Blogging Bert


Menu Close

Category: Reviews

The York Realist

Despite having a keen interest in this play with its North Yorkshire setting (I grew up not far from York), I have never seen or read it.  My expectations were high as the reviews had been glowing, and I had taken part in one of the Donmar’s Open Workshops on it the morning of the day I had seen it

– and a big plug here for the Workshop which was excellent and a huge thank you to Lynette Linton for running it with such infectious enthusiasm –

but I have to say ultimately I was left slightly disappointed, without quite being able to put my finger on why.  I know that the 2002 Royal Court production of it, directed by  the playwright Peter Gill, was half an hour longer than this, despite no changes to the text.  (At that time it received very mixed reviews.)  It is mostly a realistic play set in the kitchen and main room of a Yorkshire farmhouse, in 1962, and it is peopled with the family and local community.  It is framed by a beautiful timeslip and is not a long play, short enough that I wondered if it could have done without the mid-point interval to keep it burning.

Perhaps it is too subtle; perhaps it needs more than one viewing or reading.  The actors are uniformly excellent, but even so Jonathan Bailey and Ben Batt, the development of whose love for each other the play charts, are powerful players.  The former a Southerner, the latter a man of the land which surrounds the cottage (Batt’s thrice repetition of “I live here” is profoundly moving), the play slightly subverts expectations in the way the men behave with each other. Even saying that, though, there is a flicker of emotion across Batt’s face as George leaves to go upstairs with John which, not visible to a lot of the audience, showed him not being all he seemed to be.  As George is playing a part in the York Mystery plays on which John, up from London, is the Assistant Director  – and indeed John emphasises what a good actor George is in the Plays –  that flicker of emotion is therefore perhaps a telling moment.

It is a play in which much action and passing of time are not experienced directly by the audience. The Mystery Plays, which could be the unwitnessed core of the play, didn’t overshadow it enough for me.  The family are united in their pleasure of seeing the Plays when they return to the cottage, and George quotes a couple of lines from it at the very end (which I didn’t hear clearly).  We know George’s character in the Plays is one who torments Jesus, which seems at odd with his “real” self. For anyone not knowing anything about the Mystery Plays, then the point of them just seems prosaically to get John to meet George.

This is not a play of symbolism as such.  It looks to class, sexuality, conformity, change, fear and questions where we find happiness. It is left up to the audience to fill in gaps.  No character is simplistic or easy to analyse.  Yet, as I write this I keep coming back to the thought that it is too subtle for one viewing.  Ben Batt has found his George from the text and he gives so much, some of which is almost too painful to watch on stage.  He becomes George on stage, having evolved through rehearsal and continuing to do so through public performance. This thought leaves me wondering if the text of the play as a whole, like the love it contains, has been left not fully grown.

Fanny and Alexander

(Probably best to skip/skim read the second paragraph)

My favourite film, in the sense that it is the film closest to my heart and affects me on a personal level like no other, is Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.

Scandinavian 19th century drama has fascinated me since I studied Drama at university, and my love of it led me into the theatre and film world of Bergman. In my twenties I had a tendency (as many others) to get obsessive, and I duly did with the films of Bergman.  (I was partly “cured” by attending pretty much every film in a National Film Theatre [as was] Bergmann retrospective years ago and quickly realised what’s too much of a good thing.)  Bergman’s films capture life (and death) as I understand it and as I want it to be.  Fanny and Alexander, his swansong, was the film he made to retire from directing film.  I have seen the cinema three hour version many times, and only once the original five hours plus TV version (now unavailable in UK, although I do have it on video and I can’t get our ancient unused video player to work).  I also saw Bergman’s own directed Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Barbican in 2003 with Pernilla August, who plays Maj in Fanny and Alexander.

I could go on and on and on…and on, so in summary: I’m fascinated with 19th century Scandinavian drama, the life and works of Ingmar Bergman, and therefore Fanny and Alexander is my desert island film. Being in a quandary as to whether to book to see this stage adaptation of it at the Old Vic, I twittered something to that effect, and a quiet Irish lady asked me why would I pass the opportunity to see the great Penelope Wilton on stage….

Why indeed? And what a fool I would have been to pass it.

In a nutshell, to save you reading any further, I absolutely loved it.

Of course Penelope Wilton as Helena Ekdahl, the Grandmother and core of the Ekdahl family whose story this is, was stupendous and held the stage and audience with barely the raising of an eyebrow.  I learned only recently that Gunn Wallgrenn, one of Sweden’s greatest actors who played the part of  Helena in the film was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after finishing filming and died the following year, which adds huge poignancy to her performance. Penelope Wilton is very wonderfully different, as are all the actors.  I had been afraid that a stage interpretation of the film would weaken it for me, but the story is so strong and the acting at the Old Vic so excellent, it passed my critical test of fire.  And the actors who played Fanny and Alexander were extraordinary.  They are on stage for much of the the three hours.   Of the four child casts, we saw Misha Handley as Alexander who has a large speaking part.  Katie Simons was Fanny, younger and with less speaking but I watched her witnessing a scene where Alexander battles with his Bishop stepfather, and saw her quietly give such natural and convincing facial expressions.  They both gave the adults a run for their money.

What the stage version could never replicate is the visual beauty of the film, its sumptuousness and its austerity, and wisely they had made a virtue of this in Tom Pye’s design with Alex Baranowski’s lighting. The second act in a stylised box for the Bishop’s harsh house worked particularly well.  I really liked Stephen Beresford’s adaptation idea to punctuate the action simply with recited lists of the food that the Ekdahl’s eat which is so lavishly visualised in the film.

There were moments I don’t remember from the film which must have been taken from the television original.  There was much cut, but nothing that bothered me.  The last act is perhaps the least successful, and if I have a criticism it is that the grotesque, fantastic magic of it in the film could have had a more engaging theatrical visual language.  There are effective stage illusions but I felt they were not pushed far enough. It could have been truly breathtaking.

I haven’t touched on its ideas and portrayal of the relationship between actors  and the theatre, with life itself.  Maybe another blog post.  To finish here, Fanny and Alexander fills me with awe and wonder, if you’ll forgive that overused phrase. The fullness of life bursts out of it: the joy and pain of family, the suffering from death and loneliness, the agony of self loathing and the damage that causes, the necessity of laughter and of humour in all things, and a mixing of religion, superstition and magic into something “other”.  It offers the mystery of what it means to be human

Strictly Come Dancing

Let’s make it clear.

I do not watch Strictly every week.  I do not record it and watch it over Monday and Tuesday evenings. I do not spend Tuesday and Wednesday mornings reading Heidi Stephens’s “Strictly As It Happened blog in the Guardian.  I do not watch It Takes Two up to four times a week. I do not think about it as I am going to sleep or in my yoga class on a Monday evening.  I do not go to the toilet in the middle of the night and get back into bed thinking about it.

Right.  Just wanted to be clear.

So this week was hard.  Tears over Jonnie whom I have secretly wanted to win but knew he wouldn’t.  He has been a gentleman and a gentle man.  Laid back, reserved but at ease with  himself, and rather than showing an ambition to win as you would expect from an athlete, just wanting to learn and get a bit better each week.  And he got to Blackpool and what an exit.  His final thank you to the judges for treating him as an equal to all the other contestants was so moving.  I don’t use the word of people very much, but he is an inspirational man.  And when the gorgeous livewire Oti (who will partner me when I go on Strictly) said being with him had been life changing, who would doubt that.  Seeing his surgeon who amputated his leg, and his friend from school who had pushed him in his wheelchair (because as Jonnie said, he – his friend – needed someone to be his friend) dancing in front of them were great moments.  How they must have felt watching him dance is hard to imagine.  I am so going to miss watching him.

So who are we left with?

Professional dancer Alexandra Burke.  Not the brightest light in the house. She can stop the tears and telling us it was the hardest dance yet.  I’m hoping people will get bored with her as she’s only had one score out of the 30’s since the beginning.  And there’s no warmth between her and Gorka, the most beautiful man in the world.

Debbie McGee.  Well on age I think she is amazing but she is a trained ballerina.  But I love her with Giovanni (“Deb-eh”).  They seem genuinely to adore each other, but sadly no romance.  I struggled with the Spice Girl episode which frankly was a bit weird. Tess did say Geri had sent her a message but we never heard what the message was…pause for thought…

Joe McFadden. I thought he was a bit vacant but I have really grown to like him.  He is a bit like a big puppy and comes across as genuine.  I love it when they are all waiting to hear who is through to the following week and everyone looks like they are about to mount the scaffold except Joe who just can’t hold back a grin at the camera.

Gemma Atkinson.  She’s Northern so a superstar by default.   Prejudices aside she never has make-up in the VT’s which is sweet and I think she is the real dark horse.  She’s a grafter. I’d like her to win.  And she and Aljaz are hilarious together.

Davood Ghadami.  Now he really annoyed me at the beginning as I thought he was full of himself but as time has gone on I have realised he is just very serious – nay intense – and now he has not only lightened up but is proving himself a grand dancer.  I did have a problem with his James Bond shirt in Blackpool, though Tess and the judges obviously didn’t.

Mollie King. Not the greatest dancer but she’s had a really  hard time to fight on psychologically after two dance-offs.   I like the fact she’s so attractive and admits to finding it hard to be sexy in the Latin numbers. She and AJ are like Von Trapp siblings.

Susan Calman.  Oh Susan we all love you. Well most of us. You and Kevin are a match made in heaven. Part of me thinks it should have been you and not Jonnie.  What does Saturday hold for us to see???

Yes Aston’s gone but he’s setting up a dance school which is brilliant.


Yes we need to talk about Shirley.  I like her but her scoring is a bit odd.  Once you have Craig’s you can generally work out Darcey’s and Bruno’s.  But she does throw in quite a few from leftfield. There’s a lot of pressure on her and I don’t think she’s comfortable in the role yet.  She needs to do another series.

Some of my favourite bits that spring to mind:

“It’s hard for the man”

Eammon Holmes and son in every week till Ruth was out

Claudia’s and Tess’s dresses

Darcey’s earrings and Shirley’s glasses

Celebrities who get motion sickness spinning

“I’ve  got a friend for life.”


I’d probably enjoy Strictly if I ever watched it.


One million years ago I came down to London from my home town in Yorkshire and began to work in the theatres of London’s West End, working a followspot (the moving spotlight you see on actors).  My first job was at the Victoria Palace on High Society, Richard Eyre’s mixing of The Philadelphia Story (play/film) and High Society (film).

Later I got a job on the London production of Sondheim’s Follies at the Shaftsbury Theatre with Diana Rigg, Daniel Massey, David Healy and Julia Mckenzie.  The first time I saw it, when the music started (“Hey up there”) and the ghosts of the Weismann Girls appeared,

Read more

The Boys In The Band

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind week – one exhibition, one gig and one play.  I have to say this play was not my choice, but it’s at a theatre I really like, and I’ll go and see Mark Gatiss in pretty much anything.  I thought I was in for an excellent production of a dated play.  What whipped the rug out from under my feet was

Read more

The Empress and the Cake

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift    

Last night I went to my first Peirene evening.  Peirene Press is an inspired small publishing house who have successfully captured a market with a specific identity:

Read more