Friday, 9 March 2018

Cinema Made in Italy 2018, Ciné Lumière, 7-11 March 2018

Italian cinema may not, nowadays, have quite the cachet and international recognition that it had in its golden years from the post-WWII period to the 1960s. Back then, a mix of neo-realist grit and modernist chic stretched the boundaries of the medium, making renowned auteurs out of directors such as De Sica, Visconti, Pasolini, and Fellini, and international icons from actors including Marcello Mastoianni, Monica Vitti and Sophia Loren.

That’s not to say, however, that interesting, worthwhile films are not still being made in Italy - simply that they’re not always receiving the wider exposure and distribution that they deserve. This state of affairs makes the annual "Cinema Made in Italy" showcase, held at Institut Francais's Cine Lumière, an extremely valuable event, allowing Londoners to catch up with Italian films that would otherwise likely remain inaccessible. Not only that, but the screenings are generally followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers and actors. In the past few editions, films as diverse as Ermanno Olmi's Greenery Will Bloom Again, Lamberto Sanfelice's Chlorine, Giuseppe M. Gaudino's Anna, and Gabriele Mainetti's They Call Me Jeeg Robot have testified to the range of work currently being made by Italian filmmakers, much of it exciting and innovative. (You can read my coverage of the 2015 and 2016 editions here and here.)

This year’s well-curated programme (the eighth edition of the showcase, with films selected again by Film London CEO Adrian Wootton), is similarly wide-ranging, encompassing relationship dramas, social realist works, and adult animation, and offering a number of standout films. A new movie by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani is always an event, and while Rainbow: A Private Affair doesn't rank as one of their finest, it's stronger than the rather indifferent critical reception that it's had so far might suggest. An adaptation of Beppe Fenoglio's 1963 novel, the film focuses on a love triangle during Italy's partisan resistance in World War II, and while that aspect is not so compelling, the film gains its power from scattered indelible sequences: a jazz drumming prisoner; a girl rising from among the dead bodies of her family, making herself a drink, and then taking her place among the bodies once again. Such potent moments connect back to the Tavianis' earlier work, such as the great The Night of the Shooting Stars.

Meanwhile, another pair of director brothers, Antonio and Marco Manetti, deliver a wild and enjoyable dark musical comedy in Love and Bullets. Equally distinctive is Alessandro Rak's Cinderella the Cat, a decidedly non-kiddy-friendly animation which places the fairytale in the very Italian context of Neopolitan capitalism and crime, mixing sci-fi and noir genre tropes to sometimes disturbing effect.

More low-key but no less arresting is Leonardo di Costanzo's The Intruder,  a sensitive and well-developed drama which pulls the viewer's sympathies in several directions, as it documents the tense situation that results when a young mother takes up residence at a centre for disadvantaged children, following the arrest of her husband. Giovanna (Raffaella Giordano), the social worker/manager of the centre, finds herself caught between her sympathy for the woman's plight and the concerns of parents who find her a disruptive presence. Avoiding a Ken Loach-style didactism in its approach, the film holds in balance a range of perspectives and is all the richer for it. The ending is muted, but the film is taut and compelling throughout, and anchored by superb, naturalistic performances from all the cast.

Best of all the films featured, though, is Andrea Pallaoro's Hannah, which casts Charlotte Rampling as the titular heroine, going about her routines - or attempting to - during a period of enforced separation from her husband (Andre Wilms). To say more about the reasons for that separation would be to spoil the film's secrets and its intense slow-build, but suffice it to say that Hannah continues the series of intimate, first-person portraits that have formed a strand of Rampling’s output since Francois Ozon's classic Under the Sand in 2000. The actress deservedly won the Best Actress prize at last year's Venice International Film Festival prize for her subtle but searing work here. Pallaoro has named Michael Haneke and Chantal Akerman as among his inspirations, and those influences are clearly felt throughout.  The film's elliptical approach to narrative, with information drip-fed to the audience and some large gaps remaining, can verge on the obtuse, yet it's also pivotal to the film's mysterious aura, which enfuses daily activity with a palpable sense of uncertainty and dread. (The director has described the film as "an existential giallo.")

Finally, the season presents a welcome opportunity to see a classic film, too: a restored print of Ettore Scola's 1977 A Special Day, starring Marcello Mastroianni, as a gay radio announcer and Sophia Loren as the put-upon housewife with whom he bonds over a few hours on the day of Hitler's visit to Rome in 1938. I had the pleasure of seeing the film at an outdoor screening at Wroclaw's New Horizons festival two years ago, and can testify that it has aged extremely gracefully, and that the actors' performances (the film is practically a two-hander) are among their best-ever. Scola's film will make for a fine conclusion to another excellent edition of "Cinema Made in Italy," bringing a bit of the cinematic past into the present.

"Cinema Made in Italy 2018" runs at Institut Francais from 7 -  11 March. For full programme details, see here.

Theatre Review: Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (Richmond Theatre, and touring)

While not quite boasting the reputation of Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army  or Steptoe and Son, Raymond Allen's Some Mothers Do  'Ave  'Em  nonetheless remains among the most enduringly popular of '70s sitcoms, its combination of sharp writing and slapstick proving pretty timeless in its appeal. The travails of its disaster-prone, proud but oddly innocent protagonist Frank Spencer, whom the show follows through marriage to the patient, put-upon Betty, parenthood to daughter Jessica and sundry failed jobs and other mishaps, made for delightful comedy. A 2004 poll to find Britain's best sitcom placed the show at number 22, while a one-off 2016 reboot for Sport Relief (which reunited Michael Crawford and Michele Dotrice in their iconic roles, alongside Bradley Wiggins, ahem) was also warmly received.

Still, a theatre production based on the sitcom sounds like a rather risky prospect, not least because of the difficulty of replacing Crawford and Dotrice. Happily, this new production, which opened at Swindon's Wyvern Theatre two weeks ago and is at Richmond this week before touring to Bromley, Portsmouth, Crewe, Aberdeen, Eastbourne, Northampton, Dartford, Wolverhampton, Crawley, Tunbridge Wells, Plymouth, Ipswich, Harrogate, Hull, Darlington, Norwich, Leicester, and Southend,  is good fun, with lively peformances and a generous spirit that proves infectious, especially in the first half.

Written and directed by Guy Unsworth, the show doesn't attempt a quirky take on Allen's original material, as Kneehigh did - with mixed but interesting results - in their staging of Steptoe and Son a few years ago. Rather, the approach is straightforward and pretty reverent: a replication, essentially, not a reinterpretation. Focusing on Betty's attempts to tell Frank about her pregnancy, and the arrival at the house of a BBC crew to film Frank's magic act, the show amalgamates or adapts situations and lines from various episodes of the series, and while the late addition of some - fairly incoherent - extra plot is unnecessary, it does so quite effectively for the most part.

Joe Pasquale is a smart casting choice for Frank; with his unmistakable voice and physical comedy skills, he brings his own persona to the part rather than simply conjuring Crawford. Kitted out in beret and trench coat, he relishes the pratfalls and malapropisms, and has great audience rapport. Sarah Earnshaw also does well as Betty, bringing, as Dotrice did, a little undertow of poignancy to the character's combined love for and exasperation with her husband. As Betty's mother Mrs. Fisher, perpetually aghast at her son-in-law's mishaps, Susie Blake gets some of the evening's biggest laughs, and Moray Treadwell doubles effectively as her Scottish bank manager beau and a BBC interviewer. David Shaw-Parker as Father O'Hara and Chris Kiely as a cameraman and policeman complete the likeable cast.

The stunts, though well-timed, can't really rival the elaborately choreographed set-pieces of the TV seies, but Simon Higlett’s very  '70s design - complete with pictures of Bruce Forsyth, Engelbert Humperdinck and Jesus decorating the Spencer home - springs some fun surprises, most notably in the extended mayhem that concludes the first Act. A selection of pop songs of the period also brings energy to the evening, especially in a surreal late sequence that finds Pasquale and co. boogieing away to a medley comprising "Deliah," "Knock Three Times" and "Without You."

No-one's going to mistake Some Mothers Do  'Ave  'Em  for essential theatre, but the accomplished cast and Unsworth's affectionate approach make for an entertaining, retro evening. As our hapless hero might put it: "Mmmm. Nice!"

Theatre Review: The Weir (Richmond Theatre, and touring)

With his Bob Dylan musical – or “play with songs” – Girl from the North Country successfully transferred from the Old Vic to the West End, now seems a particularly good moment for a revival of Conor McPherson’s breakthrough success, The Weir, which is being presented in a new UK touring production to mark the play’s 20th anniversary.

Not that The Weir can precisely be said to have been neglected since its Royal Court debut in 1997 (in a production which boasted Brendan Coyle and Dermot Crowley among its cast). On the contrary, the play has proved popular at home and abroad in the intervening 20 years, ageing more gracefully than many of the flashier, more modish ‘In Yer Face’ offerings that were its direct contemporaries. Adele Thomas’s elegant new staging, a co-production by Colchester’s Mercury Theatre and English Touring Theatre, makes a fresh case for the play’s appeal, boasting good performances and sharp attention to atmosphere.

Self-consciously steeped in the oral tradition of Irish culture, The Weir is, overtly, a play about storytelling.  In an isolated rural Irish pub, the young publican Brendan chats with the garrulous Jack, a garage owner. The men are joined later by Jim, a carer for his Mammy, a woman who’s been “fading fast – for years.” The last regular to join the group is the married businessman Finbar, who brings along Valerie, a Dubliner who has rented a house in the area. As the men reminisce and share tall tales, Valerie’s presence prompts some subtle shifts in their dynamic, particularly when she belatedly reveals the reason that she left Dublin.

As a play, The Weir is static and not particularly dramatic. Its interest and momentum comes, instead, from the rhythms of the conversations, as the tales move from supernatural legend and myth to intimate personal revelation, from banter to soul-baring.  McPherson’s dialogue captures those shifts with skill.  Like water down a weir, the spotlight moves fluidly from character to character. At its heart, the play is a portrait of loss and loneliness, a work concerned with the experience of being haunted, yet the themes aren’t loudly stated or over-emphasised; rather they appear to emerge organically from the protagonists’ chat.

Thomas’s production takes its time, offering a slow-burn approach that leads to some lulls yet also gives a pleasant, unforced, natural feeling to the evening. Madeleine Girling’s pub set creates a warm yet appropriately ghostly ambience, enhanced by Lee Curran and Dara Hoban’s lighting, which fleshes out the mood with expressionistic washes, and complemented by Richard Hammarton’s subtle, effective sound design.

In a solid cast, Sam O’Mahony is terrifically likeable as Brendan, presiding over the others stories but never quite revealing his own. Sean Murray is vivid as the self-consciously cantankerous and belligerent Jack, who finally softens up as he recalls a lost love and a stranger’s kindest. John O’Dowd suggests the compromises of Jim’s life with touching understatement, and Louis Dempsey cleverly conveys the cracks in Finbar’s confident façade.  As Valerie, who first shakes things up with a request for a white wine and later with a heart-rending narrative, Natalie Radmall-Quirke is a strong, persuasive presence. The play probably needs a smaller space to truly flourish, but these actors succeed in creating - and sustaining - an involving, intimate mood.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Theatre Review: Curtains (Rose Theatre, Kingston)

Its title gesturing cheekily both to the issue of death that’s at its centre, and to the domesticity that constitutes its context, Stephen Bill’s 1987 play Curtains takes a well-worn dramatic situation – a family gathering to celebrate a birthday – in order to explore mortality and the still-controversial issue of the right to die. The birthday girl here is Ida, a pain-wracked and wheelchair-bound 86-year-old whose family – daughters Katherine and Margaret, their spouses Geoffrey and Douglas,  and Katherine and Geoffrey’s son Michael -  seem almost maniacally determined for her to have a jolly good time. Naturally, the day springs some surprises, not least the return to the fold of the youngest daughter, Susan, after a 25-year absence, and the fulfillment of Ida’s own long-held birthday wish.       

Lindsay Posner’s bright revival for Kingston Rose, with its excellent cosy/shabby living room set by Peter McIntosh  (peeling wallpaper, trifle on the table, sunlight through a stained glass window), makes the production itself a mini family get-together by casting the playwright’s son Leo Bill as Michael, the 20-something grandson who, along with the practical neighbour Mrs. Jackson (fine Marjorie Yates) has been Ida’s principal carer. Bill, brilliant in everything from The Glass Menagerie to The School for Scandal to The Silence of the Sea, manages to make something distinctive and interesting of what could be a weak role, relishing Michael’s love of a bad joke and cake-scoffing, while hinting at the insecurities and anger beneath.   

Indeed, Posner’s production opens altogether superbly, with some funny, painful and well-observed interactions. A devastatingly good Sandra Voe conveys, with a minimum of dialogue, Ida’s frustration, anger and sheer weariness, as the reluctant birthday celebrant endures her family’s strained, well-meaning attempts at joviality. Despite roving accents, Saskia Reeves, Wendy Nottingham and Caroline Catz  make a good, strongly contrasting sibling trio. (The play can be seen as another Three Sisters variant, of sorts.)

If the second half is less successful, it’s down to the play’s recourse to a too-strident debate on the central issues, one that feels rigged. An element of harangue creeps into the approach, as the playwright's intentions become too obvious. Tim Dutton brings some sharp, wry humour to his performance as  Douglas but the character is too transparently the play’s mouthpiece, and without effective opposition, the drama's interest wanes. 

Still, even if this Alan Ayckbourn-meets-Amour evening doesn’t quite make good on its initial promise, it remains worthwhile for some potent moments, such as the screwy everyday Englishness of Reeves’s nervy Katherine confessing: “I had a breakdown …  I don’t think anyone knew about it.”

Curtains is booking until 17 March. Further information here

Sunday, 25 February 2018

100 Greatest Tori Amos Songs

Four years ago, the fine folks @torisongs polled Tori Amos fans for their Top 50 Amos tracks. Now the task is to create a Top 100 list of the greatest Amos songs. Double the number, double the fun! Or double the difficulty: Amos is a true "album artist" and so it can be very challenging to prise songs from the context of the records in which their meaning comes, in part, from associations and transitions, and claim them as favourites or "best." But here’s my attempt at it anyway. I can’t quite believe that even a list of 100 songs wasn’t enough to allow me to include every Amos track that’s meant something to me (particularly as the great Light Princess songs, written by Amos with Samuel Adamson, are also list-eligible) but that difficulty does make clear once again the - still often undervalued - range and breadth of her artistry. Anyway, my list is below, as before complete with a favourite lyric from each song,  and preceded by  some wise words from one of Amos’s most insightful critics, Jon Pareles. Get voting! Here are links to the information and ballot form.

"Ms. Amos’s songs combine meticulous musicianship with willful abandon. Some repeatedly shift mood and tempo as her voice metamorphosises from croon to embittered rasp to near operatic declamation. Her classical piano training shows in strenuous keyboard parts that can be as brawny as Elton John’s two-fisted chords or as dainty as Baroque counterpoint. And her lyrics dive into unexplained memories and allusions, emerging with a line that rings true for her listeners:  'I hear my voice and it's been here, silent all these years.'

"Some use melodies as concise as lullabies while others are rhapsodic, leaping from bruised low notes to pure soprano heights. To pull off such idiosyncratic songs takes unwavering conviction, something Ms. Amos has never lacked. She merges the calculation of a recitalist with the intensity of a torch singer, and she [makes] every keening, wordless note sound heartfelt." (Jon Pareles)

My Top 100 

      1.  Silent All These Years - “Do you think there’s a heaven where some screams have gone?”
     2.   Yes, Anastasia – “It’s funny, the things that you find in the rain.”
      3.    Liquid Diamonds – “Surrender, then start your engines.”
     4.     Me And A Gun – “I haven’t seen Barbados so I must get out of this.”
          5.  Code Red – “Sometimes I love myself best alone.”
     6.     Tear in Your Hand – “I know I know you well - well, better than I used to.”
     7.     Taxi Ride – “Even a glamorous bitch can be in need.”

      8.     Hey Jupiter – “Took my leather off the shelf.”
     9.     Forest of Glass – “Lift up your head, lift up your heart.”

    10.    Jackie’s Strength – “My bridesmaid’s getting laid.”
    11.    Pretty Good Year – “Some things are melting now.”
    12.    Caught A Lite Sneeze – “I’m hiding it well, Sister Ernestine.”

     13.    Spark – “How many fates turn around in the overtime?”

     14.    Winter – “When you gonna love you as much as I do?”
     15.     Leather – “But why do I need you to love me?”

     16.     A Sorta Fairytale – “I don’t know what takes hold, out there in the desert cold.”

     17.     Precious Things – “Little fascist panties tucked inside the heart of every nice girl.”
     18.     Welcome to England – “Who can stay strong, when they only give us lies to lean on?”

     19.     Datura – “Golden shower tree.”

     20.     Scarlet’s Walk – “What do you plan to do with all your stories?”

     21.     iieee – “Need a lip-gloss boost in your America.

     22.     No H20 – “I have a choice and it's cling to my life or I die.”

     23.     Purple People – “Thunder wishes it could be the snow.”

     24.     Sugar – “Cold war with little boys.”

     25.     Dragon – “I will bring kisses for the beast.”

     26.     Upside Down – “You always find my faults, faster than you find your own.”

     27.     Gold Dust – “You can see in the dark, through the eyes of Laura Mars.” 
     28.      Barons of Suburbia – “We’re on the other side of midnight.”

     29.     Professional Widow – “Strike a deal, make him feel like a Congressman.”

     30.     Cool On Your Island – “Sometimes I’m not afraid to let it show.”

     31.     Zero Point – “We are now in the Photon band.”

     32.     Nothern Lad – “You change like sugar cane.”

    33.     Invisible Boy – “Jump on a Triumph like Steve McQueen.”
    34.     Glory of the 80s – “I’ll clone myself like that blonde chick that sings Bette Davis Eyes.”

     35.     Girl – “Yes, with a message for my heart.”

     36.     Digital Ghost – “Your heart only beats 1s and 0s.”

     37.     Josephine – “In an army’s strength, therein lies the denouement.”

     38.     Hotel – “I have to learn to let you crash.”

     39.     Pancake – “Seems in vogue to be a closet misogynist homophobe.”

     40.     Crucify – “You're just an empty cage, girl, if you kill the bird.”

     41.     Smokey Joe – “One’s past is not a destination.”

     42.     Cooling – “Is your place in heaven worth giving up these kisses?”

     43.     Job’s Coffin – “All forces are being called to dismantle this.”

     44.     Twinkle – “She worked at an abbey in Iona and –

     45.     The Beekeeper – “I will comb myself into chains.”

     46.     Juarez – “The Indian is told the Cowboy is his friend.”

     47.     Honey – “Cowboys know cowgirls ride on the Indians’ side.”

     48.     Playboy Mommy – “A good friend of American soldiers.”

     49.     Mother – “You raised your hand for the assignment.”

     50.     My Own Land – “Father, I would rather stay confined.”

     51.     Etienne – “As the gypsy crystal slowly dies.”

     52.     Reindeer King – “Ice you were the one most tender with the rivers.”

     53.     Almost Rosey – “He bats as the Virginian Slim.”

     54.     Beauty of Speed – “Even still I was built to tolerate your temper.”

     55.     Climb – “The temple of the soul will have to heal the flesh.”

     56.     Cloud on My Tongue – “I don’t need much to keep me warm.”

     57.     Black Dove (January) – “They don't know you've already lived.”

     58.     Little Amsterdam – “Her best friend is a sundress.”

     59.     Shattering Sea – “Every brutal word.”

     60.      Velvet Revolution   “Feeling radical in cotton.”

     61.     Body and Soul – “ Boy, I think you need a conversion.”

     62.     The Waitress – “And is her power all in her club sandwich?”

     63.     Blood Roses – “God knows I know I’ve thrown away those graces.”

     64.     Battle of Trees – “In our enemy, his own laureate.”

     65.     Baker Baker – “If you see him, say hi.”

     66.     Sister Janet – “Slipping the blade in the marmalade.”

     67.     Concertina – “I’m not policing what you think and dream.”

     68.     Little Earthquakes – “Black-winged roses that safely change their colour.”

     69.     Fearlessness – “Did we begin without knowing it/To find fault in every gift?”

     70.     To the Fair Motormaids of Japan – “The last banana hairdo got a laugh from the samurais.”
     71.     Ruby Through the Looking Glass – “Don’t you think she feels us fighting?”

     72.     Flying Dutchman – “They say your brain is a comic book tattoo.”

     73.     Amber Waves – “They told me to tell you they’re waving.”

     74.     Althea – “A vision of golden light falling.”

     75.     Spring Haze – “My only way out is to go so far in.”

     76.     Garlands – “Phileda's Lesson: We're not his possession.”

     77.     Marys of the Sea – “There’s a new Jerusalem.”

     78.     Girl Disappearing  - “I’m boycotting trends, it’s my new look this season.”

     79 .    Bang – “One story's end seeds another to begin.”

     80.     Bouncing off Clouds – “I think fate is now, waiting on us.”

     81.     Virginia – “To ghetto pimps and presidents.”

     82.     Star Whisperer – “I saw a me I didn’t want to see.”

     83.     Father’s Son – “Can we blame Nature if she’s had enough of us?”

     84.     Putting the Damage On – “I say her skinny legs could use sun.”

     85.     Past the Mission – “Some things only she knows.”
     86.     General Joy – “Is that why you gave her dress to happiness?”

     87.     In the Springtime of His Voodoo – “Every road leads back to my door.”
     88.     Cruel  - “My vine twists around your need.”

     89.     Secret Spell – “18 wheels in a high heel.”

     90.     Take to the Sky – “This house is like Russia.”

     91.     Lady in Blue – “I wronged the right man.”

     92.     Way Down – “Yes, I am the anchorman, dining here with Son of Sam.”

     93.     Carry  - “In the procession of the mighty stars.”

     94.     Dolphin Song – “I sought shelter in our child’s room.”

     95.     Suede – “I walk the missionary way.”

     96.     Talula – “Ran into the henchman who severed Anne Boleyn.”
     97 .    Nautical Twilight – “Every alchemist knows fusion and fission can unify or drive a force to split.”

     98.     The Wrong Band – “She says it’s time I open my eyes.”

     99.     Mary's Eyes - “Patterns matter, stringing sequences together matters. 
    100.   Seven Sisters 

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

CD Review: Sinners Got Soul Too, Peyton (Peyton Music, 2018)

The strong and soulful singing of Christopher Peyton carries the 13 fantastic tracks that make up Sinners Got Soul Too with conviction and assurance. The release of this album is the latest step on a pretty unpredictable journey that's taken the artist from the churches of Virginia (where his father was a Pentecostal preacher) to the clubs of Ibiza, where he gained fame as a vocalist for house producers.

Those influences are at once felt, embraced and transcended on this new release, which combines soul and gospel flourishes with tip-top pop production values, resulting in a set that's much more eclectic and emotionally satisfying than the dancefloor would allow. Peyton spreads his wings on this record, and the results are beautiful to behold.

As the song titles - "Keep on Rising," "I'll Rise," "A Higher Place," "All Ways Up" - suggest, the element of uplift in the lyrics could become repetitious. Yet the songs emerge as individual, characterful and not too glossy overall. In collaboration with producer James Reynolds, Peyton puts distinctive spins on the material with committed vocals and smart musical approaches. The album's cohesiveness is particularly impressive given that a couple of the featured tracks (such as the aforementioned "A Higher Place") first emerged some years ago.

The immediate standout is "When They Go Low," an impeccable piece of stirring power pop which, of course, takes its title from a certain famed National Democratic Convention speech, and even comes complete with a Michelle Obama sample. The spare exhortation of the opener "Keep on Rising," the confident bustle of "Carry You," the funky reggae textures of "Joy," the luscious hymnal love song "Be My Enough," the combative crunch of "Jericho," and the sweeping, cinematic closer "My Song 4 U" prove equally infectious and appealing.

Quieter, lower-key moments, such as an acoustic take on Ben Harper's setting of Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise" and a heartfelt cover of "True Colors," also register. About as good as contemporary pop music gets, it's easy to imagine several of these uplifting and addictive songs becoming huge hits. They deserve to be.

Sinners Got Soul Too is released on 9 February. Peyton plays at Pizza Express, Holborn (17 January), Pizza Express , Birmingham (10 February), and Crazy Coqs, London (16 February). Further information here

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Theatre Review: Into the Numbers (Finborough)

(Image: Scott Rylander)

As previously proven a couple of years ago with its brilliant, bruising production of Colleen Murphy’s Pig Girl, the Finborough isn’t a theatre that believes in easing us into the New Year with something cosy. And those already overdosed on festive theatrical fun may be relieved to discover that the theatre is kicking off 2018 with a similarly intense and uncompromising piece: Into the Numbers, by Obie award-winning playwright Christopher Chen, which is here receiving its European premiere.
Georgie Staight’s production of Chen’s play marks two significant anniversaries. For starters, it’s the  first production to be staged at the Finborough in the 150th year of the building. More soberingly, the production also commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Nanking massacre, the genocide perpetrated against Chinese soldiers and civilians by Japanese troops after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in December 1937. Encouraged and enabled by the Japanese military leadership, the genocide resulted in over 300,000 deaths, as well as thousands of incidents of torture and sexual assault.
The focus of Chen’s play is not precisely the genocide itself, however, but rather its echoes and reverberations many years later. The play’s protagonist is Iris Chang, the Chinese-American historian whose 1997 book about the massacre, The Rape of Nanking, became an international bestseller. And the drama posits a link between Chang’s work on the book (and, more particularly, the media circus that resulted from its success and controversy) and the author’s decision to take her own life, at the age of 36, in 2004.
The play initially takes the form of a lecture/interview/Q&A session. Brisk, professional and quietly impassioned, Elizabeth Chan, as Chang, takes to a lectern to deliver her talk on what happened in Nanking, and her assessment of it moral and historical implications. But the drama’s main aim is to present a psychological portrait of its protagonist, one that reveals the toll that researching genocide, and regurgitating its horrors at public events, may take upon an individual. (As the title suggests, numbers are a motif, with Chang obsessively questioned about how Nanking compares to other atrocities in terms of the amount of people killed.)
While Chang tells her interviewer that she’s able to “compartmentalise” her research and her life, the play suggests that this may not have been the case, and does so by distinctive theatrical means that enact, rather than merely evoking, a disturbing blurring of boundaries. A victim’s relative (Jennifer Lim), expressing her gratitude for Chan’s book at a Q&A, morphs into a victim herself. The Japanese Deputy Ambassador (Mark Ota), justifying his country’s past acts with chillingly genial complacency, returns to confront Chang as a soldier at Nanking, suggesting that readers “enjoy” the horrors described in her book. An interviewer becomes Chang’s husband and then a doctor (Timothy Knightley, tripling up). These figures are, we come to understand, projections of Chang’s fears and anxieties, revealing the ways in which her work on genocide has disturbed her beliefs about the nature of evil and alerted her to the limitations of rational explanation.
Plays about a protagonist’s downward spiral have an inevitable trajectory, and Chen’s writing doesn’t quite sustain the drama’s impact in some of the later confrontations. The viewer may also feel a little bit of discomfort about the play’s use of Chang’s story, particularly as the evening progresses. Still, anchored by Chan’s committed, moving performance, Staight’s simply staged production negotiates the play’s surreal shifts between time, space and consciousness with fluidity and assurance. The evening benefits considerably from an atmospheric sound design by Benjamin Winter, a spare set by Isabella Van Braeckel, and Matt Cater’s lighting, with nine strips of lights that dim and illuminate to the pulse of the drama. If the play sometimes seems more like a sketch than a deep exploration of its themes, it remains thought-provoking, and, in Staight’s sharp production, achieves moments of hallucinatory power.

Booking until 27 January. 
Reviewed for The Reviews Hub