Tips for First Time Visitors to the Barbican for Hamlet

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UPDATED: 4 August regarding Tube Strike (additional walking maps added)

It may have been announced over a year ago in March 2014, but we’ve finally reached the week of the beginning of previews for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican in London. Whether you agree with the hype or not, this is certainly the most anticipated production of the year, with tickets selling out within hours of public booking opening last August (although 30 tickets will be available daily at £10). As a fan of Mr Cumberbatch’s work for a number of years (my thoughts on his defining roles are here), I’m very much looking forward to seeing his Hamlet and have high hopes (despite non of my fantasy cast making the final actual cast for the show).

1. HAMLET

The official Hamlet poster

As a London resident and a regular theatregoer I’ve been to the Barbican a few times now, but remember how confused I was initially, when trying to find my way around its many levels. I therefore thought I’d try and think of some useful tips for anyone new to the Barbican, coming to see this production.

1. Getting there

Personally, I think the simplest way to the Barbican is from the Barbican underground station, from which you can catch the Metropolitan, Circle and Hammersmith & City lines. Exit the underground station, cross the main road in front of you and then head straight ahead, down the underpass road (Beech Street). At the end of the underpass section of road, you’ll see the Barbican cinema complex and COTE restaurant on your left hand side.

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This is the end of the underpass road, with the cinema on the left as you can see in the photo. Source: http://www.ahmm.co.uk

Cross the pedestrian crossing there on to the right hand side and then just walk down the short bit of Silk Street to the main entrance of the complex. It’s also only a 20 minute walk from Farringdon station and Moorgate is also nearby, but a little more confusing in my view then coming via Barbican. Visit the Transport For London (TFL) website for help planning your route here.

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Map of the surrounding roads to the Barbican Centre. I recommend heading down Beech Street, then taking a right on to Silk Street

UPDATE: 4 August – Tube Strike – Currently the tube strike is still going ahead, starting at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday 5th August and lasting until Friday morning. This will affect all tube lines. Therefore for those going to Hamlet on the 1st performance like me on Wednesday, if you can, try and get to the Barbican by 6:30 p.m. while tubes are still running. Also, have a look at TFL’s website for details of bus routes for your journey after the show. The Thameslink train lines will be operating I think, so if you can get part of the way on that, walk to Farringdon station and catch it there. The Thameslink timetable / journey planner is at this link. Or book at cab to pick you up outside the Silk Street entrance of the Barbican. For those going to Thursday’s performance, it sounds as if there will still be no tubes running and therefore, you’ll need to use alternative transport. The Barbican have helpfully sent the following two images of walking maps, which I wanted to share:

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This walking tube map shows the distance to walk between underground stations

The one above, designed by http://www.cargocollective.com, is a walking tube map, highlighting the length of time it takes on average to walk between the London underground stations (useful just for walking around even when tubes are running). The link below is (if it works) a link to the Barbican’s walking map, showing again distances to the Barbican from nearby areas.

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If the strike is cancelled I’ll update this post again.

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This is Silk Street and the main entrance to the Barbican Centre itself.

Sherlock location tip – St Bart’s Hospital is on the other side of Smithfield Market, only about a 25 minute walk from the Barbican if you have a good amount of time beforehand to stop for a photo!

2. It’s a large complex, so leave yourself time to get there

The Barbican is not just a theatre, but a huge cultural centre comprising cinemas, concert hall, theatre and restaurants (as well as the residential flats) and therefore it’s a large building. I once read there were up to 100 ways out (although I imagine not all of those are public!). Due to its size, I’d recommend giving yourself plenty on time to get there and to find your way inside and to the theatre, especially if you also need to collect tickets. If you are unsure of the levels, check the floor plan lists by the lifts, which show where everything is located. I’d also add that certain lifts only go to certain floors so check the lift signage.

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Level -1 of the Barbican, on which you have the concert hall and theatre. Source: http://www.unitededitions.com

The theatre is located on Level -1 of the main building and I personally think the Silk Street main entrance is the easiest, as you then simply follow the flights of stairs down until you reach Level -1. Also, unlike the majority of productions, the evening performances of Hamlet start at 7:15 p.m.

3. If you are meeting people for the show, arrange a meeting place in advance in case phone signal is poor

Another quirk I find at the Barbican is phone reception. There have been times when seeing a concert or play, when I’ve had no signal on the lower ground level of the Barbican. Therefore, in case you hit a black spot, arrange a meeting place in advance, such as the Silk Street entrance or box office, to avoid being unable to call / text someone who has your ticket or for whom you have a ticket.

4. Box office collection

If you need to collect tickets, the box office is on the same level as the theatre itself, Level -1. You’ll also find the free cloakroom behind the box office, along the far wall as well, as well as toilets (the queue does tend to get very long) and a bar.

5. Seating plan

I posted this on twitter a while ago, but I thought I’d add it again here. The Barbican theatre is a very striking auditorium (the individual doors to the rows like a lecture theatre and its brilliant safety curtain are my highlights) and 2D seating plans don’t really give an authentic view of it. This image is much more useful for seeing where your seat is and is the one I always use when booking Barbican tickets.

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I’ve also found this link, which shows images of the theatre itself for those interested in more of an insight, including this one.

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6. Food & Drink

The Barbican is great for food and drink. The Foodhall on the Ground level has a huge variety of hot and cold food, with lots of seating and is ideal for a quick bite to eat pre-show if you haven’t opted for a reservation in one of the other restaurants in the complex. On a sunny day, you can also sit outside, by the water in the centre of the Barbican complex. Also, if you bought a membership, check how much discount you get on presenting it at the tills in the Foodhall.

If you want interval drinks, definitely order them in advance to save queuing. I can also recommend the cocktails in the Martini Bar on Level 1!

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The outdoor area by the Foodhall is lovely on a sunny day.

7. Phone charging

There are plug sockets dotted around the Barbican, mainly near seating areas, so if you need to charge your phone, keep your eyes open for them.

8. Stage Door

I thought it was worth highlighting again that the message over the last year has remained that there will be no stage door for Hamlet (or not for Benedict Cumberbatch anyway). I personally think this is a very wise decision due to the inevitable crowds it would have drawn. There’s a good chance that the other actors in the production will come and go through the stage door as usual, but if you’re hoping for a Cumberbatch autograph, you’ll have to wait for another time, as Benedict’s days of doing stage doors seem to be sadly in the past. He’s just too well known now for it not to be chaotic.

9. Hamlet itself

I imagine by now everyone has watched, read or looked up anything they are unsure of regarding the story of Hamlet itself. I’d simply say don’t let people who say Shakespeare is difficult scare you. It’s just not true. My first Hamlet was David Tennant’s in 2008 and it wasn’t difficult to understand at all, but very clear and engaging. I’m sure this production will be no different.

If you are still looking to watch anything before your visit, I’d always recommend the DVD of Mr Tennant’s Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet. It’s not quite the same as the live theatre experience, but it is still the clearest version of the play I have seen and would give a good idea of the plots and relationships you’ll see unfolding in the Barbican’s production.

10. Barbican Tours

If you have time during your visit to build a backstage tour of the Barbican Theatre in to your trip, I’d certainly recommend them. The guides usually know a lot about the building and its history and by going backstage you get a greater insight in to the life of the theatre. Details of upcoming tour dates will be added to the Barbican website, so keep an eye on that for details.

If I think of anything else, I’ll update this post, but for now here’s the Barbican Hamlet website link, which should be able to cover most of your questions.

The first of my trips to see Hamlet is for the first performance on Wednesday! There’s something about going to first previews that I find exciting, so I’ll post my general initial thoughts on the production later on Wednesday night. I’ll not post anything that I think would spoil anyone’s enjoyment and of course, as there are two weeks of previews, there are bound to be tweaks to the production leading up to press night on 25th August.

All that’s left to say is I hope everyone enjoys the show and hopefully, like me in 2008, this production will start a love of theatre and Shakespeare for many others!

Book Review – The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

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I seem to be on a role in 2015, reading one fantastic book after another and Joel Dicker’s novel will certainly be one of the book highlights of this year for me. Winner of the 2012 Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina, the novel sold more than 2 million copies in one year amid great fanfare in the France and has since been translated into 32 languages.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair introduces us to 28 year-old Marcus Goldman, a man struggling to find inspiration for his second novel. The pressure is indeed on, in order to follow the success of his debut and his publisher and agent are losing patience. Growing ever more frustrated and defeated he visits his old college English professor and literary success story Harry Quebert, at his coastal New Hampshire house Goose Cove, who is perhaps his only true friend. During that trip he discovers Harry’s deepest secret – that in 1975, at 34, he fell in love with a local girl Nola Kellergen, who was only fifteen at the time, only for her to mysteriously disappear without a trace.

Only months later this secret will be revealed to the world on the discovery of Nola’s body in the garden of Harry’s house thirty three years after she vanished. It seems impossible to Marcus that his friend could be guilty, despite the evidence against him, including the fact Nola’s body is found buried with the manuscript of Harry’s hugely celebrated novel. With nothing in his own life, Marcus arrives in the town of Somerset to conduct his own investigation and clear his friend’s name, which could also prove to be the perfect plot for his new book.

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Author Joel Dicker

This isn’t simply a murder mystery, but one that has so many twists and turns and branches to it that I was jealous that the writer had been able to come up with it! To say it’s a long book (600 pages), I flew through it. Once you are caught up in the mysteries of this small coastal town and its residents, you simply won’t be able to stop reading until you know the truth.

I loved the book’s structure, as events and moments from the past are woven in to the present to create a multi-layered plot with more questions than simply “who killed Nola?” We are transported in to the 1970s during Nola’s last summer, as well as in to the early time of Marcus’ own friendship with Harry. Joel Dicker keeps building on the numerous questions the story poses, adding detail and background through Marcus’ investigation, which frequently has you changing your own theory. I did however get one aspect of the story right!

Marcus is a great central character. He isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s clear he is a good man determined to do the right thing for his friend. The more you read, the more you also understand his bond with Quebert, who has helped him so much throughout his life and made him a better person as a result. Quebert himself is somewhat an enigma, giving the reader the sense he is never quite revealing everything to Marcus, a device which continues to hold your attention and interest. Overall though I did like him and found his fatherly bond with Marcus quite touching.

One of the strengths of the book is also the vivid mix of other characters, many of whom are multi-layered and believable. Police Sergeant Gahalowood was a favourite of mine, as I enjoyed his grudging growing respect for Marcus and even Marcus’s mother’s fleeting scenes are amusing. As Marcus wades deeper, the circle of characters (and indeed suspects) widens, as ever more residents of the area become possibly linked to Nola’s disappearance and murder. Then there is Nola herself, at the heart of the mystery and a character with as many secrets as the truth of what ultimately happened to her.

For me, the novel had all the key elements for a successful thriller – an intriguing story, excellently paced (highlighting the great translation work by Sam Taylor), three dimensional characters and twists and turns to keep you guessing. Not all thrillers have captured my attention the way Joel Dicker’s book did. I see that Warner Brothers acquired the film rights last year, at which point Ron Howard was on board to direct. There seems to have been no further updates, so we’ll have to see if a film does become a reality. I could certainly imagine the story on the screen, although a television seres may be almost more appealing in order to let every twist and turn play out to the full.

This is certainly a brilliantly engaging thriller, which I would recommend to any fan of the genre and is one  book I’ll be passing on to friends and family this summer.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker is published in the UK by MacLehose Press and is available from all the usual book stockists.

Theatre 2015: Mid-Year Review

So, as we arrive in the second half of 2015, I thought I’d take a moment or two to reflect on the first half of the year’s theatre offerings. I’ve probably seen less than I expected to, but 2015 is already shaping up to be a superb year for theatre, with some truly impressive productions and performances already on the list. I’m predicting my end of year top 10 review is going to be a tough one this year!

So, starting with the stats, I’ve currently seen 35 productions this year, seeing three of those more than once. As my post looking ahead to the year’s theatre suggested, there was lots to look forward to and from those I’ve already ticked off the list, 2015 certainly isn’t disappointing me so far. Some of the highlights are ones I expected to be high on the list, while others were unexpected gems that struck a cord with me and will become firm favourites for years to come. So here are my favourite productions and performances from the year so far, as well as the disappointments (thankfully not many so far).

Favourite productions of the year so far

Starting with the top of the tree are the productions that I absolutely loved and which will almost certainly make it in to my end of year top 10 list. It’s a varied mix, with new material, revivals of classics and a musical.

1. Hello/Goodbye (Hampstead Theatre)

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This may be an unexpected number one, but so far for me it’s easily Hello/Goodbye. Peter Souter’s new play ran at the Hampstead Theatre for a relatively short run last year and after missing it then I’m so pleased I caught it in the main space. In fact I loved it so much, I had to see it more than once. I knew nothing of the plot beforehand and its simple story of a couple’s relationship over a decade, told in two acts, struck a chord with me. Shaun Evans and Miranda Raison had a wonderful chemistry, thrown together when they both come to move in to the same flat. The script was witty, heartfelt, filled with unexpected curves in storyline and by the end I felt rather moved, as you were reminded of how the simplest of gestures are sometimes the most powerful. Read my full review here.

2. Much Ado About Nothing (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

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This production of probably my favourite Shakespeare comedy become the best version of the play I’d seen immediately (sorry David Tennant!). The RSC is hard to beat when it comes to Shakespeare and this was certainly a production through which the home of the Bard truly shone. Bringing back some alumni from the 2008 season in the form of Ed Bennett and Sam Alexander (still two of my favourite actors), we were treated to a Much Ado set at the close of Word War One, in a stately home being used a hospital during the war. As the soldiers return from the Front, Beatrice and Benedick meet and sparks fly. Ed Bennett has truly grown as an actor over the years. As someone who was sitting tensely in the Novello during press night of Hamlet in 2008 when he took over for Mr Tennant, it’s been lovely to watch him develop and he is now a truly wonderful leading man and was a superb Benedick. Together with his sparkling chemistry with Michelle Terry, a strong ensemble (Sam Alexander creating the most three-dimensional Don John I’ve seen), wonderful music and an utterly gorgeous set that I could have lived in, this was a heartwarming three hours in Stratford-Upon-Avon. For those who missed it (it’s criminal there was no London run), the DVD on this and the equally lovely Love’s Labour’s Lost will be out later in the year. Read my full review here.

3. City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse)

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This revival of this musical at the Donmar Warehouse was another superb night at the theatre. The setting, both within the real world and the pages of the writer’s script was quirky and brought to life brilliantly by the design team, with the use of black and white/colour to depict them such an effective choice. It also had one of the strongest vocal ensembles I can imagine, with Rosalie Craig, Hadley Fraser, Tam Matu, Katherine Kelly and Samantha Barks to name just a handful, delivering perfect acting and singing. I’m still sad there was no West End run, not to mention no soundtrack released.

4. The Ruling Class (Trafalgar Studios)

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Jamie Lloyd’s second Trafalgar Transformed season continued with the return of James McAvoy, easily one of the best young British actors around at the moment. I had high expectations for this, which were only raised once the reviews and opinions of friends reached me. Thankfully The Ruling Class didn’t disappoint. It was very very funny, sometimes inappropriately so, entertaining, but also quite dark in places. All of which was driven at 100 miles an hour by McAvoy’s incredible performance. The part called upon him to give everything, mentally and physically – he sang, danced, screamed, cried, laughed and as an audience member you just couldn’t take your attention from him. Read my full review here.

5. Rules For Living (National Theatre, Dorfman)

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Having just ended at the National Theatre, Rules For Living was a new play by Sam Holcroft, which wonderfully lays bare the dynamics of a family during Christmas Day. Rivalries become apparent, secrets are exposed and relationships become ever strained, all the while presented in this colourful, gameshow style set up, in which the audience gain an insight in to the psyches of the characters and the rules by which they live their lives. It has drama and awkwardness, but my lasting memory of this production was laughter, which I very much needed at the time and it’s final scenes are classics that I’ll remember for a long time. Read my full review here.

6. Tree (Old Vic)

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One of my highlights of 2014 was Daniel Kitson’s Analog.ue and this new play of his at the Old Vic was an early favourite of this year. A two hander between Kitson and Tim Key, this play sees two men discuss life, with one remaining up a tree throughout! Short and sweet. I loved every moment. Read my full review here.

Stand out performances of the year so far As well as productions, there have already been some impressive individual performances.

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1. James McAvoy in The Ruling Class I’ve already sang McAvoy’s praises above so there’s not much more I can add here. The cast as a whole was excellent in The Ruling Class, but McAvoy was spectacular.

2. John Heffernan in Oppenheimer A play about the history of the creation of the first atomic bomb may not immediately sound like a fun night at the theatre, but this RSC play managed to bring what could have been quite a dry, scientific story to the stage in an engaging and entertaining way (you can read my full review here). This was in no small way also helped by the utterly brilliant John Heffernan in the title role, whose performance of Oppenheimer was his most commanding role to date and his final speech at the play’s close, as his character reflects on his achievement was certainly very powerful to witness. His career continues to excite and I am eagerly awaiting his next role – Hamlet anyone?

3. Imelda Staunton in Gypsy I was lucky enough to see Imelda Staunton’s award-winning performance in Sweeney Todd and thought I’d seen her at her best. How wrong I was! The transfer of Chichester’s musical to the Savoy in London was a welcome one and you couldn’t fail to be impressed by Imelda’s performance as Mamma Rose. She isn’t a hugely likeable person, domineering and putting ever more pressure on her children, to fuel her own lost ambitions. However, you still can’t help but admire her strength and passion and hearing Imelda Staunton belt out those songs will stay with me for a long time to come. Book your tickets while you can! Read my full review here.

4. Ralph Fiennes in Man & Superman This revival of Bernard Shaw’s play intimidated me beforehand due to its lengthy running time (nearer 4 hours in the early days). It was certainly a strange play, shifting between one setting and the dream-like setting of hell for the third act and it certainly needed a strong actor in the lead role. Ralph Fiennes is someone I’ve always wanted to see on stage and this was certainly a good start, as he’s in almost every scene. How he remembered so much dialogue, most of which he delivered at rapid pace, I do not know! As someone who was in the audience for the night filmed live for NT:Live, it was perhaps even more impressive to witness Mr Fiennes bringing such a unique role to life.

Memorable moments of the year so far

There have also already been some wonderful moments on stage this year, whether a set, a scene or a line and here are my favourites.

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1. Watching the Treasure Island ship set rise up through its split levels on the Olivier stage 

The drum revolve of the Olivier stage was used to its full potential during this production, as we watched the entire ship rise up and through the cross section design, were able to see the rooms on all the levels. It was truly impressive.

2. So much incredibly colourful dialogue in The Motherf**cker With The Hat 

I saw this production recently (review on its way) and one thing that will stay in the mind is some of the incredibly colourful dialogue! A scene in which Veronica refers to Jackie’s mother is particularly memorable. I bet the play text makes for entertaining reading!

3. The final few minutes of The Red Lion

Another production I’ve seen recently was Patrick Marber’s latest football-related play at the National. I’m currently writing my review but suffice to say I thought it was a superb production, powerfully acted. However it was the final few moments of the play that will stay with me for, I imagine, quite some time. Go if you can.

Disappointments of the year so far

There always tend to be some disappointments, but so far there haven’t been too many this year. Other than the first one listed, I enjoyed aspects of the other three, whether the acting or the production values, but these are currently bottom of the pile for 2015.

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1. How To Hold Your Breath (Royal Court Theatre) I love Maxine Peake and she was the reason I booked this play. I don’t regret it in some ways as she was very good. However, as my review at the time made clear, this was simply not my cup of tea. From the moment early on, when a simple one night stand becomes a case of someone sleeping with a demon, I knew I was going to struggle to enjoy it. Although I can appreciate what it was trying to achieve, it was simply too strange for me.

2. Carmen Disruption (Almeida Theatre) I’ve loved the recent run of Almeida productions (Mr Burns aside), but Simon Stephens’s reimagining of Carmen was another let down for me. At least unlike How To Hold Your Breath, I did enjoy aspects of the play – some wonderful performances by Jack Farthing and Noma Dumezweni as one example, but overall it just didn’t work as a whole and I left feeling quite dissatisfied.

3. Closer (Donmar Warehouse) I was unfamiliar with Patrick Marber’s most successful play, having never seen it or watched the film and perhaps part of my disappointment stems from expecting too much to begin with. The cast was my reason for booking, with Rufus Sewell, Oliver Chris and the glorious Nancy Carroll too good to miss. Although the cast was very good, I just didn’t really enjoy the play. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood on the day I went as it’s rather dismal view of relationships wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed.

4. Miss Saigon (Prince of Edward Theatre) So many people say Miss Saigon is the greatest musical of all time. I simply can’t agree (I doubt anything will beat Les Miserables for me). Although the sets were fantastic and the vocal performance of Eva Noblezada as Kim was incredibly impressive, I did not like the story at all. I found over night falling in love of Kim and Chris unconvincing and unlike Les Miserables ultimate message of hope, forgiveness and love, I just found Miss Saigon to be a depressing tale of a woman used by a man, who then is too much of a coward to face the consequences of his actions. Add to that the lack of any truly memorable songs (for me anyway) and it’s not one I’ll rush back to.

Looking ahead – Coming up during the rest of 2015!

After looking back, the adventure of a theatregoer never ends, with new productions opening and being announced all the time. So, it’s only right to look to what productions are on the horizon. It’s always an exciting feeling to wonder which ones will be as brilliant as you hope and which will be so much more than you could have anticipated. There is certainly a lot to choose from coming up, but for me, these are the productions I’m most excited or curious about seeing over the next few months.

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1. Hamlet (Barbican Theatre)

Yes, it may be the obvious choice for number one, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing Mr Cumberbatch take on the iconic role of Hamlet next month at the Barbican. It’s probably my favourite Shakespeare play and he has been one of my favourite actors for years, especially on stage. It’s an exciting ensemble cast (although it’s a shame none of my fantasy cast made the cut!) and I admit to having high hopes. All fingers are crossed!

2. Bakkhai (Almeida Theatre)

Coming soon to the Almeida is their next Greek play, bringing the combination of Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel together on stage. The Almeida has been bringing some truly inventive and exciting productions to London since Rupert Goold took charge and I’m sure this will be another success. More tickets go on sale soon.

3. Guys & Dolls (Savoy Theatre)

I missed this in Chichester and therefore I’m thrilled it’s transferring to the Savoy in December. The cast is yet to be announced, but I sincerely hope some of the Chichester cast come on board for this run. Time will tell.

4. The Winter’s Tale (Garrick Theatre)

This is perhaps the production from Kenneth Branagh’s season that I am most looking forward to. Opening in October, this production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale will include in its cast not only Mr Branagh but, more importantly for me, Dame Judi Dench. She is always wonderful to watch on stage and I’m sure this will delight many people during its run.

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So that’s the first six months of my theatre year in a nutshell. It’s now time to see what I’ll enjoy in the second half. One of the most thrilling things about being a regular theatregoer is never knowing what unexpected gems you’ll discover, whether an actor, writer, or play. See you at the end of the year for the final round up!

Film Review – Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)

Spooks-One-Sheet-v2 Spooks (or MI-5 as it was known in America) remained one of my favourite television shows throughout its ten year run on the BBC. Its dramatic plots, strong acting and the knowledge that no character was guaranteed to survive (who can forget poor Lisa Faulkener’s Helen in only episode 2?!) meant that Spooks became revolutionary television when it arrived in 2002 and I was rather sad when it ended in 2011. After rumours of a film, it was fantastic to see that it was returning via the big screen and I finally managed to see The Greater Good this month. Was it any good? Could it live up to the series? Could it spark a series of films?

Overall it’s an enjoyable action thriller, but it still felt as if it was an extended episode of the television show, simply on a bigger screen. This is a testament to the strength of the original show, which always had the level of quality that made it television at the top of its game. However, I’m less confident The Greater Good is strong enough to compete with big action / spy film franchises.

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Peter Firth (Harry Pearce) & Kit Harington (Will)

Don’t get me wrong, this is a decent film, but it didn’t impress me in the same way some episodes of the series used to. Due to the revolving door nature of the characters in Spooks, which saw so many brilliant young actors come and go including Matthew Macfadyen, Rupert Penry-Jones, Richard Armitage, David Oyelowo and Keeley Hawes, the film could only ever revolve around Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), head of MI5 and the only original cast member still standing.

When a crucial CIA prisoner Adam Qasim (Elyes Gabel) escapes on Harry’s watch, blame falls on the Service and questions swirl as to whether it has outlived its use and importance and Harry’s sudden disappearance raises all manner of questions amongst the higher levels of power – is he dead? has he been turned? where is he if he is alive? Finding Harry becomes the key to finding the terrorist and understanding what bigger terrorist plans are being formulated. The task of finding him falls on decommissioned MI5 agent Will Holloway (Kit Harington), who has a personal connection to Harry, of which MI5 is all too aware and when Harry reaches out to Will, those in charge take the opportunity to use Will to their advantage, despite his reluctance (he still blames Harry for ending his MI5 career).

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Elyes Gabel as terrorist on the run Adam Qasim

There is a strong cast of British actors in this film, in which Jennifer Ehle, David Harewood and Tim McInnerny (reprising his role from the series) are convincing government figures, playing their manipulative games for what they perceive to be the greater good. There are also some great performances from younger actors – I particularly liked Eleanor Matsuura’s Hannah Santo, who would have been a great addition to the series as a regular were it still on. However, the film has to focus on Harry and Will, which is both a strength and a weakness. Peter Firth is on excellent form as usual as Harry, a character we all grew to care about, after seeing him endure so much over the course of the series. I certainly don’t envy his job! He’s a brilliant actor and is able to convey so much even when saying very little and it’s great to see him out in the field. Nothing is more important to him than protecting the integrity of the Service, regardless of the consequences for himself.

As for Will, he is an interesting character and Kit Harington plays him well. However, had this been the series, he would have had weeks to develop, as the audience grew to know his character, backstory and grow to like him. Without that scope the character has to be fully formed immediately and I think at times this wasn’t achieved, which left the character seeming quite weak sometimes. However, I did enjoy the aspects of the film that focus on his and Harry’s paternal relationship and again this would have been more effective unfolding over a series.

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Kit Harington on the roof of the National Theatre!

Spooks’ strength on television was that it didn’t need to be showy like a big spy film franchise – it was intelligent and gripping and often frighteningly in line with current events. There are some exciting sequences in this film and some tense stand offs (the lovely National Theatre gets a supporting role here!), in which you know anyone could die, but I still felt it was lacking that extra sparkle for a film. I’ve seen references to Bond/Bourne-lite in other reviews and I can understand what people mean by that. As Spooks seems unlikely to return to the small screen, this film needed to be strong enough to revitalise the world for a film franchise, by attracting more than just loyal fans of the series. As much as it saddens me to say so, I think that’s unlikely to have happened, meaning we may never get a sequel. Maybe we should all start petitioning for a return to television instead – as, despite being a decent movie, The Greater Good only seemed to highlight just how strong the series that inspired it was. Come on KUDOS / BBC – you know it’s the sensible choice! Bring back Harry and his team…..please!

Spooks: The Greater Good is still running in select cinemas throughout the UK. Watch the trailer here. Spooks series 1-10 is also available on Netflix, for the uninitiated or those looking to relive all of its twists and turns!

Book review – The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

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Have you ever thought about how your life may have been different if you’d made another decision about something? What if you’d never gone on that holiday? What if you’d never moved to the City? What if you’d never met that person so important to you now? The possibilities for each of us are endless and it is this thought-provoking and emotional topic that Laura Barnett’s debut novel, The Versions of Us, brings to life so beautifully.

Without wanting to take any of the magic from this book by saying too much, it tells the story of two people, Jim Harper and Eva Edelstein from their first encounter at Cambridge in 1958 where they are both young students. Over the course of the novel we see the path of their lives as they move through all the stages of life, from youth to old age. This is one of the book’s most powerful aspects (and for me, something which makes it resonate much more than, for example, Sliding Doors, which I have seen referred to in some reviews). You genuinely grow to have a true sense of who these people are and how their experiences shape their lives over so long. I certainly became quite attached to Jim and Eva after spending so many decades with them and it certainly gives you perspective on your own life, whatever stage you have reached, whether 18 or 80.

The other beautiful and clever aspect of Laura’s story is her decision to not just tell their story, but to tell three possible versions of it, within which the lives and destinies of Jim and Eva (and, as a result, of those around them) take different turns, some only slightly altered, others much more drastically so. Through these three paths of the book, the reader has the opportunity to walk through 60 years with Jim and Eva, down three different routes and the effect is an incredibly moving one, especially the further through the story you go.

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Author Laura Barnett

It may sound confusing, but it really isn’t, which is a testament to Laura’s skill as a writer. The honest telling of the journey of ordinary people’s lives is something each of us can connect with and due to Laura’s ability to create such grounded characters (not just Eva and Jim, but those around them, who all feel very believable and well realised), The Versions of Us so quickly draws you in and captivates you to the end.

Although all three versions are split out throughout the novel, the events in one may still happen in the next and rather than repeat them, they instead build on each other, to lay the stepping stones we travel on through this couple’s life. So as well as reading effectively three versions, as a reader you still have a very real sense of an overarching journey.

I was lucky enough to go to a reading by Laura, at my wonderful local bookshop last week, West End Lane Books in North West London (always worth a visit for browsing or for one of their author events) and I was surprised to hear that she actually wrote the book as it is, jumping between the three versions, after waking up one morning with the idea fully formed in her head. I had wondered if she had written each one separately and then split them up and was impressed to hear that wasn’t the case and her description of plaiting the versions together is a brilliant way of describing the experience of reading it. Apparently some people choose to read each one as a whole, but I’d certainly recommend reading the novel as you find it, as part of its magic is the fluid movement from one path to the next and back again. I did ask her which version was the hardest to write and she said that was Version Two, which varies more from the others and she said trying to keep Eva and Jim apart was difficult, as they were like magnets wanting to come together.

I’m sure everyone will have a different response to the book, but personally, I took from the story that there are always different choices that could be made in life, with differing consequences, but that some things in our lives are always going to endure in some form. No matter the deviations along the way, the important people and events will hopefully remain. It’s this sentiment that I felt on reaching the end of the novel, as I said goodbye to Eva and Jim myself and as a result, found this to be a very moving and quite an emotional read. I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough!

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and available in all the usual book stockists. It will be published in the USA in May 2016 (but I’d urge American readers to get a copy another way so as not to have so long to wait)! The website for the wonderful West End Lane Books (with details of the upcoming author events is here or follow @WELBooks).

Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular in Cardiff – the home of modern Doctor Who!

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Ever since Doctor Who returned to the BBC a decade ago, one constant presence has been the series’s distinctive musical soundtrack. While we’ve had four Doctors over eight series, composer Murray Gold has remained and personally his score is always one of the highlights of Doctor Who. I recently struggled to choose my favourite tracks of Murray’s music from the series for this blog, which you can read here.

Since Christmas 2005, we’ve also been lucky enough to have Murray’s music recorded by a full orchestra and chorus – the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales. This has given the music a wonderful level of depth and quality and has resulted in the regular soundtrack releases becoming a must-have addition to my collection.

A decade in to New Who and after the success of recent Proms (always selling out within hours), Murray’s music has this year been on a world tour, in the form of this concert – the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular and last Bank Holiday Monday it arrived in Cardiff. There seemed no better place to see this concert than in the city that has become home to modern Doctor Who and I can certainly say that Monday’s concert was a brilliant experience for fans of all ages.

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Peter Davison standing up to the Daleks

I confess to being a little worried that this would be similar to the Doctor Who Live tour of 2010, rather than the wonderful Proms. Thankfully my worries were unfounded and the show gave fans of the series two glorious hours showcasing some of Murray’s most iconic pieces from the series, as well as providing the first live event for the music from Peter Capaldi’s first series as the Twelfth Doctor. By the nature of the show constantly moving forward, some pieces have not been played at recent Proms and it was lovely to hear tracks from all ten years again.

The show opened appropriately with the latest Doctor Theme – “Am I A Good Man?” I admit, on watching the first few episodes, I was unsure if Peter’s Doctor’s theme was very distinctive, but this track truly shines when heard in all its glory. Its suitably grand horn section and fast pace compliments wonderfully its more quiet and calm beginning, which reminds me a lot of Vangelis (I can hear aspects of it belonging in Blade Runner). Accompanied by footage from the show, it was a brilliant summary of Peter’s first year (one which I for one thought was very good indeed – more of that here).

From there host Peter Davison (the Fifth Doctor and now father-in-law to the Tenth Doctor) took us through the rest of the show, with fun and yes some cheesy jokes. Continuing with the most recent music, we were treated to a suite from series eight, “Wherever, Whenever,” including score from Robot of Sherwood, Listen (including the beautiful track “Fear”), The Caretaker, Time Heist and In The Forest of the Night. I was impressed with how many great pieces of music had been condensed and combined to highlight how crucial the music is to the series. It brings lightness and fun in episodes such as Robot of Sherwood, but also moments of darkness, fear and emotion (such as Listen).

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Ben Foster conducting the end of the show in the Fifth Doctor’s coat!

Other highlights for me were The Companions Suite, which brought back the beautiful themes created for each of Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy and it’s interesting to be reminded how each one was unique to each character. I also love the series three piece “This Is Gallifrey”, which was given a new life by being accompanied by footage from the 50th Anniversary, in which Gallifrey was so important. This did however mean that the music from that special itself wasn’t included, which I did think was a shame. To close the first half of the show, we heard a selection of music from our last trip in the TARDIS, Last Christmas. As well as the music, as with the Proms, the show welcomed some of the frightening foes of the Doctor, as Cyberman, Whispermen, Silurians, a Muumy and many other creatures appeared on stage and roamed through the audience. It’s always wonderful to see the reactions of children when they get to be so close to the monsters! Of course there was also the compulsory entrance of the Daleks, who faced off to Peter Davison and conductor Ben Foster on stage. It was cheesy, but all in good fun.

The second half of the show also had some classic as well as recent themes and opened with yet more monsters with the superb All The Strange Strange Creatures, first heard in series three. The Death In Heaven Suite was particularly good, including within it lovely pieces such as the Theme for Clara and Danny, which strikes me as being quite a mature piece of music and very moving. Although not a favourite episode of mine, Abigail’s Song from A Christmas Carol was brought to life wonderfully by Elin Manahan Thomas. This half also included music from one of the stand out episodes of series eight, “66 Seconds” from Mummy on the Orient Express, as well as the wonderfully triumphant and uplifting The Pandorica Suite (although I was sad this didn’t include the music played at the end of The Pandorica Opens – The Life and Death of Amy Pond).

The show was always going to end with some classics and it was lovely to hear Vale Decem again. Although always associated with the end of the Tenth Doctor, it has now become the concert anthem for paying tribute to all the previous Doctors and is clearly a fan favourite at such events. Of course such an event could only end with one anthem – the latest imagining of the iconic Doctor Who theme! Peter Davison even gave Ben Foster a Fifth Doctor coat to wear for the occasion!

This was a wonderful celebration of the music of Doctor Who. Without it the show would shine a little less brightly in the universe and I will always be grateful for the extra effort that the BBC has invested in the music for the series. Its quality and popularity among fans was very clear in Cardiff at this concert and I’m sure similar events will continue to be a huge success. Fingers crossed for another Prom in 2016!

Theatre review – Rules For Living at the National Theatre (Dorfman stage)

BzQ7d8yIIAANmVc I recently made my second trip to the newly refurbished Dorfman Theatre (I think it’ll always be the Cottesloe to me) to see this new play by Sam Holcroft and what a treat it is. If you are in need of a good laugh at the moment, Rules For Living will certainly do the trick.

Set on Christmas Day (it did feel a bit odd having this run in Spring!), we find ourselves in the family home of one rather eccentric family, gathering together for the traditional Christmas lunch. Whether anyone will survive is another matter! Brothers Matt (Miles Jupp) and Adam (Stephen Mangan) have arrived with their new girlfriend and wife respectively, while their mother (Deborah Findlay), is planning lunch with military precision, in anticipation of the return from hospital of their father. However the play is unusual in its style, in that it explores our cognitive behaviour and how each of us is living by our own set of rules, which may not always mesh with those of the people around us.

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Photo: Simon Annand

This is brilliantly conveyed in gameshow style staging, with two large, colourful scoreboards at either end of the promenade stage, there purely for the audience’s insight in to the minds of the characters. As more are introduced, we learn their “rules”, such as Matt sitting down every time he tells a lie and their mother cleaning whenever she is stressed. As more people arrive on the scene, the more rules are in play, leading to some hilarious moments. As the play continues and the relationships over Christmas Day become more and more strained, the rules expand, so now Matt must eat and sit down when lying. As an audience member, you can’t help but laugh at the embarrassing and awkwardly comic moments unfolding in front of you (the scene in which the family attempt to play a card game was one of my favourites)!

Setting the play on Christmas Day makes wonderful sense, as it is a day during which most families experience some form of stressful interaction, often being thrown together on a day when we are all expected to be overly happy! There are aspects of all the characters here that will be familiar to you, although hopefully not all of them in one family gathering! The staging is ideal for the play, with the audience on ground level sitting either side of the promenade stage, lending the theatre a voyeuristic, Big-Brother style feel (especially with the audience on the upper levels surrounding all four sides of the theatre space). The colourful scoreboard and glitzy gameshow noises that accompany it add to the fun, as we watch each character effectively competing to score the most points, through fulfilling their rules, whether they realise it or not and the more the rules expand, the more ridiculous events become.

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Maggie Service as Carrie. Photo: Simon Annand

It is also a wonderful cast, who work together brilliantly and seem to be having lots of fun bringing their characters and the play as a whole to life. Deborah Findlay is wonderful as the family matriarch, desperately clinging to order among the chaos. Maggie Service is a delight as Matt’s girlfriend Carrie. She isn’t part of the family and in a way feels like a spectator, much the same as the audience, but her bubbly personality adds a sparkle to the production. Stephen Mangan seems in his element as Adam, the frustrated son, never good enough and increasingly suspicious of his brother’s feelings for his wife. He is wonderfully sarcastic and you find yourself liking him, while also being frustrated by his stubbornness. Claudie Blakley, who plays his estranged wife Sheena also has some fantastic moments with both brothers.

The dialogue is wonderfully witty and full of humour, but also includes some very real moments of emotion, whether a couple trying to deal with their crumbling marriage or the bitter rivalry of siblings, all of which makes the play, despite the craziness, feel believable. Watching the tensions bubble can be both funny and uncomfortable and the truly bonkers and entertaining scene when all hell breaks loose feels inevitable. I thoroughly enjoyed this production, having not known what to expect and I haven’t laughed that much in ages. If you need something to pick up your mood and you can nab a ticket (it’s almost sold out) don’t hesitate.

Rules For Living continues its run in rep at the National’s Dorfman Theatre until 8th July 2015. For more information and ticket availability, visit the website here.

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