Wednesday 23 March 2011

Review: Cause Célèbre (Old Vic Theatre)

Thea Sharrock’s Olivier-honoured production of After the Dance at the National Theatre last year was one of the most acclaimed Terence Rattigan revivals in recent memory; it’s a production that I’m still kicking myself for missing. In the centenary of the playwright’s birth, Sharrock now takes on another lesser-known Rattigan text - this time the author's last play Cause Célèbre, in a production which had its first performance  at the Old Vic last Thursday. Written in 1976, the play takes as its focus a real-life 1930s murder case: the trial of Alma Rattenbury and her much younger chauffeur/lover Percy ‘George’ Wood for the killing of Alma’s elderly husband, Francis, who was found battered to death with a mallet. The trial caused a media and public storm, and elicited much moral outrage, not least because of the disparity in the lovers' ages. (Alma was 39; George 18.) Rattigan's play combines this incident with a fictional narrative concerning the forewoman of the jury at Alma’s trial, Edith Davenport. Edith is a moral stickler who’s divorcing her philandering husband and feels prejudiced towards Alma on grounds that go beyond the murder she may have committed.  As the trial progresses, however, Edith’s attitude to Alma gradually begins to change.

Sharrock’s swish production has many things going for it: it’s well-cast, and cleverly designed by Hildegard Bechtler, with some memorable details and a good sense of atmosphere. And yet as the evening progresses it’s hard to escape the feeling that something is missing, namely a sense of urgency and dramatic momentum. Despite the play's more salacious subject matter, the production never achieves the emotional hold of Trevor Nunn’s revival of Flare Path, and grips only fitfully. Part of the problem, I’d argue, lies with the play itself, which isn’t one of Rattigan’s strongest works. Structurally, the drama's leaps between past and present are intriguing but sometimes awkward, and certain key roles and relationships end up feeling under-developed. The result is that several good performers in Sharrock’s cast go to waste. In particular, I wanted to see much more of Jenny Galloway as Alma’s maid/companion, and Timothy Carlton who, as Alma’s husband, gets just one decent scene.

Of the main performers, Niamh Cusack, as Edith, is exceptional as always, and responsible for some of the production’s most emotionally affecting moments. Anne-Marie Duff is very good too, but, despite Rattigan’s evident sympathy for Alma as a victim of English sexual puritanism, the character remains something of an enigma to the end. As the sequence is staged here, Alma seems set on seducing George before she’s even clapped eyes on him, and Rattigan stints on scenes between the lovers that would give us a deeper sense of the development of their relationship - this despite the fact that the play's dialogue  is considerably franker in its treatment of sexual matters than much of his earlier work.

Of the other cast members, Tommy McDonnell is fine as George, but this role more than any other feels under-written and, while Rattigan appears to lavish sympathy upon Alma, there seems to be an element of class hostility in his presentation of this character. Nicholas Jones gets good comic mileage out of his role as the shrewd, slipper-wearing barrister who’s defending Alma and who isn’t adverse to bending the rules when he sees fit. And Freddie Fox is memorable as Edith’s son, a character every bit as randy as the one Fox played in the previous OV production, A Flea In Her Ear. (But minus the “comedy” speech impediment, thank God.) The principal problem, though, is that the play seems structured around a connection that isn’t really there. The parallels and contrasts between Alma and Edith’s predicaments that Rattigan develops feel rather strained and contrived, at least until the production’s very final moments which leave an impressively bitter and ironic sting.

Despite effective sequences, then, Sharrock's cool, controlled production doesn't achieve the kind of sustained intensity that we might expect from a Rattigan drama. It's a worthwhile evening overall, but if you’re opting for just one London Rattigan revival this Spring, then Flare Path remains the better bet.

The production runs for 2 hours 40 minutes. Further information at the Old Vic website.

Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

"What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?"

"Just stayin' on it, I guess. As long as she can."

RIP, Elizabeth Taylor.

Saturday 19 March 2011

Desert Island CD Blogathon: 12 Tracks From Soundtracks

I’ve blogged briefly on favourite movie music before but couldn’t resist Castor Troy's invitation to participate in the Desert Island CD Blogathon. The concept: you are stranded on a desert island with only one CD (and a CD player etc...). What are 12 tracks that you would want to have with you? The one requirement is that each track comes from a movie soundtrack... Choosing just 12 favourite songs or instrumental pieces is both a delightful and a daunting task so this list has been compiled, in truth, without too much cogitation: these are simply the tracks that came to mind first. Some songs here are ones that I'd heard before seeing the film in question; others I learned about because of the movie, and are forever associated with it. Click on the titles/artist names to link to the songs.

1. "A Night In" by Tindersticks  - Intimacy (Chereau, 2001)
If one thing’s for sure, it’s that French filmmakers love them some Tindersticks. Claire Denis’s collaborations with the band are the most well known, but since Denis is already represented on this list twice, I’ve opted instead for the band’s stunning “A Night In” as featured over images of the slumbering Mark Rylance in the wonderfully portentous opening credit sequence to Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy.

2. "Streets of Philadelphia" by Bruce Springsteen - Philadelphia (Demme, 1993)
Demme’s use of music across his work has been superb, and you could stick a pin in the Philadelphia soundtrack and find a song I love. But I have to go with the movie's most famous track, a mournful plea for brotherhood that's become one of my all-time favourite Springsteen songs. It accompanies another of my all-time favourite credit sequences too.

3. “Cambodia” by Kim Wilde - Dans Paris (Honore, 2006)
A nostalgic encounter with Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia” starts to lure Romain Duris out of the break-up blues. What a great pop song, and few scenes convey our solitary bedroom music moments quite like this one.

4. "Against the Wind" by Bob Seger - Forrest Gump (Zemeckis, 1994)
Seger was never cool but who cares? I’m always, always moved by “Against the Wind.” The trajectory of a life in three verses. Gorgeous and timeless.

5. "Momentum" by Aimee Mann - Magnolia (Anderson, 1999)
Mann's songs are such an integral part of the experience of Magnolia that it's hard to pick favourites, but the awesome "Momentum" just takes it for me.

6. "Ne Me Quitte Pas" by Maysa Mataraso  - Law of Desire (Almodovar, 1986)
"How can I explain why seeing the little girl in Law of Desire singing 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' in playback was for me so heart-rending?" wonders Frederic Strauss. How indeed. The mystery and magic of Almodovar at his best; a classic piece of Brel and a great version by Ms. Mataraso.

7. "Where Is My Mind?" by Pixies  - Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) 

8. "Sweetness" by Yes - Buffalo ‘66 (Gallo, 1998)
King Crimson's "Moonchild" in the bowling alley sequence cuts it close but I can never resist this wonderful Yes song, used at Buffalo '66 's redemptive close.   

9. "The Rhythm of the Night" by Corona - Beau Travail (Denis, 1999)
After seeing Beau Travail it’s pretty much impossible to hear "The Rhythm of the Night" without Denis Lavant's amazing display at the end of the movie coming to mind. A while on a desert island should give me time to perfect some of those moves... Also nicely used in Ozon’s Sitcom (1998).

10. "Dan" by Michael Nyman - Wonderland (Winterbottom, 1999)
Each of Wonderland's characters gets a theme of their own. "Dan" is the one that's most indelibly associated with the movie for me.

11. "Siren" by Tori Amos - Great Expectations (Cuaron, 1998)
Because I probably wouldn’t survive for too long on this desert island without the sound of Tori’s voice and piano-playing for inspiration.

12. "Nightshift" by The Commodores - 35 Shots of Rum (Denis, 2008)
Honestly, I'm not sure that I'd ever heard "Nightshift" before seeing 35 Shots of Rum. Now it's a song that I can't imagine doing without.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Review: Flare Path (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Trevor Nunn’s season as Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket gets under way with a rather spiffing production of Terence Rattigan’s WWII drama Flare Path. The production is one of several Rattigan plays being staged across the UK to mark the centenary of the great playwright’s birth. The classic The Deep Blue Sea is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (and - even better - is also being filmed by Terence Davies; yes!) while Cause Celebre opens at the Old Vic later this month. First staged in London in 1942, in a production starring Phyllis Calvert, Flare Path isn’t one of Rattigan’s best known works, despite being adapted (and very much transformed) into the delightful film The Way to the Stars in 1945. There’s a sense, perhaps, that the play is too much of a museum piece, one that had something vital to communicate to 1940s audiences but has less to say to us today.

Entering the TRH auditorium to the appealing strains of 1940s ballads and swing music, it's immediately apparent that Nunn and his collaborators are taking a traditional and unironic approach to the material. This turns out to be a virtue, though. Rattigan’s play certainly has its flaws: it’s sometimes creaky in its exposition, schematic and often obvious. But Nunn’s confident production effortlessly draws you in, benefiting from the input of a crack ensemble cast and, ultimately, from the bracing humanity and compassion of a playwright who excels at getting his heroes and heroines into involving emotional binds. The following remarks were written after the first preview of the play on Friday 4th March.

Based in part on Rattigan’s own wartime experiences, the drama takes place in a hotel near an RAF Bomber Command airbase, and focuses upon the interactions of a variety of characters staying at the hotel. There’s Count Skriczevinsky (Mark Dexter), a Polish pilot serving with the RAF and his young English wife Doris (Sheridan Smith); the tail gunner Dusty Miller (Joe Armstrong) and his wife Maudie (Emma Handy) who’s arrived for a short visit; and, most centrally, there’s the love triangle being played out between three characters: the genial, unwitting Flight Lt. Teddy Graham (Harry Hadden-Paton), his actress wife Patricia (Sienna Miller) and her film star lover Peter Kyle (James Purefoy), whose unexpected arrival at the hotel is intended to encourage Patricia into leaving Teddy. Matters come to a head when the men are sent on a night-time raid over Germany from which it seems unlikely that all will return.

Stephen Brimson Lewis's attractive set nicely evokes the hotel lobby/reception area in which all of the action occurs, with nifty projections by Jack James and an understated sound design by Paul Groothius effectively conveying the airfield outside, especially in a pivotal take-off scene. Indeed, the production conjures its place and time with consummate skill, and despite a few longueurs over its 2 hour 45 minute running time, it’s mostly satisfyingly paced, moving through contrasting moods with, dare we say, Chekhovian aplomb. It's often very funny (though perhaps a little too insistent in wringing laughs out of the faltering English of Dexter’s Polish Count), and at times very moving too. Rattigan’s writing is especially good at exploring the dynamics between the RAF and non-RAF characters, and, in particular, their delight at the appearance of a Hollywood star in their midst: there’s a nice running gag about Peter being asked about his acquaintanceship with a variety of film stars.

The reference to Chekhov also feels apt because Flare Path is very much an ensemble piece. Every character, no matter how minor, counts, and, as often, Nunn succeeds at getting his cast to spark off each other in a lively and natural fashion. This is the kind of play in which you come to care more and more about the characters the more you learn about them. Rattigan is often praised as a great writer for women but his male protaginists are drawn with equal insight and the two principal actors here could hardly be bettered. Purefoy is expert as he suggests the doubts and insecurities lurking under the surface of his matinee idol's polished persona, while Harry Hadden-Paton is stunning  as Teddy, stripping away the character’s good-humoured charm in a deeply affecting scene in which his vulnerability and emotional dependency upon Patricia are revealed. In such scenes, Rattigan's writing pierces through the stiff-upper-lippery to create moments of intense poignancy and power.

If there’s a weaker element to the ensemble I’m afraid to report that it’s Sienna Miller. Her performance is adequate, but doesn’t succeed  - yet - in communicating the depths of Patricia’s predicament or in making the most of the massive transition that the character undergoes. Nor do her scenes with Purefoy really crackle; the love story seems somewhat underplayed. At times you almost forget that she’s there: Teddy and Peter might be competing over a void. Miller's lack of presence seems particularly noticeable, perhaps, because the other actors register so vividly. The wonderful Sheridan Smith brings a marvellous warmth and humour to her barmaid-turned-Countess, and her late scene with Purefoy (it involves the translation of a significant letter) is a heartbreaker. Emma Handy is a brilliant mixture of querulousness and stoicism as Maudie, Joe Armstrong is quite delightful as Dusty, and Clive Wood spot-on as the squadron leader Swanson. And as the fussy hotel proprietress Sarah Crowden delivers an absolute gem of a comic performance that channels Joyce Carey by way of Maggie Smith.

In its sentimental endorsement of the necessity of putting aside personal passions for the good of the war effort, there’s no denying that Flare Path is a museum piece in many ways. And yet Nunn’s production feels fresher than you might expect. The play’s “relevance,” I’d argue, lies in making a case for values that have precious little currency in our contemporary culture: self-denial, emotional restraint, duty to the group. Intelligent, assured and full of feeling, this generous-spirited production is a real pleasure, and probably as accomplished a staging of the play as you could ever hope to see.
The production runs for 2 hrs 45 minutes. It's booking until 4th June. Further information here.

Review: Animal Kingdom (Michôd, 2010)

Australian movies have been pretty poorly served by UK distributors in the past ten years or so; if directors from Down Under have made a few films of the quality of Animal Kingdom (2010) in that time then we’ve really been missing out. From its opening sequence, this family/crime melodrama oozes assurance. It’s a brilliant, distinctive piece of work, and a great debut for director David Michôd. The focus is on a 17-year-old boy, Josh (superb newcomer James Frecheville), a rather diffident young man who, following the death of his mother from a heroin overdose, moves in with his hitherto-estranged family, which consists of his Grandmother (Jacki Weaver) and her brood of criminally inclined sons. Josh fits in well at first, but the return to the fold of the volatile eldest son Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) soon complicates matters, leading to an act of revenge against the police that ends up placing our hero in a serious moral quagmire.

Michôd is as sure-footed on the day-to-day details of domestic family life as on the criminal elements, and the movie excels in atmosphere, with superb use of the Melbourne locations, both urban and suburban. What isn’t shown is as important as what is: the movie sometimes places the emphasis in unexpected places while eliding conventional "key" scenes. The acting is first-rate: with top honours going to the always-expert Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce as the homicide detective keen to get Josh on the police’s side, and to Weaver whose brilliant performance as the family matriarch combines easy-going charm with steely practicality and a touch or two of perversity. Stylish and gripping throughout, this taut and thoroughly involving drama marks Michôd out as a major talent to watch.