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.