Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Theatre Review: Evening at the Talk House (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Notwithstanding a few gems, and unless the next couple of weeks yield something really special (Anita Dobson and Katie Price job-sharing in panto, anyone…?), 2015 can’t be considered to have been an absolutely vintage year for London theatre, overall. And things have now reached a new low at the National with Ian Rickson’s production of Wallace Shawn’s latest play Evening at the Talk House. When Rickson’s production started previewing last week, it wasn’t long before the verdict was in via Twitter, with several people deeming the play to be “the worst thing ever staged at the NT” or even “the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” “What does Twitter know?” sniffed the man seated next to us before last night’s performance began.  Well, in this case, quite a lot, as it happens.

It’s true that knee-jerk reactions on social media can mean that a stark “good or bad” consensus can build around a production too quickly these days. This happened almost exactly two years ago at the Royal Court, with Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness,  a play that that was immediately – and, in my view, unfairly - dismissed by most early commentators online. 

Actually, Evening at the Talk House shares some similarities with Crimp’s play: notably, a jaundiced view of the contemporary world and the workings of power therein.  But where  In the Republic of Happiness was illuminated  by moments of great theatrical brio and passages of very beautiful, intelligent writing, Evening at the Talk House is a leaden, pitifully half-baked creation. There’s a hint of Agatha Christie – and even of Theatre of Blood –  to the premise, which concerns the reunion of a group of theatricals at the club they used to frequent, and the strong suggestion that one of the assembled company may mean the others  harm.

But, after a relatively promising (if exposition-heavy) first twenty minutes (which includes the production’s only arresting image, as the protagonists silently reunite, while Josh Hamilton’s playwright, Robert, introduces them to us), the play gets worse as it goes along. It’s as if Shawn had written down a list of issues that were irking him - declining cultural standards, TV versus theatre, the terror threat and the response to it, the seductions of nostalgia - without really bothering to shape them into a cogent dramatic form. Sure, there’s enough topicality to certain references to generate a few uneasy audience titters. But the approach to the themes is so feeble that the play builds no tension, no cumulative force. The revelation of what some of the characters are up to isn’t shocking or even chilling, as it’s clearly meant to be. Rather, it’s just silly and unconvincing.  

Rickson’s dour, lackadaisical production can’t get a rhythm going, for all that The Quay Brothers’ design tries to inject a bit of mild Gothic ambience into the proceedings. The actors (including Shawn himself in the decidedly masochistic role of a luckless, beaten-up actor named… Dick) don’t find their footing, either. There’s a wonderful moment when Sinéad Matthews and Anna Calder-Marshall, as the club’s hostesses, first appear together. But even these two great actresses – specialists in magnetic eccentricity, the both of them – don’t distinguish themselves here. (Using her beautiful raspy-squeaky voice for all its worth, Matthews’ valiant effort to bring some emotional truth to a final encounter is palpable – and painful.)  Ultimately, the limp material seems to have defeated everyone. Written without insight, wit or shapeliness, Evening at the Talk House is inert on the stage, lacking even the energy or the craziness to be labelled a true folly.

Booking until 30th March. 

Monday, 23 November 2015

Film Review: Carol (dir. Todd Haynes, 2015)

Todd Haynes's Carol is out in the UK on Friday. You can read my review from Cannes Film Festival here

Book Review: Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman (Fourth Estate, 2015)

My review of Hadley Freeman's great celebration of 80s' films, Life Moves Pretty Fast, is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Film Review: The Lady in the Van (dir. Hytner, 2015)

There’s really only one good reason to see The Lady in the Van, the new film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s hit 1999 play, and that’s Maggie Smith’s performance in the title role. Smith is one of those actresses at whom the dubious term “legend” is flung so readily that it’s become all too easy to take her for granted. More worryingly, the term also serves to obscure her incredible, enduring, inventive artistry as a performer. Smith demonstrates that artistry at every level in this film , going beyond her excellent recent work in Quartet (2012) to deliver one of her all-time great screen performances.

Playing Miss Mary Shepherd, the homeless woman who pitched up on Bennett’s Camden street, ended up moving into his driveway, and stayed there for some 15 years, Smith captures every shade of the character’s combined defensiveness and exhibitionism.  Considering that she played the role on stage, and on radio, the freshness of Smith’s work here is little short of amazing. Nothing seems set or forced; rather, every gesture and inflection feels organic and spontaneous. As Smith plays the role, the van seems an extension of  Miss Shepherd’s physical being. Splashing yellow paint over the vehicle, her Miss S. is clearly in her dotty element. Moreover, Smith goes beyond the individual character to create an iconic presence here:  an exasperating, admirable,  hilarious, and deeply moving portrait of eccentricity.    

The Lady in the Van badly needs the richness and depth that Smith brings to it, because, in pretty much all other aspects, the film is a dud. The movie was directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also directed the play in its original stage incarnation, and if ever there was a work that needed a director with more critical distance on the material then it’s this one. Hytner demonstrated his lack of judgement when it comes to Bennett’s writing as Artistic Director of the National Theatre when  he staged the playwright’s awful play People in 2011, a drafty whinge about the National Trust (!) that, if submitted by a new writer, would doubtless have been dumped in the nearest bin.  

Here, working from an adaptation by Bennett himself,  Hytner shows the same kind of unseemly reverence for Bennett’s writing. The meta-apparatus of the play (including the device of having two Bennetts as characters interacting and expressing his conflicted attitude to Miss Shepherd) is accentuated here. A rare expressive image -  such as Miss S. being raised into an ambulance - is spoiled by having Bennett (Alex Jennings) editorialising  over it in voice-over, telling us what we’re being shown.  Complete with pointless cameos from each of The History Boys actors, the end result is that the material seems even more smug, arch and masturbatory on screen than it did on stage.  

As in his Untold Stories memoir, Bennett’s self-presentation in The Lady in the Van treads a somewhat sneaky line, with apparent self-deprecation barely concealing hefty self-regard. On the one hand, he’s constantly flagging up the fact that his involvement with  Miss Shepherd  was based around his desire to exploit her as a colourful character in his writing. (The theme of the piece is, ultimately, the use that writers make of other people and real experience in their literary work.)  On the other hand, Bennett is really showing us just how much  more caring his attitude to Miss S. was when compared to most of his would-be liberal neighbours: whether he’s cleaning up her stools or facing off with her social worker (Cecilia Noble).  As often at his weakest, Bennett is subtly judgemental about everyone here, sometimes in the weirdest of ways.
Apart from Smith (and Gwen Taylor, who has a few effective moments as Bennett’s Mam), none of the cast really gets the opportunity to distinguish themselves. As the Camden neighbours, Frances de la Tour and Nicholas Burns drift in and out to little effect; while Deborah Findlay and Roger Allam keep popping up to contribute unfortunate remarks about Bennett’s writing - before we get to see a National Theatre audience whooping their approval at his latest play, just to confirm the playwright’s greatness, after all. There’s no doubt that Alex Jennings gives good Bennett(s), but his work here remains an impersonation, no more, no less. 

Lacking the zest of Bennett’s screen-writing at its best (1984's A Private Function, say), The Lady in the Van gets worse as it goes along, in terms of both story-telling and style. The ending – featuring a horrendous "ascension", a Day for Night flourish, and – yup – a cameo from Bennett himself –  is flagrantly embarrassing. Oddest of all, perhaps, is the strong suggestion that Bennett, now blissfully partnered, won’t need to access his "creative" side any more. Alongside Smith’s stunning performance, that’s pretty much the only good news that The Lady in the Van offers.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Film Review: Brooklyn (dir. Crowley, 2015)

There’s a whole lot to love about Brooklyn, John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel. (A book that, somewhat optimistically, is already being described as a “classic” by some commentators.) Like James Gray’s superb 2013 The Immigrant (disgracefully still unreleased in the UK ), Crowley’s film is a throwback: a work of old-style Hollywood classicism that’s polished and intelligent and made with great feeling and sympathy. Like Gray’s movie, the film also has the novelty of offering a female perspective on migrant experience to America. Here the focus is on Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a girl who leaves behind the Irish village where she grew up, and heads to New York to start a new life.

“I’m away to America,” Eilis tells her sometime-employer, Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), only for the woman to start guilt-tripping her for leaving her mother and sister behind. Yet, despite her quiet demeanour, Eilis is made of stronger stuff than it might appear, and, following an awful passage, she arrives in Brooklyn and begins finding her feet with a job at a department store, while staying in a boarding house run by one Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters).     

It must be noted that Brooklyn presents a far cosier view of immigration experience than The Immigrant did, and its flagrant flattering of America (which will doubtless ensure that the film fares a whole lot better at the box office than Gray’s movie) can stick in the craw. In the film’s vision, there’s no danger of exploitation for an immigrant to New York: all there is is homesickness, which is swiftly overcome by meeting a nice Italian boy (Emory Cohen), and “thinking like an American.” (At some level, the material suggests that Tóibín is working out - and  justifying - his own “defection” to the United States.)

Yet, for the most part, the film’s perspective is nuanced and balanced enough. When the movie began, I feared that we might be in for this year’s Philomena, but, working  from a shrewd adaptation by Nick Hornby, Crowley doesn’t succumb to Oirish clichés (no one even says “feck”) and the interactions are lovely, believable and compelling throughout. Returning for a visit to her home-town after a family tragedy, Eilis realises that there’s much that she’s missed about Ireland, and is presented with quite the dilemma when a nice new suitor (Domhnall Gleeson) starts taking an interest in her.   

As Eilis, Saoirse Ronan provides the film with an unusually quiet centre while nonetheless keeping us attuned to the protagonist’s feelings all the time. It’s a beautiful, deeply felt performance, and the actress  is well supported by fine work from Gleeson, from Walters (who, for once, manages not to overdo it as the strict landlady) and from the sleepy-sounding Cohen who brings some credible shadings to a somewhat idealised characterisation.

Brooklyn is so well-made and so likeable, and builds up so much goodwill, that it’s a significant let-down  – almost a breach of trust – when the film finally plays false with us. Eilis’s dilemma (to stay in Ireland, or to return to the US) isn’t resolved in an organic manner; rather, it’s tied up via a plot contrivance involving the unconvincing intervention of a minor character who forces the protagonist into a decision. Moreover, that decision is accepted by another character with a swiftness that fails to ring true. A little more ambivalence and ambiguity would not have gone amiss here. Brooklyn is one of the year’s best mainstream films, and I recommend it highly. Yet the fakery of the sentimental conclusion means that the movie's exploration of the tug of the Old World versus the pull of the New doesn’t linger with the viewer as much as it might have done, in the end.  

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Theatre Review: Pig Farm (St. James Theatre)

“What does a man have to do to run a pig farm around here?” wonders the harried Tom (Dan Fredenburgh), the hero (of sorts) of Greg Kotis’s comedy, which has just opened at St. James Theatre, in a production directed by the aptly named Katharine Farmer.  As the owner of a struggling farm in an unspecified area of Hicksville, USA, Tom’s troubles are multiple: a dopey hired hand, Tim (Erik Odom) who’s as much hindrance as help, and a frustrated wife, Tina (Charlotte Parry), who’s desperate for a kid. Mostly, though, Tom’s worried about the impending visit from an Environmental Protection Agency officer, Teddy (Stephen Tompkinson), who, when he arrives, turns out to be a gun-toting functionary with a habit of walking into the couple’s kitchen at decidedly inopportune moments.

A slice of rowdy backwoods Americana with a touch of the Coen Bros about it, Pig Farm is unexpectedly engaging for a good part of its running time. Although there are weaker elements from the off (the running-gag repetition of the characters' alliterative names, for one), Kotis – best known for writing the book and lyrics for Urinetown - shows skill in keeping the dialogue just the right side of cartoonish, using hick diction for poetic as well as comedic effects.

The play’s satire on changes in farming practices and federal government interventions is well managed, and Farmer’s bright production seems to find the writing’s strengths, aided by a fine set design by Carla Goodman and some great   music choices. (No production that includes Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” as interval music can be entirely without merit.)  The excellent cast also performs brilliantly. Parry, in particular, even manages to bring some plangent grace notes to what could be an extremely problematic characterisation, as she skilfully conveys Tina’s longings, while also throwing herself with hilarious abandon into a sex scene with Odom that’s a great parody of the Lange/Nicholson kitchen encounter in The Postman Always Rings Twice

Given these strong points, it’s a shame that Kotis’s play finally blows it, undoing its competent work with a grotesquely extended final stretch that’s off in every department, not least in its cavalier approach to violence. (Lapped up by most of the chortling audience, it must be said.) Since, by this stage, the protagonists have gone beyond caricature to actually mean something to us, the final slide into bloody farce not only seems about the weakest way possible for the play to conclude: it also makes you feel an idiot for caring in the first place.

Booking until November 21st.