Emperor and Galilean review – National Theatre – 10 June 2011

As you enter the Olivier theatre the first thing you notice is the imposing figure of Christ on the cross looming over the stage. Appropriate as the next 3 and a half hours focuses on the Emperor Julian’s (Andrew Scott) battles with “the Galilean” as he encourages Rome to cast aside Christianity and return to the old gods.

The play starts with Julian’s friends meeting for the first time in several years in Constantinople. Peter is loyal and brave (and probably more than a little in love with Julian), Gregory steadfast and Agathon passionate and devout. Agathon has been lead to Constantinople by a divine vision of Julian which he wants to share with him. But Julian is not the friend they remember. Humiliated by the Roman stewards and a virtual prisoner of his uncle, the Emperor Constantius,  Julian is fearful and plagued with doubt. His faith is shaken and he fears god has abandoned him. But the hand of destiny is upon him and as he views shooting stars falling from the sky he remembers his mother’s belief that he would be a “second Alexander”.

Tempted by the free thinking students who despise the oppressive regime in Constantinople Julian follows them to Athens where he indulges in drunken fun and games before meeting Maximus (a marvellous Ian McDiarmid) in Ephesus – a union which both raises him to the giddy heights of Emperor but also brings about his downfall.

Julian’s journey is suitably epic – fear, temptation, freedom, spiritual awakening, love, loss, betrayal, persecution, madness and death – all of it is packed in over the course of the play as Julian becomes Caesar, gains a wife, fights valiant battles in Gaul, is named Emperor, causes civil war with his persecution of the Christians, betrays his friends in a quite spectacular manner before fighting a doomed war against the Persians.

As befits such an epic tale the staging is really quite spectacular making full use of the Olivier’s drum revolve. Huge forbidding Roman chapels & pagan temples rise out of the stage. Various edifices appear allowing the actors to roam on two levels and loom over the audience. Giant unsettling gold flecked pagan masks appear over the stage and a cross is set brilliantly and violently ablaze.  The large cast adds to the spectacle whether they are chanting in a formal procession on their way into chapel, or writhing semi clothed in a bacchanalian manner as Julian disingenuously ushers in a new era of spiritual tolerance (while disappearing anyone who is a Christian) or a semi circle of soldiers stamping ominously as Julian rises ever more up the ranks.It’s quite a visual feast and you’re certainly never bored.

The costumes are an intriguing mix of old and new. Senators wear sharp suits overlaid with a dark toga and Julian and his army go to wear in camouflage fatigues with golden breastplates. It shouldn’t really work and yet it does making the play feel surprisingly contemporary.

The acting is impressive. John Heffernan exudes loyalty and kindness as Peter while James McArdle is all passion and fire as Agathon. Jamie Ballard gives a suitably unshowy turn as Gregory, getting to shine in one particularly gory scene which had the audience wincing and averting their eyes. Richard Durden is suitably slimy as Ursulus the Emperor’s advisor and Daniel Flynn and Chris Jared shine as two increasingly perplexed generals in Julian’s army – struggling with their leader’s descent into madness.

Ian McDiarmid is fascinating and compelling as Maximus. Part Merlin, part Mephistopheles, he glides around the set draped in black appearing out of the murky gloom to intone sonorously about whatever new portent he has divined. It is left to the audience to decide whether he has Julian’s best interests at heart and misread the signs and portents or whether he is a devil placing temptation in his way and letting him stray from the path of righteousness – a road that will lead to his downfall. He doesn’t get a huge amount of stage time but he certainly makes the most of it.

But this is without question Andrew Scott’s play. The role of Julian has been declared as “bigger than Hamlet” and is quite extraordinary requiring him to be on stage for virtually every scene in the 3 and a half hour running time. Thankfully Scott is more than up to the challenge. In fact he’s really wonderful with a superb stage presence – you can hardly take your eyes off him. Given the running time it would be easy for you to get bored with Julian’s journey but Scott ensures that doesn’t happen. He starts off humiliated and afraid, tearing up as he tells his friends about his doubts over his faith appearing terribly fragile and small up on that huge stage. And as the play continues we get to watch him almost visibly grow in stature – in fact when he came on towards the beginning of Act 2 topless, hair slicked back, wearing a long leather duster and prowling across that stage like an angry panther, sword in hand I didn’t initially recognise him at all. It’s a hell of a part for an actor and Andrew Scott gives it his absolute all. He was superb throughout whether crying at Julian’s loss of faith, lightheartedly laughing with his friends, drunkenly railing against the pointlessness of existence, crumpling in anguish at his wife’s actions, rallying his troops to defend him from the treacherous Emperor, serenely embracing the old gods, brutally ordering the deaths of the “army of the Galilean” to utter madness in the Persian desert.

He also gets to wear some rather stunning costumes – a natty black Nehru jacket when in Constantinople, more causal shirt and trousers when in Athens, followed by a gold brocade full on bling jacket when made Emperor. I especially liked how his golden wreath as Emperor looked very much like Christ’s crown of thorns. And did I mention the topless scene? Shallow I know but it would be wrong not to point out he does look rather fine in it.

I’m not sure I’m overly enamoured of the play itself. At 3 and a half hours it’s quite the commitment and many didn’t come back after the interval. The first act seemed stronger than the second as we get to know the major players.  There is a pervading air of menace hanging over proceedings as destiny conspires to bring Julian closer to power. But the pay off isn’t quite as interesting as it should be sadly. But it’s worth seeing simply for the spectacle of the piece and the sheer power of Andrew Scott’s performance.

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Third Star Review

James (Benedict Cumberbatch) is 29 and terminally ill with an unspecified cancer. After saying goodbye to his parents and sister he embarks upon a road trip with his friends – protective Davy (Tom Burke), free spirited Bill (Adam Robertson) and distant Miles (JJ Feild) to see his favourite place on Earth – Barafundle Bay.

Naturally it doesn’t take long before things start to go badly wrong as the foursome have to deal with a pub brawl, missing possessions, the inclement weather, the unpredictability of the ramshackle cart they’ve created to help transport James and brutal home truths from James himself, who is determined to use the trip to try and get his friends to see that they are all under achieving in their lives.

Third Star is an engaging, beautiful looking movie featuring some truly impressive acting from its cast of British Bright Young Things – Benedict Cumberbatch and JJ Feild in particular are superb. The chemistry between the foursome rings true and the comedy is gentle and affectionate.

Visually the movie is stunning. The cinematography by Carlos Catalan is wonderful with the movie employing a beautiful palette of rich greens (all the foliage the cast have to trek through), vivid orange sunsets and the glistening blue of the sea. Never has a beach been made to look so mystical and so inviting. The movie certainly does justice to the beautiful Pembrokeshire scenery.

Hattie Dalton, in her feature film directorial debut, is an assured hand behind the camera. She directs the blokey comradeship between the foursome with ease and is equally adept when the film becomes much more solemn. There are some lovely lyrical,  surreal flashes throughout that lend the film a dreamy quality – a white feather drifting in the breeze, a nasty local boy decked out in angel wings, an impromtu firework display.

The acting is superb. Benedict Cumberbatch in the potentially thankless role of James gives a wonderful performance that is, at times, incredibly difficult to watch. Rather bravely he never tries to gain the audience’s sympathies as James.  High on morphine and bitterly, furiously angry at the hand he has been dealt, James is a prickly, arrogant, frequently highly unlikeable character who displays flashes of real cruelty dispensing unwanted home truths and hurting those who care deeply for him. It’s hard to watch him mock Davy’s desire to be needed and useful or thoughtlessly decimate Bill’s entire lifestyle with his words. The character’s harsh edges keep sentimentality brutally at bay and yet while Cumberbatch never entreats the sympathy of the audience you nonetheless feel for James every step of the way. It would be a hard heart indeed that did not break, just a tiny bit, at the look of hurt and fear on Cumberbatch’s face when Miles speaks of his views on the afterlife or wince at Bill’s thoughtless assertion as to how they will “live on through their children”. Cumberbatch is also distressingly convincing as a man suffering from a terminal illness – the haunted look of pain in his eyes is hard to take. It’s not all doom and gloom though  as he wisely leavens his performance with some uplifting moments – the look of joy on his face as James becomes embroiled in the pub brawl, the expression of childish wonder as he watches an impromptu firework display, his increasing amusement as the foursome start to shed their belongings. It’s a lovely performance in a very difficult role.

Equally superb is JJ Feild who gives a beautifully understated performance as Miles. His character is the most distant of the four (and therefore in many ways he has the hardest task of all four actors) and you don’t really “get” him until the final third of the film. Feild does an immense amount with very little – there are no grandiose speeches or “big” moments and yet he delivers a raw, powerful performance. His expression at the end of the film will stay with me for a very long time – I feel shaken just thinking about it. I’ve never really seen him in anything but small supporting roles but on the basis of his work here I will definitely be seeking his work out in the future.

Adam Robertson is entertainingly daffy as Bill and Tom Burke (magnificent in last year’s Design for Living at the Old Vic) gives a warm and sweet performance as the incredibly loyal Davy. There are also entertainingly quirky cameos from Karl Johnson (De Lacey in the recent production of Frankenstein at the NT which Cumberbatch co-headlined with Jonny Lee Miller) and Hugh Bonneville who makes the very most of his limited screentime.

Be warned though this is a surprisingly powerful film. I was expecting to be a blubbing mess at the end (I cry at adverts) and actually I wasn’t – not because I have a lump of coal where my heart should be (or so I keep telling people) but because the film hits on a harder level than that. This isn’t a glossy,  disease of the week melodrama where grandiose speeches, soft lighting and a stirring soundtrack conspire to wring tears from you. Third Star is at times really quite genuinely upsetting, especially if the film has any sort of personal resonance for you. There were three moments (James screaming in pain, Cumberbatch’s face when his friends turn down a particular request and JJ Feild’s face at the end of the film) which hit me so hard that it’s difficult thinking of them now. The ending of the film is abrupt, brutally unsentimental and desperately poignant. At the screening I was at the entire audience sat in complete and total silence afterwards until the end of the credits, any noise would have been intrusive and most unwelcome – everyone needed that time to compose themselves. Third Star has some beautiful moments of levity but it will leave you feeling really quite shaken – I can’t think of the last time a film made me “feel” so strongly.

Third Star is a visually stunning movie featuring raw, powerful performances from its cast – Cumberbatch and Feild especially. It is now on limited release and is well worth seeing.  You can see a list of where Third Star might be showing near you here.

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Review of Frankenstein – 19th February 2011 – Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein

So thanks to the National’s rather wondrous policy of selling very good seats in the stalls in the Olivier for a paltry £12 I spent a rather lovely day on Saturday with friends watching the matinee and evening performances of Frankenstein at the National Theatre (and met the ever gracious Benedict Cumberbatch at the stage door even if rather embarrassingly he recognised me from my previous visit).

This was my first time seeing the alternate casting – Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature. The problem inherent with having alternate casting is that I spent most of the matinee focusing on the differences in the actors’ performances (and noting how the play had changed since I saw it in early previews). Which is of course unhelpful as you shouldn’t be comparing and contrasting the actors – each deserves to be judged on their own merits for their performances. I will be interested to see what the critics do in their reviews (press nights are tomorrow and Wednesday). They don’t have the luxury of an unlimited word count so I suspect we’re going to get reviews which just compare the two performances which seems terribly unfair to the actors.

So leaving aside the comparisons for a moment I was pleased to see that I enjoyed the show just as much with the alternate casting as I had done previously.

Jonny Lee Miller is superb as the Creature. His Creature is very child like and often heartbreakingly vulnerable. He plays him very much as an adult with the mind of a child – prone to bursts of anger and violence borne of frustration at his inability to communicate . The birthing scene is lovely and terribly well done. The Creature flops out of the womb and lies there eyes closed and blind while he gets used to his limbs – hands flapping wildly back and forth like a fish floundering out of water. There is a lovely moment where he picks up his foot and decides to put it in his mouth to taste it (a move I have seen countless babies do), it’s very cute. His unbridled joy when he does finally stand and runs around the room laughing as he does is incredibly infectious which of course makes Frankenstein seem like a profoundly heartless bastard when he promptly abandons his newborn “child” and runs away from him.

The whole of the opening 15 minutes where the Creature discovers the world around him is beautifully acted by Miller. His Creature lurches from one discovery to the next like a curious toddler (at one point facing the audience and babbling unintelligibly to them) shrieking with joy at the birds in the sky, indulging in comedy naked shivering when drenched in an unexpected shower, eyes opening wide with awe at the camp fire started by the men who eventually return to beat him and babbling with excitement at his first taste of food. It’s a really lovely and terribly sad scene as you know that the Creature’s joy at the world around him won’t last for long.

Miller’s scenes with Karl Johnson’s De Lacey are equally strong. The relationship is very much that of father/son with De Lacey teaching the Creature to read and write. Their interplay is sweet and rather touching. I loved the moment where the Creature sees snow for the first time and is completely transfixed his head bobbing up and down tracking the path of the snow as it lands before sneaking out to catch snowflakes on his tongue while De Lacey berates him for ignoring their studies. Small moments really resonated – De Lacey’s son and daughter in law (still rather acting as if they’re in a regional panto) mystified by the stranger helping them in their farming thank the “fairy folk” for helping them and entreat their mystery helper to come out and make themselves known to them while the Creature shyly slinks awkwardly very close to them before losing his nerve and running away.

The sequence where De Lacey’s son rejects the Creature actually made me wince. Miller’s Creature is terrified of meeting them, burying his head into De Lacey’s chest like a small child seeking comfort from a parent and trying to hide from their gaze before rather painfully stammering out a greeting to De Lacey’s son while bowing to him. The swift and inevitable rejection really hurts to watch as the terrified Creature screams out his anger before returning to seek his vengeance.

As before the best sequences by far in the play are those between the Creature and Frankenstein – their first meeting with the Creature sliding down the scaffolding at the side of the stage as they both stop and just stare at each other is suitably iconic. Whichever way around the casting Cumberbatch and Miller have stunning chemistry and you can’t help but wish the play had focused far more on their interaction.

Miller also works well with Naomie Harris. Their scene together when the Creature comes to her on her wedding night to seek vengeance for Frankenstein murdering his bride is both poignant and really rather horrible. The scene has been changed from the previous previews and morphed into something which is (rightfully) profoundly distressing. It starts on this lovely note of tentative friendship as Elisabeth almost immediately overcomes her distress at the Creature’s appearance and vows to be his friend and take up his part with Victor before unravelling swiftly into out and out horror. I confess I did feel that Jonny Lee Miller rather wasted his big speech about being taught how to lie, not quite hitting the dramatic beats that such a big moment offers but Harris’ reaction was distressing to watch. As Elisabeth realises that she is in mortal peril she starts to shake in distress, she then started crying before making a dash for it but being easily overpowered and thrown onto the bed by the Creature. The rape sequence is distressing with the struggling seeming to go on for what felt like an eternity. Victor bursts into the room but is so horrified by the tableau in front of him that he falls to the floor frozen while Elisabeth screams his name and reaches out to him. The moment where the Creature breaks her neck is horrifying as he turns her face to Victor’s so that they can see each other before brutally snapping her neck. The move was met with gasps of horror from both audiences on Saturday and you could have heard a pin drop after. Gone is the line that seemed to be prompting unintentional laughter from some (rather odd) audience members – the scene is now really quite distressing from beginning to end as the Creature having committed an absolute atrocity asserts his humanity (“I am a man”) before begging Victor to end his life, fleeing when he does not.

I particularly liked Miller’s final scene with Frankenstein. He starts confident and bombastic mocking the completely broken Frankenstein but resorts to being a lost child when he fears Frankenstein has died and left him, beseeching his master to return to him. It’s an excellent performance all round which deserves much praise.

And what of Cumberbatch as Frankenstein? The character is drawn as rather unsympathetic so neither actor can prevent him from being seen as the true villain of the play (this adaptation purely belongs to the Creature) but I thought Cumberbatch did a wonderful job of bringing life to a rather one dimensional character with a powerful nuanced performance.

We first see Victor as he trudges wearily down the aisle in the stalls towards the stage clad in a black apron (this has all been changed from previously where Victor very much ran on and off stage in moments). He sees the Creature motionless on the floor and assumes his experiment has been a failure and is startled when the Creature wakes and reaches out to him rearing back in horror. We see awe, horror, utter revulsion and fear cycle through his eyes in the space of a moment before he flees off stage leaving his Creature to his own devices.

Because of the uneven nature of the roles Victor doesn’t re-emerge again for the best part of an hour. He appears searching for his brother William (who has been taken and murdered by the Creature). On a purely shallow note mention should be made of Victor’s costumes which are beautifully tailored and both Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller look particularly splendid in them. Victor’s distress for his brother’s disappearance and his frustration at his friends failure to find him is palpable.   I loved how you could practically see Victor turning white as the search party starts to speak nonsense about the “monster” that has been witnessed in the mountains – you get a real sense of impending doom which blossoms into full horror when William’s body is found. Cumberbatch played that sequence beautifully looked deeply devastated at the discovery of William’s body giving the scene an emotional resonance which it arguably otherwise lacks.

Cumberbatch also plays very well opposite Naomie Harris and they make an endearingly sweet pairing. His initial scene with her when she berates him for barely speaking to her when they are to be married and his befuddled realisation that he isn’t acting as he should as a prospective husband coupled with his awkward confession of “what if I haven’t anything to say?” was rather adorable. His Frankenstein is an intriguing mess of contradictions – sweet and awkward and yet breathtakingly arrogant and utterly confident in his own superior intellect. When he tells Elisabeth that she won’t understand his work as she is a woman you can tell that the prospect that she might be able to grasp the complexity of his work had never even occurred to him. Victor is incapable of separating his work from his personal life as illustrated by an effectively creepy moment when he tells Elisabeth that she will be a beautiful bride while looking at her arm with a scientist’s eye as if she was nothing more than a specimen to be carved up.

You still do rather wonder exactly what Elisabeth sees in Victor but Cumberbatch brings out Victor’s tender side – their kissing as he is set to depart to Scotland to build his Creature a bride is awkward, intimate and deeply tender at the same time and he looks at her with something akin to awe when she finally agrees to let him go. The scene on their wedding night is equally good as Victor confesses his crimes and Elisabeth cuts through all of his miserable justifications for his actions with a single “why?”. Its a thinly drawn partnership and Elisabeth more of a plot point that a character in her own right but Benedict Cumberbatch and Naomie Harris do an awful lot with skimpy material to make Victor and Elisabeth’s relationship seem real. His declaration of love (changed from the somewhat weak “I will try to love you”) as he leaves her to her fate is heartfelt and we mourn with him when Elisabeth is murdered.

The sequences of Victor and the Creature are the real show stoppers. In their first scene together Cumberbatch is hubris personified, delightedly crowing at the wonder of the Creature and his own magnificence in creating him before being shocked to silence when he realises that the Creature is capable of thought and speech. He goes from delight at his scientific achievement to pure rage in the flash of an eye attacking the Creature with a knife (and being easily overpowered) while he screams his distress and grief at the murder of his brother and wails in self pity about living in darkness every day since he made him. He falls to his knees in despair and closes his eyes as the Creature retells how he murdered the De Lacey family before apologising to the Creature, voice breaking for not realising that he would feel emotion. Cumberbatch displays an impressive emotional range in a rather short sequence. Victor cannot back down from the challenge the Creature sets him and is delighted at the prospect of building a bride, a beautiful creature that he can exhibit and use to illustrate his brilliance. I loved how throughout the scene you can see Frankenstein warming to the idea of the Creature as an audience for his brilliance – someone who recognises and acknowledges his superior intellect. Cumberbatch spits out with delicious venom the lines about being surrounded by “little people with little lives”  – you never question that his Frankenstein is truly an unappreciated genius. There is a lovely moment after they have shaken hands to seal their bargain (and after the Creature departs telling his creator with an agonising lack of guile that he has made his dreams come true) where Frankenstein just looks at his hand clearly still astounded that he has created life.

After a virtuoso scene with the young actor who plays William in which Frankenstein details how he went looking for the spark of life as he wanted to know what it was to play God (I suspect the reviewers will lazily use the shorthand that he is very like Sherlock here which isn’t fair as they are very different performances but he does do troubled genius exceedingly well) the Creature visits Frankenstein to check his progress making him a Bride. Cumberbatch is breathtakingly cruel in this sequence – putting the Creature through agonies as Frankenstein tries to get the Creature to “prove” his love for his barely animated bride before brutally murdering her for fear that they will reproduce. The moment where he tenderly caresses the Bride’s naked form pulling her tight to him while taunting the Creature with the prospect that she might want a “real man” is incredibly hard to watch it’s so downright cruel. The Creature’s vengeance may be horrific but Victor bought his fate crashing down on his own head.

The wedding night sequence is devastating and when Victor walks in on them and freezes in distress barely able to lift the gun in his shaking hand it is painfully highlighted that poor Elisabeth is just a throwaway pawn in the  events that are unfolding. The Creature barely takes his eyes off Victor as he enacts his vengeance – theres is as much a twisted love story as it is a tale of parental rejection.

Victor’s grief at Elisabeth’s death and his conviction that he can bring her back is beautifully realised as is his fury when his father questions the balance of his mind. Cumberbatch’s line reading of “My mind is superb” is stunning.

The final scene between them with Cumberbatch’s Victor utterly broken and pitifully confiding to his Creature than he knows nothing of love before they exit tied together for all eternity is very powerful. It’s a really strong performance.

In terms of which casting to see I think if you have a favourite actor of the two then if you see them as the Creature you will have a quite superb evening. Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are genuinely brilliant as the Creature. I was enormously impressed at how very different the two interpretations were. The birthing sequences are completely different – Cumberbatch much more agile, Miller more childlike.  Cumberbatch’s Creature is slightly more ethereal and at times more malevolent than Miller’s who favours a more vulnerable child like interpretation. Miller doesn’t possess Cumberbatch’s impressive vocal ability or his talent for mimicry but they both do hugely impressive work. Neither sadly have any chemistry with George Harris as M Frankenstein but that can’t be helped.

It isn’t fair to compare their Frankenstein’s as I saw Miller’s interpretation very early in the run but I was impressed at how nuanced and subtle Cumberbatch’s performance was.

In terms of the play tweaks have been made and things tightened so it runs just short of 2 hours. Scene changes are far swifter and the small armies of stage hands now dress in a way which makes it look like they are members of the cast. The make up- already impressive (although whatever they used to cover up Jonny Lee Miller’s tattoos barely survived the opening sequence) has been changed again so that it looks much more raw and unpleasant – thick black sutures holding together ugly raw open wounds. There have also been other tweaks (such as the Bride now looking much more like the Creature when she first appears in the dream sequence with a bald skull cap covered in a smattering of hair and ugly prosthetics across her face) which serve to enhance the story.

I remain astounded at the bravura visuals (particularly the stunning moment where the steam train appears in a cloud of dry ice and sparks before the sequence morphs into a lively bar room scene) and the lighting is brilliant especially the ending where a sea of cold blues and greens give the impression of the Northern Lights hanging over the stalls as Victor and the Creature walk off in a sea of dry ice and cold bleak light to find the North Pole.

The show is reportedly extending for a couple of weeks and tickets are still available for the NT Live filmings on the 17th March and it is well worth getting a ticket to see. The acting is stunning, the visuals astounding and Danny Boyle’s directing audacious.Lets hope the critics agree. (I have a very cheap and probably dreadful seat on the Wednesday press night from which to gaze at the shiny celebs and hope that the critics find much to admire about it).

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Frankenstein – Follow Up Review – National Theatre 9th February 2011

So on Tuesday night the National Theatre released a load of return tickets for the previously sold out production of Frankenstein – including one lonely little £12 ticket in the 2nd row of the very far left of the stalls. Having waited for a couple of hours to give other people the chance to buy it I decided that as I had half a day off work and would be at the National Theatre that afternoon anyway to see Mark Gatiss speak (he was wonderful – charming, witty and urbane) that I would buy it even if it meant seeing Benedict as the Creature twice in fairly quick succession.

Having seen it again I think the majority of my original review still stands.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as The Creature was, if anything, even stronger the second time round which I didn’t think was possible. It’s a towering performance which pretty much obliterates everyone else on the stage. It’s an intensely physical performance which you fear will leave him half dead by the end of the run (he already mentioned at the stage door wearing bandages on his feet as he’s ripping the skin off them). It’s also a performance which displays a huge emotional range- whether the Creature is questioning the whys and wherefores of his existence with De Lacey, playing childishly with William, laughing and leaping around with giddy joy with Frankenstein once he promises to provide him with a Bride, or cruelly manipulating the innocent Elisabeth Cumberbatch captures perfectly the emotion in every scene. The play flounders whenever he isn’t on stage. I failed to highlight in my original review just what extraordinary work he does with his voice – mewling and clicking like an infant at the beginning, speaking awkwardly as he learns with De Lacey, roaring in anger at Frankenstein (my friends and I particularly like the way he says “remorse”) and the gentle sly tone he uses with Elisabeth as he lures her into a false sense of security. All wonderful stuff.

Jonny Lee Miller seemed a lot more confident as Frankenstein – his arrogant joy at his creation is wonderful and he was rather adorable in his scenes with Elisabeth. I cannot wait to see him as the Creature (hopefully he will be playing that role when I go in a couple of weeks). The best scenes in the play remain the two handers with Frankenstein and the Creature – you wish there were more of them.

The ensemble (Naomie Harris & Karl Johnson excepted) remain problematic – there are two very different levels of acting going on but I fear my original review may have failed to give Ella Smith her due (sorry Ella!). She was marvellous in Fat Pig opposite Robert Webb and Joanna Page and she gives her very small roles in Frankenstein her all exuding warmth and charm despite being saddled with some of the poorest lines in the play.

George Harris remains the weakest leak as M Frankenstein. I can just about handwave the fact that he has a caribbean accent but he has no chemistry with Jonny Lee Miller and is very wooden.

And if there is no quicker way to change the sets than to have small armies of NT employees appear on stage then perhaps they could at least be dressed to fit the aesthetic?

In terms of things I didn’t quite appreciate the first time around:

The Creature’s scene with De Lacey is such a joy, with the Creature acting at times like a child who has been scolded by his father while Cumberbatch employs his talent for mimicry impersonating Karl Johnson’s voice and stance rather well.

I can’t work out if the horrendous rotten egg smell which appears briefly early on in proceedings is a side effect of the special effects or intentional. It appears at the moment the Creature is smelling the grass and then immediately moves off it disgusted. Perhaps a clever gimmick to show the Creature exploring his sense of smell?

I was completely wrong about the eviscerated Bride being a mannequin. From a different angle it was clear it was the actress herself. Not sure why it looked so fake the previous time.

There were a couple of small changes already – the sequence were William’s body was found was slightly shorter and the Creature emerged from underneath the sheets on top of the bed (rather than under it) in the scene with Elisabeth in a very impressive piece of choreography.

Very much looking forward to seeing Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature – I understand he did his first preview tonight.

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Frankenstein Review – National Theatre – 7th February 2011

So after weeks of anticipation and reading lots of intriguing interviews in the press it was time to head off to the National Theatre for the second preview of Frankenstein. There’s lots to entertain you in the theatre when you get there from the lavish stall selling Danny Boyle books and many different versions of the Frankenstein novel to the themed drinks (£5.95 gets you The Experiment – a refreshing lightly alcoholic green concoction which comes with a dry ice stirrer meaning that it bubbles away marvellously – the lady behind the bar actually jumped with glee when we ordered them as we were the first of the night to do so).

Finally they started to let people in and we headed down to the stalls where the low stage meant that our Row B seats were an awful lot closer to the stage and to the action than I had thought when I was buying them. For £12 seats you get a stunning view (if little legroom). In many ways it’s a little unfair to review a preview as the play is still in a state of flux and everything can (and frequently does) change significantly before opening night. However, I’ll give it a go. Obviously here be spoilers…

As you walk in the first thing you see on the fairly bare stage is a round pale translucent membrane which is stretched thin over an apparatus and is gently pulsing with light. In the middle of this womb (it’s all very H.R Giger) we see backlit a figure undulating within holding onto a rope which looks like an umbilical cord. The womb revolves around the stage getter closer and closer to the audience before moving away again while the audience takes their seats. (On a fun note there is also a huge church bell overhanging the stalls with a rope hanging down which you can pull as you make your way to your seats – it makes an almighty clanging noise). As the audience settles the lights go dark only for the audience to be instantly blinded by a ferocious blast of light from the mirrored ceiling festooned with lightbulbs which overhangs the stalls. As the blast of light hits us the Creature jerks and wakes, the membrane parts and he awkwardly jerks out of the womb onto the floor beneath. Benedict Cumberbatch was playing the Creature opposite Johhny Lee Miller as Frankenstein (roles they are sticking with until Thursday when they switch apparently). As the light continued to flash we finally see the Creature in all his glory. Naked covered in what looks like reddish dust and covered with thick black sutures it’s a hugely impressive piece of make up design. As the Creature Cumberbatch is bald with a skull cap with patches of dark hair covering his curly blonde locks. There are crude stitches on his back where his kidneys are and a Y incision as you would expect to see in an autopsy has been stitched up on his chest. His head and face are crudely covered with large stitches and staples with gaps of raw wounds in-between. At times Cumberbatch was inches away from me and yet even up close the make up stood up to scrutiny (well one errant prosthetic was escaping by the end of the show but overall its a stunning piece of work).

The opening sequence as the Creature awkwardly flounders around on the stage while it learns to walk is an astounding piece of physical acting from Cumberbatch. It was distressing to watch the Creature (effectively just a child) crawling and dragging his body across the stage as he gets used to his limbs and how to walk. It’s actually quite distressing to watch (despite the nervous titters of laughter from some of the audience) and your heart just bleeds for the Creature as he totters around on stage on limbs he isn’t used to, trying and failing to get back into the womb from whence he came. At this point Frankenstein appears but he is so horrified by the image of this naked scrambling mewling “thing” that he abandons his creation covering it with a hood and fleeing the scene.

The Creature ventures out into the world where he immediately stumbles on a train full of people. In a quite extraordinary moment a huge steam train populated by the ensemble (who were all wearing steampunk style goggles) appears on stage and rumbles its way out into the audience (there are walk ways into the stalls). It’s an audacious piece of staging – especially as the train is never seen again.

The Creature recoils in terror and runs away saving a prostitute from being terrorised by her client only to learn his first lesson that he is an ugly thing feared by others. He runs and we get to see him luxuriate in the heat of the rising sun and marvel at birds flying overhead and experience the feel  (and taste!) of grass. He then gets liberally soaked in a shower and experiences cold, shivering wildly,  before scaring off two men who were about to sit down to eat before a fire. The Creature learns about fire and food in quick succession before the two men return and cruelly beat him.

The Creature then reappears clad in loose grey raggedy trousers and long sleeved top where he happens upon the blind De Lacey in his cabin. De Lacey gains his trust over the changing seasons (simply conveyed with different light and a snow storm in which the Creature frolics like a child trying to taste the snow on his tongue – delightful!) and teaches him to read and write. De Lacey is beautifully played by Karl Johnson – its a really lovely role. The Creature repays his kindness by assisting his family by clearing their fields of rocks so they can sow crops and leaving them bundles of chopped firewood.

As The Creature at this stage in the play Benedict Cumberbatch switched from inarticulate clicking sounds to speech while somehow managing to keep half of his face paralysed like a stroke victim resulting in his speech being purposefully somewhat slurred.  Remarkable is too simple a word to do justice to the performance. De Lacey becomes the Creature’s friend teaching him of emperors and kings, of Milton, helping him to read Frankenstein’s journal and listening to him as he tells him of his loneliness (that he is as solitary as the moon) and how he is hated and feared by everyone he meets – that they throw stones at him. The Creature aspires to be like the humans even if he doesn’t understand why they live as they do but everywhere he turns he is met with hatred. He dreams of having someone like him who could understand his loneliness (his bride who appears in a nifty bit of interpretative dance). De Lacey continually begs him to stay and meet his family but the Creature,  wary of humans refuses. Eventually he agrees to meet them and while holding De Lacey’s hand nervously greets De Lacey’s son in law bowing deeply like a courtly gentleman as he does. He is met with screams from De Lacey’s pregnant daughter and is repeatedly attacked by the son in law until he runs away screaming a childish, plaintive cry of “You promised.”

Spurned by De Lacey The Creature seeks vengeance setting alight to their cabin, burning him and his family alive (conveyed by a whole ton of dry ice and red light)

We then switch to Geneva where Victor’s brother William is playing hide and seek with his fiancee Elizabeth. The Creature appears behind him telling him not to look at him. It was interesting to note that the more terrifying The Creature became the more articulate he sounded. The Creature wants to be friends with William, telling him shyly with a small child’s enthusiasm that “everyone should have friends” and that they will climb the mountains together. Once The Creature realises who William is his demeanour changes and while his words are childish the threat he poses becomes clear. William becomes increasingly distressed and tries to run but the Creature abducts him.

At this stage (a good 50 minutes into the play) Frankenstein (played by Jonny Lee Miller in a rather distracting wig but a beautiful wardrobe that he looked very fine in) appears frantically searching for the lost William. A boat appears hauntingly through a fog of dry ice in which the frantic Victor finds the body of his brother covered in the torn out pages of his journal. The moment where it begins to dawn on Victor what the pages mean was brilliantly conveyed by Miller. Overall however this rather distressing scene fell curiously flat (the ensemble vary wildly in terms of acting ability and have some painfully trite lines to spout). Hopefully it will get tightened up as the previews continue.

Victor leaves his family to search for the Creature and the moment the two appear on stage together (probably close to an hour in) the show absolutely comes alive. Any time Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch are on stage together is simply electrifying. It’s a brilliant scene with Victor’s cool clinical analysis of the Creature’s abilities turning into both shock and smug arrogant joy at his own superior brilliance as he realises that the Creature is capable of speech and reasoning. The Creature overflowing with fury demands to know why he was created and then promptly abandoned while Victor can only crow over his achievements seeing the Creature as nothing more than an experiment while it tries to point out that it is every bit as human as he and that Frankenstein cannot “play sport with my life”. The moment where the Creature turns on him and Victor goes from struggling desperately trying to prevent his neck being broken to going still with shock as the Creature recites Milton’s Paradise Lost and he realises that his creation is capable of understanding and appreciating literature is wonderfully played by both of them. The whole scene is marvellous Lee Miller superior, cold and cruel – the Creature both murderous with rage and yet instantly ashamed at his rage as he wants to talk to Victor – he knows he is capable of reason and he so so wants to be “good”. Victor and the Creature strike a bargain. Victor will build the Creature a bride – someone as hideous as him who can love him and The Creature will leave Victor alone.

Victor returns to his family (a massively impressive set appears out of the barren stage featuring the Frankenstein homestead on one side and Victor’s remote hideaway on the other) and tells Elisabeth (the luminous Naomie Harris) that he must leave her for a remote island off the coast of Scotland for his research. She is keen to marry and be with him and tries to convince him to take her too. It’s a lovely scene – Elisabeth is adorably winsome and Victor somewhat aloof and utterly clueless – you do wonder how he managed to attract such a lovely fiancee.

Victor leaves for his island hideaway where he convinces two locals (the rather hammy comic relief) to obtain body parts for him so he can build his bride. He constructs her but is then visited by William in a dream who warns him of the risk of the Creature and the Bride mating and populating the world with their hideous offspring.The Creature appears and Victor shows him the beautiful Bride he has made for him. But before he agrees to fully animate her he wants to know if the Creature will love her. The Creature is enraptured by her beauty and holding her hand tightly promises that he will lavish her with adoration. They will leave the country and live safely together away from humanity. He explains what falling in love feels like, like his heart will pound out of his chest – it’s a beautiful speech wonderfully delivered and your heart can’t help but break hearing it as you know precisely how the scene will end. Victor tells him to fetch some clothes for the Bride out of his trunk while he will finish bringing her to life. The Creature opens the trunk to discover only books and removes the curtain to discover that Victor has disemboweled the Bride (less gory than it sounds. I suspect from far away this looked very impressive – up close it looked every inch the mannequin covered with fake blood it was,  not helped by a slight rebound when the apparatus it was on was swung round too enthusiastically). The Creature turns on Victor in a rage but has to flee when Victor’s father arrives.  He and his companions are horrified by what they see and think Victor has gone mad (and possibly murderous) although again this isn’t conveyed all that well by the ensemble.

Months later and back in Geneva it is Victor and Elisabeth’s wedding day. Elisabeth is excited at, well, the prospect of enjoying her wedding night while Victor is working himself into a nervous frenzy patrolling the grounds for the Creature. He confesses his deeds in creating the Creature to Elisabeth who doesn’t at first believe him. She is horrified at his actions but ultimately forgiving. She wants to be with Victor and have a child with him and wants him to remain with her. He is too frightened of the Creature’s vengeance and leaves to secure the grounds promising that he will “try to love her”.

At which point the Creature appears from under the bed and grabs Elisabeth from behind asking her to guess who he is. It’s very well choreographed – even near to the stage you couldn’t see him lurking underneath and half the audience screamed the place down when he appeared.  The Creature is weary and angry but Elisabeth shows him kindness. While initially horrified by him she is amazed at Victor’s cleverness and intrigued by the Creature treating him as a person and asking his name (he bitterly tells her that he was never given the luxury of a name). They speak,  Elisabeth exuding pity and compassion and the Creature asks her to sit on the bed next to him promising that he will not harm her as he is a gentleman and knows right from wrong. Elisabeth listens as he tells her of the Bride, of his interactions with humans and how Victor taught him one very important thing….how to lie. He tells her that Victor broke his promise to him and apologises to her. Realising that she is in mortal peril she dives for the door but the Creature easily stops her dragging her up onto the bed. Victor walks in on his creation raping his wife on their bed. The Creature looks at him and smiles before casually breaking Elisabeth’s neck and declaring loudly as he climaxes that “that was good.”

The Creature flees while a distraught Victor tries to encourage his family to assist him to move Elisabeth to his laboratory where he can bring her back. His horrified family refuse.

In the final scene the Creature (now clad in a natty jacket) is being endlessly pursued ever northwards to the North Pole by an exhausted and distraught Victor. The Creature has food for Victor and in a role reversal cares for him like a wounded child. Victor collapses and the Creature believing him to be dead, desperately tries to revive him distressed at the loss of his master. He only ever wanted his master to love him and now he will be cheated of that. Victor revives and they sit facing each other- body language perfectly mirrored.

The Creature thinks Victor coming back means that Victor loves him. Victor tells him that pursuing him gives him purpose and that he needs him to run. Its not love, not even close but its enough for the Creature who gets up and leads Victor into the distance as they literally walk off into the sunset together.

As a whole I found Frankenstein to be brilliantly performed by the leads and visually stunning but frustratingly uneven and hampered by some poor dialogue and occasionally shocking acting from the ensemble (De Lacey’s family are particularly dreadful).

Benedict Cumberbatch is simply stunning as the Creature. It’s easy to run out of superlatives discussing his performance. His physicality at the beginning is extraordinary (he described at the stage door a litany of injuries including cut feet, bruises on his legs, sprained muscles, joints popping out in his wrist and spasms in his back!) and he manages to effortlessly portray both the childish innocence and terrible murderous rage of the character while entirely maintaining the audience’s sympathies (not easy given that the character burns a family alive, murders a small child and rapes and kills an innocent woman).  All of his scenes with Jonny Lee Miller are superb and his scenes with De Lacey and Elisabeth are heartbreaking.

The play very much belongs to the Creature to the extent that it flags considerably every time the Creature isn’t on stage but Jonny Lee Miller makes a fine Frankenstein – arrogant, smug, cold and cruel but emotionally devastated at the loss of Elisabeth. I especially liked his nightmare sequence with the dead William as he begins to fret over the consequences of building the Bride.

Naomie Harris is gorgeous, winsome and adorable as Elisabeth. Its far too tiny a role for an actress of her status but she’s wonderful and the audience is left devastated at Elisabeth’s murder.

But outside of the two leads, Naomie and Karl Johnson the remainder of the ensemble were surprisingly poor. I was a little taken aback at how ropey some of the acting was which robbed some critical scenes (the discovery of William’s body and the Frankenstein family finding Victor surrounded by body parts) of their emotional power. Granted the lines the ensemble spout are not Shakespeare but they are rather letting the side down, its all coming across a bit am-dram at the moment.

There were also some typical preview hiccups – the revolving drum on which the set of Frankenstein’s house is built stopped working which meant that there was a 5 minute stoppage of the play, a couple of the scene changes were over long and cumbersome, some atmospheric flashes of lightening showed a NT employee with poor timing fiddling with the set but those are all easily overcome.

As you would expect the play is visually stunning – the design of the Creature, the womb from which it’s born, the extraordinary steam train, the stunning sets, the lighting which deserves an essay all of its own – all hugely impressive. I would expect no less from Danny Boyle and he definitely delivers.

Special mention must also go to the Underworld score which is sparse and haunting and discordant and just complements the action on stage absolutely perfectly.

Overall at the moment the production is patchy with elements like the ropey ensemble letting it down. But it is a visual and aural feast, boasting very fine performances from its leads and it is worth the trip entirely to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s extraordinary performance as the Creature. He is beyond brilliant in the role. He may have suffered disappointment on Monday not making the Olivier shortlist but it seems unlikely that will happen next year.

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Review of the Year: Theatre and television

Everyone seems to be doing their lists of the top must sees of the year so I thought I’d join in with a list of my top theatrical productions and tv shows of the year.

Theatre

1. After the Dance – National Theatre

This remains the only theatrical production I have ever queued for tickets for in my life. Having completely failed to buy a ticket when any were available 2 episodes of Sherlock later I found myself queuing outside the National at 7:00 in the morning for day tickets. And it was entirely worth it.

After the Dance was just superb. Wonderfully performed by a very impressive ensemble cast it told the story of David Scott-Fowler (Cumberbatch) a historian frittering half his life away on a dreadful book noone will want to read and the other half at vapid parties hosted by his social butterfly of a wife (the brilliant Nancy Carroll) while his merrily drunk friend (Adrian Scarborough) watches all with an all knowing eye.  Into his life comes the sweet, if mercurial Helen who wants to save David from his wasted life and from drinking himself into an early grave.  Only her good intentions result in tragedy for David and those around him.

The play is not exactly a barrel of laughs – Helen’s involvement in David’s life ends up decimating him and his wife and changing his life forever. I came out in need of a very stiff drink. However it is to the credit of the cast that 3+ hours of devastation and tragedy whizzed past in seconds and I never once looked at my watch so rapt was I by the events of stage. The direction by Thea Sharrock was superb, especially the moment where David stands frozen in time while a party forms around him – the guests whirling around him like ghosts. The acting was also some of the very best I’ve seen in a long time. Carroll was magnificent as the bubbly drunken wife who collapses in total grief when she realises that her husband is going to leave her. Her final scene as she hugs David at the piano while he plays her favourite piece was understated, tender and powerfully intimate making the reveal seconds later that she has killed herself all the more devastating. Scarborough fulfilling the role of court jester and stage did his best to steal every scene he was in. And Cumberbatch as Scott-Fowler was superb – understated but commanding he has extraordinary stage presence and was especially powerful in the final act when he breaks down and admits the truth about his wife’s death. I was surrounded in the theatre by people who were there because they’d seen Sherlock and its entirely to Cumberbatch’s credit that his performance as Scott Fowler was so transformative that everyone was diving for their programmes at the first interval trying to work out which of the characters Sherlock was. Superb.

2. La Cage Aux Folles

OK so this was on Broadway rather than the West End but it was worth every penny of the frankly utterly obscene amount I paid for a seat at a cabaret table to watch Douglas Hodge and Kelsey Grammer.  I adore the show and have seen various casts perform the roles in the West End (Hodge and Quast, Graham Norton and Steven Pacey, Allam and Quast and John Barrowman and Simon Burke) and frankly I miss it so when I visited New York this year it was the first show I got a ticket for and the only one I spent money on. And it was fabulous.

I saw Hodge perform as Albin back when the show was at the Menier and his performance has only improved with time. His Albin is arch, witty, funny, sweet, vulnerable and heartbreaking. Yes he can’t sing anywhere near as well as John Barrowman sung the role but it’s such a wonderful performance (and Albin is meant to be a fading star) that the lack of vocal power isn’t an issue. His performance is utterly engaging and his I Am What I Am absolutely heartbreaking. Kelsey Grammer was equally impressive as George. He has a lovely tone to his voice and was utterly convincing as the suave nightclub owner. True as a couple they didn’t share the believable chemistry of Barrowman/Burke or the tenderness of Allam/Quast but it worked well enough and they looked very sweet together.

The show is effectively the same as the West End production with minor tweaks ( I was bewildered that the US version sticks in a couple of f words and yet tones down the (already minimal) sexual content – so you can say fuck but you can’t do it? Weird.). The Broadway version of Anne improved on the West End version – altogether sassier and more likeable. However, Jean Michel was back to being the most slappable character ever (only Gabriel Vick has ever made Jean Michel an acceptable character to me).  And as ever the true stars of the piece were the wonderful Cagelles who were amazing.  The only thing that kept it being sheer perfection was Robin de Jesus portrayal of Jacob which just didn’t work for me at all. Jacob can either be comic brilliance or a total annoyance depending on the actor and his performance grated. But its such a lovely heart warming show that its easy to hand wave one iffy portrayal.

I would kill to see Harvey Feinstein perform Albin next year opposite Jeffrey Tambor but not sure I can justify a trip just for that but well that’s what credit cards were made for…

3. Clybourne Park

Brutally funny and emotionally devastating all at the same time Clybourne Park really challenged its audiences – making them howl with laughter and then question why the hell they’re laughing. Another very strong ensemble cast who pull double duty switching roles entirely during the second act. The Second Act is just extraordinary as polite conversation deteriorates rapidly until within the space of 5 minutes all the characters are insulting each other telling very very un-pc jokes about sex, race and sexuality (the joke about tampons and white women will be staying with me for a while). But its not all edgy scabrous jokes – Sophie Thompson does a very fine turn in the first act as a grieving mother slowly falling apart.  Sadly the upcoming West End transfer is losing its best actor (Martin Freeman who is off to film The Hobbit and who was superb as the priggish racist Karl in the first Act and the laid back idiot in the second who is goaded into telling racist jokes with little prompting) but it’s still well worth catching if only for Sophie Thompson.

4. Design for Living

Funny (well it is Noel Coward), frothy and sporting two brilliant performances from Andrew Scott and Tom Burke this Old Vic production was tremendous fun. It was also the best designed production I saw this year. Everyone looked wonderful in it, the sets were impressive and the New York loft set which opened the final act drew gasps of wonder from the audience when I saw it. I was not at all convinced by Lisa Dillon as the leading lady. I found her character mercurial to say the least and rather hard to empathise with but the male leads turned in splendid performances. Andrew Scott is a marvel, switching from comic highs to distress at the flick of a switch and Tom Burke was utterly charming and sexy as hell. Their entrance together at the beginning of Act 3 actually had the audience gasping in a suitably panto manner at the mayhem that was due to unfold. Special mention must also go to Angus Wright whose lapse into Basil Fawlty-esque rage in the final moments of the play was a comedic highlight.

5. Ghost Stories

A message at the end of Ghost Stories asks you to keep its secrets and certainly it is one play that you need to watch knowing next to nothing about it. With a framing device of a professor debunking tales of the paranormal the show goes on to tell 3 different ghost stories. Possibly something of a case of style over substance it’s never the less an effective chiller. The impressive pervading sense of dread carefully crafted in the first piece is let down by a rather weak (and deriative) pay off but having turned to my friend at that point and glibly stated that they’d have to do a hell of a lot better than that to get a rise out of me they did as a few minutes later I found myself screaming blue murder and leaping about a foot out of my seat. That’ll teach me. The whole thing is nicely bought together by a clever ending with a particularly impressive final illusion (which I still can’t work out how they did it) which I suspect its worth sitting in the stalls for. Original, clever and still on in the West End- go see.

Special Mentions:

Sheridan Smith in Legally Blonde. The musical itself is enormous frothy fun (if you’re feeling a bit down go and see it – its very pink and sparkly and fun, fun, fun, fun, fun as Tigger would say) but Sheridan was bloody marvellous in it. Yes OK shes too old for the role- but then so was Reese Witherspoon. But that aside hers was a powerhouse performance that I’m thrilled I got to see.  Shes still in it for a few more shows – grab a ticket before she goes.

Mark Rylance’s 20 minute monologue in La Bete. La Bete was a show I rather unwisely went to see for its cast knowing nothing about it. So my friend and I spent the first 15 minutes looking puzzled at each other until we grasped that the whole bloody thing was going to be in rhyme. Its an odd piece but Rylance’s monologue was just extraordinary – an acting masterclass.

Katie Finneran’s cameo in Promises Promises

Promises Promises was not the most inspiring of Broadway musicals I’ve ever seen. Kristin Chenoweth was less impressive on stage than I had hoped and while Sean Hayes is a truly gifted comic actor his singing was almost physically painful to listen to. I was feeling a little disheartened by the whole affair. And then Katie Finneran walked on set as a drunken English barfly and suddenly the entire evening was worthwhile. She very deservedly won a Tony for her performance – it was the best 10 minutes in it..

Simon Russel Beale in Deathtrap – The play itself is somewhat dated and a little old hat (you can read my review on this blog) but Russel-Beale had an absolute ball and was huge fun to watch

And the worst:

The Fantasticks – The only play I have ever walked out on in my entire life. Boring, filled with appallingly unlikeable characters I have absolutely no idea how the hell this is one of the longest running shows on Broadway.

Julie Andrew’s O2 Concert – I was never expecting her to sing so wasn’t perturbed by that. Instead I was somewhat expecting a “sing along to Julie’s greatest hits” – not for her to walk on stage very occasionally and introduce US singers noone had ever heard of or cared about who went on to sing numbers which were mostly entirely unconnected with her body of work. The second half where she narrated her children’s book while the cast of actors ran around pretending to be children while wearing costumes which seemed to be created out of curtains and sticky back plastic had to be seen to be believed. I have never seen so many people walking out during a show. After 5 minutes of the second act I stopped watching the drivel on stage and started watching the audience reactions which was much more fun. Horribly ill judged.

Wolfboy – I’m all for promoting new talent and new musicals and Daniel Boys was quite superb in this but a musical about a victim of incest who gets killed by his psycho lover (who is also probably a rapist and murderer) who thinks he’s a wolf wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs and it wasn’t helped by having two leads who couldn’t really sing a note and a weak score. An interesting oddity I suppose.

Paint Never Dries – Sorry Love Never Dies to give it its proper title. In fairness I should say that I saw this early on before it was changed a million times but it remains one of the worst musicals I’ve ever seen. It seems to have gone down a lot better with people who have never seen Phantom of the Opera and I can see that. For those who have seen Phantom the whole thing was just bewildering – Christine slept with the Phantom? The lovely sweet Raoul is now a gambling wife beating drunk? WTF? All concerned do their best, some of the staging is lovely and it boasts two brilliant tunes in Love Never Dies and Till I Hear Her Sing but the book is a mess and even me being paralytic on a pint of free wine in the second half didn’t improve matters. And the ending did indeed provoke tears from me – of laughter. Avoid.

Television

1. Sherlock

Airing in the summer when tv stations generally bury their worst offerings and launched with precious little fanfare Sherlock took everyone by surprise,  gaining near universal rave reviews from critics and higher audience ratings than Doctor Who. Sharply written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss and wonderfully performed Sherlock was hands down my favourite show of the year. Benedict Cumberbatch became an overnight sensation as Sherlock and justifiably so. His Sherlock was manic, childlike, arrogant, ethereal and utterly engaging. It was a superb acting performance and once which should result in Baftas if there is any justice in the world. Martin Freeman was, if anything, even more impressive,  anchoring proceedings marvellously as the battle scarred, ptsd suffering, thrill chasing Doctor Watson. Within minutes of the show starting memories of Tim from The Office had been banished forever. The chemistry between Freeman and Cumberbatch was electric, instantly forming a truly great double act. The acting was universally superb in fact with even the smallest parts wonderfully cast from Louise Brealey’s dippy lovestruck Molly, Lisa McAllister’s lovely comic performance as “Anthea” and the wondrous Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson. Strong support was also offered by Rupert Graves as Lestrade (gruff, funny and remarkably handsome), Mark Gatiss as the wonderfully creepy Mycroft and Andrew Scott who made the most of his limited screen time as the genuinely deranged Moriarty.

Of course not everything was great about it. The female characters were, in truth, quite appallingly written. There were no fully fleshed female characters in Sherlock, just stereotypes writ large -the timid mousy girl hopelessly in love with the hero (Molly), the bitch (Sally), the interfering old lady (Mrs Hudson), the damsel in distress (Sarah, Soo Lin) etc. There’s also no getting away from the fact that the second episode (the only one not written by Moffat or Gatiss) rather let the side down quality wise and frankly was somewhat jaw droppingly racist (yellow peril? Dodgy Asian smugglers in this day and age? Really? Let’s hope that writer isn’t invited back for the second series). But despite its flaws Sherlock is still a hugely entertaining show and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rewatched the Moffat and Gatiss episodes. Roll on series 2.

2. Doctor Who

When David Tennant finally bowed out in a series of hugely underwhelming, overblown specials I cried many a tear at what felt very much like the end of an era. Within 5 minutes of Matt Smith’s first appearance in The Eleventh Hour it was very much a case of Tennant who? With Moffat at the helm Who was completely reinvigorated this year. Gone was the increasingly tedious sight of the companion making goo goo eyes at the Doctor and the overblown theatrics replaced with a Roald Dahl-esque dark fairytale edge and a much more old school Doctor. Matt Smith was terrific from his very first scene and instantly made the part his own. His doctor is such fun, a breath of fresh air after the over emoting Tennant was frequently forced to do. However he can also handle the dramatic scenes with aplomb. As superb an actor as Tennant is he could never handle the scenes where he had to go all bad ass 900 year old time lord. Smith despite his relative youth is utterly convincing as the man once dubbed “the oncoming storm” effortlessly pulling off the scene in the first episode when he tells the aliens to “basically…run”.

The jury is still out on Karen Gillan. Yes she’s stunningly beautiful but I’m less convinced about her acting abilities. She has lovely chemistry with both Smith and Arthur Darvill but Amy is inconsistently written and portrayed making the character veer from likeable to intensely irritating. I’m rather hoping that some reveal in the next series is going to clear up some of the oddities surrounding Amy but I don’t hold out a great deal of hope.

However it was lovely to get 2 companions for a change and Arthur Darvill was wonderful as Rory (the boy who waited – sniff!), the recent Christmas special didn’t feature him anywhere near enough. Alex Kingston’s River Song may effectively be Jack Harkness with breasts but it’s a joy to see a sexy,  ass kicking actress over the age of 40 on our screens and she works very well with Smith, the awkward almost marriage proposal in the final episode being a particular highlight.

The writing was mostly superb- the opening and closing episodes were especially strong and Moffat’s two parter which saw the return of the weeping angels was disquieting and creepy and boasted a very strong guest performance from Iain Glen as Father Octavian. Of the stand alone episodes Vincent and the Doctor written by Richard Curtis looked stunning and featured my favourite moment of the entire series- the glorious moment when Vincent walks into the Van Gogh exhibit at the Musee D’Orsay and Bill Nighy describes Vincent as the greatest painter who ever lived. It should be the cheesiest thing ever, instead it’s heart warming, life affirming and never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

There were some missteps, The Beast Below was a bloody dreadful second episode, the return of the Sirulians wasn’t anywhere near as interesting as I suspect the creators hoped and the Dalek revamp seemed rather cynical and aimed at selling more toys than anything else. But minor whinges apart it was a cracking series.

3. Downton Abbey

I’m not actually a huge fan of period drama but Downton was glorious to look at, superbly acted, had sparkling dialogue and had Maggie Smith playing Maggie Smith. And a hot gay footman. And intrigue and Hugh Bonneville overseeing proceedings splendidly. What’s not to love?

4. Peep Show

Sure this series felt a little weak compared to previous years but my strange love for the utterly inept Mark and Jez knows no bounds. Hell I think my heart even broke just the teeniest bit for Jez at the end of the final episode when he realised that he was about to be homeless and friendless. Plus Matt King as Super Hans continues to steal every single scene he’s in. Mitchell and Webb’s sketch show was also pretty awesome this year although please god no more sketches of Holmes with Alzheimers- most poignant sketch of the year – it had me in tears.

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The Childrens Monologues- Old Vic – 14 November 2010


(Photo credit: Simon Annand)

So last night I headed off to the Old Vic to watch The Children’s Monologues, a charity gala performance organised by Dramatic Need. Dramatic Need work with impoverished children in South Africa and Rwanda sending volunteers who are professionals in the creative arts to host creative workshops with children in rural villages. The gala consisted of a series of monologues (performed by a stunning cast) which were based on the personal testimonies of the children helped by Dramatic Need who had been asked to remember the happiest or saddest time in their lives.

The writing was universally superb. Every monologue grabbed the audience’s attention – there was no filler or duff moments here. The monologues ranged from light hearted tales of birthday parties and the joy of birthday oranges, to a redemptive tale of a gangsta done good to absolutely harrowing, brutally raw stories of rape and violation delivered with such emotional force that the audience was left absolutely reeling. I’ve never heard an audience go from racuous laughter to being able to hear a pin drop in a matter of minutes before.

Given that we were told by the organiser that the performers had only come together for the first time at 10:00 a.m. that morning to rehearse the piece I was hugely impressed at how incredibly strong the vast majority of the performances were (there were one or two exceptions – seems churlish to name them but the performers in question were barely audible from my seat in the dress circle and one literally sat and read from her script).

Personal highlights for me were:

Eddie Redmayne playing a young boy deliriously excited at the prospect of turning 7 and all the wonders his birthday party will bring. Redmayne has wonderful stage presence and his excitement and enthusiasm was completely infectious leaving me with a huge grin on my face.

Ben Kingsley (clad in rather fetching blue pashmina) retelling the tale of a young girl who was gang raped on Christmas Eve. His performance was simply astonishing – so raw, shaky and emotional channeling this young girl it was incredibly difficult to listen to him at times. His performance left me feeling emotionally drained.

Lucian Msamati (performing one of the few monologues not told from a child’ perspective) as the over protective father providing his daughter with his many, many, many pearls of wisdom on her first day of school. Amusing and heartwarming.

Charlie Cox performing a short but amusing monologue (complete with audience participation!) about a young boy hugely excited to be taking part in a maths contest.

Wunmi Mosaku (in what was for me the stand out performance of the evening) telling the tale (The Outside Child) of a young very sweet girl whose excitable birthday preparations are interrupted by the arrival of 4 squatters who beat and rape her. Never has the simple motion of 4 men walking on stage and stopping been so heart-stoppingly terrifying. It was an extraordinary piece of writing matched by a stunning performance. It starts with the young girl’s sweet excitement about how amazing her birthday is going to be before taking a deeply distressing turn with the terrifying arrival of the 4 men. I found myself wincing at her naive responses to the arrival of the men as you could see the horrifying outcome coming a mile away. Whilst harrowing the piece ended on a truly inspirational note as the victim having lived through her ordeal and seen her rapists put in jail contemplates whether she can forgive them as its better to have more friends than enemies in life.

Benedict Cumberbatch as a missionary worker helping a young boy who had been caught stealing (and blamed it on Wayne Rooney!). I’ll happily admit I attended the gala purely to see Cumberbatch (as had a fair percentage of the female audience from the looks of it – he even inspired one odd soul to give a solitary ovation when he walked on) and he was absolutely superb. He has immense stage presence (even clad in green Crocs) and his voice carries to the gods. He gave one of the few real performances of the evening (there was a lot of standing slightly awkwardly with script in hand from some which was entirely understandable given the lack of prep time) veering effortlessly between humour and pathos. His well meaning do gooder (appropriately called Shepherd) bumbles endearingly through misunderstandings with his South African charge (not understanding that the boy’s name is Innocent – and that he’s not protesting his innocence for his recent crimes to him) trying so very very hard to engage with him even though the audience knows from the beginning that he’s fighting a lost cause. As Innocent’s tale of woe unfolds it was heartbreaking to watch Shepherd’s demeanour change from sweet and bumbling to increasingly distressed as he grasps that Innocent couldn’t go to school because his parents couldn’t afford a pen and paper for him. Most affecting moment was Cumberbatch singing a jaunty ditty – a theme tune for a brand of washing powder only to realise seconds later with dawning horror on his face that Innocent is trying to tell him that his mother died because she spent the money which should have been used on her medication on washing powder to keep his father’s shirts clean as if he didn’t have clean shirts he would lose his job. He was visibly tearing up on stage. A real powerhouse performance of a very strong script.

Tom Hiddleston who played Prudence a young girl upset with her mother for her father leaving and excited at the prospect of her birthday orange as oranges taste like joy – only to have a hungry elephant snatch and eat it on her birthday trip to the zoo to her mother’s amusement. Sweet, amusing and heartwarming and played wonderfully by Hiddleston it was a lovely grace note to end what was at times an emotionally devastating evening.

Special mention should also go to the musicians and the wonderful soprano (her name isn’t in the programme) whose haunting melodies set the tone for the evening.

For those who shop on-line a super easy way in the run up to Christmas to help Dramatic Need (that costs nothing) is to set up an account at The Giving Machine and name Dramatic Need as a beneficiary. If you log in to your account and click on the various shops linked they will donate a percentage of your purchases to your chosen charity (Amazon donates 3.75% – hey every bit helps!)

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