Tuesday 30 October 2012

Film Review: Simon Killer (Campos, 2012)

“Movies,” wrote Pauline Kael, “have often been most eloquent when writers and directors … used the possibilities of visual and aural stylization … to envision how the world might be perceived by disordered psyches.” Antonio Campos’s Simon Killer - the director’s first feature following the acclaimed Afterschool - works to put the increasingly discomfited viewer into the psyche of its male protagonist, whose “disordered” state is gradually revealed as the picture progresses. Campos’s movie is the latest offering from Borderline Films, the creative collective he formed with fellow NYU alums Sean Durkin and Josh Mond, each of whom take turns directing their projects, while the other two produce. Intense, moody, character-based dramas have proved to be this trio’s speciality thus far. And if a slightly rockier second half means that Simon Killer doesn’t quite match Durkin’s marvellous Martha Marcy May Marlene for sustained impact, it nonetheless proves a compelling experience that confirms that, with these three talented guys on the scene, there’s hope for the future of serious, adventurous American indie film-making, after all.

The film’s focus is a period spent in Paris by Simon (Brady Corbet), a young American graduate travelling in Europe following a messy break-up. Pitching up at the apartment of an absent family friend, the isolated and insecure Simon writes missives to his ex, indulges in a spot of web-cam wanking (in one of the film’s funniest sequences), and ventures out on to the Paris streets where he meets two women: a young literature student and a prostitute, Victoria (Mati Diop, acting in a very different register from her quiet, beautiful turn in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum). With Victoria's consent, Simon fixes on a way to get more money out of her clients - photographing them in flagrante and then blackmailing them with the images. It’s a scheme that seems doomed to failure from the outset, and as Simon’s lies and evasions mount up we’re slowly tipped to the extent of the character’s psychosis.

Campos has spoken of the movie as being Simenon-inspired, in part, and a move into more generic crime territory renders the second half of Simon Killer a little less satisfying, with some contrived narrative turns slightly diminishing the quietly observant tone that the first half of the movie establishes so beautifully. The film was developed without a script, from improvisations with the actors, and at times one feels Campos straining to force the story into certain directions, almost against its will.

Despite this, Simon Killer still exerts a powerful grip, not least thanks to Corbet and Diop’s daring, committed performances and Campos’s directorial chops. From the inventive sound design (which sometimes switches songs mid-scene to reflect the protagonist’s iPod shuffle) to his idiosyncratic cutting and framing, Campos makes this movie an intensely - and sometimes uncomfortably - physical experience for the viewer. Unlike most young American filmmakers this director treats sex seriously (the comedy of the early masturbation interlude notwithstanding) and the fairly explicit sex scenes between Simon and Victoria are used expressively, to chart the dynamics of the pair’s evolving relationship. And how refreshing it is to see an American movie that not only acknowledges that languages other than English exist, but that actually presents its protagonist trying to speak one.

Communication, indeed, is one of Simon Killer’s major concerns and Campos highlights its complexities throughout: from Simon’s emails - by turns needy and bristling with bravado - to his ex, to an awkward Skype call with his mother to a wince-inducing scene of misunderstanding between him and Victoria. And then there's the viewer’s ever-shifting response to Simon himself. What’s most impressive about the movie, I think, is the way it works to undercut our sense of an epistemological foundation. We start out believing Simon’s statements about himself - why wouldn’t we? - and assuming that we're getting to know him, but by the end almost everything he’s said seems questionable. The very title of Simon Killer indicates, of course, that all will not end well for some of these characters. But it’s the gaps that Campos leaves for us that ensure that his chilling, immersive movie really gets under the skin.

London Film Festival Round-Up

Since I got press accreditation for the London Film Festival this year, I ended up seeing more films than usual - and would have made it to more were it not for the always-pressing demands of the day job. LFF 2012 - a transitional year for the festival with a new artistic director, some structural changes and the addition of more major prize categories - offered a sturdy line-up, from what I managed to see, with strong showings from seasoned auteurs, and several remarkable debuts. US dominance of production and distribution is so strong these days that it’s always invigorating to experience a range of movies from other countries, and from Tokyo to Paris, Montreal to Senegal, Thailand to the Highlands some of the finest films in the Festival came. That the Best Film Prize ended up going to what was, for me, one of the worst films screened - Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone - only confirms how gallingly subjective such judgements are. In that spirit, I offer my list of 24 - presented in loose order of preference - rather humbly, as a round-up, simply, of the films that spoke to me most profoundly (and those that didn't speak to me at all). Click on the links for full reviews; more will be posted in the coming weeks.

1. Amour (dir. Haneke) Review here.
2. Shell (dir. Graham). Review here.
3. In The House (dir. Ozon)
4. Sister (dir. Meier) Review here.
5. Tall as the Baobab Tree (dir. Teicher). Review here.
6. Simon Killer (dir. Campos) Review here.
7. Laurence Anyways (dir. Dolan). Review here.
8. Ginger and Rosa (dir. Potter)
9. Like Someone in Love (dir. Kiarostami)
10. Caesar Must Die (dir. Tavianis)
11. Imagine (dir. Jakimowski)
12. Quartet (dir. Hoffman) Review here.
13. In Another Country (dir. Hong)
14. In the Fog (dir. Loznitsa)
15. I Carried You Home (dir. Tongpong)
16. Our Children (dir. Lafosse)
17. Song for Marion (dir. Williams)
18. Everyday (dir. Winterbottom). Review here.
19. House With a Turret (dir. Neymann)
20. Robot & Frank (dir. Schreier). Review here.
21. Rust and Bone (dir. Audiard). Review here.
22. Thursday Till Sunday (dir. Sotomayor)
23. What Richard Did (dir. Abrahamson)
24. Blood (dir. Murphy). Review here.

Theatre Review: The Judas Kiss (Richmond Theatre & touring)

Freddie Fox’s flair for flouncing is in evidence once again in Neil Armfield’s production of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss. Playing Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover and downfall, Fox delivers a nicely-nuanced portrait of petulance, storming around the pair’s hotel room, preening, and shouting at the staff. Partnering the fresh-faced Fox is Rupert Everett as Wilde: bulked-up, jowly, sunk with the disappointment of betrayal yet still suggesting a coolly appraising mind at work.

Hare’s play about the Wilde-Bosie liaison was first seen in 1998 in a production directed by Richard Eyre with Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander in the lead roles. Armfield’s revival for Hampstead Theatre has been more enthusiastically received, and now tours before its West End transfer. I found it to be a solid - sometimes stolid - production that offers some scattered moments of insight, but that isn’t, quite, an evening to get wild(e) about.

Rather than attempting to cover a broad chunk of Wilde’s experiences - as Brian Gilbert’s 1997 film with Stephen Fry tried and struggled to do successfully - Hare hones in on two key moments in the writer’s later life: pre- and post-prison. The first act unfolds in the Cadogan Hotel between Wilde's court case against Bosie's father and his subsequent arrest. Here, having refused to sully Bosie’s reputation by calling him as a witness, Wilde opts to stay and face the music against the advice of his friend Robbie Ross (Cal Macaninch), who urges him to flee to France. In the second act, Hare shifts the scene to Naples and Wilde’s experiences following on from his incarceration. Reunited with Bosie, who’s busily entertaining his Italian lover Galileo (a seldom-clothed Tom Colley), Wilde reflects on the pain caused by his separation from his children, his writer’s block and his career prospects, as he and Bosie edge towards an inevitable parting of the ways.

Hare, who originally conceived of The Judas Kiss as the first part of a trilogy on the theme of sacrificial love, is interested in where moral integrity meets martyrdom or even masochism in Wilde’s story. He deftly avoids hagiography: Wilde, as constructed here, is an equivocal figure - one who can either be admired for his integrity or reproached for his tendency towards self-sabotage.

The material is interesting enough, but, dramatically, The Judas Kiss doesn’t build up much of a head of steam, and never becomes truly moving. The mood is minor-key - Hare doesn't provide the expected epigram-blitz though there are some funny lines - and the second half turns static, confining Everett to a chair - Hamm-in-Endgame-style - for the duration.  Still, having seemed relatively underpowered in the poor film adaptations of Wilde plays directed by Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest) Everett is more assured and compelling here, especially in key moments that convey Wilde’s vulnerability.

But though Cal Macaninch is quite effective as Ross, Hare hasn’t really provided enough for the other characters to do. The dialogue sometimes strikes false notes (Wilde helpfully reminds Ross: “You were the first man I ever slept with”), while a late speech resorts to spelling out the significance of the play’s title for us. As another addition to the gallery of Wilde portraits, The Judas Kiss certainly has interest. But Armsfield’s production, though competent, feels more static than dramatic for the most part.

The production is at Richmond until 3rd November. It moves to the Duke of York's from 9th January 2013.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Theatre Review: 9 To 5: The Musical (New Wimbledon & touring)

Colin Higgins’s 1980 feminist revenge comedy Nine to Five provided Dolly Parton with her first screen acting role as Doralee, a secretary harassed and humiliated by her lecherous tyrant-idiot boss Mr. Hart, who joins forces with two of her female co-workers, Violet and Judy - each with her own grievance against the bossman - to take reprisals and settle the score. The title song, written and performed by Parton, received an Oscar nomination and a Grammy Award and it serves - unsurprisingly - as the opening number for Parton’s musical adaptation of the film, which has finally reached UK shores, touring before (one imagines) a hoped-for West End run.

With a book by the film’s screenwriter Patricia Resnick and 18 songs composed by Parton (only a couple of which have seen the light of day on her own albums), 9 to 5 follows the likes of Legally Blonde and Hairspray as the latest Hollywood comedy to get a musical makeover. And while the show has its problems - they include none-too-inspired choreography by Jeff Calhoun and a pretty witless book by Resnick - it proves fairly entertaining throughout.

Indeed, the material can only benefit from the spirit and energy that the best of Parton’s upbeat countrified pop songs provide, for 9 to 5 is a feeble, rickety concoction in terms of its plotting, a poorly structured piece that flirts with farce and black comedy without delivering the pay-offs of either and that even seems to violate its own feminist principles at the end by having a beneficent male character swoop in from nowhere to solve all the women’s problems for them.

The musical retains this paltry structure, alas, but I think the end result is considerably more enjoyable than the film. Tackier and livelier, it moves more swiftly through some of the crummier comic business - such as a dire sequence in which the women believe they’ve killed Hart and try to dispose of the body - and gives the viewer less time to linger over the clunking inanities.

The first half – which culminates in the women’s kidnapping of Hart - is the most successful. Parton herself appears on screen like the high-camp fairy Godmother of one’s fantasies to introduce the show and offer commentary (“A’hm dyin’ to see what’s going to happen next!”), and the songs are effectively employed to flesh out the characters and their situations. “Backwoods Barbie” - in which Doralee laments others’ appearance-based judgments of her - is a highlight, and Amy Lennox gives the most endearing performance of the lead trio, evoking Parton without slavishly imitating her. From her hairstyle to her vocal inflections, Jackie Clune as Violet channels Allison Janney (who played the role on Broadway) a bit too thoroughly, and Natalie Casey as the initially timid new recruit Judy has some funny moments but isn’t quite up to the delivery of the empowerment anthem “Get Out and Stay Out” (which is one of the poorer numbers anyway).

But the main reason to see 9 To 5 is the giddy dash of gleaming-eyed mania that Bonnie Langford brings to her role as Roz, the office mole who hides out in the toilets to eavesdrop on the women’s conversations, reporting what she hears to Mr. Hart, for whom she nurtures a secret passion. Langford packs a lifetime of theatre experience into her relatively limited stage time, establishing an instant audience rapport, and the sequence in which Roz confesses her obsessive love for Hart (“Heart to Hart”) is the evening’s undisputed show-stopper, with Langford’s vocal and physical prowess bringing the house down.

As bright and brassy as its co-creator, there’s no pretending that 9 To 5 is a great new musical, and it doesn’t even have the fully-fledged charm of Hairspray, say. But for Parton fans and those in an undemanding frame of mind it’s an agreeable time-passer - and something a little more in Langford’s powerhouse moment.

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Theatre Review: Driving Miss Daisy (Richmond Theatre & touring)

David Esbjornson’s revival of Alfred Uhry’s 1987 play Driving Miss Daisy scored a big success first on Broadway and then in London’s West End at Wyndham’s last year, with the powerhouse duo of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones—both in rather affected, hammy mode—in the lead roles. The production now tours, with Gwen Taylor and Don Warrington replacing Redgrave and Jones. For me, the production actually benefits considerably from this cast change, with Taylor and Warrington both delivering subtler, more nuanced performances that are much more in keeping with the spirit of this most delicate and low-key of dramas.

Indeed, Uhry’s play—which charts the gradual growth into closeness of an elderly Jewish woman, Daisy Werthan, and her African-American chauffeur Hoke Coleburn over almost three decades in Atlanta, Georgia—is a very slight piece of work, one which Bruce Beresford’s 1989 film starring Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd succeeded in fleshing out much more substantially.

With black-and-white backdrops offering images of Martin Luther King and the KKK, the social context feels considerably sketchier in the stage version, and, in addition, the way that the driving scenes are handled in Esbjornson’s production still remains a problem for me—the sight of the two actors sitting on a bench and a chair as one rotates a steering wheel attached to a silver pole never allows the viewer to really suspend disbelief.

But the heart of the piece is Daisy and Hoke’s relationship as it moves from suspicion and disdain (on her side) into dependency, trust and friendship, and that trajectory is touchingly charted here. With Redgrave and Jones in the roles—she either rattling through the lines at breakneck speed or else drawling them out affectedly, and he bellowing and cackling—the play felt strangely unbalanced: there seemed barely a moment when the viewer wasn’t aware of observing icons, acting.

In contrast, Taylor and Warrington inhabit the roles of Daisy and Hoke in a more natural, less self-conscious manner, cutting out the affectation. Taylor communicates Daisy’s cantankerousness without overplaying it, showing the ex-schoolmistress used to being in control who’s frustrated and challenged by what she perceives to be her loss of independence. She brings unforced humour to the role, as well as some understated lyricism to the scene in which Daisy tells Hoke about the first time she saw the ocean. Warrington partners her excellently, nicely conveying Hoke’s wariness and his wry wit, and he’s especially good in the scene in which the character’s illiteracy is revealed.

The likeable Ian Porter also does a more relaxed job than Boyd Gaines in the role of Daisy’s son Boolie, communicating both the character’s exasperation at, and affection for, his mother’s behaviour. In sum, this expert trio of actors bring just the right amount of humour and heart to this modest play, making this incarnation of Esbjornson’s production a less "starry" but much more emotionally involving affair. Recommended.

London Film Festival Review: Everyday (dir. Winterbottom)

Across his diverse and prolific output, Michael Winterbottom has proved himself among the most consistently interesting, challenging and unpredictable of contemporary British filmmakers. He’s roughed up and radicalised heritage cinema with his Hardy adaptations Jude (1996), The Claim (2000) and Trishna (2011). He’s pushed boundaries in cinematic representations of sex and violence in 9 Songs (2004) and The Killer Inside Me (2010), gone sci-fi with Code 46 (2003), delivered a one-of-a-kind meta-adaptation in A Cock and Bull Story (2006), and, in between, produced a contemporary London classic in the form of the exquisite ensemble drama Wonderland (1999). My expectations were especially high for Winterbottom’s latest offering, Everyday, since it reunites the director not only with the screenwriter of Wonderland, Laurence Coriat (the pair also collaborated on 2008’s Genova) but also with two of Wonderland’s actors, Shirley Henderson (in her seventh collaboration with Winterbottom) and John Simm, here cast as Karen and Ian, a couple who are undergoing a prolonged period of separation as Ian serves time in prison for an unspecified crime. Unfortunately, though, Everyday fails to repeat Wonderland’s success at the level of insight or emotional involvement.

The opening twenty minutes or so justify the viewer’s hopeful mood, however. The titles appear in a big, blocky, confident font as Michael Nyman’s gorgeous, chugging score swoons in with reassuring familiarity. (By this stage, the music credit on Winterbottom’s films might as well just read “Who else?”) We then observe Henderson’s Karen getting up, making breakfast for her four kids (played by real-life siblings Stephanie, Robert, Shaun and Katrina Kirk) and undertaking the journey with Robert and Shaun to visit Ian in prison. This sequence isn’t just the introduction that it appears to be, though. Rather it establishes the mode that Winterbottom will employ throughout the movie, focusing exclusively on the family’s daily routines (school, work, countryside walks), their visits to the prison, and, later, Ian’s release and return home.

Shot in a shaky, handheld, vérité style (except for the overtly picturesque landscape shots used to convey information on the changing seasons), Everyday certainly achieves a high level of realism scene-by-scene and catches some wonderful, spontaneous moments, such as Shaun’s look of awed terror and fascination as he sits on a rattling Underground train en route to visit his father. There are also individual details that are sure to spark associations for British viewers - the family watching Countdown on the telly at tea-time, for one - as well a couple of truly odd juxtapositions. Watch out, in particular, for a very cheeky and suggestive (or maybe unintentional?) cut between Karen and Ian’s hurried sexual encounter and some ice cream consumption in a park.

Ultimately, though, these details don’t add up to quite as much as they might, and the film’s sublimating of narrative and character development to mood and rhythm begins to feel unsatisfying. Doubtless Winterbottom would argue that the former emerges from the latter, but his method only gets the film so far. The movie comes out thin, too much of it taken up with gleeful reunions and tearful partings, and I for one didn’t feel that I knew the characters much better at the end than I did at the beginning. The paradox of the piece is that for all the unabashed intimacy of Winterbottom’s stylistic approach, we never really feel on the inside of this family. A late scene in which Karen confesses to an affair and Ian reacts angrily raises more issues than the film seems to know what to do with, and the decision to keep us in the dark regarding the crime that Ian is serving time for (to prevent us passing judgement on his character, one assumes) feels vaguely obtuse.

Winterbottom has always been a superb director of children and an intriguing aspect of the director’s development of Everyday is that the film was shot intermittently over a five year period allowing the real-life siblings to change and age “before our eyes” on screen. What this adds is debatable, though. Winterbottom’s style ensures that we’re kept very close to the emotions of the children - to their tantrums, their bewilderment, their sudden tears - but what we don’t ever see, quite frankly, is the development of much personality: they remain ciphers, like the adults in the movie. And there’s so little going on at times that the viewer starts to notice jarring details, such as the way the kids’ accents don’t match up at all with either of their parents’.

Depending on your perspective, then, Everyday is either a beguilingly humble or a disappointingly minor addition to Winterbottom’s body of work. Many filmmakers have found drama in dailiness, of course. But by working in a strictly observational mode and by staying on the outside of his underwritten characters, Winterbottom produces a slightly frustrating movie here, one that leaves a dispiriting aftertaste by suggesting that when it comes to providing material for compelling cinema, the everyday, sometimes, isn’t nearly enough.

Sunday 21 October 2012

London Film Festival Review: Quartet (dir. Hoffman)

Coming soon to cinemas in 'Quartet’: Pauline Collins and Dame Maggie Smith

“This isn’t a retirement home - it’s a madhouse!” quavers Maggie Smith, inimitably, as her character observes a Salsa class full of gyrating geriatrics in Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s film adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play. Playing Jean Horton - one-time opera icon and now reluctant resident to Beecham House, home for retired singers and musicians - Smith delivers her most varied and vibrant screen performance since My House in Umbria almost ten years ago. Yes, the role still permits Smith to retain her crown as Queen of the Bitchy Put-down, but it also goes beyond this familiarity, allowing her to play vulnerability, regret, self-doubt, and, ultimately, radiance. It’s a truly delightful performance, one of several that light up Hoffman’s slight but warm and engaging film, a work whose very subject is performance itself.

The eminent Jean’s arrival stirs things up at Beecham House because it reunites her with some old rivals and, also, some old cronies, namely the caring, muddled Cissy (Pauline Collins), the bawdy Wilf (Billy Connolly) and the taciturn Reg (Tom Courtenay), to whom Jean was briefly hitched before the marriage foundered after her confession of infidelity. Years before, these four performed together in a legendary production of Rigoletto. And with the home facing closure, and - wouldn’t you know? - a fundraising concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday on the horizon, it’s not long before Cissy, Wilf and Reg are trying to persuade the resistant Jean to join them in performing the “Bella figlia dell’amore” quartet from the opera once again.

Making his directorial debut, Hoffman has done a pretty admirable job on Quartet. The movie is a much more handsome, elegant piece of work than was John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the “grey pound” phenomenon whose success it looks very likely to repeat. (Here, as there, Maggie Smith is cast as a woman in need of a hip replacement.) Harwood’s material is equally thin and unsubtle and his setting up of narrative dilemmas - will the home close? will Reg forgive Jean? will Jean join the quartet? - is basic to say the least. I imagine that the piece could be fairly excruciating on stage (and the movie itself plays the "isn't-it-hilarious-when-old-people-talk-about-sex?" card at least once too often), but Hoffman keeps it fluid here, cutting down on the obviousness a little. Harwood’s adaptation opens things up simply but effectively (there’s a preponderance of scenes set outside, in the attractive grounds of Hedsor House, Buckinghamshire) and the director shows wit in his framing of the action. The residents’ routines are briskly established in wry, rhythmic scenes scored to classical pieces, and the movie conveys a sense of the day-to-day life of the home, overseen by - yes - a jolly “ethnic” staff and run by one Dr. Cogan (the ubiquitous Sheridan Smith, very charming).

What makes Quartet especially pleasurable, though, is the respect and love that Hoffman clearly feels for those on screen. He’s filled the movie with veteran performers, not only actors but also “real” opera singers and musicians, and each makes a vivid impression no matter how limited their screen time. The cast interact superbly, from Collins’s sweet, optimistic Cissy - who’s given depth in the movie’s most moving moment - to a fabulously costumed Michael Gambon, who barks ferociously and preens gloriously as the home’s self-satisfied musical director. The affectionate tone is established from the lovely opening shot of Patricia Loveland at her piano and it’s sustained to the end: a truly touching closing credit sequence which matches all the performers with pictures of their younger selves. Quartet is about as predictable and as precious as a film can be, but the wit and spirit of its cast - and their director's fond gaze upon them - manage to turn it into something more: an actors’ symphony.

Quartet is released in the UK on the 4th January 2013.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Theatre Review: The Handyman (Richmond Theatre & touring)

Belying the excessive modesty of its title, Ronald Harwood’s play The Handyman deals in Big Themes: war crimes, guilt, retribution, the nature of evil, the unknowability of others. You won’t be able to miss these themes because the characters keep stopping to announce them. A tendency towards obvious speechifying gives Harwood’s play an artificial air, at times. But Joe Harmston’s crisp and uncluttered production, produced by Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and now touring, proves mostly gripping nonetheless.

The play – which was first staged at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre in 1996 – opens in the quintessentially English (cue birdsong and church bells) garden of an affluent couple, Julian and Cressida Field (Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe): she’s working towards a degree in Gender Studies; he’s “in money.” The pair employ an odd-job man, Roman Kozachenko, known as Romka (Timothy West), a Ukrainian who’s taken care of the family for years, since being befriended by Cressida’s father in a P.O.W camp in Rimini. One day, however, the Fields receive a visit from Scotland Yard who announce that they have evidence connecting Romka to the massacre of over 800 Jews in the Ukraine in 1941. Romka protests his innocence, insisting that he was only a cook in the army and that this is a case of mistaken identity, but as evidence against him begins to mount up, the Fields begin to question how well they know a man that they’ve loved and trusted for years. Or as Julian handily summarises: “How well does anyone ever really know anyone?”

Its premise not entirely dissimilar to that of Costa-Gavras’s 1989 film Music Box, in which Jessica Lange played a lawyer defending her Hungarian father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) against accusations of war crimes, The Handyman stays out of the courtroom. Rather, the piece moves between scenes set in the Fields’s garden – where the couple meet Romka’s lawyer Marian Stone (Carolyn Backhouse) – and others set in Scotland Yard, where Romka is questioned by two police officers (James Simmons and Anthony Houghton). The latter scenes prove to be the most memorable and effective in the piece, and not only because Harmston has managed to entice to two big-names to portray witnesses to Romka’s alleged crimes. Delivering their testimonies via video, Steven Berkoff and Vanessa Redgrave – playing an army comrade of Romka’s and a friend of his sister, respectively – give juicy life to the play’s sometimes rehearsed-sounding arguments, and their star power doesn’t throw the evening off balance. Redgrave, in particular, lifts the piece into another dimension as her character, now a nun in Jerusalem, recalls witnessing a massacre. Unfortunately, the tension generated in these scenes is somewhat spoiled by a plunge into soap operatics in the misjudged final scene – an episode not in the original production of the play and added, Harwood’s programme note informs us, at the suggestion of Christopher Fry.

As the complacent couple who find their comfortable world shaken, Lukis and Langrishe give solid though not outstanding performances. West is superb throughout, however, creating a portrait of a softly-spoken man who’s severed all links with his background to re-invent himself as a British citizen and now finds his past painfully resurfacing. The intelligence of West’s interpretation, and the strength of the interrogation scenes, make Harmston’s production a worthwhile and intermittently powerful experience.

At Richmond until 20th Oct. Further touring information here.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

Friday 12 October 2012

London Film Festival Review: Sister (dir. Meier)

A swish Swiss ski resort proves a pickpocket’s paradise - for a while, at least - in Sister (L'Enfant d'en haut), the exceptional new film by Ursula Meier. It’s at this location that our 12-year-old protagonist, Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), operates, stealing not only money and food from the well-to-do clientele but also skis, helmets and other equipment, goods which he then flogs. Simon lives with Lou (Léa Seydoux), his irresponsible "older sister" who leaves him alone for long periods. At the resort, though, Simon hooks up with two surrogate-parent figures: a Scottish chef, Mike (Martin Compston), who abets him in his criminal activity and a woman (Gillian Anderson, somewhat underused), in whose presence Simon constructs a new identity for himself.

There’s more than a suggestion of the Dardennes’s work to Sister, with its focus on a disenfranchised and dogged young protagonist scraping by in difficult circumstances. And yet the movie succeeds in carving out its own distinctive niche. Boasting a sparsely employed but beautifully twitchy and imposing guitar score from John Parish (an element that the Dardennes would surely be unlikely to sanction) Meier’s movie is a taut and haunting work that manages not to hammer home its social points. This director clearly has a fascination for place and its impact on human behaviour. Her debut film, Home, found its protagonists using an abandoned motorway as an extension of their dwelling, and location is equally important to Sister, which moves between the spacious mountain resort and Simon and Lou’s tenement flat, with its grim surroundings. Connected via a cable car (site of the film’s stunning concluding moments), the two locations are rendered with unflashy eloquence in Agnes Godard’s characteristically superb cinematography.

A few scattered moments - such as Simon’s getting ejected from the resort with the garbage, at one point - are a little much and I didn’t entirely buy the character’s partnership with Mike, either. But Meier’s film is, overall, an outstanding piece of work boasting a superb turn by Mottet Klein, who makes Simon by turns a steely, cocksure operator and a goofy kid, both needy and self-sufficient. It’s a performance to rank alongside Thomas Doret's brilliant work in the Dardennes’s The Kid With A Bike, and it says something about Meier’s achievement in Sister that the movie itself doesn’t suffer from that comparison.

London Film Festival Review: Laurence Anyways (dir. Dolan)

Overlong and occasionally overblown, Xavier Dolan’s emotional epic Laurence Anyways - the Canadian director’s third feature following I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats - nonetheless proves consistently exciting and often affecting as it charts ten fraught years in the lives of a Montreal couple, Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clément). Opening in 1989, with the couple in the giddy throes of a volatile romance, the movie follows the bohemian pair - he’s a writer and academic, she’s involved in film production - through the challenges that come with Laurence’s announcement that he was born into the wrong body and wants a sex change. Fred’s response, after initial shock, is one of attempted acceptance. “Our generation can take this,” she asserts. “We’re ready for it.” But this tolerant stance proves easier to maintain in theory than in practice, as Fred finds herself increasingly tested by Laurence’s claiming of his - her - new identity.

The premise of Dolan’s film is not unlike that of Jane Anderson’s play Looking For Normal, which was adapted for HBO as Normal with Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Lange in the lead roles, and which also revolved around a woman’s attempt to stand by her man as he becomes a woman. Laurence Anyways offers the viewer a wilder, funkier ride, however. Where Normal unfolded in rural Illinois, Dolan’s movie takes place in hip Montreal, a city whose vibrancy seems to have informed the film’s stylistic approach. The 23-year-old Dolan - who not only wrote and directed the movie but also edited and designed the costumes - is a formidably precocious talent, and throughout Laurence Anyways one feels his sheer glee and delight in exploring - and stretching - the medium’s potential. The film has a restless, trying-it-on energy that’s occasionally a little wearying but that suits its subject well. Dolan employs a highly self-conscious, apparently scattershot technique that’s somewhat reminiscent of another Montreal filmmaker, Jean-Marc Valee’s, work in C.R.A.Z.Y (2005) and this year’s ineffably confounding Café de Flore, incorporating slo-mo, surreal interludes and a range of marvellously diverse music selections (everything from Fever Ray to Prokoviev, The Cure to Celine Dion) to give the film its distinctive, dreamy texture.

Scrupulously avoiding conventional revelation scenes – not once do we get to hear Laurence announce "I'm a transsexual" – and there's only the briefest mention of surgical procedures (in relation to another character). Dolan prefers to place the emphasis elsewhere, namely on the emotional experience of his central couple. Hedonists who keep an inventory of things that "minimize their pleasure" (things to be avoided, in other words), Laurence and Fred are an idiosyncratic pair even prior to Laurence's revelation, and Dolan throws the viewer right into their relationship without giving us much chance to get our bearings. Cuts between time periods are often abrupt (watch out for a dazzling party scene set to Visage's "Fade To Grey" that catapults Fred – almost literally – into the arms of a new partner) but Dolan manages to keep the arc of the narrative in focus, even as he throws out curve balls (the film is structured as Laurence's reminiscences to a journalist).

He's helped in no small degree by the committed performances of his actors. Poupaud has seldom been warmer or more emotionally accessible on screen. A variously insecure and defiant presence, he keeps us with Laurence every step of the way, and his slow, gradual transitioning into a female identity feels natural over the film's generous, near-three hour, running time. The petite Clément – who suggests a fiercer Holly Hunter of sorts – matches him with a taut, fresh and spontaneous performance. She's especially extraordinary in an astonishing scene in which Fred lashes out ferociously at a waitress who expresses curiosity about Laurence's appearance. It says something about Dolan's confidence that he's able to transition from this visceral encounter into a hilarious high-camp interlude in which Laurence is inducted into a transsexual sisterhood with a singing troupe called The Roses.

The supporting roles are also vividly filled, with especially fine work from Nathalie Baye as Laurence's mother, and from Monia Chokri who's hilariously mordant as Fred's sister. Throughout Dolan's dialogue takes you by surprise as much as his imagery does. "I need his forearms," whines Fred during a period of separation from Laurence. "Everybody has forearms!" her bourgeois mother retorts. And while avoiding soapbox-ish polemics, Dolan succeeds in making his social points, exploring the toll that Laurence's transformation takes on his work as well as his personal life, as the film builds to its climax on the cusp of the new millennium.

It's fair to say that Laurence Anyways won't be to all tastes. The movie's style-blitz and tonal shifts are a challenge and occasionally Dolan's appetite for excess gets the better of him. The flashback ending is also a shade or two too cute. But this talented young director has fashioned a bold and beautiful movie here, one that works hard –occasionally a bit too hard – to maximise the viewer's pleasure throughout.

London Film Festival Review: Robot & Frank (dir. Schreier)

The premise of Jake Schreier’s intermittently enjoyable comedy Robot & Frank initially suggests something of a neglectful offspring’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. In “the near future,” robot butlers are available to help the elderly and infirm (or the plain lazy) with household chores and other jobs. One such creation is purchased by Hunter Weld (James Marsden) for his pa Frank (Frank Langella), a grouchy, isolated and confused man who lives alone in Cold Spring, New York. Frank - a former cat burglar who still steals, on occasion, from a gift store (it seems almost a reflex action) - initially disdains the presence of his new companion whom he labels “a death machine.” But Frank begins to change his mind when he sees the potential of Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, no less) to help him out with some burglarising schemes.

What Schreier fashions from this set-up is, in essence, an old-fashioned buddy movie, one that brings sci-fi touches into a domestic sitcom scenario. Alas, while crisply edited and boasting some funny and appealing moments, the movie is not everything it could've been. Admirably, Schreier and screenwriter Christopher Ford attept to avoid cuteness by having Frank warm to Robot only when he begins to see him as an aid to criminal activity. But, at the same time, the movie's rather relaxed attitude to burglary - acceptable if perpetrated against unctuous yuppies, apparently - leaves a sour taste. The film starts smart(ish) but gets sillier as it goes along, and by the time Frank and Robot are outwitting cops and going "on the lam" it's possible that you may start experiencing Short Circuit flashbacks. Moreover, Schreier and Ford aren't above crudely striving for "depth" by comparing Frank's "confusion" – the film stops short of calling it Alzheimer's Disease – to the possibility of Robot having its memory wiped.

The performances from the distinguished cast are, for the most part, nicely pitched. The expert Langella can do disgruntled like no other and the most amusing and engaging episodes in the movie are the early ones that bounce his annoyance off of Robot's calm professionalism. "I'm not a robot. I'm a health-care aid," the machine insists, and Sarsgaard's cool, measured, Malkovich-esque tones are perfect for the delivery of such a statement. Liv Tyler is also effective as Frank's meddling daughter Madison, and it's lovely, as ever, to see Susan Sarandon on screen, bringing her customary radiance to her too-minor role as Jennifer, the local librarian who's a possible romantic opportunity for Frank. But Robot & Frank begins to lose bite as it progresses, finally taking an unnecessarily icky turn into cosy family values territory and lifting a sadly unconvincing late twist directly from Nicholas Fackler's little-seen 2008 film Lovely, Still. It's a fitting conclusion, in a way: this is a movie that's so keen on larceny it ends up committing it.

London Film Festival Review: Rust and Bone (dir. Audiard)

For all the widespread acclaim that they’ve received, the portentous macho melodramas of Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet) have always seemed to me to add up to less than the sum of their parts. The director’s latest work, Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os), is at once his silliest and - in terms of narrative cohesion - his most streamlined effort yet, an inimitably calculating combination of the sadistic and the soppy. Adapted by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from short stories by the Canadian writer Craig Davidson, Rust and Bone focuses on the relationship that develops between Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) - a burly bruiser with a young son (Armand Verdure) - and Stéphanie (Marion Cottilard), a killer whale trainer at the Marineland amusement park. The pair first meet due to a fracas at a nightclub where Ali is a bouncer, but their relationship doesn’t progress far. Until, that is, Stéphanie, ends up getting both of her legs bitten off by a whale during one of her performances and, despairing, isolated and angry, ends up calling upon the strapping Ali for aid. (Let's pause to spare a thought for the whale here, too: a daily routine of performing tricks to Katy Perry songs is surely enough to make anyone a mite snappish.)

As a slice of rather shameless hokum, Rust and Bone is moderately enjoyable. Yet one senses that Audiard has somewhat loftier ambitions for this film, which seems to aspire to be a tough-yet-tender portrait of a truly redemptive romance. (The clue: Bon Iver songs used for added sensitivity on the soundtrack.) Unfortunately, Stéphanie and Ali’s relationship is conceived by Audiard in such basic terms that the movie mostly seems a fulfillment of pulpy primal fantasies. Vicious fight scenes (which continue this director’s habitual fetishising of battered male bodies) are interspersed with cutesy father-son bonding moments, and Stéphanie and Ali's connection is developed very crudely. In one particularly awful sequence, Stéphanie seems to will Ali to victory in a fight simply by standing and gazing at him, and, earlier, the couple’s first no-strings sex session proves so inspirational for Stéphanie that it prompts her to head straight back to the Marineland park and re-connect with her orca chums. Free willy indeed.

With a climax involving a painfully contrived and unconvincing rescue sequence, Rust and Bone gets worse as it goes along, but it does have some compensatory aspects. Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography has an edgy vibrancy throughout and Audiard at least draws solid performances from his two lead actors. (As Ali’s son, Sam, talented young Armand Verdure is also worthy of note.) Trash masquerading, the movie is, for me, no more or less objectionable than the director’s earlier efforts. There’s just one appropriate word for it, perhaps: Audi-ous.

London Film Festival Review: Shell (dir. Graham)

A road movie of a very particular - dare one say, a very British - kind, Scott Graham’s sublime debut feature Shell unfolds at a petrol station in the remote Scottish Highlands. The station serves as both business and home for Pete (Joseph Mawle) and his daughter, Shell (remarkable newcomer Chloe Pirrie), who have lived there together since Shell’s mother deserted them over ten years ago. A watchful, quiet 17-year-old, Shell’s only other social interaction is with the travellers who stop off at the station for petrol or supplies on their way to elsewhere, including a young man, Adam (Iain de Caestaker), who clearly has romantic designs on her. But Shell’s primary object of fascination remains her father, for whom she appears to have developed vaguely erotic feelings. It’s a relationship characterised both by routine domesticity and a pervasive sense of unease. A pivotal early scene shows Shell dancing blissfully to the radio as she prepares their supper, then cuts to Pete observing her from outside. As soon as he enters, Shell turns the music off.

From the opening images - a bleak, wintry landscape; a deer that one just knows will get run over at some point - the viewer may experience premonitions of Brit-flick grimness at Shell. These premonitions are fulfilled, up to a point - the deer gets it, alas - but they’re also subverted. You make take issue with the way in which the film uses the possible fulfilment of a quasi-incestuous relationship to build tension, but the end result is very far from the tacky, prurient spectacle that some directors might have made of similar material. Rather, Graham’s approach is discreet but full-of-feeling. As a director, he’s as quietly observant as his heroine is, drawing the viewer into intense intimacy with all of his isolated characters as they variously attempt and avoid connections.

A superb sound design and Yoliswa Gärtig’s eloquent cinematography certainly make you feel the chill of the location. Yet the movie itself isn’t cold. Rather, it’s an indelible portrait of both the frustrations and the comforts of entrapment, of a girl’s vague desire for something more than the life she’s been offered, as those passing through bring her news and offerings from the world beyond. A concerned, sympathetic woman (Kate Dickie) gives Shell a copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. A lonely divorced man (Michael Smiley) buys her a pair of jeans. An unforthcoming young mother (Morven Christie) gives little away, but in a piercing, exhilarating sequence that marks a turning point in the movie Shell chases after her car as it drives into the distance, to return a doll that her daughter left behind.

Mawle and Pirrie’s performances are exquisitely judged. And Graham builds the film to a quietly redemptive conclusion that’s as perfectly pitched - and as moving and surprising - as any that I’ve seen this year. A supremely assured and marvellously controlled debut.

London Film Festival Review: Blood (dir. Murphy)

The usually reliable Paul Bettany and Stephen Graham compete to see who can give the worst performance in Blood, a startlingly inept cop-thriller-cum-family-angst-fest directed by Nick Murphy. The contest comes out at about a tie. Playing police officer brothers who end up killing a suspect while trying to force a confession from him, and then hide the body to cover their tracks, the pair indulge in more hilariously tortured, overwrought emoting than has been seen on screen for quite a while.

A good deal of the blame must be laid at Murphy’s door it must be said. Unlike many people, I rather enjoyed the director’s debut film, The Awakening, finding it to be a stylish, intriguing ghost story that managed to evoke The Innocents and The Others without getting bogged down in a tedious game of spot-the-homage.

Here, though, the director never seems to be in control of the material and the actors are left horribly exposed. Blood is dispiritingly generic from the get-go, but it turns dumber and more risible as it goes along. Plot gears grind; Bill Gallagher’s dialogue clunks unmercifully. Adapted from Gallagher's own 2004 BBC mini-series Conviction, the film aspires to be about changes in approaches to policing - pitting the unscrupulous, strong-arm tactics of the brothers’ retired cop father (Brian Cox) against the mature approach represented by Mark Strong’s sergeant - but the tactics employed are so feeble that the argument never really gets off the ground.

Choking on tough-guy discourse of the “I’ll make you sorry your mother ever opened her legs” variety, Brian Cox is over-ripe as the ailing paterfamilias. Natasha Little and Zoe Tapper are squandered in small roles, and only Mark Strong manages to keep his dignity. A waste of a lot of talented people, Blood is an embarrassingly poor effort all round.

London Film Festival Review: Tall as the Baobab Tree (dir. Teicher)

The village of Sinthiou Mbadane, Senegal. A teenage girl, Coumba (Dior Kâ), and her younger sister, Debo (Oumoul Kâ), return to the village from the city with the news that Coumba has passed her school exams and is able to go on to further study. During the girls’ absence, however, their brother Sileye (Alpha Dia) has had an accident and broken his leg, falling from the baobab tree which he climbs to cut shoots for the family’s animals. In order to pay for Sileye’s treatment, the children’s father (Mouhamed Diallo) proposes marrying the 11-year-old Debo off to a rich man, curtailing her education in the process. Coumba is distressed at the idea and resolves to find a way to save her sister from the fate their father has mapped out for her.

The premise of 23-year-old American director Jeremy Teicher’s distinguished debut feature would seem to offer plentiful opportunities for high-octane hand-wringing. None of them are taken, however. Rather, Teicher’s intelligent, humane and moving film unfolds at a measured place, drawing the viewer gently not forcibly into Coumba’s dilemma.  There's suspense build right into the premise, of course – will the resourceful Coumba come up with enough money in time to prevent her sister's marriage? – but Teicher avoids exploiting it in a manipulative or obvious way. What really interests the director are the rhythms of village life, the interactions between the characters (there's a simply beautiful scene between Sileye and Amady (Cheikh Dia), a good-hearted friend of Coumba's who helps her out) and the generational splits that are revealed in the family's attitudes to tradition.

The movie is structured around a series of polarities that the young characters must negotiate - education or marriage; the city or the village - and the director looks at each with remarkable even-handedness. Perspectives accrue as the movie progresses, from the point-of-view of Coumba and Debo's quiet, watchful mother (Mbourai Dia), who gently advises Coumba to "understand" her culture rather than try to change it, to that of Amady, who shares Coumba's ambitions for education and a life beyond the village, and is teased by his already-married young chums for doing so. In essence, though, Tall as the Baobab Tree is a film about sisterly love. Coumba and Debo's bond is established from the tight two-shot that opens the movie, which finds the girls softly singing a song whose lyrics will reverberate throughout the picture: "Courage, my dear, courage."

Rooted in real-life situations and well-acted by a cast made up of Sinthion Mbadane residents, Tall as the Baobab Tree has the palpable ring of truth, benefiting from Teicher's documentary background and combining that with the increased intimacy and space for reflection that fiction can offer. The director frequently elides obvious crowd-pleasing moments to place the emphasis elsewhere, often cutting to the aftermath of a revelation and letting the viewer find their bearings. Everyone he shows us (including the cows who frequently saunter in and out of shot) is treated with tender regard and respect. The result is a beautifully restrained and heartfelt film that deserves to be widely seen.

My interview with Jeremy Teicher can be read at Kubrick on the Guillotine.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Theatre Review: All That Fall (Jermyn Street Theatre)

An elderly, infirm Irish woman, Mrs. Rooney, treks to the station to meet her husband from the train as a birthday surprise for him. The journey there and back is at once comedy, tragedy and odyssey. The teeny-tiny Jermyn Street Theatre have scored something of a coup in getting Trevor Nunn to direct Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall - a one-act radio play first broadcast in 1957 - with Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon (no less), in the lead roles. Never meant for presentation in a theatre - “it is no more theatre than Endgame is radio and to act’ it is to kill it,” the proscriptive playwright averred - All That Fall has received occasional productions against Beckett’s wishes but surely none as illustrious as this.

Perhaps mindful of Beckett’s remarks, Nunn and his collaborators have opted to stage the work as a half radio play/half theatre production hybrid. Sounds predominate (footsteps, children’s voices, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden), the only set is a car door, mikes dangle from the ceiling, the actors hold their scripts at all times, but are appropriately costumed. (The effect is not unlike that of Martin Crimp’s production of Definitely the Bahamas at the Orange Tree back in March.)

Does this semi-staging “kill” the play, as Beckett insisted that it would? Very far from it. Rather, the result is as intense and memorable an hour and fifteen minutes as you’re likely to spend in a theatre this year. Composed between Godot and Endgame, reflecting the former and anticipating the latter in its concern with death and dependency, human striving and human suffering, All That Fall feels as rich and complex as either of those great works. Intimately attuned to the inimitable rhythms of the playwright’s glorious language, Atkins and Gambon are everything you would hope for, and a crack cast - Ian Conningham, Frank Grimes, Gerard Horan, Catherine Cusack, Ruairi Conaghan and James Hayes (the latter pair reunited from the Donmar’s recent Philapdelphia, Here I Come!) - are vivid in support. And how pleasing it is to see Nunn do such a lean, spare job of work here after the lumbering, cumbersome productions that seemed to be becoming his trademark.

What does this version give us that a radio version wouldn’t? Well, the sublime visual vaudeville of Mrs. Rooney being lifted into and out of a car, for one. Also, the sight of the great Gambon hands touching Atkins’s hair. And Atkins herself - by turns quizzical and anguished - distilling the play’s tragicomic vision into a look, a gesture. In short: worth begging, borrowing or stealing a ticket for.

Running until November 3rd.

Monday 8 October 2012

Theatre Review: The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (Rose, Kingston)

When Sam Walters staged The Thunderbolt - superbly - at the Orange Tree Theatre in 2010, an Arthur Wing Pinero revival was a rarity indeed. Now, just two years on, Pinero productions are suddenly popping up all over the place. The playwright’s 1887 comedy Dandy Dick was staged - alas, far from superbly - by Theatre Royal Brighton Productions earlier this year, The Magistrate opens at the National Theatre in November, and Joe Wright is directing Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ next year at the Donmar Warehouse.

In between, we have Stephen Unwin’s production of Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray at the Rose. Deemed “the greatest play of modern times” upon its premiere, Pinero’s 1893 drama has subsequently fallen into neglect along with the rest of the playwright’s output, a 1981 staging with Felicity Kendal being, apparently, its last significant outing. Unwin’s engaging revival of the play is the Rose’s second significant rediscovery in a row, following the venue’s premiering of ETT’s production of Somerset Maugham’s The Sacred Flame last month, a drama to which Pinero’s play makes a rather interesting companion piece in its engagement with issues of gender and social propriety.

As its title suggests, the play concerns the fallout from a remarriage. The widowed 40-year-old Aubrey Tanqueray surprises his chums with the announcement that he’s about to wed Paula, a woman in her late twenties. This isn’t, Aubrey admits, “the conventional sort of marriage likely to satisfy society,” for Paula is a “woman with a past,” including previous marriages and a period as a courtesan. Aubrey is aware of Paula’s history and seems to accept it. However, the return home of his daughter Ellean, who’s decided that convent life is not for her after all, puts pressure on the pair, as the second Mrs. Tanqueray finds her attempts to connect with her step-daughter rebuffed, and the challenges facing a “fallen” woman attempting to re-enter society as a “respectable” one gradually become clear.

In a section on Pinero in Modern British Drama, Christopher Innes critiques The Second Mrs. Tanqueray as a work of Ibsen-lite “surface naturalism,” a “conventional tragedy” whose “exposure of hypocrisy implicitly condones the system that produced it.” Not only does Innes’s appraisal overlook the play’s - plentiful - comedic touches, it also ignores the even-handed sympathy of Pinero’s approach to his characters and, most importantly, the play’s critique of the sexual double-standard which views male promiscuity as simply “living a man’s life” but which harshly judges women for similar transgressions.

Unwin’s simply staged and unfussy production brings all of these elements to the fore. Wavering, like The Thunderbolt, between comedy and (melo-)drama (the latter hinted at from the outset by Paul Wills’s forbidding, black, boxy set), and between old and new theatrical traditions, the play’s tonal shifts are striking and surprising. It must be said that Unwin’s production is more adept at drawing laughs than tears at the moment, though. While Dandy Dick suggested Pinero to be a somewhat clumsy farceur, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray reveals his winning way with an epigram. An entertainingly camp, rather Wildean opening scene nicely establishes the homosocial world that Aubrey’s marriage will see him leaving, with fine work from the lively, likeable Joseph Alessi, in particular, as Aubrey’s bachelor friend Cayley Drummle. And, later, there’s a gem of a comic duet performed by Sally Tatum and Daniel Goode as Paula’s silly, squiffy friends the Orreyeds whose marriage - based around drunkenness with the occasional outbreak of violence, it seems - offers an intriguing counterpoint to Paula and Aubrey’s problematic union.

Such episodes provide the most entertaining moments of the evening. But if the production doesn’t quite build up the tragic head of steam that it needs to, it proves compelling throughout. Often compared to A Doll’s House, the play also recalls The Lady From The Sea (itself brilliantly staged by Unwin at the Rose earlier this year) in its anatomising of an awkward step-family situation, and the tensions arising between Aubrey, Paula and Ellean are well caught here. What’s intriguing is that Pinero refuses to present Paula solely as a victim of society: she’s also undone by her own idiosyncrasies, her confused sense of shame and pride, her envy and her defensiveness.

By turns vulnerable and pert, an easily bored woman who believes that servants are “only machines made to wait upon people - and give evidence in the Divorce Court,” Paula is a complicated heroine and one that Laura Michelle Kelly doesn’t entirely succeed in fleshing out in a performance that often makes the character’s jealousy and insecurity look like mere petulance. (The decision to have Kelly provide the musical interludes between scenes also seems an unnecessary indulgence.) Still, the performance has some affecting moments, notably in an excellent encounter between Paula and one Mrs. Cortelyon (superb Jessica Turner), a friend of the first Mrs. Tanqueray whom Ellean quickly gravitates towards and whose presence increases Paula’s anxieties.

Aubrey is an equally complex figure, a man seemingly accepting of his wife’s past (he describes her as “a good woman - maimed”) yet so enamoured of his (spurious) vision of his daughter’s purity that he’s happy to send the girl away lest his wife prove a corrupting influence. A gruff James Wilby starts out strong and commanding, but indulges in some hamming as the drama progresses, biting into his lines over-eagerly and adding strange pauses and emphases. In order for The Second Mrs. Tanqueray to deliver its intended emotional punch, these two central performances will need to sharpen up a touch. Even so, this is a solid and welcome revival of an intriguingly conflicted play.

Running until October 27th.

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Theatre Review: Relatively Speaking (Richmond Theatre, & touring)

2012 has certainly turned into something of an impromptu Alan Ayckbourn fest in British Theatreland. Ayckbourn’s seventy-fifth play Neighbourhood Watch toured earlier this year before pitching up at London’s Tricycle; Jeremy Herrin’s production of Absent Friends appeared in February at the Harold Pinter Theatre and that theatre is now playing host to Trevor Nunn’s just-opened revival of A Chorus of Disapproval. Meanwhile, Ayckbourn’s attempt at a ghost story, 1994’s Haunting Julia, is touring again, and it’s now joined on the circuit by Lindsay Posner’s production of Relatively Speaking— Ayckbourn’s 1967 comedy and first West End success—produced by Theatre Royal Bath Productions. None of these outings has done much to win over those unconvinced by Ayckbourn’s status as a major British dramatist. And, alas, Posner’s forced and charmless production proves to be perhaps the weakest yet.

The plot centres on a series of—allegedly hilarious—farcical misunderstandings. Ginny (Kara Tointon) informs her boyfriend Greg (Max Bennett) - who’s just proposed to her—that she’s going to visit her parents in Buckinghamshire, and that she doesn’t want Greg to accompany her on the trip. Greg, however, decides to follow her there, with the intention of asking her parents’ permission to marry her, and pitches up at the house of Sheila (Felicity Kendal) and Philip (Jonathan Coy) before Ginny arrives. It turns out, though, that the couple aren’t Ginny’s parents at all, but that Philip is actually Ginny’s lover, whom she’s attempting to rid herself of.

As with much of Ayckbourn’s work, it’s tempting to call Relatively Speaking “sitcom-esque.” But to do so seems a slight on even the most inept sitcom. The play’s premise is paltry, without an ounce of the credibility that even the broadest situation comedy requires, and Ayckbourn’s development of it never builds up a head of steam.

In the programme essay, Al Senter valiantly attempts to make a case for the play as capturing its historical moment and reflecting “the profound changes that were convulsing British society during the 1960s.” But, despite a smidgeon of male nudity and a suggestion of pre-marital sex in the (deathly) opening scene, this kind of social awareness simply isn’t in the text. Indeed, it seems almost inconceivable that, while Relatively Speaking was enjoying its first West End run, Joe Orton was penning his biting satires and Simon Gray’s razor-sharp Butley (itself so beautifully revived by Posner last year) was only a couple of years away.

This could be forgiven, of course, if the play offered some genuinely witty lines and exchanges. But Ayckbourn’s trite, rhythm-less dialogue continually lets you down. Primed to laugh, the audience latches—sometimes maniacally—onto any opportunity, no matter how meagre, with the result that a line as innocuous as “Shall we play bridge?” is greeted by gales of overzealous guffaws by the end.

The characterisation is so insipid that the actors are up against it from the start. Tointon tends to read her lines flatly, with the same intonations, while Kendal flaps around in a vain attempt to make Sheila’s ditziness endearing. There’s a moment close to the end when it seems that Ayckbourn is going to give this character a chance to show some real spark and awareness, but the opportunity is quickly sacrificed. Bennett has some effective moments and Coy delivers the crispest performance. But overall this is a weak production of a  terminally bland play.

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Monday 1 October 2012

Tori Amos: PopMatters Performer Spotlight Week

"Surrender! Then start your engines." For some of us, it must be admitted, almost every week is Tori Amos week. But over at PopMatters, this week - that is, the-release-of-Gold Dust [review] week - is Amos week. So saddle up for the first day of the Performer Spotlight series featuring exclusive interviews with Amos and her collaborators, album re-appraisals (Scarlet's Walk and Strange Little Girls here), classic concert moments and much, much more besides. The series kicks off with my essay on identity and image in Amoss work, which you can read right here.