Review – Great Britain by Richard Bean at the National Theatre

The National Theatre’s latest offering by playwright Richard Bean (whose One Man, Two Guvnors went on to West End and Broadway success), couldn’t be more current. Deliberately timed to coincide with the outcome of the recent newspaper/hacking trials, the play opened without previews and on very short notice on 30th June (where it runs until a swift West End transfer in September). I’d heard the rumours that Mr Bean’s latest play would be a satirical look at the hacking debate starring Billie Piper and Oliver Chris and so had high hopes.

Robert Glenister and the team at The Free Press

Robert Glenister and the team at The Free Press

Set at the tabloid newspaper The Free Press, we are introduced to a motley gang of characters, none of whom are particularly likeable. The central focus is Paige Britain (Played by Piper), the news editor. She is ambitious, devious, intelligent, sexy and is biding her time before the editor’s job is hers. In the midst of searching for the next big story, it becomes clear that voicemails can be hacked – the pool of stories just became so much bigger – and it’s all for our benefit as Paige tells us in her side chats to the audience in Richard III-like fashion.

Over the course of the play a number of issues straight from the recent news are referred to. We see everything from The Free Press’s owner trying to buy a commercial TV station, expenses scandals, the racial bias of police, to the actual hacking itself, which becomes, as it did in reality, much more distasteful when the focus shifts from shallow celebrities to the phones of missing schoolchildren.

Richard Bean highlights wonderfully the question as to who is really in control of the country when the power and corruption of the political elite, press and police are so inextricably linked. It’s frightening to see how much power Paige and her boss manage to wield amongst those in roles so fundamental to the running of our nation.

Billie Piper & Oliver Chris

Billie Piper & Oliver Chris

The acting is very good indeed. Robert Glenister is wonderful as the coarse editor, who ends up at Downing Street, Aaron Neil is superb as the ridiculously hopeless Police Commissioner (whose public gaffes steal a lot of the laughs) and Oliver Chris is on fine form as usual as his frustrated deputy, who is drawn to Paige’s charms. I still think he is wasted here though, as despite a great performance, it saddens me to think he may not appear in the West End transfer of King Charles III, a play which truly allows him to shine (I am keeping my fingers crossed that this isn’t the case). It is however Billie Piper’s show – she is absolutely brilliant as Paige – utterly underhanded in her actions, but remaining an interesting character who almost wins you over with her persuasive charm.

Nicholas Hytner’s production is very well staged and fast paced. The video screens with hilarious headlines are very entertaining (with nods to The Guardener, The Dependent and The Daily Wail, the latter of which seems obsessed with immigrant scare stories) and perfectly move the action from one scene to another via the sliding  screen sets.

Aaron Neil is fab as the hopeless Police Commissioner

Aaron Neil is fab as the hopeless Police Commissioner

For me though, the play tries to do too much. Its broad plot, containing so many issues begins to feel a bit cluttered and possibly less would have been more. Also despite being rather long, the end still managed to feel rushed (perhaps due to the fast release of the play). I did also think some of the jokes were a bit too uncomfortable (as an example, as it’s set in the 90s, a reference to to likelihood of Jimmy Saville being a child abuser felt a bit too much). Then again, that is partly the point Bean is making – the sometimes uncomfortable content and actions of the media forces its audience to see its own culpability in the rise of tabloid sordidness – if the public did’t read it, it would’t be profitable and people who seemingly delight in the dirt of others would have a far dimmer spotlight in which to stand. I also found some of the obvious caricatures a little distracting (the nods to certain real life people are hard to miss) and I would have perhaps preferred less of these references.

Overall, this is an enjoyable, entertaining production – the black humour is for the most part on the money and despite its rather too broad content, the overall production is wonderfully acted. You’ll laugh, you’ll feel bad for laughing and you’ll cringe. It’s a great addition to the theatre scene in London and it’s great to see something as topical as this reaching a wider audience.

Great Britain continues its run at the National Theatre until 23rd August 2014 before transferring to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 10th September 2014. For more information visit the National Theatre’s website at: http:www/nationaltheatre.org.uk

 

The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch – First trailer released!

There are a handful of films every year that I look forward to with an added level of expectation and excitement and probably at the top of the list for this year has been The Imitation Game, the film based on mathematician Alan Turing’s crucial role in the code breaking of World War II. This feels like a role made for Benedict Cumberbatch to play and with support from Charles Dance, Mark Strong and Keira Knightley this could be in line for accolades galore next awards season.

Today has seen the release of the first teaser trailer. My expectation level was just raised!

First Trailer here: http://youtu.be/Fg85ggZSHMw

 

 

Review – Mr Burns by Anne Washburn at the Almeida Theatre

The Almeida Theatre has become a must-visit destination on my theatre calendar over the last few months and I therefore took the plunge and booked Mr Burns when the new season was announced. The You Tube videos from its NYC run looked bizarre but intriguing and I do like to try theatre that’s a bit different. I admit the reviews did make me steel myself before my visit, but it’s always crucial to make up your own mind.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I saw Mr Burns and it’s taken all this time for me to be able to put my thoughts about it in to words, as it is quite frankly like nothing else I have seen. As my friend put it – it defies description. Mr Burns doesn’t comfortably fit in to any set category of play, which is one aspect I quite liked about it and it certainly dares to be different and challenge its audience on many levels.

Stories around the campfire in Act 1

For me its three Acts elicited very different responses. The play opens in the pitch black with just a campfire to light the scene, although my eyes soon adjusted and unlike earlier comments, the theatre certainly didn’t feel oppressively hot. This opening Act was by far my favourite and I could have happily watched a whole play expanding on this setting and world. Details are sketchy, but there has clearly been an accident involving America’s nuclear reactors, leading to an apocalyptic-level population reduction. The small group on stage have met through their nomadic travels to safer ground and spend their time recalling an episode of The Simpsons, brining familiarity and normalcy to their situation. I found this Act interesting, thought-provoking and quite moving, as you see them desperately reciting names of those they hope to hear word of when a new person appears in their midst, while their shared memory of The Simpsons (even from those who’d never watched it) adds a welcome, lighter tone in places.

A little more surreal in Act 2!

A little more surreal in Act 2!

Act 2 was when events become far more surreal. Seven years later and the survivors of Act 1 are an acting troupe, performing adverts, excerpts from TV shows and music medleys as a way to keep memories from the old world alive. Again we see the same Simpsons episode being brought to life and a truly hysterical medley, combining the most eclectic mix of songs possible from 8 Mile to Toxic! Life is still clearly difficult for the surviving population and just as you settle in to the laughter of lighter moments, things take a darker turn.

So far, so surreal, but still relatively enjoyable – however, this was probably where I should have left. Act 3 still leaves me speechless (and not really in a good way). The final Act is set a further 80 years ahead, in a setting which is not totally clear, but where it appears aspects of the old world are now seen very differently, as we see the same Simpsons episode, distorted through word of mouth passed along, presented as some form of tribal, ritualistic spectacle of worship. I questioned whether such an effect would really happen in so short a timespan. Surely it would take generations for such a distortion of the past to occur? The best way for me to describe it is that it felt like being inside someone’s warped mind or watching a nightmare that distorts your normal world in to something only marginally recognisable and I really did not enjoy it.

Act 3 was a bit to much for me!

Act 3 was a bit to much for me!

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the questions the play raises – whether our memories of the past are really our own, or are only shaped through what people collectively remember and whether over time what is recalled about something could become understandably distorted through circumstance, until it is barely recognisable. Perhaps something as normal as The Simpsons could become elevated to god-like worship in the future?! These are interesting ideas to contemplate and many of Mr Burns’s elements were good. The dark, tense, sad atmosphere of Act 1 was super to watch and the efforts of the troupe to recreate mundane adverts and musical medleys in Act 2 was hilarious, entertaining and brilliantly acted. However, although I can appreciate the idea behind Act 3, I just didn’t enjoy it and by the end I couldn’t wait for it to be over. It does however contain a truly brilliant performance by Michael Shaeffer as Mr Burns, who has become a terrifying, nightmarish figure, who truly unsettled me.

Michael Shaeffer's disturbingly creepy Mr Burns

Michael Shaeffer’s disturbingly creepy Mr Burns

Overall the acting is good. The cast certainly have a lot to do, jumping tonally from dark to comic and back again over the course of the production. I also thought the set was fantastic for each Act, evoking the mood and atmosphere required and moving from dark and sparse to bright and colourfully opulent.

As a result, I’m not sure whether I’d recommend Mr Burns or not! If you prefer your theatre to be safe and comfortingly familiar, stay away. However if you’re willing to embrace something bravely different and take a risk, then give it a go. Although you have been warned about that third Act!

Despite my misgivings about this production, I love that the Almeida under Rupert Goold is daring to push the boundaries of theatre and get people talking, which can only be a good thing.

Mr Burns continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 26 July 2014. See the theatre’s website for more information: http:www.almeida.co.uk/event/mrburns

Film review – The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

I accompanied my friend to the cinema this week, armed with some tissues,which she had confidently told me I’d need and she was right. The film was The Fault In Our Stars, based on the number one best selling book by John Green. I’ll start by saying I hadn’t read the book, so went to see the film adaptation with an open mind.

The film centres around the life of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a 17-year-old girl who is dying of cancer. She keeps herself to herself, in order to limit the emotional damage her death will cause to those around her when it eventually happens. However she is forced to see her life differently when she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) at the cancer support group her mother has made her go to. Augustus is 18-years-old and in remission after losing the lower part of a leg to cancer 18 months earlier. There is an attraction between them immediately and they soon become close friends, who fall in love, bringing joy and a love for life in to each other’s lives.

This film could have been too excessive in sentimentality were it not for the superb acting by the main cast. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort are both superb throughout. You cannot help but fall for Augustus yourself, as he breaks down the walls Hazel has around herself, with a cheeky grin, while Shailene is wonderful as Hazel. She is able to convey Hazel’s strengths and fears and her chemistry with Ansel is very powerful. I couldn’t help but be moved by their performances and they are both young stars that I think will have very successful careers.

There are also strong supporting performances from Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother, who tries to stay strong and simply wants the best for her child. Despite the terrible circumstances they face, she views it with as much positivity as she can. I also loved Nat Wolff’s performance as their friend Isaac, who loses his remaining sight to the disease. He plays both the comedic and depressed sides of his character perfectly. Willem Defoe is also great in his small role as the author, turned hermit, whose book is Hazel’s favourite book and which plays such an important role in Hazel and Augustus’s romance.

Despite the deeply sad circumstances in which Hazel and Augustus meet, their story reminds you of the wonders of life and how it is the people in your life, who you love and who are there for you, that can give you the strength to face difficult and painful circumstances. Yes I shed a tear or two during the film, but I think that’s a good thing. If such a moving film hadn’t touched me I think I’d be more worried!

The Fault In Our Stars is in cinemas across the UK now. A link to the trailer is below. http://youtu.be/9ItBvH5J6ss

Shakespeare’s Sonnets at the Southbank Centre – 1st June 2014

Sunday 1st June was marked by the Southbank Centre as a day of sonnets. Throughout the day free activities took place related to Shakespeare’s sonnets, which was followed in the evening by a complete reading of all 154 of them by ten wonderful actors at the Royal Festival Hall. As someone who enjoys Shakespeare’s work I was keen to experience this event.

Juliet Stevenson, Simon Russell Beale, David Harewood & Juliet Walter were among those taking part.

Juliet Stevenson, Simon Russell Beale, David Harewood & Juliet Walter were among those taking part.

The actors taking part in the event were: Deborah Findlay, Oliver Ford-Davies, Juliet Stevenson, Paterson Joseph, Harriet Walter, Simon Russell-Beale, Maureen Baettie, David Harewood, Victoria Hamilton and Guy Paul. The format of the event was quite straightforward, as all ten actors were sitting on the stage throughout and then took it in turns to stand and between them read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets in order across two acts (we reached Sonnet 77 at the interval).

I found it to be an incredibly interesting evening, as I am not familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets in great detail and instead only recognise some of the more famous ones. Possibly the most famous is Sonnet 18 (aka “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) which was read wonderfully by Harriet Walter. Particular highlights for me were Sonnet 135 & 136, read by Paterson Joseph. In fact Paterson was superb throughout – he brought the words to life brilliantly, adding emphasis and appropriate tone, sometimes requiring him to deliver the sonnets quite playfully and he certainly seemed to be enjoying the event as much as the audience. It was fun to hear him read Sonnet 144, which I now associate with the Lover’s Rap in David Tennant’s 2011 production of Much Ado About Nothing, which was performed on the soundtrack of that play by Adam James (Don Pedro), for which the composer Michael Bruce used songs from other Shakespeare plays or created ones using Shakespeare’s words – in this case Sonnet 144 as well as 146!

A master at Shakespeare - Oliver Ford Davies

A master at Shakespeare – Oliver Ford Davies

Victoria Hamilton beautifully delivered her sonnets

Victoria Hamilton beautifully delivered her sonnets

It was also wonderful to see such established Shakespearean talents as Simon Russell Beale and Oliver Ford Davies taking part. Both have been integral to pulling me into Shakespeare over the last few years and their readings were delivered with clarity and an obvious deep understanding of the material. I particularly enjoyed Sonnet 138 (by Mr. Russell Beale).  Victoria Hamilton is an actress I am less familiar with (having only seen her work in the BBC’s 1995 Pride & Prejudice and 2005′s To The Ends of The Earth). I found her to be a captivating actress, giving such emotional depth to her readings (I especially enjoyed Sonnet 109) and I will certainly go and see her whenever she is on stage.

The programme notes (which in my view, should have been a bit longer and ideally contain biographies of those taking part, although perhaps their attendance was arranged at short notice) talk about how some of the sonnets are by far stronger than others, which I would now certainly agree with. Hearing all of them together was an ideal way for me to appreciate the range of emotions and to some extent quality of the sonnets. Some were more elegant and beautiful than others, but read as a group that didn’t really matter.

Paterson Joseph was excellent during the evening.

Paterson Joseph was excellent during the evening.

I continue to be in awe of Shakespeare’s work the more of his plays I see (I still have nine to tick off my list) and it was a wonderful experience to become more familiar with his sonnets through such a wonderful event.

For details of future events at the Southbank Centre, visit its website:

http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson?gclid=CjkKEQjww6SdBRDls9vxsf7EoM0BEiQART_xPvElza27OIJ_gctRLtC2DoSeXlypUdZVlnzuFtO5-NHw_wcB

Television You Should Have Seen – Life starring Damian Lewis

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Last month I attended the Times Talks interview with one of my favourite British actors Damian Lewis at The Royal Institution of Great Britain (see highlights of this talk through the link at the end of this post), in which the hour included his thoughts on his first US television series. For those thinking that’s Homeland you’d be wrong – it’s Life. Quite a few of my friends aren’t even aware of the show and it therefore seemed to be a great opportunity to highlight another television gem that you should have seen.

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Damian Lewis at the Times Talks event in London, May 2014

Before Homeland made him an international, award-winning star, Damian Lewis was the lead in another US drama series, this one on NBC. Created by Rand Ravich in 2007, Life centres around Detective Charlie Crews, a former LAPD cop who was wrongly jailed for the murder of his friend and his friend’s wife and son. After serving 12 years in prison he is exonerated and on release from Pelican Bay State Prison, successfully sues the city of Los Angeles and the LAPD, receiving a huge settlement (rumoured to be $50 million). Now minted, Charlie could do anything he wanted. Instead he chooses to wrap in to his compensation package a promotion to Detective in the homicide division and go back to work! Through the series we follow Charlie as he returns to work and is partnered with Detective Dani Reese, who is not very happy about this arrangement, but cannot deny his uncanny ability to see clues that others miss and the two develop a great partnership and bond.

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The main cast of Life

I thought Life was a fantastic show – it’s sharply written, with scripts that are witty, clever and that blend drama and comedy brilliantly. Charlie Crews is also an incredibly interesting character and for me, one I enjoy seeing Damian play more than the now well known Brody. Crews is complex – he has been through a terrible ordeal, which has cost him his job, wife and friends, but Crews has chosen to follow the philosophy of Zen in terms of keeping calm about Life now that he has his back. He also has a great sense of humour and some wonderful quirks – I loved his obsession with fresh fruit of any kind and eating it at any time or place (apparently when in prison he didn’t eat any fresh fruit, so takes every opportunity to indulge now). There is also the determination he has to uncover who really killed his friend and framed him, which is the key reason for wanting to keep a job in the police department and it’s a great subplot in the background of the series as we watch him piece the puzzle together at his conspiracy wall in a concealed room of his home.

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An unlikely partnership – Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) and Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi)

The supporting cast are great too, in particular Sarah Shahi as his partner Detective Dani Reese. She too has her problems (as a former narcotics undercover cop she is now a recovering drug addict and alcoholic) and although she hates being partnered with Crews initially, you see very quickly what a great team they are. Adam Arkin is also wonderful as Crews’ friend from prison Ted Earley, who on release Charlie employs as his financial adviser (despite Ted’s prison sentence being due to insider trading). This friendship is quite comical but a lovely aspect of the series. Donal Logue is also very good when he joins the show as their boss at the LAPD.

Sadly despite recognition at the AFI Awards in 2008 where it won best TV series, the writers strike did not prove helpful to Life and it only lasted two seasons. However it was at least able to wrap the overarching plot lines up before it ended. For me, it’s certainly a series that has been sadly overlooked, but hopefully due to its lead actor’s growing fame more people are discovering the charm of Life. If you haven’t yet seen it, I’d recommend you give Life a try. A spoiler-free video, giving you a flavour of this quirky series can be found here: http://youtu.be/rFeW8u3FYbQ

Life seasons 1 and 2 are available to buy on DVD from all the usual stockists and via Amazon Instant Video.

Here’s a link to highlights of the Times Talks conversation with Damian Lewis (warning: contains spoilers if you have not seen season three of Homeland!): http://timestalks.com/detail-event.php?event=damianlewis

Superb food in beautiful surroundings at The Cavendish Hotel in Baslow, Derbyshire

The Cavendish Hotel has been a family favourite of ours for many many years and its standards have never dropped. It’s always something to look forward to when we go to The Cavendish and our most recent trip was no exception.

There has been an Inn of some form on the spot for centuries and it became part of the Duke & Duchess of Devonshire’s estate around 1830 and renamed The Cavendish in 1975. Set within the Chatsworth estate, the views of the Derbyshire countryside are beautiful and so peaceful, creating a superb location for anyone looking for a relaxing meal or a luxurious weekend away.

The Gallery

The Gallery

The Cavendish is a restaurant as well as a hotel and it is open to non-residents. The main dining room, The Gallery, tends to be very busy, so a reservation is advisable. There is however also the Garden Room – a conservatory style dining area, which offers gorgeous views as well as a menu of seasonal dishes. We tend to eat in The Gallery as it is usually an occasion when we visit the hotel. It’s a wonderful room, not too big or small and offers a top quality setting, to enjoy some of the finest food I have eaten in any restaurant, highlighted by its consistent accolade of two AA Rosettes for food every year since 2005. As with many other top restaurants, there is also the option of eating at a table in the kitchen, as head chef Mike Thompson and his team prepare food for the restaurants.

The Garden Room

The Garden Room

The menus are created using fresh ingredients, many locally sourced, to create imaginative, delicious food that rivals the best London restaurants. Our recent meal was no exception. I enjoyed a starter called Heritage Tomatoes, which was a light, delicious and beautifully presented dish including a clear tomato gazpachio,  tapenade and mozzarella tart and basil ice cream! My main course of cornfed chicken with chicken mousse, garlic fondant potato and roasted salsify was just as wonderful. I then chose the Apple Trifle with Horlicks mousse and cinnamon doughnuts for dessert – a twist on a traditional classic, the combination of apple, cinnamon and surprisingly, horlicks was gorgeous, without being too heavy to end the meal. It is also the little extra touches at The Cavendish that stand out, for example, its petit fours with tea and coffee are always a delight. I do still miss the canapés that used to be served as you relaxed in the lounge area before dinner and noticed that there were no specials in addition to the menu this time, but these are minor points when the food is this good.

My lovely tomato starter.

My lovely tomato starter.

My Apple Trifle with Cinnamon Doughnuts dessert

My Apple Trifle with Cinnamon Doughnuts dessert

Crucially too, as its food is of a standard found in many highly rated London restaurants, The Cavendish really is very good value for money, costing around £45 a head for three courses. As well as offering an exceptional dining experience, it is also a wonderful location to simply spend a relaxing weekend, for people of any age. The rooms have all been recently refurbished and continue to offer a superb setting, perfect for any occasion, whether you wish to explore the surrounding Peak District, visit Chatsworth House or simply relax within the hotel’s sitting room or outside in good weather. For those staying at the hotel, I will however warn you that the gorgeous teddy bear in your room (see him on the bed below?), which you can purchase from reception to take home, is something that may tempt you during your stay (especially if you are staying with children or the young at heart)!

Lovely accommodations (plus teddy bear)!

Lovely accommodation (plus teddy bear)!

The other key to The Cavendish is its staff. Some have been at the hotel for many years, while others continue to join the team. They are all always professional, while being incredibly welcoming, friendly and helpful. This is not always the case in hotels and restaurants and they are a special part of The Cavendish and it’s always lovely to see long-serving staff each time we visit.

Whether you live in Derbyshire or the surrounding area, or are simply looking for a relaxing weekend away and want to feel well looked after and enjoy some of the finest food, wine and surroundings you’ll find anywhere, I cannot recommend The Cavendish highly enough. It remains a gem in the north of England and I love to return there as often as I can!

For further details, visit The Cavendish’s website: http://www.cavendish-hotel.net

(Other than my photos of the meal, all photos are courtesy of The Cavendish’s website)

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