Monday, 16 March 2015

Theatre Review: Play Mas (Orange Tree)

Melanie La Barrie and Johann Myers in Play Mas (Photo: Robert Day)

Debuted at the Royal Court in 1974, when it won its writer the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright Award, Mustapha Matura’s Play Mas now receives an absolutely top-notch revival by Paulette Randall at the Orange Tree as the latest gem in Paul Miller’s hugely successful first season.

Matura’s play treats the subject of Trinidad’s independence in two Acts. In the first, the action unfolds in the late 50s, in a Port of Spain tailor shop owned by one Miss Gookool. Here Samuel is an apprentice working with Miss G’s garrulous son Ramjohn, who has his own very particular philosophy of suit-making. Carnival is coming – to the delight of Samuel and the disdain of Ramjohn – and so are stirrings of political unrest, led by the PNM's charismatic Eric Williams. In the second Act, taking place a few years later, Samuel has become Commissioner of Police and calls Ramjohn in for a favour. In between, independence has indeed come to Trinidad, bringing with it new political challenges, as student “terrorists” object to the State’s decisions and its pro-American policies.

Robust, witty and generous in its language, and highly astute in its exploration of identity politics and carnival (as  genuine transgression or colonialist construct), Matura’s play is ripe for rediscovery. And Randall’s vibrant production leaps off the stage, boosted by a terrific design by Libby Watson (including some  truly fabulous costumes), well-judged music selections, and superb work from the cast.

Determined to keep politics out of her shop, even as she snaps at her staff and son and fawns over an Englishman (Rob Heanley), the brilliant Melanie La Barrie manages to make the no-nonsense matriarch Miss Gookool more deeply sympathetic than simply shrewish. Victor Romero Evans is vivid as a philandering neighbour  and brilliantly pulls off one of the play’s most bravura interludes.  Lori Barker contributes a priceless comic cameo as Samuel’s demanding wife.

And as the colleagues whose relationship is at the centre of the piece, Johann Myers as Ramjohn and Seun Shote as Samuel establish a beautiful rapport, whether shooting the breeze over films (the play contains some truly delectable movie-based chat) or subtly conveying the big shift in power in the characters' dynamic. Only the production’s final moments are perhaps a little too subdued, lacking the needed punch. But this remains a thrilling and absorbing evening that’s not to be missed.

Play Mas is booking until 11th April. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Reviews of Cinema Made in Italy 2015

My coverage of the Cinema Made in Italy 2015 season, hosted at Cine Lumiere, is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Film Review: X+Y (dir. Matthews, 2014)

Morgan Matthews' delightful X+Y is out in the UK on 13th March. You can read my review from the London Film Festival here.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Concert Review: Chas & Dave (Richmond Theatre, 25th February 2015; touring)

Shouting, standing, boogieing in the boxes, and – of course! – singing along, the crowd out for Chas & Dave on Wednesday night were perhaps the rowdiest that Richmond Theatre’s seen for a while, with the theatre turned for the duration of the show  into pretty much the equivalent of an East End boozer.
The great love and affection that many have for Messrs Hodges and Peacock has dimmed not a jot over the years. And it’s not hard to see why, for the duo’s “rockney” mix - boogie woogie, skiffle, pub singalong, a spot of music hall - is as distinctive as it is irresistible, a throwback to vibrant working-class culture that still feels surprisingly fresh. In fact, in doing their own thing so brilliantly, honestly and unapologetically, I’d argue that  Chas & Dave – sampled by Eminem, covered by Tori, parodied by The Two Ronnies, openers for Led Zep and inspiration to Libertines - are pretty much as punk as you can get.
Whipping briskly through the two-hour set, the pair – accompanied by Chas’s son Nik, dynamic on drums –  were in storming form, delivering a mix of covers and originals that passed from New Orleans to Edmonton Green (via Margate, natch) and demonstrated the strength of the pair’s musicianship, which has so often been overlooked. “We’re gonna be doin’ everything tonight,” Hodges promised, and the pledge was pretty much kept up, as the set started with their 70s material, including a  cover of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “I Don’t Know Why (But I Do)” and  a rollicking and rapturously received “Gertcha”.
The pair are great at covers, actually, giving each song their distinctive stamp and performing the (mostly US) material without recourse to American accents (take heed Adele et al., ya fakers).  A chunky “When Two Worlds Collide” (from their new album, That's What Happens [2014]) was sublime, showcasing the interplay of Hodges's great piano-playing with Peacock's supple bass at its best, while arrangements of “My Blue Heaven” and “The Sunshine of Your Smile” were also pleasingly inventive.

Still, it’s their own material - quirky, funny, full of affectionate detail and rapid-fire word-play - that most have really come to hear, and the second  half – beginning with a double of “London Girls” and “Margate” that drove the young woman in front of us into near-orgasmic raptures of delight – was simply a blast, offering a break-neck “Diddle Um Song,” a cheeky “Rabbit,” a spontaneous “That’s What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)” when someone called for it, and that immortal kiss-off “Ain’t No Pleasing You”, before "The Sideboard Song” brought the night to a raucous close.    
If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that the pair tend to go full throttle for the whole show when modulating the set with some quieter numbers (as their albums tend to do) might give a fuller sense of their artistry. That artistry should not be underestimated, though. And neither should the cathartic, empowering potential of a mass singalong of “Ain’t No Pleasing You.” Catch 'em where you can. Altogether now…

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Film Review: The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Strickland, 2014)

Pinastri! Peter Strickland’s amazing The Duke of Burgundy is out in the UK on Friday. The film topped my Films of 2014 list, and my full swooning review from the London Film Festival is here.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Concert Review: Barb Jungr: My Funny Valentine: Songs for the Wild At Heart, Purcell Room (14th February 2015)

A beaming Barb Jungr takes to the Purcell Room stage, looking for all the world like there’s no place she’d rather be on a Saturday evening. And it’s not just any Saturday evening, either: this is February 14th, Valentine’s Night, no less, and Jungr is here to present an evening of love songs in the Southbank Centre’s most intimate auditorium.  “I don’t generally do whole programmes of love songs,” the singer admitted. “But tonight isn’t all about ‘Ooh, I’m in love, isn’t it lovely, ooh look at my skin, can’t you tell?’ No. We’re not just going to be doing songs about that.”

Such quirky, cheeky banter is central to Jungr’s singular stage persona, which combines playfulness and arresting intensity in equal measure. Fresh from a hugely successful tour (including a two week residency at New York’s 59E59) in support of her acclaimed recent album Hard Rain: The Songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen , the Rochdale-born, Stockport-raised Jungr was in buoyant form on Saturday night, her stunning vocals and infectious joy in performance combining with the brilliant contributions of her accomplished accompanists Simon Wallace (piano) and Davide Mantovani (bass) to create a delectable, diverse yet complementary set that mixed material by Noel Coward, Jacques Brel, Joni Mitchell, Tom Rush, The Beatles, and Dylan, among many others.   

In a recent PopMatters piece, Robert Balkovich celebrated interpretations of male-authored songs by female performers, showing how singers such as Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Tori Amos  have re-invigorated (and, in Amos’s case, often boldly subverted) the work of male songwriters through creative covers of their compositions. Jungr - who herself disdains the term “cover version”  - certainly belongs in this distinguished company, for no matter what she sings, it all comes out Barb: impassioned, boundary-busting, and a totally personal and idiosyncratic artistic statement.  

A self-described “chansonnier”, Jungr is one of those artists (June Tabor and Marianne Faithfull also spring to mind) who’ve only become more powerful as the years have progressed. And her mix of inspirations – she’s listed Doris Day, Liza Minnelli, Edith Piaf and Vesta Tilley among her icons – is evident in a juicy performance style that combines elements of jazz, torch and art song with cabaret, music hall and even stand-up comedy.    

Vocally superb, and with Wallace and Mantovani providing delicate, subtle textures that give her plenty of space, Jungr uses her whole body in performance, and all of it is expressive, whether she’s crouching, bopping, pointing or otherwise gesticulating through Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” or getting wonderfully strident on Hank Williams’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. On “Mad about the Boy”, she’s practically a one-woman Noel Coward play, vamping and flirting to imaginary beaux and following up the line “I can’t afford to waste more time” with a knowing cackle.

Crucially, though, Jungr also knows the value of a more contained style too, and she demonstrated that on Saturday night with a sultry, subtly rearranged “I Love Paris” and - best of all - an absolutely exquisite reading of Dylan’s “I Want You,” slowing the jaunty song to a voluptuous crawl and expressing every ounce of ache and longing in the lyrics. It was one of those transcendent, revelatory moments where one hears a familiar, beloved composition entirely afresh.  And on a stunning “Woman in Love,” Jungr also brilliantly surprised us, wrapping a tender hush around the song in the first half before letting rip in the second to make the track a cathartic, startling (and slightly scary) anthem of intent and self-belief.

Elsewhere, her performances of her own very beautiful “Last Orders”, of Ewan MacColl’s “Sweet Thames, Flow Softly” and of Mitchell’s “Carey” (the latter complete with joyful dance routine) had glorious embracing warmth. And her gift for sequencing showed in the way in which she paired songs, making them into sequels and suites to convey the ups and downs of romantic attachments. Here “Lazy Afternoon” merged brilliantly with Small Faces's “Itchycoo Park”, and Tom Rush’s “No Regrets” was followed by an English-language “Je Ne Regrette Rien”, while a joyous “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)” segued straight into a rueful “Love Hurts”.

Steering clear of predictable musical theatre staples (no Sondheim, thankfully), Jungr’s musical affections don’t appear to lie far beyond the late 1970s, and she finds plenty of exciting material in the rock, pop, soul and jazz produced up to that period. Still, she might consider updating her repertoire a touch. As delightful and inventive as her takes on standards such as “My Funny Valentine” (which opened the show) and “What’ll I Do” (which concluded it) undoubtedly are, some engagement with the work of newer songwriters (try Morrissey, Amos, or Richard Shindell, for starters) could be galvanising.

Even so, Jungr never lacks for energy or engagement, whether at full-throttle or just pausing for a moment to close her eyes and sway to an instrumental passage. Cherishing the songs as deeply as she does, she can be as easy and irreverent with them as one can be with a lover, while also ensuring that every single word is heard and felt, ringing true and glowing like coal, to paraphrase her beloved Bob. There’s never a moment when you feel that she’s skating over the meaning of a lyric or is less that fully committed to communicating the song.  Goofy and girlish, wise and womanly, she’s an amazing artist, and she made this particular show a wonderfully vibrant Valentine’s gift. 

Friday, 13 February 2015

Film Review: Love is Strange (dir. Sachs, 2014)

In his previous film, the fitfully superb Keep the Lights On (2012), Ira Sachs charted a turbulent gay relationship across many years of drug addiction and separation. Sachs’s latest work, Love is Strange, isn’t as tough and challenging as the darker-hued Keep the Lights On was: indeed, it’s hard to think of a more gentle, tender-hearted film than this one. But it also has separation at its heart. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play George and Benjamin, a New York couple whose decision to marry has unexpected consequences. When the Catholic school that George teaches at objects to the marriage, George loses his job, and, no longer able to afford their apartment, the two men are forced to live apart for a time, George with friends and Benjamin with family members.

From the subtlety and intelligence of its script to the quality of its acting (Lithgow and Molina give perhaps the most delicate performances I’ve ever seen these sometimes-strident actors deliver, and, in support, Marisa Tomei and Charlie Tahan  are every bit as nuanced), Love is Strange is a movie to cherish. The intense pleasure and gratitude that the viewer takes in the film isn’t just to do with its own evident virtues, though. It’s also to do with the cultural moment that the movie happens to be released in, a time when films as cynical as Birdman, as pushy and purely offensive as Whiplash, and TV shows as rancid and crass as Russell T. Davies’ Cucumber are receiving the greatest acclaim and interest.

Love is Strange falls like balm after such productions. In its compassion for its characters, its loving gaze upon them, the movie not only feels mature but also heroic and even radical, just now. Sachs’s generous respect for all of the people he shows us is evident in the way in which he allows scenes to develop and take their time, not straining for effect or revelation but nonetheless giving each moment a quiet power. Sequences – Ben’s reporting a joyful cinema visit or interrupting Tomei’s Kate in her work; George arriving at his husband's lodgings and collapsing into tears; the two men sharing an illicit bunk-bed bunk-up - convey character gracefully and truthfully.

The central relationship is presented with great affection but Sachs doesn’t fall into the Another Year trap of idealising the couple beyond believability or making them too adorable. The pains as well as the pleasures of cohabitation are, after all, one of the movie’s main concerns. Thus, hints at past hurts and betrayals surface, particularly in an exquisitely written late bar scene that subtly (and wittily) places the protagonists in the wider context of gay New York history, while also initiating the movie’s quietly devastating last quarter.

For some, I think, the very gentleness of Love is Strange may be off-putting: they’ll find the protagonists too passive (George's dismissal and its acceptance does pass by a little too lightly); the Chopin on the track too decorous. But, for those who do respond, the movie’s refusal of pushiness will feel like a gift in itself. I should mention, too, the film's distinctive visuals: Christos Voudouris's lensing sustains a bright, airy, highly appealing look that’s vibrant but never too glossy, and that's yet another central aspect of the hospitality and bracing generosity of spirit of this wry and radiant film.