BFI London Film Festival 2015 – My Top 20 Films To See


Wednesday night was the BFI London Film Festival’s programme launch for members, which proved to be an insightful look at the eclectic mix of films being showcased this October. The festival this year sees 238 films, from 57 countries being screened across London (there are 16 participating venues this year) from 7th – 18th October.

Festival director Clare Stewart declared that 2015 is the year of strong women and that the festival showcases this through not only films about the strength of women, but also by having 20% of directors represented being women (admittedly not a huge number, but Stewart noted that this was better than other festivals). It was an interesting evening, during which we saw a number of trailers and clips from some of this year’s films, across the variety of festival strands (Gala, Competition, Love, Debate, Dare, Laugh, Thrill, Cult, Journey, Sonic, Family, Treasures and Experimenta) and I found this particularly interesting for the smaller budget and foreign language films, areas I admit I am quite unfamiliar with.

With so many films across the strands (including a new short film award this year), there will be something for everyone and I urge you to have a look through the extensive festival brochure. Here though are the top 20 that I’m looking forward to seeing, whether I manage it during the festival or on general release later on.

  1. Suffragette


No film at the event encompasses strong women more than the film which opens this year’s festival. Suffragette sees an impressive cast including Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter and Ben Whishaw bring the history of the fight of women for the vote in the early twentieth century. The trailer certainly looks great and Carey Mulligan could be seeing awards nominations in her future. The opening night’s screening will also be screened in select national cinemas, details of which are on the LFF website.

  1. He Named Me Malala

Malala Yousafzai

Another inclusion showcasing powerful women is this documentary about one of the most famous and incredible young women of our time – 17 year-old Malala Yousafzai, who after being shot in the head by the Taliban for championing girls’ education has gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and continue to be a role model around the world. Director [Davis] Guggenheim’s film looks to be an incredibly interesting record of her life so far.

  1. The Lady In The Van


Anything with Dame Maggie Smith gets my vote and this adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play (which she also starred in), based on the true story of the woman who parked her camper van on his drive and ended up remaining there for 15 years, looks wonderful. As well as Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings plays Bennett and as someone who has seen him in the role on stage, it’s sure to be a wonderful portrayal. Funny and touching, this looks to be a British gem.

  1. The Program


Another topical inclusion is director Stephen Frears’s (previously at the festival with Philomena) The Program, which tells the story of Lance Armstrong’s fall from sporting icon to disgrace. Chris O’Dowd is the sports journalist David Walsh, who was determined to prove Armstrong’s cheating was a reality, while Ben Foster (looking vastly different from when I last saw him on stage in A Streetcar Named Desire) plays Armstrong. It looks both interesting and engaging, with some fantastic work capturing the power and energy of the sport.

  1. Black Mass


I couldn’t fail to mention Black Mass, which sees Johnny Depp transformed in to the creepy Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, an infamous real life Irish gangster in Boston, who became an FBI informant to help them eliminate the Italian mob. With support from Benedict Cumberbatch as his brother, a political rising star and a screenplay written in part by Jez Butterworth (the man behind the incredible play Jerusalem), this looks to be a tense crime drama, giving Depp something a bit meatier to get his teeth in to. From the reviews coming out of Venice today, it sounds very promising indeed.

  1. Burn, Burn, Burn


One from the “Laugh” strand of the festival which has caught my eye is this film starring Jack Farthing, Joe Dempsie, Laura Carmichael and Chloe Pirrie, in which Dan (Farthing) who has recently passed away gives his friends the final task of scattering his ashes in five disparate places around the country. Along the way he’ll accompany them via the video messages he has recorded, which from the trailer bring both laughter and poignancy. I love a good film about the power and importance of friendship, so I’ll certainly put this on my list.

  1. The Lobster


A quirky addition to the Gala strand is this film by Yorgos Lanthimos with an all-star cast of Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly. Set in the near future, singledom is banned and those not paired up must go to The Hotel, where they have 45 days to find a mate. If not, they are transformed in to an animal of their choice (hence the title, the choice of Farrell’s character). It sounds bonkers (and the clip shown was indeed bizarre), but I’m intrigued by the possibility of mixing surreal humour and love with something that bit darker in tone. Plus anything with Mr. Whishaw cannot be missed in my opinion!

  1. Room


I have been aware of the novel Room since it was released in 2010 but have yet to read it. Therefore this adaptation by Emma Donoghue of her own bestseller caught my eye in the brochure. The idea of a five year-old child spending their life since birth in an 11 foot room with just their mother (and the possible reasons as to why they remain there) sounds horrifying to me, even though little Jack does not have any awareness of the world outside his own. The story of this mother-son relationship, is one I expect to be incredibly powerful and will try to see.

  1. Office


I had never heard of this film before the event this week, but it certainly intrigues me. Adapted from Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang’s play Design For Living,  this Hong Kong film charts the corporate culture and glamourous lives of those working in the office in question in stylish, musical song and dance fashion, with a cast that includes Sylvia Chang herself. It sounds quite surreal, but I loved how the play Enron brought something fresh, inventive and creative to the story of corporate greed in today’s world and perhaps this Chines film could be equally as entertaining. I’ll be interested to see what the reaction to it is at the Toronto Film Festival later this month.

  1. Truth


Cate Blanchett stars in two films at this year’s festival (the other being Carol), while also receiving the BFI Fellowship. Both movies look fantastic, but I’m more interested in seeing Truth, in which she plays Mary Mapes, producer of Dan Rather’s 60 minutes television show in America. The film focusses on the programme’s questioning of George W. Bush’s avoidance of the Vietnam draft and whether he received preferential treatment. With Robert Redford as Rather and also starring Elisabeth Moss, I’m hoping this proves to be an engaging and intelligent political drama.

  1. Brooklyn

Brooklyn EmoryCohenSaoirseRonanBrooklyn_article_story_large

Nick Hornby adapts Colm Toibin’s best-selling novel, in which a young Irish immigrant in 1950s Brooklyn (the wonderful Saoirse Ronan) faces the pain of choice – between her Irish homeland and a new life in America, as well as between two men from those different places. She’s a fantastic talent and with a brilliant cast including Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters (who looks fab as her Brooklyn landlady from the clip we saw on Wednesday night), I’m hoping this will be a stirring and moving film. For  fans of the TV show Arrow, I think I also spotted Emily Bett Rickards (Felicity Smoak) in the cast too, although I’ve no idea how big her role is.

  1. Steve Jobs


Closing the festival (so almost certainly one I’ll have to watch on general release) is this film charting the life and success of a hugely iconic figure in today’s society – Steve Jobs. With direction from Danny Boyle, a screenplay by Aaron “West Wing” Sorkin and the hugely talented Michael Fassbender in the title role (together with support from Kate Winslet), I have high hopes for this movie and the trailer looks great too.

  1. High-Rise


An adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel, this film is according to the BFI’s festival brochure said to be a “brilliant satire of both 1960s social idealism and the Thatcherite values that undermined it.” Starring Tom Hiddleston as Dr. Robert Laing, the film is set in a luxury high rise tower, in which everyone who lives there is cut off from the rest of society. No trailer has yet been released, but from the  clip we were shown (which saw Hiddleston shopping on the supermarket level and seeing a glamorous woman pass with her huge dog in her shopping trolley) this looks to be a surreal, but interesting film. The supporting cast includes  Jeremy Irons, Elisabeth Moss, Sienna Miller and James Purefoy.

  1. The Wave


For fans of disaster thrill rides and Nordic/Scandi dramas, look no further than The Wave. Set in Norway, the film envisages what would happen today if a landfall in the fjords triggered a tsunami (as happened once before in 1934). It may scare me to death, but the visual effects looked impressive enough for me to give this a try. Plus the film has just been announced as Norway’s entrant for consideration for Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars.

  1. Youth


This film by Italian writer and director Paolo Sorrentino, set largely in a luxury Swiss spa, stars Michael Caine as Fred, a retired composer and Harvey Keitel as Mick, an elderly film director looking for a comeback and centres around their friendship, while weaving various strands of narrative together. I don’t know too much about it yet, other than it stars Rachel Weisz as Fred’s daughter and Jane Fonda, but I love Michael Caine’s work and I’m hoping this will be a moving and funny addition to the festival. It has already competed for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and will also be shown during this month’s Toronto Film Festival.

  1. Beast of No Nation


This Netflix original film is currently receiving a positive response at the Venice Film Festival. By Carey Fukunaga’s (HBO’s True Detective) it is an exploration of child exploitation in an Africa country torn apart by civil unrest and atrocity stars the brilliant Idris Elba as The Commandant of a militia of rebel soldiers and newcomer Abraham Attah as the young boy Agu. I certainly don’t expect this to be an easy film to watch, but I’m sure it will prove to be extremely powerful and will see release globally on Netflix in October.

  1. Grandma


Lily Tomlin stars as a foul-mothed poet, who ends up on a road trip through LA with her 18 year-old granddaughter after the death of her long term partner and her split from her recent much younger girlfriend. This film sounds extremely enjoyable and as Lily Tomlin is always a joy to watch (although she’ll always be The West Wing’s Deborah Fiderer to me!) I’m hoping for a few laughs and some cracking, sharp dialogue with this one. From watching the trailer I don’t think I’m going to be disappointed.

  1. Remember


This drama starring Christopher Plummer, looks at the nature of evil, with Plummer as an elderly German Jew, already succumbing to Alzheimer’s, determined to keep the promise he made to a friend (played by Martin Landau) to find and kill the Nazi commandant who ordered the deaths of both their families. With such a great actor as Plummer and dealing with a subject that still sparks powerful, emotional reactions, I’m going to try and see this one.

  1. Sherlock Holmes


One from the archives here, as the festival screens this recently discovered American silent film from 1916. Once thought lost, it is based on the popular 1899 play by William Gillette of the same name and also stars Gillette in the title role. Its significant to the Holmes world, as Gillette is viewed as contributing greatly to our image of Holmes and to the development of the character of Moriarty. This will no doubt appeal to fans of the famous detective from 221B Baker Street and it’s wonderful that such  films are still being discovered and restored for the pleasure of a whole new audience.

  1. Goosebumps


One for the family here with the big screen arrival of the hugely successful book series by R L Stein that every generation of kids seems to know. Starring Jack Black, this film looks set to be a thrilling and entertaining outing for children and perhaps adults looking to relive a part of their childhoods.


So those are my picks from the extensive offerings at this year’s festival. As you can see it’s a varied mix and I’ve barely touched so many of the strands. If you enjoy cinema, are looking to see an upcoming film a little earlier or are curious to delve in to some foreign films, then download the brochure (or pick up a hard copy) and start planning your festival schedule!

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7th – 18th October 2015. For full details about the programme visit the festival’s main website. Public booking opens on 17th September or you can consider becoming a member of the BFI.

Theatre Review – Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican


Saturday night saw me return to the Barbican for my third visit to Hamlet and the first since press night. After seeing the very first performance, a preview in week two and now the show three weeks in, it’s interesting to see what’s changed and what hasn’t. I was relieved that overall the show was much stronger, mainly in terms of the supporting performances.


Sian Brooke as Ophelia. Photo by: Johan Persson

Sian Brooke’s Ophelia has grown in her role over the previews. I still don’t feel that there is a significant connection between her and Hamlet, but what I truly love about her portrayal is she’s not a mad whirling girl, but someone who becomes so broken by grief and loss. This is much more believable in my view, as we all suffer losses of varying degrees in our lives and it is more much relatable than someone dancing around manically. The use of snatched dialogue she has heard or overheard earlier during her “mad” scene is very clever and shows how those around her have been the cause of her emotional breakdown; the mock funeral she stages is very sad and truly brings home the tragedy of her situation and her final moments on stage remain the most moving and powerful of the show. The piano, the photographs and camera, the gorgeous use of light and Jon Hopkins’ Abandon Window music add to the impact and the moment she leaves the stage is visually beautiful.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,          , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Lyndsey Turner, Set design -Es Devlin, Lighting - Jane Cox, The Barbican, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

HAMLET by Shakespeare, , Writer – William Shakespeare, Director – Lyndsey Turner, Set design -Es Devlin, Lighting – Jane Cox, The Barbican, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

Anastasia Hille is much improved as Gertrude, bringing more substance to her presence on stage and to her relationship with her son. Thankfully the closet scene is stronger than it was in early previews. Again she excels in later scenes and the touch of her running after Ophelia is something I loved, as is the added detail of her dress (sleeves and bottom half) being clearly wet when she returns with news of her death. I always wonder about Gertrude’s presence at Ophelia’s death from her speech and what she did. Here you can at least believe she went in to the water herself to reach Ophelia. Unfortunately there is however still no chemistry between her and Ciaran Hinds’s Claudius. By the end she has shifted away from him, but for this to have more weight, you need to have seen a disintegration of their relationship. In this production there is never any real connection to begin with.


Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes. Photo by: Johan Persson

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith remains the strongest ensemble actor here. He projects his voice to the whole audience and successfully conveys Laertes’ affectionate, caring relationship with his sister (their moment at the piano is tender and warm) as well as his potential for anger on returning to avenge his father’s death. It’s a shame he isn’t on stage more or have more scenes with Benedict.

Leo Bill is now a much better Horatio, but I think the weaknesses that still remain are due to the directorial choices. With the removal of the opening scenes we lose time with the character and due to the staging choices he is often so far to the side you forget he is there (for example, the play scene). For me, he should be more visible. Yes he is an outsider, but he is the loyal friend who should be seen to be by Hamlet’s side. Other productions have done this very effectively – the peak remaining Peter De Jersey for the RSC. I do however enjoy the choice to give him Getrude’s final line – in this production it is Horatio, ever the observer who announces that the Queen has been poisoned.

Jim Norton has improved as Polonius, although would such a wise man need to write his words of advice to Laertes down? Thankfully his death is also much better than the clumsy staging of early shows, but he still remains a bit dull, which is a shame when Oliver Ford Davies has shown how lively a character he can become. Matthew Steer and Rudi Dharmalingam are still sadly lacking as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They may be small parts, but I’ve seen actors bring them to life much more effectively. They seem totally irrelevant here and I can never picture this Hamlet having ever been friends with them. They aren’t assisted by the ridiculous decision to stage their arrival on the side balcony, which is only visible to part of the audience!


Ciaran Hinds as Claudius. Photo by: Johan Persson

However, despite the improvements in performances, the biggest disappointment remains Ciaran Hinds’s Claudius. First and foremost his voice projection is still weak. You struggle to hear him in certain areas of the theatre. It may be a big space but I’ve never experienced actors struggling to make themselves audible at the Barbican before this production and I did note mics on some actors. His Claudius is also on the cowardly end of the spectrum. I’ve seen drunken, lecherous ones (John Nettles in Sheffield) through to subtle, menacing statesmen (Patrick Stewart) and I find the cowardly interpretation frustrating. This is after all a man who has killed his own brother and is running a country and planning military strategy. Having him cower on the floor before Laertes feels wrong to me. I did however appreciate the switching of lines between him and Gertrude at this moment. In the text it is Gertrude trying to protect him by telling Laertes he did not kill his father. In this production, it makes perfect sense that such a cowardly Claudius would say that line himself in fear while cowering on the floor. Claudius isn’t an obvious villain from the outset, but if you don’t believe his potential to be a dangerous operative, then he simply becomes a bit dull and boring and of no threat to Hamlet at all and Ciaran Hinds did rather bore me. The final scene before the interval is visually and audibly striking, but I don’t believe that the man at its centre carries any real threat, meaning it just isn’t very satisfying in my view.

In terms of the production’s staging and direction, there are aspects I enjoyed and that work well. The first reveal of the opulent banquet is still incredibly impressive and truly shows off the length and depth of the Barbican stage. It’s literally as if you’ve stepped in to a painting which is wonderful. The music by Jon Hopkins is wonderfully atmospheric, as is the lightning design. I also like the comedic touches of Hamlet within his fort, as if a child once again. It’s also much better that the projected visuals that used to appear in every doorway, whenever the Ghost appeared have been greatly reduced, as they were quite distracting and unnecessary. The way the Ghost appears during the closet scene is also wonderfully eerie and gothic in style, which I liked very much. The nunnery scene also has some added touches that work well. I’m still curious what Ophelia is writing frantically, as if she is trying to warn Hamlet, then it’s clear from Benedict’s performance of the scene that he senses that Claudius or someone working for him is listening.

Hamlet at the Barbican

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo by: Johan Persson

However I do have some not insignificant grumbles. The positioning of the balcony is ill-conceived, as it is not able to be seen by those sitting on the left side of the auditorium – I’d guess at least the first 4-5 seats of each row have a restricted view for the scenes that take place there, including Hamlet’s reaction on first seeing his father’s Ghost and his consideration of killing Claudius seemingly at prayer (and charging over £60 for such seats is very poor indeed). With such a vast space, this balcony could surely have been moved.

The set is also too busy at times. The banquet scene results in the frustration of seeing servants carrying chairs and flowers etc. off stage as Laertes and Ophelia have their moment together (crucial to weight their affection in preparation for the tragedies to come). The rushing on of desks and office furniture as Ophelia also comes across Hamlet trying on his outfits is also distracting. This moment between the two is one of the few opportunities to try and make a connection between them and yet it is lost amongst the needless moving on of furniture. These courtiers may wear the same coloured suits as the walls but they are still a distraction at times when the focus should be on the play, not on the visuals. The addition of instruments filled with flowers during the play scene are perhaps the most pointless. They are brought on and then simply carried off again, serving no real purpose. With a play whose text is as rich as Hamlet’s such things stood out as style over substance for me.


The view you miss if you can’t see that side balcony. Photo by: Johan Persson

As for Benedict himself, he is certainly settling in to the role and growing as time moves on. Hamlet’s soliloquies are now flowing from him naturally, as if from the character rather than an actor on stage. His passion and energy are also much stronger and he seems to dart around the stage with far more confidence and ease, which can only continue to benefit his performance. His opening soliloquy is the right pitch of anger, sorrow and despair as the gothic slo-mo banquet carries on behind him and I still love his “What a piece of work is a man?” delivered outside his toy fort with a very real depth of feeling.

Again, as with Horatio, some of my grumbles are more staging points than acting ones – I’m still not sure I like the use of Hamlet within the play scene. The focus should be on Claudius and his reactions and Hamlet’s reaction to him. By Hamlet taking part, you find yourself shifting attention to him. I also miss some of Shakespeare’s wonderful dialogue that has been cut (such as “miching mallecho; it means mischief”).


Photo by: Johan Persson

As for the ridiculous fuss over To Be or Not To Be, as one of the small number who saw it in its initial place up front – I quite liked it. It made the production interesting and did give you immediate sympathy for Hamlet. Watching him listen to Nature Boy and curl up on his side and cry for his father certainly made you sit up and pay attention, which I personally enjoyed. Hamlet is over 400 years old and experimenting with its form is what helps keep it current and exciting. Now it’s moved to Act II (so still not its normal place, yet I see no big grumbling about that) and works perfectly well here too, thanks to the calibre of the actor. He moves from farcical comic with Polonius to someone grappling with darker emotions swiftly and convincingly and as he walks off afterwards, you do indeed feel the power of that iconic text.

As was the case three weeks ago, this production is still very much Benedict’s show. Although the supporting cast have improved, they do remain in his shadow and the production would have been so much stronger if he was more equally matched by more of the ensemble around him. This isn’t a superb production, but it is certainly much better than it was and is a worthy one to introduce newcomers to Shakespeare, through the strength of its leading man in particular.

Hamlet continues its run at the Barbican Theatre until 31st October 2015. For further information visit the website. For details of the NT:Live cinema screenings across the country and internationally visit the NT:Live website.

Theatre Nostalgia – Memories of the RSC’s Hamlet starring David Tennant (2008)!


This Bank Holiday weekend marks a significant date in my memory – seven years ago, on the Saturday in 2008, I returned to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see a very special theatre production. I hadn’t been back to the home of Shakespeare since a school trip in 2000, during which we watched their production of Romeo & Juliet (from some fairly high up seat from memory) starring David Tennant. As someone who’d enjoyed the theatre for the occasional trip over the years, I’d been keen to see Mr. Tennant on stage as Hamlet and yes I admit, it was his more recent television work – Casanova and Doctor Who, which had added to my interest in him. I hadn’t expected to go – tickets were sold out by the time I was able to look in to going (yes, I was that naïve then!).


The lovely Courtyard Theatre

Yet, on Saturday 30th August 2008, thanks to a lovely lady on EBay and after surviving a frantic bidding war to acquire the ticket in the first place, I was there in The Courtyard Theatre, ready to see my first Hamlet! I still remember the view from my seat (Stalls D20), central to the black, mirrored stage and the bubbling feeling of excitement and anticipation. I could never have imagined how much of an impact the evening would have on me.

Since then, I’ve seen a few Hamlets, but this production is still yet to be beaten. Where to start? With such a talented director as Greg Doran behind it, the show already had an invaluable advantage – having seen other Shakespeare plays directed by him and some by others, Mr. Doran is one of the few directors who, for me, seems to know instinctively how to bring Shakespeare’s words to life for today’s audiences. It may have a reputation for being dry and complex, but Greg Doran effortlessly cuts through that, bringing clear, accessible and engaging productions to the stage. Not everyone can achieve this and certainly a production can seem weaker without a lack of ease of understanding, which he also proves never requires a dumbing down of the text.


Director Greg Doran

This Hamlet was brilliantly conceived by Greg. It brought the hyper-surveillance atmosphere, secrecy and mistrust of Elsinore alive and with the production’s designer Robert Jones, they created a set that didn’t need a great amount of props or scenery to have an impact. A mirrored wall and floor enhanced the idea that everywhere Hamlet the other characters went they were being surveilled, even if sometimes the only person watching them was their own reflection. The costumes were fantastic – elegant simplicity for Gertrude, tailored suits for Claudius and modern casual for Hamlet. In fact the grandest costume was reserved for the Player Queen, so opulent in comparison that it fitted perfectly with the sense during the play scene that Hamlet is pushing this in front of his uncle and he will notice it and be unable to ignore what is in front of him.

Crucially too, one of the strongest elements was the quality of the company. The RSC assembled a superb ensemble, which didn’t just support the lead actor, but who ensured the production had a depth and strength that kept the audience engaged for every scene, whether the main man was on stage or not (a point proven when Mr. Tennant was out of action for 3 weeks due to back surgery).


Preparing for the play within a play. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

I think this is vital for any production. Every other Hamlet I’ve seen has included some weak or disappointing performances, whether through a lack of chemistry, a lack of projection on the stage or a lack of ability to make the words come to life. Hamlet may be a play that revolves around the actions (or inactions) of the title character, but in order to be drawn in to his story you have to engage with everyone on stage, otherwise why would you even care about Hamlet at all?

Oliver Ford-Davies will it seems be my Polonius for the foreseeable future. It’s potentially such a dull part, which I’ve come to realise requires a special kind of actor to see the gems of unrealized humour and mine them for full effect. His Polonius may have been a somewhat muddled man, but you couldn’t help but like him. His meanderings of thought and seeming exasperation with Hamlet were endearing and it was genuinely sad when he died. This is an actor who truly understands Shakespeare and makes it so easy for the audience to grasp it too.


Oliver Ford Davie as Polonius with David Tennant. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

The ruling King and Queen were also both excellent and crucially had a very real and palpable chemistry. It seemed quite possible that they had already been having an affair before Hamlet’s father died. Penny Downie brought a stylish elegance to Gertrude, but also played her as a strong-willed woman. She never felt incidental, despite her lack of input in the earlier Acts. Also, you felt a genuine bond between her and her son, with the closet scene remaining one of my favourites of the production and one I would look forward to on every visit. She and David Tennant put so much emotion and power in to it that by the end you felt almost as exhausted as they must have been!


Patrick Stewart as Claudius with David Tennant. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

At the time I don’t think I truly appreciated how good Patrick Stewart was as Claudius. It is only on reflection and with comparisons to others that I admire his interpretation more and more. I’ve always felt you need to have some unease around him. It doesn’t have to be terror, but I always think for the plot to work, you need to believe that Hamlet is putting himself at risk by challenging Claudius – especially the play within a play scene. Without that you never really worry that Hamlet could be in danger. Claudius isn’t an obvious villain on first meeting him; his is a more subtle, calculating evil, but too subtle a portrayal and he seems too decent a man, despite the deeds he has committed, making Hamlet appear more petulant and weak in character. Patrick’s Claudius was every inch the statesman – the way he walked, the way he held himself and the way he controlled his emotions. Yet, he still managed to convey the menace behind the man. As he holds the lamp light in Hamlet’s face and shakes his head, you truly understand that Hamlet is now in very real danger. I also always loved his choice to willingly drink the cup – a shrug and he drinks – until the end the man not losing his control.


Penny Downie as Gertrude with David Tennant during the superb closet scene. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

As for the other key characters, each actor brought something special to the role. Edward Bennett’s Laertes had a lovely, affectionate, genuine relationship with Mariah Gale’s Ophelia and his rage on hearing of her death still echoes in my head at every Hamlet I see. He may ultimately kill Hamlet, but through Ed’s performance you never blame him. Mariah Gale’s Ophelia was playful, affectionate and in her madness a whirling Catherine wheel of anger, pain and sorrow. The image of her holding her flowers and grasses was so striking that I immediately thought of John Everett Millais’s painting “Ophelia” and could imagine her in the brook, being pulled under. You also genuinely felt that, although perhaps faded, there had been a very real and affectionate relationship between her and Hamlet at one time.


Mariah Gale as Ophelia. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the potential to be so incidental that you can forget they were ever on stage. Not so when played by the wonderful duo of Sam Alexander and Tom Davey. They truly breathed life in to their characters and their comic touches added humour and richness to the production. You could imagine them as young boys playing with Hamlet and the fact they are intimidated by Claudius seems understandable. I always wonder whether the choice to remove the text explaining their deaths and Hamlet’s role in it was a choice made before or during rehearsal as their performances started to form. In tis production they are likeable and seem to be victims of circumstances and therefore hearing about Hamlet’s role in their deaths would have possibly reflected much worse on him, at a time when you need to be rooting for him.

As Oliver Ford-Davies is my Polonius, Peter De Jersey is my Horatio. He is perhaps my favourite in the production other than David Tennant. Although clearly an outsider from a different background, you can understand why Hamlet has chosen him as his friend while at university. He has a kindness and a loyalty that all of us would be lucky to find in our friends and his and David’s chemistry seemed to weight this connection in reality.


“Goodnight sweet Prince” – Peter De Jersey as Horatio with David Tennant

I loved how he book ends this production – it starts with his arrival on the battlements and ends with his as the final line. He also seemed to have a much stronger and visible presence on the stage as although an observer, he was often right by Hamlet’s side, whether during the wonderful recorder scene, the preparation for the play (where Hamlet affectionately tidies up his bow tie for him) and during Hamlet’s return from exile. They feel bonded, which is vital if you are to truly feel the sadness at Hamlet’s death. Yes, you need a strong Hamlet, who you have invested in, but it’s Horatio for whom you feel such sadness. I believed every time that he would willingly have died alongside his friend rather than be left behind. In choosing to dispense with Fortinbras’s arrival (a good choice in my view), the emotional weight of “Goodnight sweet prince” had to leave the audience with that strong, heartbreaking emotion. I admit I shed a tear every time.

Everyone else added to the ensemble, whether Mark Hadfield’s Gravedigger or Ryan Gage’s Osric or the group of players and courtiers.


Sam Alexander as Rosencrantz and Tom Davey as Guildenstern. Photo taken from the film version courtesy of the RSC / BBC

As for David Tenant, I may be a little biased, but I honestly haven’t (yet) seen a better Hamlet. He is certainly that last Hamlet pre-Cumberbatch to be put so firmly under the spotlight before even uttering one line in public in the role (not to mention the constant commentary once he had to have back surgery and miss some of the London run). I remember the mocking articles about Doctor Who fans turning up in costume with their sonic screwdrivers and of course Jonathan Miller’s ill-conceived sound bite about stunt TV casting (never mind his previous two seasons with the RSC and vast stage CV). This time the nastiness towards Benedict Cumberbatch and his fans in particular seems worse than in 2008 (all this talk of failing Hamlet quizzes and an eagerness by certain media to see him fail has been quite ridiculous), but it’s certainly not new unfortunately.

As for his performance, David successfully silenced the critics when the play opened in [July] 2008 and after finally getting to see it, it wasn’t hard to understand why. He effortlessly drew the audience to the character, more so in the intimate Courtyard setting and his opening soliloquy seemed to be directed to you personally, while still not giving a sense of an actor simply delivering a speech. His anger at both his mother and uncle was evident from the start, as was his obvious disdain for the sycophantic manner of those of the Court (whether Polonius agreeing with him about cloud shapes that he was clearly making up for amusement or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). He feels trapped and restless, a person who no doubt was more himself outside the confines of this place. Yes, he was comic at times, but it never felt forced or out of place. This production remains the funniest I have seen due primarily to his and Oliver Ford-Davies’ comic touches. That’s not to say it wasn’t equally powerful and moving, but it had a sparkle from the incredible cleverness and humour the actors found in the text (something I’m sure the RSC’s rehearsal process would have fostered).


From L-R: Ryan Gage, David Tennant, Patrick Stewart and Edward Bennett. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

Tennant’s Hamlet was full of emotions, all expressed beautifully, whether rage, frustration, amusement, deep sadness or fear as to what he should do and his interpretation of To Be or Not to Be was stunning. Shuffling on to the stage, head down, and arms crossed over his chest, bare feet and in that evocative red T-shirt, as if glimpsing his every heart and soul, you felt every word and understood the dilemma he was facing so clearly. David remains one of the few actors of his generation who makes Shakespeare’s words feel relevant and contemporary, something Greg Doran often says about working with him. I was captivated from the first moment of that first performance I saw seven years ago, to the final moments of the last performance the following January in London.

As was the case seven years ago, this Bank Holiday also includes a visit to see Hamlet. This time it’s my first visit to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet post press night. I will be curious to compare it to my previous visits and over the weekend I will post how I think it has developed over three weeks of previews. It certainly had lots of potential.


For now though, I look back fondly on a theatre trip which became so much more. This wasn’t just a theatre production – it became the catalyst for a renewed interest in Shakespeare, a growing passion for theatre in general and the reason for me forming some of the most meaningful and precious friendships I imagine I will ever have. All because of David Tennant!

Regardless of the reviews and petty, snide jibes at fans in the media, if the current Barbican Hamlet has the ability to have the same effect on even just a handful of its rapt audience, that for me will be its greatest achievement.

Hamlet starring David Tennant and the rest of the superb ensemble can be bought on DVD after a film version was made, directed by Greg Doran. It’s available from all the usual stockists. I’d also recommend the book chronicling the life of the production from the perspective of ensemble member Keith Osborn in his book: Something Written in The State of Denmark (pictured) for those wanting to learn or relive the production.

Television Nostalgia – Spooks – BBC Drama at its finest


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)

spooks harry ruth

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)


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)


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)


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.


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


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


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


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


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


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

Theatre seats at the London Coliseum

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


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


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?


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!


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.


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!


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.


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!


Tis’ I, Hamlet The Dane!

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.


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).


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.


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.

8.  Si+ón Brooke (Ophelia) in rehearsals for Hamlet.  Photo credit Johan Persson

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: . Also, I’ve posted some hopefully useful tips for any newcomers to the Barbican, which you can read here.

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