Saturday 28 May 2011

Theatre Review: Haunting Julia (Riverside Studios)

Inspired initially by Stephen Mallatratt’s phenomenally successful stage adaptation of The Woman in Black, Alan Ayckbourn’s ghost story Haunting Julia premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1994, where it has subsequently been performed on two other occasions (in 1999 and 2008). The play has now been revived by Andrew Hall for the Lichfield Garrick and is currently at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. Haunting Julia is recognised as a departure from Ayckbourn’s signature style of social comedy, and this production arrives with reports that audience members at the Garrick have been collapsing and fainting from shock due to the intensity of the piece. Such reports are rather surprising, for what the play looks like here is simply a mildly diverting trifle on supernatural themes that never really generates enough tension or suspense.

Dubbed “Little Miss Mozart” by the media, the Julia of the title was a musical prodigy who committed suicide 12 years before the events of the play. Her father Bob has turned the student residence where she lived into a shrine-cum-heritage-museum, as part of the Julia Lukin Music Centre. Still convinced that there are unanswered questions about his daughter’s death, and having come to believe that her ghost is haunting the Centre, Bob has invited Andy, Julia’s former boyfriend, to the venue. Here he confronts him with a psychic, Ken, who he believes can provide the answers he requires. The drama focuses on the interactions of the three men, and the different ways in which they are haunted by Julia’s presence.

It’s an intriguing enough set-up, but one that doesn’t develop as successfully as you might hope. Ultimately, though, the fault isn’t so much with Hall’s production, which is efficient in all departments and very well-acted, as with the play itself, which is weak and sometimes painfully contrived. The plotting lacks urgency and the big themes which the piece engages with - grief, parental possessiveness, the challenges of genius - are more interesting than anything Ayckbourn does with them. The playwright seems unable to work up the requisite sense of suggestiveness or mystery here, and his continual recourse to comedy dissipates the tension - though look out for a rather neat gag involving a teddy bear called Emily. In addition, despite some decent effects, an attempt at a grand, melodramatic, emotional climax falls flat. The piece suffers, finally, from Ayckbourn’s tendency to bland things out, so that what we are left with offers neither the fun of a trashy ghost story nor the lingering resonance of an effective psychological thriller.

The production’s greatest asset is its three performances. As the bluff Yorkshireman Joe, Christopher Timothy is expert as he slowly reveals the extent of the character’s possessiveness. Dominic Hecht brings some distinctive touches to the familiar role of the sceptic, and Richard O’Callaghan is simply delightful as Ken. The actors play off each other with consummate skill and ease, holding the attention even when Ayckbourn’s dialogue is at its most pedestrian and exposition-heavy. The performers are the best reason to see the production, and are responsible for the modicum of interest that Haunting Julia manages to sustain. But those expecting a truly terrifying experience here are likely to feel short-changed.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

The production runs for 2 hours 10 mins and is booking until 3 July. Further information here.

Sunday 15 May 2011

CD Review: Director's Cut by Kate Bush

The appearance of any new music by Kate Bush is such a rare event that the excitement-bordering-on-hysteria that accompanies the release of a new album from her is understandable, perhaps. In the case of Bush’s last record, the 12-years-in-gestation Aerial (2005) [review here], the hype and hullabaloo seemed entirely justified. The record was a gorgeous, elemental, engrossing opus that matched the very best of Bush’s work for wit, whimsy, weirdness and wonder. Beautifully sequenced, the album’s two discs flowed thrillingly from the domestic to the epic, producing a record that worked to sharpen the listener’s perceptions, changing the way we see a sunset, how we hear bird-song. Predictably enough, Bush has laid low since Aerial’s release, emerging with only one new song in the intervening six years, the decidedly underwhelming “Lyra” for The Golden Compass soundtrack. Still, Aerial was proof enough that, after so many years of silence, Bush certainly wasn’t an artist to be written off.

Unfortunately, it’s that weight of expectation that makes Bush’s new release, Director’s Cut, such a disappointing experience overall. The album comprises 11 re-worked tracks from Bush’s two pre-Aerial albums, 1989’s The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes, all of which have been re-recorded by Bush with new drums and vocals and the addition of a few other elements. "For some time I have wanted to revisit tracks from those albums," Bush has said. "I thought they could benefit from having new life breathed into them. Lots of work went into the originals, but the songs now have another layer woven into their fabric." Although this might seem a slightly perverse, possibly even desperate project for a songwriter who has produced so little new work in the last 20 years, the impulse can be viewed as worthy enough. Bush is, after all, an artist who doesn’t tour, thereby depriving fans of the opportunity to hear fresh versions of older songs in concert. So an album of reworked tracks can be seen to have a place in her catalogue.

In addition, there’s an honourable tradition to such tinkering with past work. Joni Mitchell’s reworking of her songs with an orchestra on Travelogue (2003), for example, resulted in a stunning album that was at once a wide-ranging summation of Mitchell’s catalogue and a distinctive reinvigoration of it. But whereas Travelogue drew on material from across Mitchell’s body-of-work, placing older and newer songs into a dynamic dialogue, Director’s Cut’s focus on selected tracks from just two Bush albums destructively limits its scope, and neither are the changes made quite substantial or interesting enough throughout. And so, sadly, a project that could have been a vital and exciting addition to Bush’s catalogue ends up seeming, despite some worthwhile moments, scrappy, ill-structured, and insufficiently thought through.

For the most part, Bush’s approach here is to de-clutter the songs but in a few cases she adds and introduces new elements. Apparently unmotivated by any particular governing aesthetic, the changes end up feeling haphazard and random. Proceedings do get off to a decent enough start with “Flower of the Mountain” a re-christened and reworked take on the title track from The Sensual World, Bush’s adaptation of Molly Bloom’s final soliloquy in Ulysses. From the lovely opening peal of church bells onwards, the arrangement and instrumentation remains pretty much intact. What’s changed are the lyrics and the vocals, for Bush has finally been granted permission from the James Joyce estate to use the text from the novel as the basis for the song, as she originally intended. This means that we now get to hear her declaiming Joyce’s rapturous, erotic prose-poetry, in her new, earthier tones: “shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall…and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes.” Whether this improves the song as much as might be imagined is debatable but the interplay of Joyce’s words and the music certainly makes for an interesting comparison to the original version. And if by the end Bush overdoes the breathy cooing a tad, the song nonetheless retains its seductive warmth and allure.

The re-workings of the other tracks from The Sensual World yield decidedly mixed results. The best of the bunch is “Never Be Mine,” the slightly murky original benefiting from a more organic and spontaneous approach here, with lovely piano and guitar work, and a great new vocal from Bush that pitches the song beautifully between eager anticipation and mature resignation. Elsewhere, though, the addition of twinkling electric keyboard and a final glacial synthesised soundscape to the classic “This Woman’s Work” can’t compete with the beautiful delicacy and chilling background wails of the original; the new version is lugubrious, its impact muted. And despite some fine jazzy and electronic noodling at the close, the maligned first single “Deeper Understanding” doesn’t hold up much better in context either; the replacing of the dramatic harmonising of the Trio Bulgarka with the computerised, Auto-tuned vocals of Bush’s son Bertie remains one of the album’s several errors in judgement.

Bush tackles seven of the strongest songs from the underrated The Red Shoes, but with a couple of exceptions the reworked versions don’t serve to enhance or improve the tracks in any significant way. Both the wonderful “Song of Solomon” and “And So Is Love” feel like cut-and-paste jobs, made up of insufficiently integrated elements. The latter, in particular, boasts some horribly woozy vocals on the “Live your life for love,” section and comes complete with a fairly nonsensical lyric change, with “Now we see that life is sad/And so is love” becoming “Now we see that life is sweet…” Stripped of the cinematic sweep of Michael Kamen’s orchestral arrangement, shorn of some (pretty pivotal) lyrics, and now boasting solemn choral interludes, the "Coral Room"-ish take on “Moments of Pleasure” slows to a crawl, missing the bittersweet charm of the original. A chugging, slowed “Lily” also lacks momentum, and though Bush almost breaks through the inert arrangement at the end, with some fine screeching on the added “Who’s on the left? Who’s on the right?” freak-out, it comes as too little too late.

Rather better is the spruced-up title track, and a decent reworking of “Top of the City.” But for listeners who’ve lived with these songs for many years, there’s little to get stuck into here once the game of compare and contrast is up. And stripped of its springy exuberance, with Bush now muttering the lyrics as through she’s embarrassed by them, the revisioning of “Rubberband Girl” as a Stones-ish barroom rocker is a sad mistake, and ends the album on a particularly lacklustre note.

Director’s Cut is of course an album that Bush fans will want to own (it’s also available in a boxset with the remastered The Sensual World and The Red Shoes), and many of those who’ve heard it already profess to be enchanted with it. But though boasting scattered worthwhile moments, the album doesn’t hold together, and is a particular disappointment coming from an artist we know to be capable of so very much more. Even at its best, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the time invested here by Bush would have been better spent in the composition of new material. Happily, Bush is apparently developing some new songs; here’s hoping that she approaches them with more dynamism and drive than that manifested on this intermittently enjoyable but ultimately uninspiring stopgap release.

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.

Friday 13 May 2011

Theatre Review: A Delicate Balance (Almeida Theatre)

Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1966 play A Delicate Balance takes place entirely in the well-appointed drawing-room of Agnes and Tobias, an ageing, affluent couple who are seemingly content with their life in suburbia, except for their problems with Agnes’s alcohol-dependent sister Claire and their daughter Julia, a multiple divorcee who’s on the run from yet another marriage. But the couple’s relatively comfortable existence is rocked by the arrival of two friends, Harry and Edna, who turn up at the house unannounced and desperately frightened by an undefined feeling of imminent disaster. Over the course of a weekend, Agnes and Tobias are forced to come to terms with this crisis, and to re-consider the demarcation lines of friendship as Harry and Edna decide to move in with them. The situation is further complicated by the presences of Claire and Julia, the latter increasingly hysterical at the realisation that she’s been usurped from her room by the unexpected visitors.

Last seen in London in 1997, in a well-regarded production directed by Anthony Page and starring Eileen Atkins and Maggie Smith as the sisters, Albee’s enigmatic drama now gets an absolutely exquisite revival by James Macdonald at the Almeida. Combining elements of drawing-room comedy-of-manners with chilly overtones of existential dread, Albee’s play is a challenge for actors and audience alike, and to many, it seems, it looks like nothing more than an overlong, excessively verbose piece about that most familiar of theatrical subjects: WASP angst. At some level that’s exactly what it is, but there’s also a searching, visionary, philosophical quality to the play that transcends the apparent limitations of its scope. And Macdonald’s sensitive production, which plays out on Laura Hopkins’s attractive set (beautifully lighted by Guy Hoare), achieves a wonderful clarity and richness of tone. It’s a glittering, stylish production that still cuts close to the play’s dark heart, brilliantly capturing its contradictory moods. The thorny questions that the play proposes - what exactly are our “rights and responsibilities” to our family and friends?; how is the daily "delicate balance" between survival and awareness of the abyss to be negotiated? - emerge subtly as so many sad (and funny) refrains.

And it’s hard to see how the performances could be bettered. Always subtle and economical, Penelope Wilton brings a marvellous mixture of elegant imperiousness, intelligence and awareness to Agnes. She handles the withering put-downs with aplomb - listen out in particular for her delivery of the line “My pudenda” - but when Agnes recalls the son she and Tobias lost the mood is suddenly charged with deep sorrow. It’s a wonderfully rich interpretation. The hard-drinking, yodelling, accordion-wielding Claire is the showier role, and one that constantly threatens to become merely a comic turn. But Imelda Staunton modulates her performance beautifully, finding fresh details in her scenes, whether its lying on the floor with her leg seductively outstretched as Claire reminds Tobias of a significant moment in their past, or slipping her arm tenderly around her beloved accordion. Tim Pigott-Smith gives a brilliant slow-burn of a performance as the apparently passive, rather befuddled Tobias. His aria about Tobias’s relationship with a cat generated uneasy laughs and a few gasps of shock, while a late break-down scene is also brilliantly sustained.

As Julia, Lucy Cohu brings her distinctive presence and lovely Streep-ish inflections to a rather difficult role, finding real pain in a character who spends a great deal of the play (too much, perhaps) whining. And in support Ian McElhinney and Diana Hardcastle are superb as Harry and Edna, Hardcastle in particular moving unsettlingly from heart-rending vulnerability to the chillingly serene arrogance of the interloper. She has a classic mid-play scene with Cohu and her delivery of the line “I do sometimes [speak my mind] … when an environment is not all that it might be” is especially cherishable. Indeed, the entire cast handle Albee’s highly mannered, Henry-James-goes-Pop dialogue with a wonderful lightness of touch throughout, while evidently relishing its odd rhythms and strange digressions. The brilliance of Albee’s writing here is to keep the audience on their toes - you’re never quite sure where he’ll head next, and for viewers who get on the play’s strange wavelength, this generates an incredible tension and excitement. The playwright describes A Delicate Balance as being about “people [who] are teetering between being able to survive and being thrown into chaos.” And Macdonald’s stunning production is perfectly attuned to the play’s own very delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, philosophy and bitchery, craziness and calm. What a great evening.

The productions runs for 2 hours 55 minutes. It’s booking until 2 July. Further information at the Almeida website.

Theatre Review: Brontë (Richmond Theatre)

Shared Experience’s Brontë was first staged in 2005, in a production directed by the play’s writer Polly Teale. The show now returns in a new, totally re-cast, touring production, helmed by the co-artistic director of Shared Experience, Nancy Meckler. The play follows Teale’s two previous engagements with Brontë-related literature: she adapted Jane Eyre for the stage in 1996 and subsequently wrote a play about Jean Rhys (After Mrs. Rochester), whose Wild Sargasso Sea was of course inspired by Jane Eyre .

Brontë’s focus is the personal and creative lives of Emily, Charlotte and Anne themselves. Unsurprisingly, though, Shared Experience don’t take a traditional or straightforward biographical approach here. Rather, the company brings its distinctive physical and design aesthetic to the show, attempting to enter the inner worlds of the sisters by combining scenes that focus upon their everyday, domestic life with fantasies, memories and dramatised sequences from their novels, constantly blurring the boundaries between the real and the imagined. Indeed, the production sets itself up as a subjective investigation into the Brontës’ lives, opening with three contemporary women (Elizabeth Crarer, Kristin Atherton, Flora Nicholson), speculating about how “three Victorian spinsters living in isolation on the Yorkshire Moors” came to write literature of such passion and enduring power. Following this brief prologue, the three women take up their costumes to transform themselves into the sisters and to both dramatise and comment upon their story.

Thus Brontë may be viewed as, in Teale’s terms, “a response to the Brontë story not a piece of biography.” The production’s highly selective and impressionistic approach won’t be to all tastes and there are moments when the show seems to be straining for theatrical effect. The transitions between the sisters’ real and imagined worlds are sometimes marvelously fluid, especially in those scenes that show Emily tenderly interacting with her creation, Cathy (Frances McNamee), from Wuthering Heights. But at other times they’re abrupt and jarring: particularly problematic are the appearances of Jane Eyre’s Bertha (McNamee again) as an endlessly cavorting and gyrating projection of Charlotte’s animalistic id; these scenes feel crude and heavy-handed. The rhythm of the piece is not always satisfying: characters announce their departures only to return again in the next scene, and some sequences – such as Charlotte’s encounter with Heger, the Belgian teacher she loved – seem to come from nowhere. (Heger is played by Stephen Finegold, who, in a psychologically astute bit of multi-casting, also portrays the sisters’ father, Charlotte’s husband, and Rochester in the dramatised Jane Eyre scenes.)

The great strengths of the production lie in its nuanced exploration of the various functions that writing served for the three sisters, and also in its very fine performances. Crarer beautifully invests Emily the tormented genius with a streak of self-reliant strength, and Kristin Atherton’s censorial Charlotte succeeds in generating sympathy against the odds, while Flora Nicholson is vivid as the eager, socially conscious Anne. And Mark Edel-Hunt gives a lively and finally touching account of Branwell, the spoilt brother whose taken-for-granted privileges are criticized by Charlotte in one of the show’s most memorable scenes. The production is also strong on the social context of the sisters’ lives, even as it’s played with a defiantly contemporary attitude that subverts period drama cosiness. Also noteworthy is the atmospheric sound and lighting design by Peter Salem and Chahine Yavroyan

Despite its bitty structure, Brontë proves a rewarding evening overall, with striking moments of beauty and insight that compensate for its more awkward, forced transitions. Often, it’s the quietest moments that resonate most strongly, such as Emily’s subversive appraisal of the sisters’ position: “Perhaps we should be grateful for obscurity. For invisibility. Nothing was expected of us. Whatever we did was our secret, was our own.”
The production runs for 2 hours 30 mins. Further information at the Shared Experience website.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews

Saturday 7 May 2011

A Life in Movies Blogathon

Andy at Fandango Groovers has invited bloggers to participate in the "A Life In Movies" blogathon: a list of favourite films from the year we were born up to 2010, one title for each year. Nearly as hard as the Cinematic Alphabet meme but just as much fun. And compiling this list has reminded me of  several films I'd like to revisit very soon.

1980 - The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

It might not have pleased the novel’s author very much, but Stanley Kubrick’s film, departing fairly radically from its source at times, still remains perhaps the most striking and memorable of all Stephen King adaptations.

1981 - Atlantic City (dir. Louis Malle)

Louis Malle and John Guare’s fairly unclassifiable collaboration mixes elements of crime drama, comedy, love story and fairy-tale to create one of the most distinctive  American movies of the period. Great work from Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon.

1982 - Shoot the Moon (dir. Alan Parker)

We talk about break-up albums, but not break-up movies so much. Sharply-observed, funny, raw and disturbing, with memorable performances from Albert Finney and Diane Keaton as the couple falling apart, Shoot the Moon is one of the best.

1983 - Zelig (dir. Woody Allen)

Allen’s brilliant mockumentary charts the history of an “everyman” chameleon whose neurotic insecurity prompts him to take on the ideas, opinions and even physical appearance of whichever group of people he happens to be associating with. Hilarious and insightful, and, like all of Allen’s best films, both deep and feather-light.

1984 - Gremlins (dir. Joe Dante)

An early disappointment for me was not being allowed to go to see the 15-certificate Gremlins at the cinema. Seen on many occasions since; loved every time. “And that’s how I found out there wasn’t a Santa Claus…”

1985 - A Private Function (dir. Malcolm Mowbray)

“Like Volpone set in a cabbage patch” (Pauline Kael). Maggie Smith states: “I’m not having people think we put just rubbish in the bin.”

1986 - Little Shop of Horrors (dir. Frank Oz)

Honestly, no musical makes me happier than Little Shop of Horrors. Magic moment: the Steve Martin/Bill Murray encounter.

1987 - The Princess Bride (dir. Rob Reiner)

"My name is Inigo Montoya .. &etc."

1988 - Distant Voices, Still Lives (dir. Terence Davies)

Or The Naked Gun. Or Women on the Verge ...

1989 - Miss Firecracker (dir. Thomas Schlamme)

Does anyone else like this?

1990 - Home Alone (dir. Chris Columbus)

Vigilantism and family values, Hughes-style. Movie obsession commences right here.

1991 - Paradise (dir. Mary Agnes Donoghue)

Thoughts on Paradise here.

1992 - Strictly Ballroom (dir. Baz Luhrmann)

“Lee-sen to the ree-them!” One of my happiest cinema-going memories.

1993 - Philadelphia (dir. Jonathan Demme)

There are so many great sequences here, from that wonderful opening montage scored to Springsteen to the close-up of Hanks alone on the street,  and the opera scene, of course. But for me the key moment in Philadelphia comes in the exchange between Denzel Washington’s lawyer Miller and Charles Napier’s Judge midway through the movie. “In this courtroom, justice is blind to matters of race, creed, colour, religion and sexual orientation.” “With all due respect, Your Honour, we don’t live in this courtroom, though, do we?”

1994 - Forrest Gump (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

The early 90s = The Hanks Years.

 1995 - To Die For (dir. Gus Van Sant)

Van Sant's satire skewers its moment, and holds up very well.

1996 - The Portrait of a Lady (dir. Jane Campion)

Nicole, mark II. For me, the best Henry James adaptation there has been, or is ever likely to be.

1997 - The Sweet Hereafter (dir. Atom Egoyan)

A movie that retains its enigmatic quality no matter how many times it's seen; Egoyan’s masterful adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel.

1998 - Buffalo 66 (dir. Vincent Gallo)

Gallo's stylish, one-of-a-kind indie romance.

1999 - American Beauty (dir. Sam Mendes)

Or Magnolia. Or Topsy Turvy. Or Limbo. Or The Sixth Sense. Damn good year.

2000 - Under the Sand (dir. François Ozon)

A classic of first-person cinema: Ozon’s chilly, anti-closure masterpiece of mourning and melancholia.

2001 - The Deep End (dir. McGehee and Siegel)

McGehee and Siegel’s contemporary reworking of The Reckless Moment, with a tremendous performance from Tilda Swinton as the under-pressure matriarch.

2002 - Talk to Her (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

Silent cinema. Telling stories. Dance and desire. Almodóvar's most moving, soulful film.

2003 - Lost In Translation (dir. Sofia Coppola)

Our Brief Encounter. Wonderful atmosphere. Humour and melancholy, alienantion and connection, resignation and hope.

2004 - The Village (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

I wouldn't try to defend Shyamalan's last couple of films, which have seemed miscalculated in the extreme, but I've always been taken with The Village, for me one of the strangest, most beautiful and most underrated American films of the decade.

2005 - Hidden (dir. Michael Haneke)

Does anyone put our contemporary panics and paranoias on screen more memorably than Mr. Haneke?

2006 - Dans Paris (dir. Christophe Honoré)

Watching  Dans Paris, I discovered that I much preferred New Wave homage to the “real” thing.

2007 - Les Chansons d'amour (dir. Christophe Honoré)

Dans Paris's musical sister.

2008 - 35 Shots of Rum (dir. Claire Denis)

On the Nightshift.

2009 - RAGE (dir. Sally Potter)

Potter’s multi-vocal meditation on the fashion industry, corporatism, celeb culture, and much more besides. Also the only film so far in which you get to see Judi Dench light a joint. Reviewed here.

2010 - Le Refuge (dir. François Ozon)

Thoughts on Le Refuge here.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Theatre Review: To Kill A Mockingbird (Richmond Theatre; touring)

Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird remains one of the most beloved - and most studied - of 20th century American novels. The book, which draws upon the author’s own Deep South background, is set in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s and concerns the trial of an African-American man, Tom Robinson, who’s accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. The events of the trial and the various reactions to it of the people of Maycomb are described by Jean Louise (“Scout”), the tomboyish daughter of Robinson’s defence lawyer Atticus Finch. Atticus is a single father to Scout and her older brother Jem since the death of the children’s mother some years before. A man of compassion and intelligence, he attempts to provide the children with a strong moral compass in a time of deep prejudice. For, throughout, the novel’s surface charm and its lyrical qualities are combined with a sharp critique of bigotry and intolerance, one that gives the piece an abiding power and resonance.

The novel’s reputation as a bona fide American classic was further enhanced by Robert Mulligan’s celebrated 1962 film version, but To Kill A Mockingbird has also had a considerable life on stage, especially in the US. Damian Cruden’s new production, which originated at York Theatre Royal and is now touring, was developed by The Touring Consortium, a company which was established in 1996 to produce curriculum-based drama, and which has staged To Kill A Mockingbird on two previous occasions. The production avails itself of Christopher Sergel’s 40-year-old adaptation of the novel which attempts to replicate the text’s retrospective narration and the film’s use of voiceover by turning the piece into a memory play. Here, the young Scout (Grace Rowe) is shadowed by her older self (Jacqueline Wood) who addresses the audience and offers a running commentary on the action. This is an interesting but not entirely successful conceit, and one that sometimes proves a barrier to full engagement in the main events of the story by intrusively editorialising on what the audience is seeing. The production is also hampered by some odd ideas: the video projections which periodically punctuate the action seem entirely superfluous, and Liam Doona’s bleached, clapboard set is unattractive. In addition, several of the actors in the twenty one-strong cast lay on their Southern accents much too thickly, and overall, the production lacks an authentic sense of atmosphere, despite an excellent lighting design by Richard G. Jones and the best efforts of Christopher Madin’s rootsy score.

The production is at its best when at its least cluttered, and the courtroom scene, staged effectively to place the audience in the position of the jury, is a powerful highlight of the evening, with affecting work from Clare Corbett as Mayella and Cornelius Macarthy as Tom. Returning to the role of Atticus, which he first played in 2007, Duncan Preston gives a subtle, quietly authoritative performance, delivering his lines in a simple, economical way that undercuts any air of sanctity. The memory of Gregory Peck in the film version casts a long shadow, but Preston certainly succeeds in making the role his own. Filling out the background there’s good work from Jacqueline Boatswain as the family’s no-nonsense maid Calpurnia and from Andy Hockley as the town’s sheriff. And while Rowe, as Scout, and Matthew Pattimore as Jem never completely allow you to forget that you’re watching older actors pretending to be children, their performances certainly don’t lack for enthusiasm and energy. The best of the younger cast members, however, is Graeme Dalling as the siblings’ quirky, likeable friend Dill, a character based on Lee’s childhood friend and neighbour Truman Capote.

Overall, this is a solid but unspectacular production that never becomes quite as emotionally engaging as you might hope due to several odd and distracting elements. Nonetheless, the production boasts some memorable moments and performances, and certainly provides a worthwhile supplement to a close study of the novel for younger audiences.

The production runs for 2hrs 30 minutes. Further information about the tour here.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews

Sunday 1 May 2011

CD Review: Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009 by Tindersticks

Shortly after completing my entry for the Favourite Movie Music meme, which included one song by Tindersticks and two songs used in Claire Denis films, I was excited to hear about the imminent release of Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009, a collection which brings together the six soundtracks that members of Tindersticks have produced for Denis over the past fifteen years. The collaboration between the French director and the British band has proved to be one of the most fruitful in contemporary cinema, resulting in some extraordinary fusions of sound and image. The partnership began when Denis approached the group about working on the soundtrack to Nénette et Boni in 1996, after listening to their second album while scripting the film. Tindersticks have gone on to provide scores for Trouble Every Day (2001), 35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum) (2008) and White Material (2009), while Stuart Staples and Dickon Hinchliffe have worked solo on the scores for L’Intrus (The Intruder) (2004) and Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) (2002). This deluxe box set features over three hours of music from the films, while the lavishly presented booklet includes colour film stills and an essay by Michael Hill that assesses the collaboration in depth. It’s an absolute must for fans of the band, fans of Denis and, indeed, for anyone interested in the art of the soundtrack.

“Approaching each film has always asked us to step into the unknown, to stretch ourselves and do things we didn’t think we were able,” Staples has said. “And in the end we always feel changed in some way.” Interestingly, that description pretty much sums up the experience of watching Denis’s cinema, which similarly requires viewers to stretch themselves and, often, to step into the unknown. Elliptical, fragmentary, sometimes opaque to the point of obscurity, Denis’s films have the resonance and mystery of dreams. Focusing upon issues of otherness, displacement and post-colonial anxiety, her films are endlessly re-watchable, works that yield up fresh possible meanings with every viewing, and that thrive on sensation, tactility, mood and atmosphere. In their attention to pace, ambience and rhythm, her films feel like music already, just as Tindersticks’s atmospheric, brooding compositions have very often had a cinematic dimension.

Listening to the soundtracks, it quickly becomes apparent just how integral a part of the overwhelming sensory experience of Denis’s cinema Tindersticks’s music has been. What’s also remarkable is the sheer diversity of the band’s approaches to these scores. Always sensitive to the different qualities of the films’ narratives, their music dynamically and unpredictably fuses elements of jazz and blues, soul, rock, folk and chamber music, and moves from intimacy to expansiveness with the fluidity with which the films themselves move from close-up to long-shot.

Thus the exquisite jazzy shuffle of “Rumba” from Nénette et Boni and the inviting gentle melodicas of “Opening” from 35 Shots of Rum perfectly capture the warmth and intimacy of these family-centred domestic dramas, just as the dissonant, twitchy electric guitar work and woozy trumpet of Staples’s score for The Intruder suit the highly abstract contours of a film in which, as Denis states, “everything is broken,” from the narrative structure to the protagonist’s heart.

It’s precisely this diversity of approach that makes Claire Denis Film Scores such a rich and engrossing experience. Listeners will of course have their own favourite moments across the five discs but worth highlighting is Hinchliffe’s stunning work for Vendredi Soir, all plucked strings and floating cadences, and the wonderfully seductive and portentous sweep of “Trouble Every Day,” the opening song to Denis’s idiosyncratic horror film, which is, rather regrettably, one of just two songs on the collection that showcase Staples’s commanding vocals. Best of all, perhaps, is the band’s haunting score for Denis’s most recent film White Material which employs harmonium, electric guitar, flute, violin and drums to devastating effect.

The primary question about soundtrack albums, of course, is whether the music is strong enough to survive on its own, without the images for which it was created. The answer, in this case, is an emphatic yes. Music in Denis’s films is much more than accompaniment: it’s protagonist, presence, even scene-stealer at times. And as deeply interwoven into the fabric of her films as Tindersticks’s work is, it's more than strong enough to stand alone, providing an intense and immersive emotional experience in its own right. To listen to these CDs, in short, is to be carried back into the landscapes of each of these extraordinary films - and far beyond. Magnifique.

The box set is avaliable through Constellation Records.

Reviewed for PopMatters.