Monday, 20 March 2023

Theatre Review: Black Superhero (Royal Court)


In Black Superhero, his debut play as a writer, Danny Lee Wynter (last seen on stage in Dominic Cooke's beautiful revival of The Normal Heart) casts himself as the protagonist, David, a mixed race actor who's working none-too-contentedly alongside his sister Syd (Rochenda Sandall) as a children's entertainer. David has been struggling to get acting jobs and attributes that struggle to the whiteness of the industry. Among David's social circle, though, are others having more success. These include the African American  King (charismatic Dyllón Burnside, of Pose), who heads up the "Crawtopia" superhero franchise and who is dealing with the particular pressures and liberations that such a high-profile mainstream gig entails. 

David's been nursing a crush on King for years, but when a hedonistic night results in a  tryst in Shoreditch the pair's relationship gets more complicated - not only by the fact of King's  marital status  but  also by what is gradually revealed as David's troubled childhood which, the play indicates, has resulted in projections and fantasies about a saviour/father figure - a bill which the combo of King and his superhero alter ego seems to fit. 

For better and for worse, Black Superhero is very evidently an actor's first play, and Wynter's own trajectory from being an usher at the Court in the early 2000s to having his debut script staged in its main auditorium has been irresistibly rehashed in the publicity. Clearly, the piece draws on his own personal and professional experiences as both actor and activist (including his founding of the admirable Act for Change initiative). Both soul- and body-baring, Black Superhero is open in its critique of casting processes and gay and Black representation across various levels of the industry, while contrasting takes on such contemporary cultural touchstones as Moonlight and Fairview are also offered up in the characters' on-the-nose debates. Throughout, in fact, the play revels in refs and quotations ranging from Big Brother to Hamlet - some of these are funny and revealing while others are a bit forced and gratuitous. And influences from Edmond to Angels in America to Daddy are evident in its own design, albeit filtered through a very British sensibility, language and rude humour.

If the end result feels less self-indulgent than it might, that's down to Wynter's populating the play with some sharply-drawn characters surrounding David, especially the conflicted King who resents his status as a Black spokesperson (and is evading specifics about his sexuality in interviews) and fellow actor Raheem (Eloka Ivo) whose easygoing, anti-activist attitude contrasts with David's combative militancy. The character of Syd also serves to give a different account of their childhood and to call David out on his narcissism (though Sandall often overacts here as she did in Steve McQueen's Mangrove). 

Not all of the characters are as sympathetically created, though. The white roles, in particular,  feel strategically caricatured, though both Ben Allen and Dominic Holmes get their laughs, with Allen playing King's prissy spouse (a  relationship that the play doesn't manage to make convincing) and a passive aggressive Australian interviewee quizzing the star on his personal life.

What's more, for all the concern over representation, the writing sometimes defaults dishearteningly to stereotype - from the appearance of a predatory bisexual (played with redeeming gusto by Ako Mitchell) to the presentation of David as a protagonist messed up by paternal absence who just wants some reassurance that Daddy cared after all. (Though dedicated to the playwright's mother, it's one of the oddities of the piece that David's relationship with his mum is barely referred to at all.)

The first half of Black Superhero is the more confident and entertaining. The play is at its best when exploring the blurred lines of gay intimacy: King and David's hook up is super-sexy and believable, with post-coital playfulness perfectly played by the two actors. The second half, with David accompanying King on an Australian promo tour, feels more scattered and attenuated, and doesn't quite make good on the opening's promise.  Part of the problem may be in the writing but it's also  due to the fact that Daniel Evans' production, though proficient, fails to give the hallucinatory elements - David's fantasies of Craw's appearances - enough crazy conviction and heft. A final encounter is confusingly staged, though redeemed somewhat by a quiet, cleansing coda. The combination of wider cultural concerns with a whole heap of unresolved Daddy issues ultimately doesn't quite come off, but Black Superhero remains engaging and provocative at its best. 

Black Superhero is booking at the Royal Court until 29 April. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Kinoteka 2023 Preview (BFI online)


The 21st edition of Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London takes place  9 March - 27 April. I wrote a preview of the festival which you can read here.

Saturday, 4 March 2023

April 2023 issue of Sight and Sound

The April issue of Sight and Sound is out now. I was pleased to write on one of my Top 10 choices, Basil Dearden's The Halfway House, for the "101 Hidden Gems" feature.  

All the individual voter Top 10 poll ballots are now up here on the website. 

Monday, 20 February 2023

Theatre Reflection: Danny is Fantastic (Arch 21, Brixton)


In the tucked-away artist's space of Arch 21, Valentia Place, in Brixton, lit by "pretty fairy lights," some special theatrical magic is happening. Daniel Cerqueira has been performing his show Danny is Fantastic on and off since last year, usually in three show bouts. With Cerqueira operating as a one-man band (director, producer, prop guy, pianist and performer, among other roles), the evening is a truly intimate one that's for audiences of up to 30 people - and that intimacy is essential to its impact.

Different every night, with Cerqueira wryly describing the show as "so live," Danny is Fantastic feels very much like a shared secret journey that both connects the audience to each other and brings each one of us back to ourselves. The 90 minute show zips by - inclusive but not intrusive (there's no forced audience participation but you might get a song sung to you, and you're invited to leave a "remnant" of yourself behind at the end), deeply personal but always reaching out. 

There are songs beautifully sung in Portuguese, French and English, special serenades, surreal silliness (What is behind the green door...?), skits, readings (Claude McKay and GBS on the night we attended), poems (including "Poems on One Knee"), reminding us again and again how much is out there to engage with, be inspired by. In sharing personal stories of his grandmother's life or a neighbour's encouragement in the arts, Cerqueira stirs the audience's memories, too - especially in a deeply moving and cathartic "Memento Mori" moment. Oh, Danny's a gorgeous, restorative evening. 

For  information about future shows see the website here

Friday, 3 February 2023

To Live and Love Without Fear: Remembering Jason Dowler (1953-2022)


My friend Jason Dowler would have been 70 years old today. Jason died three months ago, in November, after a very difficult and painful struggle with kidney disease, and I don't think a day's gone by that I haven't thought about him since. 

In the seven years that we knew each other, a meeting with or message from Jason was always appreciated. He was a truly rejuvenating person to spend time with: funny, perceptive, reliable, loyal, exceptionally kind and thoughtful, and with a wealth of stories of trips taken, films and shows seen. 

His recall was immense and he'd seen so much that it wouldn't be stretching it too far to call him a walking encyclopedia of theatre. If you wanted to know what Kate Nelligan's performance in Plenty was like, or how it felt to be in the audience the night Maggie Smith returned to the London stage fresh from winning her Oscar, or what it was like to see Bette Midler at the Palladium in 1978  - well, ask Jason. 

He was, to his soul, what used to be called (maybe still is?) "a culture vulture": a man with a deep, abiding passion for all the arts, high and low. His responses were both intellectual and openly emotional and his tastes were wonderfully diverse - not in the quite limited, politicised concept of diversity today but in truly embracing varied traditions in languages from all over the world, whether German, Greek, Spanish or Russian music or the French chansons he so adored. He was, in the most positive sense, an English European, with strong ties to Germany since his formative time spent there as a teenager (especially his beloved Berlin) and treasured memories of multiple trips elsewhere. (Small wonder that Brexit hurt him deeply and personally.)

He supported the performers and shows he loved with multiple visits, and travels to see them far and wide, plus recommendations to friends, and enthusiastic writing on social media. Though a senior legal assistant by profession, it wouldn't be hard to mistake him for an actor himself - he had the curiosity, sensitivity, playfulness and storytelling skill of a performer.
What he was, without a doubt, was an ideal audience member. Watching something he loved, he radiated an infectious glee that could be felt by those around him and, for sure, by those on stage as well.

Fittingly, we met thanks to music. On 14 February 2015, Barb Jungr performed a Valentine's Day concert at the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room. It was Jason's umpteenth time seeing Barb and my first: I was reviewing the performance for PopMatters. I remember feeling grumpy on the way to the show - late and packed trains etc etc - and then emerging completely energised and inspired by Barb's extraordinary, soul-shaking show in which songs by Bob Dylan, Noel Coward, The Isley Brothers, Jacques Brel, Joni Mitchell, Ewan MacColl and many others were brought into a thrilling dialogue through her artistry. 

Jason and I didn't actually meet that night, but after my review was published he shared the piece on social media with a nice comment about it and the show  - the kind of generous gesture that I'd later learn was typical of him. 

We became Facebook friends, and got to know each other that way. Jason was one of those people who make Facebook a kind, hospitable place - somewhere it actually seems worth spending time - whether he was posting birthday tributes to artists he loved, photos and memories of his past, or expressing his  excitement about something new he'd seen or booked to see. His posts could be lyrical, cheeky, eccentric, or reflective, and his writing was beautiful. We gradually learned that there were a lot of things that connected us, from a love of Iris Murdoch's work to a love of Mallorca,  where he'd had several blissful holidays with his late partner Charles in the  '80s and early '90s. 

We met for the first time in the summer of 2015, chatting away for hours at the National Theatre. Talking with Jason was easy, easy. There was always so much to say. That's not to suggest that we told each other everything. For all his openness he had the kind of private side I value. There were areas of his life I never knew a thing about, and vice versa. Past hurts were alluded to but never dwelt upon. And then sometimes he'd talk about his partners or others from his past as if you'd known them too, so tangible and present did they remain for him. He was, I believe, a person for whom those absent were completely and powerfully present - a source of ongoing inspiration, as he'd often say.

Of several friends he'd remark that they had taught him "to live and love without fear" and I think many would say the same about him. As a gay man born in 1953, he'd come of age at a transitional time in England, poised in a complicated way between oppression and liberation, and I believe that's crucial to who he was. (When I published a joint piece about John Schlesinger 's Sunday Bloody Sunday a couple of years ago, describing it as a life-changing film for some older friends, it was Jason that I primarily had in mind; he loved this film passionately and said it made him braver in living his life.) 

And, also like many others of his generation, he'd experienced a lot of deeply painful losses - including his two great loves - as well as his own very serious health struggles over the years. Perhaps it was those losses and difficulties that made him appreciate his friends so completely, and cherish the pleasures life offered. While he loved the cutting wit of certain performers, and had a dose of it himself, he was one of the least bitter, cynical or resentful people I've ever known. He hated meanness, selfishness, injustice. He was a good person in the Iris Murdoch sense of goodness: demonstrating through example how that quality resides in our daily choices, in how we interact with others, in the fortitude and attention with which we go about our everyday lives. 

Mostly when I think of Jason I think of theatres: from that first meeting at the NT, to other lovely times at Richmond (for the Sasha Regan Gilbert and Sullivan shows he adored), at the Other Palace (for Barb and John McDaniel's Beatles show, about which he said "I want to see that again tomorrow" as soon as it was over), at the Orange Tree (for a Giles Terera, John Robyns and Simon Lipkin cabaret), at the Globe (Meow Meow's amazing Titania in Emma Rice's Midsummer Night's Dream), at the Royal Albert Hall (Joan Baez's farewell tour in 2018). And at Crazy Coqs - where we met for the last time early last March for a performance by the Georgian-born singer Vladimir Korneev.

That was our first meeting since the pandemic and it was a joy to catch up properly.  He was physically frailer but still full of that same twinkling spirit. And transfixed by the performance, which, characteristically, he was returning to see with other friends the next evening. I remember saying goodbye to him at Piccadilly Station after the show, not knowing then that it would be our last encounter but somehow feeling motivated to give him a longer-than-usual hug and to say: "Love you".  

There'll be a show for Jason tomorrow at Phoenix Arts Club where some of the artists that he treasured and championed - Adele Anderson, John Barr, Mark Bunyan, Ada Campe, Sam Holmes, Dusty Limits, April Nicholson, Paulus, Andrew Pepper, Michael Roulston, Ben Stock and Sarah-Louise Young will perform in tribute to him, the proceeds going to Dignity in Dying.  I'm in Poland so sadly can't be there, but I can think of no more fitting way than this show to honour a true lover of the arts who, with his kindness and joy and wisdom, touched the lives of many of us so deeply. 

At his funeral service in December, following a beautiful eulogy from his close friend David Cade, these words from a letter he'd received from Jason were quoted:  

"There are no real goodbyes. There is no ending  to any of this. My gratitude is immeasurable and uncontainable. And for all the golden years of times gone by, it is today, these times - now -  that are the best of times, because we are still here and that is worth celebrating every day." 

Thank you, dear Jason, for reminding us of that - and for everything else that you gave us. 

A Cabaret for Jason will take place at Phoenix Arts Club on 4 February 2023, at 2pm. More information here.

Thursday, 26 January 2023

Film Review: The Fabelmans (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2022)


With the blessed exception of Charlotte Wells' Aftersun, the spate of "personal" projects produced by filmmakers recently (perhaps a result of lockdown introspection) have been disappointing affairs: strangely bogus and superficial in feel. In general, the more high-profile the filmmaker, the worse the result, and Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans - a lightly fictionalised account of the director's cine-struck youth, experiences of anti-Semitism and his parents' troubled marriage - is one of the weakest of the bunch. 

The widespread critical acclaim for The Fabelmans - "the movie we've been waiting 45 years for Spielberg to make," claims Rolling Stone, madly - seems more to do with sentimental affection for the director and a vogue for personal "revelation" from celebrities - no matter how familiar, as is the case with much of the stale material that Spielberg and Tony Kushner recycle here.  

What goes wrong with The Fabelmans ranges from its look - Janusz Kaminski's would-be warm but artificial and sickly cinematography - to its obvious, strained writing (with the exception of Lincoln, Spielberg and Kushner don't bring out the best in each other as collaborators, and they really don't here) to some painfully unshaped performances (the usually-great Michelle Williams, already undone by a terrible haircut and overdoing every reaction and gesture as the wayward matriarch). 

Apart from a few small moments, The Fabelmans offers the non-Spielberg acolyte viewer little - so little that the cinephile-pleasing  concluding cameo (in a dramatisation of an anecdote Spielberg has told many times before) has been treated as if it was something special indeed. Watching the movie, I kept thinking back to other, much better films that it occasionally evokes, and wishing that some of the humour and feeling of Woody Allen's Radio Days (1986) or Barry Levinson's Avalon (1990) were evident in the over-extended vanity project that Spielberg delivers here. 

The Fabelmans opens in UK cinemas tomorrow.

Monday, 9 January 2023

Film Review: Empire of Light (dir. Sam Mendes, 2022)


In late 2002, I remember attending a "farewell" talk at the Donmar Warehouse by Sam Mendes, as he prepared to leave the theatre he'd successfully put on the map as artistic director over the previous 10 years. At the Q&A, a young audience member raised a question about what she termed Mendes's "defection to America", following his Oscar-winning triumph with American Beauty (1999) and the then-imminent release of his second film, the father/son gangster drama Road to Perdition (2002). Mendes was visibly annoyed at the remark, emphasising that he had no intention of turning his back on the UK. 

In fact, though, Mendes's career, particularly in film, has tilted substantially toward the US in the subsequent two decades, and those of us who were huge fans of his earlier work have often felt that his choice of projects - diverse as it may have been - was consistently failing to play to his considerable strengths as a director. 2019's 1917 suggested something of a creative rebirth, though, and raised expectations for his latest film.

For its first 30 minutes or so, Mendes's new venture, Empire of Light, looks like just the kind of film some of us had been hoping he'd make for many years: an intimately-scaled drama of relationships in an English context. Set in 1980-1981, the film (which Mendes wrote himself and which he's emphasised the "personal" nature of in numerous interviews) follows Hilary Small (Olivia Colman, yet again) the middle-aged duty manager of a fading south coast cinema, who forms a bond and then a romance with a new young employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward).

Mendes pitches the opening scenes confidently, presenting Hilary's work routines, interaction with colleagues  and coercive relationship with her boss (Colin Firth) who requests sexual favours in his office. In its careful and nuanced presentation of Hilary's brisk professional competence and personal loneliness, the film has something of the intimacy and frankness that Mendes brought to the best parts of American Beauty, and the initial scenes between Hilary and Stephen (effectively underplayed by Ward, who was Franklyn in Steve McQueen's Lovers Rock [2020]), also mostly hit the right notes. (Though Stephen demonstrating his loveability  by tending to a heavily symbolic broken-winged bird is a little much.)

Collaborating again with Roger Deakins, Mendes also succeeds in making the film visually distinctive: the cinema, with its art deco foyer and seductive but slightly seedy ambience and the sea visible through its glass doors is both grand and faded, and feels just right as Hilary's domain. 

It's a shame, then, that Empire of Light's scenario gradually turns out to be an excuse for a clunkingly heavy-handed glance at two of the culture's current favourite topics: mental health and racism. Ducking out of really exploring or developing the relationships it's established, the film defaults to shriller dramatic territory in scenes depicting Hilary's breakdown and Stephen's abuse at the hands of loitering National Front bovver boys. Neither aspect is deftly handled: affecting in quieter moments, Colman over-pitches Hilary's off-medication diatribes, and a sequence of an NF attack on the cinema is badly staged. The early 80s context ultimately feels sketched in, too, with Stephen schooling Hilary in the realities of racism via a quick mention of the New Cross Fire. 

Nor, even more oddly, does the film's attempt to celebrate "the magic of the movies" come across as deeply felt. Toby Jones's proud projectionist is alotted a would-be rhapsodic monologue on light that may have you wistfully thinking back to his role in Peter Strickland's tougher-minded Berberian Sound Studio  (2012), while a screening of Being There  (1979) converts Hilary from cinema agnostic to wide-eyed acolyte with record speed.  The opening scenes promise much, but, pandering to the modish topics of the moment in a way that gradually reduces its characters to representative figures rather than individuals, the shallow Empire of Light sadly ends up failing as both relationship drama and cinema tribute, feeling both calculated and counterfeit. 

 Empire of Light is released in UK cinemas today.