Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Theatre Review - Saxon Court, The Little, Southwark Playhouse

Nestled in the smaller studio space of the already bijou Southwark Playhouse is an intimate and familiar office setting. It's Saxon Court, a recruitment agency that's struggling in the recession, and things are just about to get worse at the Christmas party.

New writing is to be encouraged at every stage, so kudos to Made by Brick for mounting this, playwright Daniel Anderson's professional debut. On the face of it we have some regular office characters, and in this respect it's hard to compete with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's take on the office mainstays - the blonde receptionist, the comedian, the new boy, the bullying boss. But what's different here is the psychological damage that these people are suffering internally.

It will come as no surprise that the OTT displays of bravado are just masking the real feelings beneath the surface, be they insecurities around looks, confidence or unrequited love. At the most superficial level you can judge the characters by their risqué banter, but it's all about trying to fit in, to find a place in the ecosystem and to hold on to your job when the bottom has just fallen out of the market (and that's not the the only bottom you'll see).

Debra Baker is on top form as the formidable Donna. She rules the roost and can fire whoever she wants. Whether she's bullying or intimidating her subordinates, or trying to tread water as her business spirals down the plug hole, she's the alpha female, with just the occasional splash of the milk of human kindness coming through.

Adam Brown is also of note as Mervyn, accepting his role as one of life's victims - whether being ordered to clean up vomit or stick his arm down the loo. His ongoing references to his estranged stepchild are nicely nuanced as he too desperately tries to hold onto the thing that mattered most to him. Elsewhere, Alice Franklin's Tash hides behind her chest implants, John Pickard's louche Joey has trouble at home and Scott Hazell's Noel desperately wants to amount to something, while clearly bring a square peg in a round hole. As for Sophie Ellerby's Nat - well, she has a secret of her own.

The comedy turns to drama in the blink of an eye, and it's telling that while some audience members were hooting at the office party hijinks, others were being appalled at the extremity of the humiliation. We all know these people, we even work with them. Heck, we ARE these people, though we're loathe to admit it. Andersen's crucible is a festive melting pot of The Office, Mike Leigh and Glengarry Glen Ross. It's raw, unsettling and holds a mirror to our darker selves. A welcome alternative to the panto, you just might not want to play 'Pass the balloon' again in a hurry.

Theatre review: Made in Dagenham the Musical - Adelphi Theatre, London - 4 stars

It's not often that I see musicals based on popular films - a lot of them are 'jukebox musicals', hitting the stage with a ready-made songbook, while others just seem to be an excuse to exhume a previously popular box office hit - step forward Ghost, Dirty Dancing, Sister Act, The Bodyguard, The Full Monty, etc. This one looked different - it was a musical version of a fairly recent movie which, while it did ok, hardly set the cinema tills ringing. So why exactly I did I decide to give Made in Dagenham a try? Let's take a look:

1. David Arnold - I love the James Bond composer's film work and having interviewed him a couple of times I've always found him to be great company and a man with a great grasp of music in all forms. At his recent concert he demo'd a song and I really liked it.

2. Richard Bean - As with so many others, I adored his One Man, Two Guv'nors, his hysterical comedy farce, and also enjoyed his satire Great Britain, which I caught at its original Billie Piper-led production at the National Theatre. 

3. Rupert Goold - A director who has never failed to impress with his bold direction and ability to find something new when you think there's nothing left to say. His RSC The Tempest and Chichester Festival Macbeth were my wake-up call to his work, and I've continued to be wowed by his RSC Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. Most recently his musical production of American Psycho at the Almeida took my breath away - if you can turn THAT into a successful musical, you can surely perform some alchemy on ANY subject.

4. Gemma Arterton - Gemma has gone from St Trinian's poster girl in the franchise's reboot to Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, to immortal vampire in Byzantium. Elsewhere, bold choices like The Disappearance of Alice Creed and graphic novel adaptation Tamara Drew have shown great range. The less said about Hansel and Gretel the better, because her turn as the eponymous The Duchess of Malfi at Shakespeare's Globe proved beyond doubt that the lady had major stage presence.

So, enough of the justification for going, how was it? As the standing ovation and cheers at the end demonstrated, the crowd lapped it up and the titular anthem was being hummed as the audience descended the stairs from the Dress Circle. While I tend to steer clear from 'feel good' as a description - it's often faint praise - the show does take a significant political milestone (pay equality for women) and builds an uplifting journey from oppression to victory (that's not really a spoiler).  

The stage lights up whenever its star is in the spotlight, which is most of the time. Gemma belts out Richard Thomas' clever lyrics with a sassy verve and a clarity that lets you hear every word - you really want to spend time with this girl. She's ably supported by her fellow factory workers, who are each given their own USPs (sweaty, forgetful, dreamer, brassy blonde) to help differentiate their roles.

The kinetic, stylised set is great, with giant sheets of Airfix car parts swooping down and across from the wings and a giant clock face from the inside of Big Ben. Even a Cortina hits the stage in one of the highlights - a psychedelic car advert launch with Austin Powers-style dancers and dancing. Steve Furst has great fun as stereotype Yank Tooley in the Act II opener which extols the virtues of the USA while sneering why Blighty is so rubbish - it's Miss Saigon's 'American Dream' with even more attitude.

As with the Police Commissioner in his Great Britain, Richard Bean has added high comedy in the form of Mark Hadfield's Harold Wilson and Sophie-Louise Dann's Barbara Castle. Their moments (Wilson's in particular) are at some points in danger of pulling you out of the drama, so farcical are their nature, but if you just roll with it, much fun can be derived from these Spitting Image caricatures.

An earthy script (it never harmed Billy Elliott), a powerful onward momentum and the desire to entertain means that Made in Dagenham delivers the goods. Like most Fords, it's not the flashiest car on the road, but is reassuringly reliable and delivers a memorable journey. Get your ticket to ride now. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

This is why I won’t be using Halfords Christchurch for my bike repairs ever again

Halfords are really convenient. They're open 7 days a week, and til 8pm most days. My local bike shop is only open six days a week but shuts before I get home. I’d rather support a local business, but unfortunately Halfords wins here.

That’s until I actually use them. I currently am waiting for a phone call to say that my bike is repaired. They've had it for two weeks. It's a simple case of replacing a set of gears wheels (not the technical term  - I leave them to do work that out).

Here's the story so far:

  • Tuesday28 October – 6pm I take in bike because chain keeps slipping. Am told that earliest they can look at it is Friday 31st. They’ll call me when they’ve looked at it.
  • Friday 31 October – No call all day
  • Saturday 1 November – I call, but phone rings and rings. No answer. I decide to call in in person. The technician isn’t in today so no-one has any idea what he has diagnosed. He’ll call me tomorrow.
  • Sunday 2 November – No call all day
  • Monday 3 November – Call shop again. I still haven't had a call. Speak to technician. Oh yes, you need some new parts to be fitted. I’ve ordered them. Should be in by the end of the week.
  • Friday 7 November – Call in again. Technician isn’t in today so I don’t know what’s going on. He’ll call you tomorrow
  • Saturday 8 November – No call all day (But then you probably guessed that didn't you)
  • Monday 10 November – Got through to technician. STILL waiting for parts. We’ll call you when it’s done.
  • Thursday 13 November – No call, no idea what’s happening

So Halfords have had my bike for two weeks now for a fairly simple repair. It's a bike that they themselves sold to me two years ago and the parts as such shouldn’t be hard to get.

I ride my bike to work every day (20-mile round trip). Luckily I’ve been able to borrow another bike but why should I have to?

I will instead go to my local bike repair shop. They might only be open for shorter hours but at least they return my calls and tell me what’s going on. They aren’t more interested in making up lots of kids' bikes for Christmas or selling me 3 for 2 inner tubes.

This isn't even the first time this has happened. I've had occasions where my chain broke on the way home but I couldn’t leave the bike there over night because their stock room was full. One time I got so fed up being ignored that I stood at the desk and RANG their switchboard so that the phone next to me would ring. They then stopped chatting among themselves to see what I wanted.

Here endeth my rant. They don't care about me. When I eventually get my bike they will try to sell me some Gold star service plan, which I will politely decline. I will explain why and say goodbye.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Doctor Who Season 8: End-of-term report

And so, just three months after Peter Capaldi met his adoring public for the first time as Doctor Who at the Deep Breath premiere in Cardiff, we've had the opportunity to enjoy his entire first season. None of this split-season nonsense - a full batch of 12 episodes to give him a run-in, and what a season it has been. Spoilers  follow.

Here's my review of the episodes in transmission order:

Deep Breath (8) - An accomplished introduction of Capaldi, and by the end we were in no doubt (if ever there was any) that we're in safe hands. The scenes of Clara in the clockwork robot's lair are very tense, as is the meeting between Clara/The Doctor in the restaurant. Great direction by Ben Wheatley, and by using THAT cameo and surrounding The Doctor with the Paternoster Gang this helped the transition. It looked and felt very different to what we were used to.  
Into the Dalek (7) - Fab Dalek spaceship action and some great battles. The inside of the Dalek itself didn't quite feel right, as evidenced by various bits of cheap tubing. Sam Anderson makes a great intro as Danny Pink (we'll be seeing more of him!)

Robot of Sherwood (5) - I love Mark Gatiss as a writer, but this one just seemed a bit inconsequential. The bickering between The Doctor and Robin soon grew very tiring, and even if Clara looked great in her flowing robe, this just didn't work for me. It could have been any Doctor playing this one and the resolution with the golden arrow just felt lazy. 

Listen (9) - Now this is more like it. Moffat doing big, creepy ideas. Addressing the monster under the bed, some timey-wimey science and a flashback to The Doctor's childhood, What's not to love?  

Time Heist (6) - Ocean's 11 in space, or sci-fi Hustle, the premise is sound and familiar, and this rates as one of those solid episodes that just sits there, filling the season's quota. Keeley Hawes is notably OTT, but The Teller is a fun monster with the ability to turn your brain to soup. The ending is just a variation on the previous season's Hide and was anyone really surprised at the identity of the mastermind behind it all?    

The Caretaker (6) - Less The Lodger/Closing Time and more like his Sarah-Jane Adventures, Gareth Roberts' Grange Hill with a robot is actually more fun that it initially promises thanks to some clever dialogue and a great performance from Ellis George as rebel school kid Courtney. Danny really comes into his own here, which helps divert you form the pretty rubbish big bad - the Skovox Blitzer

Kill the Moon (7) - Taking the show completely into the realm of fantasy (the Moon is an egg?) this boasts such huge conceits that it wins points for its cheek. Great monster, nice cool supporting performance from Hermione Norris, an allegory for abortion and The Doctor showing his ruthlessness. Wow!
Mummy on the Orient Express (8) - No-one expected this to be good, so what a treat that it not only ticked all the right boxes but also proved to be a rollicking adventure with a cool high concept idea (the clock ticks down on-screen as the monster sees you) harking back to old Who. And a great new writer in the form of Jamie Mathieson.

Flatline (8) - Proving that he's no one-trick pony, Mathieson's other script this season again confounds initial fears that it's going to be a ho-hum Earth-set filler. Instead we great some neat ideas about a 3D menace, some amazing CGI effects, comedy gold around the shrinking TARDIS and a cool hero moment at the end. Spooky and fun.

In the Forest of the Night (5) - Frank Cottrell Boyce's fairy tale about a magic forest just didn't work for me. Not enough jeopardy, some very dodgy animal CGI, a reset switch and a general lack of pace - this was the season's lop point for me. And what was it with the missing sister appearing from behind the bush at the end? WTF
Dark Water (9) - Loved this. Great pace, a fantastic reveal, a labyrinthine plot, some huge shocks and a wonderful performance from Michelle Gomez as Missy. This is what cliffhangers were invented for - a story that fully deserves its long running time.

Death in Heaven (8) - Inevitably, this cannot match the power of the first-part, mainly because the big surprises and twists have been revealed. Great set-piece on the plane and in the graveyard, though not happy about the Brigadier Cyberman. Just seemed a bit macabre. The final departure is very well done, with the double-lies of Clara and the Doctor meaning that they are both in a bad place. Really not looking forward to the Santa meets Alien Christmas special.

Average season score – 7.2

I loved Capaldi. He’s just wonderful as The Doctor. He hasn’t set a foot wrong all year. Jenna Coleman has also been given the chance to shine as Clara – right from Deep breath and up to her departure. Has this been at the expense of developing The Doctor? Maybe, but it also meant she could become more than The Impossible Girl. Kudos also to Sam Anderson as Danny Pink, the man with demons who paid the ultimate price. 

In all, a solid season with plenty of evidence that even at 51 this programme is still willing and able to take risks.