Monthly Archives: December 2015

Review of the Year and What to See in 2016

2015 has been a golden year for London culture combining top-quality theatre with some of Britain’s leading actors, some game-changing exhibitions and probably the best London Film Festival so far. Coming up with at least 52 review posts seemed easy with so many incredible opportunities on offer and with current announcements it’s hard to see how 2016 is going to compete.  The big news this time last year was the impending arrival of what I termed ‘the big five’ to the London stage as James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Ralph Fiennes, Damien Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch were all set to appear. The year opened with a deliciously dark production of The Ruling Class with McAvoy in fine fettle as the serenely insane Lord of the manor which saw him unicycling in his underwear and attached to a crucifix. It’s a performance that received a lot of awards attention – not just for the underwear – recently winning an Evening Standard Award as well as nominations for the 2016 What’s On Stage Awards but lost the Olivier to Mark Strong.

Next up the West End transfer of A View from the Bridge led by Mark Strong confirmed its place as the best production of recent years earning a clutch of awards before transferring to Broadway in the autumn to even more acclaim. Next came Ralph Fiennes in the National’s superb revival of Man and Superman that took a more modern approach to a classic play, and with Fiennes on stage for more than 3 hours award nominations seem likely. The National, on balance, had an excellent year under new Director Rufus Norris, staging wonderfully fresh productions of The Beaux’ Stratagem, Three Days in the Country and Husbands and Sons, but the less said about A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire the better, undoubtedly the worst and most tedious thing I saw this year.

In April Damien Lewis returned to the West End as the dangerously charming lead in a thoroughly enjoyable revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, happily bringing Jon Goodman and Tom Sturridge with him, and the ‘big five’ concluded with the probably the most hyped Hamlet of all time starring Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Selling out a year in advance, his performance was sadly overshadowed by there being more drama off-stage (about not signing autographs, cheeky early reviews and audience filming) that on and sadly the whole thing deflated by the time we got to see what was at best an average show. Good interpretation by Cumberbatch but drowned in a needlessly cavernous stage – pity.

But for all the excitement these star actors produced some of the biggest treats were unexpected hits including the Royal Court’s transfer of The Nether – a brilliant and challenging production – as well as the superb Hangmen which is undoubtedly the best new play of 2015 which you can now see at the Wyndhams until mid-February. Other unexpected gems were The Globe’s production of The Broken Heart, the Old Vic’s High Society and the Donmar’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with commanding performances from Dominic West and Janet McTeer which also runs till February. Finally Kenneth Branagh delighted us by forming a theatre company and bringing two of five plays to the West End for a 10 month season at the Garrick, opening the delightfully staged Harlequinade and the utterly beautiful The Winter’s Tale with Judi Dench.

Branagh features heavily then in the 2016 shows to see with expectation now running high for his versions of Romeo and Juliet with Cinderella stars Lily James and Richard Madden, The Painkiller with Rob Brydon and an Olivier-esque role as The Entertainer in Osborne’s classic.  From what we’ve seen so far, these are bound to be delightful so booking now is advisable. Ralph Fiennes is also back in The Master Builder at the Old Vic which his performance is sure to raise, especially as recent offerings Future Conditional and the inexplicable The Hairy Ape have been a let-down (despite critical support). David Tennant is reprising his magnificent performance as Richard II at the Barbican as part of the RSC’s History play cycle early in the year which is another chance to see one of the best productions of recent times. Otherwise 2016 so far will be dominated by the Harry Potter stage show, announced with Jamie Parker as the lead after his show stealing performance in High Society, and several musicals including a West End Transfer for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard and the launch of Mowtown the Musical. Maybe not as inspiring yet as the start of 2015 was but undoubtedly more announcements to come.

Over in the exhibition sector 2015 marked a new raft of new approaches. Leading the pack was the V&A’s game-changer Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty which stunned everyone with its dynamic approach to displaying beautiful fashion, necessitating 24 hour opening towards the end to meet the need. Smaller galleries also began to make their mark particularly the wonderful House of Illustration near King’s Cross that staged Ladybird by Design and E H Shepard: An Illustrator’s War taking a new and intelligent approach to familiar topics, so look out for the opening of their dedicate Quentin Blake gallery in 2016 and show about female comic book artists. Forensics and crime fascinated us first at the Wellcome’s utterly brilliant Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, shortly followed by the Museum of London’s The Crime Museum Uncovered which runs till March. Finally Somerset House struck gold with its fantastic retrospective The Jam: About the Young Idea which took a fan-friendly approach to examine their glory years.

Sticking with the music theme in 2016, the British Library will profile the history of Punk at a new exhibition combining its document and sound archive which promises to be quite innovative, while it also host its first major show dedicated to Shakespeare looking at the interpretation and influence of his work in 10 key performances to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death. They also have a free show looking at the image of Alice in Wonderland on display right now (review to follow next week).  The V&A have a big show about Boticelli while the National Portrait Gallery take up the fashion mantle with an exhibition of Vogue images which bodes well. The Royal Academy brings several classics together including Monet and Matisse to examine the evolution of the garden in painting, while the Barbican gets us thinking about being British in a show using the perspective of international photographers on our great nation.

Finally the London Film Festival showcased some of the best films of the year with some glitzy premiere opportunities. Opening with the excellent Suffragette, there was also Black Mass a less glamorised gangster film than we’ve seen in years attended by Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch, Carol attended by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (although it wasn’t to my taste), the rather strange High Rise with Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller, and best of all the closing night gala, the brilliant Steve Jobs attended by Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender – my ultimate 2015 highlight. But outside the festival, with Spectre letting me down somewhat, Fassbender also wowed in my film of the year – Macbeth, a gripping, glorious and breath-taking movie that a gave fresh interpretation while perfectly relaying the psychology of the play, film perfection in fact. Expect all of these films to end up walking away with plenty of awards in the next few months.

So there you have it, as we say goodbye to a glorious year for culture we have high hopes for 2016. Whether it can top the plethora of great opportunities we’re leaving behind remains to be seen, so let’s find out…

For reviews of London plays, exhibitions and culture follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Les Liaisons Dangereuses – Donmar Warehouse

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Johan Persson

Scandal, intrigue and endless seduction – no wonder Choderlos de Laclos’s novel was met with outrage when it was first published in 1782. Yet somehow Les Liaisons Dangereuses has become a classic, revisited and reimagined countless times and in various guises. Most people will remember the film Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfiffer that remains it’s most famous incarnation, but what about the film Valmont with Colin Firth in the title role or Cruel Intentions, a pretty successful high school update with Sarah Michelle Geller and Ryan Philippe that gave a young Reece Witherspoon her big break. There’s something about this story and it’s notions of darkness beneath a thin veil of respectability that appeals to us, and in a period of festive excess and indulgence, how fitting that the Donmar has decided to restage it over Christmas.

Thrown over by her latest lover for the 15 year old Cecile, the Marquise de Merteuil convinces her associate the Vicomte de Valmont to seduce the girl first so her new husband will be shamed on the wedding night. But there’s a side bet as reputed lothario Valmont attempts to seduce the married and honourable Madame de Tourvel who would be his greatest conquest. Merteuil jealous of the growing affection she detects agrees and fearful of losing her power over Valmont agrees to sleep with him if he succeeds with Tourvel. Soon the alliance between the two is on shaky ground and their extensive plots to wreak havoc amongst their acquaintance begins to tear away the veneer of propriety that Merteuil in particular has worked so hard to maintain.

The Donmar’s new production of Christopher Hamilton’s adaptation is beautifully designed by Tom Scutt, combining decadence in the furniture and costumes with a shabby feel to the backdrop. Cleverly as the play opens everything is covered in thin (and entirely modern) plastic wrappers that seem to have a dual purpose – both preserving the items underneath and semi-concealing them, which reflects the nature of morality in this play and the lengths the characters go to preserve a public image. At various points characters tear off the wrappers from furniture and paintings to reveal its truth underneath, much as individuals will be unmasked before the conclusion. Finally Valmont himself is wrapped in a piece of this plastic suggesting a reverse morality for him – the only person whose wicked character is openly known at the beginning and is somehow redeemed by the events of the play.

Another notable feature of the design is the way in which paintings are used in the background to reflect the tone of those moments. For the entire first half which is all about seduction a large scene is propped against the back wall depicting fleshy nudity, but these are replaced by more romantic portraits of respectable women as the second part turns to considerations of love and reputation, before being removed entirely as a starkly lit and wintery conclusion rips away all the artifice of polite society.

Janet McTeer leads the acting honours with a deliciously calculating and frosty performance as the Marquise de Merteuil. It’s a difficult role that requires McTeer to portray her character’s treachery and jealousy beneath a surface respectability which needs to convince the other characters while letting the audience see she’s playing a double game. This is a play dominated by meaty female roles and McTeer’s Merteuil is clearly the master-brain behind all the subplots and intrigues which is fascinating to watch. But this is far from a caricature, McTeer interlaces the barbs with obvious pangs of jealousy, fear and considerable feeling as the betryals start to unravel which makes her Merteuil more human and surprisingly sympathetic in places as a women of a certain age clinging to a seductive power to retain control in a society that almost revers male promiscuity but punishes women for the same approach – how very relevant to today.

Dominic West also brings a welcome new spin to the role of Valmont placing him in a more romantic arc than some earlier interpretations. What West does so well is to balance the swagger of the virile lover with the blindness of a man who doesn’t realise he’s in love. It feels particularly layered in the scenes with Elaine Cassidy as Tourvel as he thinks he’s fooling her into falling in love with him, but actually he genuinely loves her but doesn’t know it, which is a difficult thing to convey to an audience and which West achieves very successfully. Again like McTeer’s performance, this makes him more human and ultimately likeable, making the scenes with Cassidy particularly compelling. But this doesn’t detract from the easy confidence he also elicits with other women which helps to explain why he’s so successful in charming them into bed despite his reputation. The escalation of events in the second half is also well played and his vicious exchanges with McTeer are edged with danger.

With two powerful leads some of the other characters feel a little pale in comparison but the brevity of their appearance lends weight to the idea that there are pawns in the game between Merteuil and Valmont – it barely matters who they are, just cannon fodder for their latest scheme. While other versions have given more time to the secondary characters, here they have just enough existence to give the tale plenty of substance while holding up a mirror to the morality of the central protagonists.  And everyone makes the most of their role from the knowing servants who sing beautifully while changing the set, to the more substantial parts.

Best among them is Elaine Cassidy as Madame de Tourvel, a difficult role that requires the actress to be almost pious in her devotion to her honour, while eventually collapsing under the strain of fighting against Valmont’s persistence. Cassidy navigates the histrionics brilliant and never veers into melodrama, instead you see a genuinely pained woman struggling to maintain control which by extension makes Valmont’s love seem worthy and likely – their developing bond gives this production some real heart. The role of Cecile the innocent ingénue is also a pretty difficult one to make believable and she’s often portrayed as a giggling idiot, but Morfydd Clark brings a girlish innocence to the part which seems credible without being too wide eyed. Finally Edward Holcroft does well in a small but pivotal role as music teacher Danceny who becomes enmeshed in the battle between the leads.

The Donmar’s version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is beautifully staged and brings fresh perspective to the characterisation. While there is still plenty of menace and betrayal to suit the purists, Josie Rourke’s version adds a touch of romance that actually makes the characters more believable and more human, while helping the actors steer clear of pantomime villains. As a play about the destructive nature of passion this more nuanced approach means Rourke has created an ending that packs a punch. Although sold out (as so often the case at the Donmar) the superb Barclays Front Row scheme means if you login at exactly 10am on any Monday during the run you’ll be able to bag an advanced ticket for £10 which is how I got mine. So this combination of fantastic value for money, meaningful design and insightful performances means this production is the perfect end to my theatrical year.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is at the Donmar Warehouse until 13 February. Tickets are sold out but returns will be available at the box office, and every Monday £10 seats are available from the Barclays Front Row Scheme operated via the Donmar website. There will also be an NT Live Broadcast on 28 January.

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Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age – Science Museum

Cosmonauts - Science Musuem

This week, Britain is sending a man into space. Now in the twenty-first century that may not sound so amazing but Tim Peake will only be the second ever British astronaut, the first being Helen Sharman who docked at Space Station Mir in 1991. Others have gone of course either privately or by adopting US citizenship, but Peake will launch on Tuesday 15 December and arrive at the International Space Station where he will remain for seven months. Space exploration is as relevant now as it ever was, and fascinatingly Professor Brian Cox recently told Radio Times that at no point in the twenty-first century has the whole of humanity been on earth because at any one time multiple astronauts have been aboard the space station. In the week of a new Star Wars movie, and the recent success of Gravity and The Martian, not to mention the eternal appeal of Dr Who, space remains an exciting topic.

Drawing on this backdrop, the Science Museum’s latest exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age brings together an astonishing assortment of space machinery, documents and ephemera from wide ranging collections to tell the story of Russia’s space race and its cultural effects. Uniting everything from a monkey space harness, drawings that imagined the future of space travel, actual moon buggies, space suits and resultant memorabilia, this exhibition is a must-see for anyone interested in the scientific exploration of worlds beyond planet earth.

It opens in the early 1900s and the first thing you see are sci-fi sketches of what they imagined the future to look like, and considers the pioneers of technological development in the coldest areas of Russia, and men like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who for a time at least were heroes of the Soviet Union. There are heavy-duty gloves worn to protect from freezing temperatures, and original material from the Gulags where, perhaps surprisingly, the notion of rocket science in Soviet Russia came to fruition. As the technology became increasingly refined, these were launched into space with impressive regularity and in the 1950s test flights with animals including dog Laika who was the first to orbit the earth in Sputnik 2 and the aforementioned monkey (with harness) were sent up to test whether a life-form could survive. Exhibits tell this story with original photographs, actual items recovered from the returned craft, videos and recreation models.

Before long animals were coming back alive so in 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The image of the male (and they were almost exclusively male) astronaut is very associated with a particular type of superhero masculine identity throughout this time, and room is peppered with posters, celebratory campaigns and statues presenting the astronaut as the ultimate man. Interestingly, a lot of this heroic styling has much in common with the image of the airman that emerged from the First World War, combining ancient characteristics of chivalry and sportsmanship with the most cutting-edge technological development that returns individual agency to notions of combat. In the items presented here, we see the cosmonaut as a military athlete (a very Soviet concept of ultimate manliness) seen in heroic guises, shoulders back, chest out, bestriding the land. Part of this tells us how consistently notions of masculinity were associated with developments in science in the early to mid-twentieth-century, particularly when this facilitated man mastering a new element – be it air or space – but also, given what we know about the long-lasting concept of pilots created by the Great War, just how important this particular portrayal of cosmonauts was to the Soviet concept of itself, and just how integrated it became into popular culture at that time.

For many, it will be the actual space equipment that will be the big draw of this exhibition and there are plenty of capsules, rocket parts and robotic vehicles on display. Perhaps even more shocking is just how much litter we’ve left behind as a note on one piece of tech tells us an exact replica was left on the moon when the astronauts left – surely there should be some kind of council-imposed fine for this? Still, seeing the scorching on the edges of capsules as they burned on re-entry brings the exhibition vividly to life and the proximity to things that have travelled to space and back is fairly powerful. Unfortunately, given the height of these relative to the floor, it’s difficult to see inside the capsules properly and the tiny space in which the astronaut travelled as well as the range of scientific equipment, which is a shame – maybe the Science Museum could consider adding mini-viewing platforms or stepladders so we can get a proper view inside.

As well as the scientific and heroic side of space travel, this exhibition examines what it was actually like for the people who were put through extensive training programmes before being allowed anywhere near a rocket. From the development of life-support systems in spacesuits to packaged food to allow those like Tim Peake to survive for months is considered in the final room where original examples of suits including the one worn by Helen Sharman are on display – it’s tiny by the way, she must be very small. And they don’t disappoint, looking exactly like something that has come off a film set, but again knowing they’ve been in space adds to the excitement of seeing them.

Some of the least successful parts of this show are the final sections around inventions that have developed for space that have been repurposed for life on earth as well. Its attempt is to show us that although the space race dominated Soviet and US thought for a long time, that ultimately it’s through international cooperation on the current space station that will achieve the most for scientific endeavour. But space, like air aces, has always been a story about individuals – at least in the public mind – and the political administration behind it is less successfully conveyed here. There’s a reason that we get so concerned about George Clooney drifting off into space alone in Gravity (although frankly if he hadn’t spent so much time messing about with his jet pack at the start he’d have enough fuel left to save himself) or whether Matt Damon can grow enough potatoes on Mars, and that’s because the people who go into space appeal to us, so more could have been done in this section to think more about the types of individual it tempts.

Nonetheless the extent of this collection and the curator’s work in pulling together so many items from private collections that have never been on public view is extraordinary, a rare, possibly only, chance to see so much material in one place. Throughout the explanatory signs are a bit weak and full of incomplete statements but the content is so richly varied that you can forgive the Science Museum for this. So over the next few months if seeing Tim Peake’s launch on Tuesday or watching the latest Star Wars film gives you a taste for more space travel, then head to the Science Museum and catch this fascinating insight into the birth of the space age.

Cosmonauts: The Birth of the Space Age is at the Science Museum until 13 March. Tickets are £14 and a range of concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Harlequinade / All On Her Own – Garrick Theatre

by Johan PerssonAn earlier version was first published on The Reviews Hub Website.

It’s been eight years since Kenneth Branagh was last in the West End so the decision to form a theatre company and take up a prolonged residency at the Garrick has caused a great deal of excitement. Having been away too long, Branagh is clearly intending to make up for his absence with 5 plays in 10 months – an ambitious plan but one that evokes a more traditional age of theatre. It opens with his superb and near-perfect interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale shown alongside the lesser known Rattigan farce Harlequinade performed in rep until January.

But the evening begins with a late addition to the programme, an unrelated Rattigan monologue All On Her Own performed by Zoe Wannamaker. It’s a useful two-for-one deal for an audience and ensures the evening reaches ninety minutes with the two together. Rosemary Hodge sees the last of her party guests off and begins a conversation with her dead husband. As the drinks flow, Rosemary feels his presence in the room and begins to imitate his voice in order to understand the cause of his death. Through this one-sided conversation she explores the tone of their marriage, hinting at not showing enough appreciation for him when he was alive. We also see that they were quite different people, Rosemary a prim, middle class woman in a well-appointed home, and her husband a builder with seemingly down-to-earth opinions – like chalk and cheese – but she clearly retains a deep affection for him. It’s a thoughtful and touching performance from Wannamaker who uses the comedic moments well for balance as she imitates her husband’s northern voice, exploring the pain of separation from someone she didn’t realise she loved. In this affecting short monologue Wannamaker takes us through a huge range of emotional responses as her anger and fear overtake her, leaving us questioning how much of this is grief and how much guilt.

Linking the two pieces is a short film about CEMA a post-war policy to bring theatre and music beyond London which is referenced in Harlequinade having provided the funding for the theatre troop in this story to visit a northern town. As the curtain rises on the main event we see a garish looking set complete with wobbly scenery – the location is the dress rehearsal of a hammy production of Romeo and Juliet starring Arthur Gosport (Branagh) and Edna Selby (Miranda Raison) the famous theatrical couple in the midst of the balcony scene. Soon they are gently bickering over their cues and interpretation, as well struggling to manage the mini-dramas within the company. But in the wings is a girl who claims to be Gosport’s daughter that threatens to derail the production and brings startling news that could affect Arthur and Edna’s long-established marriage.

Rattigan’s rarely performed and delightful farce may well be given a new lease of life by Branagh’s lightly charming production. What prevents this from becoming as garish as its scenery is the restraint with which Ashford and Branagh direct, as well as the carefully judged layers of performance which ensure there is a noticeable difference between the consciously exaggerated acting of Arthur and Edna in character as Romeo and Juliet, and the often oblivious people they are when the lights go up. It’s quite close to the bone on several occasions with its hilarious depiction of ‘luvvies’ so immersed in the theatre that real-life becomes a haze and much of the humour derives from the way in which trivial events like Arthur deciding whether to jump on a bench in the balcony scene assume cataclysmic importance while the real-life possibility of bigamy barely registers with him. It is utter nonsense, completely daft and laugh-out-loud funny, but by subtly emphasising the somewhat human side to these people it keeps the audience with them, rather than appearing as grotesques. And it’s comforting to know that some of the silliness Rattigan noticed in the theatre in the 1940s still resonates today – maybe not so much has changed after all.

Branagh displays an unexpected but delightful gift for comedy as Arthur Gosport, both deliciously hammy as Romeo and humorously self-involved as himself. There are a lot of in-jokes but Gosport’s entire submersion in the theatre and obsession with ageing create some of this production’s finest moments including his complete inability to understand the real world. On finding a baby in the wings his only concern is that it may ruin someone’s exit. Branagh even manages to make a wig joke funny in what is a wonderfully vacant performance – as Gosport’s stage manager says “you can’t scatter a void”.

Tom Bateman is excellent as Jack Wakefield, the exasperated stage manager who seems to be the voice of sanity amidst the actorly chaos, as he manages their production and their lives, at the expense of his own – although Bateman cleverly lets us see that for all Wakefield’s frustration, he’s as wedded to the theatre as any of them. Miranda Raison as the squeaky Edna is delightfully fey when it suits her but also incredibly sharp when her marriage or more importantly her part is threatened which is fun to watch, and Hadley Fraser as First Halberdier deserves a mention merely for delivering a line about London critics never noticing him. The whole piece builds to a nice farcical pace which sits well alongside its rep partner as well as providing some much welcome cheer in the West End.

Harlequinade is a great companion piece to The Winter’s Tale, as well as an advert for the forthcoming version of Romeo and Juliet next year, and a chance to see a rare Rattigan. It may lack the wit and sparkle of the finest Noel Coward comedies but this production has bags of charm. And what a delight it is to see Branagh back in the West End after so long. As an influential force in modern theatre the formation of Branagh’s Company is setting a high standard with its inaugural season. Welcome back Ken, we’ve missed you.

Harlequinade / All On Her Own are at the Garrick Theatre until 13 January. Tickets have largely sold out but check regularly for returns. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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