Thursday, 28 July 2011

'Double Feature' Blogathon

I can seldom resist a film meme or blogathon. (For proof, see herehere, and here.)  And Go, See, Talk's Marc Ciafardini’s proposal to bloggers was an especially fun notion. “The idea here is that we all get to imagine ourselves as bona fide theatre owners,” Marc writes. “As such we set up our schedule for a week's worth of Double Features… The criteria is completely up to you to pair the movies be it actors, directors, a common theme, original/remake, you name it. Nothing is wrong and everything goes as it's your theatre… Only change is that on Sunday make it a Triple Feature. Be as creative or simple as you want.” The choices below tend more toward the simple than the creative, I think, but this is a week’s worth of films that I’d be happy to see at any time.


Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) / Hidden (Haneke, 2005)

Those dastardly provocateurs, Hitchcock and Haneke, deliver two oddly complementary films here: disturbing and implicatory treatises on what it means to watch and film (or be filmed), artfully disguised as slick, entertaining thrillers. Feel like a triple bill? Then add A Short Film About Love (1988), Monsieur Hire (1989), Talk to Her (2002) and Four Nights With Anna (2008), to taste.


Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945) / Lost in Translation (Coppola, 2003)

Quivering English reserve scored to Rachmaninoff and po-mo alienation/connection scored to Kevin Shields, Death in Vegas and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Two lovely, insightful movies that recognise that the people we go home to very often aren’t the ones who’ve meant the most.


Shattered Glass (Ray, 2003) / Breach (Ray, 2007)

Based on events that would defy belief were they not true, each of Billy Ray’s smart, subtle dramas has the pull and charge of a thriller. Neither was quite as widely seen as it should have been but both offer rich rewards. Breach deals in chilly post-Cold War intrigue as Ryan Phillippe’s FBI rookie investigates Chris Cooper’s double agent. Shattered Glass, meanwhile, probes truth, lies and journalist ethics through a depiction of the notorious Stephen Glass’s last year at The New Republic and boasts a performance by Peter Sarsgaard that thrills me just a little bit more every time I see the movie.


Crimes of the Heart (Beresford, 1986) / Blue Sky (Richardson, 1994)

Imperfect films, both, but I can’t resist a chance to showcase two of my favourite-ever Jessica Lange performances in a double-bill. Lange’s work here lifts both of these fairly ordinary pictures into another dimension. Her Oscar-winning army-wife Carly in Tony Richardson’s Blue Sky combines contemporary neurosis and old-school glamour as only she can (witness her spectacular seductive swaying to “It’s Only Make Believe” in the dance hall sequence). But for me it’s the scene in Crimes of the Heart in which Lange, as Meg, returns from her night out on the bayou with Sam Shepherd’s Doc, and tells her sisters about it while fixing her broken high heel, that confirms Lange as one of the most inventive and captivating actresses the screen has ever seen.


Nashville (Altman, 1975) / Magnolia (Anderson, 1999)

Altman’s finest paired with one of its contemporary descendants, Paul Thomas Anderson’s thunderous yet tender emotional epic. A long haul, to be sure, but rewarding on every level. And you’ll probably find out all you need to know about America from these two movies.


The Last Waltz (Scorsese, 1978) /Stop Making Sense (Demme, 1984)

“Hi, got a tape I want to play…” Two of the greatest concert films ever, combining the exhilarations of the live experience with the exhilarations of the cinema experience. And who doesn’t covet David Byrne’s great big suit?


Zelig (Allen, 1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen, 1985), Radio Days (Allen, 1987)

Many options present themselves. The Three Colours films? The Wajda War Trilogy? Kelly Reichardt’s perfectly pitched trio of dramas? The first three Critters movies? Love 'em all, but I’ve opted instead for these three gems from my favourite period of Woody Allen films: firstly, Zelig, Allen’s exquisitely crafted mockumentary about a "human chameleon"; then The Purple Rose of Cairo, perhaps the funniest and saddest valentine to movie-lovers ever made; and finally Radio Days, with its warm, evocative family snapshots and Mia Farrow’s immortal enquiry: “Who is Pearl Harbour?” What’s more, each of these fine films comes in at under 1 hour and 30 minutes, leaving you plenty of time to spend in the bar afterwards.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Film Review: Smoking/No Smoking (Resnais, 1993)

Having loved Alain Resnais’s last film Wild Grass (2009), and enjoyed his adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Private Fears In Public Places (2005) quite a bit, I was excited to have the rare chance to see Resnais’s first Ayckbourn adaptations, Smoking (1993) and No Smoking (1993), at the BFI last weekend. Resnais’s affinity for Ayckbourn’s work is well known, and Smoking and No Smoking were adapted by the director from Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges cycle. These eight plays focus upon a bluff school-master Toby Teasdale, his frustrated wife Celia, and the various employees, friends, relations and acquaintances that surround the couple in their small Yorkshire town. Structured as a series of duologues, the plays are designed to be performed by just two actors covering all the roles, and Resnais casts two of his favourite performers - Pierre Arditti and Sabine Azéma - here. But the plays’ primary interest lies in their temporal conceit. Having set up an incident or series of incidents, the action then whizzes backwards and forwards in time to reveal the consequences of the characters taking a different course of action at a pivotal moment. (The title alludes to Celia’s decision to smoke or not to smoke a cigarette in the first few minutes of the film.)

It’s a neat idea, but one that, sadly, proves much more intriguing than most of what’s done with it in these somewhat disappointing films. Smoking certainly has its splendours: in particular, there’s a great sequence at a village fete which culminates in a spectacular meltdown scene for Celia that Azéma plays to perfection. And it’s true that there’s something exciting, and admirable, about Resnais’s brazenly theatrical approach throughout. The opening cartoon images which introduce the characters have a heart-lifting charm, while the patently artificial sets and the often heightened performance styles (not to mention the entirely French-speaking Yorkshire town that the action is set in) nicely deconstruct film’s alleged recourse to naturalism.

But ultimately the variations on the characters’ fates that the films offer become so multiple that they have next to no weight, and the conceit seems to present so many more promising dramatic (and comic) scenarios than the often banal and uninteresting scenes that Ayckbourn, Resnais and the screenwriters Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri have developed. Maybe that’s the filmmakers' point: that there’s no divinity that shapes our ends, just a whole lot of randomness and chance. But, if so, it’s expression here makes for increasingly tedious viewing over the course of five hours, especially since the films lack the suggestiveness and mystery of Private Fears... or the crazy, what-the-hell daring of Wild Grass.

Arditti and Azéma are witty and resourceful actors and the skill with which they morph into the different characters is enjoyable to behold, up to a point. But even their best efforts and some effective individual set-pieces can’t prevent Smoking and No Smoking from feeling, finally, like a pair of theoretical exercises which lack the warmth, humour and bite to consistently engage or excite the viewer.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Theatre Review: The Deep Blue Sea (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Following the recent London revivals of Flare Path and Cause Célébre, the focus of the Terence Rattigan centenary celebrations now moves to Chichester where the Festival Theatre is presenting an exciting and very wide-ranging season dedicated to the playwright and his work. First up is Philip Franks’s production of Rattigan’s classic The Deep Blue Sea, which is partially cross-cast with Nicholas Wright’s new play, Rattigan’s Nijinsky. Franks’s approach to The Deep Blue Sea is straightforward and traditional, and if the production doesn’t quite match Karel Reisz’s production [reviewed here and now available in the very desirable Rattigan boxset] for sustained intensity, it remains a fine account of the play that sensitively conveys its sadnesses, its humour and its hopes.

As Hester, the expert Amanda Root gives a marvellously unfussy and affecting performance that compellingly captures the difficulty of the character’s position. Here, Hester’s clear-eyed awareness of her predicament in no way mitigates her sexual and emotional dependency upon Freddie (the always-engaging John Hopkins). This dependency is conveyed powerfully in the scene in which Freddie announces that he’s leaving her, Root’s face contorting with shock and grief at the news. Still, it’s Root’s discreet delivery of the line “Just my love” that encapsulates the economy and intelligence of her performance best. Her scenes with Pip Donaghy’s wry, sympathetic Mr. Miller are especially strong, and their final encounter was the emotional highlight of the production for me. Anthony Calf finds more humour in the cuckolded Sir William than I’ve ever seen an actor do before and, like Penelope Wilton and Ian Holm in the Reisz production, he and Root  suggest the weight of a real history together. In support, Susan Tracy pitches her Mrs. Elton just right (“Sad, isn’t it, how one always seems to prefer nice people to good people, don’t you think?”) and Faye Castelow and Joseph Drake (whom it took a while to recognise from his star turn earlier this year in the Young Vic's Vernon God Little) are distinguished as the Welches. Drake is especially effective in the superb late scene in which Philip arrogantly reveals his interest in Hester’s dilemma as part of his “study of human nature.”

Indeed, Franks’s production revealed something about the design of the play that’s never occurred to me before: the extent to which the structure revolves around a woman receiving advice and judgements about her actions from others before finding (via the intervention of an apparently peripheral character) the courage and resolve to try to make her own way and “begin again.” It’s an arc that’s traced with particular clarity and insight in this accomplished and thoroughly involving production.

The production runs for 2 hours 35 minutes and is playing in rep with Rattigan’s Nijinsky until 3rd September. Further information here.

CD Review: Design Desire (2011) by Abbe May

Design Desire is an assured and engaging first album from Australian singer-songwriter Abbe May. The White Stripes and PJ Harvey would seem to be the most obvious reference points for May’s music which combines strident, blues-influenced guitar lines with vocals that can be detached, ethereal or confrontational, by turns. But the best songs on Design Desire soon succeed in developing their own personalities. The first few tracks - “Universes” and the singles “Design Desire,” “Mammalian Locomotion” and “Taurus Chorus” - are short (all under three minutes), sharp pieces that showcase May’s inventive, squally guitar work and minimalistic lyrics. May’s singing tends towards the restrained on these songs, setting up a productive tension that imbues even the rockiest tracks here with an intriguing delicacy and lightness of touch. It isn’t until the chorus of the fifth song, “You Could Be Mine,” that May really lets rip vocally, with a thrilling declamation of the title. Other highlights of the set include the taut yet languid “No Sleep Tonight,” the frankly sexy “Feeling Like A Man, Looking Like a Woman” the creepy piano-led “Blood River” and the climactic slow-burn of “Carolina.” All in all, an accomplished and entertaining debut. Website here.

Theatre Review: Rock Around The Clock (Touring)

Rock Around the Clock is pretty much the kind of show that you know whether or not you’ll enjoy before stepping into the auditorium. It’s the ultimate nostalgia-fest jukebox musical: a slick assemblage of 1950s and early 60s rock ‘n’ roll hits strung together without anything as distracting as even the semblance of a narrative to get in the way of the music. Over the course of two hours, six hard-working singers (Jamie Capewell, Will Mulvey, AnDre Washington, Kelsey Cobban, Ben Fitzpatrick and Sarah Accomando) and a four-piece band rip through songs made famous by Elvis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Connie Francis, The Crystals, The Shirelles and others, while eight colourfully-costumed dancers strut their stuff. The company’s energy generates an infectious enthusiasm throughout the evening and damned if the audience weren’t up on their feet, dancing, singing and clapping along by the end of the show.

Director/choreographer Neil Dorward keeps proceedings flowing smoothly with swift transitions between the numbers. Images are presented on a screen above the band and while this doesn’t always seem entirely necessary (clips from From Here to Eternity to accompany “Lipstick on Your Collar”?) it’s fun to see footage of the original performers. The director seems to toy with the idea of giving a potted history of rock ‘n’ roll in the early stages but abandons that idea fairly swiftly and lets the songs speak for themselves; if part of the show’s function is simply to serve as a testament to the enduring appeal and vibrancy of this music then it certainly succeeds in this endeavour. Highlights include Capewell crooning a memorable Buddy Holly medley and squeezing himself into fetching leather trousers for a dynamic take on Gene Vincent’s immortal “Be-Bop-A-Lula”; the baby-faced Fitzpatrick singing an adorably lovelorn lead on “Unchained Melody”; Washington tearing into Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” and “Good Golly Miss Molly”; a Platters medley featuring “Twilight Time,” “The Great Pretender” and “Only You”; and the wonderfully ebullient Mulvey throwing himself around with gay abandon during Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Unfortunately, the female performers are comparatively underused in terms of lead vocals, but Cobban and Accomando do well by “Stupid Cupid” and Etta James’s “At Last”; the latter is perhaps the show’s most tender and emotional moment.

You don’t feel that there’s a great deal of urgency or necessity about a show like Rock Around the Clock but this good-spirited entertainment proves pretty irresistible anyway, and was clearly delighting the very broad audience in attendance at Richmond Theatre last week. It’s an enjoyable feel-good evening that does, very professionally, exactly what it says on the tin.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews, .

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Last 10 Things Seen in the Theatre Meme #2

List the last 10 things you saw at the theatre in order:

1. War Horse (New London)
2. Eden End (Richmond Theatre)
3. Government Inspector (Young Vic)
4. The Comedy of Errors (Propeller/Hampstead)
5. Directors Showcase (Orange Tree)
6. Richard III (Propeller/Hampstead)
7. The Village Bike (Royal Court)
8. Richard III (Old Vic)
9. Doctor Faustus (Globe)
10. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Haymarket)

Who was the best performer in number one (War Horse)?
Joey the Horse of course.

Why did you go to see number two (Eden End)?
Reviewing assignment.

Can you remember a line/lyric from number three (Government Inspector) that you liked?
"You’re laughing at yourselves!”

What would you give number four (The Comedy of Errors) out of ten?
Ten, without a doubt.

Was there someone hot in number five (Directors Showcase)?
Soft spot for a few cast members, but "hot"? Perhaps not.

What was number six (Richard III) about?
A man who would be King.

Who was your favourite actor in number seven (The Village Bike)?
Alexandra Gilbreath, as Jenny, gives a beautifully observed performance that makes you think: “Well, I know this woman.”

What was your favourite bit in number eight (Richard III [Old Vic])?
The Anne/Richard encounter and all of Gemma Jones's scenes.

Would you see number nine (Doctor Faustus) again?
No. Not even to see the Seven Deadly Sins sequence that I missed due to fainting shortly before the interval.

What was the worst thing about number ten (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead)?
Not a production that I engaged with at all, really, but I thought the pirate scene was especially badly staged.

Which was best?
Richard III (Propeller), The Comedy of Errors and Eden End.

Which was worst?
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

Did any make you cry?
War Horse, inevitably, and Eden End.

Did any make you laugh?
Eden End, Government Inspector, The Comedy of Errors, Richard III (Propeller), The Village Bike, Richard III (Old Vic).

Which roles would you like to play in any of them?
Oh, Richard III, why not? But I'm available for Propeller productions only.

Which one did you have best seats for?
Front row for Richard III (Propeller), The Comedy of Errors, The Village Bike and Ros & Guil.

A Little Light Linkage (III)

Some favourite recent dispatches from the Blogosphere:

Beautiful and insightful pieces on the Provincetown Film Festival and Rosanne Cash’s The Wheel from the great Mr. Popsublime.

Mike’s review of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris at You Talking To Me? makes me want to see the movie now. (So can we get a UK release date sometime soon, please...?)

Michał O gets Melancholic over von Trier’s latest provocation at Last Seat on the Right.

moviesandsongs365 lists his Top 100 Songs of 2010. How many of these have you heard?

thecynicalgamer climbs The Tree of Life and explains why he wasn’t quite as sold on Bridesmaids as everyone else seems to be.

John Gray weighs in on the awesome Meek’s Cutoff at last.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Film Review: The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)

The release of a new film by Terrence Malick is an event and even those of us who aren’t quite true believers in the director’s visionary genius (I adore Days of Heaven [1978] and much of The Thin Red Line [1998] but am ambivalent about Badlands [1974] and thought The New World [2005] risible) can’t help but get caught up in the excitement. Winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) was apparently greeted with a mixture of boos of derision and cheers of approbation from audience members when it premiered at Cannes back in May. That contradictory reception seems entirely appropriate, to me. Watching the movie I felt the urge to boo and to cheer at different moments throughout its duration. (OK, maybe even at the same moment, on a couple of occasions.)

For there’s plenty that’s questionable about The Tree of Life, an indulgent 2 hour 10 minute opus that explores the experiences of 1950s Texas family, the O’Briens, within the context of cosmology theories, and that sometimes suggests a mash-up of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and A River Runs Through It (1992), helmed by Claire Denis. As usual with Malick, the film is loose on motivation and context; it’s full of characters muttering “profound” philosophy in voiceover that’s either too-abstract or spelling-it-out obvious. (The primary exhortations seem to be "Hope!" and "Love!") It boasts a tiresomely protracted evolution montage that finally puts you in mind of the BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs, and features contemporary-set scenes with Sean Penn that either needed to be more developed or completely ditched. It wastes Fiona Shaw by giving her about three minutes of screen time and silly platitudes to speak during that three minutes. (Sometimes it seems that the greater the actor the less Malick wants them in his movie.) Playing Mrs. O’Brien as an impossibly idealised (and apparently ageless) Angel in the House, Jessica Chastian is asked to spend rather too much wandering around ethereally and gazing soulfully out of windows. And although Brad Pitt (who also co-produced the film) gives a decent enough performance as the authoritarian Father, you may find yourself pondering what an actor with more screen presence might have brought to this pivotal role.

And yet, for all these problems, The Tree of Life is still one of the most memorable and entrancing movies that I’ve seen this year. Malick’s gift for rhythm, the tactility and flow his images, is incredibly seductive and, at times, kinetically exciting. The film keeps you in a state of alertness throughout and there were few moments when I wasn’t intrigued by what was on the screen, or fascinated to see what would come next. In particular, the portrait of a suburban childhood that the film offers is piercingly evocative. The sequence depicting the O’Brien sons' birth and growth is brilliantly sustained: Malick taps into something archetypal here, so that these scenes feel like our memories. In addition the performances that the director gets from the young actors who play the O’Brien boys - in particular, from Hunter McCracken as the young version of the Penn character - are simply superb. And just occasionally the philosophical wittering, complemented by the images, is effective: an early musing on grace and nature is a case in point.

Malick overplays his hand with a grandiose climax that doesn’t provide the emotional pay-off that it should; it’s one of several occasions in which you may feel that a simpler, more restrained approach would have benefited him here. This is a movie that almost seems calculated to infuriate as many people as it beguiles, and its ratio of profundity to pomposity will be very much up to the individual viewer to determine. But passages of indisputably awesome beauty make The Tree of Life more than worth the climb.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Film Review: A Separation (Farhadi, 2011)

I haven't yet got around to seeing Asghar Farhadi's highly regarded previous feature About Elly, despite the fact that it's included on what's probably my favourite Top 10 Films 0f 2010 list. But I can certainly recommend the Iranian director’s latest film, A Separation, which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the first Iranian film to do so. It’s a rich and empathetic drama that explores the break-up of a professional 30-something couple, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). In contrast with the intellectual and abstract (sometimes frustratingly so) tone that some of us have come to associate with Iranian cinema, there’s a direct, emotional quality to A Separation that’s rather bracing. It’s an approach that’s evident from the very first scene of the movie, a front-on shot from the perspective of the Judge that finds Simin explaining that she wants to leave Iran because she doesn’t want their daughter Termed (Sarina Farhadi) growing up “in these circumstances.” Nader disagrees, not least because he has an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who requires constant care. The conflict between the pair is thus succinctly established, but the situation is unresolved, legally speaking, prompting Simin to move back in with her mother and Nader to hire a young woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to take care of his father while he’s at work.

But, as it turns out, A Separation isn’t "just" a tale of marital break-up angst. Instead, as the drama pivots upon an unfortunate incident that brings Razieh’s volatile husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) into the fray, the scope of the movie broadens. And we come to recognise that the title refers not simply to the separation of the couple but to a range of societal schisms - between classes, between generations, and between genders, more broadly.

However, these conflicts and tensions, with their wider resonances, are explored through an intense focus upon the everyday domestic experiences of the characters. Although the movie is a little sketchy on Nader and Simin’s work lives, and perhaps errs a little in keeping Simin off-screen for too long after the first few scenes, it’s mostly beautifully structured, with a strong sense of pace and rhythm and occasional well-judged ellipses that leave plenty of space for the audience’s involvement and interpretation.

Indeed, what’s particularly stimulating about A Separation is the way in which it never allows the viewer to come to a final judgement on its characters. As in life, our perspective on the people here keeps shifting. At first, Bayat’s pregnant, put-upon Razieh seems the most sympathetic figure, but that impression goes through a few changes before her heart-wrenching final scene. The movie pulls you in every direction in terms of how you respond to its protagonists, and it looks at everyone with a tender yet unsentimental regard. The portrait of Nader’s father is one of the most realistic representations of an Alzheimer’s sufferer that I’ve seen on screen, and Farhadi’s work with the two young actresses who play Nader and Simin’s and Razieh’s daughters is also peerless. Noteworthy, too, is the film’s seriousness: it’s not po-faced in tone, but Farhadi doesn’t try to sweeten the pill with humour and his engagement with moral issues is entirely refreshing. Great movie, and an antidote to Bridesmaids (2011), for those who feel the need of one.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Theatre Review: Eden End (Richmond Theatre, & touring)

Set in 1912, JB Priestley’s 1934 drama concerns the unexpected return to the family fold of one Stella Kirby, a woman who, eight years previously, left home to become an actress, against her parents’ wishes. Stella’s career has not progressed as she hoped, but she conceals this from her father, a GP who has come to view her leaving as a courageous act, the kind that he wishes he himself had made earlier in his life. Completing the family gathering are Stella’s younger siblings Lilian and Wilfred, the former bitter and resentful of her sister, the latter on leave from his job in Nigeria. The appearance of Stella’s old beau Geoffrey and her semi-estranged husband Charles (who she’s neglected to mention to her family) further complicate the reunions, as Priestley constructs a portrait of a group of characters who are all, in one way or another, dealing with disappointment in their lives.

Priestley’s debt to Chekhov in Eden End has been widely noted, and is evident at the level of structure, theme and characterisation. The protagonists’ sense of disillusionment, the hope expressed that things will be better for future generations, the shifts between moments of humour and wistfulness - all of this resonates with the Russian playwright’s work. But Priestley’s exploration of “the way circumstances and time can change and hurt us” has its own resonance. And Laurie Sansom’s expert new production for English Touring Theatre overcomes the play’s derivativeness by emphasising its English social context and by giving it a subtly expressionistic staging. Perhaps tipping its hat to Stephen Daldry’s seminal production of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, Sara Perks’s design presents the Kirby family’s sitting room on a stage on the stage, complete with footlights. Initially the conceit seems jarring but it proves more effective as the evening progresses and the play’s concern with the role of performance and illusion in everyday life becomes apparent. Apart from an indulgent bit of pre-Act 3 music hall business that feels entirely surplus to requirements, Sansom’s staging is fluid and full of feeling, alert to the play’s shifts in mood.

And the actors deliver strong, empathetic and involving performances across the board. As the prodigal daughter, Charlotte Emmerson takes a little while to settle into the role: she overdoes Stella’s excitement to be home in her first scene, speaking her lines so quickly that they don’t appear to have the weight of thought. But the performance deepens, and Emmerson is extremely touching as she reveals Stella’s regrets about the direction of her life and the ways in which her belief in her talent has been shaken. Emmerson has particularly effective and well-written scenes with William Chubb, who is superb as her father, and with Daisy Douglas, who makes us understand and sympathise with Lilian’s resentment of her sister. Making his professional stage debut, Nick Hendrix is terrifically likeable as Wilfred, a young man who’s come to feel at home neither in England nor in Africa, and with Daniel Betts’s genial Charles, he shares the most enjoyable drunk scene seen on stage since the Old Vic’s production of Design for Living. And as the maid Sarah, Carol Macready gives a lovely performance, creating a figure of both exasperating querulousness and encompassing warmth. Beautifully pitched between naturalism and expressionism, this is a very fine revival of a poignant and perceptive play.

Further information on tour dates and venues here.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

CD Review: The Harrow & The Harvest by Gillian Welch

“You know, some girls are bright as the morning/And some have a dark turn of mind,” croons Gillian Welch on the sublime second track on her long-awaited new album, The Harrow & the Harvest. It’s a wryly self-reflexive lyric, for those with even only a nodding acquaintance with Welch’s work will know exactly which kind of girl Welch and partner David Rawlings find it more rewarding to write and sing about. The bleak bent of Welch and Rawlings’s music is perhaps its most defining characteristic: the four albums that the pair have released under Welch’s name since their 1996 debut Revival have focused unflinchingly on themes of loss and loneliness, death and addiction, homesickness and hardship, with the occasional revisionist murder ballad thrown in to the mix. This lyrical subject matter has been matched by mostly stark musical settings that have drawn on country, blues, bluegrass, gospel and other folk forms to forge a highly distinctive kind of American Primitive music, one that reached its apex on 2001’s classic Time (The Revelator), a record widely regarded as the duo’s finest hour.

But crafting tales of whiskey girls and nowhere men, farmers, morphine addicts and miners is hard work, evidently, and Welch and Rawlings hit something of a creative dry spell since the release of 2003’s Soul Journey, a louder, looser offering that expanded their signature sound to included thwacked drums, fiddle and electric guitar and bass, edging some of the tracks towards a Band-era Dylan aesthetic. Nonetheless, Welch and Rawlings have kept up a solid touring schedule in the meantime, as well as guesting on several other records, and in 2009 they finally put out a new album, Friend of a Friend, under the Dave Rawlings Machine moniker. This was a thoroughly charming if somewhat less substantial release that reversed the usual set-up by allocating lead vocal duties to Rawlings, and that also included boisterous contributions from his protégés Old Crow Medicine Show.

It might have been anticipated that Welch and Rawlings would continue the progressive broadening and lightening up of their sound on their new record. But instead The Harrow & the Harvest - a title that rather brilliantly alludes to the album’s rural contexts, its emotional content and its troubled genesis all at once - goes right back to basics, returning the duo to the stripped-down, self-absorbed sound of the earlier work and placing their symbiotic vocal and instrumental interplay front and centre. (The mood is so hushed that when Rawlings wheezes in on harmonica on a couple of the later tracks, it almost sounds like overstatement.) The result, quite simply, is one of the year’s finest albums: at once fresh and familiar, warmer-toned and more immediately accessible than Time (The Revelator), the record boasts beguiling melodies, superb singing, consistently strong song-writing and very cool cover art - adding up to a release that sounds like an instant Americana classic.

The Old, Weird America evoked and excavated in Welch’s work has often felt as much like a metaphorical as a literal or physical space. The new album’s ten tracks are beautifully distilled expressions of that ethos, situated between the ancient and the modern, the mythic and the everyday. Pitching up melodically between Hell Among the Yearlings’ “Caleb Meyer” and “One Morning,” the brisk opener “Scarlet Town” deposits its narrator in a cheerless environment of social inequality and romantic torment, suggesting that good times are not in store. But the song’s bleakness is mitigated, against the odds, by the aforementioned second track, “Dark Turn of Mind,” a gorgeous, spare ballad that’s as invigorating as a night-time stroll and on which Welch’s worldly-wise narrator welcomes in the balm of dark, not day.

Indeed, from limited means, the album achieves a wonderful diversity of tone as it progresses from the sublime, rolling gait of “The Way It Goes,” with its elliptical snapshots of protagonists at pivotal moments of crisis or enquiry, through the heart-warming and redemptive “Hard Times” to the marvellously moody “Tennessee,” a bad-girl-gone-worse ballad that can one can easily imagine turning up on a Marianne Faithfull album very soon. “Of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself/You might be my favourite one of all,” Welch’s infatuated narrator intones, the song leaving the protagonist wiser, perhaps, but unrepentant. Complemented by Rawlings’s soft, reedy tenor and meandering guitar lines, Welch sings more expressively than ever throughout the album and her vocal on this track - an intoxicating mixture of the sultry and the austere - is particularly sublime.

Another highlight is the hypnotic “The Way It Will Be,” a song that Welch and Rawlings have been performing live for a number of years now, and whose trance-like ambience evokes that of several Time (The Revelator) tracks, crawling quietly under the skin in a way that’s creepy and comforting by turns. On the nostalgic “Down Along the Dixie Line,” meanwhile, the protagonist’s despair at finding their route home blocked is cloaked in the gentlest, most enticing of melodies, while “Silver Dagger” (a new song, not the traditional track popularised by Joan Baez) twinkles so fetchingly that it’s only after a few listens that the darkness of the lyrical content becomes apparent. Finally, “The Way the Whole Thing Ends” (have you noticed a pattern developing with some of these song titles yet?) closes the album not with the grand gesture of a track like “I Dream A Highway” but rather with a wry, insouciant shoulder-shrug of acceptance as Welch’s narrator recognises that “That’s the way the cornbread crumbles/That’s the way the whole thing ends.”

As consistently brilliant as it is, The Harrow & the Harvest may still not assuage the doubters who find Welch and Rawlings’s music to be a contrivance: roots music minus the “real” country roots. But, for most, questions of “authenticity” will soon pale when listening to this superb album, a record that, once again, demonstrates Welch and Rawlings’s love and respect for the musical traditions they’ve immersed themselves in. In an era of empty excess, in which an artist's light show can merit more comment than their music, the unadorned, austere approach of Welch and Rawlings’s work feels both bracing and brave. And this deceptively modest yet entirely magnificent new album builds on their past achievements while taking their music forward with impeccable subtlety and grace. Essential.

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Propeller Revisited: Richard III & The Comedy of Errors (Hampstead Theatre)

Writing about Propeller’s effervescent production of The Comedy of Errors earlier this year [review here], I reflected that the quick-fire inventiveness, energy and allusiveness of the company’s productions make it pretty much a requirement to see them more than once. Happily, that opportunity recently arose, as the company’s  tour of Comedy and Richard III [review here] has now reached Hampstead Theatre where the productions run until July 9th.

Delighted as I was to have the chance to experience both shows again, it must be acknowledged that there’s a certain amount of risk involved in seeing especially beloved productions for a second time. Will the shows have run out of steam? Will I, as an audience member, be as responsive? And most simply and most pressingly: Will it be as good as I remember it?

Happy to report that Ed Hall’s productions more than passed the test, having lost not an ounce of their freshness and exuberance in the intervening months. If anything, the shows felt richer than before, more deeply embedded, more confident and assured, and while a couple of the big surprise elements (both dramatic and comedic) couldn’t quite match the impact of the first viewing, the overall response was sheer unmitigated delight. Richard III seemed darker than before, with Richard Clothier’s Richard even wittier and more deadly, and the Theatre of Blood-esque murders more outrageous than I remembered them.

And The Comedy of Errors remains the feel-good show of the year for me - a riotous, cartoonish take on the play that’s still capable of moving into genuine emotion and tenderness in its final moments of reconciliation. Moreover, seeing the productions within just a couple of days of each other (rather than a couple of months, as previously) made the versatility, vitality and sheer damned brilliance of the ensemble even more apparent.

A small selection of (many, many) favourite moments and touches. From Richard III: the Princes in the Tower - angelic puppets here - clinging to the skirts of Dominic Tighe’s magnificent Queen Elizabeth; Tony Bell’s Margaret sprinkling blood from a bowl as she curses those who have wronged her and recalls Yorkist crimes; Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s prim Richard Ratcliff checking his time-piece as body bags arrive; the Eve-of-Bosworth nightmare, with Chris Myles’s Buckingham clutching his entrails; Wayne Cater’s bizarre appearance as Tyrell, and the sudden shock of Richard’s death. And from Comedy: the freeze-frame device; David Newman’s devilish coquette Luciana unleashing her Mace spray and mean martial-arts moves; Myles’s whip-wielding, lavender-booted abbess arriving to a snatch of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven (Is A Place on Earth)”; Richard Frame’s Dromio offering his epic discourse on Nell the Kitchen Wench; Sam Swainsbury’s Antipholus of E scaling heights of comic desperation as he recounts the crazy plot; and Kelsey Brookfield’s wily bunny-girl hostess bouncing in (“Awight?”). And, yes, Tony Bell’s barn-storming appearance as the dirty-minded evangelist Dr. Pinch (“He was saved!”) is still the most outrageously enjoyable set-piece I’ve seen in a theatre  this year. Then there are the cheeky ad-libs and lovely bits of audience interaction, and what a treat to see and hear (and singalong with) the gang’s 80s-pop-hits medley in its entirety this time around during the interval - it’s almost worth the price of admission alone.

At once cutting-edge and timeless, intensely physical yet respectful of the language, Propeller’s vibrant, risky approach has again resulted in two totally contrasting yet marvellously complementary theatre experiences that are thrilling and immersive - and tremendous fun. Pure pleasure from start to finish, this irresistible pairing makes most other Shakespeare productions seem altogether too tame and civilised by comparison. Roll on the company’s Henry V and The Winter’s Tale, which will premiere later this year.

Further information on final tour dates and venues here.

Theatre Review: Directors' Showcase (Orange Tree Theatre)

The Spring season at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre concludes, as usual, with the Directors’ Showcase programme: a double-bill of short plays directed by the theatre’s two trainee directors. This year, the Showcase presents the work of Jimmy Grimes and Teunkie van der Sluijs, and avails itself of the talents of several of the actors from the theatre’s just-concluded run of Three Farces. Grimes presents Then the Snow Came, a new piece that he has researched with Richmond’s homeless charity SPEAR and that combines verbatim text with improvisation and (briefly) puppetry, while van der Sluijs directs Winter, a play by Jon Fosse, the prize-winning Norwegian writer whose I Am the Wind deeply divided audiences at the Young Vic earlier this year. These two apparently contrasting pieces prove surprisingly complementary and make for a challenging but rewarding evening at the Orange Tree.

Taking as its inspiration an impromptu night that the director himself spent on the streets of Richmond, Grimes’s Then the Snow Came focuses on the relationship between two homeless men, the bolshie ex-con Mickey (Kieron Jecchinis) and the more soulful and philosophically-inclined Liverpudlian Stu (Daniel Cheyne). The play follows the two men as they move around various Richmond locations, looking for a place to sleep, begging, bantering about Star Trek, and talking about their lives. Matters come to a head when Mickey is faced with the challenge of scraping together some money for a trip up North for a family emergency. Threaded throughout the narrative is Oscar Wilde’s tale The Happy Prince, the story of which Stu tells to Mickey and which serves throughout as a comment on some of the themes of the piece and a counterpoint to the men’s developing relationship.

It’s an ambitious mixture of elements, but one that Grimes manages to pull off with care and skill, resulting in a compassionate but unsentimental drama that’s shot through with both pain and humour, as well as some nicely judged poetic and expressionistic flourishes. Jecchinis and Cheyne give superbly naturalistic performances, their efforts complemented by the appearances of a multi-tasking Ed Bennett who cameos in no less than seven different roles, the most significant being that of a police officer whose retrospective narration structures the piece.

Although some of the scenes are a little short, the play maintains fluidity and momentum throughout, helped along by an effective and economical design by Katy Mills. There’s also an especially affecting late scene between Mickey and his estranged teenage son Ben, who’s very well played by Michael Smith. Although it goes far beyond reportage, there’s no doubting that the various local references, and the fact that the audience is watching the play in a venue in the very town in which it is set, contribute to the resonance of Then the Snow Came, giving the piece an urgent and at times implicatory power. It’s a considerable piece of work and a terrific achievement for Grimes and his collaborators.

If the following piece, Winter, emerges as rather less satisfying then that’s due to Fosse’s play, rather than any major faults in the production. Like I Am the Wind, this is another elliptical two-hander, this time focusing upon an encounter between a married businessman and a disturbed young woman in an unnamed city. At times, the piece suggests a Pinterized variant on the plot of a screwball comedy, the kind in which a “crazy lady” shakes up the life of a staid, conservative man.

But not only does Fosse’s text offer next to no humour it also offers little in the way of real insight. What is offered is more of the gratingly repetitious, “rhythmic” dialogue that is evidently the playwright’s trademark, and which is no doubt faithfully rendered in Ann Henning Jocelyn’s translation. Playing ‘The Woman,’ poor Jennifer Higham has to declaim the phrase “I am your lady” so many times that she starts to sound like the opening lines of the chorus to Jennifer Rush’s “The Power of Love,” stuck on repeat. Thus the play’s portrait of two people struggling towards connection never becomes quite as affecting as it should.

Despite the play’s limitations, both actors come through with committed performances. Higham, often cast for fresh-faced wholesomeness, shakes off that particular shackle with a striking interpretation that encompasses strung-out neediness, foul-mouthed ferocity and girlish vulnerability. Always a sympathetic stage presence, Stuart Fox is touchingly tentative here as ‘The Man,’ although one can’t help but wish that he was playing less of an archetype and more of a freshly imagined character. The quality of the acting, and the sensitivity of van der Sluijs’s direction, ensure that the production sustains interest, in spite of the qualms one may have about the script itself, while Sam Dowson’s design and Stuart Burgess’s lighting help to convey a palpable sense of atmosphere as the action shifts from park to hotel room and back again. Overall, then, this is an impressive double-bill that makes for a strong conclusion to an altogether excellent season at the Orange Tree.

The Directors Showcase runs until 9th July. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.