Tag Archives: Mark Strong

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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A View from the Bridge – Wyndhams Theatre

Independently The Young Vic and the Wyndhams have been having quite a run of form with back-to-back critically acclaimed productions, so it was only a matter of time before they joined forces. Last year the Wyndhams played host to Cary Mulligan’s West End debut alongside Bill Nighy in the impressive Skylight, followed by the Charles III transferring from the Almeida, and will soon welcome Damien Lewis and Jon Goodman in American Buffalo. The Young Vic too had hit after hit, notably a pulsating Streetcar Named Desire and this remarkable version of A View from the Bridge, undoubtedly the best production of last year, transferring to the Wyndhams for a brief and welcome reprise.

It’s pretty rare for me to give an unequivocal five stars to any production and to do so twice in less than a year is unheard of, which should give you some indication of how very special this production is. Some give out five star reviews quite readily, but honestly I can think of only four productions I’ve ever seen that I would say were genuinely five star. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of really great shows and some of our finest actors which I’ve really enjoyed, but a truly five star production is something more than good acting/script/production values or the frisson of seeing a famous star, it has something I can only describe as an added ‘magic’. It means you don’t just empathise with the characters you live it with them – at the risk of sounding even more pretentious, the play becomes transcendental and nothing else exists except what’s happening on that stage.

It’s interesting then having been fulsome in my praise of this production last year to have the chance to watch it again. How could it possibly live up to that expectation, surely I couldn’t feel the same about it now I’d seen all the tricks? But in all honesty, this is every bit as incredible as it was last May, gripping, emotionally wrought and utterly mesmerising. It’s the story of Eddie Carbone, a dock worker living happily in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge with his wife and teenage niece. As the play opens the niece Catherine has a new job and Eddie’s dilemma begins; he wants to protect her and has in mind a glorious future she deserves, perhaps in Manhattan – a future that a woman in her position is unlikely to attain. Their situation is further muddied when Catherine falls in love with Rodolpho who is working illegally in the US and living with the Carbones. What follows is an epic struggle where Eddie, a man who ‘never knew he had a destiny’ finds he cannot escape it.

So much about Ivo van Hove’s interpretation is so simple, just the actors and the words in a confined space to emphasise the inevitability of what is happening to them, as well as the limitations of their community. Where innovations are used, they enhance the storytelling rather than distract, and it’s great to see the design transfer so successfully from the Young Vic. There, this was performed on a three-sided thrust stage and the Wyndhams only has a proscenium arch, but the giant black-box remains with the lid rising up instead of a curtain to reveal the players caught inside. And this does mean that incredibly ending is retained– I’m not going to spoil this for you, but it’s every bit as bold and electrifying as last year. And the Wyndhams have cleverly added four rows of stage seating in the wings which means you get right up close to the action and I recommend booking these if you can for that all-involving experience as well as a bit of potential celebrity spotting- Rupert Everett was nearby when I went.

Seeing this for the second time gave me a better chance to see the various layers of performance and although I referenced the themes of masculinity and honour in my previous review, these elements came across even more strongly this time, through Eddie’s competitive boxing with the young Rodolpho and mocking his looks and singing, designed to show Catherine he’s somehow less of a man. Even a small scene when Eddie and Marco (Rodolpho’s brother) undergo a test of strength is a glimpse into their need for manly display and the battle between the generations – challenging the dominant male in the pack.

The acting is perfect and seeing it again showed how all the characters are complicit in events, from Nicola Walker’s resigned Beatrice (Eddie’s wife), quietly trying to separate her husband from her niece, to Phoebe Fox’s stifled Catherine struggling to attain the life she wants rather than the one Eddie wants her to have. Mark Strong’s performance as Eddie is sublime; a mass of contradictions utterly unaware of the fatal flaw that drives him to destruction – completely believable, blind and heart-breaking. Towards the end when the tension is at its highest point and you don’t think your emotions can take any more, Strong powers to a new level as Eddie demands respect for his name, it’s amazing.

I said earlier that you live a five star production with the characters, and this is the most compelling aspect of this show. You feel every emotional flicker, every change of tone and as the doom plays out you will want to run up to them and beg the characters to stop. You’ll want to shake Eddie until he sees what he’s doing because you just know it’s going to end very very badly and there’s no way to stop it. By the way, talking to the actors and generally involving yourself in the production is frowned upon, so you’ll just have to sit there and watch it all happen as powerless to stop it as the characters themselves.

Last year I wrote that ‘the drama in this breath-taking production thumps into you and when you’re down kicks you a few more times’ and the force of it is something that stayed with me in between. This was certainly true the second time as well and I left the theatre feeling shaken by what I’d seen. So this production has thoroughly earned its collective ten stars from me, and if you never see another piece of theatre for the rest of your life, make sure you see this. You’ll never forget it.

A View from the Bridge is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 11 April and tickets start at £19.50 for the balcony and on-stage seating, and a range of prices for the rest of the auditorium. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Film Review: The Imitation Game

The winter film season will be dominated by the scientist biopic. This Friday sees the release of the much anticipated film about Alan Turing starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and just after Christmas Eddie Redmayne’s take on Stephen Hawking – The Theory of Everything – is released. Both have appeared at recent Film Festivals and for what it’s worth at this point in the year their leading actors are generating Oscar buzz. Although I wasn’t lucky enough to secure a seat for The Imitation Game at the London Film Festival last month, the BFI offered an early preview and will do the same for The Theory of Everything on 8th December (tickets go on public sale on 11th November).

The Imitation Game shows three periods in Alan Turing’s life; primarily it focuses on his work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War breaking codes using his invented machine, but also travels backwards in time to his schooldays to show the foundation of his interest in cyphers and close friendship with another boy, and we go forward to 1951 when a suspicious robbery at Turing’s house leads to his arrest for gross indecency and an horrific sentence of hormone therapy to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. This is largely a very good and terribly British film, its nationality seeping through every second of the picture. No one presents the war on screen in that way except the British film industry – slightly cosy with everyone cycling down cobbled streets with lovely hairdos.

It’s also relatively low budget (qualifying it for inclusion in the British Independent Film Awards), which is noticeable in the few action scene; bombs dropping over England and a few sorry-looking tanks are all you get. The rest of the war is represented using archive footage from newsreels to give the audience some context – a classic ‘we have no money for war scenes’ technique. Every bit of that tiny budget has however been spent on a bundle of lovely tank tops and cardigans for that authentic 1940s flavour.

I don’t know why I’m being mean, I actually really enjoyed this film and its focus on the quite difficult human interaction between Turing and his team. This character-driven approach is something British films do so well and the cast includes some of our best theatre actors. As the film opens, Rory Kinnear, an Iago worth rooting for at the National last year, is the 1950s Manchester bobby who investigates Turing’s past only to find empty files and begins to suspect he may have been a spy in the war. Back we go to 1941 and see Turing’s team at work – well we don’t see them work, just stand around in those nice tank tops – trying to break the German Enigma code. Initially the team is led by chess genius Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) who oozes professional resentment, while his hostility to Turing’s odd manner almost gets our hero sacked. Goode makes him likeable though; good looking, charismatic, suave and a hit with the ladies – so not like any mathematician I’ve ever met.

Another theatrical luminary, Mark Strong, plays the head of MI6. Fresh from his breath-taking performance as Eddie Carbone in this year’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, Strong has a relatively small but memorable role as the spymaster as keen to deceive his own government as the enemy. Charles Dance is also on scary form as Commander Denniston who reluctantly recruits Turing and then spends the rest of the film trying to fire him. Dance is in Tywin Lannister mode so is threateningly good value.

Cumberbatch is the heart of this film and it is surprising to think that he’s hardly headlined a movie before. He’s been the villain and had major supporting roles but in film his leading man experience is slight. On TV and in the theatre however it is extensive including major stage roles in Frankenstein (2011) and a pre-Sherlock (and therefore pre-hysterical fame) After the Dance at the National in 2010 in which he was marvellous. There is no question of course that he easily carries this film with a complex and somewhat emotional portrayal of Turing. He’s not depicted as an inevitable hero, at times he’s not very nice at all and seems to have difficulty with social convention, although his very literal approach is successfully used for comic effect throughout. It’s a very interesting performance which is both confident and fragile at the same time, becoming particularly affecting during his hormone treatment in the 50s. Comparisons with Sherlock are sadly everywhere given both characters have traits in common, but it’s misleading to suggest the performances are anything alike and at no point do you feel you’re watching Sherlock in World War II – Cumberbatch is far too good an actor to fall into that trap and the emotional elements of his Turing make it quite distinct.

Comparisons are perhaps more appropriate with Enigma, the Robert Harris thriller with Dougray Scott from 2002. Jeremy Northam’s fantastic chief spy aside, The Imitation Game is a far better representation of Bletchley Park, which without the melodramatic spy hunt and silly love story, gives a more nuanced insight into the consequence of the code-breakers achievement. Far from the simplistic idea of breaking Enigma winning the war, instead we see that they can’t really use it or the Germans will cotton-on and change the whole thing. For 2 years then, they had to carefully select which attacks they would prevent whilst allowing men to die every day elsewhere, and all to protect their ability to read German messages. Even when the war ended the world still needed to believe that Enigma hadn’t been broken so Britain would have the advantage should it be used in another war. It’s a fascinating aspect of this film and one that throws up many questions about the morality and ambiguity of conflict strategy.

The film isn’t perfect however, and in addition to the cosiness I mentioned earlier, there’s also a missed opportunity with John Cairncross a member of Hut 8 whose full name is barely mentioned until the end. Cairncross was allegedly the fifth man in the famous Cambridge Five spy ring that throughout the war betrayed secrets to Russia. Although he was not close to Burgess, Blunt, Philby and MacClean their betrayal is still infamous today, so Cairncross’s appearance is rather underplayed in this film. I could also have done without the childhood flashbacks, although well-acted, they just seemed a bit cliché and only serve to tell us that Turing was always good at crosswords and socially on the edge. You might also notice that I haven’t mentioned Keira Knightley…well she just does her best Keira Knightley impression so your enjoyment of her performance depends on how you feel about that.

This film is going to be popular if only for its lead actor’s current appeal, so come Friday the cinemas will be packed with people desperate to see it, and they won’t be too disappointed. It may not take any risks in its intellectual presentation of the war years, but looking at Turing’s achievements from the perspective of his shocking treatment later is one that gives you plenty to think about. It also offers a more complex idea of what war means that many such films, when doing the right thing and making the right decision are by no means the same. Although it is packed with star performances, it is very much Cumberbatch’s film, setting a high bar for the first of this winter’s scientist biopics. We’ll see in a few weeks whether Redmayne can match him.

The Imitation Game was previewed at the BFI Southbank and London Film Festival. It opens nationwide on Friday 14 November.


A View from the Bridge – Young Vic

I should start by saying that this is the best production I’ve seen so far this year but I wasn’t expecting it to be. I’ve only experience one other Arthur Miller play before, an A-Level Theatre Studies visit to The Crucible showing in Canterbury, which was one of the most tedious evenings I have ever spent and several of my classmates fell asleep. So The Crucible and The Doll’s House are probably the only two plays that I will never see again – I appreciate they are much loved, but you could not pay me enough. The Young Vic’s version of A View From the Bridge however is an astounding piece of theatre.

Eddie Carbone lives with his wife Beatrice and their orphaned niece Catherine in a small Italian-American community close to the Brooklyn Bridge in 1950s New York. In the opening scenes we see the strong bond between the 17-year-old Catherine and her uncle but their happiness is disrupted by the arrival of Italian immigrant brother Marco and Rodolpho who have entered the US illegally to work in the area. As Catherine and Rodolpho grow closer, Eddie’s possessive love for her begins to infect the family, leading to a terrible betrayal with shattering consequences.

This is a true Shakespearian-style tragedy – a protagonist with a fatal flaw which, unrecognised by him, leads to his eventual destruction. The decision to run the play straight through with no interval adds to this sense of entrapment and gives a compelling drive to the events before you. Mark Strong is amazing as the troubled Eddie, initially a respected member of the community whose unwillingness to allow his niece her freedom becomes an obsessive compulsion to save her from a man he sees as ‘not right’. He dreams she will have a better life, perhaps across the bridge in Manhattan. Everyone around him sees his love for her has become corrupted and inappropriate, but he cannot admit this to himself. Simultaneously, Eddie is a very macho figure, a hard-working man, respected and keen to display his masculine traits in impromptu bouts of boxing and belief in ‘respect’.  Strong’s performance brilliantly captures these multiple sides to Eddie, all with an intensity that is utterly gripping – the overt manliness, the need for control and the protective emotional fixation with Catherine. It is a remarkable performance which makes the conclusion all the more devastating.

There is not a weak link in the rest of the cast either. Nicola Walker brings a real sadness to Eddie’s wife Beatrice who powerlessly and resignedly observes the changing relationship of her husband and niece. She keeps the family together, turning a blind eye until it must be confronted. Phoebe Fox’s Catherine has to grow-up in front of the audience and watching her childlike idolatry of Eddie curdle into confusion and revulsion was impressive. The Italian brothers and Eddie’s lawyer friend, who acts as the Chorus are also excellent, with the latter becoming more dishevelled as the play goes on emphasising the incurable decay at the heart of the family.

Significant praise must also go to the director Ivo van Hove and the design team for some extremely bold decisions that enhance the tragic story. The set is an empty black box and the top lifts up for us to see the caged characters trapped in their world. They all hope for better lives but none of them will escape this setting. Throughout we get a subtle mixture of musical styles from melancholic choral works to tapped beats that ratchet-up the confrontational tension. The final scene is a masterstroke which I won’t spoil for you, but it is wholly shocking and a little bit awe-inspiring in its daring.

Critics often use the word ‘powerful’ to describe intensely dramatic theatre, but here the adjective assumes its full meaning. The drama in this breath-taking production thumps into you and when you’re down kicks you a few more times, but it’s worth it. The respectful silence that followed the curtain going down was followed by resounding applause and a near entire audience on its feet. You will be profoundly moved and emotionally wrought at the end, knowing you have experienced a very special piece of theatre. My perfect-view ticket only cost £10 but delivered many many times its value. I may never want to see The Crucible again but A View from the Bridge will stick in the memory for a very long time.

A View From the Bridge is at the Young Vic until 26 May. The show is understandably sold out but £5 standing tickets and day seats are available from the box office.


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