Writers and directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Being one for whom Joel and Ethan Coen can do no wrong (okay I may be overlooking The Ladykillers), every new film from the Brothers seems to me like a major event, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, already a prize winner at the Venice International Film Festival, turns out to be a major, major event. 

An anthology of six short stories set during America’s pioneering days in the second half of the 19th Century, the film looks at first to be paying homage to the traditions of the Old West. However, on closer inspection, it is not doing that at all. It is paying homage, both highly critically and deeply cynically, to Old Hollywood and its classic Westerns of the ‘30s-‘50s, now largely consigned to the dustbin of political incorrectness, but still embedded firmly in American and world culture.

At times it feels as if the Brothers are acting as tour guides, leading us around every landscape and every studio set once trodden on by John Ford. All the clichés are here too: sharp-shooting cowboys, a gun dual, a lynch mob, whisky-drenched saloons, travelling entertainers, gold prospectors, a wagon train, a stage coach. All here but spiked with savage and unexpected twists. Here also are scenes, shocking to more enlightened modern audiences, of Native Americans portrayed as marauding Red Indian savages. If these scenes prove to be controversial, we have to ask how could the Coens have highlighted the massive injustices done to a noble race by the film industry without illustrating what those injustices were.

The film’s title is also that of its first segment, a riotously funny tale of a singing gun slinger (Tim Blake Nelson), a character in the mould of Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. It is followed by Near Algodones, also jokey, in which a bungling bank robber (James Franco) finds his nemesis. Now the film gets darker with Meal Ticket, a profoundly disturbing story, told in dimly-lit scenes, of a travelling impresario (Liam Neeson) and his limbless star attraction (Harry Melling), who recites pious tomes to dwindling saloon bar audiences. This segment is the stuff of nightmares.

All Gold Canyon is lighter and marked by glorious cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel), as a prospector (Tom Waits) searches painstakingly for gold and battles to protect his find. The cinematography is also stunning in The Gal Who Got Rattled, the story of a young woman (Zoe Kazan) who, along with her brother and his noisy Jack Russell terrier named President Pierce, joins a wagon train heading for an uncertain future in Oregon. This is the longest and most engaging segment incorporating action, romance and tragedy among the contradictory elements that once filled Western movies, accompanied by a lush orchestral score by Carter Burwell, in the style of Aaron Copland.

The film’s ending is as dark as its beginning is light. The Mortal Remains could be described as a journey through Purgatory to Hell. The passengers on a stage coach which has a dead body on its roof are a lady (Tyne Daly), an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), and Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and a trapper (Chelcie Ross). It is a doom-laden conversation piece that remains deliberately enigmatic.

Throughout the film, human life is a cheap commodity. The Western cinema genre, which forms a key part of America’s cultural heritage is laid bare and, as a consequence, all the arguments of politicians who eschew compassion in favour of greed and champion the right to bear arms are exposed as empty. It seems as if the Coens are posing the intriguing question of whether the ailments afflicting modern America are rooted in its history or in Hollywood, which proliferated and magnified flimsy myths and legends. With all this in mind, I am now leaving this site for a couple of weeks to visit the Deep South and Tame (?) West of the USA. Wish me luck!


Photo by Mark Douet

Writer and director: David Morton

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The prime functions of theatre are said to be to entertain, educate and inform and David Morton’s production of The Wider Earth, first seen in Australia, makes a fairly good stab at ticking all three boxes. The fact that the Natural History Museum has created a space in its Darwin Centre especially for the show signals a solid seal of approval in the last two categories, but how does the show fare as entertainment?

The action covers the five-year period beginning in 1831, when the 22-year-old freshly graduated Charles Darwin sets sail as the naturalist on HMS Beagle to circumnavigate the globe. Acting as a sort of pre-television Sir David Attenborough, he reports back home on the exotic life that he encounters on distant shores. Turning to adventure in preference to a career in the clergy, Darwin asks “does the world really need another miserable priest?”, little knowing that the theories which he was to develop would make many more priests miserable by overturning teachings of the Old Testament.

Bradley Foster’s Darwin is so wholesome and unswervingly earnest that some may find him irritating, but Morton’s play has no room for baddies. Our hero’s girlfriend, Emma Wedgwood (Melissa Vaughan) is, we are told, instrumental in the movement to abolish slavery while the Beagle is away and even the creatures on display seem unnaturally friendly. We wonder where the fierce carnivores and venomous snakes might be hiding and kids who enjoy being scared are likely to be disappointed.

The opening scenes are unpromising, with stilted dialogue and wooden performances giving the flavour of a dull Jane Austen adaptation. However, when the voyage gets underway, butterflies start to flutter and birds start to soar, as the puppets of Morton’s Dead Puppets Society take over. Iguanas and giant turtles stride across the stage and the set, designed by Morton and Aaron Barton, revolves constantly, evolving into a rock to be clambered over and then a ship to sail through storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as nature turns on itself.

Effects are created by projections, designed by Justin Harrison, and lighting, designed by Lee Curran. We see shoals of fish, large and small, swimming and cinema-style music composed by Lior and Tony Buchen, adds drama to the land and sea images. Both the magnificence of the natural world and the thrill of discovery are captured perfectly.

In spoken scenes, the production remains pedestrian. The characters of the Beagle’s Captain,  Robert Fitzroy (Jack Parry-Jones), his second in command, John Wickham (Matt Tait), a slave taken on board, Jemmy (Marcello Cruz), Darwin’s father, Robert (Ian Houghton) and his mentor, Reverend John Henslow (Andrew Bridgmont) are all sturdy but under-developed. The play’s emphasis is always on simplistic storytelling, but Morton finds time to incorporate debates on the abomination of slavery and on the theological implications of the ideas, still at an embryonic stage, which Darwin is forming.

Aimed very clearly at younger audiences, Morton’s show is technically ingenious. It succeeds in its aim to stimulate interest in the natural world and, in so doing, it should also light up enthusiasm for the magic of live theatre. If a production is as stirring as this visually, we need to forgive it for the times when it feels a little stale dramatically.

Performance date: 11 October 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Mythic (Charing Cross Theatre)

Posted: October 9, 2018 in Theatre

Book and lyrics: Marcus Stevens      Music: Oran Eldor      Director and choreographer: Sarah O’Gleby

⭐️⭐️

The good news is that, when the time comes around for looking back on the year, Mythic is unlikely to be named as the worst new musical to hit London in 2018. The bad news is that there are many times during its 90 minutes that it feels like a pretty close runner-up. Interpreting classic mythology in the style of an American High School musical, the show moves very awkwardly between Greece and Grease and only the high-spirited, tongue-in-cheek production that it gets here saves it from immediate consignment to the Underworld.

Persephone is a rebellious teenager, eager to escape the clutches of her over-protective mother, Demeter, a goddess who has incurred the displeasure of King of the Gods, Zeus. Forbidden to attend a rave party at the Acropolis in the company of Zeus’ daughter, Aphrodite, Persephone goes anyway and falls for ne-er-do-well dude, Hades. “Do you know where I can call a chariot” she asks and, then, when she should be telling her suitor to go to Hell, she realises that he lives there and she decides to follow him home.

Writer Marcus Steven relies on song lyrics to tell the story, using little spoken dialogue and he incorporates some quite clever jokes. The problem is that the whole show is so laughably preposterous that further jokes feel superfluous. Oran Eldor’s rock score, played by a six-piece band led by Music Director Chris Ma, is short on originality and the songs eventually start to feel repetitious and monotonous.

Georgie Westall’s Persephone, kitted out in a tartan miniskirt, is a bundle of energy, bringing sunshine to everywhere she goes, including Hell. “It doesn’t have to be like this” she tells Hades (Michael Mather with flame red hair and wearing Hell’s Angels gear), persuading him to suspend the torturing of innocent virgins for the day. Meanwhile, Demeter, played by Daniella Bowen, in an off-the-shoulder evening gown, as a lady with real balls, kills a cyclops in her quest to reclaim her lost daughter. Not bad for a woman in her “early thousands”.

Genevieve McCarthy’s Aphrodite is a spoiled little rich girl in a sparkling trouser suit and Tim Oxbrow’s Zeus resembles a small town American sheriff. They descend into Hell with Demeter but the show never quite descends into Greek tragedy, partly because of its short running time and partly because of director/choreographer Sarah O’Gleby’s work in making fun out of the nonsense, even when the material seems to be fighting against her.

A final thought could give encouragement to Stevens and Eldor. Stephen Sondheim sourced his 1974 flop musical The Frogs from ancient Greece and look what happened to him.

Performance date: 8 October 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Writer: Joy Wilkinson      Director: Kirsty Patrick Ward

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It could come as a surprise to many that, 143 years before Nicola Adams picked up her first Olympic Gold Medal, women’s boxing was already underway. Writer Joy Wilkinson delves into this little-known activity for her new play and uses it as the foundation for a startling, visceral account of early feminist struggles.

In 1869, former boxer “Professor” Charlie Sharp (Bruce Alexander) is promoting women’s

boxing bouts at his Angel Islington amphitheatre, masking them as scientific experiments. He invents the title “Champion of the World” and offers four possible contenders. Polly Stokes (Fiona Skinner) is a rough tomboy from the North, supposedly over-shadowed by her step-brother, aspiring boxer Paul (James Baxter). Matilda Blackwell (Jessica Regan) is a single Irish woman, paid a pittance as a typesetter at The Times and forced to work on the streets in order to survive.

Anna Lamb (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) is a dutiful middle class wife and mother whose callous husband Gabriel (Joe Coen) becomes one of Matilda’s clients. Violet Hunter (Sophie Bleasdale) is financially dependent on her Aunt George (Caroline Harker), a meek supporter of the burgeoning movement for women’s suffrage. A nurse whose ambitions to become a doctor are thwarted, Violet seeks a more aggressive outlet for her frustration. Fate brings the four contenders together and into the boxing ring.

Structured in short scenes, the play feels fragmented in its early stages, but vivid writing and acting ensure that strong characters emerge quickly and take a firm hold. Wilkinson allows her work to be propelled more by its feminist sentiments than by plotting, but she weaves the four story strands, each representing a different area of female grievance, together skilfully. Combatants in the ring become comrades in life, rising against oppression in the home, on the streets and in the workplace. The writing is indeed bruising and striking images of raw violence, which contradict the familiar gentility of Victorian ladies, magnify its impact.

Director Kirsty Patrick Ward’s production captures the urgency and anger in the writing, drawing scenes together with melodramatic music. Fight scenes, directed by Alison de Burgh, give a visual dimension to the drama, highlighting the bloodiness of the women’s battles in and out of the ring. The studio space here is near-perfect for this play and designer Anna Reid does not need to do much to replicate the atmosphere of a boxing arena. However, her period costumes bring colour to the production and help to emphasise the contrasts in the stories.

Wilkinson’s men amount to very little. Charlie is a has-been, Gabriel is a dastardly villain and Paul lacks the stamina to keep up with hyperactive Polly. It is her women who dominate, delivering blow after blow and eventually achieving a knockout.

Performance date: 5 October 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Writer: Hugh Whitemore      Director: Hannah Chissick

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Recent events in Salisbury have brought back the chill of the Cold War, making this revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1983 play particularly timely and, with the Menier’s air-conditioning on a high setting, the audience feels that chill too. Pack of Lies is based on the real-life Portland Spy Ring affair of the early 1960s, telling the story of an infiltration by Soviet spies into a mundane middle class community in leafy Ruislip.

Barbara and Bob Jackson, the couple whose home is used by the Security Services to observe suspected Soviet agents across the road, were played in the original West End production by Judi Dench and Michael Williams. Here, their daughter, Finty Williams, is Barbara and Maggie Smith’s son, Chris Larkin, is Bob. Enthusiasts for thespian trivia will also note that Jasper Briton, who plays Stewart (we assume an MI5 agent), is the son of veteran actor Tony Britton.

The play contrasts ordinary everyday suburban British life with the fictional worlds of John le Carré and Ian Fleming. Paul Farnsworth’s meticulously detailed set and costumes capture ‘60s drab perfectly. An unfitted kitchen sits beside a cosy wall-papered living room, an open staircase rises from the hallway and a black Ford Consul is parked on the street outside. The production’s design is so of the period that it does the play the disservice of magnifying it’s old-fashioned style.

Barbara and Bob are “the sort of people who queue and don’t ask questions”. They and their teenage daughter, Julie (Macy Nyman) have become close friends with the Krogers, the Canadian couple who have lived across the road for the last five years. Peter (Alasdair Harvey) works mostly from home and Helen (Tracy-Ann Oberman) loves partying. On reflection, maybe a spy who wants to be as unobtrusive as possible would be less brash than the Helen seen here, but spies the Krogers are suspected of being and Britton’s stern and dapper Stewart bullies the Jacksons into allowing their house to be used as his observation base. Thelma (Natalie Walter) and Sally (Sia Dauda) take turns to keep watch from the front bedroom.

The scene-setting first act of director Hannah Chissick’s production is slow and ponderous, not compensating for the sparkle that is missing from Whitemore’s dialogue. It feels as if the writer and the actors are laying on the dreariness of Barbara and Bob too thickly and thereby making the drama dreary as well. However, intriguing themes begin to emerge, questioning the nature of friendship, loyalty and betrayal. At the heart of the play lies the dilemma of whether or not personal bonds between friends are or should be stronger than bonds with the State.

Main characters all take turns to speak directly to the audience, explaining matters that do not emerge naturally from the scenes, and this gives us useful insights. Once the production is in full stride in the second act, Williams and Larkin give fine performances, she falling apart as a result of her forced duplicity and he standing as her rock, but crumbling inside. Ultimately the play develops to become an overwrought, but nonetheless gripping drama.

Performance date: 2 October 2018

This review was originally  written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.coml

Writer: Nick Dear      Director: Anthony Banks

The Art of Success

⭐️⭐️.⭐️💫

Nick Dear’s 1986 play, The Art of Success, reflecting on the early life of the 18th Century artist William Hogarth, was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It earned an Olivier Award nomination and a transfer to New York. The play is revived here as the first half of a double bill with the World Premiere of its sequel, The Taste of the Town.

Bryan Dick’s Hogarth could just as well be a painter of the house decorating kind as an artist; he is a cheeky Cockney wide boy who is always an outsider among the smart set of London. He divides his time between his prudish wife Jane (Ruby Bentall) and the prostitute Louisa (Emma Cunniffe), the former satisfying his social climbing ambitions, the latter his carnal desires. His art reflects a society in which lust and depravity are masked by superficial propriety, the subjects of his sketches, painting and engravings often being whores and convicted murderers.

Dear gives us a ribald comedy interwoven with debates on artistic themes – beauty versus ugly reality, integrity versus commerce, freedom of expression versus censorship. Hogarth is acquainted with Sir Robert Walpole (a grotesquely seedy Mark Umbers), a corrupt Prime Minister who kisses more than hands with his Queen (Susannah Harker). Walpole’s proposed copyright legislation could help to fill the pockets of Walpole, whose work is being copied freely, but it is accompanied by the introduction of the censorship laws that were to become a blight on British theatre for more than two centuries. This brings great displeasure to another of Walpole’s acquaintances, playwright and budding revolutionary Henry Fielding (Jack Derges), who decides that it is time for him to turn to writing novels.

The play takes us through a series of scrapes that Walpole’s mingling with society’s lower ranks takes him into. Jasmine Jones is splendidly earthy as Sarah Sprackling, a condemned woman who Walpole is commissioned to sketch in Newgate Prison. The artist looks for profit from selling prints after her execution, but Sarah dislikes his work and, insisting that a truthful image should remain after her death, she seeks to destroy it.

The timing of the comedy in Anthony Banks’ lively and free-flowing production is superb. Andrew D Edwards’ ingenious set designs help the staging greatly, using images projected onto a large screen behind an open thrust stage, which has a wide ramp descending into the audience. Two upper walkways convey the feel of an over-built inner city area, populated by the rich, the poor and the destitute.

An amusing twist near the end adds a modern slant on artistic imagery that could not have been part of the play’s original 1986 production. There are some nightmarish scenes and serious undercurrents, but, mostly the jokes come thick and fast and the only times that the play stops being funny are when Dear seems to become a little self-indulgent in expounding views on the arts. Overall, this revival can be branded fairly as a success.

The Taste of the Town

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Written about 30 years after The Art of Success, and picking up on the life of the artist William Hogarth about 30 years after the first play left off, the World Premiere of this sequel forms the second part of a double bill, alongside a revival of its predecessor, all the actors from the first play taking on new roles.

Andrew D Edwards’ set for the opening scene is filled with greenery and dominated by a large Georgian-style house. The Taste of the Town takes us far away from the grimy inner city that we had seen before. “Miles and miles” away from town complains Hogarth’s snooty mother-in-law, as indeed Chiswick may have seemed before the opening of the District line. Squalor and ribaldry are replaced by more genteel comedy, tarts are forsaken in favour of teacakes.

Hogarth is now Sergeant Painter to King George III, able to enjoy the fruits of his artistic endeavours, but instead, he mourns the death of his beloved dog named Trump (pause for laughter) and rues the fact that he is still not held in the same esteem as the European masters or as…well “don’t mention Reynolds”. Apart from a rather touching epilogue, the play covers a single day in which Jane Hogarth (Susannah Harker) and her mother Lady Thornhill (Sylvestra Le Touzel seeming as is if she is auditioning to play Lady Bracknell) go shopping in Piccadilly while Hogarth himself walks upstream along the Thames to Strawberry Hill and back downstream.

The style is more Wildean than Hogarthian, with clever witticisms slipped into the dialogue at regular intervals. Hogarth is accompanied on part of his walk by his friend, the actor David Garrick (Mark Umbers), who is made to to seem overly vain in one of several jokes in the play that are a little too obvious. This plot is all very slight and as meandering as the river along which the artist is walking, but Keith Allen is in magnificent form playing Walpole as gruff, cantankerous and heavy drinking. When the play gets bogged down, Allen dredges it up.

Along the walk, Zachariah Blunt (Ben Deery), a disgruntled one-legged ex-soldier appears and Garrick has to perform, not too reluctantly, a scene from the Scottish Play to prove his identity in one of the play’s excellent comedy set pieces. In another, Walpole calls in at the palatial Strawberry Hill home of Robert Walpole’s son Horace, an acid-tongued art collector and critic. Is it possible that Ian Hallard’s portrayal of Horace is making references to a prominent modern-day right-wing politician?

There is little that is disagreeable about any of this, but director Anthony Banks’ production often feels lacklustre and there is disappointment that Dear picks up on the intriguing debates of his earlier work only fleetingly. The Taste of the Town seems unlikely to become the toast of the town, but Allen’s performance could well do so.

Performance date: 29 September 2018

These reviews were originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Simon Godwin

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Forsaking togas and tiaras in favour of modern military uniforms and designer outfits, director Simon Godwin gives new life to William Shakespeare’s torrid account of a collision between power, politics and passion in the days of the Roman Empire. The age that it can take to perform the full version of this play may often wither the most enthusiastic of audiences, but, happily, there is no praying for a quick entrance by the asp here.

Anthony & Cleopatra combines the epic and the intimate. The Olivier Theatre is a house that always welcomes the former and challenges the latter and, if anything is missing in Godwin’s revival, it is a strong sense of the emotional hold that the central characters possess over each other. However, without significant cutting (the running time is still three hours and 30 minutes including an interval), this production’s triumph is in keeping us enthralled, at least until the particularly tricky last half hour.

At first, Ralph Fiennes’ Mark Antony has the look of a tired businessman, holidaying in Alexandria at the villa of his mistress, Sophie Okonedo’s tempestuous and capricious Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen. He receives news of his wife’s death while wearing an open beach shirt and swigging from a bottle of beer. He returns dutifully to Rome where he is part of the triumvirate running the Empire, along with Lepidus, played by Nicholas Le Provost as a pacifying but weak general, and Octavius Caesar, made by Tunji Kasim to appear as a quick-tempered, ambitious upstart bureaucrat.

The irony of the Italy of 2,000 years ago being ruled by a loose coalition and fending off the threat of invaders from the Mediterranean is not lost in this modern day version of the play. Meanwhile back in Alexandria, poolside and very drunk, Cleopatra learns of Antony’s politically motivated marriage of convenience to Caesar’s sister Octavia (Hannah Morrish) and all but shoots the messenger, Fisayo Akinade’s splendid Eros. This and a later scene are played for broad comedy and a peace conference between the triumvirate and invader Pompey (Sargon Yelda resembling a narcissistic martinet) descends into a drunken brawl.

It is Godwin’s willingness to jettison conventional staging that gives the play modern relevance and helps it to connect with a 2018 audience. It is an approach that may make the emotional core of the drama elusive, but its dividends are paid in the currency of clarity. Hildegard Bechtler’s wonderfully imaginative, but still functional set designs serve the production perfectly, with the revolving stage being used fully to avoid loss of momentum.

Tim McMullan as Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus, giving his sardonic commentary on the events, stands out in a strong ensemble. Okonedo is a radiant and wilful Cleopatra, but she reveals the depth of the Queen’s passion for Antony only in her closing scenes. Fiennes is an actor who exudes authority as soon as he walks onto a stage, yet his most memorable scenes here come when Antony’s authority is dissipating as a result of misjudgements partly caused by his obsession with Cleopatra. Fiennes strides around the stage like a fatally wounded lion, agonised by his decline and desperate to recapture the strength that is slipping away from him.

Leaving the National Theatre and glancing across the River Thames, the Palace of Westminster, scene of countless public battles and private scandals, comes into view. If nothing else, Godwin’s impressive revival brings home how little things change over time.

Performance date: 26 September 2018

Photo: Johan Persson

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com