Theatre on TV: Performance series 1

Welcome to the start of a new website series, Theatre on TV, which takes the digital theatre strand of LouReviews output and looks back in time at filmed productions on the small screen.

Performance was a single play anthology series that ran on the BBC from October 1991 to March 1998.

Showcasing over 30 titles, produced by Simon Curtis, almost all classic and contemporary plays, Performance was a great weekly resource for me in my late teens and early twenties.

With all-star casts, writers and directors, Performance was the last major theatre showcase from the corporation until the Lights Up series of ten plays in 2021.

I decided to rewatch this series starting with the six titles shown in 1991. Although some plays in the series have been reshown or are available on home media, many have not been btoadcast in over three decades.

Absolute Hell (written by Rodney Ackland, directed by Anthony Page). Region 1 DVD Judi Dench Collection.

Set in a members’ club in London as the Second World War comes to an end, we find a meeting place for the lonely, the misfit, the gays and lesbians, and the predatory creatives, with a sprinkling of GIs at a loose end.

Judi Dench plays owner Christine, a part she would go on to play on stage, an earthy and needy woman seeking purpose in middle age. As her customers seek work, hookups, and money, the backdrop of the death camps abroad and the changing face of British life is harshly depicted.

A cast which includes Bill Nighy, Francesca Annis, Ronald Pickup, Charles Gray and Betty Marsden keep this one moving in its one claustrophobic location, the pink lights and prickly social life of La vie en rose.

Uncle Vanya (written by Anton Chekhov, directed by Gregory Mosher). Region 1 DVD Anton Chekhov Collection.

The classic Russian drama is led by David Warner’s Vanya and Ian Holm’s Astrov (too old as a love interest for Sonia, but believable as a jaded professional seeing the pretty and unhappy wife of Ian Bannen’s old professor as fair game.)

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is a bit of a disappointment as Yelena, but there are compensations with Warner feeling every inch the middle-aged man taken for granted all his life and Rachel Kempson as his sharp-tongued mother.

Nona (written by Roberto Casso & adapted by Michael Hastings, directed by Simon Curtis).

A savage and satirical political allegory set in contemporary Argentina, Nona is the story of a poor family of Italian immigrants struggling to survive the greed of their monstrous matriarch who eats constantly.

Les Dawson is an inspired choice for the title role, saying little but displaying a perfectly calculated physical comedy as the family around the grandma (including Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, and Jane Horrocks) heads for destruction.

This ink-black tale was last revived with a working-class Glasgow setting as Yer Granny. As Nona, it hints at several issues, including prostitution, entrapment, and dementia.

Old Times (written by Harold Pinter, directed by Simon Curtis).

A taut three-hander, which was previously filmed in 1975, Old Times, is the story of Deeley (John Malkovich), his wife Kate (Kate Nelligan), and her old friend Anna (Miranda Richardson).

Whether you approach this as a fantasy in the husband’s head, or a literal depiction of memories where the catatonic Kate and lively Anna may be part of the same personality, it is a play which has moments which entertain.

Malkovich and Richardson have a winning rapport, but it feels more one of regret than reconcilliation. I’ll be watching the earlier version at some point in the future for comparison.

Top Girls (written by Caryl Churchill, directed by Max Stafford-Clark).

With a cast of seven women, this play still feels fresh in its depiction of feminism, friendship, office politics, and family drama. Lesley Manville’s Marlene gains a promotion and amasses a party of historical figures to celebrate.

I’ve watched this on stage in recent years (without the cross-casting between the act 1 dinner and the rest of the play) and feel the screen versuon loses a little of its atmosphere and wordplay.

In Top Girls, the best performances come from Lesley Sharp’s fearful and developmentally challenged teenager and from Cecily Hobbs as a matter-of-fact Pope Joan.

The Trials of Oz (written by Geoffrey Robertson & John Mortimer, directed by Sheree Folkson).

A screen original using the court transcripts of the Oz Schoolkids issue obscenity case, with Hugh Grant as Richard Neville. An intriguing watch, as Leslie Phillips as the presiding judge, Nigel Hawthorne as the prosecutor and Simon Callow as the defence (Mortimer).

With ripe and rich language, The Trials of Oz shows how bizarre the gulf was between the establishment and the counterculture of the 1970s, with some interesting depictions of famous faces from John Peel, to Marty Feldman.

What do you think?

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