Radio 4’s Craven: how drama takes on cyberbullying

Friends and followers will know that I’m a long-time fan of audio drama, be it on radio (most often Radio 4) or via other commercial outlets, such as Big Finish.1

In recent years, the regular slots that Radio 4 has for dramas has accepted more and more returning series – one of the reasons why those strands were renamed two years ago – the Afternoon Play becoming the Afternoon Drama, and so on. One of my favourite regular schedule slots is the 15 Minute Drama, short serials taking up the last quarter of Woman’s Hour from Monday to Fridays and which are now, as a matter of course, repeated in the evening and with an omnibus on Saturdays at 12pm on sister digital station Radio 4 Extra.

And in that slot, one of my favourite returning serials is Craven, a crime drama starring Maxine Peake as DCI Sue Craven, heading up a murder investigation team including Michael Obiora (Hotel Babylon, Casualty) and David Crellin (Emmerdale, The Cops). While DCI Craven herself had a tendency to sound unremittingly grim in the first few episodes, by its just-completed fifth series2 it’s settled into an analysis of grim (and sometimes topical) murder cases by a team that has settled into a pattern of occasionally prickly professional relationships that are nevertheless imbued with mutual respect.

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Review: Secret Theatre, The Rag Yard, London E1

Note: Because of this play’s supposed “secret” nature, I should warn that this review talks about specifics of the play, including its title and characters. I also explain why, but if you want to see a spoiler-free review you should go elsewhere.

The Lyric Hammersmith has been running a series of “secret theatre” projects recently – encouraging people to book tickets without knowing what they’ll be seeing, and as a result come to a piece with little to no preconceptions built up in their heads.

This Secret Theatre project is not like that. It was, I was told by the PR, more modelling itself on Secret Cinema. This series shows movies in suitably appropriate surroundings, but also with a deeply immersive experience that is just as entertaining, if not more so, than the film itself. So The Shawshank Redemption is presented in an old prison, Bugsy Malone in a speakeasy, Blade Runner in a grimy, industrial near-future where oriental noodle bars rub shoulders with security agents scanning all visitors for signs of replicant behaviour.

So we were expecting a similarly immersive experience for this piece, and notifications of dress codes and secret identities fed into this.

What we got instead was a straightforward play. A truly immersive piece needs to do more than say, “Oh, this piece about the aftermath of a botched heist is set in a warehouse, so let’s stage it in a warehouse”. Especially when that warehouse already hosts events, drama classes and art exhibitions, and the play itself is staged so conventionally.

So the failed promise of an immersive experience was a huge let-down. And that was a shame, because the play itself – an adaptation of a justly popular film – has the potential to be a great stage piece. As presented here, it’s still some way from that – but I think the false promise of an immersive experience will cloud the audience’s judgement of what this show has the potential to be.

And it’s all the more bizarre that the “secret theatre” concept also robs this production of its biggest appeal. I’m not going to beat about the bush any longer: if you go to this play knowing what it is, if you read about this play knowing what it is, it’ll be better for everybody.

Because I, for one, would bite someone’s hand off if they offered me the opportunity to see a stage adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s first feature film, Reservoir Dogs.

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Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre (and touring)

Editor’s Rating
Rating

I must admit, the original MGM film version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was never among my favourites of the era. That was probably because I was never particularly taken with Westerns, and back then all the singing and dancing in the world couldn’t counteract all that gingham.

Older and wiser (and less Western averse), I found the current touring production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a delight. As an adult, there are story points that one should certainly feel dubious about: it’s basically about a group of uncultured heathen brothers who decide to abduct the women they want to marry – and whose crime is mitigated by the women collectively and conveniently falling in love with their abductors. It’s only down to the no-nonsense attitude of eldest brother Adam’s new wife Millie that the brothers have any redeeming qualities at all, as her place as a surrogate mother for the brood civilises them so that they can, in effect, rejoin society.

You could spend ages discussing the sociopolitical aspects of the story. Or, you could sit back and enjoy a riot of dance and song that can’t help but lift the spirits. Leading the cast as Millie is Helena Blackman – a friend who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for several years, including working on Rodgers and Hammerstein in London together. Helena’s voice is perfectly suited to this era of musical, her soprano belt coming to the fore several times throughout. She also lends a calm determination to Millie, balancing the character’s independence and spirit with a genuine affection for her new husband and his unruly brothers.

In contrast, her fellow lead, Sam Attwater as Adam, has rather less opportunity for comedy or character, although he makes excellent use of what he’s given. Vocally, he has a much more contemporary vocal style – but whereas this might work against him in a staging of a 1950s musical, the stage production includes a number of additional songs which themselves feel more modern in style, and so the casting feels particularly astute.

However good Blackman and Attwater’s singing and acting, though, it will be the dancing for which audiences will remember this show. The town dance number that forms the climax of Act I in particular, which sees the Pontipee brothers compete in a game of choreographed one-upmanship with their competitors for the ladies’ hands, is that rarity in modern musical theatre: a large group number which is visually thrilling, technically daring, and yet which also manages to propel the storytelling.

With a large ensemble cast performing so well, this is the sort of show that demonstrates the virtues of touring theatre. And for a show that’s set in the Oregon winter, it brings an awful lot of sunshine to Aylesbury Vale.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre (and touring)4Scott Matthewman2013-10-29 09:17:19I must admit, the original MGM film version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was never among my favourites of the era. That was probably because I w…

Thriller: Live – 2,000th performance

Last night, Steve and I went to the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue to see Thriller: Live, which was celebrating the show’s 2000th West End performance.

It was not my first visit – as with my others, we were guests of the show’s PR company – but it was Steve’s. It’s always interesting to revisit a show with someone seeing it for the first time; all the more so with one that traverses Jackson’s career from the early 1970s onwards when your friend is 16 years younger than you, and for whom anything before Bad is a historical document rather than the soundtrack to one’s childhood.

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Strictly Come Dancing: Why the new trailer is so good

People who know me – and many who don’t – know that I’m a big Strictly fan. In the battle of the Saturday night TV voting shows, I’m far more likely to be watching Brucie than Dermot. When we started TV Today at The Stage, the weekly blogs were more to do with encouraging the celebration of dance, which at that time was under-served on television. The notion of celebrity involvement was tolerated rather than embraced, I’d say – but my summaries always tried to look dispassionately at how well the amateur dancers were learning (or not), as a direct response to blogs and message boards which cultivated fandoms around the famous participants.

After a few years, I had to give up the weekly summaries as they just took far too long to put together. But I’ve never stopped loving the show, have been lucky enough to be in the studio once or twice, and have seen many of the live stage shows which have capitalised on the BBC show’s popularity, whether drectly under the Strictly banner or by virtue of the programme’s pro dancers gaining their own celebrity status.

And that’s at the heart of the new teaser trailer’s genius. In previous years, we’ve been shown coy shots of the celebrities – whose head is that the back of? Whose ankle? Whose midriff, improbably squeezed into a sequinned bodice?

This time round, the trailer team have focussed on the dancers. The clever visuals, which render each dancer’s celebrity partner invisible, highlights that we don’t yet know the full roster of amateurs for this year’s series. But the emphasis is on dance – professional dance at that. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of talent. And yet, it’s still a celebrity-laden trail, because one of the strengths of Strictly is that it brings professional dancers into the spotlight and and makes them nationally recognised figures.

Compare that with the X Factor, whose pre-series publicity always tends to emphasise the bitchiness of the judges, the toe-curling awfulness of the preliminary audition rounds.

I know which one I’ll be watching this autumn.

Reviewed: Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens

Over on Musical Theatre Review, I’ve reviewed Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, currently playing at the Leicester Square Theatre Studio.

This is no murder mystery, no ‘The Mirrorball Crack’d’ – the killer couldn’t be more obvious if he were twirling a moustache. And this is a show so unsubtle that it’s almost a surprise that he doesn’t.

The characters are almost uniformly one-dimensional, drawn in crude, glitter-speckled strokes, a comic strip writ large. But all the actors know exactly what it is, ensure their performances are as broad as the characters are shallow, and encourage the audience to buy into just how ridiculous – and fun – the show can be.

Musical Theatre Review: Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens

Talking about Peter Capaldi

So I’m a guest on this week’s As Yet Untitled London Theatre podcast, talking about new Doctor Who Peter Capaldi’s acting CV and how the approach he’s taken to his previous roles in theatre, film and TV may – may – give us clues about how he may approach his fortchoming role of the Doctor.

Some of the stuff I talk about is based on the interviews The Stage has done with Capaldi over the years, extracts from which I featured the other day.

Peter Capaldi in his own words

So it turns out the bookies’ favourite was the correct one – Peter Capaldi is to be the next actor to play the lead in Doctor Who.

A quick scurry around The Stage archives finds several theatre and TV reviews, and three interviews. Two of these incorporate paragraphs which are interesting to contrast with each other.

First, from a 1990 interview with Jane Garner, connected to his role in BBC crime thriller Chain:

He enjoys comic roles as well as serious ones and has ambitions to do more film work.

“I am fascinated by that medium and I am not terribly attracted to Shakespearian roles or have any great ambition in that area. I like to do things that I am not really sure I can do and that stretches me – then I am working with something new.

“Chain was different for me because it was terribly serious and a lot of the time before, I had played a lot of rather comic roles which I love and I am comfortable in.”

And from 2007, as he prepared to appear in Absurdia, a trio of one-act comedies (two revivals by NF Simpson, and a new Michael Frayn farce) at the Donmar Warehouse, interviewed by Nick Smurthwaite:

“You do it for the challenge, the stretch,” he replies, “Generally in TV, you are employed to do what you are known for doing best. Here I’m doing things I’ve never done before, a lot of mime and movement. The Frayn play is about staging a farce in the middle of the desert, generated entirely in the imaginations of the two characters, with no props. I’ve never done mime before, so it remains to be seen if it works.”

You could, if you were being harsh, make comments about how once it was film and TV which stretched actors, and now theatre is more likely to give that challenge. But really, I see a man who’s only going to take on any role if it could push him in ways he’s never been pushed before. Given the self-confessed Doctor Who fan that he is, I can imagine that Capaldi is going to make damned sure that the BBC production team push him in his role as the Doctor.

More interesting is a quote from a 1995 interview, where the focus was more on his writing ambitions. On the back of winning the Academy Award for Best Short Film (for Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life), he was working on a feature-length screenplay. But this quote is, considering yesterday’s news, intriguing:

Being in a series for any length of time doesn’t appeal to me and I’m always trying to avoid it. I suppose the two series of Chandler and Co. that I did was the longest I have been in a show, but I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again. I want a bit of variety.

In the eighteen years since, maybe he’s mellowed to the idea, especially for a role he’s loved since he was a boy. But Doctor Who is one of those roles where longevity and variety can go hand-in-hand.

The new Doctor Who to be revealed – and who I’d like it to be

Who would have believed, back in 2003 when the revival of Doctor Who was announced, that ten years on not only would the series still be ongoing, but news of the lead actor’s recasting would be presented in a live TV programme?

Yet that is what is happening.

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And the Blue Peter badge goes to…

After the announcement in March that Blue Peter was recruiting for a third presenter via a TV series, the reactions were mixed. As I said at the time:

[the series] has always been at the pioneering end of audience interactivity, long before ‘interactivity’ was even used in television circles… In that context, it makes perfect sense for the children who have always been part of the show’s ethos to be let in on the audition process.

Others I spoke to were a little more concerned that this was part of the “dumbing down” of television, that Blue Peter had succumbed to the reality TV format. But concerns like that didn’t stop the applicants: some 20,000 audition showreels were sent in before the production team whittled them down to just ten hopefuls.

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