Friday 28 December 2012

End of Year Review: Theatre - 10 Favourite Productions of 2012

Long Day's Journey Into Night

I cut down on theatre-going this year, an attempt at dross-dodging that didn’t really pay off, as it happens. Disappointments weren’t avoided, alas, and I can’t honestly say that much that I saw in 2012 really made me go “Wow!!!” as a number of productions last year certainly did. (Here’s last year’s list, for the record.) Apart from Jamie Lloyd’s irresistible She Stoops to Conquer, the National Theatre proved a let-down every time I did go in a hopeful mood, first with Nicholas Hytner’s straining-for-relevance Timon of Athens then with Stephen Beresford’s shallow 60s-baiting dysfunction-fest The Last of the Haussmans and finally with Alan Bennett’s drafty whinge, People. (Here’s hoping that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I’m excited to see when it transfers, is the one to stem the tide.) Shows elsewhere that I’d have been happier to have skipped include the RSC’s shrill and entirely charm-free The Taming of the Shrew, the witless Neighbourhood Watch, Relatively Speaking and Dandy Dick, Headlong’s muddled Medea and the weirdly static The Judas Kiss. And while I accept that there could be a parallel world in which I shared the love for Nick Payne’s much-admired Constellations, I’m afraid that in this universe the play seemed to me a mediocre and wildly overrated wee thing, Love Story filtered through Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges with a honey-comb shaped lump of Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy on the side.

Still, my whinge over, let’s try to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive here, after all. For 2012 did boast several shows that either met or surpassed expectations, as well as some pleasant surprises too, especially on the ever-inventive fringe. In no particular order I’ve rounded up what meant the most to me below, productions which have, in a couple of cases, grouped themselves into pairs this time around.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Richmond, & Apollo)
The most personal of all “family” plays received a great staging by Anthony Page that, while not matching Robin Philips’s 2000 production for ghostly ambience, nonetheless dug just as deeply into the pain and poignancy of O’Neill’s magnum opus, written, as the playwright claimed, “in tears and blood.” Beautiful, beautiful work from David Suchet (by far the most sympathetic James Tyrone of the three I’ve seen), explosive Trevor White and soulful Kyle Soller, while Laurie Metcalf - back on the London boards for the first time since 2001 - delivered a performance to match her unforgettable turn in the NT’s All My Sons for disturbing intensity and haunting power. (How’s about a comedy next time, though, Ms Metcalf?) This quartet made Page’s production an incredible Journey, indeed. Full review here.

The Winter’s Tale (Propeller/Sheffield)
Patience (Union)
While generating the usual critical flack in some quarters (see my interview with Propeller’s Chris Myles for a counter-argument) all-male productions proved quite the rage in 2012. Time will tell whether the Donmar’s very exciting all-female Julius Caesar (more of which anon) will herald an evening up of the score or not, but in the meantime two of these productions delighted this spectator. First up, and paired with their solid but somewhat disappointing Henry V, Propeller were on peak form with a Winter’s Tale that embraced the dizzying tonal shifts of Shakespeare’s genre-bending late romance. The company’s funny, moving staging suggested a mixture of self-made adult nightmare and child’s playtime dream-world at will, while the perfectly-judged ending haunted and startled, providing a memorable sting to this Tale. And as a rock God Autolycus the incomparable Tony Bell was a perfect cutpurse MC, by turns arthritic and spry, strewing thongs and condoms. At the teeny Union, meanwhile, Patience proved a virtue in Sasha Regan’s staging of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta. With a lovely woodland set by Kingsley Hall, spry choreography from Drew McOnie and costumes that suggested the raiding of a Laura Ashley shop, Regan’s production looked as good as it sounded. The silliness of the proceedings was enthusiastically embraced by all, but the intimacy of the space gave a surprising emotional undertow to certain moments, even if each expression of “genuine” emotion didn’t go long before receiving some ironic twist or counterpoint. Dominic Brewer and Stiofàn O’Doherty were great value as the vain competing wordsmiths, and, as Patience, Edward Charles Bernston, vacillated adorably between the pair, with a beguiling touch of purring Joan Greenwood to his dulcet delivery. Full reviews here and here.

Cornelius (Finborough)
Hindle Wakes (Finborough)
Aww. To paraphrase an artist I’m quite keen on: I get a little warm in my heart when I think of Cornelius. Sam Yates’s exquisite revival of J.B. Priestley’s vivid portrait of between-the-wars office life was spot-on in every department, its perfect ensemble crowned - yet not swamped - by Alan Cox’s dynamic star turn in the title role. Of almost equal appeal was Bethan Dear’s production of Stanley Houghton’s 1913 play Hindle Wakes which, while lacking the emotional depth of Cornelius, also proved a most delightful thing, an evening full of humour, insight and warmth, that delivered the play’s elements of social critique with disarming lightness and charm rather than stridency. Full reviews here and here.

All That Fall (Jermyn Street)
“Tis suicide to be abroad.” Well, perhaps. But not if one had the good fortune to be witnessing Trevor Nunn’s superb production of Samuel Beckett’s 1956 radio play. Composed between Godot and Endgame, reflecting the former and anticipating the latter, Beckett’s portrait of an Irishwoman’s trek to collect her spouse from the station became, in Nunn’s production, at once comedy, tragedy and odyssey, with some great visual vaudeville and performances from Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon that were everything you could wish for. Very special. Full review here.

Julius Caesar (Donmar)
Phyllida Lloyd’s lean 'n' hungry production may have nabbed its prison-setting premise from the Taviani brothers’ somewhat subtler Caesar Must Die but at least it had the decency to add a significant twist, locating the action in a women’s prison not a men’s. Despite some rum notions – the baby-doll Soothsayer; that doggy moment – and a couple of not-quite-adequate performances, the results proved thrilling. Lloyd and her cast punched the play home with a potency and urgency missing (for me) from the RSC’s well-received Africa-set version. Harriet Walter started in customary affected-voice mode but gradually deepened to become a truly moving Brutus; Cush Jumbo delivered “Friends, Romans, countymen” better than I’ve heard anyone else do it; Jenny Jules commanded as Cassius, and Frances Barber made an absolutely extraordinary, hearty and haunting Caesar-cum-warder, responding to a sublimely-staged stalls-stabbing with surely the most ferocious “Et tu, Brute?” ever heard. More!

The Lady From The Sea (Rose)
Hedda Gabler (Old Vic)
Ibsenites weren’t stinted on high-quality productions this year. Carrie Cracknell’s A Doll’s House at the Young Vic would probably be most people’s choice, but while I loved it, some weak supporting performances and a second half that didn’t quite deliver on the promise of the first just keeps it off the list for me. Instead I’m going to opt for Stephen Unwin’s expert production of The Lady From the Sea, with Joely Richardson commanding and moving as Ellida, and Anna Mackmin’s superb Hedda Gabler which fully erased the memory of Richard Eyre’s shrill production back in 2005, presenting its frustrated, ever-pacing heroine (great Sheridan Smith) in a series of cages and cells with only one possible means of escape.

Directors Showcase (Orange Tree Theatre)
2012’s Orange Tree season surprised and pleased not so much with its rediscoveries, as often, but rather with some engaging new work, both from veterans (Martin Crimp’s Play House) and young bloods (Archie W Maddocks’s riots-inspired Mottled Lines). Best of the OT bunch, for me, was this year’s fine Directors Showcase which offered a confounding yet strangely complementary triple-bill of diverse pieces that anatomised a range of societal divisions, first amusingly then horrifyingly. The evening opened comfortably enough with Karima Setohy’s pleasing production of St. John Hankin’s proto-Home Alone escapade The Burglar Who Failed then segued brilliantly into an infinitely more discomforting home invasion scenario in Omar El-Khairy’s chilling Return to Sender and climaxed with Polina Kalinina’s fierce and stinging rendering of Amiri Baraka’s rarely-seen race relations parable Dutchman. I was also very keen on Sam Walters’s beautiful and much underrated production of Ana Diosdado’s Yours for the Asking. Reviews here and here.

Special mention:

Blood Brothers (Phoenix)
Tell me it’s not true! Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers finally ended its rather lengthy West End engagement this year, and I’m so happy that I got the chance to see it beforehand. The performance I went to - happening in our so-called summer of sport - was woefully underattended (the stalls about a quarter full) but discomfort soon become delight as the connection between performers and audience proved so strong as to create a very special and appropriate ambience for this most intimately scaled and most humane of musicals. The matinee turned magical, and ended up as one of my favourite theatre memories of 2012. Full review.

Honourable mentions: King Lear (Almeida), She Stoops to Conquer (National Theatre), Sweeney Todd (Chichester/Adelphi), In the Republic of Happiness (Royal Court), A Doll’s House (Young Vic), Oedipussy (Lyric Hammersmith), Mottled Lines (Orange Tree)

Disappointments, duds: The Taming of the Shrew (RSC), The House of Bernarda Alba (Almeida), The Drawer Boy (Finborough), Dandy Dick (Richmond), Let it Be (Prince of Wales), Relatively Speaking (Richmond), People (National Theatre)

Thursday 27 December 2012

End of Year Review: Music - 10 Favourite Albums of 2012

Skulk, Jim Moray
Jim Moray has shown numerous glimpses of greatness over the years without producing an album that quite brought together his varied influences into a completely satisfying whole. Until Skulk, that is. Encompassing songs as old as the Child-collected “woodland rapist” ballad “Hind Etin” and as new as “If It’s True” from Anaïs Mitchell’s wonderful Hadestown (one of my favourite albums of 2010, by the way), the choice of material is superb, the arrangements fresh with space for idiosyncrasy (dig that scratchy, snuffly noise that ushers in the absolutely exquisite rendering of “Lord Douglas”), the body count satisfyingly high, and Moray has seldom been in more commanding voice. The influence of the revival Greats - Nic Jones, June Tabor, John Martyn, Martins Carthy and Simpson (and the appearance of their collaborators including Tim Harries and Andy Cutting) - connects the record firmly to the tradition. But with Moray operating his amazing arsenal of instruments, and indulging in some seamless and well-judged adaptations of the texts where he sees fit the results feel entirely distinctive, as the music shifts dynamically from acoustic intimacy to widescreen orchestral flourish. And who anticipated a Fleetwood Mac cover which Moray pulls off nicely with his roaring Banjo-led take on “Big Love”? Meanwhile, the heroine’s final declaration to her lover on the jolliest offering here, “The Golden Glove,” proves that their still ain’t no euphemism like folk-song euphemism. Way to go. Concert review here.

Sing the Delta, Iris DeMent
Good things come to those who wait, after all. My review of the long-anticipated Sing The Delta can be read here.

2, Mac DeMarco
The year’s most disarmingly laidback albums came courtesy of this here talented young Canadian. Mr. De Marco built on the promise of his debut Rock and Roll Night Club with a second record whose drifting guitar-lines, lo-fi grooves and woozy, nicotine-stained jams proved entirely beguiling. The standout song “Ode to Viceroy” (a love note to his favourite cigarette brand) sounds like the soundtrack to an Aki Kaurismaki film waiting to happen.

Born to Die, Lana Del Rey
“It’s alarming, truly, how disarming you can be,” coos Ms. Del Rey on “Carmen.” Well said. I find this Lynchian wet dream of an album to be a true guilty pleasure: dubious sentiments wrapped in slick, endlessly seductive arrangements and more killer choruses than you can shake a very big stick at. I can’t resist. Can you?

The Haunted Man, Bat For Lashes
There were a couple of songs I liked on both of Natasha Khan’s previous records but overall neither added up to the sum of their parts for me. Though still never quite becoming the narrative it seems to desire to be The Haunted Man bests both of Khan’s earlier efforts with stronger songs, more direct emotional appeal and less mystic shtick. No American accent fakery, neither.

Tempest, Bob Dylan
The unseemly over-reverence that accompanies any Dylan release these days - “Bob should get five stars just for being Bob” slavered one over-effusive fan-boy reviewer at the time of Tempest’s release - can grate, and after the badly sung kitsch of Christmas in the Heart I wasn’t too sure I wanted to hear another album by His Bobness again, to be honest. But, ever confounding, Dylan followed one of his worst-ever albums with one of his most accomplished recent efforts. Much livelier than Leonard Cohen’s rather laborious Old Ideas, Tempest proves winning throughout, with gorgeously long songs and swinging, swaying roots-rock instrumentation, adding up to Dylan’s most elegant and best-structured work since Time Out of Mind. Even the unpromising closing Lennon tribute “Roll On John” comes off. In short, more than enough great stuff to suggest there’s life in the old Bob yet.

Mirage Rock, Band of Horses
If, around 1975, The Eagles, The Band and Neil Young had formed a super-group then I do believe that the resulting album would have sounded something like Band of Horses’s Mirage Rock, a record that, with Glyn Johns on production duties, gleefully connects back to a musical era that I’d have been very happy to live in. By turns woozy and sturdy, punchy and delicate, the title says it all.

These Old Dark Hills, Robin and Linda Williams
For all its depths and splendours, Iris DeMent’s album didn’t do some things that I expected it to do. With its spirited picking and twanging, heart-warming harmonies and inimitably sympathetic Jim Rooney production, Robin and Linda Williams’s These Old Dark Hills fills those gaps with effortless, timeless grace, and material from sources including Tennyson and Springsteen. The year’s friendliest album? By a country mile.

Elysium, Pet Shop Boys
PSB never meant that much to me when I was discovering pop music as a kid in the 1980s (they weren't produced by Stock Aitken and Waterman, you see...) but I’ve come to love and admire their work more and more as the years have gone on. I wouldn’t say that Elysium ranks as one of the duo’s finest albums (there’s that Olympics uplift song for a start…) but it’s a lovely, accomplished return that features several great tracks. In addition: it’s part of the magic of music that sometimes a certain song will come along and express exactly the thing you needed to hear at exactly the moment you needed to hear it. That happened to me on a train ride home listening to the penultimate track on Elysium – the portentous yet twinkling “Everything Means Something” – and the memory of that moment makes this record particularly special for me.

Gold Dust, Tori Amos
I gave Amos’s orchestral opus a pretty hard time in my review and I still feel that the album is a significant disappointment that plays it way too safe in terms of its approach to the songs and is very far from the creative reinvention it could’ve been. And yet. This record includes so many songs that have affected me so deeply - and continue to do so - that to leave it off this round-up would be not only ungrateful but… silly. For a less reverent response check out this hilarious bit of YouTube-ery.

Dancefloor: “Starships” (Nicki Minaj), “Payphone” (Maroon 5).

From last year: The King is Dead (The Decemberists), Panic of Girls (Blondie)

Friday 21 December 2012

Theatre Review: Sauce for the Goose (Orange Tree)

Photo: Robert Day

If it’s Christmas at the Orange Tree, then it must be (doorless!) farce. And if it’s farce, then it must be Feydeau. Well, not necessarily, in fact, for the OT have looked beyond the repertoire of France’s principal farceur in recent years, with Hennequin and Delacour’s Once Bitten in 2010 and – best of all – the English writer John Maddison Morton’s Three Farces in 2011. But for this year Sam Walters and company have returned to Feydeau and the playwright’s 1896 play Le Dindon (The Turkey/Sauce for the Goose), which the theatre first staged in 1987. Those of us who hold none-too-fond memories of Richard Eyre’s misbegotten revival of A Flea in Her Ear a couple of years ago might flinch at the prospect of more Feydeau even now. And I can’t say that Walters’s production entirely assuaged my doubts about the validity of the playwright’s eminence. Still, though overlong, it’s a considerably more attractive proposition than was Eyre’s Flea with a few comic high spots and some finely orchestrated moments of mania.

The plot centres - no surprise here - on frustrated philanderings. Pontagnac (David Antrobus) pursues Lucienne (Beth Cordingly) who turns out to be the wife of his old friend Vatelin (Stuart Fox). Lucienne has an admirer in the reprobate Redillon, but is refusing his advances as long as her husband is faithful to her. It turns out that he hasn’t been, though, and the arrival of Vatelin’s strident German lover Heidi (Rebecca Egan) and her effusive spouse Soldignac (Jonathan Tafler) gives the plot a much-needed fillip, with all of the characters ending up at the Hotel Ultimus, where the guests include an army doctor Pinchard (Vincent Brimble) and his deaf wife (Auriol Smith). A cup of strychnine and an alarmed bed add to the larks.

The structure of Sauce for the Goose adheres to what appears to be the Feydeau formula: a laboured set-up, a manic middle, a let-down end. As in Flea, the targets often seem questionable and those with a low tolerance for funny foreigner gags and disability-mocking (a speech impediment in Flea; deafness here) would be well advised to steer clear. But although Walters’s production would benefit from tightening and tweaking – at an hour and forty five minutes, the first half is way too long, for starters – it has enjoyable moments throughout. Indeed, it’s some of the least promising elements that actually prove the funniest: I laughed the hardest at the German characters and at the Pinchards’s exploits - with Egan and Tafler, Brimble and Smith, delivering perfectly pitched performances in each case.

Indeed, most of Walters’s cast – many of them fresh from Antrobus’s production of Ibsen’s Love's Comedy - acquit themselves well, and Peter Meyer’s translation is spry line by line (a quibble on “dogging” and “hounding” is especially choice). For me, though, Feydeau’s plays lack charm and insight and are never as intricately or cleverly worked out as their reputation would suggest. Sauce for the Goose proves a pleasant enough diversion and the audience certainly seemed to be having a good time throughout, but it’s not an evening to convert the farce averse.

Booking until 2nd February. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Monday 17 December 2012

End of Year Review: Cinema - 15 Favourite Films of 2012

Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)

With just a few notable exceptions, the movies that meant the most to me in 2012 weren’t those concerning my own generation but rather those focusing on children, teens or the elderly confronting ordeals of various sorts. And, in a terrifically rich film year, no work meant more than Haneke’s distilled, devastating Amour. I opened my heart about the movie here and I don’t think I can honestly say more about it, yet. Except that the critical discourse that’s started to surround the film in some quarters - “a weepie for posh people,” “On Golden Pond directed by Hitler” (that last courtesy of Bret Easton Ellis) - can make you feel as sorrowful as the movie itself, in some ways.

Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

“Ah! as the heart grows older/It will come to such sights colder…” Named not for its heroine but in reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s aching 1880 poem “Spring and fall (to a young child),” Lonergan’s absolutely terrific, sharp but soulful post-9/11 New York drama - belatedly released after a lengthy studio battle - absorbs the viewer completely over its generous running time. As the student whose involvement in a fatal traffic accident results in a moral quagmire, Anna Paquin captivates as she hasn’t since The Piano way back when. But what I admire most about Margaret is the way it holds such a diverse range of characters in balance and focus, and often threatens to spin off into a passer-by’s story too, creating as rich a tapestry of interaction in the contemporary city as has been seen in many a long year. A favourite moment (of many): Kieran Culkin (splendidly louche and seriously messin’ with our Home Alone memories) describing his recent activity: “Watching some questionable movies and deciding where to go to college.”

The Kid With A Bike (dir. Dardennes)

It feels right to place together these indelible childhood portraits in which two dogged pre-teens negotiate fraught, unsatisfying family situations. By coincidence, my two favourite endings of the year, too. Reviews here and here.

Hot-wired to their creators film-fed fantasies, the years most mercurial movie mind-fucks came courtesy of Guy Maddin and Leos Carax, the former with a self-consciously haunted and haunting ghosts-and-gangsters opus that gradually takes possession of the equal-parts beguiled and bewildered viewer, the latter with an audacious meditation on identity and performance featuring a stunning vaudeville turn from Denis Lavant.  Amen! Reviews here and here.

Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)

“As fluffy and playful as a two-week-old kitten cuddling candyfloss” was one commentator’s verdict on Moonrise Kingdom. Is that actually the case, though? Notwithstanding the surface cuteness, the deadpan delivery and the gorgeously quirky design (including perhaps the year’s most brilliantly integrated soundtrack) I think there’s plenty of pain underpinning Anderson’s marvellous elopement odyssey, in which two teens devise a getaway plan that's every bit  as intricate in its design as the movie itself. You're a hero, Master Shakusky.

About Elly (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

The success of A Separation (which made my list last year, of course) finally ensured a belated British cinema release for Asghar Farhadi’s 2009 film, a gripping and gruelling cautionary tale for meddlers in which the disappearance of the title character during a friends’ weekend at the Caspian Sea ends up embroiling the group in a web of evasions and lies. Even richer than A Separation? I’d say so.

Beloved (Les bien aimes) (dir. Christophe Honoré)
There wasn’t a whole lotta love around for Christophe Honoré’s globe-trotting mother-daughter musical saga which most critics seemed to regard as a silly, indulgent folly that the director lost control of. Starting as spry, colourful Demy homage, ending in unsettlingly bleak terrain, I found Beloved’s zips between styles and modes exhilarating and there are sequences in this movie that have stayed with me vividly in the many months since I saw it. Full review here.

Shell (dir. Scott Graham)
As yet unreleased, Graham’s beautifully assured and bracingly atmospheric debut explores the frustrations and the comforts of entrapment through a tense father-daughter relationship in the Scottish Highlands. The movie's bleak look and tone are subverted by a redemptive finale that blindsides the viewer. Full review here.

Ginger and Rosa (dir. Sally Potter)

Ending with the beginning of a poem, Sally Potter’s earnest saga of 60s British radicalism doesn't have the elements of formal daring that have distinguished her best work. But this merging of teen angst, family melodrama, protest and politics is illuminated by a performance of heart-melting gorgeousness by Elle Fanning.

The Artist (dir. Hazanavicius)
The backlash was inevitable, I suppose,  but Hazanavicius’s adorable cine-homage remains one of the happiest memories of 2012 movie-going for me. Full review.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

Simon Killer (dir. Antonio Campos)

Bravo, Borderline boys. Two discomforting, twitchily intense dramas from the creative collective formed by NYC alums Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin and Josh Mond. Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene zips backwards and forwards in time, concealing and disclosing, as it explores a young woman’s experience with a cult, while Campos’s Simon Killer plops its dumped and deluded protagonist down in the City of Light and into two relationships that gradually reveal the extent of his psychosis. Along with Lonergan’s movie, this pairing’s enough to make you hopeful for the future of serious-minded US cinema, after all.

In the House (dir. Francois Ozon)

It’s a funny thing about Ozon’s latest, an exploration of fiction-making that, like his Sitcom before it, riffs around Pasolini’s Theorem to its own cheeky ends. I was constantly absorbed, riveted, delighted, moved and amused whilst watching it and yet the movie hasn’t really resonated in my mind the way some of the director’s other work has. I put this down to film fest overload, though, and include the movie on this list in the hope of a rewatch sometime soon, and a reassurance that this is indeed - as I felt straight after the screening - one of Ozon’s finest, deepest offerings to date.

Enigma: The Master (dir. Anderson)

Honourable mentions: Tall as the Baobab Tree (dir. Teicher), Laurence Anyways (dir. Dolan), Le Havre (dir. Kaurismaki), Caesar Must Die (dir. Tavianis), Like Someone in Love (dir. Kiarostami), Imagine (dir. Jakimowski)

Disappointments, duds: The Players (dir. Dujardin and other culprits), War Horse (dir. Spielberg), Rust and Bone (dir. Audiard), Everyday (dir. Winterbottom), What Richard Did (dir. Abrahamson), Blood (dir. Murphy), Take This Waltz (final 20 minutes excepted) (dir. Polley)