Thursday 27 September 2012

Film Review: Holy Motors (Carax, 2012)

The old “identity-as-performance” and “world-as-a-stage” chestnut gets a fresh wild spin in Holy Motors, the audacious new provocation from Leos Carax that thrilled and killed at Cannes back in May and that now reaches British shores with a considerable weight of expectation. Consistently confounding, endlessly - perhaps excessively - inventive, Holy Motors is the walking definition of an acquired taste, out-doing even Guy Maddin’s Keyhole as the year’s most mercurial movie mind-fuck, even if it fails to win its way through to the emotional ambush that Maddin’s ghosts-and-gangsters opus managed to achieve - for this viewer, at least. Still, for all its indulgences, longueurs and elements that feel less like ideas than affectations, Holy Motors proves an indelible experience and one whose heady and perverse pleasures I hope that British audiences will embrace - including those lured in solely by the (somewhat over-hyped) appearance of the nation’s favourite Aussie.

Conceptually, the movie is a cinephile wet dream, riffing around French and American film history from Etienne-Jules Marey’s early scientific human-movement studies to cutting-edge CGI as it traces a day in the life of (the rather cutely-monikered) Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant). (Why not Monsieur César, non?) Driven around Paris in a stretch limo by the unflappable Céline (Edith Scob), with the car serving as his dressing-room-cum-sanctuary of sorts, Oscar is given a series of “assignments” to fill out his day. These involve him venturing into the real world [sic!] in a variety of guises, from elderly beggar-woman to concerned père, motion-capture cipher to hair-munching sewer-sprite. In between these duties, Oscar waxes philosophical with a shady geezer (Michel Piccoli) and meets an old flame, Jean (Kylie Minogue), who - like him; like all of us? - has her own separate set of performative assignments to fulfil. Full review at Kubrick on the Guillotine.

Monday 24 September 2012

Theatre Review: Let It Be (Prince of Wales Theatre)

And tonight, Matthew, they’re gonna be The Beatles… That’s more or less the tone of Let It Be, the latest off-the-production-line, zip-through-the-hits jukebox musical/tribute show to make its way into London’s West End. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band (whose first single “Love Me Do” was released in October 1962), Let It Be is, I’d suggest, very much the kind of show that you know whether or not you’re going to enjoy before stepping into the auditorium. It’s a slick package of Fab Four choons strung together without anything as distracting as even the semblance of a narrative to get in the way of the music. It does exactly what it says on the tin - no less, and certainly no more. But whether that’s really quite enough to justify West End ticket prices is, I think, highly debatable.

For, though billed as an interactive “multi-media extravaganza,” Let It Be actually takes a rather simple - even basic - approach; it’s the type of show that seems not so much to have been directed as merely assembled. The touted multi-media element consists, in fact, of just two screens flanking the stage and some projections; on the former, before the show begins, one can tests one’s Beatles knowledge by answering such teasers as “What was John’s middle name?” and “Who played keyboards on Let It Be?” (So that’s the interactive element taken care of, then.) Later, the screens serve to offer some - decidedly sketchy - context to the group’s rise via clips of the usual shorthand 60s signifiers (Flower Power, Vietnam, Twiggy), as well as vintage ads and some animations.

The show proper opens not with The Beatles in the Cavern Club, as might be expected, but rather with them performing “She Loves You” in - yes - the Prince of Wales Theatre as part of the 1963 Royal Variety Performance; it’s one of the wittier touches in a production that’s otherwise notably short on them. From there on, it’s a mostly linear skip through thirty or so of the most familiar Beatles tracks, with Ian B. Garcia, Michael Gagliano, John Brosnan and Phil Martin - four of the eight actors alternating these roles - ripping energetically through the songs and offering their best impersonations of Paul, John, George and Ringo respectively. Since between-song chatter is kept to an absolute minimum, the quartet don’t have much opportunity to develop personalities, but they’re all clearly capable performers, with Garcia’s Macca-ish nods and shakes and Gagliano’s wry Lennon-isms especially winning.

A tender “Blackbird,” a beautiful, dreamy “Strawberry Fields Forever” and a sensational “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are among the standout performances. But my problem with Let It Be isn’t just the flagrant and unsubtle ways in which the show presents the Beatles as icons of Britishness - the poster situating them within the Union Jack, no less, and (oh dear) red, white and blue lighting used for some of the musical numbers - but the fact that the production is so conventional and complacent in its design.

Was it too much to hope that the show would do something really creative with the group’s music - something along the lines of Cirque de Soleil’s Love or Julie Taymor’s film Across The Universe, say? I think not, and the playing-it-safe approach that’s been taken in Let It Be becomes slightly dispiriting as the evening goes on. (Visually, the show’s idea of innovation is the horrid kitschy cartoons used to illustrate “Eleanor Rigby.”) At the very least, some more left-field song choices wouldn’t have gone amiss. About the only track that comes as a surprise is “A Day in the Life,” and it proves to be one of the finest moments of the evening, a really superb closer to the first half, dynamically delivered. Since the performers are clearly adept at handling the group’s more complex material, it’s a shame that Curatolo and his collaborators have chosen to take so few chances with the show and to create something that feels so impersonal, and such a risk-averse nostalgia-fest, overall.

The music that is here still has its wonderful variety and vibrancy, of course, and it still proves capable of generating intense happiness; doubtless you won’t be able to resist “na-na-na-na-na-na-na”-ing along to “Hey Jude” at the end. But songs so good - and so familiar - deserve a more considered and creative theatrical approach, meaning that Let It Be ends up as proficient entertainment that could’ve been so much more. And whether you’re prepared to shell out up to £60 for what is, essentially, a glorified Stars in Their Eyes special will be very much down to the extent of your own Beatlemania to determine.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. Booking until 19th January 2013. Website here.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

Last 10 Things Seen in the Theatre Meme #7

In the meme time...

List the last 10 things you saw at the theatre in order

1. Let It Be (Prince of Wales Theatre)
2. The Sacred Flame (Rose, Kingston)
3. The Last of the Haussmans (National Theate)
4. Hindle Wakes (Finborough)
5. Timon of Athens (National Theatre)
6. King Lear (Almeida)
7. Yours For The Asking (Orange Tree)
8. Morning (Lyric Hammersmith)
9. Kissing Sid James (Jermyn Street)
10. Vieux Carré (Charing Cross Theatre)

Who was the best performer in number one (Let It Be)?
Ian B. Garcia gives very good Paul.

Why did you go to see number two (The Sacred Flame)?

Can you remember a line/lyric from number three (The Last of the Haussmans) that you liked?
It’s a play full of quippy lines, most of which I found more glib than insightful. But I quite liked Helen McCrory snapping “This isn’t Terms of Endearment!” And Rory Kinnear’s Grace Jones comparison.

What would you give number four (Hindle Wakes) out of 10?
A sterling 8.

Was there someone hot in number five (Timon Of Athens)?
If there’s ever a right time to confess an SRB crush, then I guess that now is that time.

What was number six (King Lear) about?
EVERYTHING. Or, "Nothing."

Who was your favourite actor in number seven (Yours For The Asking)?
Steven Elder.

What was your favourite bit in number eight (Morning)?
Well, my favourite element was the excellent music by Michael Czepiel  which added tension and excitement to several moments.

Would you see number nine (Kissing Sid James) again?
Enjoyed it, but once was enough.

What was the worst thing about number ten (Vieux Carre)?
That the play itself is like lots of bits of earlier (and better) Tennessee Williams plays jammed together.

Which was best?
Toss up between King Lear, Hindle Wakes and Yours For the Asking.

Which was worst?
Let It Be is lazy. The more I thought about Morning the less I liked it. And while there were scattered good moments in each, Timon and Haussmans were significant disappointments to me.

Did any make you cry?
King Lear, Yours For the Asking.

Did any make you laugh?
Most of them, at some point.

Which roles would you like to play in any of them?
The wheel is come full circle! The mischief-making Edmond in King Lear, always. One of my favourite roles in Shakespeare.

Which one did you have best seats for?
Yours For The Asking, Hindle Wakes.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Theatre Review: The Sacred Flame (Rose, Kingston)

As with the work of a number of early 20th century dramatists, the plays of W. Somerset Maugham have fallen out of fashion in recent years, the occasional revival of The Circle or The Letter notwithstanding. Believing that there is “a real snobbery in some of our theatres towards writers such as Maugham,” the industrious Matthew Dunster has set about putting this situation to rights, with a production of Maugham’s 1928 work The Sacred Flame for English Touring Theatre. A controversial piece in its day, Maugham’s play has been pretty much forgotten since a late 1960s revival starring Gladys Cooper. Dunster’s striking, though erratically acted, production makes a good case for the play, even if it can’t quite redeem some of the more problematic assumptions underpinning the piece.

A WWI hero, Maurice Tabret has been severely disabled following an accident. Bed-ridden, he’s attended to by an all-female coterie: his mother, his wife Stella and a very dedicated nurse. But then Maurice dies suddenly. His doctor suggests that heart failure was the cause, but the nurse suspects foul play, pointing the finger of suspicion at the family members and questioning their attitude to the dead man.

From this conventional whodunnit premise, Maugham fashions a drama that touches on a range of surprisingly resonant issues, including one of our very favourite media hot potatoes: euthanasia. At times, one senses the playwright congratulating himself for his own daring, though - truth be told - the play now seems a very strange mixture of the radical and the reactionary.

Of all the text’s slaps in the face to conventional morality, the prioritising of female sexual desire over traditional care-taking duty is certainly challenging. But for all the generousness and sympathy of Maugham’s vision - “Love comes and goes, and none of us can help ourselves,” muses one character, while another proclaims that “We’re none of us all-of-a-piece … not one self but half a dozen” - there’s a rather uncomfortable attitude to disability expressed in the piece, which seems absolutely unable to conceive of an “invalid” enjoying any kind of sexual life at all, and thereby becoming merely an object of “pity” to his partner.

Despite the murky undertones of this, Dunster’s production grips and intrigues. The action, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, unfolds on a sparse white set by Anna Fleischle that strips away “the chintz and chaise longue” approach that the director believes to be part of many people’s barriers to Maugham. And while the production is hardly swamped by effects, the opening is hypnotically strange and beautiful. To the tinkling strains of a plaintive jazz version of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (yes, really) we observe the actors quietly taking their places and stagehands dressing the set.

If anything, the production could have used more of these innovations. Some scenes turn static - the actors are parked around delivering revelations like they’re in an Agatha Christie play - and some of the performances aren’t all that they could have been. The most originally-conceived character by far is Maurice’s mother, Mrs. Tabret - a prototype Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India, I’d suggest - whose reactions give the play its biggest surprises. Margot Leicester brings understated grace and some saving wry humour to this role, and provides the production with all of its most memorable and moving moments.

She does this, it must be said, without a great deal of help from the rest of the cast. Beatriz Romilly’s Stella lacks allure and keeps bursting into fake-looking, shoulder-heaving sobs. Sarah Churm starts meekly and then turns shrill as the righteous Nurse Wayland. Al Nedjari clumps about as the doctor who doesn’t want a scandal to sabotage his burgeoning practice, and David Ricardo-Pearce is barely there as Maurice’s brother. As Major Liconda - onetime beau of Mrs. T - Robert Demeger has some effective scenes. But all the male roles feel underwritten by Maugham, with the exception of Maurice who sadly exits the play after Act 1 (though is - brilliantly - kept visible for the remainder of the action in this production). A double shame as Jamie De Courcey is the only cast member who gives a performance that's a match for Leicester’s wonderful turn.

The Sacred Flame is a flawed play, and Dunster’s production doesn’t entirely overcome its imperfections. But there’s more than enough of interest here to make this a very welcome revival that’s well worth the journey into zone 6 - or elsewhere - to see.

Touring to:

26-29 September Northern Stage, Newcastle
2-6 October Oxford Playhouse
9–13 October New Wolsey, Ipswich
16–20 October Liverpool Playhouse
23–27 October Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford
30 October–3 November Theatre Royal Brighton
13–17 November The Nuffield, Southampton
20–24 November Cambridge Arts Theatre

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Monday 17 September 2012

CD Review: Gold Dust (Tori Amos, 2012)

Trailer (aka shameless plug): To celebrate the release of her new album Gold Dust, PopMatters will be presenting an exclusive week-long Performer Spotlight series on Tori Amos next month, edited by Matt Mazur and Joe Vallese and including some contributions from yours truly. Here’s my take on Gold Dust, in the meantime.

With Gold Dust, her second record for Deutsche Grammophon in just over a year, the metamorphosis of Tori Amos into a bona fide classical artiste continues apace. The ever-industrious Amos’s last album, Night of Hunters (2011) (which I swooned over, at length, here), was one of her finest achievements to date, a thrilling, immersive long night’s journey into day that riffed delicately and dynamically on a wide range of classical pieces to become its own entirely Amos-stamped entity, one involving personas and myths, a relationship on the rocks, and personal power lost and regained. By making her the first female artist to have a record in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Classical, Alternative and Rock charts simultaneously, the album elevated the genre-defying Amos to the place where she’s always, really, belonged, while the shows that she performed to accompany the album’s release - in the company of the brilliant Apollon Musagéte Quartett, aka the Polish Strings Posse - were entirely stunning.

The momentum generated by the awesomeness of Night of Hunters carries over to the release of Gold Dust, a record which, a whopping 20 years on from the release of Little Earthquakes, finds Amos in fittingly reflective mood, teaming with the Netherlands-based Metropole Orchestra to re-record fourteen of her songs in orchestral settings. The origins of the project lie in the one-off show that Amos played with the Metropole in October 2010, a concert that was well-received but that apparently left Amos herself a little disappointed. With the epic Night of Hunters under her belt, Amos evidently felt emboldened to tackle another classically-orientated project right off the bat. The results, though, are considerably more mixed.

“The 20 years is about celebrating different times that have happened - all the blessings, all the conversations which have taken place and inspired these songs,” Amos has stated. “My relationship with these all these songs has changed over the years and they have changed my life … [The project] wasn’t about capturing the past; it was about realizing that the songs had a new narrative - 10 or 20 years later than they did when I originally recorded them.” Certainly, the fourteen tracks make an admirable fist of covering a wide range of Amos voluminous catalogue, featuring tracks from all her pre-NOH albums minus Y Kant Tori Read (1987), To Venus and Back (1999), Strange Little Girls (2001) and The Beekeeper (2005). Notwithstanding, the first issue that one might take with Gold Dust is its choice of material. For, in the main, Amos and her long-time arranger John Philip Shenale have opted to include songs which already had strings as part of their original design: from Little Earthquakes’s “Winter,” to Under the Pink’s “Cloud on my Tongue” and “Yes, Anastasia” (presented here, disappointingly, in its shorter concert incarnation), through Boys for Pele’s “Marianne,” from the choirgirl hotel’s “Jackie’s Strength,” and Scarlet’s Walk’s “Gold Dust” to American Doll Posse's “Girl Disappearing” and “Programmable Soda.”

Sublime songs, every one - providers of solace, strength, inspiration and, even, for some of us, blog names - and it’s always good to hear them, but the bolder orchestration can’t be said to enhance them significantly here. The problem, I think, is that Amos and Shenale haven’t allowed themselves to colour far enough outside the lines of the original arrangements of any of these tracks, with the result that they simply sound all-too-similar to their previous incarnations. Tellingly, it’s the songs that didn’t have strings in their original DNA that benefit most from the orchestral treatment. A suitably cosmic opener, Abnormally Attracted to Sin’s “Flavor” is absolutely my favourite thing here, the track gaining a gorgeous, seductive sweep and  swell in this rendering (just one regret: it no longer sounds like Amos is singing "Who's got Benny's God?" on the "Whose God then is God?" line). “Precious Things” also gains heft while retaining its cathartic thrill, through the superb marriage of the orchestra and Amos’s characteristically dynamic piano-playing (plus a nicely snarled “girrl” in the bridge).

Indeed, Amos is in fine voice and there are several striking touches scattered throughout the album ("Jackie's Strength," in particular has a fresh glitter, and dig those “circles and circles” in “Cloud on my Tongue”!). For the most part, though, she and Shenale seem content to play it safe on Gold Dust. Given how creative Amos has always been with her songs in a live setting, and how brilliantly her collaboration with Apollon Musagéte succeeded in reinvigorating her past work in concert last year, the tameness of the approach here is surprising. Remember Joni Mitchell’s extraordinary double-album Travelogue (2002), a benchmark for these pop-goes-the-orchestra endeavours, on which both Mitchell classics and songs you’d barely noticed on previous albums emerged freshly, as dynamic mini-opuses? Well, too few of the tracks on Gold Dust come off as dramatically enhanced or transformed, by comparison.

Presented with characteristic care, Gold Dust may prove to have more to offer the casual Amos fan than those who know her work intimately. If, in the last analysis, the album seems less essential than it might have done, it will, nonetheless, be interesting to discover which songs Amos chooses to supplement the record with in her upcoming live shows with the Metropole. And also to see whether those shows inspire her to deliver a second - perhaps more radical and risk-taking - showering of Gold Dust in the future. May I take the opportunity to humbly pitch in with a wish-list here: “Etienne,” “Caught A Lite Sneeze,” “Cruel,” “Black Dove (January),” “Liquid Diamonds,” “Merman,” “Never Seen Blue,” “Spring Haze,” “Carbon,” “Barons of Suburbia,” “Mother Revolution,” “The Beekeeper,” “Garlands,” and - get in! - “Datura.”

Gold Dust is released in the UK on October 1st.  

Friday 14 September 2012

Theatre Review: Hindle Wakes (Finborough Theatre)

The Finborough’s last show, Sam Yates’s exquisite revival of J.B Priestley’s Cornelius, was so superb that the theatre really has to go some to match it with their latest offering. They haven’t managed it, quite, but they’ve come pretty close. Stanley Houghton’s 1912 feminist play Hindle Wakes lacks the emotional depth of Cornelius; if anything, it’s closer in spirit to Priestley’s comedy When We Are Married which was written in 1938 but set in 1910, the same year as Houghton’s text. Still, Bethan Dear’s production proves a most beguiling thing. In an evening full of humour and warmth, Dear delivers the play’s elements of social critique with disarming lightness and charm rather than stridency. The production is delightful. Full review at OneStopArts.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Theatre Review: King Lear (Almeida)

From Ian McKellen to Derek Jacobi, the late Pete Postlethwaite to Tim Pigott-Smith, the last five years haven’t exactly stinted British theatre-goers for high-profile King Lears, a testament both to the enduring power of one of Shakespeare’s most gruelling and gripping tragedies and to the eagerness of veteran actors to get the role under their belts while they’re still physically capable of lugging Cordelia around the stage. Now, pre-empting Simon Russell Beale’s rumoured production with Sam Mendes, it’s the turn of the excellent Jonathan Pryce to venture out onto the heath, in a fine production by Michael Attenborough that makes up in focus, clarity and intimacy what it lacks in apocalyptic vision.

Indeed, Attenborough’s approach to the play is determinedly unfussy. The storm scene is simply staged - smoke and a few sound effects, no water as drenched poor Oliver Ford Davies’s Lear for the Almeida ten years ago - and the overall look is low-key: Tom Scott’s set and costumes could have come directly from a BBC Shakespeare circa 1976. Still, having been somewhat under-whelmed by Nicholas Hytner’s strenuously modern, straining-for-relevance Timon of Athens at the NT just the other day, Attenborough’s gimmick-free take felt extremely refreshing to me. The focus is firmly on character and relationships here, rather than an overriding “concept,” and the production puts some striking spins on the protagonists. A few of these do feel a tad forced: Richard Goulding’s highly engaging Edgar - a character more usually found with his nose in a book, prior to his Poor Tom transformation - is here introduced indulging in a hearty spot of servant-snogging, while the Lear-as-sexual-abuser card gets played for the first time in a while, and to little effect.

Other elements work beautifully, though. Phoebe Fox makes something original and unsentimental of Cordelia, giving the character a combative, steely resolve that melts movingly in the reconciliation scene with Lear; she’s a study of goodness without a hint of sweetness. Kieran Bew - last seen gracing the Almeida stage as the dumbass Kent in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty - renders a gorgeously amused and cocksure Edmund (the play’s best role, IMHO!). Bew makes the character’s villainy entirely winning; he gets an audience-rapport going from his opening soliloquy and sustains it up to the character’s final (wonderful!) moment of repentance. Jenny Jules and Zoe Waites offer well-drawn takes on Regan and Goneril, and Ian Gelder’s faithful, stoic Kent and Clive Wood’s moving Gloucester are equally fine.

And Pryce himself delivers a marvellously compelling quicksilver turn. A more agile, robust Lear than many, he puts fascinating twists on the most familiar speeches, subverting sentimentality at every turn, whether by ripping savagely into “Reason not the need!” or undercutting the “great stage of fools” speech with ironic  sermonizing. Everything he does feels fresh, alive, spontaneous. His moments of tender connection with Gelder and Wood win through to genuine emotion, and his connection with Trevor Fox’s Fool - whose riddling speeches come accompanied by magic tricks, and who’s capable of cracking Lear up even when he's at his most enraged or despairing - is beautifully done. Attenborough takes the action at a fair clip, and locates the black comedy in the play’s bleakness without overselling it. The evening has both pace and feeling. Those who like their Lears wilder - or more high-concept - may not be stirred, but this was, for me, a terrific night in the theatre, and by far the strongest production I’ve seen at the Almeida this year.

Running time: 3 hours. Further information at the Almeida website.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

TV Review: Leaving (ep 1, ITV1)

The capable Julie (Helen McCrory), manager of weddings at a swish-ish country resort, strides purposefully around her little empire, tenderly observing exchanges of vows, counselling reluctant brides, and generally radiating pride and pleasure in her profession. Julie seems rather less sure-footed at home, though, where she lives with an affable-seeming spouse, Michael (Sean Gallagher), and two kids, one of whom is embarking on her first romance. The character’s mild sense of dissatisfaction with her lot leads her into a relationship with Aaron (the Eddie Redmayne-evoking Callum Turner), a young man twenty years her junior who ends up working at the hotel.

Concluding at the pivotal moment when the pair’s relationship turned sexual, Tony Marchant’s new three-part drama Leaving got off to a strong and striking start last night. The series isn’t, thankfully, a Brit take on the Kristin Scott Thomas-starring French flick, directed by Catherine Corsisni, whose moniker it shares, and which also dealt with a disruptive affair. Corsini's film, which I recently re-watched and rather changed my mind about, started smart and ended dumb, but the indications are that Marchant's Leaving might prove more substantial.

In a slightly barmy Radio Times piece, Alison Graham critiqued the series for not delivering on the salacious promise of its premise or for “giving Fifty Shades of Grey anything to worry about.” (WTF?) The estimable Mr. Marchant operates in an altogether classier mode and, benefiting from sleek direction by Gaby Dellal, the opening episode certainly proved gripping. The social details all feel right and, a couple of contrived narrative turns notwithstanding, the scenes had fresh, surprising details and quiet, watchful moments that added texture and nuance. The supporting cast (which includes Deborah Findlay) has yet to make its mark, but what counted the most in last night’s episode was Helen McCrory’s unerring ability to pull you into Julie’s dilemma, communicating every shade of excitement and guilt, pleasure and panic, that the character feels. Seeing McCrory here made me think - not for the first time - how much better Terence Davies’s film of The Deep Blue Sea would have been with her in the lead; let's hope a production of that play is in her future. And let's also hope that Leaving makes good on its promise, avoiding the slide into unconvincing melodrama that Corsini's film couldn’t finally resist.

Theatre Review: Yours For The Asking (Orange Tree)

Aside from the occasional Lorca production or the (even more occasional) Golden Age revival, Spanish drama gets short shrift on the London stage these days. And contemporary - that is to say, post-1940s - Spanish drama gets shorter shift still. Kudos, then, to the enterprising Orange Tree for presenting Yours for the Asking (the Spanish title is Usted también podrá disfrutar de ella; literally, You Can Enjoy Her Too), a 1973 piece by Ana Diosdado that proves quite the special find. Expertly translated by Patricia W. O’Connor, Diosdado’s play is an intelligent, rich and moving work, and Sam Walters presents it with admirable assurance, fluidity and grace in this compelling production.

Juan (Steven Elder) is a journalist for a trashy women’s weekly who views himself, his boss and the magazine’s tittle-tattle-worshipping readership with just about equal contempt. En route with his photographer colleague Manny (James Joyce) to interview a model who’s embroiled in an ad campaign scandal, he ends up trapped in the rickety lift of his interviewee’s building. (The sensible Manny takes the stairs.) When the model, Susi, locks herself out of her apartment, she and Juan start to talk and to bond. To the point that, once released, Juan ends up spending a further five days in her company, gradually learning the reasons for the perturbed star’s distress.

From this premise - not to mention the cheeky Feydeau-esque title - the viewer might be forgiven for anticipating Women on the Verge-style farcical shenanigans here. But Yours for the Asking is in fact a deeply serious - though by no means po-faced - work. The play clearly emerges from a specific historical context - Francoist Spain in its death throes yet still exercising an oppressive grip on its citizens - but it still has plenty of relevance to say to us today. Praising plays for prescience has become a much too popular pastime among the press just now, but Yours for the Asking constantly surprises with its all-too-relevant critiques of celeb culture (the action takes place in the country that gave the world Hello! magazine, lest we forget) and political apathy.

Not that any of this would count for so much were it not for the play’s intriguing, innovative form or its well drawn characters. The structure that Diosdado has devised is marvellously fluid and filmic: the action moves backwards and forwards in time, accruing depths and layers, resonances and ironies, as it goes. It’s a puzzle play of sorts, and Walters’s production gives it the pull of a thriller, aided by a nifty design by Katy Mills that meets the challenge of the play’s shifts in time-frame and location with a minimum of fuss.

And as the play twists and turns back on itself, concealing and disclosing, so our view of the characters shifts and morphs. Initially sceptical of his commission, Juan gradually comes to see that Susi’s predicament - her strange conversion into a public hate figure - allows him to pen the kind of societal critique he’s been longing to write. Is he using Susi for a story - or maybe it’s Susi who’s using him? It’s probably a result of the censorship of the time that the play gets a tad fuzzy when it comes to zeroing in on the root causes of the “System” whose corruption it critiques. Still, Diosdado manages to offer provocative and salient musings on press ethics, stars as symbols (constructed, idolised, despised), herd mentality and - last but certainly not least - the strangeness and the vagaries of love.

Following his memorable turns in the last Orange Tree season as the befuddled second spouse in How to Be Happy and the politician in Mottled Lines, Steven Elder delivers an even stronger central performance here, one that shows Juan’s bitterness to be caused by both wounded pride and idealism, and by his disappointment in his country. Scarred by a prison experience that’s left him with both a justifiable grievance and an unpleasant sense of martyrdom, the character is both a convincingly troubled figure and one who rather enjoys his sense of slumming it. As Susi, Mia Austen partners him beautifully, delivering a nuanced, striking turn that keeps us tantalisingly uncertain as to the extent of the character’s delusion or awareness. In the role of Celia, Juan’s lover and colleague, Rebecca Pownall is wonderfully candid and touching as she reveals both her sympathy and her frustration with her partner, while James Joyce (not a misprint!) is exceptionally likeable as the insouciant photographer who ends up undergoing his own unexpected political awakening. And another OT regular, David Antrobus, is quite effective in five small but key roles: as a sympathetic coroner, a manic editor, a disgruntled porter, a suspicious neighbour and a glib ad agent.

A gripping and unsettling experience, Yours for the Asking has wit, heart and bite - as well as a final revelation that arrives like a punch to the gut. Here’s hoping that we get to see more of Ms. Diosdado’s work on the British stage.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Theatre Review: Morning (Lyric Hammersmith)

All told, 2012 has been a pretty good year to be Simon Stephens. The prolific playwright’s version of A Doll’s House at the Young Vic was well received this summer, and his National Theatre adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time ecstatically so, while earlier this year Three Kingdoms, Stephens’s play on the subject of European sex-trafficking, caused a stir when it debuted at the Lyric Hammersmith. Not a chap to rest for long upon his laurels, the industrious Stephens now returns to the Lyric with his latest work, Morning, an hour-long play that was one of the hot tickets on the Edinburgh Fringe last month. Subtitled “a play for young people,” Morning was devised through workshops involving actors from both Junges Theater Basel and the Lyric Young Company; the latter group gives young Londoners the chance to get a start in a working theatre and to audition for professional productions. The result is a chilly piece that connects interestingly with some of Stephens’s habitual concerns - teen violence, primarily - but it’s one that doesn’t, ultimately, rank alongside the playwright’s best work for depth and insight. Full review at OneStopArts.  

Thursday 6 September 2012

Theatre Review: Kissing Sid James (Jermyn Street)

This isn’t a sentence that I ever imagined I’d find myself writing, somehow, but may I confess that I rather enjoyed Kissing Sid James last night? Robert Farquhar’s romantic comedy about a dirty weekend gone awry debuted at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre in 1992 and has subsequently been produced in countries from Slovakia to South Africa. Having begun life at the New Red Lion last year, Jason Lawson’s engaging revival went on to enjoy a run in New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway season. The production now takes up residence at the Jermyn Street, a venue whose intimacy suits this small-scale two-hander well.  Full review at OneStopArts.