Monday 30 December 2013

End of Year Review: Cinema - 15 Favourite Films

Practically everywhere you looked, 2013’s cinema seemed to be full of characters hitting the road: whether in search of a mythical lottery win (Nebraska), a solution to a family mystery (Ida), an escape from an environment none too supportive of cross-generational gay sex (Gerontophilia), a Grandfather (Side By Side), or simply some horny hitchhikers to do VERY BAD THINGS to (Under the Skin). While no one movie moved me quite as deeply as the one that topped my list last year (see here), there’s no disputing that 2013 added up to an extremely rich and varied film year. From the sweet transgression of LaBruce’s gorgeous, funny romance to the existential chill of Glazer’s haunting mix of sci-fi poetics and grit-Brit realism, from the utterly immersive epic intimacy of Blue is the Warmest Colour to the beguiling between-blockbuster diversion of Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, here’s my Top 15.

Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer) Our world through alien eyes as Scarlett Johansson’s extra-terrestrial abandons her mysterious mission to take a walk on the human side for a while. Glazer’s Lynch-via-Loach opus gets precisely where its title indicates. Full review here.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche) The sex scenes got the headlines, but what mattered most in Kechiche’s three hour exercise in empathy was the movie’s absolute rapt absorption in everyday pains and pleasures and how those add up to form the developing weave of a life, and a consciousness. Essential.

Gerontophilia (dir. Bruce LaBruce) As tender as it is transgressive, LaBruce’s hilarious and heartbreaking take on a teenage boy’s erotic fixation on the elderly was a highlight of my time at the Toronto Film Festival, and deserves to get UK distribution ASAP. (Are you listening Peccadillo Pics?)Full review here.

Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski) Pawlikowski’s return to Poland resulted in his finest feature yet in this character study about a road trip undertaken by a young girl about to take holy orders and her wayward aunt. Working from a surprisingly astute script by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the movie conjours 60s Poland's commie drabness via sublime black-and-white images and nuanced performances from its two leads.

Bertolucci on Bertolucci (dir. Luca Guadagnino) With no voiceover and barely a clip, Luca Guadagnino’s exhilarating talk-fest doc elegantly pieces together interviews with Bernardo Bertolucci to form an absorbing tapestry of the director’s career that takes him from handsome young poet to wheelchair-bound, but still active, elder statesman. Bravo.

Night Moves (dir. Kelly Reichardt) Reichardt’s eco-thriller-as-morality-play has more overt narrative drive than her earlier features without losing any of their subtlety or attention to nuance.  

InRealLife (dir. Beeban Kidron) Funny, frightening and moving by turns, Kidron’s doc overcame questionable directorial decisions (Rizzle Kicks on the soundtrack, anyone?) to become an urgent yet non-hectoring exploration of the effect of the Internet on our brains, attention spans and interpersonal relationships. Full review here.

Wadjda (dir. Haifaa Al Mansour) Or, The Kid Without A Bike. Al Mansour’s lovely, humane movie spins from its intimate portrait of a teenage girl’s desire for a bicycle a wider portrait of women’s position in Saudi society. Full review here.

B For Boy (dir. Chika Anadu) A Dardennes influence is also apparent in Chika Anadu's excellent debut feature in which a pregnant Nigerian woman, under pressure to produce a male child, resorts to desperate measures when she loses the baby. Like Al Mansour’s movie, Anadu's uses a low-key, relatable, realist framework to gesture towards a wider social picture, drawing the viewer into the protagonist’s dilemma without recourse to speech-making or histrionics.

Bastards (dir. Claire Denis) Denis’s impeccably brooding and enigmatic revenge drama is one of her bleakest, most troubling works. The first film I saw at TIFF, it proved one of the hardest to shake off. Full review here.

Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón) If Sam Beckett and Jim Cameron had teamed up on a project it’s possible that the result would have been something like this. Full review here.

Stranger By The Lake (dir. Alain Guiraudie) Evoking Denis and Ozon at their finest, Guiraudie's tranquil but taut cruising resort thriller manages to be funny, disturbing and sexy-as-hell by turns. Full review here.

12 Years A Slave (dir. Steve McQueen) Django Unchained’s sober sibling. Full review here.

Much Ado About Nothing (dir. Joss Whedon) So here’s to more director’s between-blockbuster diversions.

Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach) “This apartment is very aware of itself,” announces one character in Frances Ha. The same might be said for Noah Baumbach’s super-self-conscious study of late 20-something directionlessness in which the interactions are arch and the best bit a steal from Leos Carax. Still, Frances Ha earns itself a place on the list because it’s fun to see a US movie making some overtures to French film for a change, and because Greta Gerwig’s performance is grating and great all at once. And also because I had the pleasure of seeing the movie on a July weekend that turned out to be one of the happiest weekends I spent in 2013. Sometimes, it’s not just the movie, but what happens around the time you see the movie, that counts.

Honourable mentions: Stoker (dir. Park Chan-wook), What Maisie Knew (dir. Scott McGehee, David Siegel), A Story of Children and Film (dir. Mark Cousins), As I Lay Dying (dir. James Franco), Saving Mr. Banks (dir. John Lee Hancock), Violette (dir. Martin Provost), Abuse of Weakness (dir. Catherine Breillat)

Late to the party: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Barbara, Lincoln, Yossi.

Disappointments, duds: Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears), Adore (dir. Anne Fontaine), Young and Beautiful (dir. Francois Ozon),  A Late Quartet (dir. Yaron Zilberman).

Thursday 19 December 2013

End of Year Review: Theatre - 10 Favourite Productions

Between Ian Rickson’s glacial revival of Harold Pinter’s Old Times in the West End and a grim trip to Stratford for the RSC’s very unmerry Merry Wives of Windsor, my theatre year started fairly lamely: a seeming continuation of last year’s rather slim pickings. But, happily, the year gathered momentum and soon there was one terrific production after another. Sure, there were some disappointing seasons (Jamie Lloyd and Michael Grandage, take a bow) as well as productions that were mixed bags or that tripped up on a play’s flaws. Lloyd’s overrated revival of The Pride, for example, conveyed 1950s ache with acuity but over-pitched the play’s weaker contemporary scenes while James MacDonald’s Donmar revival of Roots delivered two Acts of radiant, detailed domestic realism but couldn’t do much to redeem Wesker’s hectoring finale. In contrast, other productions overcame mediocre material thanks to an inventive design or distinguished performances: witness, for one, Jenny Lee and Eileen Nicholas's beautiful turns as the Glasgow neighbours separated not so much by a wall as by their contrasting temperaments in the Finborough's revival of I Didn't Always Live Here.  With new artistic directors in position for several major venues it’s all change for the UK theatre scene in 2014: an exciting prospect indeed. In the meantime, here’s my list of favourite shows from the stuff I managed to catch in 2013: a motley crew featuring more musicals than usual, no Shakespeares for once, and several striking new works and revivals. Curtain up.  

The Light Princess (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

Sympathising with royalty doesn’t often occur at Trends Towers, which is one reason that I’d just about have rather stuck a pin in my eye than gone to see The Audience. And yet, as it so happens, it was the parallel trajectories of a floating princess and a solemn prince – she towards gravity, he towards levity – that provided this year’s most involving and inspiring journey for me. (A “To hell with the imperial!” refrain always helps.) Combining music, acrobatics, puppetry and a healthy feminist politics into a seamless, original whole, Marianne Elliott’s luscious, inventive staging of Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s rich musical fairytale was a case of love at first sight when I clapped eyes and ears on it a few months ago and my admiration and appreciation for the show has only deepened on (quite a few…) subsequent encounters. It is, by far, my show of the year. Intricate in its structure, neither too sweet nor too harsh, contemporary in its perspective yet timeless enough, Adamson and Amos’s book and lyrics dig deep into our escapist urges and the difficulties of challenging parental expectations, while the generous, supple soundscape of a score (too demanding, it seems, for those weaned on the more predictable pleasures of the jukebox musical) pounds and shimmers, glides and swoons, constantly surprising yet also embracing and welcoming the listener: much like the lovely lake that becomes, for a time, our hovering heroine’s haven. Running on pure emotion, the music moves from the exhilarating drama of “My Own Land” to the melting seduction of the love ballad “Althea,” from the sheer gleeful jubilance of “Better Than Good” to the heart-breaking wrench and operatic intensity of “No H20,” alert as Amos’s work has always been to the pain of confrontation, the necessity of finding one's own path, and the ever-shifting complexities of emotional life. Supported by vivid turns from Nick Hendrix, Clive Rowe and Amy Booth-Steel, at the show’s heart is an unforgettable performance of staggering range and virtuosity by Rosalie Craig that navigates the show’s singular demands with apparent effortlessness and total conviction. An absolutely exquisite experience: that’s what comes of Light. Full review here.

A Time To Reap (Royal Court)

 “Rhianna’s ‘Only Girl (In The World)’ is playing in my head…” A Polish girl, Marysia, steps from a Warsaw-London flight into the arms of a childhood chum, Piotr, who’s studying in the city, having left behind her abortionist employer/lover, who happens to be Piotr’s Dad. This tricky triangle is at the centre of Anna Wakulik’s sharp, poignant, funny and painful play. The publicity material made the piece sound like a whole heap of issues masquerading as a drama but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Sure, Wakulik’s play has Polish attitudes to religion and abortion at its heart, but it explores them through a character-centred approach and a quirky, fluid method that moves the protagonists rapidly through time and place. Caroline Steinbeis’s lickety-split production was right on target in all departments, and was crowned by a performance of startling freshness and verve by Sinead Matthews, one of the two awesome performances (the other was in Trout Stanley) that this prodigious actress gave on the London stage this year.

Merrily We Roll Along (Harold Pinter Theatre)

The Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s reverse-chronology musical received a most welcome West End revival at the Harold Pinter. Maria Friedman’s zesty, confident take on a much-re-written piece mitigated the obvious moralising of the show’s corruption-by-success narrative thanks to a sharp, sleek design by Soutra Gilmour, the edgy energy of Tim Jackson’s choreography and the incomparable trio of Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damien Humbley. Clinging to one another during a gorgeous “Old Friends” these three generated an unforgettable, magical warmth. And in the graced, moving final scene Friedman’s production did full justice to the show’s sad undertow, and the poignancy of its characters’ interwoven journeys from experience to innocence. Full review here.

The Amen Corner (National Theatre)

My other favourite NT show was Rufus Norris’s great production of James Baldwin’s seldom-seen play. There are plenty of things about the writing that I don't like, but the flaws of the piece were overcome in Norris’s lively, loving staging which marked a sensational return to the London stage for Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the proud preacherwoman getting a lesson in humility from her errant ex. Full review here.

Armstrong’s War (Finborough)

 A wounded soldier bonding over books with a disabled pre-teen … The premise of Colleen Murphy’s latest play sounded super-worthy and studded with sentimental pitfalls. But what was striking about Armstrong’s War, which received an all-too-brief workshop production at the Finborough prior to its official world premiere in Canada, is just how deftly such traps were avoided. Exceptional performances from Mark Quartley and Jessica Barden turned Jennifer Bakst’s production into an irresistibly involving and beautifully sustained duet. Revival please. Full review here.

The Winslow Boy (Old Vic)

It was slim pickings for those of us craving a Rattigan fix this year. But, though it didn’t quite get the recognition that it deserved, Lindsay Posner’s beautiful, deeply-felt take on The Winslow Boy is a production that I recall with a great deal of love and pleasure (and was by far the best show that I saw at the Old Vic in 2013). Gently revealing the sorrows, humour and hopes of the drama, and with fine performances from Henry Goodman, Deborah Findlay, Nick Hendrix, Naomi Frederick and Charlie Rowe, it’s hard to imagine seeing the play served better than this. (Plus: Trends bonus point for the mention of Reading.) Full review here.

The Silence of the Sea (Trafalgar Studios)

Simon Evans’s production of Anthony Weigh’s adaptation of Vercors’s 1942 novella – about a German officer billeted at the coastal home of a French man and his pianist niece who respond to the intruder's presence with silence – proved a haunting thing indeed, an atmospheric slow-burn about connection and resistance that featured terrific work from Leo Bill, Finbar Lynch and Simona Bitmaté. Full review here.

Before The Party (Almeida)

You wouldn't call the moral bankruptcy of the British upper-classes  a novel theme, exactly. But Matthew Dunster’s take on Rodney Ackland’s Before The Party (based on a Somerset Maugham short story) was a creamy dream of a revival: ideally cast, sharp yet humane, and very funny. Bonus points to the Orange Tree’s spiffing  revival of The Breadwinner, another Maugham work concerned with breaking free from conventional expectations and family ties, that nicely complemented this one. Full review here

The Middlemarch Trilogy (Orange Tree)

Eight and a half hours well spent! Geoffrey Beevers’s ambitious project to stage Middlemarch sounded doomed but after an arch start this Trilogy developed and deepened into something special, avoiding either anachronism or period drama fustiness through its wry yet sensitive approach. Terrific work from the multi-tasking ensemble, too. Full review here

The Rocky Horror Show (touring)

“It’s not easy, having a good time,” opines the rapacious Mr. Frank N. Furter. Well, it is if you’re attending this show. In its 40th year, Richard O’Brien’s one-of-a-kind musical can seldom have looked in ruder health (or just plain ruder)  than it did in Christopher Luscombe’s touring anniversary production, which delivered the show’s delirious mix of sci-fi spoof, camp horror and all round midnight movie-derived excess with soul-satisfying alomb. Geeveing yourself over to absoloot play-sure was never more delightful. Full review here.

Honourable mentionsThe Man Who Pays the Piper (Orange Tree), Larisa and the Merchants (Arcola), A Doll's House (Manchester Royal Exchange)

Disappointments, dudsThe Hothouse (Trafalgar Studios), Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense (Duke of York's), Sweet Bird of Youth (Old Vic), Much Ado About Nothing (Old Vic)

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Theatre Review: The Middlemarch Trilogy: Fred and Mary (Orange Tree)

Photo: Robert Day

Following Dorothea’s Story and The Doctor’s Story, the Orange Tree’s absorbing Middlemarch Trilogy concludes with Fred and Mary. It’s a lively, fetching and fond finale. While the previous instalments took as their principal focus the novel’s two famous miserable marriages (those between Dorothea and Casaubon and Lydgate and Rosamund), the last part of Geoffrey Beevers’s adaptation offers a counter of sorts by honing in on one of the text’s more peripheral - and, ultimately, more affirmative – relationships: that between Rosamund’s brother Fred and Mary Garth, daughter of a land agent and nurse to Fred’s uncle Featherstone. Another pair of contrasting types, Fred and Mary’s is a union forged in childhood that’s being renegotiated in adulthood. It’s challenged by Fred’s fecklessness, as he abandons his university studies, flirts with entering the Church, and counts on a legacy from Featherstone to get him out of his debts – an inheritance that Mary inadvertently ends up thwarting.  

If Beevers was intimidated by the prospect of adapting Middlemarch for the stage, then he hasn’t let it show. His respect for the text is plainly evident in his faithful replication of Eliot’s language, both in the dialogue interludes and the authorial commentary that’s shared, beautifully, by the cast as choric commentators. But he also treats the novel lightly, and a bit irreverently, clearly enjoying the challenge of translating its broad social picture into a tiny theatre. As my response to Dorothea’s Story demonstrated, the often cheeky approach takes a bit of getting used to. But by this third instalment it feels perfectly natural, and the production’s deft avoidance of either flagrant anachronism on the one hand or fussy period fustiness on the other is one of its most admirable qualities. And it’s fun to see Beevers continuing to spring playful surprises on us, such as the production’s presentation of Mary’s siblings Ben and Letty (which it would be churlish to reveal here).   

The attention and care that the director has put into the Trilogy continues to pay dividends in this final part, with several scenes echoing, reprising or deepening those in the previous instalments. If aspects of the political context remain sketchier than they do in the novel, the adaptation still succeeds in suggesting a community with its complex social gradations: a wonderfully-orchestrated perspective shift presents the gentry snobbily surveying the mourners at the Featherstone funeral before swiftly transforming the cast into the observed congregation itself.  

The evening is full of such swift, surprising transitions, as Beevers’s versatile cast continue to play together wonderfully well, popping out epigrammatic statements with aplomb, inhabiting a new character with the mere donning of a jacket. Lucy Tregear and Michael Lumsden come to the fore with their effective doublling as Ma and Pa Vincey and Ma and Pa Garth, revealing two contrasting approaches to life and to parenting that have influenced their children’s attitudes. Christopher Naylor fleshes out his already-sympathetic vicar Farebrother as he presents him making a difficult sacrifice. Ben Lambert renders the spoilt Fred’s post-studies lack of direction all-too recognisable and Daisy Ashford makes Mary an epitome of forthright good sense that’s never sentimentalised. And Jamie Newall – the pursed Casaubon of Dorothea’s Story – plays the ailing Featherstone with delicious relish.  

“One is constantly wondering what kind of life others lead and how they take things” ponders Dorothea at one point. The cumulative effect of these three marvellous productions is to give an inclusive sense of “others’ lives”: of the interaction of “ordinary” characters of highly contrasting temperaments, whose actions impact upon each other in ways both trivial and profound, as the evening wends its way, once more, to Eliot’s concluding tribute to “the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Playful but deep, absorbing but not ponderous, this Trilogy is another significant achievement for the Orange Tree and adds up to eight and a half hours exceedingly well spent.  

Theatre Review: Puss in Boots (Hackney Empire)

London Theatre: Josefina Gabrielle (Evil witch Evilena) © Robert Workman

With its gorgeous interior, music hall echoes and warm, welcoming sense of community, Hackney Empire remains one of the most beloved of London theatres. And the venue's pantomimes, written and directed since 1998 by Creative Director Susie McKenna, are among the best regarded and most highly anticipated of the season. If the last couple of Christmas shows have disappointed some, then that's been due mainly to the absence of the venerable Clive Rowe – the theatre's regular Dame – in the cast. But Rowe's successor, Steve Elias, won mostly great reviews for his performance last year and the post-Rowe productions have still proved hits for the Empire. This year looks unlikely to be different as, with the rarely-performed Puss in Boots, McKenna and her team deliver another lively mix of song, dance, madcap humour and loud-and-proud E8 localism that, while not quite a classic, adds up nonetheless to a very enjoyable evening.

Boasting a gleefully gaudy design by Lotte Collette, the production transports French writer Charles Perrault's Italian-derived tale to the "kingdom of Hackneyonia" where our feline hero pitches up with his master Thomas, after the latter is usurped out of his inheritance by his brother. Played with great gusto by the charismatic (and aptly monikered) Hackney regular Kat B, this Puss is a strutting, saucy, Jamaican-accented swashbuckler. And after donning his magic boots, it's not long before he and Thomas are heading to Downs Park Abbey, residence of the bad Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha, who's embroiled in a feud with her enabler and childhood chum, the evil witch Evilena. Add to the mix a pert princess, a cheeky housekeeper and an ogre, and the stage is set for some class-crossing romance and a good-versus-evil face-off that will require Puss's ingenuity to save the day.

The plot that McKenna has fashioned from Perrault's story feels more cluttered and all-over-the-place than usual, lurching from one set of characters to the next with little regard for even a semblance of continuity or coherence. Tossed into the mix are a tap dance routine, Les Mis and Lion King parodies, an art-class interlude and a whole heap of revelations in the second half, plus a singalong cat chorus. Some promising elements are simply thrown away, and with fuzzy plotting and not one but two villainesses on board, audience members could be forgiven for being rather confused as to just whom to hiss at first.

What villainesses, though! Last seen giving a performance of memorable quiet power in Rufus Norris's great NT revival of The Amen Corner, the mighty Sharon D Clarke is back on belting form here. The actress goes all-out as Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha, stopping the show with her soulful singing, right royal rump-shaking ("Boo me! I'm booty-licious") and great put-downs ("Ignorant rabble! I bet you all come from Shoreditch!"). Clarke has a perfect match in the ever-stylish Josefina Gabrielle, who's in typically terrific, throaty form as the eminently hissable Evilena. The production is at its juiciest when these two are facing off, and one might wish that McKenna had made more of the Wicked-ish back-story between the pair that sadly remains little more than a tantalising hint.

Currently raising the roof of the National Theatre with his sensational performance as King Darius in The Light Princess, Clive Rowe is of course absent from the stage again this year (though he was spotted in the press night audience). His replacement this time out is Stephen Matthews who does decent though not especially distinctive Dame duty as Nettie Knowall, Downs Park's housekeeper, who is Nick Knowles, Alan Titchmarsh and Mary Berry rolled into one. More fun is provided by Darren Hart, who's a scream as Nettie's airhead daughter Amnesiah, and by Amy Lennox who stomps brilliantly through a rendition of Jessie J's "It's My Party".

There's a decided lack of lyricism to the approach overall, and some moments are over-extended. But McKenna's production – helped along by stellar music and choreography from Steven Edis and Frank Thompson – is another fun festive family treat from the Empire, a purist panto with enough attitude and edge to make a trip to Hackneyonia well worth your while.

Theatre Review: Dick! Comes Again: Bigger, Longer, Harder (Leicester Square Theatre)

My review of Stuart Saint's Dick! Comes Again is up at The Public Reviews. You can read it here.

Monday 9 December 2013

Film Review: Nebraska (dir. Payne, 2013)

Alexander Payne's Nebraska is out on general release in the UK. You can read my review of it here.

Saturday 30 November 2013

Film Review: Jeune et Jolie (dir. Ozon, 2013)


François Ozon's Jeune et Jolie (Young and Beautiful) is just out in the UK. I reviewed it at TIFF and you can find the piece here, under the rave for Gerontophilia.

Theatre Review: Trout Stanley (Southwark Playhouse)

My review of Matt Steinberg's production of Claudia Dey's play Trout Stanley is up at The Public Reviews. You can read it here.

Thursday 21 November 2013

Theatre Review: From Morning To Midnight (National Theatre, Lyttelton)


If Franz Kafka had penned a Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin episode and got Robert Wiene to direct it (with Terry Gilliam on hand to assist him, perhaps) then it’s possible that the end result would have been something like From Morning To Midnight, the latest production from Melly Still, which had its first preview performance in the Lyttelton on Tuesday night. Written in 1912, Georg Kaiser’s episodic Expressionist drama concerns a bank clerk who, shaken out of his dull routine by the appearance of a glam femme, absconds from his job with 60,000 gold marks in his pocket and an existentialist’s inquiry in his heart: that is, to discover “a reason for being alive, a reason for actually drawing breath.” It’s a quest that leads our hero through various locales (from hotel to snowy wasteland, brothel to Salvation Army meeting) over the course of one day, as Kaiser explores the kind of freedom and meaning attainable by Modern Man.
The National has this season’s Edward II on its hands with From Morning To Midnight, a production that, while clearly captivating some audience members, sent a number fleeing from the theatre at the interval and prompted the man in front of me to deem the show “The worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Without going that far (I, for one, would sooner sit through this production than the frightful Jeeves and Wooster again, for starters), the show is a mixed bag indeed. An inert text by Dennis Kelly (a writer who keeps getting commissions beyond his capabilities, it seems to me) is one of its major problems; it simply doesn’t do justice to the play’s leaps from the mundane to the phantasmagorical or provide the production with enough ballast to ground its effects and multiple coups de théâtre. Moreover, the piece feels, in this rendering, intellectually mediocre, its elements of social critique muted.   

Still can be a wonderfully witty, imaginative director: her Beasts and Beauties was a marvel and, in Coram Boy, she delivered one of the finest-ever NT productions. And she certainly goes all-out to stage some big, startling moments here. They include a daringly sustained, near-wordless opening sequence presenting the bank’s routine and bustle; a snowstorm epiphany; and some deft, amusing early sequences that take us into the Clerk’s fantasies of himself as an intrepid romantic hero. Best of all is a great scene in which the Clerk rejects his family that’s punctuated by Kelly Williams’s fine shriek as the abandoned spouse – one of the all-too-rare moments in which a genuine human emotion pierces through the production’s conception.    

The problem is that too many of the episodes come off, precisely, as self-conscious Big, Startling Moments designed to make the audience go “Wow!” and as a consequence the production feels at once over-elaborate and weirdly empty. Indeed, for a show that features a cycle race, bopping and a bawdy cabaret amongst other to-ing and fro-ing in its second half, much of From Morning To Midnight is surprisingly sluggish, the show reaching its nadir in a painfully protracted Salvation Army sequence (featuring Edward II-esque video projections, oh joy) that starts to feel like it will never, ever end. There’s also something offensive about the implications of this final scene and Kaiser’s eagerness to turn characters into money-grasping betrayers.
Some of the production’s pacing problems will probably be ironed out over the course of the preview period, but other troublesome aspects run deeper. Nodding and winking at the work of Wiene and Fritz Lang amongst others, Soutra Gilmour’s design combines with Bruno Poet’s lighting to forge another dispiriting gloom-and-shadows special (see here and here) that confuses depressive with impressive. And while the onstage band’s pastiching of silent film scores adds zing to scattered moments the musicians are ultimately strangely underused.

Fronting Still’s hard-working, multi-tasking ensemble, the always-inventive Adam Godley does all kinds of interesting physical things in the lead role; first seen as a mere silent cog in the machine of the bank, he unravels with zeal but never manages to create a character we come to care about. His Clerk remains a cipher to the  (bitter) end, and consequently the protagonist’s journey has no poignancy and no emotional power.
That goes for the whole production, in fact. From Morning To Midnight is an admirably daring choice for the NT. It's a landmark expressionist play, and I'm happy that I saw it, but I'd have liked to have seen it served better than it is here. As it is, Still’s production lumbers on (and on) and Kelly’s version makes the play’s perceptions look too puny to carry the weight.

Theatre Review: Eat Pray Laugh! Barry Humphries' Farewell Tour (London Palladium)

My review of Eat Pray Laugh! Barry Humphries's Farewell Tour is up at The Public Reviews. You can read it here.

Monday 18 November 2013

Theatre Review: The Middlemarch Trilogy: The Doctor's Story (Orange Tree)

Geoffrey Beevers’s Middlemarch Trilogy shapes up into something special with its second instalment, The Doctor’s Story. While there were many aspects to admire in the first production, Dorothea’s Story [review here], some slightly fussy, knowing touches marred the overall effect of the adaptation for me. The Doctor’s Story retains the same kind of aesthetic and approach as the first production with swift scene transitions, minimal set, audience address and other Brechty business. But the overall tone is less arch and irony-filled and consequently more consistently absorbing. Fans of a certain well-regarded Mafia series might think of the production as the equivalent of The Godfather, Part II: a second part that proves totally compelling in its own right while also deepening and enriching the experience of the first.

The play’s focus is another problem marriage with its “hidden as well as evident troubles”. The studious doctor Tertius Lydgate is, like Dorothea, another of Eliot’s idealists and he arrives in Middlemarch with the desire to do “good work for [the town] and great work for the world.” But gradually Lydgate finds his principles and position compromised by the surprising complexities of Middlemarch society, first via his marriage to the solipsistic coquette Rosamond Vincey and then through his association with the banker Bulstrode.

Beevers’s adaptation dropped hints of the dramas occurring for Lydgate on the periphery of Dorothea’s story and it’s fascinating to see how he brings those to the fore here while relegating Dorothea to the sidelines for the most part. There’s a wonderful sense of life going on around the characters, with some of the first production’s scenes replayed from different vantage points. The detailed, supple work from the ensemble once again astounds, with the company contributing vivid performances in their main role/s and then transforming themselves into surly pub gossipers or squabbling committee members as required.

As the Lydgates, David Ricardo-Pearce and Niamh Walsh brilliantly convey the tensions of a marriage foundering on its partners contrasting temperaments. Rosamond’s move from perfect self-absorption to an awakening to the reality of other people in the great scene with Dorothea is charted especially movingly. Christopher Naylor is terrifically likeable as the vicar Farebrother, while Christopher Ettridge fleshes out the duplicitous, blackmailed Bulstrode and Liz Crowther does a subtle heart-breaker of a turn as his deluded wife. The result is a production that conveys, through the most minimal yet creative of means, the bustle and flow of a community and the intense private dilemmas and dramas playing out behind its doors.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Film Review: Saving Mr. Banks (dir. Hancock, 2013)

So who would have suspected that a whole heap of unresolved Daddy/daughter issues lay beneath the shiny, happy surface of … Mary Poppins? That’s the case put forward in John Lee Hancock’s funny, touching and surprisingly beguiling Saving Mr. Banks (the Closing Night film of this year’s London Film Festival) which dramatises the conflicts that arose from Walt Disney’s determination to bring P.L.Travers’s books to the cinema screen in a (now beloved) all-singin’, all-dancin’ form.
Hancock’s frankly Freudian take on these events pits its avuncular, wily Disney (Tom Hanks) against a prim, schoolmarmish, control freak Mrs. T. (Emma Thompson) as the Mouse man flies the fiercely reluctant - but cash-strapped - author out to Hollywood and tries to woo her for once and for all into signing over the rights to the Poppins books. Interspersed with these 1960s scenes - which find Travers wrangling with Disney and his creative team over the movie’s script, design, characterisation and casting (“Dick van Dyke is not one of the greats!” she protests) - are flashbacks to the writer’s childhood in turn-of-the-century Australia. Here, as the movie tells it, Travers’s early life with her eccentric, alcoholic pa (Colin Farrell) and put-upon mother (Ruth Wilson) sowed the seeds for her future literary creations.
Hancock made a botch of his previous outing The Blind Side but, working from an astute, affectionate script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, he gets the tone right in this new film, producing a movie about movie-making that avoids the various pitfalls of archness, cynicism or cosy self-adoration. That Saving Mr. Banks is a Walt Disney Production should alert you to the fact that the film isn’t the place to go to for a blistering critique of the Mouse House. Sure, Thompson’s Travers gets to whip out caustic denunciations of the Disney Empire as a crass, vulgarising, “dollar-printing machine” but Walt’s perspective that the work that both he and Travers does as storytellers “instils hope [in audiences] time and again” is finally the view that dominates.
Still, the film’s presentation of the pair’s interaction and the workings of the Disney studio proves nuanced enough. Starting out as nicely-done culture-clash comedy (“It smells like chlorine. And sweat” is Travers’s verdict on L.A. when she steps from the plane), the film digs deeper as it goes along, its points about adaptation and authorship developing in a great series of script-meeting scenes that find Travers’s tart, unforgiving personality testing the patience of toothy American geniality as represented by Mary Poppins’s screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and its composers the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak).

At the heart of the picture is a platonic male/female double act to place alongside the one in Philomena. But Hancock’s movie rings a whole lot richer and truer than Frears’s does; it’s actually made with some genuine feeling and sensibility. It also helps that, unlike Philomena, Saving Mr Banks feels thoroughly inhabited by other vivid, well-drawn characters – each of whom makes you grin a little every time they appear and who complement Hanks and Thompson’s well-judged turns in the lead roles. Hanks makes his twinkling Disney a man who knows that charm’s the best way to get what he wants, while Thompson (the spirit of Nanny McPhee constantly hovering) uses her crack comedy timing to cut through some of the movie’s more manipulative bits. The moment when her Travers charges into the boss’s office bellowing “Disney!” in scary low tones suggests a sensational Lady Bracknell in the actress’s future.
Throughout, Hancock proves himself adept at bringing out understated, intimate moments, especially in the scenes that show Travers’s loneliness and disorientation in L.A. and how those feelings pull her back into sometimes painful memories of her past. (The film’s flashback structure and literary-creation themes mark it out as a companion piece to Gavin Millar’s quirkier, Dennis Potter-scripted Dreamchild.) The Australia-set scenes initially look a tad too whimsical but they gain in grit, helped by Colin Farrell’s best screen performance in ages and the piercingly plaintive notes that Ruth Wilson strikes as Travers’s mother, a woman rendered increasingly desperate by her husband’s wayward actions.
Saving Mr. Banks has some shortcomings: in particular, the over-extended ending, set at the Poppins premiere, is fumbled. Elsewhere, though, scenes that, by rights, shouldn’t work come off: witness Travers’s tentative bonding with her sweet chauffeur (Paul Giamatti). Mostly, the film is lovely, and its centrepiece sequence - in which the frosty Travers finally thaws out when introduced to the delights of “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” - is as purely joyous a moment as 2013’s movies have offered.
Saving Mr Banks opens in the UK on 29th November.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Theatre Review: Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense (Duke of York's)

Well, I’m dashed. Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense pairs Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan as P.G. Wodehouse’s beloved comic creations in a play adapted by Robert and David Goodale from the 1938 The Code of the Woosters and directed by Sean Foley. Following a brief tour the production has now pitched up in the West End where it’s booking until March next year. Not being much of a Wodehouse enthusiast my expectations for the evening rested mostly on Foley’s involvement: I enjoyed the quirky, boldly theatrical spin that the director put on his production of The Ladykillers a couple of years ago. (Recast, that production is currently back in the West End too.)

Foley certainly strives to bring a similar kind of brio to his latest outing, but the results prove much less successful. Indeed, I’d rank Perfect Nonsense as one of the archest, smuggest, most superfluous productions that the West End has seen in many a long year. A show-offy star vehicle for its actors, its Woman in Black-derived conceit is that the action is unfolding in a theatre that Bertie has hired to stage his story of a disastrous weekend and where, as usual, he requires Jeeves’s expert aid to help him out. And so, while the cobbled-together plot goes hang, the evening becomes a roll-call of fussy, meta set-pieces featuring much wink-wink audience address, a lot of rolling on of scenery, the highlighting of location shifts, and the actors (multi-tasking Mark Hadfield completes the trio) leaping manically from role to role and generally mugging it up like there's no tomorrow. Macfadyen does drag (rather scarily). Mangan bares his teeth and jumps up and down a lot. A little toy dog (apparently this season’s must-have theatrical item following the appearance of one in the Orange Tree’s Dorothea’s Story) yaps away. Beds get hidden under and windows jumped from.        

What’s lacking, fatally, is a semblance of wit or charm. In strenuously flagging up the farcical elements, Foley makes the production a terminally self-conscious, strained affair in which you don’t even feel much genuine affection for the original material. He’s clearly directed the show with both eyes fixed firmly on the One Man, Two Guvnors crowd and, to judge by the rapturous reception (including some ovators!), they’re responding as intended. But I'd say it's a poor show, chaps.     


Film Review: Gravity (dir. Cuarón, 2013)

Alfonso Cuarón’s great Gravity is released in the UK this week. You can read my review of it from TIFF 2013 here.

Theatre Review: Unscorched (Finborough)

My review of Luke Owen's debut play Unscorched is up at The Public Reviews. You can read it here.


Thursday 31 October 2013

Film Review: Philomena (dir. Frears, 2013)

From Chika Anadu’s great B For Boy to Anne Fontaine’s risible Adore motherhood proved to be the focus of a number of films in this year’s London Film Festival. Another notable connecting thread in this year’s fest was the resurgence of the buddy-buddy road movie in various guises, an aspect of works as diverse as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Arthur Landon’s Side By Side and Pawel Pawlikowski’s prize-winning Ida.

Stephen Frears’s latest, Philomena, combines both elements, focusing on the search of an Irish Catholic woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), for the son she was forced to give up for adoption as an unwed teenager fifty years before. Alas, for all the acclaim that the film’s receiving, and for all that it’s inspired by emotive true events, Frears’s movie struck me as one of the more bogus and disappointing of the Festival’s major offerings.
Philomena’s quest to discover her son’s fate leads her from rural Ireland (where she’s meeting a wall of silence from religious authorities) to Washington D.C., in the company of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the ex-BBC journo down on his luck after an unfortunate leaked comment, who becomes interested in Philomena’s story despite his initial disdain for “human interest” journalism. Adapted by Coogan and Jeff Pope from Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film makes Philomena and Sixsmith’s double-act the focus, with the characters’ contrasting personalities – he Oxbridge, cynical, bolshie, atheist; she warm, curious, commonsensical, and, despite her experiences, still devoutly Catholic – played for plentiful odd couple comedy. The film also works out an irresistible parallel between the conservatism of fifties Ireland and eighties America and its effects on mother and son.

It’s a compelling story, no doubt, but one that sadly flounders due to the movie’s recourse to spelling-it-out obviousness at every single stage. With Philomena Frears has fashioned the kind of film in which everything is on the surface, every emotional beat emphasized in the King’s Speech manner. My feelings of foreboding about the director’s approach set in early, in a poor and painfully exposition-heavy opening sequence that clumsily sketches out Sixsmith’s past via TV news footage. And they were confirmed by the overwrought flashbacks showing Philomena’s parturition (“The pain is her punishment!” hisses one of the nasty nuns in a classic camp moment) and separation from her son. An example of Frears’s technique here: an early scene presents Sixsmith leaving a Christmas service as he tells his wife “I don’t believe in God” (information that you might think she’d already know). It’s followed immediately by a scene of Philomena reverently lighting a candle in church. Yes, the movie is really that crude and clunky in establishing its protagonists and their contrasting belief systems.
With weakly-drawn supporting characters disappearing as soon as they’ve served their plot function, Philomena is pretty much the Dench ‘n’ Coogan Show throughout and your response to it will doubtless depend on how delightful you deem their double act to be. Personally. I found myself resisting it. The fault, for me, lies mostly in Coogan and Pope’s script which, from an early “stool” gag onwards, too often opts for quipping over emotional insight and milks Philomena and Sixsmith’s interaction for crowd-pleasing comedy. It’s meant to be hilarious (and certainly a lot of viewers seemed to find it so) when Philomena pops out words like “bi-curious” and “clitoris” or alleges that homosexuality can be determined by a penchant for dungarees. At times, indeed, the film comes dangerously close to being a variant on The Trip with Dench replacing Rob Brydon. And when, in a religion-themed barney, Philomena tells Sixsmith that God would likely think the journalist “a feckin’ eejit” it’s the sorry spirit of Mrs. Brown’s Boys that’s looming large. It’s as if Frears, Coogan and Pope were screeching at the viewer: “You might have thought the subject matter was grim, but don’t worry. Look how funny we’re making this!"

Though the inadequate script does precisely nothing to give us a sense of Philomena’s life between the separation from her son and her present-day quest for him Dench, consummate actress that she is, brings some believable shadings to her characterisation, even when Coogan and Pope have Philomena twittering adorably about free transatlantic aeroplane drinks or the size of American buffet breakfasts. Alas, Coogan, who I’ve admired in films including Happy Endings and What Maisie Knew, is a singularly unappealing presence here, and by the time his Sixsmith is facing off with the nun responsible for Philomena’s tragedy (Barbara Jefford, playing as grim-faced a battle-axe as she did in The Deep Blue Sea) I found myself errantly hoping that the woman would rise from her wheelchair and smack him - such is the transparency and obviousness of the film’s Catholicism critique.
Frears certainly moves the movie along at a clip, but there’s a price to be paid for the film’s paciness: the whole thing feels superficial and just doesn’t go deep enough for the pain of parent/child separation that it’s meant to be exploring to really resonate. As a result Philomena has the quick-fix sketchiness of journalism or sitcom but gets nowhere near the richness of art. And as for that poster... Well, feck.
Philomena is on general UK release from 1 November.

Monday 28 October 2013

Theatre Review: The Middlemarch Trilogy: Dorothea’s Story (Orange Tree)

Photo: Robert Day 
Following Springs Eternal, the Orange Tree’s ambitious project to stage George Eliot’s Middlemarch as a centrepiece of Sam Walters’s final season gets underway with Dorothea’s Story. Writer/director Geoffrey Beevers has adapted Eliot’s text into three separate but interconnected productions which will run until February next year. Each of the three shows – The Doctor’s Story and Fred and Mary are to follow - takes a strand of the novel as its focal point and the trilogy can be viewed in any order or seen in one go on select dates from late December. As its title suggests this first instalment focuses upon the marriage of Eliot’s heroine Dorothea to the dry academic Casaubon and Dorothea’s gradual, growing attraction to Casaubon’s younger cousin Will Ladislaw. And while the production has some shortcomings, at its best it’s a distinctive, highly theatrical adaptation, and an engaging and promising start to the Trilogy overall.

Beevers has form as an adaptor of Eliot: his takes on Adam Bede and Silas Marner have been staged at the OT in previous years. But, as he acknowledges in the programme essay, Middlemarch is a more challenging proposition: a less overtly “dramatic” narrative of interconnected lives in a provincial town in the 1830s, lives that Eliot explores with a scrupulous attention that the critic Kate Briggs has likened to that of a scientist examining “the tiny, interconnecting veins of a leaf through the lens of a microscope.” Eliot’s intricate focus on the interior worlds of her characters is a challenge for the stage, and it’s one that Beevers’s production attempts to meet by having the actors break off from the dialogue exchanges to speak their characters’ thoughts and feelings in third-person to the audience. This device gives the proceedings a decidedly arch tone that doesn’t always sit well with the novel’s moral seriousness: at first, the production seems more Austen than Eliot in its emphasis on irony and social comedy.

But the production’s approach becomes more beguiling as the evening progresses and the artifice of aspects of the concept (such as some early Woman in Black-style business) is transcended. Necessarily eschewing an opulent heritage take on the text, Beevers instead opts for sparseness and spryness throughout. Scene shifts are super-swift and Sam Dowson’s design conjures interior and exterior spaces with a bare minimum of props. The lights are often left up, and, between their scenes, the actors take a casual pew amongst the audience, becoming onlookers.

While this doesn’t add up to the detailed social picture that the novel (or Andrew Davies’s great 1994 BBC adaptation) provided it does allow the emotional content of the text to resonate; the dynamics of the Casaubons’s miserable marriage and Dorothea’s connection to Will are drawn with particular insight. The political context is sketchier, but the hard-working cast – by turns protagonists, narrators and observers – do succeed in suggesting a community. Georgina Strawson brings the right kind of earnestness and idealism to Dorothea, subtly engaging our emotions so that it’s a powerful moment when the character belatedly drops to the floor to weep. Jamie Newall makes the pursed cold fish Casaubon an oddly captivating presence. Ben Lambert contributes an attractive Will, Christopher Ettridge a hearty Mr. Brooke and Liz Crowther a wily, funny Mrs. Cadwallader. And throughout Beevers skilfully keeps the characters in balance so that we have hints of the dramas occurring for, say, the doctor Lydgate (David Ricardo-Pearce) on the periphery of Dorothea’s story. The evening is lengthy (another near three-hour OT marathon) but lively, and the viewer leaves eager to see the rest.

The productions are booking until 1st February. Further information at the Orange Tree website.