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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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.

 

Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, Apollo Theatre, London

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All the publicity that goes with “Everybody’s talking about Jamie” mentions what an  uplifting feel good story line it has, and that it taps into the current zeitgeist, and to be fair they are right but, really it has so much more than just that.

The songs are brilliant, “It means beautiful” will surely win an award for best new song in a musical. “He’s my boy”, “Work of Art” and “If I met myself again” are also wonderful, I think Dan Gillespie Sells is going to be a huge success as a songwriter for musicals. The lyrics are lovely too and are written by Tom Macrae, so perhaps this is a new partnership to look out for.

The whole cast is great. Obviously John McCrea is excellent as Jamie, a strong voice and a big stage presence. There are also outstanding performances from Josie Walker as his Mum, who has two big songs and a spectacular voice with which to deliver them, and from Lucie Shorthouse, who has an endearing part as his BFF, Pritti. I enjoyed Phil Nichol’s portrayal of Hugo Battersby too.

I also really liked the choreography, it is vibrant and up to date, break dancing with a hint of Justin Beiber video. The set design is good as well, a great mixture of simple, clever and efficient. She show finishes very well, the audience loved it and left the theatre wanting more.

I thoroughly enjoyed this show and I hope it is a huge success!

The Pass (dir. Ben A. Williams) 2016

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The Pass is a film adaptation of a play that was a big hit when it played at the Royal Court Theatre in 2014. I have to imagine that it comes across better in the intimate surroundings of a small theatre. The premise is good, the timing is right for a movie about a closeted gay footballer, but this is not that movie. Had it been made in the 1970’s or 1980’s it would probably have been ground-breaking and interesting but at this moment we do not need a film about a selfish gay soccer star made bitter by the possibility that he might have missed out on true love.

The film is directed by Ben A. Williams and he sticks rigidly to the three act, three hotel room setting of the play. This increases the impression of it being a filmed version of a theatre play and puts another step between us and the action.

Although there are four characters in this film, two of them are two dimensional ciphers. The lap dancer, Lyndsey,  and the male groupie, Harry, are just there to use and be used. Ade, the player turned plumber, is well acted by Arinze Kene, but this film is ultimately about Jason, who is excellently portrayed by Russell Tovey. He develops into the true antihero, without a single redeeming feature. We watch him go from, a not particularly nice, 17 year old to, a harsh and vitriolic, 28 year old over the course of three acts. That is the real problem with this film, we never really liked him in the first place so we don’t really empathise with him.  He doesn’t care about anybody, he uses his wife, his child, his lap dancer, his fan and ultimately even his mate Ade. He chooses lifestyle over fulfilment, so when he is unfulfilled we aren’t particularly surprised or worried.

I had such high hopes for this film, it had so much going for it, and don’t let me take away from an outstanding performance by Russell Tovey, but so many movies made from the 1930s to the 1990s are full of flawed gay characters whose life is ruined by the fact that they can’t cope with the trauma of being queer, and I had hoped that we had moved on from that.

Hershey Felder, Our Great Tchaikovsky, The Other Palace, Victoria, London

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Hershey Felder has spent the last two decades recreating, on stage, the lives of great composers, while playing their music to highlight salient moments from those lives. Tchaikovsky is the sixth in this series. The genre is part biography, part piano recital.

The stage is set to resemble a room in his dacha in Klin, with rugs, cabinets and a baby grand piano. There is a large portrait over a writing table, whose likeness changes to whoever he is speaking about. The backdrop to the set also has illustrations which change to reflect different periods of his life.

Felder begins the show by coming on to the stage with a letter he has received from the Russian Government inviting him to bring his story of the life their greatest composer to be performed in his home country. He asks the audience whether he should do this.  This is a rhetorical question, as the difference between his account of Tchaikovsky’s life and the official Russian version is vast, and it seems unlikely that Hershey Felder’s telling of events would prove popular there.

Tchaikovsky’s story is told by picking out individual snippets of his life, mostly in chronological order, and combining them with music that he was writing or performing at the time. The effect is like an entertaining lesson combined with a piano recitation by an inventive and musically talented professor; imagine one of the best university lectures that you have attended and you won’t be far wrong.

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Hershey Felder has chosen which events to recreate, so we are given the narrative from his point of view, and he makes us aware that others may look upon his life differently. For me, who liked Tchaikovsky’s music, but who knew hardly anything about his life, it was a perfect combination. I was given an insight into the man while listening to an accomplished pianist playing his greatest hits.review

Late Company, Trafalgar Studios 2, London SW1

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Late Company is an intense, intimate play, perfectly suited to the small Trafalgar Studio 2, whose three rows of seats all feel right in the heart of the action.

The parents of a teenager who committed suicide, invite one of his teenage tormentors, and his parents, to dinner. Brave, is one word you could use, to describe the sending of that invitation, and equally brave to accept.  Presumably one set of parents is hoping for some kind of closure over the death of their son and the other parents are hoping for some kind of redemption for theirs.

The result is an awkward dinner party of epic proportions; raw emotions unsuccessfully reined in over pasta and salad, broken occasionally by moments of dark humour. The play is beautifully written and wonderfully acted. The writing is very even handed, you can understand the pain and resentment of each character as they speak, and yet you can also understand why the others cannot forgive.

The acting is key to this play, all five are brilliant, but David Leopold as Curtis, the accused bully, is exceptional, his part is a great one, and he delivers it perfectly. I love writing that encourages us to examine our prejudices, and this is a play that complicates the allocation of blame.

Jordan Tannahill, who wrote this at the age of 23, shows all the hallmarks of a very talented new playwright and I will be looking out for more of his work when it comes to London.

God’s Own Country (dir. Francis Lee) 2017

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God’s own Country is a simple love story. A gritty, realistic, unsentimental love story. It is set in surroundings that are bleak and that sometimes seem hopeless. It is peopled with characters whose lives reflect that environment.

It is not an easy watch, Francis Lee, the director, has chosen not to airbrush the harsh realities of farm life on the Yorkshire moors, so there are scenes of birth, death, blood and gore. The characters, too, are depicted in a brutally honest way. They do not talk a great deal and when they do they are often spikey and abrasive. However, the occasional tenderness displayed seems highlighted because of this.

The four main actors are all great, both Josh O’Connor as Johnny and Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe appear to bare their soul for the camera and Gemma Jones is great as Nan. Ian Hart is outstanding, with a beautifully nuanced performance as Johnny’s Dad, Martin. He can be harsh and  blunt, but beneath it all what he wants is his son’s happiness.

This is a film that is defined by the place in which it is set. Not only is this a very British film, it is a northern film, in much the same way that the band, The Smiths, were, when they were at their best. Sometimes the diamond shines all the brighter for being in a rougher environment, and that is certainly the case here. It is a very simple love story made sweeter by being found in such a hopeless place.