Archive for August, 2020

Buster Keaton Collection (Volume 3)

Posted: August 26, 2020 in Cinema

Directors: Buster Keaton, John G Blystone and  James W Horne


Around a century after the golden age of silent film comedy, we remember Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and The Keystone Cops, but maybe less so Buster Keaton, who is rated by many as the greatest cinema comic of them all. This limited edition three Blu-ray disc collection of three newly restored feature length classics aims to redress the balance. It comes with multiple informative extras, including a 60-page book, to satisfy cinéastes, but a key test is whether the three films are still up to entertaining 21st Century audiences.

Slight of frame, with a pallid complexion, Keaton’s stone-faced features are accentuated by monochrome cinematography. On looks, he would not be out of place in a horror movie, but he casts himself as the little man, ill equipped to conquer adversity, yet invariably doing so. Audiences like to identify with underdogs and Keaton is one of the screen comedians who gives us early prototypes for such characters.

Our Hospitality (1923) is directed by Keaton and John G Blystone, accompanied here by a symphonic score composed and conducted by Colin Davis. Set in the early 19th Century the film begins in melodramatic style with a shoot-out between the feuding Canfield and McKay families. Baby  William McKay is then sent to New York to be raised by an aunt and, 20 years later, now played by Keaton, he returns to claim his inheritance. The Canfields will stop at nothing to kill him, except when he is receiving hospitality in their home, which would be contrary to the family code of honour.. 

The film has two lengthy sequences which are packed with comic invention. The first covers William’s journey from New York to the Blue Ridge Mountains in one of a line of stage coaches pulled by a steam locomotive along a makeshift railway track. The climactic sequence is a chase through mountains and rivers with plenty of daredevil antics, probably performed without stunt doubles and certainly without green screen technology. The film has dashes of romance and a devoted dog, but sentimentality is kept firmly in check, allowing comedy to reign supreme.

Keaton alone directs Go West (1925), which begins with a caption reading: “Some people travel through life making friends wherever they go, while others just travel through life.” Keaton’s character, named on the credits as simply “Friendless”, is shunned by humans and animals alike, thereby giving the comedy a Chaplinesque air of pathos, particularly when the character becomes attached to Brown Eyes, a lame cow. Accompanied by a jazz influenced score, composed by Rodney Sauer, the film is less structured than the plot driven Our Hospitality and it follows Keaton’s lonely adventures as a drifter, moving from coast to coast stowing away on freight trains.

The middle section, set on a bleak cattle ranch, is overlong and eventually feels drained of comic potential. However, the film moves to a dazzling climax with a cattle drive led by Keaton, through the busy streets of Los Angeles. It is beautifully choreographed mayhem and we have to keep reminding ourselves that what we see on screen is real footage. Repeatedly, expressionless bovine faces mirror Keaton himself, forming part of a succession of surreal images that will live long in the memory.

College (1927) is directed by James W Horne with Keaton and, again, it is accompanied by Sauer’s music. It could be seen as a template for modern day teen romcoms with Keaton, in his early 30s at the time of shooting, playing Ronald, the brainy bookworm in high school who is besotted with Mary, the most popular girl around. He follows her to college, working to pay his way, and is persuaded that the way to win her heart is to excel at sports. 

A warning has to be given here that the film contains a short sequence in which Ronald takes a job as a black waiter, possibly acceptable in the era of Al Jolson, but likely to be seen as offensive today. The triumph of the minnow is at its most touching in College, but the film comes across as the weakest of the three in this collection. This could be because its visual gags, mostly drawing on Ronald’s lack of athletic prowess, have become over familiar through repetition in the intervening years.

2020 has been a miserable year and fresh supplies of laughter could be running low. This collection is a timely reminder that there is plenty of comedy gold in them there Hollywood hills and it is well worth mining.

Available on Blu-ray from 24 August 2020

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Jury (Park Theatre Online)

Posted: August 26, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Martin Murphy      Director: Amy Allen


“As many intervals as you like!” boasts North London’s Park Theatre in the publicity for this World Premier streaming of Martin Murphy’s play. This may come as good news for some, but better news for most is that the hour-long production is sufficiently gripping to make zero intervals the likely norm.

The play was developed by the theatre’s Script Class, working with director Amy Allen, over 10 weeks during lockdown. Its premise is that the backlog of cases awaiting trials in the courts has become so great due to the pandemic that they must be heard by juries based in their homes, using Zoom. To this end, eight women and four men assemble remotely, presided over by foreperson Mel (Jacquie Cassidy), acting like a bossy headmistress as she munches on her soggy sandwiches.

We witness just the jury’s deliberations, not the full proceedings, so we are not asked to arrive at our own verdicts and this is not a suspense thriller in the mould of Twelve Angry Men, it is a socially observant comedy. The case concerns a successful white professional woman who is accused of sexually assaulting an under-age black boy and then paying substantial hush money to his family. The accusations are chosen cleverly to bring out the prejudices and ignorances of individual jury members and maybe the audiences.

Anya (Sara Odeen-Isbister) is a world weary Ukrainian who sides with the accused, Jal (Stefania Jardim) relates everything to the chips on her own shoulders, while many others are more concerned with solving the mysteries of Zoom and social media than those of the case before them. Gender politics, drug addiction and age divides all feature in the lively discussions, with Allen cutting rapidly between the jury members to give the production a pacy feel.

Strangely, no males under the approximate age of 60 serve on this jury, but, otherwise, Murphy captures the chaos that ensues when a broad cross section of society gathers together, all seeing nothing from the same perspective. As a snapshot of our divided United Kingdom, the play is sharply relevant and very funny.

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Blindness (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: August 12, 2020 in Theatre

Playwright: Simon Stephens.      Original novel: José Saramago      Director: Walter Meierjohann

Unsold seats at the Donmar Warehouse are a rarity. Top quality theatre at reasonable prices in an auditorium that holds few more than 200 leads to high demand, so the first sight of the space only a quarter full provides an unnerving experience and unnerving is exactly what Simon Stephens’ new play is intended to be.

The Donmar’s production is described as an “installation”, possibly transferable to other venues after here. There are no live performances.  Running for just over an hour, each show observes strict social distancing rules and theatre staff make sure that they are seen to be enforcing them. Hand sanitisers are provided. All the Donmar’s normal seating and the stage are removed so that it looks like what it must once have been – a warehouse. The audience is seated on wooden chairs, singly or in pairs in their bubbles, well spaced around the floor. Headphones are provided and face masks are mandatory at all times within the building.

The play is an adaptation of the 1995 dystopian novel, Blindness, by José Saramago, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Stephens’ version begins like an audio book, with Juliet Stevenson telling the story in the third person of a man who suddenly loses his sight while driving his car; he is helped by another man who takes advantage of the situation and steals the car, before going blind himself. The focus then turns to the ophthalmologist treating the cases, who also goes blind and Stevenson takes the role of his wife, the only character in the story who, inexplicably, remains fully sighted.

Walter Meierhohann’s production is designed to give the audience the experience of blindness, with several prolonged blackouts and to emphasise the power afforded by sightedness. However, the story works on another level by chronicling the helplessness of government to respond effectively to an unprecedented health crisis and highlighting, in considerable detail, the fragility of a social order that can quickly collapse. Some of these themes are all too fresh in our minds and wrapped up inside Stephens’ rich and insightful script, they become engrossing.

Binaural sound effects are not a particular novelty, but sound designers Ben and Max Ringham put them to spectacular use here. In the play’s longest and most disturbing sequence, set in a disintegrating hospital ward, Stevenson can be heard at one moment screaming in anger in the distance and, at the next, whispering gently into our ears. The temptation to turn and look her in the face is often irresistible. Her range is astonishing and, if her performance is one-dimensional, it is only such in the most technical sense. Lizzie Clachan’s design has a futuristic feel, focussing on thin strips of light that descend to head level, and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting creates startling effects to break into the darkness.

In the final analysis, is this installation any different from a radio play? Yes it is significantly different and better, not just due to the visual effects, but predominantly because the experience is shared through being part of a live audience. There is still a long way to go, but theatre is on its way back.

Performance date: 7 August 2020

Photo: Helen Maybanks

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub