to curse.

Edward’s Queen is played by Gina McKee, an actor I can sometimes see as overplaying, but here she moves from arrogant steel to distraught bereavement with some style – she has good scenes with both Steed’s Margaret and Freeman’s Richard, especially when she is bound to a chair to hear a twisted proposal of marriage between her daughter Elizabeth and recently widowed Richard, a proposal which might restore her to riches and power.  The conflict between her need for such power and her hatred for the ‘bunch-backed toad’ who murdered her sons is powerful.

The central performance, though, is lacking.  Martin Freeman’s Richard has been described by some reviewers as ‘terrifying’ but I disliked his comedic seeking for laughs in lines which should have the ability to score emotional points or chill the audience.  The ‘my kingdom for a horse’ line was thrown away, and many lines and reactions were accompanied by expressions intended to bring laughter from those watching – and when we laugh, we’re not convince by this man.  The scene where Hastings is accused of being a traitor and sent for execution is usually one of the highlights of the play, and shows the ruthlessness of a man seeking the ultimate seat of power, the ruthlessness that will dispatch his friends and relations if he perceives they stand in the way.  Here it simply does not convince, and the appearance shortly afterwards of Hasting’s head in a box, dripping gore, seems unnecessary.

Much has been made of the gory focus of this play – and there is one sequence where an audience member in row C just in front of us did get spattered with blood – but despite many deaths being shown on stage (Clarence drowned in a fish tank rather than the traditional butt of wine – another scene where the emotional point is missed as his big speech feels rushed; Rivers being injected with something which causes him to fit and die; Queen Anne being strangled with a telephone wire by a Richard who sees a better marriage alliance elsewhere – a scene so protracted it loses energy very quickly; Buckingham quickly and cruelly dispatched by a Caseby he saw as a friend) it isn’t the blood-drenched spectacle you might expect.

The theatre also needs to sort out its air-conditioning and to relax their policy of not allowing patrons to cross the set to reach the second programme/ice-cream seller in the interval.  It feels as if the theatre is stating an aim to reach new audiences but in doing so, is determined to alienate a core audience who might simply look for comfort and convenience without being ripped off.  As for Freeman, it seems many people in the audience are simply fans of his rather than being attracted in any way by the play.




The Crucible (Old Vic), review

Arthur Miller’s powerful play equating the hysteria of the Salem witch trials with the investigations of the McCarthy committee against Communist influences within Hollywood.  Even with this in mind the unfolding plot seems eerily relevant today, in which any questioning of authority might be seen as subversive, and where the question can still be asked “is the accuser always holy?”

The Old Vic auditorium has been adapted to accommodate a production ‘in the round’, not entirely successfully – from the original old stalls seating, where I was, you look forward to the old proscenium arch and boxes which look a little forlorn now, especially as they have been draped in what look like stained dustsheets.  Ahead there is temporary stalls seating, some so close to the actors they almost become part of the action, and two tiers of seating above.  These seats must cost less than the ones on the other side of the stage as they are often looking at the backs of actors rather than seeing a true sense of what’s going on.

Richard Armitage has been cast in the leading role of John Proctor, a good Christian man with a pious wife (Anna Madeley) and three young boys who we never see.  Their servant Mary Warren (Natalie Gavin) is close to a simpleton, easily led and susceptible to suggestion from her close friend Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley), who had previously served the Proctors and been dismissed after an illicit affair with the master of the house.  As Proctor will say towards the end of the play, Abigail is ‘no child’, and it is her cunning and calculation that led to the horrendous destruction of more than twenty good souls of her village.

This is an era where witchcraft is still seriously considered as a counter to pious religious observance, where girls are seen to fly, fit and faint to order, and where outside figures of authority (the minister, Mr Hale (Adrian Schiller, who is excellent), and the judge, Danforth (Jack Ellis)) are initially welcomed but then bring fear and terror with them.  There’s something about watching crowd mentality and hysteria which is underlined in this production from the opening scenes, where neighbours look at each other with suspicion and old questions about the land and the law rear their heads.

‘The Crucible’ is an intense play which is powerfully performed here, and becomes exceptionally moving towards the end.  Some small, but beautiful pieces of casting bring veterans William Gaunt (as Giles) and Ann Firbank (as Rebecca Nurse) to the stage, while newcomer Colley is the epitome of jealous evil as Abigail, with her darting eyes and spittles of spite coming through in her first interaction alone with her former lover.  She is a dangerous spirit who leads the other children in a spiral of fantasy which leads their friends to madness or the gallows.

Some of the playing is a little too broad for the space (Michael Thomas as Rev Parris, Harry Attwell as Putnam) but these are playing the accusers, and it is perhaps necessary to see them caught up in their own vengeance and wild excitement as they abuse power in the name of piety. 

The only downside to this production if I had to pick one was the small minority in the audience who felt the need to laugh at the scenes in the court, which have to be played at a heightened level to be effective.  The in the round staging does work well in these scenes – I spied a woman in the temporary stalls with her hand to her mouth looking horrified at Armitage’s ‘because it is my name’ speech and this did add something to an already unbearable experience.  You watch these characters unravel before your eyes and you are helpless to help them or look away. 

See this for Armitage’s extraordinary performance – he’s rarely off-stage for the mammoth three hour running time (plus interval) and although his vocal power might be a little diminished by the end, it doesn’t matter.  His Proctor will surely be classed as one of the great stage performances in the future. 



Digital Theatre Presents: The Container

Clare Bayley’s powerful play was presented in a container outside the Young Vic, and is a claustrophobic piece which is strongly reminiscent of Guy de Maupassant’s short story ‘Boule de Suif’, where a group of passengers on a stagecoach take the offer of food from one of their number and then turn from her when she sleeps with an officer to allow them all to move on.

Here we have a similar situation but in a modern setting, and a small group of people who start to fight between themselves and stand only for ‘number one’.   These are illegal immigrants who hope to start new lives in England, but such aspirations come at a price.

Only 28 people could be in the audience for each performance of this play, but it is now available on the Digital Theatre platform and was transmitted on television on the ‘London Live’ channel.  Tense, claustrophobic and stifling, this piece of theatre is groundbreaking in many ways, and is well worth seeking out.

Digital Theatre can be found at and  ‘The Container’, which runs just over an hour, can be rented from £1.99.

Revisiting old TV: Always and Everyone

The past few weeks I have been rewatching the medical drama ‘Always and Everyone’ which was first shown on television in 1999 and is now running again on ITV Encore.  I remember this series with great affection and at first I thought ‘yes, it really is as good as I thought’. 

A powerful mix of medical drama and daily soap, this series shows a busy accident and emergency department headed by consultant Robert Kingsford (Martin Shaw) with colleagues Christine (Niamh Cusack), Cathy (Jane Slavin), Mike (David Harewood), Stuart (Paul Warriner), Judy (Katie McEwen), Louise (Esther Hall), Terry the nurse (Connor McIntyre) and my favourite back then, paediatrician turned A&E regular Andrew (Dominic Mafham).

There’s romantic complications amongst the staff (Christine and Andrew are briefly linked, Robert chases Christine and then Cathy, following the sad death of his wife in a road traffic accident following the birth of their baby.  Mike and Judy hook up, Stuart and Louise become reluctant parents, Cathy and David have a relationship that is tested by long-distance, etc etc.); and there are clashes between staff, patients, and patient families.  The series doesn’t flinch from depicting the realities of a crisis department.

But the early promise of the first two series (with some superb storylines and guest appearances, notably Ken Colley as a would-be suicide, the death of a little girl in an RTA, and a tense whole episode set on a wrecked aeroplane) starts to flounder when Michael Kitchen joins the cast as clinical director Jack and the series is rebranded as ‘A&E’. 

I’m starting to feel the same disenchantment now that I did in 2001-2, and I’m disappointed all over again.  And I might abandon the repeats before the end of the run 😦

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