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When Chris Chibnall took over as showrunner for Doctor Who, he promised big changes. Leading lady aside, the biggest shift has seen Chibnall restore Doctor Who to it’s original, more educational, state. Gone are the story arcs. Gone are the over-complicated plots. Gone are the heavily CGI-ed sequences. Doctor Who is now about humans, more than aliens, and its mission is to educate.

Twitter is full of dailymailers ranting how the show has become too ‘politically correct’ and ‘preachy’. What I see is a show that is constantly changing, and, although the changes this time are far more than subtle, it is simply undergoing another of it’s countless changes. Doctor Who has always educated and it has always been political. It has always dealt with massive themes, like Faith (Gridlock), slavery (Planet of the Ood), and loss (Death in Heaven). If there’s one show that is not afraid to shy away from a difficult conversation, it is Doctor Who.

This series, so far, hasn’t been perfect, but that is to be expected of a show that has just regenerated. Like the Doctor, it needs time to discover itself. It has, however, delivered some spectacular moments. The on-going strand of Ryan and Graham’s grief has given us some touching moments. It could have been easy for Grace’s death to act as a plot device, sending Graham and Ryan on their way with the Doctor, with Grace hardly being mentioned again. But its a bold move to show these characters taking their time to deal with their grief.

The stand-out episode, so far, has been ‘Rosa’. Parks’ inspirational story carries a very important message – one person can change the world. It was uncomfortable to see Ryan and Yaz experience the ugliness of prejudice, but I think it was important that the show didn’t sugar coat it. In 1955, that is exactly the treatment they would have received. Moved by the episode, I mentioned it to a group of my year one children, who had seen the episode. As part of our topic, ‘Famous Faces’, I decided to talk about Rosa Parks to the class. At first I was tentative, as I was worried it would be a difficult and upsetting story for a 5 year old to handle. But, I had underestimated them. We watched a BBC re-enactment of the story, which was met with stunned silence. The children weren’t upset, but they recognised the injustice instantly. Some of them couldn’t understand why white people would want to be segregated from the black people. They all understood the unfairness of the situation. They went on to describe Rosa as ‘brave’, ‘smart’ and ‘caring’. The discussions that have followed have been some of the most meaningful I have witnessed in the classroom. It was a shock for the children to learn that our history has not always been pleasant, but it was an important lesson that will hopefully arm them with important values against injustice and prejudice.

So, OK, Doctor Who has changed, but if it is opening children up to these kinds of conversations then it can only have changed for good.

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There’s almost too many fabulous attributes to Wicked that make it the success it is. Twelve years after opening in the West End, Wicked is coming to the end of its second UK tour, just opening in its penultimate venue at the Millenium Centre, Cardiff (which was suitably illuminated green for the event).

Amy Ross takes the lead as troubled green teen Elphaba, with Charli Baptie as her nemesis-come-best-friend Glinda. We witness Elphaba’s struggles and talents through university which eventually lead her to meet her idol, the Wizard of Oz. After discovering his disappointing lack of power and the corruption he has instigated within Oz, Elphaba is forced into hiding, triggering a chain of events that lead her to be known as the Wicked Witch of the West.

Ross gives a powerful performance as Elphaba, delivering the right amount of stubborn, angry and vulnerable that makes the role so iconic. ‘The Wizard and I’ is a highlight for Ross, and she gets to flex her belting vocals at several points throughout the show. Of course, ‘Defying  Gravity’ is another chilling moment which Ross performs with astonishing verve. It’s this mid-point where Wicked really grabs its audience and ends with the first act with sucker-punch dramatic spectacle. Ross portrays Elphaba’s downfall beautifully and her pre-melting goodbye to Glinda in the second act is emotionally charged.

We also learn the history of another famous figure of Oz, Glinda the Good. It’s intriguing to see Glinda’s manipulative and selfish side played out, as it can sometimes come across as over-exaggerated, played too much for the comedy and ‘silliness’ of Glinda. She works best when she is grounded, as she becomes a far more sinister, smiling enemy, one that we have all surely come across. Glinda is redeemed throughout the production as her love for Elphaba is genuine, but she allows her jealousy to cloud her intentions. What is intriguing about Wicked is it is not so much a clear-cut story of Good vs Evil, as is outlined in Baum’s original novel. Wicked blurs the lines between good and evil and shows the familiar characters as conflicted, mistake-making humans.

Aaron Sidwell gives a good performance as Fiyero, mixing privileged posh-boy with sensitive romantic. Kim Ismay cuts a formidable figure as Madame Morrible, and you can’t help but like Steven Pinder as the Wizard, despite all the double-handed treachery.

Wicked casts a dark and political shadow over the familiar story of The Wizard of Oz, twisting our pre-conceptions and challenging us to question our judgements. It does all this with a magnificent score and a generous splash of spectacle.

Image result for thick as thieves theatr clwydTwo people. One room. Just over an hours running time.

It was all quite simple. A minimal set, consisting of just a desk and chair, played in the round. But Thick as Thieves is evidence of just how powerful drama can be.

Within the short playing time, we meet Gail. Hard on her luck, fresh out of prison and desperate to get her kids back, Gail rocks up at old friends Karen’s office in need of her help. Karen is head of children’s services and, although Gail initially pretends it is a spontaneous visit, it quickly becomes very clear that she has a hidden agenda. The next hour is packed full of twists and turns and powerhouse performances from Polly Frame as Gail and Siwan Morris as Karen. Through echoing sound bites and moody instrumentals you are absorbed into Gail and Karen’s world and find it hard to pull yourself out even at the very end.

As Gail lets slip information that she knows Karen’s address, and subsequently has been visiting the school Karen’s daughters attend, we see a power struggle between the two, represented by a tilting performance platform, as secrets are unearthed, and Karen’s safe and secure world is rocked.

The opinions of the audience towards both characters change through the play, with the audience being asked to judge each woman, and then questions their judgement just a few minutes later. Karen appears to be ‘one of those mums’, (family car, baby yoga, hummus and carrot sticks), whilst Gail initially comes across as a selfish and unreliable mother. Our opinions are challenged at several points – are Gail’s actions as sinister as they first appear? Or is she acting in the interest of her own children?

It transpires the two share a traumatic past, with Karen particularly bearing the brunt of a careless and violent upbringing. Her story about her short career as a teacher is particularly chilling, as she describes teaching the children of life’s pain and injustice. The play raises interesting themes, such as motherhood and the lengths a parent will go to in order to satisfy their ‘addiction’ to their children.

By the end of the play, just when you think you have experienced every emotion, you are confronted with hope, as Karen’s covert helping of Gail is revealed and Gail remains determined to win back her children. Amongst the angst and darkness, it is refreshing to be left with a glimmer of hope that our characters can succeed in what they want, and move on from the trauma of the past. Siwan Morris and Polly Frame are electric, particularly during the more fraught moments.

Bleak, tense and chilling in parts, Thick as Thieves is a must-see.

It’s easy to see why this is the most widely performed play written by a female playwright. With a simple storyline told in an unconventional, non-linear way, and featuring 4 strong, challenging role which would be a gift to any actor, My Mother Said I Never Should is a classic tale of hope, loss and family secrets.

The story follows four generations of the same family though various stages of their lives. There’s Doris, at the top of the family tree, taking a firm, stoic approach to post-war parenthood with her daughter Margaret. As Margaret grows up and moves to London, we see her raise her own daughter Jackie, and struggle with a family tragedy. Later, rebellious Jackie has a teen pregnancy, and allows Margaret to raise her daughter, Rosie, as her own, allowing Jackie to pursue her career.

As time flits between eras, secrets are buried and unearthed, and the bond between the four women is tested.

The cast of four are brilliant in their respective roles. Carol Dance gives a firm performance as Doris, convincingly show Doris’ progression from an excited newlywed, to a wizened, cynical pensioner. The chemistry is particularly good between Dance and Felicity Houlbrooke, who plays her Great-Grandaughter, Rosie. Houlbrooke plays Rosie with a suitable naivety, and even at one point mimics Rosie’s baby cry (which was weirdly realistic). Kathryn Ritchie (Jackie) and Connie Walker (Margaret) are electric in their stand-off scenes, as Margaret struggles under the pressure of keeping Jackie’s secret.

One of the most moving threads is the death of Margaret, who is seen to put off medical appointments in favour of work shifts and helping her family, but eventually passes away. Throughout the story Margaret puts others before herself, eventually harbouring some resentment towards her daughter Jackie. Margaret’s death paves the way for the reveal of Rosie’s real mother, though it’s sad that Margaret isn’t around to see this, as she battles with her feelings over the idea through the story.

The main thread of My Mother Said I Never Should is gripping enough, and it’s interesting to see the story unfold in a way that isn’t chronological. This adds depth and emotion to scenes set in the past, as the audience has knowledge of what is to come for the characters. It’s not without its faults though. The scenes set in the wasteland, which are interspersed between the main narrative, aren’t easy to access and at times seem too surreal. They don’t seem to serve much purpose, and the story itself is strong enough without them. However, these scenes were imaginatively played out, making good use of the space and various objects in the junkyard to set the scene.

Image result for the ghost monument gifLast week’s breath-taking cliff-hanger is quickly resolved in the first few seconds of episode two, ‘The Ghost Monument’. The Doctor and her new buddies are ‘scooped’ up by separate, conveniently passing space ships, and are soon reunited on an abandoned planet, worryingly named Desolation.

This week’s episode is visually very appealing, with beautiful of shots of the treacherous planet (from deserts to carnivorous lakes to fields of snow.) The gang’s narrow escape from a bunch of weapon-branding robots also adds plenty of adrenaline. We don’t see many aliens this week, and we still get a very strong feeling our new protagonists are just being sketched out. I can’t help feel the writers are still holding something back.  However, it is very early days and what we are seeing so far is showing potential.

We do get two huge treats this week in the form of the brand opening sequence, which is awesome, and the Doctor’s reunion with her TARDIS. Any fan who wasn’t jumping for joy when the TARDIS materialises, clearly isn’t a fan. Whitakker continues to portray the Doctor beautifully, and her joy at being reunited with her ship is lovely. We finally get to see the interior, which is very Tennant-era. Chibnall has been notorious for keeping secrets and the TARDIS interior was effectively revealed during the episode. It’s all proving very promising for rest of the series.

‘The Ghost Monument’ has a decent plot, possibly stronger than last weeks, though it is a character piece, fleshing out our new friends. The element of peril comes from the Doctor and companions caught up in a space race and stranded on an alien planet. Bradley Walsh gives a Cribbins-esque performance as lovable granddad Graham. His strained relationship with Ryan seems to mean a tear-jerking future moment where Ryan finally calls him granddad is inevitable. We still need to see more of Yaz, though we do learn a bit about her family. Hopefully her character will be further explored next week. Guest appearances are good, with Shaun Dooley and Susan Lynch playing bickering racers Angstrom and Epzo.

On the whole, ‘The Ghost Monument’ is a strong second episode, giving us some further background to the Doctor’s new companions, some interesting hints at a possible arc (another mention of the Stenza) and some awesome imagery.

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Growing up, I was the friend who ‘liked Doctor Who’. It was my thing. My quirk, at first, until I slowly converted the majority of my pals. Tennant was my Doctor, but I did have a soft spot for Smith. Capaldi was brilliant, but, although I hate to admit it, the last few seasons left me disappointed. We were promised a ‘snarling beast’ but I always felt like Capaldi’s Doctor fell just shy of that, and was more of a cantankerous grandad.

But the beauty of the programme is, like its protagonist, it can regenerate.

The pre-episode nerves were rife across twitter as we waited anxiously for Jodie Whittaker to make her debut. It’s always an edgy time, but with a new producer, new cast, new doctor, new…well…everything, but this time the stakes felt particularly higher.

But Jodie pulled it off.

It felt like a new programme, but without losing that quirky warmth that Doctor Who does so well. Jodie Whittaker was perfectly bonkers as the Doctor, with stand-out moments being her arrival on the train, crashing straight into the action, and of course the moment we’ve waited over a year for, a-top of a crane, proclaiming to the World that she is the Doctor. I’m sure every fan let out a squeak of joy as the familiar rumblings of the theme tune played out over Whittaker’s arrival. In her opening episode alone, Whittaker gives us some cracking moments that hint at the awesomeness of her Doctor. She makes her own sonic screwdriver! Brilliant!

The Doctor is supported by a fab new collection of companions. Bradley Walsh gives a great performance as the lovable Graham, though Walsh himself is a such a big personality that it is sometimes hard not to see him as ‘Bradley Walsh’. I’m sure, judging by his first episode, he’ll continue to bring his charm and charisma to ‘Graham’ as the series continues.

Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill give strong performances as Ryan and Yaz, although we still have a lot to learn about them, particularly the latter.  Judging by their first episode, they’ve made a promising start.

Sharon D Clarke was fabulous as Graham’s wife (and Ryan’s Nan), Grace. Though my heart sank when it dawned on me that she was the only one of the Doctor’s new friends who wouldn’t be travelling in the TARDIS. Her thirst for adventure and her determination to keep Ryan out of danger seemed to be the final nail for this character, and it became obvious she was doomed. However, this is Doctor Who, so perhaps it’s not the end for Grace…

It’s also worth a mention that new theme tune sounds totally kick ass, and I’m sure every fan is desperate for a glimpse of the new title sequence next week. With new adventures, a new team and the new TARDIS yet to be revealed, it’s going to be an exciting few weeks!

 

Lord of the Flies, Theatr Clwyd

Theatr Clwyd and Cardiff’s Sherman theatre’s joint production of William Golding’s classic novel isn’t perfect, but it’s still very good. The haunting story of a bunch of children stranded on a remote island, forced into a fight for survival against each other, is brought to life beautifully via an imaginative set and stunning visuals.

The play boasts a strong cast, lead by Lola Adaja as Ralph, who is brilliant in the role, torn between her friendship with Piggy and the alluring popularity of Jack and her followers. Ralph is very much trapped between the voice of reason (Piggy) and the voice of rebellion (Jack) and it is captivating to watch her struggle play out. There are stand-out performances from Lowri and Mari Izzard as twins Sam and Eric. Both perform with a presence that leaves you believing every word they say. Gina Fillingham also shows her comic timing as Piggy and produces several comicly poignant moments. Unfortunately her demise did seem a bit of an anti-climax, and didn’t quite feel as tragic as it should.

Rarely do I see a play that has me transfixed to the end, but this was one of them. Regardless of its faults, I was transported to that island and remained there until the end. The soft lapping of the shore during the interval reminded us of the ticking time bomb we had temporarily left. Having read the book some years ago, I was keen to see the action play out on stage. Unfortunately there were a few moments that didn’t quite hit the mark. However, the revelation of the true identity of the ‘beast’ is a particularly chilling moment (cued by a dramatic clap of thunder). The death of Simon is also shocking, especially as the gang try to convince themselves of their innocence immediately afterwards.

What is most disturbing about the play is its ambiguous ending. As the Naval Officer arrives and alludes to the children’s problem as game play, the thought of the whole event being a imaginative game that went horribly wrong stops the the heart.

But it is in the ending that the problem lies. For a play that has been gender swapped, that is littered with strong female roles, it’s a bit jarring that the Naval Officer, played by a man, conveniently arrives to fix the problem in the last five minutes.

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‘It’s a film isn’t it?’ ‘No, it’s a book.’ ‘It’s very dark, I think…’

Everyone I spoke to prior to seeing this show seemed to have a different opinion, and I didn’t quite know what to expect when I headed to my favourite theatre last week.

Playing in the Emlyn Williams the theatre, The 39 Steps proved to be a night of ridiculous comedy, and the perfect antidote to a long week.

Set in the round, the space was transformed creatively from a living room, to a hotel, to a car, to a speeding train. Using very few props the talented cast (of just four) took us on a journey across Britain, as we followed unlucky Richard Hannay, on the run from the law after he is mistaken for a murderer. The many madcap characters are brought to life using a clever blend of physical comedy and imaginatively used props and costumes.

The whole story is played for laughs, with every inch of comedy eeked out of the script. At times, it’s ridiculous but never really grating.

Part of the fun was watching the actors juggle with their own characters. They swapped roles before our eyes and there were several moments which felt unique to the evenings performance. The fourth wall is broken several times, including a lovely moment when Hannay escapes through one door for the remaining actors to confidently assure the audience that ‘it’s in the round’, before Hannay bursts in through another door and is captured.

We were sitting in the front row, directly in front of a smaller stage, which was used as a hotel bedroom, giving us a very intimate slice of the action. Just when we thought we’d escaped any audience participation, we were doused with ‘snow’ in the closing moments. Lovely.

Well worth a visit for the laughs, The 39 Steps is a fun evening of clever, innovative comedy, that’ll have you cheering for Hannay right to the end.

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Summer Holiday is weird.

There are lots of good points, but on the whole I found it odd.

I’m not familiar with the film, so maybe it’s that. I walked into the Storyhouse knowing only the incessantly upbeat title track and that the film featured Cliff Richard. In Cliff’s role, Don, was Ray Quinn, who did a sound job as the lead. He’s got a good voice and he can certainly move. Don’s friends are a mixed bunch, varying in oddness, with Matt Trevorrow standing out as Cyril, Don’s lazy, but confident buddy. Don and his friends renovate a London bus and travel across Europe, picking up a girl group and reluctant famous singer on the way. Sophie Matthew plays Barbara with gentle naivety. Taryn Sudding also adds fabulous humour, giving Velma-Von-Tussle-realness, as Barbara’s overbearing mother, Stella.

The standout feature of the production is the choreography. It’s imaginative, fast-paced and carried out with expert precision by the cast. There were plenty of foot-tapping wow-moments. The set is simple but effective, with the double decker bus taking centre stage.

It’s the story that is weird. I know that, being written and set in the sixties, it is going to have aged, but there’s quite a few holes to pick in the narrative. For a show that is billed as a feel-good production, some of it is just uncomfortable. Running away from her mother, Barbara disguises herself as a fourteen year old boy and is invited to travel on the bus by the group of twenty-somethings (Wouldn’t happen in 2018!). I was assured during the interval that Barbara isn’t fourteen but it is still a bit weird when Don, believing she is fourteen, steps out of the shower and asks her to hold his towel whilst he tucks in his ‘old chap’. It’s all played for laughs but…..ewww. For a squeaky clean family show, there’s also a surprising amount of crotch tugging and erection jokes.

The audience were familiar with most of the songs (I could tell by the out of tune singing behind me), and the (on-stage) singing was very strong. Again, it’s in terms of story that the show falls flat. Some of the songs make sense, but some are shoehorned in with zero subtlety. For example, when the gang stumble upon a distraught Italian bride who doesn’t speak English, they decide to use the ‘universal language of music’ to find out what her problem is. So they sing ‘Living Doll’. Why?!

If you’re after a fun and fluffy (if utterly confusing) night at the theatre, Summer Holiday is for you.

The summer is over. The jumpers are out and the kettle is working overtime. In school, we’ve re-arranged the classroom, sourced some new equipment and settled into some new routines with a fresh bunch of children. The summer is a distant memory.

I like this time of year. I love any excuse to have a shift around and get the classroom looking fresh, and September is perfect for all of that. We’ve evaluated every aspect of our day and practice, and tweaked anything that didn’t work. We’re jumping on the latest trend of milk as a continuous provision area, which the children can access at any point throughout the day. Of course, it has had its teething problems but on the whole it seems to be working out well. It’s freed up more time for us to use with focus tasks and provision area activities.

Another reason I like September is the chance to meet your new class. So far, they’ve shown themselves to be a well-mannered and fun bunch, and I’m looking to getting stuck into our topic, ‘Famous Faces’, this term. The children shared some fantastic ideas for who we could study (ranging from Neil Armstrong, Ariana Grande and Florence Nightingale…..to the local binman). I’m keen to move away from the traditional figures of study. When I was in primary school I can only remember learning about Florence Nightingale and Emmeline Pankhurst in terms of significant women in history. I want to provide opportunities for the children to learn about a range of famous people, of different genders, race, and abilities. I remember thinking as a child how weird it was that only men seemed to do anything important. I want my class to know that this is absolutely not the case, as I started to learn in secondary school.

Of course September isn’t easy. Our first week back has already been a rollercoaster, from the joy of seeing everyone after the break, to the excitement of the new start, to the hideous anxiety of looking at the calendar for the next term! By Thursday I had managed to convince myself that I can handle the demands the autumn term makes as they arrive, and that over-thinking and over-prepping weeks in advance is unnecessary and draining. Whether or not this continues, we shall see.

What I definitely hope for this year is a year of calm enjoyment. I do believe that whatever I’m feeling effects the children, and as the pressures of the job don’t seem to be easing any time soon, I need to take control of my responses to those pressures and ensure that I approach every challenge with cool composure. I mostly want to show them the spectrum of ability and talent within the world, and have a lot of fun doing it. I’ll get back to you in July!