Thursday, 18 December 2014

Review of 2014: Theatre - 10 Favourite Productions

Tempted as I am to place a certain musical at the top of this list again (I saw it several times at the beginning of the year, so that kind of makes it a 2014 show, right?), I’ve restrained myself.  It’s probably not much of a surprise that no show this year quite lived up to the splendours of The Light Princess for me. (Here’s last year’s list, for the record.) For one, there was way too much historical Royalist stuff doing the rounds for my taste, from The James Plays through the Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies double to Mike Bartlett’s much-admired “future history” play King Charles III, a work in which apparent irreverence sadly gave way to sycophancy. There were also a number of shows that I was very sorry to miss, including The Wild Duck at the Barbican and A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, to name but two. Still, the year yielded several productions that I loved, and so I humbly offer my Top 10, with some comments on each show, below.

 Mr. Burns (Almeida)

“I do not know what next I’ll be/I’m running forward anyway…” I’ve never had an experience quite like this one in a theatre. Robert Icke’s production of Anne Washburn’s super-arch pop dystopia - a Simpsons-derived riff on adaptation, story-telling and solidarity - bored me in its first Act and annoyed me in its second. But boredom and annoyance seem central, somehow, to the overwhelming impact that the third Act had on me, as the show metamorphosed into a startling piece of musical performance art that won through to so much unexpected emotion, leaving me tear-stained, elated, and ovating like a maniac. Transcendent, truly, and I’d like to watch it again tonight. In the spirit of Bart: if you left during one of the intervals then you missed out, suckers.

Festival (Orange Tree)
A transitional year for the Orange Tree, with Paul Miller taking over as Artistic Director following Sam Walters’s 40 year reign at the venue, and the third production of the season, Alistair McDowall’s nervy Pomona, enticing many people to the theatre for the first time. I enjoyed  a number of OT productions throughout the year – in particular, David Antrobus’s take on Stephen Sewell’s It Just Stopped and Miller’s inaugural The Widowing of Mrs.Holroyd. Still, my most memorable experience at the Orange Tree in 2014 was the full day I spent at the theatre in June watching the three Festival programmes, which were Waters’s generous final offering as Artistic Director. Veering from surreal comedies (Christopher Durang’s riotous “The Actor’s Nightmare”) to intimate two-handers (Caitlin Shannon’s  moving “Non-Essential Personnel”), from cheeky devised dance pieces (Amy Hodge’s gorgeous “7 to 75”) through gripping  political drama (Orlando Wells’s Snowden-focused  “Four Days in Hong Kong”) with a side order of poetic puppetry (Wolf Erlbruch’s “Duck, Death and the Tulip”) and a terrifically funny and well-observed family dysfunction-fest (David Lewis’s “Skeleton”), the whole day was just exhilarating, a wonderful affirmation of all the things that theatre, even in a space so intimate, can do and be.  Full review here.
Rachel (Finborough)
This was special. Written by Angelina Weld Grimké in 1916 under commission for the NAACP, Rachel was the first play produced professionally by an African-American woman writer, and one of the first to feature an all Black cast, too. Alas, the play hadn't been performed since its initial productions, and only received its European premiere 100 years on, thanks to the ever-enterprising Finborough, who staged it as part of Black History Month.  Director Ola Ince and a superb cast made a thoroughly compelling case for the piece as being much more than a mere historical document in this sobering, urgent and deeply felt production.  Full review here.   
 Made in Dagenham (Adelphi)
The very few musicals that I made it to in 2014 were either disappointing (Here Lies Love) or downright dire (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) so it was a real pleasure to be so pleasantly surprised by Made in Dagenham. With Richards Thomas and Bean at their irreverent (yet affectionate) best, a strong, appealing score by David Arnold and winning performances from all the cast, the result was a big budget musical that revelled in its own Britishness and that charmed and amused and delighted throughout.  Third viewing imminent; full review here   


My Night With Reg (Donmar)
East is East (Trafalgar Studios)
It’s hard to imagine seeing either of these 90s Brit classics better served than they were by these two revivals. At the Donmar, Robert Hastie’s take on Kevin Eloyt’s exploration of the loves, lusts and losses of a group of gay men oscillated beautifully between uproariousness, tenderness and desolation. Meanwhile, at the Trafalgar Studios, Sam Yates’s revival of Ayub Khan-Din’s autobiographical Salford family portrait was also perfectly pitched, and came with the added bonus of seeing the writer himself playing –bravely and very brilliantly – the role of the patriarch based closely on his own father. Full review here.
A View From the Bridge (Young Vic)
I wasn’t quite so fond of Ivo Van Hove’s production as many people were: some of its heavy touches – portentous classical music, slo-mo interludes – seemed pretentious and imposed, and not as successful in communicating the tragedy of the play as a less art-conscious and affected approach  might have been. Still, this muscular, stripped-down production proved an arresting, singular experience, and was crowned by a terrific, intense  performance from Mark Strong as Eddie.  
 The Merchant of Venice (Almeida)
Getting in under the wire, Rupert Goold’s Sin City updating of one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays has just opened at the Almeida. (The production was first seen at the RSC in 2011.) Goold’s frenetic take may create as many problems as it “solves” in some ways.  But it does so fascinatingly, absorbingly, scintillatingly, complete with Elvis numbers, Batman and Robin disguises, a Taylor Swift interlude, and much more besides. The production boasts amazing touches (the casket-choice-as-game-show is a stroke of genius) and a bold Luhrmann-meets-Legally-Blonde approach to the play’s comedy and its darkness. Plus, a stunning performance from Susannah Fielding as a protean Portia, and a turn of characteristic inventiveness and originality from Ian McDiarmid as Shylock.  It’s a production that’s destined to be divisive but I thought it a thrill, and a fittingly fresh and ballsy end to an altogether exciting year at the Almeida. (A mention, too, for the brilliant Tom Scutt, design-genius of about half the productions included in this Top 10.)  

The Boss of it All (Soho)
I wasn’t much of a fan of Lars von Trier’s film, which seemed to me dry and just not funny enough. But Jack McNamara’s witty, slyly inventive take on the movie for his New Perspectives company turned out to be a total delight, a masterclass in adaptation that dug out the movie’s themes of role-play, power and performance and made them work so much better in a theatrical context.  Full review here.

Our Town (Almeida)
I’ve hoped to see Thornton Wilder's Our Town on the stage for many years, and if David Cromer’s take wasn’t quite the production of my dreams, it was still a most memorable account of this most humane of plays, brought beautifully together in a moving final Act. Full review here.  


Film Review: Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virture of Ignorance) (Iñárritu, 2014)

A skittering, jittery jazz beat propels Birdman, the latest film by Alejandro González Iñárritu, which opens in London on Boxing Day, and around the rest of the UK on 1st January, to considerable anticipation. It’s a sound that might put the viewer in mind of another highly acclaimed American film that’s due out here soon, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a jazz-focused melodrama that appears to be delighting viewers all over the place, but that struck me as one of the foulest films to be screened in this year’s London Film Festival.  (You can read my thoughts on it here.)
Actually, Birdman and Whiplash have a few things in common besides jazz on their soundtracks.  Both are pushy, assertive films addressing male creativity, male ego, male brawling, male meltdown. But where Chazelle’s movie is a gruesomely masochistic work that has some truly reprehensible things to say about effective teaching and mentorship, Iñárritu’s latest – though not without its problems – boasts enough grace notes and stylistic interest to make it a much more rewarding experience.     

The film’s focus is the theatre, and the efforts of an actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), to stage a play that he’s written based on Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in New York.  The star of the comic-book superhero franchise Birdman, Riggan has been down on his luck since that series ran its course, and is desperately hoping for a break with this new venture.
But, in the run up to press night, he finds himself plagued by problems. Firstly, there’s the sudden indisposition of a co-star which results in the impromptu hiring of the volatile Method man Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), lover of the highly-strung actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) who’s also in the production. There are his uneasy relationships with his own girlfriend Laura (Angela Riseborough) who – yup – is also in the production, and his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab and now serving as his assistant on the show. Plus, there are Riggan’s doubts about his own abilities, manifested by the growling utterances of his superhero alter-ego.   

Since Broadway's influence on Hollywood movies has been waning for years, the novelty value of the theatre setting is part of what gives Birdman its elements of interest and appeal. The movie’s closest contemporary peers are Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), highly stylised films that also offer increasingly surreal spins on the work/life balance of writers and performers.
That’s not to say that Birdman - or Birdman, or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) to give the film its full moniker - shows a great deal of insight or affection for anything in the world that it presents. There’s a strong element of fakery to the backstage scenes even before the more overtly fanciful elements (such as a startling blockbuster movie sequence) kick in. And between the neurotic, hubristic actors, stupid autograph-seekers and social media addicts and malicious critics on display (the latter represented by Lindsay Duncan’s Tabitha Dickinson, who faces off with Riggan in a bar, ludicrously announcing “I’m gonna destroy your play,” and whose awfulness seems linked, in the film’s scheme, to both her age and her gender) at times this is a movie that seems intent on turning everything to crud.

I found myself recoiling from Birdman in those initial stages. But every time I felt like giving up on the movie I’d find myself seduced by some interesting observation of arresting image. For one, the film's perspective is much more flexible and open than that of Whiplash, with Riggan’s high-falutin’ claims for his artistic endeavours and disdain for Facebook and Twitter set against the point-of-view of the social media-conscious Sam, who challenges the "relevance" of putting on a play for a bunch of rich white people who are probably more concerned about where they’ll eat afterwards.

The movie plays off of its actors' histories and personas (especially Keaton and Norton’s) with some dexterity, and Keaton’s performance is simply terrific.  But where the film really scores is in its stylistic bravura. Iñárritu's conceit is to make the movie appear to be constructed in one single shot. And with clever time lapses and the camera variously swooping, swirling, alighting and pursuing,  damned if he and the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki don’t convince you that that’s the case, achieving some awesome transitions between interior and exterior spaces. 

A centrepiece sequence sees Riggan locked out of the theatre during an interval and making his way, dressed only in his underpants, through the Times Square throng and back in through the front doors of the venue. Formally, the movie is a blast, and the showy style helps hold the viewer through some of the more questionable moments, which can be both crude (Mike’s attempt to initiate on-stage sex with Lesley) and schmaltzy (at its core the movie is all about a neglectful father eventually admitting to his daughter “I shoulda been there for you”).
There’s plenty to take issue with in Birdman, then. But there’s no denying that this movie - by turns brave and foolish, exciting and irritating - sometimes soars.   

Theatre Review: Widowers' Houses (Orange Tree)

In his seminal Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, Raymond Williams’s dismisses George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses - the playwright’s 1892 play on the subject of “slum-landlordism” - as “a crude intrigue melodrama, mechanically contrived to be explicitly rhetorical about slums, and to involve everyone on the stage in a condonation of criminality.” The play is, the critic contends, “very thin stuff.” But such complaints aren’t borne out by Paul Miller’s strong, spry, swift production, just opened at the Orange Tree, which makes a good case for the play as a work of much greater interest and appeal than Williams’s remarks suggest.
The play, Shaw’s first, addresses the moral quagmire faced by the young Dr. Harry Trench, when he learns that the father of his fiancée makes his money from exploiting impoverished tenants. But as the drama weighs the perspectives of its protagonists – from the landlord Sartorius, the fiancée Blanche , the agent Lickcheese and Trench’s prissy chum Cokane - it gradually becomes apparent - in true Shavian ironical fashion – that Trench himself is much more deeply implicated in the exploitation than he would have imagined.
As an investigation of London’s housing problems, Widowers’ Houses doesn’t lack for timeliness or contemporary relevance. Starting out as highly mannered, epigram-heavy comedy of the English abroad (casually xenophobic and forever consulting their Baedekers) the piece gradually moves into darker territory, showing all it characters to be motivated by financial concerns. The ironies aren’t subtle, but they are pointedly and thought-provokingly made, though the play trips up a little in its final stretch, which includes an unlikely transformation for one character.
Miller’s production finds exactly the right tonal balance for the first two Acts, though, and is aided by the efforts of a terrific cast. Patrick Drury’s Sartorious combines affability and quiet steeliness and menace to compelling effect. Stefan Adegbola does delicious high style comedy as the pompous Cokane, forever taking Trench to task for his lack of “taste” and “tact”. Alex Waldmann, as Trench, subtly shows sweetness and social conscience morphing into spinelessness. And Rebecca Collingwood makes an absolutely terrific professional debut as the pert, unpleasant Blanche, expressing her hatred of “the poor” and memorably turning on her maid (Lotti Maddox) with startling ferocity. Not a play without some flaws, then, but this is a fine, funny and intelligent production.
Booking until 31 January. Further information here.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Competition: win 5 Fox Searchlight DVDs

To celebrate the upcoming UK release of Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman, the good people at Fox Searchlight have provided me with a set of five DVDs to give away. The films are The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Little Miss SunshineThe Descendants and Black Swan.  To be in with a chance of winning the set, just answer the following question.

Lindsay Duncan, who plays the fearsome theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson in Birdman, is currently starring in which play on Broadway?

Email your answers to lookcloser1 at by January 1st 2015, including your name and postal address. The winner will be notified by email by January 3rd.  

Friday, 12 December 2014

Theatre Review: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Richmond Theatre)

Heigh-ho? Or Yee-HAW! By coincidence a definite dash of Texan flavour’s been added to the pantomimes being produced in SW London this year. Dallas’s Linda Gray is busy giving her Fairy Godmother in the New Wimbledon Theatre’s just-opened Cinderella [review here], and now it’s the turn of Gonzales, TX’s most famous daughter – and long-time Richmond resident – Jerry Hall (also, like Gray, a former theatrical Mrs. Robinson, oddly enough) to make her panto debut in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Richmond Theatre.
Where Gray’s turn as Fairy G starts out a tad tentatively, Hall gives a thoroughly assured performance from the moment she appears as the Wicked Queen, prowling the stage with aplomb, flashing great gams, relishing the boos, and showing an unsurprising gift for self-parody. Already a rather cartoonish figure as it is, Hall ramps up that cartoonishness here to delicious effect. Rolling Stones shout-outs are kept to a minimum (maybe the presence of Sir Mick amongst the Gala Night audience had something to do with that …) but there are some fun local refs which Hall delivers divinely, not least a worryingly well-received jibe at “those cheap chavs in Chiswick.”
More so than Wimbledon’s more luxuriously cast offering, this panto may appear to be a star vehicle with Hall as the main draw. But, as it turns out, the actress gets lively, likeable support from CBeebies fave Chris Jarvis as Muddles, from Nicolas Colicos as Herman the Henchman and from Aimie Atkinson’s sassy Snow.
And the ace up the production’s sleeve turns out to be the actors cast as the Seven Dwarfs: Ollie Clarke, Michael Caballero, Scott English, Jon Key, Fergus Rattigan and father-and-son duo Phil and Paddy Holden. They’re a sparky and characterful bunch who get many of the production’s most enjoyable bits. In particular, in young Paddy Holden - a truly delightful, adorable and hilarious “Loopy” - a major star is born.
The production’s script, by the ubiquitous Eric Potts, reuses some material from the writer’s Priscilla Presley-starring version of the show seen at Wimbledon two years ago (and currently at Manchester Opera House), in particular the “Moravia’s Got Talent” conceit. But that element comes off much more effectively here, thanks to an inspired Pudsey parody and a truly startling SuBo moment from Master Holden.
Aside from the inevitable opening bop to “Happy” and the use of Labrinth and Emeli Sandé’s grammatically-challenged “Beneath Your Beautiful” as a love duet, music choices are surprising and delightfully retro, with tracks by Madness, Elvis and Michael Jackson incorporated, plus some selections from the Disney film. Hall hissing out a very unexpected Eurythmics/Blondie mash-up as she stirs her cauldron was my favourite moment. A tad less opulent than what’s on offer at Wimbledon, then, but just as much fun.
Booking until 11 January. Further details here.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Review of 2014: Cinema - 10 Favourite Films

For the record, several films released in the UK in 2014, including Ida, Night Moves, Under the Skin and Stranger by the Lake made my favourite films list last year, since I saw them at either the Toronto or London Festivals. (Last year’s list is here.) This year, from the intimacies of Night Bus and Radiator, to the wide-screen ambition of The Duke of Burgundy and Mr. Turner, I’m especially happy to be able to include so many daring, creative and exciting new British films in my selection, alongside awesome new works by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Xavier Dolan and James Gray. The seventh art's in rude health, after all.  

The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Peter Strickland)
Boots, butterflies, Sidse Babett Knudsen… Peter Strickland confirms his reputation as one of the most audacious of British auteurs with this funny, unsettling, moving and often jaw-dropping  diaphanous dream of a movie. By turns rapturous and discreet, The Duke of Burgundy is at once cohabitation comedy, dreamy erotic reverie and deeply insightful exploration of the tensions, compromises and pleasures of any romance. Elements of Lynch, Franco, Brakhage, Bergman and Byatt are felt, but the movie turns out entirely distinctive and alluring in its own right. Some people hated it, but I, like many others, was seduced and pleasurably surprised from the sublime retro title sequence onwards. It’s out in the UK in time for - oh yes - Valentine’s Day. Full swoony review here.

Exhibition (dir. Joanna Hogg)
No film has haunted me more this year than Joanna Hogg’s enigmatic exploration of coupledom and creativity, by far the oddest, most idiosyncratic entry into her loose trilogy of Hiddleston-featuring dramas. Boasting the most expressive use of domestic space since Haneke’s Amour, Exhibition is as mysterious as it is incisive, richly rewarding patience as it reveals its central property to be a repository of its artist protagonists' dreams, desires and demons. The film adds up to a fascinating exploration of the spaces we inhabit – and that, in turn, inhabit us.

Radiator (dir. Tom Browne)
Also evoking Amour in its attention to domestic space (here a rubbish-filled, rodent-ridden Cumbrian cottage), and - more particularly - its focus on a long marriage undergoing the strain of one partner’s decline, Tom Browne’s debut feature is a stunningly beautiful, wise and intimate family portrait, one that touches off very personal feelings, scrapes very raw nerves. Essentially a three-hander, the movie has wonderful subtle depths of emotion and performances of captivating naturalness and bravery from Gemma Jones and Richard Johnson as the couple, and from Daniel Cerqueira (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Browne) as the son summoned back to the family fold.  Deserves to be widely seen in 2015. Full review here.

Winter Sleep (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Unlike this year’s other big Cannes heavy-hitter, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which disappointed (me at least) with its obvious allegory, unconvincing plot turns, and clumping symbolism, I found Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest to be a completely absorbing and fascinating three hours. Seen in the middle of the London Film Festival the movie's slow-burn approach and lengthy running time were a challenge. I liked the film on that first viewing but didn’t exactly feel it. Watching it again recently, however, I was overwhelmed by the complexity, humanity and invigorating moral seriousness of a film that lays bare so insightfully all our failings, regrets, compromises, delusions. That second viewing marked a turning point in the year for me, and, in a way I'd find it impossible to articulate, I feel fundamentally changed by this movie.  Deemed by some to be overly dialogue-driven and too derivative of Chekhov, Winter Sleep in fact goes way beyond homage in its close attention to interior and exterior spaces, to the landscapes of its Cappadocia setting and of the human face, and its incremental revelation of character. Featuring an absolutely amazing central performance from Haluk Bilginer, for me it’s Ceylan’s finest, fullest work since Uzak, and I firmly believe you could watch this film once a week and feel differently about its characters every single time. In addition, I’m always a sucker for a story in which something very important gets thrown into a fireplace.


The Immigrant (dir. James Gray)
Still unreleased in the UK, James Gray’s great old-school melodrama presents a vision of turn-of-the-century America that’s tough and strange but also tender and humane, and crowned by an unforgettable performance of Gish-ish greatness from Marion Cotillard as the resourceful Polish woman exploited and loved by two very different men (Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner). Here’s hoping Cotillard’s recent win at the New York Critics Circle Awards will be enough to bring The Immigrant to these shores, finally. Review here.

Mr. Turner (dir. Mike Leigh)

Episodic, rich, subtly subversive, Leigh’s long-anticipated portrait of the artist as an ageing man isn’t quite the equal of the director’s peerless Topsy-Turvy, but still takes its place as one of his  finest-ever features. Following a couple of minor, rather vapid films, it's thrilling to find Leigh working on this scale once again and producing such a languorous, intelligent, beautifully rhythmed work, one that's generously packed with indelible sequences and vivid performances from…well, practically everyone Leigh’s ever worked with, basically. A treat.


Mommy (dir.  Xavier Dolan)

There’s so much that can grate on the nerves in Mommy, and you suspect that that's exactly how its director wants it. But Dolan’s latest all-out opus (a return to the feverishly indulgent following the marvellous, lower-keyed Tom at the Farm) was as exciting as it was maddening, its manic mood swings, musical interludes and shrinkings and stretchings of the frame capturing with sometimes startling vividness the ups and downs of its central trio’s experiences and emotional lives. Plus, a finale so perfectly judged that the viewer emerges exhilarated and feeling ready to take on the world.  


Night Bus (dir. Simon Baker)

Like a mini city symphony film, or the classic night-road-home sequence in Michael Winterbottom's  wonderful Wonderland (1999) stretched across a whole feature, Simon Baker’s great little debut film takes place entirely on a Leytonstone-bound “N39” as it winds its way through London on an average rainy night. Loved up and querulous couples, bantering colleagues and amiably pissed Poles are among those getting on board.  A funny, sad and elegant nocturne, Night Bus boasts considerable sharp humour, generosity of spirit and surprising flecks of noirish ambience, adding up to a lively, very likeable London snapshot. Trailer.   

Girlhood (Bande de Filles) (dir. Céline Sciamma)
An indelible portrait of a lady: Sciamma's superb girl gang melodrama gets Jamesian. The hotel room lip-sync sequence to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” is already a classic.

The Photographer (Fotograf) (dir. Waldemar Krzystek)
This year's Gdynia Film Festival was so blissful and rewarding in so many ways that even the films I didn’t like (Close-Ups, Heavy Mental ) now seem, from this vantage point, to be enriching and charmed and beautiful.   Apart from The Immigrant, the best film I saw at the Fest was  Waldemar Krzystek’s The Photographer, a big, gripping, rather weird thriller that probes Polish/Russian relations via a creepy contemporary murder-mystery plot  and equally chilling 70s-set family dysfunction drama. Featuring a stand-out performance from Elena Babenko as the least maternal of mothers.

Honourable mentions: Belle, Two Days, One Night, The Wonders, The Imitation Game, X + Y, Hardkor Disko, Jack Strong, Polish Shit, Walking on Sunshine, The Lunchbox.

Disappointments, duds: Whiplash, Men, Women & Children, My Old Lady.



Theatre Review: Cinderella (New Wimbledon Theatre)

'Tis the season ... My review of the New Wimbledon Theatre pantomime, Cinderella, starring Linda Gray, Tim Vine, Matthew Kelly and Wayne Sleep, is up at The Public Reviews. You can read it here.