Wednesday 23 November 2011

Theatre Review: Reasons To Be Pretty (Almeida)

If one thing’s for sure it’s that London Theatreland loves and loves to hate Neil LaBute in just about equal measure. The mere mention of the writer/director’s name - and the misanthropy, misogyny and sometimes shallow provocations associated with his films and plays - is enough to raise the hackles of some. But LaBute clearly has major fans on this side of the pond, judging by the frequency with which his work is staged here. Just opened at the Almeida, Reasons To Be Pretty is the third LaBute play to be seen in London this year, following the Pleasance's revival of his super-controversial 9/11 drama The Mercy Seat and the West End premiere of In A Forest, Dark and Deep, an exceedingly  poor and predictable two-hander whose most memorable feature turned out to be the excellent selection of rock songs that rattled the auditorium before the performance proper began.

Though not without its problems, Reasons To Be Pretty is certainly a much more substantial piece of work than was In A Forest... With a title that tips its hat to the Hole song “Reasons to be Beautiful,” the play, first staged in New York in 2008, concludes LaBute’s loose trilogy on contemporary perceptions of beauty, a saga that he began ten years ago with The Shape of Things and continued in 2004 with Fat Pig. The focus this time is on two couples: Greg (Tom Burke) and Steph (Siân Brooke) and Carly (Billie Piper) and Kent (Kieran Bew), and the fall-out from Greg’s observation that, unlike that of a new work colleague, Steph’s face is just “regular.” That comment, reported to Steph by Carly, becomes the catalyst for a breach between Steph and Greg, while Kent pursues an affair with said work colleague, gradually arousing the suspicions of his pregnant wife.

A seasoned director of LaBute’s work, Michael Attenborough delivers a crisp, clear production here, with the snappy scenes playing out on a neat revolving trailer set by Soutra Gilmore and punctuated by lovely blasts of Queen. Proceedings start out shrill - with a bedroom barney so ostentatiously attention-grabbing that you may find yourself switching off in protest - but get subtler as the drama progresses. The tone is, ultimately, less acrid than that of much of LaBute’s output, with some surprising swerves into tenderness in the second half. If a certain shallowness and obviousness still lies at the heart of the material it may be due to LaBute’s tendency to put generalisations about male and female behaviour into the mouths of his characters (“I don’t know why God had to make it so hard to trust you guys!” wails Carly at one point) and pass them off as rude truths.

Though the play feels a little under-populated, the performances that Attenborough has elicited from his quartet are mostly winning. Tom Burke charts Greg’s growth in awareness and conscience with compelling understatement. Playing an archetypal LaBute male - a smugly self-satisfied dumbass and perennial jock - Kieran Bew comes through with a vital, funny, lewd caricature. But Billie Piper delivers the most surprising performance of the evening, managing to quietly turn her security-guard Carly - variously perky, vulnerable and shrewd - into the heroine of the play. Piper's scenes with Burke were the highlights of the production for me, tracing a compelling arc from hostility to complicity that I found far more affecting than the trajectory of Greg and Steph’s relationship.

I must admit to not enjoying Siân Brooke as Steph so much. Thought and hard work have clearly gone into the performance, but Brooke is so full-on in some scenes - and lays so heavily and affectedly into her Yank twang - that she’s an off-putting presence most of the time. It doesn’t help that Steph seems, in some ways, the most poorly-conceived role of the four, a part that’s overly reliant upon undistinguished profanity masquerading as devastating invective, and that’s also the subject of LaBute’s sickliest assumption: that a woman’s self-esteem is entirely contingent upon the way in which a man views her. (What the play seems to lack - and might, I think, benefit from - is a strong scene between Steph and Carly that gives us some perspective on their relationship and perhaps another perspective on Steph as well.)

In spite of this, Attenborough’s production amounts, overall, to an entertaining and enjoyable evening. LaBute fans will of course need no encouragement at all to check out the writer’s latest dispatch from the sex war. But even those who may have felt that they’d had their fill of LaBute should find some very good reasons to enjoy Reasons To Be Pretty.

The production runs for 2 hours 10 minutes and is booking until 14th January. Further information at the Almeida website.

Monday 21 November 2011

Theatre Review: Salt, Root and Roe (Trafalgar Studios)

Hamish Pirie’s production of Tim Price’s new play opens the second Donmar at Trafalgar Studios season: a twelve-week residency showcasing the work of the Donmar’s Assistant Directors. Poetic, strange and singular (though The Winter Guest [1995] and Ladies in Lavender [2004] might cross your mind at various points as you watch), Price’s play is a rather lovely thing. And, pitched between domestic realism and dreamscape, Pirie’s production does it full justice. It might have been titled Two Sisters: the focus is on the strong bond between two elderly twins, Iola (Anna Calder-Marshall) and Anest (Anna Carteret), who live in a run-down cottage on the north coast of Pembrokeshire. Iola is an Alzheimer’s sufferer who’s been cared for by Anest for a number of years, a situation that has become increasingly difficult due to Iola’s violent outbursts. A letter suggesting a suicide pact between the pair prompts the arrival of Anest’s daughter Menna (Imogen Stubbs) to the cottage, and the drama focuses upon the interactions between the three women.

Chloe Lamford’s clever womb-ish design and Anna Watson’s lighting bring warmth and atmosphere to a play that combines the mythic and the mundane with ease. Throughout, small incidents are made to vibrate with profound emotion, their resonance accentuated by the intimacy of the space. A mother reaches out to touch the back of her bending daughter. A confused woman’s distress is calmed by the singing of a folk song. An awkward seaside picnic gives way to an elating game of hopscotch. In a moment that may generate a special thrill for some audience members, a mobile phone meets the fate it deserves: boiled in a teapot.

The eccentricities feel honest, earned. And they’re given depth and believability by the actresses. Stubbs sketches Menna’s insecurities with skill, but the evening belongs to Carteret and Calder-Marshall, who deliver as remarkable a pair of performances as you can currently see on a London stage. Sometimes it seems that every new play involving elderly characters (and there aren’t that many really, are there?) must feature an Alzheimer’s sufferer among its number, but Calder-Marshall’s heart-rending performance, moving from warmth to childishness, confusion to anger, takes its place as one of the most realistic depictions of the disease that I’ve ever seen. And Carteret conveys both the selflessness and the frustration of the care-giver just as movingly. There’s nothing even remotely modish about Salt, Root and Roe, and that’s what’s so bracing about it: it’s a deeply humane and touching piece that marks both Price and Pirie out as talents to watch.

One complaint: Roger Evans’s role as the local policeman (and, briefly, the twins’ father) seems an afterthought, and his encounters with Stubbs’s character lack the credence and complexity of the women’s scenes. Mostly, the actor seems to have been employed to do the production’s between-scenes heavy lifting. I was put in mind of Duncan Preston’s remark in Acorn Antiques: The Musical as his disgruntled actor surveyed a chunky-looking bit of scenery that he was expected to shift: “I trained at RADA, not Pickfords.”

The production runs for 1 hour 40 minutes without interval and is booking until 3rd December. Further information here.

Film Review: Weekend (Haigh, 2011)

Beautifully observed characters, nuanced performances, shrewd writing and unobtrusive style are some of the features of Andrew Haigh’s wonderful Weekend (2011), which charts the relationship between two young men, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), who meet in a Nottingham bar and spend two days - before Glen’s departure to the States to study - getting to know each other. Haigh’s second feature, following the documentary, Greek Pete (2009), is a work of remarkable confidence, intelligence and intimacy, and one that feels all of a piece - even the font in which the film’s title appears on the screen is somehow reassuring.

Equal parts talky and tactile (a few sequences demonstrate an Ozon-esque sensitivity to filming the body), Weekend’s closet cousins would appear to be Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). And it may be the movie’s fate to be viewed as a “gay variant” on those films. But the naturalism and believability of Weekend ultimately surpasses that of both of Linklater’s movies, in my view. As the combative Glen and the quieter, more circumspect Russell connect, slowly opening up and sharing, testing each other’s tastes and sensibility, the movie brilliantly conveys the variously frustrating and exhilarating business of getting to know a new person. Small moments suggest wider resonances, and as the two protagonists get to know each other we feel that we’re getting to know them, too, and modifying and changing our judgements. There’s a wonderful complexity to the characterisation here: we’re allowed to perceive Russell and Glen as strong and vulnerable, honest and self-deluding, open and self-absorbed, by turns.

Written, directed and performed from observation (in a way that Brokeback Mountain [2006], say, so very clearly wasn’t, to me) scene after scene here includes recognisable, resonant details, from morning-after etiquette to whether or not to include an “x” in a text message. But nothing feels forced or stressed. Haigh’s funny, sharp, insightful and soulful movie is one of the strongest contemporary-set British films in years - the finest since Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (1999), perhaps. In sum, a great pleasure. More, please.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Theatre Review: Next Time I’ll Sing To You (Orange Tree Theatre)

“I’m not going to bandy existentialism with you!” proclaims one character to another in James Saunders’s Next Time I’ll Sing to You. Unfortunately, bandying existentialism is just what the protagonists of Saunders’s play spend too much time of their time doing. Saunders’s 1963 work was the first play that the Orange Tree’s artistic director Sam Walters ever directed. That and the playwright’s long association with the Orange Tree must explain the appearance of Next Time I’ll Sing to You in the theatre’s 40th anniversary line-up. If only the play itself was up to scratch. Based on the true story of Alexander James Mason, known as the hermit of Great Canfield, the piece is structured as an “investigation” into Mason’s life and his self-imposed ostracism undertaken each evening by four characters - Rudge (Aden Gillett), Meff (Roger Parkins), Dust (Brendan Patricks) and Lizzie (Holly Elmes) - as a self-reflexive inquiry into “the purpose of existence.”

There’s promise in the premise but the spirits of  Pirandello and Beckett loom much too largely in Saunders’s text, in which human interest is swamped by tedious philosophical wittering, bad jokes and endless meta-theatrical commentary. (“You’re holding up the flow of the action.” “I didn’t know there was any.” Ho ho.) Gales of knowing laughter greeted every other utterance on Press Night, but I found myself stifling groans. Anthony Clark’s production boasts committed performances from the cast - with especially good work from Gillett and from Jamie Newall as the Hermit. But their best efforts can’t save this flimsy exercise. It’s billed as “startling and innovative.” Pretentious and derivative would be closer to the mark.

The production runs for 2 hours 10 minutes and is booking until 10 December. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Friday 11 November 2011

Theatre Review: Propeller's Henry V (Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford)

As readers of this blog might be aware, Ed Hall’s Propeller have been responsible for some of the theatre productions that I’ve cherished the most over the past several years, and I’ve travelled far and wide (well, only as far as Guildford, Oxford and Sheffield, actually) to see their work. (See reviews of The Merchant of Venice here, and Richard III and The Comedy of Errors here, here, and here.) The company’s much anticipated 2011/12 tour finds them revisiting two plays that they’ve previously staged in new, recast productions. First up is Henry V, which opened at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre this week, and which was, in fact, the very first play that Hall and company presented back in 1997. (It’s joined in rep by The Winter’s Tale in the New Year.)

With its opening appeals to the audience’s imagination, Henry V seems, in many ways, the ideal play for Propeller, a company defined in part by its inclusive, participatory approach to Shakespeare’s drama. But for me the new production, while boasting some great moments and wonderful details, doesn’t quite achieve the breathtaking inventiveness and richness of texture that’s distinguished their very best work.

First performed in 1599, Henry V is of course one of the history plays that’s proved most enduring in its appeal, and also one of the most adaptable to different historical moments. And our view of its protagonist has shifted more drastically, perhaps, than that of any other Shakespeare character, with Henry moving in the public imagination from hero to war criminal. Made with the encouragement of the British government, Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film played up the play’s rabble-rousing nationalism to create an overt piece of WW2 propaganda that erased any moments in the play that presented Henry negatively. Forty-five years later, Kenneth Branagh’s film approached the play through the prism of Vietnam and the Falklands War, restoring most of the scenes cut by Olivier, but - some critics argued - ultimately endorsing a conservative view of the material that jarred with an apparent “anti-war” stance. Opening in 2003, Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National went full-tilt for Iraq war parallels, with Adrian Lester’s Henry a steely operator who dispatched friend and foe alike with cold efficiency on his route to the conquest of France. In Hytner’s production the orders and threats cut by Olivier weren’t just restored; in a couple of cases, their outcomes were presented on-stage, with Henry himself dispatching his old mucker Bardolph with a bullet to the skull.

Characteristically, Propeller’s approach is less specific and more eccentric than these earlier versions. Hall and his collaborators are masters at creating vivid, often surprising worlds on stage, worlds that work equally as literal spaces and potent metaphors, as their penitentiary-set Merchant and asylum-cum-morgue-set Richard III attested. Michael Pavelka’s design here appears to take the “unworthy scaffold” of the opening Chorus to suggest scaffolding and variously evokes bunker and barracks, parade ground and gym. The opening moments are glorious: the actors, in combat fatigues, take to the stage singing The Pogues's “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” discover a crown in a trunk, launch into the first Chorus, and so begin the play.

Other moments are equally striking, in inimitable Propeller style: the transition to Eastcheap - accomplished with an acoustic singalonga “London Calling” - is superb, while the English-learning scene finds Karl Davies’s wonderful Katherine reclining in a bath-tub as she’s tutored by Chris Myles’s hilariously dead-pan Alice. There seem to be some missed opportunitites for invention, though, while the attempts at Richard III-esque gross-out gore - though justifiable on the grounds of History Play continuity - come off as less effective Richard rehashes rather than dynamic parts of the whole.

Still, the production boasts fine performances from an ensemble made up equally of Propeller newbies and returnees. There’s especially good work from Gunnar Cauthery as a firebrand Dauphin, from Vince Leigh as a vigorous Pistol, and from the expert Robert Hands as Ely and the Constable of France. As a cackling Mistress Quickly Tony Bell - last seen leaving The Comedy of Errors with a sparkler in the sphincter - gets an entrance here that's as memorable as his exit was there; he’s so good that it’s a shame that the part has been cut, and with it, unfortunately, the report of Falstaff’s death and some of the essential context of Henry’s past. (Bell is equally enjoyable as a hearty, leek-brandishing Fluellen, though.)

About Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Henry I’m somewhat unsure: often the actor falls back on an odd singsongy delivery that feels affected; the eve-of-Agincourt soliloquy is taken a tad too fast for my liking; and the Band of Brothers speech a bit too casually. But he’s strong in the "tennis balls" scene and on “Once more unto the breach,” touching when conveying Henry’s pain at the traitors’ betrayal and expressing his shame about how his father secured the crown, convincingly fervent as a God-botherer, and he proves his comic chops in the closing encounter with Katherine. (Although it might be argued that this scene is stolen by Mr. Myles’s reactions.) Though broadly speaking a sympathetic portrayal, what’s admirable about the performance - and indeed the production - is that it doesn’t editorialise excessively on Henry as either hero or villain but allows a range of colours to emerge.

It’s likely that the weight of extremely high expectations may be responsible for my slight sense of disappointment with Propeller’s Henry V.  Nonetheless, the company has produced another entertaining evening here, even if they haven’t come up with an epic vision to equal that of their Richard III for shock and awe.

The production runs for 2 hours 55 minutes, and the interval antics - all in aid of a good cause -  are, as usual, priceless. Full touring information on the Propeller website.   

CD Review: Don't Stop Singing (2011) by Thea Gilmore

The latest album from the prolific Thea Gilmore constitutes a collaboration of a very particular kind. Don’t Stop Singing draws on unfinished manuscripts, poems and other works-in-progress by Sandy Denny, which Gilmore has completed and set to music. It’s the kind of project that, however laudable in theory, seems studded with pitfalls. But, happy to report, the always-enterprising Gilmore has pulled it off with grace, delivering a beautiful and moving album whose songs feel entirely organic, seamless and fresh.

Read the full review at Wears the Trousers.

Monday 7 November 2011

Review: Terence Davies Lecture @ BFI Southbank (5/11/2011)

The appearance of a new film by Terence Davies is an event for many for us, though sadly an all too rare event, the British film industry being what it is. The highly anticipated release of The Deep Blue Sea at the end of the month (which you can barely pass a corner of the BFI without seeing a poster for at the moment; one has now appeared in the men’s toilets!) made Davies an especially appropriate choice to deliver this year’s Colin Young Emeritus Lecture at BFI Southbank. Named in honour of the first director of the National Film and Television School, this lecture series was initiated in 2007 and offers an opportunity for the speaker to reflect on film culture and education; previous presenters have included David Puttman and Nick Broomfield. Davies is, moreover, an alumnus of the NFTS where the second part in what would become the Davies Trilogy, Madonna and Child, was completed in 1980 as his graduation film.

As it turned out, though, this year’s lecture was really a lecture in name only. Rather, it was a selection of clips from a few favourite Davies movies -  The Pajama Game (1957), Gypsy (1962), Sweet Charity (1968), Oklahoma (1955), and - yup - Carry On Nurse (1959) - briefly introduced by the director and Roger Crittenden, and more in line with the BFI’s Screen Epiphanies strand than anything else. Davies began by talking with characteristic reverence about his formative cinema-going experiences, and the transcendence they offered him: “Even now I remember exactly where I sat, the route I took to the cinema…”

The film sequences shown were then loosely connected under the theme of “lost” performers: actors, dancers and singers who gave one memorable performance and then effectively disappeared. So we were treated to Paul Wallace hoofing it up in front of Natalie Wood in Gypsy and Reta Shaw and Eddie Foy Jr duetting to charming effect on "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" in The Pajama Game. Though this conceit didn’t really hold water for several of the featured performers (Charles Hawtrey? Gene Nelson? Really?), the clips themselves were an enjoyable compensation for the shaky premise, and Davies’s sheer unadulterated glee when introducing them (“This is SUBLIME!”) was infectious. Most enjoyable of all was the glorious “Steam Heat” sequence from The Pajama Game (and let’s get this marvellous Marxist musical back on a London stage soon!) and “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” from Gypsy, which sent Davies into transports of joy. The clips are here and here for your pleasure.

Always idiosyncratic, Davies’s idea of a lecture on film culture and education probably wasn’t what anyone - including, it would appear, Mr. Young himself - was anticipating. And more detailed commentary on the performers whose work he wished to highlight would have enhanced the presentation. Even so, this sharing of enthusiasms by our most ardently movie-loving auteur made for an entertaining evening.

Friday 4 November 2011

Concert Review: Tori Amos @ Hammersmith Apollo, London (3/11/2011)

What a pleasure and privilege it remains to see Tori Amos perform live. The second London night on her tour in support of her new album Night of Hunters [review here] saw the great piano lady decamp from the Royal Albert Hall to the  Hammersmith Apollo. The RAH show was by all accounts a great one, but it must be said that the set-list yielded few big surprises, especially for a tour that’s already been noted for its unexpected dips into the depths of the Amos back catalogue. Last night’s show, by contrast, found Amos pulling out several unanticipated songs, placing B-Sides and rarities alongside dyed-in-the-wool classics and the new material, to deliver a typically thrilling evening of musical exorcisms and epiphanies.

Over her many years of live performance, Amos has always found ways to keep her material fresh and vibrant. But the presence on this tour of the esteemed Apollon Musagéte Quartett (aka the Fab Four, aka the Polish Strings Posse), whose contributions are so central to Night of Hunters, has made these shows particularly special. With her Bösendorfer and Yamaha synth accompanied by the energetic, expert playing of Pawel Zalejski and Bartosz Zachold on violins, Piotr Szumiel on viola and Piotr Skweres on cello, Amos is currently out there working in a generation-spanning genre: let’s call it “chamber rock.” Tight as a drum but with space for spontaneity, the show proved, as always with Amos, an emotional rollercoaster, testifying yet again to her phenomenal energy and expressive range as an artist.

The concert began, as per, with an intense, dramatic rendition of Night of Hunters’s sublime opening salvo, “Shattering Sea,” preceded by an extended instrumental opening. The other selections from the new album (just four in total) were also strong, with only “Fearlessness” perhaps not quite matching the recorded version for impact. The NoH highlight for me, though, was an intoxicating performance of that brilliant ten-minute opus “Star Whisperer,” which galvanised from its first marvellously portentous Schubertian chords through the thrilling abandon of the mid-section to the gasp with which Amos finally released the tension at the end. (All that remains now is for Amos and the Quartett to get the album’s other epic, “Battle of Trees,” together in time for the Yanks.)

The new arrangements for the older material were all intriguing, and often startlingly effective. The layered electro-rock songs from from the choirgirl hotel (1998) and To Venus and Back (1999) are daring, ambitious choices for this particular set-up, but the performances were wonderfully accomplished, with the Quartett ably standing in for the drums, synths, bass and guitars of the original renditions, and generally making cello, violin and viola sound like the baddest-ass instruments on the block. A taut yet languid “Suede” and a quicksilver “Spark” were superb, while “Cruel” - already established as perhaps the song of this tour - has become a quite extraordinary thing: a steely incantation, defiant and confessional, with a pivotal line from “Yes, Anastasia” beautifully incorporated into its folds. A furious, cathartic “Precious Things” generated perhaps the strongest response of the night, and I was also especially pleased to hear Abnormally Attracted to Sin’s “Maybe California” and, for the first time live, American Doll Posse’s “Girl Disappearing” (the song to which this blog owes its title).

In the solo spots, Amos unleashed some of her most surprising song choices, including “Ruby Through the Looking Glass” and “Never Seen Blue” (immaculate, both) while the great early B-Side “Ode to the Banana King (Part 1)” made a rare and very welcome apperance. Taken solo on the synth, AATS’s “That Guy” picked up a new level of menace and tension; a cover of “Landslide” arrived like an old friend; and a requested “A Sorta Fairytale” came out equal parts sad and sharp. The encore, preceded by the Quartett's wonderfully vigorous newly-composed piece “A Multitude of Shades,” offered a moving “Carry,” a graceful “Baker Baker,” an urgent “Siren,” and, as concert closer, “Big Wheel”, in its new, rather fetching incarnation as an all-acoustic clapalong hoe-down. A multitude of shades, indeed.

Aside from the wonder of her vocals - still capable of shifting from icy chill to embracing warmth in a moment - and her keyboard skills, there were of course all those priceless little moments that make an Amos performance an Amos performance, whether it’s her half-rising from the piano stool when she hit the “I was talking to you” line in “Fairytale,” or pointing out into the audience as she sang “Devious we all have been” on “Banana King,” a gesture bespeaking acceptance rather than accusation.

I’ve quoted this before in relation to Amos’s live performances but each time I see her it seems more apt: that she has in musical terms what Trevor Nunn says Judi Dench has in acting terms: “the capacity to open herself and become a conduit for all our emotions and experiences and memories.” Clearly energised and challenged by her work with her new collaborators, Amos continues to go as deep as any singer-songwriter has ever gone, it seems to me, carving through her superb song-craft and interpretive skills vivid sketches of our internal dilemmas, the pain of conflict, the consequences of giving up your power, the possibility of its retrieval. “The night is opening,” she sang. And so were we.


Shattering Sea
Landslide (solo)
Ode to the Banana King (Part 1) (solo)
Maybe California
A Sorta Fairytale (solo)
Ruby Through The Looking-Glass (solo)
Never Seen Blue (solo)
Cloud On My Tongue
Girl Disappearing
Star Whisperer
That Guy (solo)
China (solo)
Way Down (solo)
Precious Things
Nautical Twilight


A Multitude of Shades
Baker Baker
Big Wheel

Full tour details here.