Television Nostalgia – Spooks – BBC Drama at its finest

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After watching the recent Spooks film The Greater Good, I was struck by just how brilliant the original television series was. I thought so at the time of course, but time sometimes causes you to forget. So, it seemed to be the perfect opportunity to revisit one of my favourite BBC dramas and one that even almost four years after it ended, still outclasses the majority of dramas on television today.

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The original Spooks cast

Created by David Wolstencroft, Spooks ran for ten years on BBC One, between 2002 and 2011. In may not have taken place in real-time like 24, but Spooks was certainly a change in pace compared to other dramas on British television at the time. Its high quality ensemble cast and intelligent and frighteningly current stories meant that the series stood out and quickly developed a strong following.

Series one introduced us to the core MI5 Section D team, led by Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen), who together with Zoe (Keeley Hawes) and Danny (David Oweloyo) seemed to be Britain’s only line of defence against the constant threats thrown at the intelligence service. Overseeing it all was their boss Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), who so quickly became the bedrock of the series – you couldn’t believe he would ever leave.

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The team moved on with Adam, Ros, Zafa, Jo and Ruth joining over the first 5 years

The series may have become more high-tech, faster paced and filled with more action as the series developed, but such aspects were never the reason for its success. Perhaps the key to Spooks’ popularity and longevity was the very real awareness that no one was safe. At that time heroes always seemed to triumph in long running dramas, but Spooks very early on took a brave stand in bucking the trend. This was of course through the shocking death of Lisa Faulkener’s character. Although Matthew, Keeley and David are big stars now, in 2002 Lisa Faulkener was the most known and killing her off in episode two and in such harrowing scenes, truly made the series stand out. I can still remember the first time I watched it.

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Richard Armitage joined as the mysterious Lucas North in series 7

From then on, you knew that any character could die at any time and your favourites may not survive, which added to the tension and tone of the show. This seems much more common now, with shows such as Game of Thrones following the same model, but it was a much braver choice when Spooks began and it meant that over its ten year run, Spooks saw the team of Section D grow and inevitably change. The original trio had left by the end of series three, but we had already grown to know Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) and other newcomers, not to mention the growing support from Ruth (Nicola Walker), Malcolm and Colin. Later saw the introduction of the superb Hermione Norris as Ros Myers – strong, clever, serious, but still funny at times and at heart a caring member of her team, despite her hard edge and then the sigma that was Lucas North (Richard Armitage). It was perhaps one of the weaker aspects of the last two years that the new team members, as good as they were, never had enough time to gel in the same way as their predecessors had and part of the power of Spooks was getting its audience to care about its characters.

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The final Section D team from series 10

The series included so many strong stories, with funny, tense, emotional and action-packed moments. Overall I enjoyed the series from start to finish. Were I to pick a favourite series as a whole, I’d probably say one of series 2-4. On the flip side of that, series 6 was the least interesting, as its shift to focussing on one overarching plot over the whole series didn’t work as well as individual stories. I also think that, as great as the new cast members were post series 8, once Ros had gone, it didn’t feel quite as strong as it had.

So, on finishing my rewatch of the series, here are my top ten episodes of one of BBC’s finest dramas.

1. Danny’s Heroic Sacrifice (series 3 episode 10)

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This is perhaps the story from Spooks which has stayed in my mind over the years since it first aired. As well as being the finale to the third series, it was also the episode in which we said farewell to Danny, superbly played by David Oweloyo. The story is a tense thriller from start to finish, as both Danny and Fiona are kidnapped. From watching since the start, I knew that anything could happen and that there was a horrible possibility that my favourite of the original trio was not going to have a happy ending. What makes the episode stand out so much is how Danny meets his fate. Unlike others, he makes the conscious decision to provoke their captor, knowing it will almost certainly cost him his life. It’s such an honourable moment in the series and the scenes themselves were incredibly powerful, as Adam and the team react to it. I also loved the end, as Ruth (already entrenched in the series by this point) lovingly says her own goodbye to Danny. It’s an an incredibly emotional and powerful episode.

2. London terrorist attacks (series 4 episodes 1 and 2)

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To open the fourth series, Spooks chose a storyline which became sadly close to real life, coming only months after the London bombings in 2005. This certainly resulted in a stronger impact on us as an audience at the time. On its own merit, it’s another brilliant episode and the first two-parter of the series, which also properly welcomed the newest member of the team, Zafar (Raza Jaffrey). As well as the usual blend of tension, action and drama, I also thought Adam’s connection with Martine McCutcheon’s character was a nice aspect of the story and truly showed his willingness to do what was honourable, choosing to go back to be with her, knowing he may not survive. This was Spooks on a larger scale and is perhaps why the recent feature film felt less impressive to me, when two parters during its run were so strong already.

3. Lockdown on the Grid (series 2 episode 5)

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I thought this second series episode, set entirely on the Grid was a brilliantly written hour of television. With the team in lockdown in what they initially believe to be a training exercise, events soon unfold in to a much more frightening scenario, with the possibility that a lethal substance has been released, killing a huge amount of the population of the country. With seeming chaos outside Thames House, Tom has to take control and maintain order of the team, as fears and frustrations start to boil over. With the action being contained within such a small space, it feels very claustrophobic, which only adds to the tense atmosphere. Matthew Macfadyen is brilliant here and it showed how Spooks didn’t need lots of action and explosions to be gripping television.

4. Farewell to Ruth (series 5 episode 5)

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Farewell to Ruth (well until series 8 anyway). Ruth quickly became one of my favourite characters in Spooks and watching her relationship with Harry develop was one of the loveliest aspects of the series. You wanted them to be together and yet it seemed inevitable that something would ruin it (more on that later). Having Ruth at the centre of this story allowed Nicola Walker to take an even bigger role and having both her and Harry willing to take the blame for the other was very honourable. Their final scene by the Thames felt very real and believable and I was sorry to see her go.

5. Fiona Carter’s past returns (series 4 episode 7)

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I wasn’t a huge fan of Fiona Carter and by killing her off it allowed for more emotional scenes for Rupert Penry-Jones, as Adam has to cope with the tragic loss of his wife and having to come to terms with her death while still being able to do his job. As an episode I thought this hour from series four was one of the most engaging and skilfully scripted, as when it starts you are not quite seeing the truth of the circumstances. It’s only as the story unfolds that we start to realise that Fiona is running her own agenda, one which shows how brave she is and how much she cares for her family. By the end I really thought she might survive, another skill of the writers that you know characters may die, but you are never quite sure when their end will happen.

6. Tom is framed / the beginning of Tom’s fall (series 2 episode 10)

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Matthew Macfadyen did such a fantastic job playing Tom Quinn and developing his character over the course of the first two series. The finale here marks the start of his inevitable end as a spy. So much happens that you don’t expect, as the story starts out as a relatively standard plot. It’s only once Tom is set up that it becomes something much larger, placing him and the team in situations we haven’t seen them in before, most notably mistrusting each other. Having Danny and Zoe seemingly against Tom by the end was wonderfully tense, not to mention Tom actually shooting Harry! It made you wonder whether he had started to lose all hope and made the possibility that he really had walked out in to the sea to die seem much more plausible. Series three couldn’t come quickly enough.

7. Finale (series 10 episode 6)

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Series nine and ten weren’t as strong as those that had gone before and I wasn’t a huge fan of the Russian plot across the final series. However, it did make sense to have the focus be on Harry – the person who embodied Spooks more than any other character. So many series finales arrive and don’t do justice to the series, whether feeling open-ended, weak or unsatisfying for all the fans who have been loyal over the previous years. I loved that the finale to Spooks did mange to achieve a dramatic hour of television, while also honouring all those who had been a part of it over the decade. Yes, I would have loved Ruth and Harry to get their happy ending, but it feels much more realistic and honest to have that slip from their grasp. Peter Firth and Nicola Walker were always wonderful together and their final moments are heart-wrenching television. I also loved that the episode didn’t just end there – having Harry visit the house Ruth hoped they’d live in is so sad and the memorial wall he visits feels very poignant too (although where is Tarik on it?) and as a final treat for the fans, the return (although briefly) of Tom Quinn! Overall, it’s a wonderfully satisfying conclusion to the ten years that has preceded it, ending with Harry back at his desk, ready to protect the Service and the country he holds dear.

8. Adam Carter dies a hero (series 7 episode 1)

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I always loved Adam. Together with Danny he was perhaps my favourite of the team and I was very sad to see him go. The shock here I think was having him leave in the opening episode of the new series and it was such a close call too. I honestly thought he was going to survive (silly of me, knowing the tragedies that frequently occurred in the series). Ros had after all just come back, so I expected them to at least have some episodes back together and they surely couldn’t make little Wes an orphan would they?! After the action of the episode, one of the most powerful and poignant scenes in the whole ten series has to be the end of this story, as poor Harry goes to break the news to Wes. It’s a subtle scene, played beautifully by both actors, which brought a tear to my eye.

9. Hunted by Russians while averting a nuclear disaster (series 7 episode 8)

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For me this was the strongest episode of the later years of Spooks, as the team find itself hunted across London by Russian operatives, as they try and avert a nuclear explosion, with the help of recently revealed traitor Connie. Gemma Jones is so fantastic here, as we see Connie’s ruthless and selfish character, while almost admiring her foresight in having such a strong card up her sleeve. Also having the team on the run, means that the pace and tension is relentless throughout the story and despite her dreadful deeds, Connie at least salvaged some respect, in giving her life to stop the nuclear explosion.

10. The introduction of Ros Myers (series 5 episodes 1 & 2)

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Picking a final choice was quite hard, but in the end it had to be the opening two parter from series five, which was so much like a mini movie. London was at risk, the government was about to be overthrown, Anna Chancellor is almost blown up, but more importantly it introduced one of Spooks’ greatest characters and one of the strongest female characters from British drama in Ros Myers. I only knew Hermione Norris from the comedy Cold Feet, so it was fantastic to see her in such a strong, serious role. Ros really is a force to be reckoned with in Spooks and it’s interesting to see her introduced as more of an enemy, only for her to go on to be one of the most capable officers Section D had. The series lost some of its magic and strength when she left in series 8.

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So those are my top ten episodes. there were a few others that could have made it (the introduction of Jo Portman in series 4 is great, Ros’s final episode in series 8, not to mention that infamous second episode). It’s been lovely revisiting such a superb BBC series and if you haven’t watched for a while or know someone who missed it the first time around, I certainly recommend it. It’s a testament to its quality that over a decade on it stills stands up as a quality drama series.

Spooks is available on DVD from all the usual stockists and is available on UK Netflix and Amazon Instant. Spooks: The Greater Good is released on DVD in September.

Theatre Tips – How to Find Cheap Theatre Tickets and Access “Sold Out” Shows

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As a regular and enthusiastic theatregoer, I’m often asked by friends how I can afford it, to which I explain that, despite the rising prices for big West End shows (the latest attention focussed on the forthcoming musical of Elf, with its exorbitant prices), not all theatre in London is extortionate, especially if you know where to look.

I therefore thought it may be useful to share some tips, some obvious, some less so, as to how to secure tickets at a cheaper price. Most of these options require some effort, whether that’s getting up early to queue or setting a diary reminder to jump on a website the moment seats are released. However, if you can take the time and are keen enough to see something, then hopefully some of these suggestions will prove helpful.

1. Theatre specific schemes

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Many theatre have ticket schemes, which offer a cheaper level of seats for certain productions. It’s always worth checking their website in advance to become familiar with such schemes and when tickets are due to go on sale. Some of the best schemes are:

  • National Theatre Travelex scheme – the scheme is a fantastic aspect of the National Theatre, offering £15 tickets for certain productions throughout the year. What I love about this scheme is that the seats are fantastic, with the first four rows of the Olivier and Lyttelton available as an example. In order to secure these tickets, the best tip is to book quickly as once public booking opens for each new National season these seats go fast.
  • Royal Court £10 Mondays – all tickets for Mondays of every show go on sale on the day for £10, half online and half in person at the box office. Again, you need to be quick, so set yourself a reminder.
  • Southwark Playhouse Pay As You Go Scheme – For £50 paid in advance, you can buy a subscription to the Southwark Playhouse, giving you five tickets. There is no expiry, so you can use the five over as long or short a period as you choose (only two can be used at a time for one performance though). It’s a great scheme, so have a look at their website for details.
  • Donmar Barclays Front Row – This is one of the toughest, as tickets go very very quickly. Each Monday tickets go on sale for the following week’s performances at 10 a.m., offering the front row for only £10.
  • The Trafalgar Transformed seasons from Jamie Lloyd release all Mondays for each month on the 2nd day of each month for £10. If he returns for a third season, it’s almost certain this scheme will return as well.
  • The Park Theatre at Finsbury Park has a Pay What You Can Afford scheme on certain days (usually all matinees) to allow people to make a donation instead of paying the standard ticket price.
  • The Young Vic tends to offer a season saver, whereby if you buy three shows in the season at full price, you’ll get a discount. A brilliant deal if you intend to see most of the theatre’s season.
  • The Bush Theatre also offers a season saver – book 3 shows at top price in one go and only pay for two!

2. Day Seats

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Day seats are one of the most widely used and easiest ways to get cheaper tickets for bigger, more expensive shows, if you are prepared to put the effort in. This basically means getting up early and joining a queue! Day seat policies vary from theatre to theatre and even show to show at a theatre, but are always great value as they tend to offer good seats, sometimes front row even, for a cheaper price. Admittedly, the higher the stage, the more uncomfortable this front row could be, but if prices are inflated, it’s often the most accessible option. You can call up the box office of the theatre to check what it’s day seat policy is and how early the queue is starting. A current example of a popular day seat queue is the Barbican Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch (30 tickets at £10 each day). A great resource is the Theatremonkey website, which tries to give as much up to date day seat information as possible.

3. Age discounts

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Many theatres have reduced price tickets for certain age groups, which are great value while you qualify for them. Examples are:

  • Old Vic – under 25s can enjoy £12 tickets for all performances.
  • Almeida – under 30s can buy tickets for £19 on Mondays only.
  • National Theatre – Those 16 – 25 can buy £5 tickets through the Entry Pass scheme. You need to sign up to the scheme in advance.
  • RSC – Those 16 – 25 can buy £5 tickets through the RSC Key scheme.
  • Young Barbican – discounted tickets available for 16-25 year olds across all its events.
  • Tricycle Theatre – TRIKE scheme offers £10 theatre tickets for those under 26.
  • Young Vic – £10 tickets for under 25s.

Check a theatre’s website for details of their scheme and what you need to do to take advantage of it, as you may have to register first.

4. Resident discounts

Certain theatres offer discounts for residents within their community. The Bush (in Shepherd’s Bush) via the Bush Local scheme and the Lyric (in Hammersmith) are both examples of theatres which give some form of discount to locals. Enquire at your local theatre for information and availability.

5. Previews

A good proportion of theatres sell preview performances at cheaper prices, to take account of the fact that the show is still under development. Don’t let this put you off though, as it usually merely means tweaks rather than substantive changes, which can be interesting if you plan on seeing something again later in the run and can then see what the changes were.

6. NT Live / the RSC’s Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon filming nights

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These days more and more shows are being filmed for cinema screenings. Generally, these performances result in discounted prices for the audience in the theatre that evening, due to the possibility of a camera restricting your view at points. It also gives another perspective on a theatre production to watch it live as it is being filmed. I saw the recent National Theatre Man & Superman on NT:Live filming night, enjoying a £50 seat for £29. Of course, these recordings also offer the opportunity for many more people to watch a performance from their local cinema for the price of a cinema ticket. Details of NT:Live here and the RSC’s Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon here.

7. Seat filling websites

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Both The Audience Club and Play By Play UK are examples of companies which assist producers with filling seats, whether during early previews to get people talking or if a show is doing less well. The Audience Club membership starts with a £4 donation to Marie Curie and requires you to see 12 shows in the first year to qualify for the next level of membership (with access to larger shows). Play By Play costs £75 a year to join, which gives you access to their full range. Fees then payable on each ticket range from £2-£3. Crucially you must respect the discretion policy of both companies and if attending a show via either company, keep this to yourself within the venue and on social media both beforehand and afterwards. Both require you to email your interest in joining and you will then be contacted when room is available for new members.

8. Restricted view options

All theatres sell certain seats at cheaper rates due to their positioning causing a restricted view. The more you try, the more you get to know which are actually not that restricted at all, which in some cases results in a bargain. Examples being slim pillars in your view, which often don’t block too much and are fine if you go as a pair and can lean more to one side if you know the person next to you! Check sites like Theatremonkey for opinions of views from seats. Twitter is also great for seat tips, as well as the Theatre Forum (registration needed to access the forum).

9. TKTS booth / in person at box office

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The TKTS booth in Leicester Square is the official discount-selling booth, which offers some fantastic offers on discounted tickets for shows. This is especially useful if you are looking for tickets at the last minute. Another saving is to book at the box office in person if you can. This way you can avoid the booking fees added to online sales.

10. Digital Theatre

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Another recent development is the growth of filmed productions being made available online for purchase as rentals or purchases to keep forever. This is mainly thanks to the brilliant Digital Theatre, which currently offers some brilliant shows. These include the wonderful Private Lives starring Anna Chanellor and Toby Stephens, Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate and The Crucible starring Richard Armitage. Prices are very reasonable (around £4 rental, £9 SD purchase and £11 HD purchase).

Sold out shows?

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The other big question I am often asked is how do you get tickets for a “sold out” show. The simplest ways are  either via Day Seats or Returns on the day.

Returns won’t be discounted, as you are offered whatever tickets have been returned to the box office, but if someone can’t attend a show or some of their party can’t, then hopefully they will return their tickets on arrival at the theatre. Anyone waiting in the returns queue will then be offered those tickets at face value. It’s never guaranteed, but I’ve never failed yet in a returns queue and that includes at small venues such as the Donmar. I’d recommend getting there around 3 hours before the show starts to join the queue, although for popular shows it may need to be much earlier than that.

I’d add to this, if you have tickets you can no longer use, offer them back to the box office for returns. Yes, your tickets are non-refundable, but if a show is sold out then the theatre is usually willing to accept them, on the understanding that there is no guarantee of your money back. Chances are a sold out show will have a day seat queue hoping for such tickets to be put up for resale. You lose nothing more by trying and it may mean someone else gets to fill the seat.

So if there’s something you really want to see, but think it’s too expensive or sold out, look in to some of these options and maybe you’ll be able to go after all!

Film Review – Inside Out (2015) – Pixar’s Best Yet!

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The cinema at the moment seems to be a constant conveyor belt of the same material – Marvel comic movies, sequels (or the next in a long franchise), reboots of an old idea or even a combination of these (Fantatsic Four for example). It therefore seems quite ironic to me that an original and interesting film concept has arrived in cinemas, disguised as a kids’ film!

The latest offering from Pixar (it’s 15th), Inside Out continues to build on the studio’s successful formula – make the film appeal to children, but also to grown ups and not just those being dragged there by their kids! In my view, Inside Out achieves this superbly and is a genuinely lovely movie for all ages and my favourite of all the Pixar films.

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Source: Pixar

The story focusses on a young 11 year-old girl Riley and her parents, a happy, loving family from Minnesota, where she has grown up with a love of ice skating. However, we also see her life from a very different perspective – from inside her mind – a place where our everyday human emotions, Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger are given colourful form. Between the five of them they control Riley’s life on a moment by moment basis via a console in the HQ of her mind, with each new memory created becoming a coloured marble, which at the end of each day are sent to storage in her long-term memory. We see how the more memories she makes the more facets of her personality she creates, in the form of childlike theme park-style islands stretching out across her mind.

Up until this point, Joy (the fantastic Amy Poehler) has been the captain of the bunch,ensuring Riley’s life is as happy as possible, with one wonderful memory after another from the moment she was born. She feels a special bond with her as she was the first emotion in her mind. However, once the family move to San Francisco and her father is more distracted by work, it seems that the other four are going to suddenly be much busier and when Joy and Sadness find themselves lost miles from HQ in Riley’s long-term memory, they must work together to get back home, while Fear, Disgust and Anger desperately man the emotional controls of this 11 year-old child!

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It may sound a bit silly, but it’s such a clever idea. We are all unique individuals, thinking and reacting differently to one another and as we grow so do our emotions, as life becomes less childlike fun and starts to branch out in to many different emotions. We change as we grow up and that is exactly what is happening here, which is something children will be able to relate to, as well as adults.

Children will certainly love the emotion characters. They are colourful, lively and each very different. Anger is always literally blowing his fiery top, while Fear is seemingly gripping on to his sanity by his fingertips, due to being scared so easily, as Disgust rolls her eyes at them all! They make you smile and the world inside Riley’s mind is visually incredible. It’s so much brighter than the real world of San Francisco, which I imagine is a very deliberate choice.

Adults will also enjoy the story and pick up on the deeper meanings too, as the story so skillfully brings moments to the screen that are very real to life. A great example is the role of Sadness (Phyllis Smith). She is quite shy and lacking confidence and has a habit of wanting to touch the marble memories, much to Joy’s horror, as by doing so she turns them to blue (her colour), making them sad memories from then on for Riley. It’s so true that events and circumstances in our lives often change our perception of our memories – a time or moment we used to remember with fondness can suddenly become tinged with sadness, whether the loss of a beloved home in which you were once happy, a family member or a close friend. It’s natural that certain memories shift as a result. We all go through this all the time and yet I don’t think it’s been conveyed quite so perfectly, eloquently and beautifully as it is here.

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Looking out across Riley’s mind and all her personality islands. Source: Disney Pixar

The adventure Joy and Sadness face together is also very clever, as ultimately those are the two overriding emotions within all of us. Sometimes one is in control and sometimes it’s a combination of the two and ultimately sadness is just as important to our emotional lives as joy. It’s quite a deep concept but I loved how wonderfully expressed these points were in the film, as we realise alongside the characters that Joy and Sadness are not as opposite as they think.

Also in true Pixar fashion (I’m thinking Up! in particular) this is quite a moving film, which by the end did have me wiping away a few tears. It may be labelled a movie for kids, but you cannot deny the powerful effect it has on the emotions of adults too. It touches on loss in very real ways that children will relate to and how people and memories fade from your life and all these are explored in an intelligent, entertaining and moving way. With the same director as Up! (Peter Docter) I shouldn’t be surprised that it tugs at the heartstrings.

However, it’s not all sadness, as there are plenty of laughs here too, as we see the embodiment of our emotions play out in each of the five colourful characters. Plus the moments that take us in to the minds of the adults, who of course have similar characters at their consoles , are very well thought out and on point. There is also the wonderland of Riley’s mind, which we explore through Joy and Sadness’s adventure. It’s a place full of colour and fun and fantasy and the animation is truly stunning. Riley’s imaginary boyfriend made me chuckle and the introduction of her old imaginary friend Bing Bong, now seemingly forgotten by her, adds another lovely element to the story. Not to mention the film makers’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of why we all end up with those random songs or advert jingles in our heads for days without any obvious explanation! You certainly feel that everything included has been carefully considered, researched and created and the finished product is quite wonderful.

I absolutely loved this film and will certainly go to see it again. It’s intelligent, beautifully executed, funny and very moving and will touch a chord with all of its audience, whether you’re a young child or a (supposed) grown up. Forget all the blockbusters and go along and let Pixar remind you what great movies are actually all about!

Inside Out is on general release at cinemas throughout the UK. Watch the trailer here.

First Preview Thoughts – Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican!

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After over a year since its announcement, tonight finally saw the first performance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican! I know how many people are keen to hear about the production and as I’m not seeing it again until after press night (due to the 6 ticket limit), I thought I’d share my initial thoughts on the production as a whole.

DISCLAIMER – I’ll start by emphaising that it would be unfair to say this is a review, as the production has another three weeks of previews before officially opening on 25th August. Previews are vital in theatre as they give the company of actors, the director and creative team time to see how the production works on the stage and in front of an audience, to see what works, what doesn’t and what needs to be tightened up, for time or other reasons. If you plan on seeing a theatre production more than once, I’d always recommend seeing an early preview and then going again later in the run, as you’ll be in the position to be able to pick up the tweaks that have been made. This production will change and develop over the next 3 weeks, as actors settle in to roles and stylistic changes are tested out before press night. As I have done on this blog in the past for other productions that I have been to see during previews and even first previews, these are my current observations, impressions and initial thoughts on what’s already good and what I’d like to see grow and develop in the run up to press night. A lot can change in three weeks and therefore only after then will anyone truly be able to review the production and see where they feel it sits in the list of Hamlet productions of recent years.

So, with that disclaimer in mind, on to my initial thoughts of this hugely anticipated Hamlet. Firstly, the atmosphere prior to the show in the Barbican was very relaxed and not chaotic at all. Thanks to how big the complex is there’s plenty of space for everyone to be beforehand. The little shop, is very little, but with all the usual Shakespeare merchandise (between this and the RSC, the Barbican must have boxes of Bard-related goodies to sell!). The programmes are pricey – £8.50, but there are 6 pages of articles and very few adverts, but it still feels a bit cheeky when the wonderful RSC ones are only £4.

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Benedict Cumberbatch in rehearsal. Photos by: Johan Persson

As for entering the theatre, people were forming a queue before the doors opened at just after 7 p.m., but it soon moved quickly. I will be interested to hear others’ experience, but I was not asked for photo ID. My ticket was checked and I was let through.

As for my thoughts on the production. It is certainly off to a very promising start and has the potential to get even better over the course of the run. Es Devlin’s set is wonderful, with the huge space of the Barbican stage, allowing the grandeur of the Royal Family’s Danish palace to be on full display, with sweeping staircase and chandelier, particularly during the wedding banquet near the beginning of the play, which is visually very beautiful. It also cleverly moves from luxury to crumbling rubble, with the addition of mounds of rock and earth, as the facade of the household starts to fall away. The background music, by the talented Jon Hopkins (his albums are recommended for those unfamiliar with his work) is suitably eerie, enhancing the mood in later scenes, as the tragic events start to unfold. I was also pleased with the modern dress setting. I’m yet to see a period costume Hamlet, so I now can’t imagine seeing Hamlet without dark jeans and windbreaker jackets!

There are some incredibly interesting directorial choices in this production by Lyndsey Turner, some of which I think it would be unfair to ruin, particularly the opening scenes in this version, which is a choice I haven’t seen for Hamlet before, but which I thought worked very well. The emotions of grief and loss surrounding Hamlet couldn’t be clearer and I loved the song choice to accompany it – Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy, playing as the safety curtain rises to reveal the stage for the first time. It was certainly more powerful than the usual opening battlements scene. The play within the play is also interesting as Hamlet takes an even more active role in it and all the tweaks and shifts of text I noticed throughout the production seemed well thought through and provide some variety for those who have seen countless Hamlets. I’m still undecided on the positioning of the interval, which I still think works better a little earlier (the first half here is 1 hr 50 minutes, so take a bottle of water in with you).

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Ciaran Hinds in rehearsal.

One of the aspects I found most pleasing was the potential for this ensemble cast. The reason David Tennant’s RSC production has remained (as so far still remains) my favourite was due to the strength of all the cast. There wasn’t a weak link and it made the production stronger as a whole. All the Hamlets I’ve seen since have had some weak performances and so, despite the performance of the actor in the title role, the overall experience has been disappointing.

It’s no surprise to say there still need to be improvements, as actors grow in to their roles, but the potential for this cast to be a great ensemble is certainly there. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is already very strong as Laertes. Bringing his weighty stage experience to the production, his is a Laertes you admire and respect and his stage presence stood out for me. Karl Johnson was a wonderful gravedigger. It may be a small role, but is one of the lighter moments in the second half and he brought playful humour to the scene (although in contrast, I wasn’t particularly keen on his Ghost).

Leo Bill’s Horatio (one of my favourite characters) is the outsider, standing apart from the court and the main players, always watching and always loyal to his friend and I think his performance will only improve as the run continues, once he and Benedict develop a deeper on stage chemistry. Theirs is a friendship that has to feel genuine for the heartbreak at the play’s end to have the full impact on the audience (Peter De Jersey’s portrayal and final moments at the RSC never failed to bring a tear to my eye). It’s not there yet, but with time, this will continue to develop and improve. I would have liked to see Horatio in more scenes with Hamlet, such as the post play scene with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, to deepen their connection and bond.

Ophelia is a difficult role to play – she doesn’t have long to make an impact before she dies off stage and so it needs a strong actress to make you feel the sadness of her death. Sian Brooke’s performance for me was one of two halves, in that she was so much stronger in Act 2. I liked the staging of her mad scene, as although she didn’t come across as mad as other actresses have in other productions (Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Jude Law’s springs to mind), she instead conveys a woman who has been completely broken by loss and grief. Her use of a trunk as a mock coffin around which the people she gives flowers to gather was delicate and the staging of her final exit off stage, through her performance and the lighting and music was very moving and powerful. I also appreciated the directorial decision to have Gertrude actively make a clear choice to go after her, which added depth to her character as well.

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The cast in rehearsal including Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes (far right)

Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude was much better in later scenes and her finest moment for me was as she described Ophelia’s tragic death. I personally loved Penny Downie’s strong portrayal against Tennant’s Hamlet. Her Gertrude stood out despite her relatively few lines, whereas Anastasia’s Gertrude still feels a little incidental in earlier scenes. Crucially for me, the closet scene needs to develop more and lacked power, which is something that I hope will happen naturally as her and Benedict work more together (also the actual murder of Polonius needs tightening up, as it felt a little clumsy from my viewpoint). Jim Norton’s portrayal of Polonius is as a traditional, father figure. I enjoyed his performance, however I think I have been forever spoilt by Oliver Ford Davies, who brought humour and depth to dialogue that I’d never noticed before and always miss.

Ciaran Hinds surprised me a little tonight in his portrayal of Claudius. He was very good as you would expect, playing him as the shrewd political operative, always controlled and wearing his mask to cover his true character. I think I had expected him to be a more intimidating Claudius, who you felt Hamlet should truly be afraid of and who you perceive to be a genuine threat to him (Patrick Stewart’s interpretation as an example). I did not get this impression tonight and it was only in much later scenes that his darker side started to truly emerge. I wouldn’t mind seeing that a bit earlier on.

I suppose I should also mention Mr Cumberbatch! There is undoubtedly a great deal of expectation on his shoulders with this role and he has started very strongly indeed. Due to the calibre of actor he is, you automatically expect more from him. We all know how good he is, therefore he needs to give that extra sparkle, to take his performance to the next level. He wasn’t perfect tonight, but then that’s to be expected on a first night of such a complex and multi-faceted character. However he is already commanding the stage with confidence and charisma. You are in no doubt of his Hamlet’s pain at the loss of his father and more still the crass remarriage of his mother to his uncle, someone he is clearly not fond of, even before he learns of his murderous actions.

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Sian Brooke as Ophelia in rehearsal

His antic disposition, in my view, never feels real, which is a choice every actor playing the part has to decide for themselves. This is a Hamlet who seems too intelligent to truly lose a grip on his wits, in contrast to the likes of Tennant, who seemed to have become so lost in his own act, spiralling further in to despair. I particularly liked Benedict’s “What a piece of work is a man” soliloquy (probably my favourite in Hamlet), which felt heartfelt and powerful. His choice of outfit for when supposedly mad also brings a playful humour and worked very well, transporting Hamlet back to his childhood days, playing forts with his toys (here in a life sized fort, in which Benedict is very much at home!)  It allows him to seem both childlike, ridiculous and vulnerable at the same time. In his first scene on stage, we see him smiling over an old battleship toy. I did wonder whether making this a castle/fort would link better due to its starring role later on.

His interpretation of the most iconic lines in Hamlet, “To Be or Not To Be”, is already very interesting to watch and as he holds up Yoric’s skull towards the end I was vey much aware that this was a part he was made to play. He is not my favourite Hamlet so far, but with 12 weeks in which he will continue to mine the text for ideas, I’m very excited to watch him grow and develop in the role, alongside his fellow actors.

So, those are my initial thoughts on the show. I’ve tried not to ruin some of the moments that I think will be most surprising and it’ll be interesting to see how the production as a whole has developed by the next time I see it. I may even write about that too in a few weeks and the differences that have occurred. I’d love to hear what anyone else thought about tonight, so feel free to leave comments and share your experiences. After such a long wait, the Hamlet summer has finally begun and I suspect it’s going to be a wonderfully thrilling experience for us all.

Hamlet continues its run at the Barbican until 31 October 2015 (press night 25th August). Tickets have sold out, however there are 30 £10 tickets released each day at the box office (maximum of 2 per person in the queue, also subject to the existing 6 ticket limit per person across the whole run of course). There is also a returns queue, which you can join, for any tickets put up for resale. The main website link is here: http://hamlet.barbican.org.uk . Also, I’ve posted some hopefully useful tips for any newcomers to the Barbican, which you can read here.

Tips for First Time Visitors to the Barbican for Hamlet

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UPDATED: 24 August regarding cancellation of upcoming Tube Strikes.

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: 24 August – New Tube Strikes Cancelled – Further tube strikes planned to take place between Tuesday 25th and Friday 28th August have now been called off! 

I will leave the details below here in case any other strikes are scheduled during the Hamlet run. 

If any future strikes do go ahead, check TFL for details of bus routes for your journey if necessary. Point to note – London buses do not accept cash, so you’ll need to have an oyster card with credit on it, or a contactless payment card. The link below is to a map, which shows the buses you can catch around the Barbican area.

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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. 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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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.

…………

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!

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