Review – No Time To Die, Northampton Filmhouse, 18th October 2021

No Time To DieAh, Mr Bond – we’ve been expecting you. For some time, as it happens; the best part of two years. Ah well, good things are worth waiting for, as I’ve said in almost every review over the last couple of months. If you are one of my wonderful loyal regular readers, gentle reader, you’ll know that I am currently undertaking a James Bond Challenge where I’ve gone back to Dr No and am working my way through the entire oeuvre. Currently I’m stuck between The Man with the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me, and I confess it’s been several months since I’ve strayed into the world of MI6. This review won’t be in the style of my usual James Bond Challenge posts, more an instant reaction to what we saw in the Northampton Filmhouse on Monday night.

James BondA retired Bond is approached by his old pal and CIA agent Felix Leiter, to help find scientist Valdo Obruchev who has been working on the Heracles project under direction of M, but has been kidnapped by SPECTRE villians. Heracles is a bioweapon containing nanobots that infect like a virus upon touch and are coded to an individual’s DNA, rendering it lethal to the target but harmless to others –  definition courtesy of Wikipedia. Spoilers abound online everywhere, so I’ll try not to add to them, apart from mentioning there are a number of villains and a number of potential Bond Girls in this film, and I have to say I did get a little confused trying to keep track of them all.

Madeleine SwannDespite the most up-to-date cinema techniques, and some fabulous gadgetry from Q – Bond’s Aston Martin has more tricks up its sleeve than the late Paul Daniels – there’s a distinctly retro feel to the film. Old colleagues and adversaries reappear. There’s a massive laboratory on a secret island that gets bombed to smithereens – where have I seen that before? There’s a pool of obviously radioactive water and anyone who falls into it dies a horrible death – that rings a bell or two as well. Bond visits the tomb of Vesper Lynd who dies in Casino Royale; and the film is bookended with verbal and musical reminders of We’ve Got All the Time in the World, the ironic accompaniment to the death of Teresa in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Above all, there is the return of Madeleine Swann, from Spectre, as Bond’s love interest, and a highly explosive and dramatic climax. All these elements (and there are probably many more) borrow from previous films. Of course, there are fresh themes too. Sexual equality in MI6 comes to the fore with the presence of new spy Nomi. Madeleine has childcare issues. But I was struck at how similar so much of the content was to so much of the content in the earlier films.

Miss MoneypennyVisually, it’s the usual treat for the senses. The car chases and motorbike scenes through the streets of Matera are absolutely brilliant – and it definitely comes across as somewhere you’d like to go for a relaxing holiday when all this has died down. Billie Eilish’s Grammy Award winning theme has been a significant commercial success in its own right, but to my ears is instantly forgettable.

PalomaA friend advised me that I shouldn’t see this film until I’d seen all the other Daniel Craig Bonds in sequence (and of those, I’ve only seen Skyfall) and, whilst that was impractical and surely a film should always stand on its own merits, I completely get what he means – there will have been many nuances that I missed. Nevertheless, it’s a very entertaining and enjoyable film – at two and three quarter hours it’s more than a tad too long – and it throws up a very complicated problem for the next Bond movie, which is promised in the most final of final reels. There are a number of very significant fatalities in this film; I’ll say no more. Woman of the hour Phoebe Waller-Bridge was apparently brought in to smarten up the script and inject more humour into it; I can only say that without her input it would have been the least humorous of any Bond film I’ve seen!

NomiDaniel Craig is, of course, superb in the role of Bond; dignified, yet crusty, totally believable as an individual with none of that basic silliness that some earlier Bond actors gave us. I’ve still only seen a dozen Bond films but I’m sure that this film shows Bond at his least suave and most gritty. This was always going to be Craig’s last outing as Bond, and he certainly does him justice. Léa Seydoux is very charming and convincing as Madeleine, getting deep down into the emotions that you don’t normally associate with a Bond movie. Lashana Lynch is excellent as the no-nonsense Nomi, struggling to manage the inevitable competition and comparison she feels when Bond comes back to work, and I loved Ana de Armas as Paloma, Felix Leiter’s CIA assistant who gets the job done with refreshing ease and breeziness.

QFrom the recurring cast of characters, Ben Whishaw has really made Q his own; so much more hands-on than the Desmond Llewelyn characterisation, Q is now a genuine nerd effortlessly masterminding massive computer systems, taking Bond through precarious procedures with detailed precision. I still haven’t quite got a grasp on Ralph Fiennes’ M – he seems like a dark, distant mysterious bloke and I can’t see how he would motivate excellence in the workplace.

SafinWhich brings us to the villain of the piece (the main villain, that is), Rami Malek’s performance as Safin, the deeply disturbed son of parents murdered by Mr White (Madeleine’s father) on Blofeld’s orders. Seeking revenge against all things SPECTRE – and from there, the rest of the world – Safin is a vengeful psychopath, and Rami Malek excellently conveys his quietly unhinged rage against everything. He’s had mixed reviews on this performance; if you’re looking for a maniacally twisted, outrageous evildoer then you might find Safin dull as ditchwater. Instead, he’s traded venom for veracity in an understated performance that gets to the heart of the character. Basically, you can’t have both.

MAll in all, a pretty good Bond movie, and one from which there’s no turning back (or there isn’t until the next one comes along). Good characterisations, great chases, and an engaging – if sometimes perplexing – storyline. I normally need to watch a Bond film three times to understand it fully, and I’m sure it will be many years before I see this again! If you’re a Bond aficionado, you’ve probably seen it already, and I’m sure you enjoyed it.

Review – Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre, 11th March 2018 – A view from the pit

Julius CaesarJulius Caesar was always one of my favourite Shakespeare plays; having read it for O level (yes, I know that ages me) it has so many passionate speeches and fascinating characters that have stayed with me all my life. But until last year I’d never seen a production; then Robert Hastie’s production at the Sheffield Crucible finally put that right. And now, like buses, here comes another one, this time directed by Nicholas Hytner at the (nearly) new Bridge Theatre adjacent to Tower Bridge.

Ben Whishaw and Michelle FairleyThey promised that the first three productions at the Bridge would each reveal the versatility of this new acting space. So far, they are true to their word. For Young Marx, Mark Thompson designed a revolving set that created a number of scenes with simple ease. Who knows how it will appear for the next production, Nightfall, which we will be seeing in May. For Julius Caesar, they’ve gutted the whole centre area to create a pit, which means you can choose either to sit in the galleries overlooking the action, or be part of it, wandering around the centre hobnobbing with the actors. And what a huge arena it turns out to be!

Julius Caesar main castI’m always a sucker for immersive staging. I think it’s because of my first ever exposure to it, when I had “promenade” tickets for the National Theatre’s Passion at the Cottesloe back in 1978. I managed to be within two feet of the moment when the late Mark McManus’ Jesus (I’ll never forget his extraordinarily piercing blue eyes) stared with equal fury and pity at Jack Shepard’s Judas, and the surge of power that came from that simple stare remains one of my all-time favourite experiences in theatre. Ever since then, I’ve always hoped for a similar experience in a promenade-type show. The nearest I’d come to it in recent years was In Your Face’s Trainspotting, which we saw in Edinburgh a few years ago.

Rock groupBut now we have this new version, and I have to say, being part of the mob is a very exciting experience! For sheer practicality, you have to check in your coats and bags before entering the auditorium but you can take in drinks and a programme – although my advice would be to keep extras to a minimum, as having to hold things becomes a bind over two hours. When you arrive in the pit, you’re suddenly in the world of a Caesar rally. Do This! read the slogans on the caps, T-shirts, badges for sale, in that modern tradition of sound bite politics, full of sound and fury signifying nothing (sorry, wrong play.) Ten minutes before the show starts, a band warms up and gives us a few rocky numbers, including Eye of the Tiger – there’s none of your hey nonny nonny here. Flavius and Marullus wade in and break up the concert, and you discover that the musicians are, in fact, Shakespeare’s First and Second Commoners, and that Mark Antony appears to be their roadie.

Sid Sagar and Rosie EdeFrom then on, the momentum builds as we see the conspirators beginning to make plans, the warning of the Ides of March, Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony’s eulogy, the battles at Philippi, and Octavius’ eventual victory. Bunny Christie’s endlessly inventive set moves up and down from the bowels of the earth, and you never know where to look next. The final part of the play brings the reality of war into sharp focus as you’re surrounded by barbed wire, the ashes of burning buildings, military vehicles and very stark murders and suicides. By the time the play has finished you are literally breathless at the excitement and stimulation of it all.

David CalderTo be fair, it’s not all fun and games in the pit. Inevitably, sometimes you will find yourself standing in Just The Wrong Place, and a whole scene will be happening hidden from your eyes because there’s an armchair in the way (tip – try not to stand at the corners of the individual moving platforms). I know that Cinna the Poet gets mauled to death by the mob (because I’ve read it) but I’ve no idea how that actually happened in this production as it takes place on ground level, and if you weren’t in the right spot, all you know is that there was a scuffle and some shouting. I know that Decius Brutus (maybe it’s Decia in this production) uses her womanly wiles to encourage Caesar to come to the Senate, but because she had her back to us, I don’t know what her expression was. However, Caesar was looking directly at us and what I do know is the he was clearly getting hot under the collar and, shall we say, restricted in the underpants.

Ben Whishaw as BrutusThe worst part of the pit experience is being regularly bellowed at by Security Officers at every scene change. “GET BACK! GET BACK! GET BACK!” or “COME FORWARD! COME FORWARD!” frequently in pitch black and with lots of pressing bodies around you. At times it doesn’t feel at all safe, and I could easily imagine a less agile person getting injured. “GET DOWN! GET DOWN! GET DOWN!” comes the cry when Caesar is shot. Fortunately I’ve lost a little weight recently; it definitely helped. Panicked by these instructions, you try to make sure that you’re standing in a safe spot, neither toppling into nor being toppled into by your fellow members of the mobile vulgus. Once you’re satisfied you’re safe, you look up at the stage area only to find the scene started ages ago and you’ve missed the first bit; and to be honest, that’s quite annoying. However, I did appreciate the fact that the security officers came on stage during the curtain call and applauded us; a nice touch, I thought. Only then did I fully accept that their hollering at me was nothing personal.

Michelle Fairley and Adjoa AndohBut for every moment you miss, you grab an unexpected golden moment. I looked directly into Casca’s cynical eyes in her early discussions with Cassius. I observed Brutus standing anxiously next to me whilst Caesar was taking his seat at the Senate, no doubt working out when would be the right time to pull out his pistol. I was given a white flower by the Soothsayer to hold at Caesar’s funeral. I was in perfect position to see the body of Caesar wheeled in, when Antony reveals the wounds caused by the conspirators. I was there when he comforted the weeping citizens; I was there when he read Caesar’s will, and I joined in the cheers of the crowd. I witnessed Brutus escaping from the battle and reaching for his bottle of hand sanitiser. The other punters may well have seen all these things from the comfort of the expensive seats; but whereas they were watching a play, I was witnessing reality.

Caesar at the SenateIt’s a superb production, energising and vitalising, capturing your imagination and driving home those themes of mob rule, manipulative oratory, superstition, and political intrigue. David Calder is brilliant as the brash Caesar; you sense he’s the man who can play the media game, who knows how to orchestrate a crowd. As he marches triumphantly through the mob he comes across as someone who has just wiped the floor with his opponents and is unstoppable in his hunger for power. A perfect combination of vain and vulnerable, he should have taken his wife’s advice and stayed home but instead he ridiculed her lily-livered approach and paid the ultimate price. At the complete opposite end of the scale, Ben Whishaw is a cerebral, calm, diligent Brutus whose life is lived at a writing desk. His every step is planned, his greatest ambition, you would think, is to be considered honourable – as Mark Antony constantly points out. He’s perfect in the role, accentuating Brutus’ controlling, respectable nature; believing that the ordinary people will respond to his address at Caesar’s funeral, he magnificently misunderstands how the power of Antony’s oratory will shape the mob’s reaction.

Ben WhishawDavid Morrissey is very arresting as Antony; from the moment he gets up on stage with the rock band, his is a performance of huge vitality and inspiration. He would make a very dangerous politician in real life because you’d believe everything he said. Michelle Fairley, taking the gender-alternative role of Cassius, is very lean and hungry in her no-nonsense, careful way; a clever combination of risk-averse and ultra risky. It’s an all-round excellent ensemble performance, with great support from Adjoa Andoh as a knowing Casca, Leila Farzad a confident Decius Brutus, Fred Fergus a willing Lucius and Mark Penfold as a creepy soothsayer.

David Morrissey with the dead CaesarA memorable and exciting production, participating from the pit gives you a uniquely different experience from merely observing from the seats. I’m really glad we decided to see the show from this perspective. Julius Caesar is on at the Bridge until 15th April.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Paddington 2, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 24th November 2017

Paddington 2It’s 9pm on a Friday. You’ve had a pre-prandial G&T, you’ve enjoyed your dinner; you want a little pre-weekend escapism and a good laugh. Bottle of Malbec and two glasses in hand, we took our seats at the plush Errol Flynn Filmhouse, along with 89 other adults and one child, bless her. You can keep your Blade Runners and your Star Wars…. Paddington 2 is just sheer joy from start to finish.

Paddington the bear himselfI should point out that we didn’t see the original Paddington film three years ago, but my guess is that you don’t have to have seen the first to be able to appreciate any subtle nuances of the second. The story is relatively slight, but bear with me (geddit?) Paddington is searching for a birthday present for his Aunt Lucy because she brought him up well and he’s a decent, kind-hearted animal. He finds the perfect item in an antiques shop – an old pop-up book of London scenes. Paddington falls in love with it. But the price! Where’s he going to get £500 from? So he vows to work for the money and save it.

BuchananSo far so good. Being a trusting and honest bear, he lets slip to Phoenix Buchanan, a narcissistic actor who opens the local carnival, that he’s saving for this book. Unbeknownst to Paddington, Buchanan is also after this book and he decides to steal it from the shop. Paddington is on the scene in no time and runs after the thief – Buchanan in disguise – to catch him. Unfortunately, Buchanan gives him the slip and it is Paddington whom the police arrest and who is sent to prison in one of the greatest legal travesties in the annals of justice. But, as it’s Paddington, everything turns out alright in the end!

Paddington the window cleanerThis is simply one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years. The blend of animation and reality is just perfect. Take the whole hairdresser shop scene as a typical example of its brilliance. When the inexperienced Paddington clings hold of the barber’s erratically over-powered electric razor for dear life, the sight of the rippling, fluttering fur caused by the vibrations brings the house down. The computer that creates Paddington definitely has a grand sense of humour.

paddington 2 palsThere’s a star-studded cast that most other film makers would die for, and a few absolutely brilliant performances. Hugh Grant camps it up out of all proportion as the despicable Buchanan, in a hilarious assortment of disguises, no greater moment than in the finale (don’t leave at the beginning of the credits, whatever you do) when he gets his chance to present a showstopper (choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, I noticed). You’ll never think of FolliesRain on the Roof in the same way again. Hugh Bonneville, as Mr Brown, is also fantastic as he blunders from situation to situation, such as when he badmouths the other prisoners whilst they can still hear him, or when he’s caught red-handed breaking and entering Buchanan’s house. Brendan Gleeson is superb as the intimidating inmate Knuckles, who, it turns out, has a heart of gold after all.

The BrownsDelightful vignettes are scattered through the film, with Jessica Hynes, Ben Miller, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, Tom Conti, Meera Syal, Richard Ayoade, Tom Davis, Eileen Atkins, Joanna Lumley and many more taking tiny roles that just keep the whole thing constantly topped-up with surprise and enjoyment. Giving the bears a voice, there are vocal contributions by Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton as Uncle Pastuzo and Aunt Lucy, and a star performance from Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington; the epitome of decorum and politeness, honesty and decency – but not without a dash of daftness and a measure of mischief. Paul King and Simon Furnaby’s screenplay is marmalade-packed with visual humour and funny lines, including some great set pieces like the barber’s scene, Paddington’s laundry mishap and the steam train chase.

Paddington in the pinkDon’t think you have to have kids to go and see and enjoy this film. It appeals to the child in all of us – and also, in part, to the naughty grown-up as well. We were still laughing about this film 48 hours later. No wonder it’s proving to be a box-office hit. This’ll come back again and again to entertain us during Christmases Future for decades to come. A pure delight!

Review – Suffragette, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 2nd November 2015

SuffragetteOne of the subjects that could really get the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s passion aroused was the Suffragette movement. She was proud that universal suffrage was introduced in the UK during her lifetime – she was 7 years old in 1928, when women finally received the same voting rights as men – and she would love to tell tales of knowing of women who had chained themselves to railings, and had huge admiration for Emily Davison, who threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby. She would have been riveted by the film Suffragette, as it starkly shows the struggles of those women to get their voices heard by committing acts of civil disobedience.

Carey MulliganPart fact, part fiction, it follows the life of Maud Watts, married with one son, working hard, long hours in a laundry sweatshop, with a bullying, advantage-taking boss, and who almost accidentally gets caught up in the suffragette movement as she works alongside some of the more active members. As she starts attending meetings, she offers to accompany her colleague Violet Miller to the House of Commons, who was to address a committee of MPs, including the Prime Minister himself, Lloyd George. But circumstances dictate that it is Maud who must give her own account of why women should get the vote – and when cabinet nevertheless decides against extending the vote, her sense of resentment increases and she becomes much more personally involved. Maud, Violet, the pharmacist Edith Ellyn, all fictional characters, as well as the real life Emily Davison, all exert what influence they can to change the law, resulting in trials, imprisonment, verbal and physical abuse from both inside and outside the penal institutions, hunger strikes, and forced feeding. Maud additionally has her private life torn apart by her actions, and the film culminates in Emily Davison’s ultimate sacrifice.

Anne Marie Duff and Carey MulliganIt’s a very strong and moving film; it’s also very dark, both literally and metaphorically. There are some scenes of brutality against the women which make difficult viewing, but as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, they are fully relevant to the film, and today’s audience shouldn’t be blind to the physical attacks the suffragettes incurred. Personally, I was very surprised at the level of antipathy and hostility expressed towards the suffragettes by the average man (and plenty of average women) on the street. You wouldn’t have thought that everyone was against them – although that’s certainly how it seems in this film. Considering that after Emily Davison’s death they announced that thousands would be lining the streets for her funeral procession, Meryl Streepyou might have expect someone to have said to Sonny Watts, “she’s alright, your wife” and not just “your wife’s a disgrace”. But then, as once again the wise Mrs C pointed out, it sometimes takes something really visible and tangible to change public opinion, like the picture of the little Syrian boy washed up on the shore seemed to wake people up to the current refugee crisis, even though he was just one of thousands. So no doubt the Derby tragedy alerted many more people to the personal sacrifices women were making.

Helena Bonham CarterThe film garners some excellent performances all round. Carey Mulligan is brillliant as Maud, growing in self-confidence throughout the film but desperate in her domestic sadness and in her battle to keep in contact with her son. Helena Bonham-Carter – herself the great-granddaughter of Asquith, the Prime Minister during much of the time when the suffragettes were campaigning – is excellent as the hard-working Edith Ellyn, hosting meetings, and fearlessly getting her hands dirty at every opportunity. Anne-Marie Duff plays Violet, a defiantly committed trouble-maker, relishing every opportunity to make a difference. There’s a very enjoyable and rather inspiring brief performance by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, appearing out of nowhere to deliver a stirring public speech and then disappearing back from whenceBen Whishaw and Carey Mulligan she came. Ben Whishaw is very good as the under-communicative Sonny, Maud’s husband; you can almost see in his controlling eyes the extent to which he will allow his wife to agitate, and the point at which she will have gone too far. There’s a strong, quiet performance by Brendan Gleeson as the Police Inspector Steed, diligent in enforcing the law but with an understated sense of the bigger picture; and a ruthless cameo by Samuel West as the reactionary politician Benedict, harbouring a draconian resentment against equality.

Brendan GleesonDramatic, powerful, dark; a very intense film that reminds us of the sacrifices made by others so that we can have the vote today. Interestingly, it is the first film ever to have scenes actually shot in the Houses of Parliament, which emphasises the still relevant importance of what the suffragettes achieved. Next time you can’t be bothered to turn up to the polling station, just remember what Maud went through.

Review – Mojo, Harold Pinter Theatre, 16th January 2014

IMG_4829Whilst Mrs Chrisparkle was jet-setting it across the States for a three hour meeting, I thought I’d take the opportunity to see Mojo at the Harold Pinter theatre (or, as I like to call it, the Comedy theatre). It was a play I quite fancied the look of but thought it would be something Mrs C wouldn’t really appreciate. With hindsight, I think I was probably right, I don’t think she would have liked it much; but then again, I don’t think I liked it much either. I should say right from the start there are a few spoilers in this blog post, so if you’re still to see the show, and don’t know what happens, please ignore paragraphs four, ten and eleven.

Rupert GrintIt’s set in a dingy Soho club in the 1950s where a rock’n’roll set from young and upcoming star Silver Johnny is guaranteed to pull in the crowds, so the club makes a lot of money. But arguments and power struggles between Mr Johnny’s manager Ezra and local gangster Sam Ross end up with one dead manager and one kidnapped star. The club is run and staffed by a bunch of London hoodlums, and basically the play is about how this “management team” copes with the aftermath.

Gentle reader, I’m a pretty seasoned theatregoer. In my lifetime I’ve seen well over a thousand plays and shows. However, in order to encapsulate the nub of the play in a brief paragraph like the one above, I had to check Wikipedia and other sites that provide a synopsis in order to get the basis of the plot. I found the writing to be so deliberately obfuscating that I spent most of the play trying to understand what was going on without ever really being sure.

Daniel MaysStructurally it’s quite old-fashioned; it preserves many of the unities of classical theatre. It all takes place on the same day, in the same location, and there’s more or less one theme – how the guys are going to cope with the situation. But as a result, particularly in the first act, so many of the important events that shape the story happen off stage, with the result that you spend all the time watching people talk about other people you don’t meet and events you don’t see. For it to work as a play, you really have to be captured by the characters on stage, what they say and how they say it, because there’s nothing dramatic to look at. It’s all very reported, very wordy – and I’m afraid I found the first act really quite boring. The second act is better, because – finally – things actually start happening on stage; and the climax is riveting, certainly helped by the technical expertise of the actors and the set, when Mr Johnny is brought on, trussed up like a chicken, suspended by his feet on an abbatoir-style pulley system; and when one of the characters gets shot, the use of stage blood is very atmospherically done.

Ben WhishawIt’s written by Jez Butterworth, an author of some distinction, and everyone raves about his play “Jerusalem”, which I haven’t seen, as I confess to being new to his work. Mojo was indeed his first play, originally produced at the Royal Court in 1995, and it feels to me very like a “first play” – the author has some interesting characters, an imagination of a couple of stunning visual set pieces, a lot of cockily bad language, and a story to tell. But I do think the story comes last here, and its sense of dramatic narrative, rather like Feargal Sharkey’s “Good Heart”, is hard to find. And when you come away and ask yourself, “what was all that about then”, sadly I don’t feel Mr Butterworth had anything particularly enlightening to say about the characters or the world they inhabited; I don’t think this play changes the world in any way. It comes; it tells its story; it goes away. It left me with no residual impact. It’s one of those occasions where it’s not the sum of its parts.

Which is of course a great shame, as those parts, that it’s not the sum of, are pretty tremendous. Ultz’s set is very evocative of a grim nightspot and its unglamorous backstage offices. Charles Balfour’s lighting is used to great effect to create differences between the general murkiness of the club’s day to day activities and the outside world. The use of music and sound similarly suggest the possibility of external activity that doesn’t permeate into the small underworld presented to us. And the all-star cast are extremely good in their roles.

Mays and Grint double actAt the heart (not that it really has one) of the play is a virtual double act between Sweets and Potts, played by Rupert Grint in his first stage role and Daniel Mays. If this really is his stage debut, all credit to Mr Grint, whose performance is a delight. Sweets is a hyper-anxious, sucking-up, wheedling little guy who you sense is only part of the gang because he provides the pills (presumably the sweets of the nickname). His funny mannerisms suggest someone who knows he is punching above his weight but has no choice but to keep punching, and his speech delivery mimics anyone who he’s trying to impress. Think a young Ian Beale from Eastenders but with amphetamines. It’s a very assured performance and, if a long-lasting glittering career wasn’t in the bag before, surely it is now.

Ben Whishaw in Silver Johnny's jacketThe other half of the double act, Daniel Mays’ Potts, is a more experienced, more wise-cracking version of Sweets, unpredictable as to whether he will fly in the face of authority or cower in its presence. With similar speech patterns to Sweets, Messrs Mays and Grint perform a veritable verbal ballet together, the two becoming interchangeable, which is at times very funny indeed. Another very assured performance, and the audience loved him, but I found the character of Potts really irritating. I didn’t really feel there was a genuine character in there, more a generic caricature of 50s London gangsterhood; think Boycie from Only Fools and Horses but without the wealth and standing.

Colin MorganAnother superb performance (you would expect nothing less) comes from Ben Whishaw (compellingly good in Peter and Alice) as Baby, a really nasty piece of work. You can’t quite put your finger on where the character’s sadism is psychotic and he can’t really do anything about it, and where it is deliberate. He has a perfectly pitched highly unnatural laugh that would really scare you if you knew someone like that in real life. Every move he makes, everything he says, could be a threat – either veiled or actively intimidating. Mr Whishaw also has this ability to make himself (and his character) blend into the background, patiently waiting to pounce; which gives Baby’s input, whenever it comes, a greater impact.

Brendan CoyleColin Morgan’s Skinny is the drudge of the gang, given the most menial tasks in the club, and is the victim of much of Baby’s more savage attention. I sensed this was the character that Jez Butterworth liked the most, as you got more of an insight into his character than anyone else – his sense of self-worth (that no one else sees), his ambition, his misplaced vanity. It’s a funny and sad performance, and his death scene is magnificent. Baby’s murder of him is essentially ludicrous anyway, and they all make the best of the comic potential of the scene – the best-written part of the play I think – but when he shakes and can’t finish his words because he’s suddenly cold and is about to die, it’s a combination of humorous and harrowing, and surprisingly moving.

Tom Rhys HarriesBrendan Coyle’s Mickey is the low-level gangster boss, with a deeply threatening authoritative nature and aspirations of grandeur. When he seethes with anger you really feel it in the auditorium. Mr Coyle is, of course, best known as that respectable valet Mr Bates in Downton Abbey, who has the seeming ability to eliminate his opponents with quiet deadliness. Mr Coyle’s Mickey is exactly how you would imagine the “Mr Hyde” aspect of Bates to be, albeit with F words. This is not a man to mess with. But his world suddenly falls apart at the end with both the destruction of his ambitious plans and the assassination of his mate, and his delicately controlled performance very effectively showed how his authority quickly ebbed away.

MojoThe final member of the cast is the underused Tom Rhys Harries (whose performances we have enjoyed twice recently, in Torch Song Trilogy and The History Boys) as Silver Johnny, preparing for his show and then returning as the suspended plaything of a deranged brain. It’s a remarkable feat of endurance for Mr Harries to spend so long upside down like that. I do hope he got medical clearance first. There’s no insight into his character offered as he’s just a commodity as far as the plot is concerned.

I feel like I have missed out on something by not enjoying this play more; it just didn’t say anything to me though, despite the best efforts of its remarkable cast. Ah well, as we were once told by a guide hoping for tips from a bus load of Australian tourists, not every day is a Sunday.

not looking happy togetherPS. A full house gave the show massive whoops and cheers at the end from what sounded like young adoring female fans. The play itself is not one of those feelgood experiences that make you naturally want to explode with vocal joy. I’m guess they were specifically aimed at Mr Grint; maybe a planned campaign of “Whoops for Rupert”. Would that be “Roops”?

PPS. Despite the audience’s ecstatic reception, it was a very downbeat curtain call from the cast. Only Messrs Whishaw and Mays seemed to make any real eye contact with the audience, Mr Grint looked uncomfortable being there, and Mr Coyle looked like he would have rather been anywhere else. I guess that final scene must have taken it out of him.

Review – Peter and Alice, Noel Coward Theatre, 25th May 2013

Peter and AliceA bit late in the day to get round to seeing the second in the Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward (I’m still calling it the Albery) Theatre, but travel, Eurovision and other commitments prevented our earlier attendance. Starring Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, both of whom were in Skyfall, and written by John Logan, who wrote the aforementioned film and is apparently writing the next two James Bond screenplays, one might expect an evening of espionage and gadgetry, femmes fatales and martinis. No. This is a very thoughtful and imaginative exploration of what it must be like to be the real person on whom a celebrated fictitious person is based.

Judi DenchDame Judi plays Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the 80 year old Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, as she meets Ben Whishaw’s 35 year old Peter Llewelyn Davies, the inspiration for J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, at a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. This apparently really happened. Whilst both have had their fair share of hardships and bereavements, Alice is a relatively stable character who knows that the fictitious Alice has actually been quite useful in her life; whereas Peter is tormented by his alter ego’s continual childhood happiness against the backdrop of him and his brothers being handed over by his dying father to “Uncle Jim” and his rather unorthodox guardianship. Not so much in loco parentis, more in loco mentis tortoris.

Ben WhishawPeter and Alice meet in a wholly unglamorous functional backroom at the exhibition. But once they start challenging each other on their relationships with their famous writers, the backroom is replaced with colourful abstract scenery reflecting the (allegedly) carefree days of childhood. The kindly or otherwise figures of Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie emerge in the memories of the two main characters and we see them interact and watch how the writers play very formative influences in their childhoods. Once they have come to life, they are followed by the fictitious Alice and Peter Pan who also comment on the relationships, and make a stark contrast with their older real life versions.

Nicholas FarrellWhat works so well is the development from the play being about Mr Davies and Mrs Hargreaves, and their reflections on the writers and characters, to the emergence of Peter Pan and Alice, taking over the stage, criticising their real life counterparts, revealing the sad and bad aspects of their personalities – and finally having the last words on their subjects. The real people live and die; the literary creations endure forever. The play has some interesting observations about the nature of reality and fiction, family relationships, mental stability and the fine line between care and abuse by an older friend or relative. And it’s all really beautifully written.

Derek RiddellThere is a distinctly sinister undertone throughout the play regarding the attentions of the Rev Dodgson and Uncle Jim towards their younger charges; whilst nothing is ever overtly stated or portrayed, you sense at any time something dreadful might happen to the youngsters that would merit the accusation of paedophilia. Nothing does; but it hangs in the air like a veritable sword of Damocles.

Ruby BentallRegular readers might know that I’m not a fan of the “play without an interval”; unless it is combined with another one-act play, either side of an interval. However, this is one of the cases where I can see precisely why an interval would be undesirable; there’s no obvious cliff-hanger moment halfway through that would come at an appropriate time, and the gently unsettling atmosphere that gets built up during the course of the play could get lost. At about 85 minutes it’s not so long that you desperately need the loo before it’s finished; but I do always get concerned at the revenue loss sustained by the theatre when they don’t sell drinks and ice-cream during the interval. I know, that’s not really for me to worry about.

Olly AlexanderIt’s an eloquently written play and is performed with all the skill and honesty that you would expect. I reckon 85% of the full house were there just to see Dame Judi – judging by the speed and fervour of the standing ovation when she came on for her second curtain call. They won’t have been disappointed. From the moment she appears on stage, her attention to detail, her technical ability, and her complete immersion in the character are all immaculate and astounding. When she is reunited with the Rev Dodgson (a thoroughly believable, slightly Gladstonian Nicholas Farrell), she changes instantly from old woman to little girl, and it’s a delight. She was also excellent coping with her shame when fictitious Alice, a suitably attitudinal Ruby Bentall, starts delivering a few home truths.

Stefano BraschiBen Whishaw was also compelling as the anguished Peter, with nervous mannerisms and a kicked puppy look when manipulated and subjugated by the odiously pleasant J M Barrie, played with quiet ruthlessness by Derek Riddell. It was a really thoughtful and moving performance. Also excellent was Olly Alexander as Peter Pan, encompassing all the childhood heroism of his character, expressing great excitement in contemplating his adventures, but not holding back from turning on his real life counterpart when his defences are down. The final member of the cast is Stefano Braschi who brings Peter’s tragic brother Michael to life and also does a wickedly funny silly-arse routine as Alice’s suitor Reggie. It’s a splendid production, very moving, beautifully put together and superbly well acted. You do come away from it feeling rather sad; well, we did. If it wasn’t about to close in a few days time, I’d say you should book now!

Grumpy audience update: a while ago I remarked on how often members of the audience grump at you if you need to squeeze past them to get to your seat. There was a splendid example of this at the Saturday matinee we attended. There were a few people we had to inconvenience in order to find our seats but I really didn’t appreciate it when I got told to my face “NOT AGAIN!!” by a grumpy old woman. “Can you get past if I do that”, she moaned, repositioning her leg a tiny distance from where she had previously stretched it out. “I’ll try,” I responded, a little sourly, and then made as much effort to linger and balance precariously over her lap in the process. Some people! Honestly!