Friday, 20 June 2014

Playhouse Presents : Third Series Review

Playhouse Presents is a series of self contained TV plays made and broadcast on Sky Arts. Each episode is written by a different writers and stars a different cast. I love them because, at the present time, this is the only opportunity to see the stand alone play on TV. There have been some really great offerings since the first series commenced in 2012, with two plays going to a full series; A Young Doctor's Notebook and Nixon's The One. A third series concluded this week and this is a review of each play that featured in this third run.

The Dog Thrower is a short offering from Jon Ronson, the opener to the third series of Sky Arts excellent diverse and quirky series Playhouse Presents. A virtually dialogue free half hour scored by Belle and Sebastian, it concerns 'The Charismatic Man' (Friends star Matthew Perry) throwing his dog in the local park and finding an acolyte in Tim Key. Their unusual canine practices find favour at first, with the lovely Kimberley Nixon making at eyes at Tim Key, but when a reporter doctors a photograph of one of the dogs in flight, society soon turns against them.

There's actually something of a modern parable behind this seemingly slight and rather twee set up. Ronson explores the immediacy of changes in opinion and reaction thanks to message boards and social media and how people can become vilified by society for their practices.

The thoughtful message may be subtle but it is there, amidst some gentle laughs and some wonderfully cute dogs.

It's another great start to Playhouse Presents.

Nosferatu In Love is a wonderful little short which gives us an all too rare display of Mark Strong's comedic acting as an errant actor (a version of himself) who, following news that his wife wants a divorce, goes AWOL from the shoot of a remake of Nosferatu and finds himself, on a night out, getting mixed up with ne'er do wells. Beautifully shot in monochrome, with a great sense of the strange and alien - in this case the actor adrift and heartbroken in the Eastern Europe locale - and a cracking soundtrack.

The Cruise is the third offering in the current run of Playhouse Presents and is, on the surface, a much less quirkier and more traditional storytelling affair than its two predecessors, yet the kinetic visual style of writer/director Stewart Suggs nonetheless keeps this rather more grounded tale off the wall. Employing fast cutting techniques, an overall sense of urgency and, in some cases, panic and tension and a broad bright primary colour canvas makes this a distinctive juxtaposition for what is at heart an almost Victoria Wood style comic vignette.

Jane Horrocks and Jason Watkins  star as Jackie and Andy, a married couple approaching their silver wedding anniversary, which they intend to celebrate with a cruise and an entry in the liner's talent show competition. However it soon becomes clear that Andy has cold feet and the remainder of the plot is about discovering just what the cause is for his secret last minute nerves. 

Horrocks and Watkins make for a pleasing double act, borne from previously working as something of a partnership in Sky's hit and - mostly - miss supermarket sitcom Trollied. They're both very capable and personal favourite actors of mine, though I do feel that Watkins was going a little bit OTT in some of his character's Northern vocal inflections here. 

Overall, The Cruise is probably the lesser of the Playhouse run up until this point in the series; a light and superficial half hour of entertainment enlivened by the visual style and the assured comedic playing of its central performers.

If Night Shift, the latest instalment in the third series of Sky Arts Playhouse Presents, reminds you in someways of the BBC's late 90s controversial and groundbreaking faux documentary drama series The Cops (a favourite of mine) then there's a good reason for that; it was penned by Jimmy Gardner that show's co-creator who sadly died in 2010.

It's strange to see someone's script come to life four years after their death but it's fitting that it has as what Gardner had to say is always worth listening to. The premise may be simple and slight - we follow one squad car patrolling the streets of South East London on the solitary night shift of the title - but its a good one, with great performances from Daniel Mays and Ashley Walters, two of the finest and realistic young British actors currently out there. They hold our attention throughout the half hour as 'Guv' and 'Armani', fighting the mundanity as much as the increasing bureaucracy of the job.

Oh dear. Foxtrot has to be the first real disappointment in the current run of Playhouse Presents I'm sorry to say.

A dark twisted tale of revenge gone wrong, Foxtrot isn't exactly original and for all its obvious belief that its offering something wry and delicious in terms of gender identity one feels its been done before, and done better.

I'm starting to wonder if Billie Piper isn't a one trick pony. She impressed greatly and to much surprise in the Doctor Who reboot  (though how quickly I grew sick to death of the incessant Rose mentions and returns following her original exit!) but has subsequently performed disappointingly average in her subsequent projects and playing a stripper here isn't all that different from her role as the sex worker 'Belle' in ITV's oddly successful Secret Diary Of A Call Girl

Ben Whishaw has come a long way since playing Pingu in Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris' Nathan Barley, and quite rightly too, because he's a real talent. But he's wasted here in a triflingly small role with a twist in the tale you can see coming a mile off. I know he has a legion of fans, especially female ones, and I'm sure they'll be delighted to see him bare arsed in one scene but is that really enough?

The only real talent on screen here is Lindsay Duncan, dripping delicious menace as Mrs Dalloway (oh, my aching sides) a madam/crime boss. She gets the best lines, but even then they are few and far between.

As for the other performer in the film, Alice Sanders, I can't see I've seen her in anything before, but she equips herself well enough with the slim material on offer here, despite being saddled with another obvious twist, revealed mercifully early on. 

Two obvious twists in one 30 minute film? It really doesn't bode well does it? I hate to rate something that attempts to be different, that has such a strong cast and that is a short film so low but I really feel writer/director Polly Stenham has left me no choice. Sorry.

Ralf Little and Nick Moran are two actors who the adage never judge a book by its cover could easily be given. Their careers may have commenced (and in some respects continued) as a gormless northerner and mockney upstart, yet it is their work behind the camera that has proved them to be far more than that with Moran being responsible for the Joe Meek biography Telstar and Little (alongside fellow actress Michelle Terry) is behind the gentle Sky One comedy The Cafe. Together, Little and Moran are responsible for the script to Space Age.

Good sci-fi has a habit of clearly conveying present day concerns and issues in a fantastical or heightened environment. Space Age keeps up that tradition, with Little and Moran's script exploring how society views its older population. The notion of sending OAPs into space, to start a new world and sacrifice themselves for future generations on some previously overlooked planet, is an interesting and intelligent one, yet I'm not altogether sure this medium conveys it as well as it ought to. This is despite some very good performances from Richard Wilson and Simon Callow as the two aging astronauts and the vocal talents of Robert Vaughn as the Hal-like ship's AI computer.

It's visually quite impressive thanks to filming in an unusual Polish film studio that was created to look like a space ship interior but the 2001 overtones make it feel too familiar, ultimately almost scuppering the real message about the aged at the heart of the piece.

Until Damned, I'd come to think/worry that this third series of Sky Arts Playhouse Presents had placed all its goodies up front first with The Dog Thrower and Nosferatu In Love preceding what has, in fairness, on the whole been some fairly average films.

Thank heavens then for this little cynical gem from Jo Brand and Morwenna Banks about social workers.

I must admit my hopes weren't high; a comedy drama about social work written by the writer and star of BBC4's excellent Getting On (Jo Brand) which she explained was essentially 'Getting On in Social Services' didn't sound too promising - where's the originality? Why not just do another - much desired - series of Getting On? Then there was the prospect of uber irritant Alan Davies in the cast list and the notion that comedy and social work has already been done, and brilliantly so, with Radio 4's excellent Clare in the Community starring Sally Phillips.

But thankfully Damned surprised me, proved me wrong and impressed me. This is the kind of humour I love; gallows humour, real life, weary and cynical. It's probably down to the fact that, although I've never actually been a social worker, a lot of the jobs I have had in my career have had some cross over with such work. The horrors and day to day pressures which confront the team in Damned are met with the same dry and off colour humour that I have used when faced with the same situations myself. Indeed, one former colleague text me to say Alan Davies seemed to be playing a version of me! Speaking of which, he wasn't as annoying here as he has been in other things and the cast around Brand were all excellent, including her old Getting On chum Ricky Grover, Rebekah Staton playing the kind of character she's become famous for and 'The Actor Kevin Eldon' as a man suffering from mental illness and delusions whose activities were largely ignored simply because he proved useful around the office!

A series of this would do very nicely indeed.

Now this is how you do it.

Much as I loved Jo Brand's Damned last week in the Playhouse Presents strand it did feel more like a pilot for a potential series than it did a self contained play. So here's to Tim Firth, a writer I've long admired ever since his wonderful series Preston Front in the 1990s, for showing everyone how its done and creating the real star of this series; the beautiful and bittersweet Timeless, starring the veteran Sylvia Syms and, making her acting debut, the supermodel Cara Delevingne.

The plot was a neatly contained, clever one;  Delevingne's Chloe, has her  great-grandmother Alice staying with her whilst she's anxiously waiting and worrying about her fiancee Luke, fighting in Afghanistan. When an Army official unexpectedly comes to the door bearing bad news, the  natural assumption is that something had happened to him.

The clever twist to the plot, however, meant it wasn’t her but Alice whose loved one had been found – in Iceland, 39 years after his plane went down, where his body had been preserved in a glacier ever since. In the latter half of the film the pair travel to Reykjavik so Alice could say goodbye.

It's a shame that so much interest in this production was around whether Delevingne was much cop at acting or not because it detracts from the play itself which is a shame. For what it's worth, my opinion is that she gave a relatively good account of herself throughout the performance with only the occasional cold sounding reading of her lines. It wasn't easy material for her, she had to go from the sulky 'babysitter' of her great grandmother (Syms) to strong support who could finally view her elderly relative as a real person with her own valuable life experiences, and she had to do this in just 30 mins via one extreme moment of trauma which saw her fall to the floor in uncontrollable tears.

Syms on the other hand was as wonderful as always showing a life time's skill and talent for nailing a role, playing the comedy and the tragedy of the script perfectly. She really should be at widespread national treasure status by now.

Rounding out the cast was Jaye Griffiths as the RAF 'messenger'. It was a nicely jittery performance of an earnest enough person who had found herself in a job she wasn't perhaps best skilled at, and allowed some comedy to cut through the poignancy of the script.

The final play in this run of Playhouse Presents, Timeless proved that they really saved the best for last.

So, to rank;

1. Timeless
2. Damned
3. The Dog Thrower
4. Nosferatu In Love
5. Night Shift
6. The Cruise
7. Space Age
8. Foxtrot

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