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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Phobiarama, LIFT 2018, West Handyside Canopy, Kings Cross, London.

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LIFT 2018 is a festival of international performance, running at various venues around London from late May until early July. There is a wide choice of shows available and a huge variety of styles on show. There is a children’s show by renowned theatrical company Punchdrunk, where adults will not be granted admittance unless accompanied by a child. There is a South Korean Opera about the Trojan wars in Greece and there is even a piece of performance art that involves 1500 pigeons, with LED lit leg-rings, flying above the Thames.

Phobiarama is billed as an immersive theatre experience. This is certainly true, and I don’t wish to give too much away, as being unaware of what is about to happen adds to the thrill of the show. I would best describe it as a 21st century ghost ride with real actors, strobe lights and political overtones. Dries Verhoeven is a visual artist who has updated a 20th Century fairground ride into a paranoid, threatening 21st Century journey through political and popular culture. This show travels the world but each one is site specific, and this one has elements that apply particularly to London. I can say that it gives a feeling of drifting through a waking nightmare and I was reminded of film warnings that say “This show contains some scenes of mild horror”.

You are disorientated from entering the space in pitch blackness and the anxiety gradually racks up throughout the 45 minute performance, as shadows in the background slowly become more real, with television newsreels reminding you of events that have happened in London over the past years. I guess that some people do not like to feel frightened, however lightly, so this show will not be for everyone, but I enjoyed the feelings of mild paranoia that I was given and I found it interesting to think about why some of the scenes made me feel uncomfortable.

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The opportunity to experience running away backwards from an evil clown, while Nigel Farage rants on about the iniquity of our immigration system, is one that does not occur regularly – and although this was a memorable part of the show, it was by no means the most disquieting, so if you think that this is something you might enjoy, you need to take the chance now, while it is here.

I would suggest that you should not go if you find strobe lighting a risk or if you suffer from coulrophobia. I have to say that I thought that this was a really interesting experience.  I hope that Dries Verhoeven brings other events to London and if he does, I fully intend to visit them.

 

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.

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!

Jekyll and Hyde, National Youth Theatre, Ambassadors Theatre, London

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The National Youth Theatre’s production of Jekyll and Hyde is a deconstruction of the original novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, rebuilt with a modern feminist twist by writer Evan Placey. Combining Victorian settings and morals with modern day language and values adds a new dimension to the duality theme of the story.

The decision to have a female Jekyll is not only brave but astute, and this production perfectly captures the zeitgeist with the discussion about sexism in film and theatre so much in the news. The writing is forthright, the jolt of the coarse language spoken by the Victorian ladies near the start of the play becomes clear in the second act, there is no doubt that Evan Placey is a talented author, of whom we will hear more in the future.

Aside from the writing there is much to recommend in this production. The acting throughout is accomplished. Jennifer Walsh in particular is excellent as Florence, a young adult coming to terms with the fact that although no one else is going to stand up for her, she has the power to stand up for herself.  Elizabeth McCafferty confidently makes the transitions between Jekyll and Hyde both striking and convincing. Mohammed Mansaray has a funny scene as a priest, which he delivers very well.

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The direction is brisk and contemporary, so that even in the midst of 19th century London, we feel linked to the current day. The director, Roy Alexander Weise, is not afraid to be confrontational, daring to breach our comfort zone in order that we feel the characters’ anger. The costume design is remarkable and clever, the ensemble changes from church house to flop house in the blink of an eye.

 

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Pictures courtesy of Nobby Clark

 

Jekyll and Hyde has a few rough edges, but challenging, thought provoking productions like this are exactly the remit of The National Youth Theatre and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this show.

The Host, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, The Yard Theatre, London

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“The Host” is an up to the minute play, set in a council block in Croydon. Nominally about refugees and our response to them, it is also about the meaning of family, and about cultural identity.

It is a well written play with colourful, but current, language. It is excellently performed by the 5 member cast. Rebekah Murrell and Zakary Douglas-Zerouali have a great chemistry as the two leads Yasmin and Rabea. Rebekah plays Yasmin with a nervous intensity, full of (mostly) repressed anger. This is balanced well with Rabea’s more resigned accepting nature.

Nessah Muthy, the playwright, is on this year’s BBC new talent hotlist. On this form, you can see why, although some of the issues felt unresolved, and the finale felt a little like the end of the first act, the script is good and she has a great ear for the rhythms of conversation.

The set and direction are good, the messy, claustrophobic flat is simply set up and, having the offstage cast on view at the back made us feel that we were never far from our neighbours.

This is the final play in the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s enjoyable East End Season at the Yard Theatre. I hope they repeat the idea next year.  However, they are doing a revival of “Zigger, Zagger”, the play about football hooliganism at the Wilton’s Music Hall early next month. I am looking forward to seeing it!

 

Blue Stockings, The Yard Theatre, London E9

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It is a shocking fact that women were not allowed to graduate from Cambridge University until 1948. This play is set 50 years earlier and concerns four ladies who attended Girton College, Cambridge at the end of the 19th Century. It is a well written and cogent drama about the beginnings of the women rights movement. it gives voice to all points of view at that time, ranging from those who believed that education would distract women from being good wives to those who thought that noisy demonstration calling for immediate emancipation was the only way forward.

The Yard is an interesting theatre space, the seats are close to the action, but the wide stage and high ceilings make it very open. I really like the apparent simplicity of the direction, schoolroom projectors set the scenes, blackboard writings mark us as being in a classroom, a pictures of an orchard or Van Gogh’s night sky move us outdoors. This is inventive and effective.

The quality of the acting is very high and there are nice performances even in the smaller parts. Mischa Jones is fabulous as Tess, she brings a nice balance of intelligence and innocence to her role. Laura Trosser has a great part as Miss Blake, resolutely playing the long game in the fight for equality and she plays it perfectly. I really liked Quinton Arigi as Will, whose position changes as the story develops.

Blue Stockings is part of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s East End season at The Yard Theatre. It is a sterling production of a very good play, in an engaging venue. I will be looking out for more Jessica Swale written plays. It has also made me look forward to seeing the next play in the season, “The Host” and their revival of “Zigger Zagger” at the Wilton Music Hall, next month.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening. Recommended.