Friday, April 09, 2021

'Romeo and Juliet' by William Shakespeare

9 April 2021

Regular readers will know that Simon Godwin is one of my favourite theatre directors (see, for example, my review of his National Theatre production of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ in December 2018). His latest show is an innovative take on ‘Romeo and Juliet’: when his planned National Theatre production of the play wasn’t able to go ahead because of the national lockdown he filmed the cast in the empty theatre to create a hybrid which is part-theatre and part-film. It starts with the feel of a first read-through on an empty stage but soon takes you into the world of the young Montagues and Capulets through close-ups, whispered voice-overs and dreamlike sequences. It also ruthlessly condenses  “the two hours' traffic of our stage” into a speedy 90 minutes, even sacrificing some of the most famous lines to keep the plot moving. It’s effective and engrossing. Like Erica Whyman’s great Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play (reviewed here in May 2018) a very young cast make both the star-crossed lovers and the gang warfare all too believable. Josh O'Connor and Jessie Buckley are a very convincing Romeo and Juliet and the production is incredibly passionate - in both the love and the violence. There is a strong supporting cast, including Adrian Lester, Tamsin Greig and Lucian Msamati. But the show belongs to the young lovers.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

'The Picture of Dorian Gray' by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett

31 March 2021

On Saturday we watched Henry Filloux-Bennett’s online theatre adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, co-produced by The Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd. This inventive example of webcam theatre took a very similar approach to the same team’s production of 'What a Carve Up!' by Jonathan Coe (reviewed here in November 2020). Updating Wilde’s story to the present day, and deliberately setting it during the Coronavirus pandemic, allows the company to include several well-known actors (Stephen Fry, Russell Tovey etc) who only have to appear on the end of a video call. The heavy lifting is done by Fionn Whitehead as Dorian Gray with Joanna Lumley, Emma McDonald and Alfred Enoch (who was also in ‘What a Carve Up!’) who are each filmed in separate locations. Henry Filloux-Bennett’s neat conceit is that Dorian Gray is a vlogger who is offered a filter that will keep his online appearance forever young and beautiful while he ages off-camera. The production is visually impressive and makes the various YouTube and Instagram videos believable. But, where ‘What a Carve Up!’ tried to cram too much into a short drama, making it hard to follow if you were not already familiar with the novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ felt a bit short of plot. There’s also a little too much swearing and overpowering background music for me. It’s another interesting example of the developing art of online theatre but didn’t completely hold my attention.

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Thursday, March 25, 2021

'The Searcher' by Tana French

25 March 2021

After thoroughly enjoying Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels (all 6 books reviewed here between May 2016 and April 2018) I was a bit disappointed by her first completely self-contained novel ‘The Wych Elm’ (reviewed here in April 2020). The new Tana French novel ‘The Searcher’ (which I have been reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Roger Clark) is another stand-alone story, but with quite a different feel. A former Chicago PD detective has settled in a small rural community in the West of Ireland where he is renovating an old cottage. This is a slow, gentle tale as Cal starts to get to know his neighbours and adjusts to the Irish way of life. But surely a novelist known for her crime stories hasn’t made her protagonist a detective unless there is going to be a mystery to solve? Compared to ‘The Wych Elm’, ‘The Searcher’ is much less dramatic – and much better for it. The inevitable crime investigation reveals itself gradually and naturally as Cal is reluctantly drawn into the hunt for a missing person. As always, Tana French writes beautifully and conjures up the place and its characters very believably. ‘The Searcher’ is crime fiction but, as its title hints, this is really an Irish Western.


Friday, March 19, 2021


19 March 2021

Over the past year live theatre has had to move online. It has been great to watch recordings of a range of stage productions during lockdown, but it has been particularly interesting to see theatre companies starting to explore the potential of streaming video in innovative ways – such as Henry Filloux-Bennett’s online theatre adaptation of Jonathan Coe’s novel ‘What a Carve Up’ (reviewed here in November 2020). The Royal Shakespeare has been piloting the use of digital technology in theatre for some years. Greg Doran’s 2016 production of ‘The Tempest’, in collaboration with Intel and in association with the Imaginarium Studios (reviewed here in November 2016), featured a digital avatar of Ariel, driven by live motion-capture from the body of the actor Mark Quartley, allowing him to appear simultaneously on stage and projected onto a series of moving curtains. Last Sunday we watched the new RSC online production ‘Dream’, directed by Robin McNicholas. ‘Dream’ uses live motion capture to bring the fairies and sprites of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to life. We saw the actors entering a purpose-built studio in Portsmouth Guildhall before seeing their digital projections interacting in an animated dreamscape. The resulting 30-minute performance was beautiful, with some stunning movement (directed by Sarah Perry). But watching it on screen it was hard to see what it gained from being a live motion capture performance: I found myself just thinking of it as an animated film. It’s an interesting addition to the ongoing debate about the definition of ‘theatre’ at a time when almost everything is viewed on a screen. ‘Dream’ is a high quality production (with music by Esa-Pekka Salonen) but it is obviously an experimental piece, demonstrating the potential offered by technology. You can book free tickets for future live performances of ‘Dream’ at:

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Friday, March 12, 2021

'The Great'

12 March 2021

We live in a golden age of television drama but my new favourite is ‘The Great’ – Tony McNamara’s irreverent take on the story of Catherine the Great (available to stream on All4). The series starts with the teenage Catherine travelling from Germany to marry the Russian Emperor Peter. But this version of history is, as the show’s subtitle constantly reminds us, “an occasionally true story”. ‘The Great’ is very dark comedy – incredibly violent, crude and sweary. It’s like a cross between Yorgos Lanthimos’ film ‘The Favourite’ (starring Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, reviewed here in January 2019), Armando Iannucci’s film ‘The Death of Stalin’ and Noah Hawley’s ‘Fargo’ (reviewed here in October 2017). The first series is maybe a couple of episodes too long and could do with a few more sub-plots, but it builds a brilliant group of grotesque but likeable characters, played by a fantastic cast. Elle Fanning is naive, idealistic, determined and ruthless as Catherine, and Nicholas Hoult makes Peter a true monster who gradually becomes more sympathetic. Phoebe Fox, who we last saw as an excellent Ophelia in Simon Godwin’s National Theatre production of ‘Twelfth Night’ (reviewed here in April 2017), is wonderful as Marial, Catherine’s cynical maid. Adam Godley is a menacing presence as the scheming Archbishop (‘Archie’) and Sacha Dhawan is Count Orlo who clearly believes himself to be the only sane man in the Palace. I loved Belinda Bromilow’s scatty Aunt Elizabeth with her trained troupe of butterflies. But Douglas Hodge steals the show as Velementov – the drunken General in charge of the Russian army – demonstrating some fantastic slapstick skills and obviously having a ball. ‘The Great’ will not be to everyone’s taste: the laugh-out-loud moments are matched by as many look-away acts of violence. But I’m really looking forward to season 2.

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Thursday, March 04, 2021

'The Royal Chase' by Nation Beat

4 March 2021

I’ve written here before about my love of New Orleans brass bands, such as the excellent Hot 8 Brass Band (reviewed here in January 2013) and Minor Mishap Marching Band, Rebirth Brass Band, Youngblood Brass Band and Galactic (reviewed here in February 2019) – all of which featured in the third season of the ‘Fargo’ TV series (reviewed here in October 2017). Very long-time readers may also remember my interest in forró – the high-tempo, rapid-fire dance music from the North East of Brazil. I reviewed a concert of forró music by the legendary Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil at the Royal Festival Hall in July 2010 and the album ‘Light a Candle’ by New York-based Brazilian ex-pats Forró in the Dark in January 2010. So this week I was naturally delighted to discover ‘The Royal Chase’ by Nation Beat – a new album of brass and percussion tunes which bring together New Orleans jazz and Brazilian forró. Nation Beat’s Scott Kettner says “I wanted to reimagine the classic forró songs from Brazil as vehicles for improvisation in a funky brass band format.” He describes the result as “Forró, Funk, Brass ’n’ Sass!” The album is a nice mix of styles and moods, beautifully performed and always catchy. Here’s a flavour:

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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Italian Cookery Workshop by Carmela Sereno Hayes

25 February 2021

Last Saturday I took part in my first Zoom cookery class. Northampton Museum & Art Gallery has organised a series of three cookery workshops with the Italian cook and author Carmela Sereno Hayes. About a dozen of us gathered on Zoom on Saturday morning for the first session, on pasta, soups and sauces. We had been sent three recipes in advance so we could buy the necessary ingredients and have everything ready to cook along with Carmela. I set up my laptop in the kitchen so I could watch the screen while cooking. A lot of the time I was listening more than watching but it worked well. It felt like a bit like a TV cookery programme but with the opportunity to ask questions throughout. And it was good to be making the same recipes together in real time – so when Carmela showed us that the onions should be nice and soft by now we could see that ours were too. It was also nice to be learning the techniques in the familiarity of your own kitchen – making it more likely that I might be able to re-create these meals on my own afterwards. We made pasta e fagioli – a hearty pasta and bean soup – as well as spaghetti carbonara and a red pepper and ricotta pasta sauce. It was great fun and all three dishes were delicious: I will definitely be making them again. More details at: