Archive for October, 2013

Exploring our place in the Universe and the Universe’s place in us, Rachel Blackman’s new play, created with her company, at first seems too burdened with grandiose and pretentious ideas.  Our initial meeting with it’s two characters is also unpromising, as they tell of their lives through photographs that we cannot see, not helping us to get drawn in and empathise with them. Both are forty-somethings; Leila (Blackman herself) is a frumpy, clumsy museum assistant, inherently a scientist; Shahab (Jules Munns) is a displaced Iranian aspiring film maker, lacking direction and inherently an artist. The play’s conceit is that, just as we were all created by cosmic collisions, so these two lives are transformed when they, quite literally, collide and, at the point of collision, the drama too is transformed. We now have an intensely human story of how a friendship, always platonic, inspires two people to develop as individuals and realise their full potential in life. Superb music and lighting underpin the production, but, mostly it is the outstanding performances that ultimately make this extremely moving.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviewst:

So the clocks are going back, the gloom of Winter is descending, can there be a more appropriate time for wallowing in a little cynicism? Forget all those songs about love and affection, here is a collection to bomb any rom-com and massacre St Valentine’s Day. The St James Studio is a perfect cabaret venue with a bar in the corner inviting us to drain our half empty bottles and get into the swing of the evening. Already a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, this show is written and performed by Michael Roulston and Sarah-Louise Young, he seated at a grand piano, she taking the lead on most of the songs. They have collaborated as songwriters for seven years, their close rapport being evident in all the numbers and in the amiable banter between them. The pair’s other current show is Julie, Madly, Deeply which is inspired by Julie Andrews, so here they have the perfect antidote to too many spoonfuls of sugar. The anti-romantic mood is established with Let’s Not Fall in Love and, when love threatens to enter the air, Roulston repels it by warning I Play Around. Just as moonlight and roses might inspire some songwriters, in this show the inspiration is the morning after as Young chants Lovers at Breakfast. She moves from here to maternity, delivering the first half showstopper Please Don’t Hand Me Your Baby, the chorus of which leads with the catch line “your baby is ugly”, likely to be repeated by the entire audience for days afterwards. After the interval, Young assumes the guise of her alter ego La Poule Plombee (frumpy pigeon), a suicidal French torch singer. Her set includes a Piaf style rendition of My Little Black Dress and she leads an audience singalong with Malcontent. Returning as herself, Young offers the ultimate put down to any male suitor, singing I Fancy Your Father, the second half showstopper. All the lyrics are bristling with caustic wit, giving us almost a laugh a line, and they are delivered by two seasoned cabaret performers whose presentation and timing are perfection. This was a one-off reprise of the Edinburgh show, but it must surely re-appear. In the meantime, the cd is already available.

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A big hit already in New York, Nicky Silver’s acerbic take on dysfunctional family life gets its UK premier here. In Act I, the family gathers around the hospital bed of the dying father (Nicholas Day); the mother (Isla Blair) is a domineering and insensitive matriarch; daughter Lisa (Charlotte Randle) is an alcoholic divorcee with two children; son Curtis (Tom Ellis) is gay and quite seriously disturbed. We watch in discomfort as the four ride roughshod over the sensitivities of each of the others and it is an often hilarious spectacle.  Act II is darker, less funny but more poignant. Events take a darker turn as each member, in different ways, strikes for independence from a family unit that they realise is corroded and corrosive. The production is briskly paced and superbly acted by a British cast, all adopting very convincing New York accents. This is one of the best non-musical productions yet staged at the Menier.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Fatherland, along with its companion piece, Motherland, has been conceived by the performance artist Nic Green to explore her Scottish roots and to enhance her understanding of herself in relation to her origins. She performs the piece assisted by three drummers and a piper. When first appearing, she creates a severe image, sporting a sculptured haircut and wearing a natty business suit, but her soft and sympathetic voice quickly belies that image. The performance begins well with a poem about space, describing distance, proximity, detachment and belonging. Green is assisted by male volunteers from the audience who alternate lines or verses with her. The contrasting voices add resonance to the words, making the reading touching and thought-provoking. It is poignant in its content and potent in its style of delivery. Sadly, the poem is much too short and the spoken word is to play very little part in the remainder of the evening. There now follows a protracted sequence in which Green performs steps from a Scottish jig and draws a large chalk circle, presumably defining her personal boundaries and those of her country. She is accompanied by the beating of drums and only the increasing volume of the unrelenting percussion prevents this laborious process from being soporific. Towards the end, any intervention, even that by bag pipes is soothing to the ears. Once enclosed inside her circle, Green performs what could be described as “The Dance of the Seven-Piece Trouser Suit”, removing almost all of her attire. If this dance, like the jig, had originated from the Highlands, it could surely have led to severe cases of frost bite. She prances across the diameter and around the circumference of the circle in a state of near undress, making us feel as if we have stumbled by chance upon some bizarre aerobics class. She seems to be making a bold declaration of the defiance and vulnerability embodied in the Scottish spirit, but she is personifying much less the dignity of her proud nation. In the midst of all the symbolism, we are entitled to ask whether any of this really informs us or even entertains us. Never mind, consolation is at hand as bottles of Scotland’s finest produce are passed around the audience. It hardly matters that being served spirits by a topless waitress belongs more to the heritage of Soho than to that of Scotland, as no-one is complaining. Soon Green exclaims “I don’t know how to end it”, but the temptation to shout back *as soon as possible” is resisted. By now the golden nectar has begun to cast its spell and a more appropriate response seems to be “another dram please”.

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This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Emily Bronte’s classic novel has received many film and television adaptations, inspired a Kate Bush hit song and even a Cliff Richard stage musical, but no interpretation comes to mind that is quite as unorthodox as this 60 minute performance piece, first seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. With the audience seated on all four sides of the performance area, four men, all bearded and bare-footed, play the characters male and female, the horses, the wind and anything else that needs portraying. They are the creator, Peter McMaster and his collaborators Nicholas Anderson, Thom Scullion and Murray Wason. They use words, movement and music (Kate Bush recordings and traditional folk songs which they sing themselves). This is not a cohesive telling of Bronte’s story, rather it is a collection of sequences drawing inspiration from her characters, settings and themes. The unifying concept is an exploration of masculinity, in which the four men delve into their inner feelings as their characters face various challenges. At times, there is a sense of improvisation, giving rise to uncertainty as to whether the performers are speaking as their characters or as themselves, drawing from their personal experiences and emotions. It is this uncertainty that makes the piece so riveting. In contrast to any perceived improvisation, the movement is balletic and perfectly choreographed. Moments of intensity are followed by moments of levity, we are always expecting the unexpected, always on edge and filled with curiosity. The bleak and harsh landscape of the Yorkshire Moors overhangs every scene. We hear of love and loss, freedom and attachment, wanderlust and belonging to a place. At times our senses are assaulted visually and aurally – decibels rise as a mother harangues her son in a brutal interrogation, all four men have simultaneous coughing fits, the horses neigh loudly as they run across the open moorland. This is an unconventional and at times exciting piece of theatre. The narrative thread and character detail of Bronte’s novel have been jettisoned, but their loss is made up for by the sincerity and energy of the performers who give their all.

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photo-95The producers and backers of this show are brave people. Nowadays, new musicals are either manufactured using already familiar hit songs or, if they have an original score, they are usually scaled down for smaller, less expensive venues, as with the recent London premiers of “Titanic” and “The Color Purple”. In a large theatre, with a 30+ little known cast, a full orchestra and an original score by an unknown composer, this show completely bucks the trend in modern musical theatre. The only recognisable name on the posters is that of the lyricist, Tim Rice who, since his hay day 30 years and more ago, has hardly been prolific. “From Here to Eternity” was originally a novel by James Jones, then turned into a 1953 film which, although hugely successful in it’s day, may not mean much to many modern theatregoers. It is set in 1941 amongst US soldiers stationed in Hawaii during the period leading up to the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbour. It tells two parallel love stories: Private Prewitt is a defiant rebel who falls for Lorene, a hooker; Sergeant Warden starts a torrid affair with Karen, the wife of his commanding officer. It matters little that the nature of these relationships now seems dated, but there is an ugly gay sub-plot that clashes more than a little with 2013 sensitivities. Knowing the setting before the curtain rises could lead to expectations for something like “South Pacific”, which had a similar location, similar characters and remarkably similar plot lines. However, it is as if everyone involved realised these similarities at the very beginning and set about avoiding comparisons at all costs. The score includes hardly any Hawaiian influences, which is a pity because there are several sections when an injection of lightness and brightness is much needed. Rodgers and Hammerstein knew what they were doing and the creators of this show could have learned from them without copying them. Worse still are the dreary sets with subdued lighting that makes it seem as if we are viewing through a sepia-tinted lens. It is a mystery why director Tamara Harvey and designer Soutra Gilmour would think that an island paradise looks like the inside of a seedy Soho night club. Lack of spectacle could well lead to the show’s downfall and things are not helped by dance sequences that are, at best, perfunctory. With a company of this size, we are entitled to expect more. From here, the news gets better. Rice has lost none of his skills and his lyrics are first rate even if their integration into Bill Oakes’ book is not as seamless as it could be. Stuart Bravson’s score is full of strong melodies and powerful anthems. It is always a good sign when the audience leaves the theatre humming tunes from the show and appreciation of these songs could well improve with repeated hearings. The leading performances are also excellent. Robert Lonsdale is a stubborn and later pugnacious Prewitt, delivering his big song, “Fight the Fight” with gusto. Darius Campbell (formerly known as Danesh and before that just Darius) has a formidable stage presence and a rich, deep singing voice, so that, even if his acting is sometimes slightly wooden, he is just about perfect as Warden. As Lorene and Karen, Siubhan Harrison and Rebecca Thornhill are both alluring and have beautiful singing voices. Additionally, Ryan Sampson as Angelo, the role famously played by Frank Sinatra in the film, is a bundle of energy, railing against the system until ultimately being defeated by it. The Shaftesbury has, in the past, been the graveyard for many musicals. Although this one is a curate’s egg, it has sufficient quality to merit the hope that those who had the courage to bring it to the stage should be rewarded by not seeing it follow in the path of unfortunate predecessors here. My fear is that it is too old fashioned and does not have enough of the ingredients needed to capture the public’s imagination, but I sincerely hope that I am wrong.

London Film Festival 2013

Posted: October 17, 2013 in Cinema

Abuse of Weakness** (France, dir Catherine Breillat)

At this screening, writer/director Catherine Breillat appeared, clearly still suffering the after effects of a stroke. The film concerns a female film maker who suffers a massive stroke and, during her recuperation, becomes obsessed with an habitual criminal, allowing him to drain her of her considerable funds. He abuses her for her weakness and she, in turn, abuses him, using her weakness as an excuse. Mostly she abuses herself. The biggest asset in this tortuously slow film is the superb performance of Isabelle Huppert as the central character. Breillat may be commended for wanting to share the psychological traumas suffered by stroke victims, but there is a lot more to admire in her film than there is to enjoy.

Don Jon*** (USA, dir Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stakes his claim to be the next Clint Eastwood with this macho comedy which he writes, directs and stars in as Jon, a young New York bartender who is obsessed with porn. The arrival of Scarlett Johansson on the scene threatens to break his habit and, thereby, turn the film into a predictable chick flick; thankfully, this pitfall is well avoided and, even if the script could benefit from touches of Woody Allen’s dry wit (“sex with someone I love”), it is sufficiently original to provide ample amusement. The appearance in a supporting role of Julianne Moore serves as a reminder that another film, “Boogie Nights”, once delved in to the porn industry; if this does not quite deliver the cynical humour of that film, at least it is not a rom-com.

Eastern Boys**** (France, dir Robin Campillo)

The boys of the title are a gang of young men from non-EU Eastern European countries, staying illegally in Paris and living off the proceeds from petty crime and prostitution. After they have descended upon the apartment of a gay man to rob him of all his possessions, one of their number returns to form an uneasy relationship with the man. Robin Campillo’s film is part human drama, part thriller and it works well on both levels. Olivier Rabourdin and Kirill Emelyanov underplay the main roles and the characters’ struggle to find a common language means that the dialogue is sparse; however, their failure to communicate their feelings to us actually works to the film’s advantage by making the unpredictable plot developments still more surprising. The film moves at a slow and meticulous pace, building to a superb climax that is both nerve-racking and emotionally satisfying.

Ida**** (Poland/Denmark, dir Pawel Pawlikowski)

This was voted the Best Film in competition.

Ida, is a young girl, sent as a small child to a convent and now ready to take her vows as a nun; but, before doing so, she is sent out to meet her only known relative, an aunt. Set in the early 1960s and beautifully shot, entirely in black and white, this film is a journey of discovery for the girl as she tries to unearth the truth about the fate of her Jewish parents. The Polish landscape in town and country appears bleak and unwelcoming; this is a nation that continues to be haunted by the ravages of World War II. Agata Kulesza plays Ida, showing little emotion. The film would have had more dramatic impetus if we could have known Ida better and had more insights into her inner thoughts, but her beauty and her stillness serve well to symbolise a nation that has had its heart ripped out. Very moving.

Like Father, Like Son*** (Japan, dir Hirokazu Kore-eda)

A gentle and heart-warming Japanese comedy concerning two married couples who discover that their 6 year old sons were swapped in the maternity hospital just after birth. As the mothers are both portrayed sympathetically, the focus is firmly on the fathers – one a high-flying architect who may, very occasionally, find time to spend with his family, the other a lazy, hard-up shopkeeper who is an attentive and loving parent. So, are genetic ties more important than the bonds developed during 6 years together as a family? Is it better for children to learn to play the piano or to fly kites? Should fathers be best at raking in cash or at mending broken toys? The film’s themes are fascinating and sometimes complex, but the writer/director approaches them with the lightest of touches and always keeps us entertained.

Mystery Road*** (Australia, dir Ivan Sen)

The unusual setting of the Australian outback gives a twist to what is otherwise a routine crime thriller. Aaron Pedersen, playing an Aboriginal cop is at the centre of almost every scene and there is a strong sub-text relating to the tensions between Aborigines and the white community. After the screening, the veteran actor Jack Thompson, who has a cameo role in the film, talked eloquently about these tensions and threw considerable light on the undercurrents to the narrative, thereby making what had seemed a very average film far more interesting. On the plus side, the cinematography is stunning and the unusual setting and characters give the film a distinctive feel. But, unfortunately, the languid pace and confusing plot are sleep-inducing, particularly in the early stages, and the film’s claims to realism are blown away by a ludicrous shoot-out finale.

Parkland*** (USA, dir Peter Landesman)

The writer/director has a background in journalism and has produced a well researched documentary style account of the ordinary people involved, by chance, in the Kennedy assassination – the hospital staff, security officers, the man shooting a home movie, the assassin’s family. Real footage is integrated well with dramatised reconstructions. Seeing Zak Effron at the head of the cast list was not encouraging, but the film is well acted and stalwarts such as Billy Bob Thornton, Marcia Gay Harden and Paul Giamatti provide a touch of class. As there is no central focus, the film lacks a dramatic knockout punch. It is always interesting but it deals with footnotes to the pages of history and, just as they are easily forgotten, so will this film be.

Philomena**** (UK/France, dir Stephen Frears)

With an ever dependable director and much loved star (Judi Dench), this could hardly fail, but it turns out to be more than worth the accolades and success that will inevitably come its way. It tells of Martin Sixsmith, former BBC Washington correspondent who, after being “resigned” as a spin doctor with the Blair mob, takes on what he at first sees as a demeaning job, covering a human interest story. Philomena is an elderly lady who, 50 years earlier in Ireland, had given birth to an illegitimate son; she was forced to take refuge in a convent from which the child was effectively sold for adoption in America against her wishes. The film is produced and co-written (from Sixsmith’s book) by Steve Coogan who also plays Sixsmith. He is perfect for conveying the world weary cynicism of a journalist down on his luck and the humorous relationship between his and Dench’s characters as they search for the son is what drives the film. Being fact based, the story does not follow a traditional Hollywood format and is all the better for that. What is most surprising for what is essentially a lightweight comedy/drama is the strength and passion with which it denounces the Roman Catholic church for its pious hypocrisy and deceitfulness. Funny and very moving, this film is even better than its thoroughbred pedigree could have led us to expect.

Saving Mr Banks**** (USA, dir Lee Hancock)

Closing the Festival, that rarest of things – a quality film from one of the big Hollywood studios. This film about film-making is a mixture of comedy and drama which is sheer enjoyment from first to last. Emma Thompson plays PL Travers, author of “Mary Poppins” and the film covers her clashes with Walt Disney over the filming of her book. It also flashes back to her early days in Australia when she doted over her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and witnessed the pain of her mother (Ruth Wilson); and then a nanny landed on the family’s doorstep. Thompson and Hanks wring every possible laugh out of the culture clash comedy, but it is the haunting portrait of a woman severely damaged by childhood traumas that will live longest in the memory.

Starred Up**** (UK, dir David Mackenzie)

This won the award for Best Screenplay of the films in competition.

Jonathan Asser’s first screenplay draws from his own experience as a psychologist leading a prison therapy group. The central character, played by Jack O’Connell is a young offender, transferred to an adult prison because of his uncontrollable violent behaviour, who finds himself on the same wing as his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn). This taut, absorbing film is unflinching in its depiction of prison brutality and is shot in a naturalistic style, with the threat of violence hanging over every scene. Sometimes the dialogue is difficult to decipher, but the performances from a largely unknown cast are very strong and the insights into the psychology of violence give the drama emotional depth.

12 Years a Slave**** (USA, dir Steve McQueen)

Many films win Oscars for ticking all the politically correct boxes, but this does not necessarily make them great films. So is this, the current Oscar favourite, a great film or just a worthy one? Based on an autobiographical book by Solomon Northup, it tells of an accomplished black violinist who is abducted from his home in Saratoga, New York State and sold into slavery in Georgia in the 1840s. As would be expected of Steve McQueen, the cinematography is exquisite and every shot is perfectly framed; he creates many images in the film that are likely to prove unforgettable. He also draws magnificent performances from all his cast, particularly Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and Michael Fassbender as a demented plantation owner, although the latter exemplifies one of the film’s flaws, It portrays the slave owners and traders too simplistically as demonic ogres; if it is possible for us to accept that they believed in their rights of ownership and needed to protect their financial investments, we are given no help in understanding why they behaved with such extreme inhumanity. The other problem lies with a narrative structure in which the central point that slavery is an abomination is so overwhelming and pushed so relentlessly that all plot deviations and sub-texts are excluded. This results in the middle of the film becoming bogged down and predictable. The story needs something to hold us in suspense, wondering what the next development could be or how things will ultimately be resolved. Yet how can this be possible when even the title gives too much away? Nonetheless this is a story that needed to be told and needed to be told as vividly as it is here. With people trafficking rife across Europe, slavery is not a problem that was consigned to history in the century before last. Here, the depiction of slavery is graphic and unflinching, but, speaking in a quieter voice, the case aganst it was argued much more eloquently in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. This is a very good film, but not quite a great one.

Under the Skin** (USA, dir Jonathan Glazer)

A weird superimposition of surreal images on a very real setting, which sees an alien getting into the skin of Scarlett Johansson to roam around Glasgow and surrounding areas, picking up various stray men on her way. Several of the sequences would be striking as shorts, but, strung together and stretched out to feature length, they become repetitive. The lack of a narrative thread and an emotional heart to the film, leaves us uninvolved observers and it all becomes rather tedious.

photo-91If Rufus Norris wants to ensure that his tenure as head of the National is a success, maybe he should simply appoint Marianne Elliott to direct every production. Returning to the home of her triumphs with “War Horse” and “The Curious Incident…”, she has created a musical show that is, in the first half at least, as magical as anything I have seen in six decades of theatregoing. Taking a children’s story of a princess who loses her gravity and her ability to cry whilst grieving for her mother and then floats around aimlessly until saved by her handsome prince, she has conjured up a world of wonder. The princess defies gravity, birds fly around, small animals inhabit all parts of the stage, characters swim with fish in a lake and it all comes together seamlessly. The “War Horse” trick of using near invisible puppeteers is repeated, but, in this case the princess is often a human puppet and Rosalie Craig in the title role shows astonishing balletic skill. It all provides a stunning spectacle, choreographed to perfection, giving so much magic to a show that, sadly, brings very little magic of its own. The story is as light as the princess herself, the hero and heroine are not consistently sympathetic and the villains are not sufficiently villainous. However, most disappointing of all is Tori Amos’ score which is bland and lacking in both variety and melody; it is difficult to identify songs as such, mostly we just get sung dialogue, but when the characters sing about gravity, it reminds us of another similar show and puts everything here into perspective. Leaving aside the brilliant staging, this is nowhere near as good and nowhere near as much fun as “Wicked”. It also seems crazy that the National is promoting the production as suitable for 13+ ages, thereby excluding a large part of the audience to which it will appeal most; if this is because the story includes a pregnancy out of wedlock, someone needs reminding that this is 2013. In the end the show may be judged as another triumph for Ms Elliott, but perhaps the nature of her achievement should be seen less as creating a hit, more as saving us from the biggest turkey this side of Christmas.

photo-88Entering the theatre, there is the smell of freshly sawn wood, befitting a set that looks like the warehouse at IKEA. Exactly what this has to do with 14th Century monarchy never becomes clear, but it is the first of countless eccentric touches to staging, costumes and casting that embellish this version of Christopher Marlowe’s play. As played by John Heffernan, Edward is a hapless figure, pilloried by the nobility over his relationship with his gay lover, Piers Gaveston (Kyle Soller, who, fittingly, also plays the King’s executioner). Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production is lively, inventive, fast-moving and lucid always offering something interesting to catch the eye. Maybe it is not entirely appropriate for the hokey-cokey to be played after a battle or for the Queen to be a chain smoker and, indeed, some of the weird ideas work better than others. However, overall it is fun and, considering the grizzly nature of parts of the story, fun is quite an achievement. A conventional interpretation of this play is likely to have proved more than a little turgid, so the National is to be congratulated.

photo-94It is remarkable to realise that a play that delves into infidelity, illegitimacy and the effects of inherited syphilis, and includes suggestions of incest and euthenasia, could have emanated from the late 19th Century, but this is that play. Richard Eyre directs his own new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s work, having streamlined it to a mere 90 minutes with no interval. Eyre’s approach means that the neatly ordered world that we see at the beginning of the play disintegrates completely in a very short and continuous time span, seemingly during the course of one evening. So, suspension of disbelief is essential. However, once that hurdle has been cleared, the rewards are enormous, because this condensed version delivers drama of a rare intensity, culminating in a shattering climax. Eyre’s next masterstroke is the casting of the magnificent Lesley Manville in the lead role of Helene Alving, who describes her home as “a university of suffering”. Her heart-rending performance is complemented well by Jack Lowden as her doomed son, but not so well by Will Keen, who is slightly unconvincing as the oily and hypocritical Pastor Manders. Beyond the acting, the production is impressively mounted; a beautiful set, predominantly dark green with translucent walls, is half lit to suggest a bleak Norwegian Winter during which the sun hardly ever shines. Here is a place that readily invites the ghosts of past misdemeanours to return and destroy the present. This is a top class production, brave and powerful.