A Very English Scandal, Television Series, BBC

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A Very English Scandal is a 3 part series, a fictionalised retelling of a political scandal that took place in the UK in the 1970s. Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberals for part of that time and he was a very well known politician throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s. He is alleged to have had an affair with a man named Norman Scott, this affair ended badly and Norman Scott threatened to tell all; to the police, the papers and Jeremy’s mother. When he began carrying out these threats, beginning with a detailed and graphic letter to the mother, Jeremy Thorpe is supposed to have hired a hitman to kill Scott. The hitman was incompetent, shot Scott’s dog instead and it all ended up in a well documented court case.

Lets just say that if you were to try and make up a salacious story to sell newspapers to the British public in the 1970s, you could hardly invent a story better than this. It had everything, its biggest difficulty would be convincing the readers that it was actually true. The court found them all not guilty, however from speaking to people who lived through the newspaper coverage, the accusations were believed by the general public and the feeling was that they were acquitted because of some biased summing up by the judge and the protection of “an old boys network” which was prevalent in political circles at the time.

Nevertheless, they were acquitted and this series is fiction because it assumes that they were all guilty as charged. It has Thorpe and Bissell plotting to kill Scott, something that Thorpe denied until his death, although Bissell gave evidence to the contrary.  Stephen Frears directed this, with great attention to detail, even without the story this is a beautiful period drama, the 1960s and 1970 are lovingly recreated in the clothes, the decoration, the speech, the attitudes. Russell T. Davies wrote the piece and he adds humour and wit to the dialogue, he peoples the back story with the eccentrics of the time, but basically sticks to the story as it was covered when it broke.  The narrative itself really didn’t need any embellishment, it was more a question of keeping it from being too outrageous.

Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, he is absolutely believable in the role of a suave, charismatic politician, with a defective moral compass, prepared to do anything to cling on to power.  Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott, is a tougher sell, part naïve ingenue, part worldly manipulator. He is alternately the hurt boy led astray and the vindictive gold digger who knows how much his silence is worth, this is a thin line to walk – but in the end, he carries it off well. There are some great performances throughout the series, Patricia Hodge is wonderful as Ursula Thorpe, Jeremy’s indomitable mother.

There are some lovely, funny cameo roles as British eccentrics, David Bamber has a role as the 8th Earl of Bamber, with badgers running around his country house. He does appear to be as eccentric as his role suggests – he introduced both the homosexual reform bill in the House of Lords and a bill for the protection of Badgers. When asked why he thought that the first passed and the second failed, he is reported to have said, “Well, there aren’t any Badgers in the House of Lords”

Overall this is a admirable treatment of an incredible story, I was aware of the people involved in the story before watching, without any great knowledge of the detail. It gives insight into the political and social attitudes of the time, for example, it was more damaging to a political career to be accused of homosexuality than to be accused of murder. It is well written, entertaining and funny, with some great acting. It is on BBC I-player now and likely to distributed around the world in the near future. If you have any interest in politics, the 1960s and ’70s, attitudes to LGBT rights, Britain and British eccentrics, I think that you will enjoy this. Actually, even if you have no interest in any of those things, I think that this series is funny enough to entertain you.

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Translations, National Theatre, Southbank, London SE1

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Translations is set in Donegal in the 1830s. Ireland is under British control, but most of the population do not speak English. It is at a time before the famine has set in, but people know of the blight and are aware of the damage that a potato crop failure can do to a  community. Ordinance Survey has sent teams of men to map the countryside and to standardise place names. Education had not been allowed for Catholics, so the practice of illegal hedge schools operated throughout Ireland. One of these schools is the precise setting of this play.

This is a play about language, the effect language can have on culture, how we can communicate with it and also about how we can communicate without it. This makes it quite an intimate piece and the Oliver Theatre, The National Theatre’s largest space and stage, does not appear to be a natural home for it. However, Rae Smith, the set designer has done an amazing job and used the space to great advantage. The hedge school is a small, low walled area right at the front of the stage and the rest of the area is peat bog stretching out into the distance, covered by the gently rolling mist that is prevailing climate of the region. Thus, we have the intimacy of the small school and the expanse of the area that is in the process of being mapped.

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Brian Friel was, he died in 2015, a wonderful playwright and Translations is a virtuoso display of his skills. The play itself may be about the power of words but the main love scene is between two people without a common language. It consists mostly of lists of place names, and is still a very moving piece of theatre. The director, Ian Rickson, has taken great care of the action, every entry and exit feels considered and the lines are all delivered deliberately, making you feel that each word has been carefully chosen.

The acting is of the highest calibre, Ciaran Hinds is as good as you would expect – and those expectations are high indeed. Colin Morgan is also very good, showing that he is aware that he is taking both sides, while denying it to all. Dermot Crowley, as Jimmy Jack Cassie, is a revelation, in a part as a humorous fantasist, who has to be credible to be funny. I also loved Michelle Fox, who managed to get us to feel a wide range of emotions even though her part has very few lines.

The thing that makes this production stand out for me, though, is the extraordinary way that Ian Rickson handles the final scene. The mechanism he employs, comes out of the blue and is gone in a flash, it adds a current reference to the play and suits it well. All in all, this is a beautiful piece of writing, beautifully presented and performed and I will consider myself to be very lucky if I see anything as good this year.

 

The Best Man by Gore Vidal, Playhouse Theatre, London WC2, 2018

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First produced on Broadway in 1960, The Best Man points at the flaws in the democratic system that we had then and that we still have today, namely that those who crave political power are the last people who should be given it. It is really interesting to note how it manages to be a period costume drama and a commentary on the machinations of political life today. The period part comes in the fact that political drama in the early 1960s was a much more static affair than we are used to now. Since “The West Wing” and “House of Cards”, rarely do we see anyone actually sitting and talking political ideas.

Gore Vidal is a fantastic writer, and even almost 60 years on, “The Best Man” is full of provocative ideas and stinging backhanded compliments.  It is insightful and witty and has a stellar cast. Martin Shaw shows great balance being righteous without being too pompous, he carries himself as though he believes he is better than the people who he hopes to vote for him, but has to work hard to avoid showing it.  Jeff Fahey is the Machiavellian, but he makes you understand that he realises this, and it is ok because he is doing it for the right reasons. Jack Shepherd almost steals the show as the outgoing President – this is a fantastic part, he gets to deliver some nice home truths to both sides and he plays it perfectly.

This being the early 1960s one would expect the women to be ancillary to the action, but Vidal was ahead of his time here, and the three leading ladies all have relatively meaty roles, and are aware of their importance in the political machine. Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks have very different roles as the respective senators wives but both are very convincing in what they do. Maureen Lipman is hilarious in a beautifully written cameo as Mrs Gamadge, who promises to bring “the women’s vote” to the candidate of her choice. She plays it so well and so much as we know her that it feels as though it could have been written for her.

Simon Evans has done a good job as director by ensuring that, although the play was written with one senator being the more honourable and the other being more murky, we see the faults in both. Apparently there was film of this play made in 1964, I will certainly be on the lookout for it because it will be interesting to see the difference 54 years has made in our perception of its ideas.

Unfortunately, I have come to this show late and it is about to close in London, but if it goes on tour after, I urge you to try and catch it, especially if you have any interest in politics – either American or British, and either current of historical. Recommended.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1

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I guess that I had better begin by explaining where I am on the Hogwarts spectrum. I enjoy the Harry Potter franchise. I read the first three books and really liked them. I have watched all the films, including the fantastic beasts one, although I couldn’t say exactly what happened in which film, especially the ones towards the end of the series. So, I know all the main characters pretty well, but I’m not a person you would invite to be on your team in the Harry Potter trivia quiz.

This play is written by Jack Thorne, although it is based on a story by him, JK Rowling and John Tiffany. However, it does really feel like it is written by JK Rowling because it is, first and foremost, a really good story and she does know how to construct a good story. I’m not too sure why it is separated into two plays, because it is a single adventure and I suspect that if you were to just see part two, you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on at the beginning.  So, if you are planning to book, do see both parts and do see them in the correct order. Never have I been to the theatre and been warned so often about revealing the plot; luckily, I prefer leaving the storytelling to the playwright so rarely reveal plot twists in a review.

The story is great, not particularly complicated or cutting edge, but it is told in convincing detail over the course of five and a half hours. We know most of the main characters already, having lived through their adolescence, and I have to say it is interesting to see them all fully grown up with children of their own. The actors playing these parts have a tough job, taking over characters with whom we are already very familiar, but needing to bring their own ethos to the role. They all cope admirably with this challenge, Rakie Ayola and Jamie Glover are good as Hermione and Harry. I loved the reimagining of Ron Weasley; Thomas Aldridge’s character probably did have a little more of a free rein for development given his incidental part in the story, but it is very funny and he delivers it well. The new people are really the stars in this show, Theo Ancient is very good as Albus Severus Potter and Samuel Blenkin is fantastic as Scorpius Malfoy. April Hughes has a wonderful, scene stealing cameo as Moaning Myrtle.

The magic and special effects are spectacular, it is one thing seeing them on film as we are used to, but seeing them around you in the theatre really adds to the excitement. The effects are constant throughout the show and they are all top notch. The sets are clever and engaging, there is always something new to attract your attention, not an easy achievement over the course of such a long play. The choreography felt clunky at first, with too many flourishes, but you come to realise that this is necessary to help the magic along, and by the end I was full of admiration for the choreographer – with a company of 43 people, military precision must have been crucial.

These were the most expensive tickets I have ever bought, so it needed to be good, but I have to say that even so, I still feel that they were good value for money.

 

 

 

Nightfall, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Nightfall is a play by Barney Norris, who has already written many plays and books, winning the Critic’s Circle Award for most promising playwright along the way. From this production, you can see that he has a talent for writing dialogue. It has a realistic feel and there are some lovely moments of insight. However, this is a four hander and all of the characters don’t feel fully developed. The two women in particular are caricatures who, despite the difficulties they battle through, one does not feel much empathy for. The storyline has many twists, some very dramatic, but I felt that we were told about them, then they were forgotten about and had little effect on the characters’ actions.

Having said that, there are positives, the set is amazing and uses the modern stage to its best effect. The Bridge Theatre is a new theatre, less than a year old, and it is beautiful. Bigger than I expected, although it holds almost 1000 people, the design is such that I cannot imaging that there is single restricted view seat in the whole auditorium. The stage area itself is very versatile, it would not have been possible to have a set of this design in a more traditional theatre. I loved the lighting too, it is set outdoors and sunsets and sunrises are done beautifully. Cars arriving and leaving at night were also lit very cleverly.

Ukweli Roach puts in a great performance as Pete. Sion Daniel Young is also good as Ryan and there was an undercurrent of chemistry between the two characters that felt undeveloped. It is interesting to see that one of Barney Norris’ non fiction books is about the theatre of Peter Gill, because there were times when I was reminded of The York Realist.

Overall, although I enjoyed listening to them talk for the two hours, I did not feel that there was any narrative arc or that any of the characters had moved on over the course of the play. Perhaps  the type of nostalgia he was trying to evoke would have been easier to attain if it had not been set in the present, or perhaps it is one of those plays whose real depth will not be apparent until some years after writing.

The Fall, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Southwark Playhouse, London

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I really look forward to seeing what the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain bring out each year. It is always interesting and thought provoking. They rarely disappoint and this show is no exception. This is a triptych of plays with a common theme, aging and how we treat the aged. All three are written by James Fritz, they have funny and intelligent dialogue. Directed by Matt Harrison, the bed in the centre of the stage is the single focal point, it cleverly has different implications in each scene.

The first is the most conforming of the three, the story of a couple of horny teenagers who use an old man’s flat to have sex while he is away.  Jesse Bateson and Niyi Akin are both excellent, showing off teenage attitudes to old age, with humour and occasional compassion.

The second is also a two hander.  A couple age from teenage to late middle age in the course of twenty minutes, as they cope with looking after their son and an aging parent. Sophie Couch is really good, we are unsure of her actions without ever being unsure of her motives. Troy Richards as her partner does a great job of keeping us guessing as to whether he believes her because he trusts her or because he just chooses to without any real justification.

The third is set in an old peoples’ home, in a future where virtual assistant apps control the looking after and their only company is each other. The only outside human interaction appears to be a liaison officer, played with cool dispassion by Lucy Havard, offering voluntary euthanasia. Jamie Ankrah does a good job of playing the archetypal “Grumpy Old Man”.  Jamie Foulkes evokes compassion for his decision and Madeline Charlemagne is great as an octogenarian with a sense of fun. Josie Charles is fantastic as the last old person left, measuring out her days by turning on her room lights. Joshua Williams is excellent as the Nurse, one of the few people in the cast who gets to play his own age, whose job now is doling out death, but at least trying to do it with compassion.

Every year the NYT of GB do a season of shows in both off West End and West End theatres. This is the first time that they have been at the Southwark Playhouse, it is a venue that will work well for them, in that it is both intimate and adaptable. The plays put on by the National Youth Theatre are always innovative, interesting and entertaining and they are very competitively priced.  The production values are great and you are sure to see some stars of the future, either in acting, direction or choreography.

Ruthless! The Musical, Arts Theatre, London.

'Ruthless' Musical performed at the Arts Theatre, London, UK

Ruthless! The Musical, first opened off Broadway 26 years ago. It is the almost archetypal off-Broadway show. It makes the fact that it is a low budget show in a small theatre part of its appeal. So, I was worried that the Arts Theatre, although it is the smallest theatre in the West End, would be too big for it.

Having said that, Ruthless is a great show, with a wonderful part for an aspiring young actress as  the 8 year old, Tina.  Given the importance of understudies in the storyline, there is a wonderful irony in the fact that the first two understudies for Tina when the show opened in 1992 were Natalie Portman and Britney Spears. This being the UK, with child protection laws, we have 4 Tinas and no understudies. Anya Evans played Tina on the night I attended and she was very good, great dancing and a frighteningly bright smile.

It has become usual for the role of Sylvia St Croix to be played by a man and Jason Gardiner makes a good job of it here, his movement is excellent and he can certainly dance in heels. Kim Maresca is fantastic as Tina’s mother, very Stepford Wife in the first act and very Liza Minnelli in the second. In fact,  all the acting in this production is top notch, Tracie Bennett and Harriet Thorpe are both pantomime villain good as theatre critic Lita and drama teacher Myrna.

The musical numbers are mostly good, two standout songs are “I hate musicals” sung, with many funny reprises, by Lita and the title song, Ruthless! by the whole company. The set and costumes are both “fabulous dahling”, 1950’s crinoline petticoats in a 1960’s Formica living room.

The real stand out thing about this show is the references, Shirley Temple, All about Eve, Bob Fosse, interpretive dance, Judy Garland – far too many to list – all get a mention in some way. It’s enjoyable trying to spot them and there’s no way that you will get them all.  Everything about this show is kitsch, but if you didn’t know that before you arrived, you should have done more research before buying the ticket. The humour is camp and low brow, but still great fun. This is good production of a good show, perhaps it could have been even better in a more intimate theatre.