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Ink and the Case of the West End Transfer

Ink at the Duke of York's Theatre

For most theatres, a West End transfer is the Golden Ticket, the chance to take their work to that tiny patch of illustrious venues from Shaftesbury Avenue to Covent Garden. Sometimes these are a roaring success; the new transfer of Ink, such a joy at The Almeida, is every bit as perfect at its new home in the Duke of York’s, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet retained its lovely intimacy in the bigger Harold Pinter space and anyone who saw the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge in any venue couldn’t help but be astounded by its impact. But a transfer is also a gamble, and every year numerous plays fail because the decision to open the performance to new audiences is predominantly a commercial one, with artistic drivers taking second place.

There are three main types of West End transfer; the ones that move within London from the high-performing venues that attract the mainstream critics, best described as “off-West-End”; there are regional transfers from the powerhouses of the Theatre Royal Bath, the Bristol Old Vic, the Chichester Festival Theatre, the RSC in Stratford and the like; and there are the shows that come from Broadway. The latter two categories seem to suffer more often in the glare of the West End, partly, as Lynne Gardner recently pointed out because a 5 star show from Edinburgh feels very different when you put it in London, and partly because transfers are too often a poor fit for their new space. Crucially then, context is all.

Ink and Hamlet may have successfully sidestepped these problems, and arguably off-West End transfers fare better because they’re in front of exactly the same set of critics as their original run, but not all of them succeed. This year the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Love in Idleness proved a sell-out at its tiny London Bridge home and critical applause meant a transfer was inevitable. Yet, when it finally landed at The Apollo, it’s evident original charm felt a little lost on the bigger stage, playing to a less than full house on a Friday night. Likewise, plaudits rained in for the RSC’s production of Queen Anne in Stratford but although the story was interesting enough and well performed, in the less-than-full auditorium of the capacious Theatre Royal Haymarket (TRH) on another Friday night, it felt meandering and stilted.

Last year’s Alan Ayckbourn revival of How the Other Half Loves also fell foul of the TRH effect, drowning its comedy in acres of space. Perhaps the critics don’t notice from the visual comfort of the Stalls, but siting in the Upper Circle or Balcony the action felt more remote than it should. Yet, it’s not always this way and plenty of shows manage to play as effectively to the top of the house as to the bottom, so what is happening? The answer is that too often shows are transferring kit and caboodle, without taking the time to think about how they fit into their new space. Transfers can happen months after the original run, by which time the Director and Designer are on to other projects, but without more considered input into how the show will play in the new space, you end up with reams of discounted seats. It’s no surprise to hear that you could barely get into Hamlet at the Harold Pinter but the TRH were practically paying you to see Queen Anne in its final weeks.

Shows fail to dazzle in the West End for other reasons of course and perfectly decent productions of well-known plays with star names can represent some of the very best work in their region. But with just so much choice, so many approaches to performance and younger theatres pushing boundaries, some of these transfers can seem a little too safe, traditional and even old-fashioned. When London theatre-goers are offered the choice of seeing the umpteenth version of Hay Fever or The Importance of Being Ernest with a star of yesteryear, or Ivo van Hove, Jamie Lloyd or Robert Icke deconstructing an equally classic play and blasting new life through it, its innovation that usually wins. The same applies to Broadway transfers, like this year’s The Mentor for example, which in many ways play much safer than London shows and don’t always achieve the same level of critical appreciation they had in the States.

The point of all of this is to show that a West End transfer is not an end in itself, and the shows that do well have to earn their audience in exactly the same way as any new play opening in WC2. There are soaring successes that can equally come the few miles across town, from across the country or across the pond, but they work so well because they pay attention to their new context, to a different size stage, to a theatre with multiple seating levels and to the audiences hungry for interesting stories told in exciting ways.

Recently, the American Repertory Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie made a spectacular impact at The Duke of York’s, Ian McEwan and Patrick Stewart’s toured in No Man’s Land before finally arriving for a triumphant run at the Wyndhams late last year, while Oslo is doing great business at The National Theatre and is sure to triumph at the Harold Pinter as well. Within London, shows of incredibly quality have also earned their place in the West End; who hasn’t been impressed by The Ferryman which came from The Royal Court, and re-watching Hamlet at the Harold Pinter last month, the production had matured beautifully from its original Almeida run, retaining its intimacy, as if Andrew Scott was holding you hand and whispering his soliloquies into your ear, a private excoriation of soul between you and him.

This is the context then for the transfer of James Graham’s fantastic new play Ink which received its Golden Ticket to the West End after a sold-out and highly acclaimed run at The Almeida from June. Seeing it back then, it was instantly clear that Graham’s work was a masterpiece, a perfectly constructed piece of theatre that months on is still worth gushing about. Happily, every word of this original review still stands and it’s transfer not only provided another opportunity to see it, but, with enormous competition, proved that so far it is undoubtedly this year’s best new play. That banner has already been handed to The Ferryman, which in a big year for new work set a high bar, but although excellent and expertly directed, didn’t quite hit the emotional pitch or degree of darkness that the early scenes implied would come. Even with promising shows like The Network and Graham’s own rival new play Labour of Love still to come, Ink is an extraordinary piece of writing that has easily made the leap into West End history.

With almost the entire original cast still onboard, the show’s elaborately staggered design by Bunny Christie looks like a seedy den of journalistic compromise with desks and cabinets piled high, and feels like it was built especially for the Duke of York’s, so snugly does it fit the stage. It’s video screen backdrop plays host to Sun headlines from its first year of operation, as well as indicating scenes set at other newspapers, and offers a trail of dripping ink as the mood darkens, which seems more noticeable than it had been at The Almeida, adding much to the changing tone.

A second viewing means the story is familiar so there’s plenty of time to enjoy all the subtleties of director Rupert Goold’s production and the extensive research that shines through the writing. The opening scene, two men spotlight from the back, feels more like a deal with the devil than it did before, while Goold brings out the growing sense of camaraderie that Sun Editor Larry Lamb builds from scratch among his team of Working Class outsiders, showing how that team ethos was a driving force behind the success of The Sun in the early months. But crucially, although they stand together in the good times, in the second half when things take a darker turn rifts develop among them, based on taste, and slowly the play devolves into a series of smaller and smaller conversations until Lamb is alone onstage once again, isolated by his own choices.

Richard Coyle’s Larry Lamb is every bit as repellently fascinating, sympathetic and hateful as it was earlier in the summer. In Coyle’s performance Lamb is the embodiment of The Sun, a traditional fleet street man turned on his head by the populist cavalcade he unleashes. Initially reluctant, Lamb becomes the leader he needs to be to make his mark on the clubbable world of Fleet Street, and Coyle shows him unleashing a monster as he seeks the next sensationalist headline that will ensure he meets his target of outselling his rivals.

Bertie Carvel’s Rupert Murdoch is equally fascinating, a slightly twisted sliver of darkness that sets in motion the biggest sea change that journalism had ever seen, but manages to keep culpability at arm’s length. It’s a very physical performance, with a slight stoop and way of holding his head to the side as he rails against the Establishment that won’t ever accept him. One of the most intriguing aspects of Graham’s characterisation is seeing this aspect of Murdoch, the innovator who brings business-thinking to the newspaper industry, modernising its approach but all the while knowing the audience will understand the consequences so many decades on.

With many of the cast members reprising their original roles, there is an excellent support for the leads which ensure this remains a fantastic ensemble piece with not a character wasted, each one adding layers to the drama and background to the newspaper business that made The Sun’s approach so radical. There are great supporting performances from Sophie Stanton as formidable Women’s Editor Joyce Hopkirk who holds her own in a world of men, Justin Salinger as Brian McConnell the crime writer turned right-hand-man to Lamb, one of the lads who fears the paper’s direction, and Tim Steed as the buttoned-up Bernard Shrimsley whose love of fonts adds much hilarity.

Ink has made the most of its Golden Ticket to the West End and remains one of this year’s most unmissable shows. Happily situated at the Duke of York’s, the staging fits the space entirely and the multi-level aspect of the set plays to all the theatre’s seating levels. Beautifully constructed and superbly performed, Graham’s play is a fascinating insight into one of Britain’s most important industries and the period that set it on a new track. Getting a West End transfer right may be a huge gamble, but by prioritising the artistic transition toits new home, Ink shows how it should be done. And that’s one bit of news that isn’t fake.

Ink is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 6 January. Tickets start at £15 for day seats. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1       

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Follies – National Theatre

Follies, National Theatre

It’s been some time since The National Theatre last staged a major musical and their sensational new production of Follies has been worth the wait. The end of the Nicholas Hytner era and the first two years of Rufus Norris’s tenure have been focused on significant adaptations of well-known plays and new writing, many of which have received considerable critical acclaim. Despite an indifferent summer season in the Olivier Theatre, with Norris now firmly ensconced in his role of Artistic Director, this is a National Theatre at the zenith of its power capable of creating work of extraordinary quality and artistic influence.

Follies is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most loved musicals but revivals have been few and far between. While there may be more Hamlets than anyone really needs this season, the last Follies was more than a decade ago, and, like the recent era-defining production of Angels in America this superlative vision of Sondeheim’s show will surely become one of its best remembered revivals, mixing the wistful showmanship of the Music Hall with the shattered illusions of its four central characters, clinging to false visions and unrealised dreams of alternative lives,

In 1971, a class reunion at the Weismann Follies brings together many of the former singers and showgirls who entertained at the club during the wars at a party to celebrate the last night before the building is torn down to make way for office blocks. 30 years on it’s a bittersweet evening for everyone, as the ghosts of the past emerge all around them, reminding the women of who they once were and where fortune has taken them, with life quelling the hopes and plans they once had.

For Sally and Buddy, now in their 50s, life and marriage has been unremarkable and conventional, with Buddy struggling to fulfil some need in Sally that can never be satisfied. Meeting best friends Phyllis and Ben, a stylish couple whose animosity towards one another can barely be contained, takes the quartet back to their youth where the story of their courtship emerges along with deeply concealed emotions that abruptly resurface. By the time morning comes, the party is over in more ways than one.

Directed by Dominic Cooke, Follies is entirely at home on the grand Olivier stage in what feels like a perfectly created world of decaying glamour. The well-utilised stage revolve houses a two-piece walled-arch structure that contains the faded Follies neon sign, and a multi-tiered fire escape which the girls used to parade down onto the stage, allowing Cooke to show scenes taking place in multiple rooms with a quick turn of the Olivier drum.

Vicki Mortimer’s theme-laden design is purposely used to reinforce the text, whether it be the stacked heaps of detritus on the side of the stage and the shabby theatre seats – clearly referencing the characters emotional baggage – or the almost unnoticeably slow clearing away of the structures of the Weismann nightclub during the production to represent not just the destruction of the physical building, but also the breakdown of characters and their long-held fantasies of a better life, leaving only a vast emptiness to see and feel as the story concludes.

Sondheim’s work is not conventional musical theatre and his first focus (and training) was as a playwright, so it is this emphasis on plot and characterisation that separates Follies from the song and dance shows which have been recently revived in London. Lovely as they are, with glitzy production values and incredibly skilled dancers, An American in Paris and 42nd Street just don’t have the same heart-rending ache of Sondheim’s show. Again and again throughout this production, for a variety of characters, you feel powerfully focused emotion filling the cavernous Olivier space, creating an extraordinary intimacy and impact. It’s a rather amazing experience.

At the heart of the show is Imelda Stuanton’s interpretation of Sally, her second major theatre role this year. Sally has some characteristics in common with Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, who Staunton played at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the Spring, both are in a long and fruitless marriage where love, it seems, has long since departed, but where Martha is openly vicious, sweet and hopeful Sally clings to a decades-long love for Ben, a dream elaborate and embedded with age which she believes will rescue her from the emptiness of the life she now leads.

Staunton’s power as actor lies in slowly unveiling the layers of deep feeling beneath the surface of her characters, and, as with Martha, she quickly shows the that bubby, excitable, chatty Sally is bundle of false hope and self-delusion. Sondheim uses his songs to advance the story and Staunton understands these rhythms so perfectly that the excitable romance of ‘Too Many Mornings’ leaves Sally exuberant at finally having the long-hoped for relationship, while the slow disillusionment that follows is beautifully and arrestingly charted. As Staunton sings ‘Losing My Mind’ it’s so full of a sorrow that it builds to a state of almost deluded madness as her world collapses in on her. It’s terribly terribly moving and physically painful to watch, but astonishing theatre that will stick in your mind.

In the other corner is Janie Dee’s Phyllis, a once poised and gentle young girl who through lack of love believed she needed to continually improve herself and her mind to be worthy of Ben. While she became a good society wife, full of grace and dignity, Phyllis has also hardened, become cold to any form of emotion, even for her once loved friend, and this manifests in a tirade aimed Ben in the song ‘Could I Leave You’. And as the evening draws on, Dee shows us that Phyllis has become an independent woman who knows she can now survive without the husband she’s relied on and looked up to, that the slow erosion of her love for him solidified in this one decisive night.

Like Imelda Stuanton, Dee’s finest moment comes in the fantasy element of the production which takes place in ‘Love Land’ where each of the four protagonists gets to reveal their inner selves to the audience. In the section dedicated to ‘Phyllis’s Folly’ Dee gets a sultry number – ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ – which is a chance to unbutton the woman beneath the surface as she cavorts with her young dancers, for once the centre of attention. This whole section borrows considerably from Gilda and the famous ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ sequence that allows Dee to channel plenty of Rita Hayworth moves as well as physical nods to her wavy red hair and fitted black dress.

Although Follies is predominantly about the memories and dreams of its female characters, with Weismann himself merely the conduit for the reunion of his dancers, the two male leads are given just enough stage time to give the audience plenty of insight into two rather hopeless marriages and the sacrifices all four characters have made to sustain them. Peter Forbes as Buddy initially seems a comedy aside, a genial and supportive husband, sharing his wife Sally’s wide-eyed welcome back to the big city. But as the story unfolds, Forbes shows us a man who’s spent a lifetime knowing he was second best, trying endlessly and fruitlessly to make Sally happy, worn down by the knowledge he can never be the one thing she wants… someone else. His many failures as a partner stem from loving someone who cannot return his feeling and Forbes’s performance ask whether dependability and fondness ultimately outlast passion as the best foundations for marriage.

In fine voice is Philip Quast as Ben, Phyllis’s lothario husband, now a politician and long-time object of Sally’s affection. Ben is a man who has always relied on his allure, and his attractiveness to women makes him feel powerful. In the growing estrangement with Phyllis, Quast reveals a bitterness in Ben that is initially hard to reconcile with his easy charm, but as the muddles of the evening unfold, Quast’s Ben fears both a lack of love and of not deserving it, that despite his façade he is in fact a sham.  His voice is beautiful in duet with Imelda Staunton and those mellifluous tones are from a golden age of musical theatre long since passed.

A final note on Tracie Bennet as Carlotta, the only ex-Folly who really made it, now a well-known actress, and a fitting contrast to all the meek and mumsy society wives that her fellow Follies became. Glamorous and jaded, Bennett gets the zesty number ‘I’m Still Here’ showing us Carlotta’s scrappy nature that has allowed her to claw her way to the top and stay there. She may have had multiple husbands and now much younger lovers, but there’s a rousing lack of regret that makes this performance one of the moments of the night.

Supported by a fine cast who each get their song, this National Theatre production has perfectly judged the tone of dark nostalgia, of expectant youth and wasted futures, and the danger of trying to recapture the past – a theme that couldn’t be more fitting in post-Brexit modern Britain. Even the tricky ghost or shadow selves are seamlessly woven into the production and avoid feeling cheesy. Instead, each character appears with her younger self in original costume, allowing Cooke to blur the boundary between past and present, hope and reality as if memories have been given physical form one last time.

Sometimes, a piece of theatre will catch you entirely unawares; you see plenty of good or even excellent work, but every now and then something comes along that generates an emotional connection you didn’t foresee. This heartbreaking production, that has earned uproarious standing ovations at every preview, is a National Theatre at the peak of its power, producing work of extraordinary quality and impact. Even at well over two hours without an interval, the time flies by and it’s always reassuring to see the integrity of the work taking precedence over bar sales. There may not have been a major production of Follies for a while, but with an astounding cast, glorious production values and an ache that lingers for days, this is a production you’ll never forget.

Follies is at the National Theatre until 3rd January. Tickets start at £15 and are also available at £20 via Friday Rush every week at 1pm. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Film Review: Una

Una -with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendlesohn

The transfer of a hit play to film can be a tricky process and those that have attempted it enjoyed varying degrees of success. It can add further layers to a well-constructed plot or by contrast stifle the immediacy of emotional engagement that works better in the theatre – and this is one of the problems that frequently dog Shakespeare on screen. But when the topic under discussion is particularly troubling, then these difficulties can be magnified and Benedict Andrews’s new film Una suffers in exactly this way.

David Harrower’s play Blackbird deals with the volatile issue of child abuse and dramatizes a confrontation years later between a woman in her late 20s who tracks down the man she had a relationship with 15 years earlier when she was 13. Although this is clearly abusive, the film hinges on whether Ray was genuinely in love with Una, as he claims and she continues to believe, or whether he was serial predator of which she was one of many.

The original play, devised entirely as a two-hander between then accuser and the accused was written in 2005 and won several theatre awards, including recent ‘Best Revival’, ‘Best Actor’ and ‘Best Actress’ Tony nominations for the acclaimed Broadway version starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in mid 2016. Much of its tension lies in the conflicting emotions the confrontation triggers as the characters fight it out in the break-room of Ray’s office, unable to leave until their shared past is resolved.

Andrews’s film takes a slightly different approach, playing down its theatrical roots and adding extra layers by personifying additional characters including Ray’s colleagues and wife, as well as looking at the context around the pair, with scenes set at Ray’s house during a party, with Una’s frantic mother and recreating some of the events of the past. This greater exposition is both its strength and weakness as a film because in ‘colouring-in’ the wider lives of the characters to add meaning and depth for the audience, it simultaneously drains the scenes between them of the raw power and degree of unease that they had on stage.

We first meet Una during a sordid nightclub encounter with a random man before she makes her way back home at dawn to her fragile, fussy mother. Clearly in her late 20s, she then dresses carefully, paying particular attention to her clothes and make-up – a telling statement of the confusion to come – and drives to Ray’s warehouse workplace where the two meet for the first time. And the past comes hurtling back with startling force as the two relive not just the long-term effects of the abuse but the mutual attraction that still exists between them.

The complex and difficult subject matter is handled with sensitivity by the cast, ensuring the many shades of grey in Harrower’s affecting text are given their due on screen. In a particularly intriguing performance, Ben Mendlesohn gives us a man who is ashamed of what he did but struggling to maintain the fiction that it was a single-incident based on a specific attraction to the young Una. He tells her over and over that he’s not ‘one of them’, i.e. not the men who do this regularly, but Mendlesohn offers just enough doubt in his voice to keep you wondering whether he believes it.

On the surface, Ray is a man who has shaken off his past, created a new identity, remarried, moved on, and supposedly not been tempted since, yet he is clearly alarmed by the ferocity with which his old feelings re-emerge when he sees Una again, forcing him to confront an idea of himself that’s he’s not comfortable with. And Mendlesohn’s performance is remarkably sympathetic given that it treads a dangerous line, openly acknowledging his actions 15 years before. He fully admits to doing the things he’s accused of but it’s interesting to see that this doesn’t make him a blanket monster, and both the script and Mendelsohn’s interpretations show us the complexity of feeling Una’s reappearance creates – from fear to attraction, confusion to self-disgust – as Ray tries to reassess himself.

More problematic in this version is the character of Una, played with some detachment by Rooney Mara and given the wider setting of the film is slightly in danger of altering the perspective on her character. When Una arrives at the office she clearly wants answers, she wants to know if Ray ever loved her and what the last 15 years have meant. In a really insightful interview with Michelle Williams who played the role on Broadway this year, she argues that Una wants revenge too; making Ray pay for abandoning her but in the course of their conversation the whole things becomes much bigger than she expected and she loses control of the situation. But, there’s no question that she is a fragile woman, damaged by the abuse and, unlike Ray, trapped forever – as Williams says ‘she never leaves that room’.

Initially we see this in Andrews’s film and the first hour or so when it’s largely Una and Ray in the break-room their relationship is compelling and unnerving. Generally Mara is an actor whose characters are hard for me to get to grips with; she has a remoteness in her performances that take away from the emotional impact of her roles – as happened with Carol previously. But here, for the most part, that coolness is put to good use as Una faces her abuser head on and continues to struggle with her emotional responses thereafter. That sense of trying to contain her feelings under a semi-icy exterior seems right and the power-shift between her and Ray is believable and engaging.

Less successful is the last section of the film set outside the office at the homes of Ray and another colleague during a party scene. Here Andrews allows Una’s revenge to take place, but in doing so marks a significant shift in her character that doesn’t serve her well. One critic wrote that Una here becomes a stereotypical crazy female who has lost her mind and is out for vengeance, which is unfortunately how this plays out on screen. Having understood the consequences of the relationship with Ray, outlined in the earlier conversation and told in flashback, Una seemed vulnerable and pitiable, but in pursing him to his house (deliberately not something that happens in the play, she chooses his workplace for the meeting) the sympathy shifts, wrongly, to Ray who is now being pursued in a way that seems almost sensationalist and undermines the mental and emotional impact on him of their earlier meeting. The wrong message to send an audience home with is that Ray can be excused because Una is a lunatic, but the final section of this film can be read in that way.

Another failure of widening out the exposition is the additional characters this version adds into the mix. In theory this could work well but none of them is given enough substance to make their presence necessary or even insightful, not to mention is a shocking waste of a very good supporting cast. Most unfortunate is Ray’s boss Mark played by Tobias Menzies who has next to nothing to do except stalk the corridors like a hungry velociraptor after Ray fumbles an important presentation. Menzies is fantastic at it, but you want to see more of him and it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility for him to have played Ray given the usual intensity he brings to his work. Equally wasted though are Natasha Little as Ray’s unknowing wife and Tara Fitzgerald as Una’s equally brittle mother neither of whom add much to the plot. It seems a shame for Andrews to have created these additional layers but not given them enough substance to really come alive.

The stage to film translation is not always an easy one, and the two necessarily require different approaches. Given its subject matter and the two-handed nature of the play Blackbird is a particularly difficult thing to bring to the screen without somehow lessening the impact of the original. Andrews navigates some of these issues quite cleverly including the subtle use of flashbacks to tell 13-year-old Una’s story, but some of the present-day expansions are not quite as successful. A film that’s worth seeing, but if a West End revival of the play were likely then maybe that’s the place to start.

Una was premiered at the 2016 London Film Festival and opens nationwide on 1 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Against – The Almeida

Ben Whishaw in Against, The Almeida

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.

The Silicon Valley set rarely come off well in popular culture with a combination of technological innovation and immense wealth that seems to separate these CEOs and entrepreneurs from the world they’re intent on changing. From Christopher Walken’s deliciously evil Bond villain planning to drown his competitors to ensure his microchips became invaluable in A View to a Kill to the determined protagonist in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs who rode roughshod over the feelings and loyalties of his colleagues, the tech billionaire is usually presented as someone who wants change at any price.

In reality though, there is another side to these businesses and to the people who run them that can be equally controversial. The charities, foundations and outreach programmes set-up by big multinationals or well-known entrepreneurs can often generate as much negative publicity as helpful support for local communities. And society takes quite a contradictory view on attempts to patronise the arts, fund school buildings or establish charitably foundations – on the one hand, we expect organisations with vast wealth to share it, while condemning donations from unethical sources. In the world of the tech billionaire, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Christopher Shinn’s new play Against explores these issues using one technology entrepreneur who leaves his multiple businesses to begin a nationwide campaign to highlight the different kinds of violence in everyday America. But, rather than pressure from society or the media to share his fortune, Luke’s motivation is more internal, believing he has received a direct order from God to go out into the world and help people. The messianic qualities of the mission become muddied by the mixed reaction he receives and how his logical mind responds to the ever-widening definition of violence he encounters.

It’s clear that Luke (Ben Whishaw) is someone who hops from project to project, although why is never really explored – is it the way his mind works, boredom or a form of short-term thinking that allows him to flutter between activities but never really settle on one thing. We discover early on that he made his money from designing rockets, and has several companies, but his rise to the top of his profession, what he actually does and the effects of this on his decision to transform himself into a social campaigner are not part of this story. Instead, we’re initially asked to take Luke as we find him, although later Shinn tries half-heartedly to give him some unrelated backstory.

The first half focuses on his tour of America, and we see him bounce from issue to issue, and while promising never to leave, soon moving on to the next opportunity. He starts with the recent aftermath of a high school shooting, before moving on to the problem of campus rape and finally the treatment of prisoners, where he incites the various people he meets to follow his cause. This structural approach has much in common with Steve Jobs that used three product launches to examine the changing issues and personality of the entrepreneur and gave the story both a narrative drive and continual tension as you watched him interact with the same set of people over a number of years. But Against takes a more lightweight approach to Luke’s involvement with these communities; he gathers their stories and brings publicity but Shinn isn’t using this deliberately to give us insight into Luke and his purpose, nor really to the acts of violence described.

While Act One is enjoyable to watch with plenty of dramatic possibilities set up in the various encounters Luke has, Act Two seems to squander almost all of them, turning largely away from the causes and consequences of violence – and away from Assassin’s Creed territory –  to Luke’s own personality and the effect of his visit on the ‘disciples’ he leaves behind, people once inspired by his proximity left to fend for themselves. And while that sounds like a sensible direction for the show to take, in practice the effect is muddled and unsatisfactory.

In Act Two, Luke halts his campaign, for reasons that are not entirely clear, and begins to struggle with his feelings for colleague Sheila (Amanda Hale) and a romantic subplot develops between them. He also returns home for a month and looks through old boxes from his school days and even meets up with a former childhood friend, reminiscing about why they lost touch for a while, but doesn’t add anything to our understanding of violence or Luke’s motivation which seemed to be the focus of the first part.

The surrounding cast are also given more spotlight moments in which they move from talking about the violence they encountered to solely discussing Luke, his whereabouts and when he might be returning to their community. These scenes are not sculpted enough to give proper character insight into these various individuals inspired by Luke’s mission, but nor do they properly tell us anything about the way Luke has been perceived and why he inspired people. It frequently mentions detractors but never shows them, so the story seems unevenly loaded towards liking Luke but without proper reasons for doing so.

Against is an odd collection of ideas, philosophies and political standpoints that never really delves beneath the surface of the causes and consequences of violence in society or the characters it follows. It’s not clear what questions Shinn is even asking in its near 3-hour run time and it too often feels that the breadth and complexity of the issues he touches on overwhelmed him, and so, like Luke, Shinn is only creating awareness without teasing out the root causes of the human behaviour that drives people to violence.

Luke has an interesting early conversation with the parents of Tom who shot his schoolfriends and then himself in the cafeteria, as well as hints at the isolation and exclusion that may have driven him to it, but this never fully develops across the show to meaningfully highlight the effects of these acts on his family and friends. Neither does Against build on the other initial theme about what happens to communities when the cameras stop rolling and again, like Luke, Shin becomes distracted by other layers of debate that lead to a meandering and introspective second half that blurs the focus between Luke’s self-discovery and the people he meets.

This production’s saving grace is Ben Whishaw’s magnetic and thoughtful central performance which gives an intensity to the character of Luke that allows the audience to understand why the characters are drawn to him. Happily, this sustains your interest even in the most wayward moments, helping to smooth over the cracks in the work, at least during the period of the play. Whishaw is an actor who could make the back of a cereal packet seem profound, and he uses all his skills here to give life to a character with an almost zealous purpose, but short-attention span for individual causes.

There is an Aspergic quality to Luke, who though highly intelligent, clearly sees the world differently to those around him, where an inability to communicate means he cannot make others see his logic. Again, there are interesting comparisons to be made with Michael Fassbender’s depiction of Steve Jobs, and how the success of tech entrepreneurs can stem from a closure to the emotional world, particularly the sensitivities of others, where logic, science and business-need drive these genius individuals to place machine-like process above human need. And although Whishaw subtly suggests many of these things the text isn’t actually interested in who Luke is and what makes him so special.

In somewhat subverting that, Whishaw commands the stage, introducing a contained physicality into the performance that creates a sense of separateness from the those around him, reinforcing the Jesus-like role he’s cast in (but is also under explored). He uses small gestures such as scrunching his hands or tightening the jaw to convey the mental processes happening beneath the surface as Luke tries to make things fit, and there’s a consistency in the rational-minded man that runs through the play, so he seem as innocence and well-meaning at the end as he was at the start.

The surrounding cast provide solid support in a number of underwritten roles that draw us into the lives of various people Luke meets along the way. As well as Sheila (Amanda Hale), Luke’s long-suffering colleague who facilitates his work while waiting patiently for him to return her feelings, Naomi Wirthner gives a sensitive performance as Tom’s mother deeply affected by her child’s actions but, unlike her husband, open to understanding more about the causes. Kevin Harvey as a former sex-worker turned creative writing Professor gets several scenes in which he coaches Emma D’Arcy’s Anna, herself in a polyamorous relationship that feeds into her writing, but neither of these things develop into properly layered insights into various ways of living, and it’s here that the concepts of violence that Shinn wants to discuss become confused. When attention turns almost entirely to the subplots in the second half, it’s difficult to empathise, despite the performances, because Shinn hasn’t done enough to make us care about them earlier on.

Against is a watchable and pleasant enough experience, but it ends up on too many tangents that never quite add up to a satisfactory experience. It has some valuable points to make about our definition of and response to acts of violence in society, but as the play unfolds it feels like Shinn became so awed by the scale of his creation that the hasty attempt to draw these strands together and find an ending feels wholly unconvincing.

This is a shame for The Almeida after a highly fruitful year that has seen positive acclaim for all of its productions, with Hamlet about to conclude its successful West End transfer and the transfers of Mary Stuart and Ink opening in the next few months. Their run of form had to end sometime and Against probably would have benefitted from another 6-12 months of development to smooth out the many inconsistencies, tie up the loose ends and decide what it really wants to say. Whether this a story about violence, religious idealism, the personalities of tech billionaires or the double-edged sword of charitable donation, Shinn’s play leaves the audience with all the wrong questions at the end. Depsite a very fine performance from Ben Whishaw – which is worth seeing – you leave wondering what was the point of that?

Against is at The Almeida until 30 September and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


TV Preview: Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling – BFI Southbank

Holliday Grainger & Tom Burke in Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling

It’s been a great year for J.K. Rowling, ok these days when is it not a great year for J.K. Rowling, but in the last 12 months she’s successfully launched the new Fantastic Beasts film franchise, opened a smash hit West End play that extends the Harry Potter series and just announced a Broadway transfer with the original cast. The Potter books are about to become the subject of a British Library retrospective exhibition and, on top of all that, Rowling is expected to publish the fourth novel in her successful detective series, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, before the year is out. Now the first of her Cormoran Strike novels has been adapted by the BBC and a preview of the first episode was premiered at the BFI with cast and crew in attendance.

The Cuckoo’s Calling was Rowling’s first, and at the time entirely anonymous, opening novel of the Cormoran Strike stories which the BBC has adapted into a three-part series, with episode one airing over the August bank holiday weekend. While there is a crime to solve at the centre, the story is primarily an introduction to regular character Cormoran Strike, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan before stepping on an IED and lost the lower half of one leg to blast injury. He was invalided out of the service and has turned private detective, where he meets temp Robin who over the course of the three novels graduates from Office Assistant to fully-fledged sidekick.

Adapting such a well-loved series of stories was an intimidating prospect for director Michael Keillor and executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts, but Rowling, as ever, has been involved enough in the development of this show to ensure it looks exactly as it should. Episode One is part introduction to the characters and part establishment of the whodunnit that propels the plot, and it opens with celebrity Luna Landry coming home from a glamorous party. It’s immediately clear that the tone of Keillor’s piece is unlike the crime dramas that we’re so used to; it’s not gruesome Skandi-noir or those dark British thrillers where women end up gratuitously and brutally mutilated, but neither is it in the vein of those cosy Agatha Christies on ITV, Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling is somewhere in between, faithful to its source material but doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The first thing you’ll notice is the quality of the cinematography designed by Hubert Taczanowski which has a grainy but glamourous sheen as it takes in a series of beautiful venues and snow-covered streets of a Mayfair lifestyle in mid-winter London. TV-makers have learnt a lot from Susanne Bier’s The Night Manager, recently discussed at a similar BFI event, and while the locations here are considerably less Bondian, it is none the less beautifully shot, and carefully tailored to the lifestyle of the characters in each scene – Lula’s home feels like a glossy magazine, while Strike’s office is a ramshackle bolthole, cramped, aged and uncared for.

But it also has plenty in common with the first series of Sherlock which revelled in its love of London and eagerness to show a less tourist-heavy perspective on the capital, and one of the joys of Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling is its dedication to using the locations specified by Rowling in the books as well as presenting a more realistic picture of the city. This attention to detail may only be noticed by Londoners but it adds a layer of authenticity to the show seeing Strike walk down the real Denmark Street to his office or asking to be dropped off at Greek Street and actually being dropped off at the point in Greek Street where he could walk back to his workplace. This meticulous realism, though challenging to film Keillor explained during the Q&A that accompanied the screening, was extremely important in creating the world of the books, and the same effect just couldn’t be met in the backstreets of Cardiff, that so often double for London.

Key to the success of the series, and the two subsequent adaptations of The Silkworm and Career of Evil that have also been commissioned, is casting the roles of Strike and Robin, which Kenley-Letts explained became a fairly easy decision. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger may not be the obvious choices and given some dissimilarities with their written creations, are bound to have many advanced detractors, but on screen they both perfectly capture the essence of Rowling’s characterisation – which should be a relief to many of the book’s fans.

Tom Burke’s Strike even in Episode One is a fascinating and layered character that accords well with your vision of Rowling’s Private Detective. Without the same height and breadth that Rowling describes, somehow Burke creates Strike’s particular physical bearing on screen, while simultaneously suggesting a man often too preoccupied with work to take proper care of himself and those around him. One of the reasons that Burke is a good choice for the role is Strike’s lack of emotional awareness in the burgeoning relationship with Robin, which becomes more important as the books go on, and an inability to identify why he cares so much for her, as well as a sense of incapacity in being unable to offer more than he does. Anyone who saw last year’s The Deep Blue Sea will recognise similar characteristics in Burke’s beautiful interpretation of Freddie, a former heroic pilot eroded by peacetime who comes to realise his emotional limitations.

During the Q&A, Burke admitted that while this role comes loaded with expectation, his schedule meant there was no time to be intimidated by the role until afterwards. There are plenty of hints at Strike’s past and carefully laid strands of things to come, but one of the most interesting aspects of Burke’s performance is the concept that Strike is living in the here and now, he is created by his past and cannot conceive of any kind of future, but takes each day as it comes – as military veterans often do.

Strike is a very different TV detective, one who isn’t driven by a strange personality or ongoing battles with personal demons that affect every case, instead he is a man who is pleasingly meticulous about his work and a bit of shambles, but not defined by his war service or the prosthetic leg which affects his work only as far as the pain it causes him in the pursuit of evidence and suspects. It’s fascinating to see his disability normalised in this way, as just one aspect of his life, and writer Ben Richards makes the audience wait some time before we even learn about it, asking us to know the character first.

But at the same time, Strike’s amputee status is not entirely ignored and Richards restricts himself to two brief scenes where Strike is shown removing the strapped-up stump from the painful prosthesis, and seeing it in full after a shower. It is created quite seamlessly using CGI with a real amputee as Tom Burke’s leg double, and while the commercial pressures on TV are not yet ready to allow Strike to be played by a disabled actor, this feels like things are moving in the right direction with, in Episode One at least, a sensitive and honest depiction.

Holliday Grainger is an equal match as temp Robin Ellacott and although she’s still finding her feet in this first epsiode, there’s plenty of things for Robin to do. Grainger is the ideal mix of brisk efficiency as she instantly sets about reordering Strike’s chaotic office, and good-natured warmth that instantly builds a rapport with her strange new boss. Very quickly Robin is making useful fact-finding contributions and accompanying Strike to visit Lula Landry’s flat. There is an openness and ease about Robin on the page, as well as a shyness about how knowledgeable she is, which Grainger captures perfectly and, as the character develops during The Cuckoo’s Calling and the subsequent stories, Burke and Grainger ensure the relationship between Robin and Strike has plenty of room to blossom.

It was clear from the Q&A that these adaptations of Rowling’s novels have been put together with considerable care, affection for the source material and attention to detail which comes across on screen. What could have been an overly cheesy or cartoonish screen incarnation manages, so far, to avoid the pitfalls that the Casual Vacancy fell into, and Episode One has set a high bar for the rest of the series. Director Michael Keillor explained that the books and this interpretation of The Cuckoo’s Calling takes many of the tropes of traditional detective fiction that celebrate the genre and make them feel modern. If the positive reaction of the BFI audience is anything to go by, then fans of the author shouldn’t be disappointed, and J.K. Rowling will have have one more thing to smile about this year.

Episode One of The Cuckoo’s Calling will air on Sunday 27th August on BBC1 at 9pm. For more BFI preview events, visit their website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  


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