Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Theatre Review: Torn Apart (dissolution) (Theatre N16)

Produced by No Offence Theatre, the enterprising company that he founded with Nastazja Somers, Bj McNeill’s Torn Apart (dissolution) is back at Theatre N16 following a preview period at the venue last year and a run at this year’s Brighton Fringe. It’s a most welcome return, for this is a resonant and rewarding piece that fully deserves wider exposure.  

Three decades-spanning love stories – two of them transnational – unfold and interweave over 75 minutes, each taking place in a different bedroom. In West Germany in the early 1980s, a Polish student, Alina (Somers herself) is involved in an affair with an American soldier (Simon Donohue), their encounter at once highly specific yet also reflecting wider tensions and attractions between East and West at this time.  

In London in the late 1990s, Casey (Christina Baston), an Australian backpacker, has hooked up with Elliott (Elliott Rogers), an intense young chef, but the progress of their partnership seems stymied by the imminent expiration of Casey’s visa, which, as she wryly notes, has given her enough time to make a life in the UK but not enough time to stay (not that she’s entirely sure that she wants to, anyway). 

In 2014, meanwhile, the affluent Holly (Sarah Hastings) has left her husband and child to be with Erica (Monty Leigh), but the relationship is challenged by, among other things, Holly’s conflicted feelings and some distressing news from Erica. 

Concealing and disclosing as it elegantly develops its complementary triple time-line of  liaisons,  the structure of Torn Apart (dissolution) recalls works as diverse as Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours and, especially, Tim Kirkman’s wonderful (and sadly under-seen) 2005 film Loggerheads, in which the fallout of a decision forced upon a young woman reverberates over three interwoven time periods some years later.

Despite such resonances, McNeill’s play doesn’t feel derivative, though. Rather, it offers an astute look at relationships that are simultaneously enabled and compromised by forces both external and internal. With an excellent set by Szymon Ruszczewski that boldly evokes the cage of circumstances that confine and inhibit the characters (and the “cage” of coupledom itself, perhaps) the play adds up to an insightful exploration of the factors that both unite and divide lovers.  

The sensibility of the piece is notably different to that of much contemporary British work for the stage: while not without moments of levity, McNeill’s text maintains a seriousness of intent and approach that’s bracing, refreshing. Whether it’s Somers’s outspoken Alina reflecting on her father's fecklessness and her mother’s conservative attitudes, or Hastings’s Holly worrying that her abandonment of her child is a repetition of her own father’s behaviour, this is a play that’s profoundly concerned with parental legacy, and the way in which mothers and fathers, whether known or unknown, may condition and affect the lives of their children.  

As director, McNeill keeps the production fluid and dynamic: the sharply rhythmed scenes sometimes overlap, with characters appearing as ghostly presences in the other strands. (Only the pivotal penultimate sequence could benefit from a little more clarity and definition.) And it’s not all talk, either: music (including Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” Fat Boy Slim’s “Praise You” and Sia's “Elastic Heart”) is judiciously employed throughout, and the piece is punctuated by economical yet expressive moments of movement that brilliantly evoke the characters’ inner lives and emotional states.

The accomplished cast of six work together wonderfully well, delivering brave and exposing performances that create vivid individual impressions while also forming a cohesive collective. Sensitive to the caring and the cruelty that takes place in relationships, unsentimental yet also uncynical, McNeill and his collaborators have crafted an intense and intimate production of the kind of play that you see pieces of yourself in.

Torn Apart (dissolution) is booking at Theatre N16 until 30 September. Further information here

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Theatre Review: Jess and Joe Forever (Orange Tree)

Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones in Jess and Joe Forever 
(Photo: The Other Richard)

It surprising to realise that it’s already been two years since Paul Miller began his tenure as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree. With a mixture of revivals and new writing that’s encompassed everything from sterling Shaws (Widowers’ Houses, The Philanderer) to hipster-friendly hype-fests (Alistair MacDowall's Pomona) unforgettably powerful dramas (Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone) to possibly the most delightful French Without Tears ever, Miller’s programming has showed continuity with his predecessor Sam Walters’s while also branching out in some new directions, especially through an emphasis on co-productions.     

Time, continuity and change, are among the concerns of the play – a premiere – which opens Miller’s third year as OT Artistic Director. Commissioned by Old Vic New Voices, and co-produced with Farnham Maltings, Zoe Cooper’s  Jess and Joe Forever centres on two young people as they grow up, spanning several summers in Norfolk, that take our protagonists from ages 9 to 15. Jess is a tubby little girl who, neglected by her parents, holidays in the village with her au pair, while Norfolk-born Joe helps on his father’s farm. As the two gradually edge into friendship, a portrait emerges of two outsiders challenged with making their way in the world against the sometimes harsh judgements of the community.

With its rural setting, a running time of just an hour and ten minutes, and its intimate focus on two characters, Jess and Joe Forever  is a modest work but it’s one whose themes run deeper than many pushier, ostensibly more “ambitious” plays.  The premise may suggest the low-key naturalism of Robert Holman (whose German Skerries was revived at the Orange Tree earlier this year) but what makes the play distinctive is its structure and narrative approach. Jess and Joe Forever mobilises narration and audience address to become a play that’s very much about the construction of a story, as Jess and Joe take us through their impressions and experiences, and, sometimes, debate how best to present those shared memories. 

Rather like Jess, who earnestly declares herself a vegetarian while eagerly consuming a scotch egg, it’s an odd combination of archness and innocence that Cooper achieves here. Initially the archness seems to be winning out in Derek Bond’s production and James Perkins’s spare design, with its representative small pile of sand, and two microphones through which the protagonists speak when they morph into (their versions of) other characters.

But while the self-consciousness about storytelling has some drawbacks (resulting in some sketchy characterisations and underdramatised moments), it becomes more beguiling as the evening progresses, adding up to a mischievous (yet mature) spirit of play that feels appropriate for a work concerned with imagination, transition and transformation. One particular surprise reveal will be the play’s main talking point but what’s admirable is the scrupulous way in which Cooper avoids an “issue-led” approach to the material, opting instead for a more quirky, personal and poetic perspective. Her dialogue is lively and characterful, with great attention to detail that sparks the characters to life.

Bond’s production succeeds in keeping the transitions fluid, with great help from Sally Ferguson’s lighting and from Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones’s terrific performances, which make the evening a beautifully textured duet. Coughlan is particularly adorable, as she reveals the neediness and vulnerability underpinning Jess’s penchant for showing off. Quietly subversive, not without pain, Jess and Joe Forever truly earns its final joyous flourish. It’s a lovely, loving work that makes you eager to see what Cooper will do next.

Jess and Joe Forever is booking at the Orange Tree until 8 October.   The production then tours until November. Further information here.  

Monday, 12 September 2016

Theatre Review: Little Shop of Horrors (touring)

My review of  Tara Louis Wilkinson's new touring production of Little Shop of Horrors is up at The Reviews Hub. You can read it here.  

Theatre Review: Bitches (Finborough, National Youth Theatre)

My review of Bola Agbaje's Bitches is up at The Reviews Hub. You can read it here.  

Saturday, 13 August 2016

On New Horizons: the 16th International Film Festival, Wrocław, 21 July – 31 July 2016

Founded in 2001, and now in its 16th edition, Wrocław’s T-Mobile New Horizons Film Festival (Nowe Horyzonty) has established itself as one of Poland’s most important showcases for international art cinema: a great complement to Krakow Film Festival, and to the venerable, vibrant Gdynia Film Festival, which focuses exclusively on Polish productions. I’ve been eager to attend the Festival since I started visiting Poland regularly in 2007 but somehow the dates have never quite worked out. I was happy, therefore, to finally have the opportunity to make it to New Horizons this year, albeit for only a few days.

Deep End 
This is a particularly significant year for New Horizons, since Wrocław is European Capital of Culture for 2016, sharing the title with San Sebastian in Spain. While I can’t comment on how the city’s status may have changed the tenor of the event this year, New Horizons 2016 certainly offered an abundance of riches, including appearances by Claire Denis, Ulrike Ottinger, Agnieszka Holland, Carlos Saura and Victor Erice. (A section focusing on Basque cinema – including the Erice retrospective – constituted the Festival’s loving homage to its ECC twin.)

The Festival also featured over 100 Polish premieres, among them screenings of the crop of recent successes from the likes of Venice and Cannes, such as Ken Loach’s Palme-honoured I, Daniel Blake, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s exhilarating Aquarius, Alain Guiraudie’s spectacularly confounding Staying Vertical, and Maren Ade’s much-loved (though not by me) daddy/daughter comedy Toni Erdmann.

Deep End
In addition, Polish cinema both brand new (Tomasz Wasilewski’s Silver Bear-winning United States of Love/Zjednoczone Stany Miłości) and classic (Aleksander Hertz’s believed-lost 1919 silent, People with No Tomorrow/Ludzie bez jutra) was showcased, while Deep End (1970), Jerzy Skolimowski’s sublime London-set portrait of adolescent erotic obsession, played to a hugely enthusiastic crowd after an introduction by Gdynia’s Artistic Director Michał Oleszczyk. Since I was only at the Festival for a short time, I was able to sample merely a small selection of the films and events on offer. The following remarks shouldn’t be interpreted as in any way comprehensive, then, but are instead a modest overview of some of the work that I was able to catch.

The first film that I saw served as both a perfect introduction to the Festival and to the city in which it’s held. Wrocław From Dawn Till Dusk (Wrocław od switu do zmierzchu) is an insightful observational documentary by Polish film school students, shot in November last year, and overseen by mentors Jacek Bławut and Marcel Łoziński. At once tight and loose, the film, which is part of “The World From Dawn Till Dusk” project, is expertly edited and rendered cohesive by (among other visual and sonic elements) the occasional commentary of DJ Leszek Kopeć, which provides a thread throughout.

Less a “city symphony” than an étude or, perhaps, an impromptu, the film  conjures the atmosphere of Wrocław beautifully, whether focusing on parent/child boppers at a baby salsa class, the inhabitants of a hippie commune, or the daily doings of workers in the city: from shoe-makers to zoo-keepers to puppeteers. Disturbing footage of a nationalist rally led one audience member to complain that the film had shown Wrocław in a negative light. In fact, the film is notable for its affectionate yet unsentimental tone, adding up to a modest mosaic of city life that also serves as a synecdoche for contemporary urban Poland.

Abbas Kiarostami and Victor Erice
Made in 2006, and screening as part of the Erice retrospective, another documentary, Victor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami – Correspondence, was a touching addition to the Festival, given Kiarostami’s recent death. No straightforward gab-fest a la Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), the film is rather an idiosyncratic, impressionistic piece that’s deeply infused with the poetics of both filmmakers. As the title suggests, the movie is based around Kiarostami and Erice’s letters to one another, which we see being composed here, and then delivered in the directors’ beguiling mellow voices.

These gentle, respectful missives serve as an entry point to the consideration of wider “correspondences” between the pair, as well as to reflections on continuity and change, and on cinema’s border-crossing potential. In one of the finest sequences, a group of eager, engaged school-kids in an Extremadura village discusses Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House? (1987) at length, encouraged by their teacher to engage with both the relatable moral dilemmas presented in the film, and with its specific cultural context. Other memorable moments include a huge, haptic close-up of a cow and a sustained, emblematic shot taken through Kiarostami’s car windscreen. In its final passages, the documentary takes a more abstract, metaphysical turn that’s a little bit less compelling, but overall the film does justice to the relationship of two directors linked by their great ability to make us see and experience the world afresh.

Things to Come  (L'Avenir)
Turning to new narrative features, after the draggy, slightly irritating Eden (2014), it was good to find Mia Hansen-Løve back on form with Things to Come (L'Avenir), a delightful, surprisingly funny ode to life going on after loss that screened in the Festival’s “Panorama” strand. A portrait of a philosophy teacher, Natalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert), going through a series of personal and professional shake-ups, Things to Come fits comfortably with the current vogue for films focusing on older female characters challenged with remaking their lives, or, indeed, resisting such changes: Marion Vernoux’s  Bright Days Ahead (2013), Isabel Coixet’s Learning to Drive (2014), and the aforementioned Aquarius come to mind in this context. 

Things to Come (L'Avenir)

While the movie’s engagement with the legacy of late-1960’s radicalism feels a little pat, Things to Come remains perceptive and highly enjoyable, with scenes that don’t always develop in predictable directions. The movie is given grit and grace by its leading performer: a bustling Huppert has seldom been more likeable or more physically witty than she is here, whether facing off with her depressed mother (a cherishable Édith Scob), testing out the alternative lifestyle proposed by her handsome protégé (Roman Kolinka), or fending off unwanted male attention in a movie house. (During a screening of Kiarostami’s Certified Copy!) 

Those of us who saw Huppert’s writhing, shrieking, out-there performance in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s recent highly stylized multi-text theatrical extravaganza Phaedra(s) will be especially impressed by the consummate ease with which the actress slots into a naturalistic domestic context here; the subtlety with which she keeps us attuned to Natalie’s feelings, whether in the character’s social interactions or in the intimate scenes which present the protagonist alone, is prodigious.  In a beautiful final shot, Hansen-Løve brings her wise and restorative movie to a perfect, elegant end.

Staying Vertical (Rester Vertical)

A favourite from Cannes, it was a pleasure to revisit Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical (Rester Vertical) at New Horizons and to find the film to be an even richer, odder creation than it seemed on first encounter. The follow-up to the director’s highly acclaimed Stranger By The Lake (2013), the suspenseful cruising thriller that brought gay porn aesthetics to the art-house, Staying Vertical offers a deeply subversive meditation on parenthood and creativity, one that deconstructs desires and gender stereotypes with the casual aplomb of François Ozon at his finest.  

The audience response to the film is also worth noting. Much Western media would tell you that Poland is currently sinking into insularity and conservatism, following the election last year of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party. Yet the Festival “bubble” presented a much more complex picture, as open-minded, wide-ranging audiences sat unblinking through Staying Vertical’s already-notorious cross-generational sodomy/euthanasia sequence and, later, through the sadomasochistic sex depicted in Lee Seung-won’s demanding, atonal Communication & Lies. Indeed, the former sequence prompted more embarrassed squirms at Cannes than it did in Wrocław, while the Polish audience also seemed considerably more responsive to the black comedy and unforeseen twists and turns of Guiraudie’s latest than the director’s compatriots did.

A Special Day (Una giornata particolare)

Another pleasurable addition to the Festival were the free outdoor evening screenings held in the city’s beautiful Market Square: these ranged from  a presentation of silent early Shakespeare adaptations (complete with new Globe Theatre score), screened as part of the Festival’s excellent “Shakespeare Lives on Film” strand to Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s musical/horror mermaid extravaganza Córki Dancingu (The Lure).

The final film I saw at the Festival was at one of these outdoor presentations: Ettore Scola’s 1977 A Special Day (Una giornata particolare), the director’s near-two-hander in which Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni - she playing a put-upon housewife, he a homosexual radio announcer - are neighbours who bond over a few hours, on the day of Hitler’s visit to Rome in 1938.

Dismissed by Pauline Kael as “a strenuous exercise in sensitivity… neo-realism in a gold frame,” the movie has aged surprisingly gracefully, and drew a large and attentive audience.  At the precise moment that the film’s tender final scenes were playing out, the Market Square’s town hall clock chimed 12 a.m.: a beautiful moment of convergence between film, festival and city that carried us, at once sad and hopeful, into the new day. 

Friday, 5 August 2016

CD Review: How Can We Know? EP, Peter Horsfall (2016)

A late highlight of last year’s concert-going, for me, was Barb Jungr’s “Festive Feelings” show at Crazy Coqs, a Christmas concert that combined songs by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and George Harrison with Jungr’s customary inventiveness, verve and aplomb. Jungr’s collaborators on this programme were Jenny Carr on piano and Peter Horsfall on trumpet, both of whom also contributed harmonies throughout the evening, while Horsfall also sang a seductive lead on “Moonlight in Vermont” and duetted with Jungr on a funny, combative “Fairytale of New York.”   
It’s pleasing to report, then, that Horsfall has now released his debut EP:  How Can We Know? is a 4-track release of great charm and craft that firmly confirms Horsfall as a talent watch. Already a prolific live performer, and member of London swing group Kansas Smitty’s House Band, Horsfall’s music harks back to 1920s and 1930s-era jazz styles. And, as the Crazy Coqs show demonstrated, he has a knack for delivering songs in a way that makes them sound both classic and fresh. His skilful song-writing, which the EP showcases, possesses precisely those same qualities. With Horsfall’s light, airy vocals accompanied by David Archer on guitar, Joe Webb on piano and Dave O’Brien on bass as well as his own great trumpet-playing, the EP sustains a relaxed, easy, intimate tone.

The title track is a stately and instantly enticing opener that capture’s love’s uncertainties with melancholy charm.  “It’s Not You, It’s Me” swings beautifully, with particularly lovely piano and trumpet work, while the mellow, elegant “This Song’s For You” gracefully wishes a parted lover well. “Cupid’s Arrow’s and Bow”, a co-write with Jungr, is a delight: a brisk, giddy and infectious ode to getting swept up by love that comes complete with a sneaky lyrical homage to Leonard Cohen.  Indeed, each of these carefully-crafted songs gleams like a jewel and sounds like a standard in the making. Here’s hoping for an LP from Horsfall and company very soon.

How Can We Know? is out on   9th September  and can be pre-ordered here. Horsfall launches the EP with a show at Crazy Coqs on 8th September.