Tuesday 30 September 2014

Theatre Review: Dangerous Corner (Richmond, & touring)

My review of Michael Attenborough's touring production of J.B. Priestley's Dangerous Corner is up at British Theatre Guide. You can read it here.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Gdynia Film Festival Coverage 2014

I had the pleasure of attending the Gdynia Film Festival (15-20 September) for the first time last week. From the terrific organisation to the constantly shining sun (not that we saw so much of that as we dashed from screening to screening, but still…), the six days of the Festival were simply great, the only regret being that it wasn’t possible to see everything on offer. Below are links to the coverage that I wrote for PopMatters:

Thursday 11 September 2014

Theatre Reminiscence: The Light Princess, one year on (or, Levity Forever)

“Gravity, are you feeling?” Time flies. Or floats. It’s hard for those of us who loved it to believe that it’s almost a year already since The Light Princess, Samuel Adamson and Tori Amos’s “edible, delectable” musical, directed by Marianne Elliott, opened at the National Theatre. Readers of this blog won’t be at all surprised to learn that that first preview of the show remains, to paraphrase Carole Zucker, one of my “‘great evenings of theatre’ where one truly feels one has witnessed something important, fresh and even heroic.” Mostly, I remember feeling overwhelmed that night: by how much there was to explore, both aurally and visually, in the piece, by all the emotions that the show stirred up. The show felt totally fresh, surprising, unlike anything I’d seen before.  And yet, as with much of the art that’s affected me deeply, there was also a strange sense of familiarity to the experience too, a comforting recognition. As my friend Vicki Clark, who saw the show more than twenty (count ‘em) times, recalls, of that first preview: “The opening bars of 'My Own Land' sent shivers down my spine. I knew from that moment, and that dramatic, bold refrain, that I was going to love the show.”

Not quite equalling Vicki’s awesome tally (or that of my friend Erin Quilliam who “lost count” a bit but estimates that she went to the show more than sixteen times), I saw The Light Princess ten times in total: sometimes with family, friends, or my lover, and sometimes alone. In many ways it defined that period, September 2013 to February 2014, for me, to the extent that I recall various events of that time - whether joyful or sorrowful - through its prism. I made friends through the show, argued with people about it (online and in the real world), learnt the songs and sung them all over the place. Each of those ten visits has a different flavour and texture, as I recall them. The second time was about really beginning to appreciate the music, in all its richness and complexity, and starting to see just how intricate and densely patterned the score that Amos and Adamson had created was, and how integrated with the characters’ struggles and transformations. On subsequent visits I started to observe the work of the acrobats more and more and to really be captivated by the strange, beautiful ballet that their contributions, choreographed by Steven Hoggett, made the show into.

Always, always there seemed something new to notice: whether a detail in Rae Smith’s design, a previously overlooked aspect of a performance, or the brilliantly immersive build of the lengthy sequences “Queen Material” and “Nothing More Than This.”  Cherished individual moments such as Althea’s cry of “I can’t stand my own land!”, the sheer gleeful exuberance of “Better Than Good”, the operatic ache of the wrenching “No H2O” (which both Vicki and Erin single out as their favourite moment in the show), Nick Hendrix as Digby joyfully rising from the ground with his airborne lover in “Althea”, Laura Pitt-Pulford’s shimmering cameos,  Malinda Parris’s sublime “Scandal” moment, the "suitors" scene, Althea’s chilling reclamation at the end of “Queen of the Lake”, Clive Rowe’s fearsome bellow of “I am King, King of you all” … these gradually gave way to other moments, until ultimately what you were responding to wasn’t so much individual lines or sequences, but rather the whole thing: the gestalt of the show. 


It was fascinating, too, to see the diverse reactions of those I’d come with, or those around me, from the enthusiasm of an elderly woman next to me who loved the show so much that she vowed to return to it with her husband the very next night to an American tourist’s po-faced interval comment: “This is very, very weird.” My friend Adam, on his third visit to the show, wrote me: “I still have the image in my head of a woman with tears in her eyes at the end, shouting to her girlfriends: ‘OH MY GOD! THAT WAS UNBELIEVABLE!!’”

Aside from the first preview, my own most memorable encounter with The Light Princess was an impromptu visit I made to a Sunday matinee performance on December 1st, following one of those crushingly miserable evenings that you’re not sure you’ll ever quite recover from. I stayed out in the city all night, found myself Southbankside in the morning and ended up day-seating the show. (In what turned out to be pretty much the coolest-ever day-seating queue.) In my emotional state, the impact of the show was staggering.  I remember feeling embraced, comforted, energised and inspired by the images, voices and melodies, and feeling that, though massive changes had to be made, everything would be OK after all, if I could just summon the courage to face it. If I ever need reminding of the power of art to help and heal then I only have to think back on that strange weekend when pretty much everything I’d hoped for fell apart, only to be redeemed and restored in this unexpected way. 
It’s not every show that could withstand so many visits in such a short span of time, of course. But the richness of The Light Princess - and how all-of-a-piece the show felt despite the very many different elements in its composition - was part of what made it so special. (And it’s worth pausing briefly to remember that there were quite a number of people who really, really did not like the show, but let’s not linger over those stupid cunts misguided souls here.)  For all the fierceness of the show’s critique of patriarchy, it’s a work of rare generosity of spirit, a show without cynicism, and one possessed of an openness that really allowed and encouraged you to find your own way into it. As Erin comments: “There were so many different ways you could react, and the show was left almost entirely for your own interpretation. So you felt and found different things each time.”

“We hope that women, men, of all ages, all sexualities, all races, and different experiences relate to our piece,” Amos said at the Platform that she and Adamson did together in October. “Because really the idea of Althea and Digby is that they’re responding differently to a tragedy [the death of their mothers]. And we all respond differently, don’t we? And sometimes we’re judged for the way that we respond or the way that we are… So we wanted our story to resonate with all kinds of situations and with all kinds of people from different backgrounds.” 

Part of the impact of the show, I think, was that the parallel arcs of those two protagonists - Althea towards gravity, Digby towards levity; he learning the value of rebelliousness; she becoming “responsible” on her own terms  - tapped into something archetypal and profound about the human condition, and about the balance required in human affairs. (Just as every good fairy-tale should.)  “I related to the show a lot, especially to the character of Althea,” Vicki tells me. “I think most young women my age will have been in a situation where they feel like they don't fit in for some reason or another, or have had their own issues to cope with, much like Althea's lack of gravity. Seeing her eventually overcoming her struggle in her own way, in her own time, was reassuring to watch.” Erin identifies the relationship between Althea and Piper (Amy Booth-Steel) as one of the main things she connected to in the show.  “I saw so much of myself and my best friend in those characters. (Though I don’t have to keep hold of her ribbons, thankfully.)”
For me, the show’s exploration of escapism was its most relatable – and surprising – element. Adding an entirely new psychological dimension to the original MacDonald story, Amos and Adamson made their Light Princess very much a work about the strategies we employ to deal with loss, pain and grief. “The air didn’t have shadows and nor does this place,” Althea tells Digby in the lake, having traded the air for Amphibiava, one safe space for another. The arc that Adamson and Amos devise for Althea is all about her overcoming her need for such comfort zones, as she opens up to love (with all its challenges and complexities) and faces up to the darkness in her world rather than trying to escape it. 

It was a journey that Rosalie Craig’s radiant performance illuminated at every stage, as her Althea metamorphosed from gloriously truculent (though obviously damaged) teen to victimised bride-to-be, ardent romantic heroine and dragon-slaying warrior to gracious womanly presence. What was amazing for those of us who saw the show multiple times was not only the apparent effortlessness with which Craig negotiated the singular physical demands of the role (including singing upside down, twirled around, and, during “My Fairy Story,” with a foot in her crotch) but the risks that she took in it. Every single performance (and the actress missed nary a one during the show’s entire run)  seemed utterly new-minted, spontaneous and  in-the-moment, so much so that a line like “I am the last of the Darcys” might be delivered in an airy defiant whisper at one show and then shouted as a triumphant declaration at the next. As Sam commented in the last interview we did: “She seems constantly to be reinventing herself and the role.”
There was still much more exploration to be done with The Light Princess, one feels: for audiences and actors alike. And the fact that the show got its extension at the NT but didn’t get the West End transfer that many of us hoped for makes the whole experience incredibly special and incredibly bittersweet.  Each to their own and all that, but I can’t help but feel annoyed that a piece of cobbled-together, Broadway-by-numbers tat like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels finds a life in the West End while a show as challenging, inventive and carefully crafted as The Light Princess doesn’t.  Reminiscing about that final show on February 2nd, Vicki recalls “a lot of tears, mainly! But I'll never forget that day. I was so sad to say goodbye to The Light Princess but the audience was full of people who had mainly seen the show before, and it was like a big family. The cast were on top form as always and it was so moving to see them just as sad about it closing as we were! If I could have spoken to the cast, Tori and Sam collectively, I'd love them to know how happy they'd made so many people with their work. I've never felt so excited or attached to a piece of theatre before, and I doubt I will again. (Until it's revived, obviously!)”
It’s a happy thought that the release of the cast recording (scheduled for 2015) will be the next step on the journey of The Light Princess, offering those of us who loved the show the chance to revisit - and those who missed it the opportunity to discover - all the characters and emotions brought to life so vividly in a wilderness of emerald, and kingdoms gold and blue.



Tuesday 9 September 2014

Theatre Review: The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (Orange Tree)

Ellie Piercy in The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (Credit: Mark Douet)

A 7.30 start-time, numbered seating, a fresh paint job in the auditorium, new wines on offer at the bar: yep, the superficial signs of a new era at the Orange Tree are there to see pretty much as soon as you enter the theatre. And yet, taking over following Sam Walters’s amazing forty-five year artistic directorship of the venue, Paul Miller has opted to open his first season with a show that deliberately suggests continuity with Walters’s reign rather than a clear break with it.
By coincidence, in fact, Walters’s production of D. H. Lawrence’s 1912 play The Daughter-in-Law was the very first thing that I saw at the OT back in 2001, while Miller himself directed a well-regarded production of the  play at the Crucible in Sheffield just last year. Now, the director turns his attention to Lawrence’s 1914 work, The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd. And, boasting wonderful attention to detail and an outstanding cast, it’s hard to imagine seeing this play served better than it is in the special, in-the-round intimacy of the Orange Tree.
Mining-focused dramas seem to be quite the rage at present, with the likes of Beth Steel's Wonderland, Chris Urch's just-transferred Land of Our Fathers  and Matthew Warchus’s much-hyped (and, in my opinion, execrable-looking) film Pride providing an interesting cultural context for another look at Lawrence’s theatre. And yet, as crucial as the pit backdrop is to The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (particularly in the play’s wrenching second half), the piece is, essentially, a thoroughly domestic drama focusing upon “a devilish married life.” (The phrase is one used by Lawrence in a 1910 letter describing his parents’ own unblissful union.)
Gyuri Sarossy in The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (Credit: Mark Douet)
Lizzie Holroyd is a harried 32-year-old mother of two suffering at the hands of a volatile spouse, Charles, who returns home in his cups most nights, on one occasion bringing “two trollops from Nottingham” (splendidly rendered by Heather Johnson and Maggie O’Brien here) with him. This incident seems to prove the last straw for Lizzie. But the protagonist’s resolve to leave her husband and get out of “this hole [where] every gossiping creature thinks she’s got the right to cackle about you” presents her with more of a moral conundrum than you might imagine.  

Though the play is not without humour, Lawrence doesn’t balk at pulling the viewer directly into a brutally unhappy marital situation. And what I admire in Miller’s production is its determined, honest refusal to sweeten the pill.  Aided by John Harris’s atmospheric lighting and Terry Davies’s mournful horn score, the production conveys the complexities of a dysfunctional relationship forged through convenience and filled with disgust and contempt, but also dependency and a kind of love. The confrontations are raw and intense, and Lawrence’s language rough and gnarled, though not without its beautiful, lyrical and rhythmic qualities.   

Ellie Piercy and Jordan Mifsud in The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (Credit: Mark Douet) 

The cast deliver that language superbly. Ellie Piercy’s captivating Lizzie is a mass of contradictions and Piercy brilliantly keeps us alert to every shade of uncertainty and resolve, guilt and grief, humiliation and hope, that the character experiences. She’s supported by beautiful work from Jordan Mifsud as the concerned young miner who offers Lizzie an escape route, and by a stunning performance from  Polly Hemingway (a dead ringer for Rachel Roberts here) as the mother-in-law who’s seen most of her menfolk perish in pit accidents and who sides with her son over his spouse (“He should never have married a clever woman”) even while acknowledging his flaws. And while, as Charles, the relatively lean Gyuri Sarossy isn’t the outsize masculine figure evoked by the other characters’ descriptions, the actor’s gruff, thickly-accented delivery helps to make a bold, powerfully physical impression.

The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd isn’t perfect in its construction: not all of the characters are fully drawn, and the ending is abrupt (the play seems to be missing a final scene). And the drama certainly doesn’t develop in a way to please the sensibilities of a modern audience. But, even so, this sensitive and beautifully judged production makes for a terrific start to Miller’s tenure at the Orange Tree.

Running time: 2 hours, with interval.
The production is booking until 4th October. Further information at the Orange Tree website.


Film Reviews: B For Boy (Anadu, 2013) / Mother of George (Dosunmu, 2013)

I'm happy to see that Chika Anadu's B For Boy and Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George will be screening in the BFI "African Odysseys: Beyond Nollywood" series this month. (Details here.) My reviews of both films are below.

B For Boy

At a time when English language cinema can hardly be said to be providing great opportunities for female filmmakers or to be paying much attention to the telling of women's stories, it's heartening to find "world" cinema moving in the opposite direction and frequently focusing its gaze upon female characters compromised and challenged by patriarchal cultures. One of the under-sung highlights of the 2012 London Film Festival was Jeremy Teicher's Tall as a Baobab Tree, in which a teenage girl in Senegal tries to prevent her younger sister's financially-motivated arranged marriage. And last year Haifaa Al Mansour's much-acclaimed Wadjda spun from its portrayal of a young girl's desire for a bicycle a wider portrait of women's position in Saudi society.

B For Boy feels very much like a companion piece to both movies (and also to Andrew Dosunmu's similarly-themed Mother of George [see below], which also screened in last year's LFF) with loaded subject matter once again presented through a low-key, relatable, realist framework that draws the viewer into its protagonist's dilemma without recourse to speech-making or histrionics.
Chika Anadu's expertly-handled debut feature follows Amaka (Uche Nwadili), a pregnant middle-class Nigerian woman who's married to Nonso (Nonso Odogwu) with whom she has one daughter, Ijeoma. Under pressure to produce a male child this time — especially from her mother-in-law who reminds her that 'You've been married eight years and only have a daughter' — and threatened by the possibility that Nonso may be considering taking a second wife, Amaka is thrilled when she's given the news that she is indeed pregnant with a son. But when she ends up losing the child, she resorts to desperate measures, keeping the stillbirth a secret from Nonso and investigating the possibility of adopting a baby to pass off as her own.
Anadu's approach is wonderfully confident and clear-sighted. Giving the movie a spare, clean, uncluttered look that allows the viewer to focus on the characters' interactions without distraction, she uses each encounter that Amaka has — whether with Nonso, with her mother-in-law, her friends, or female healthcare professionals — to present a fresh perspective on the situation and to give texture to the drama.
The contrast between Nonso and Amaka's middle-class, professional life and the village life and customs of their relatives is subtly drawn and the humanity of the film is evident in its treatment of Nonso as a character: no mere representative of patriarchal oppression, he's actually a quiet and considerate man who also feels rather worn down by his family's complaints and demands. But Anadu is certainly unsparing in showing women's collusion in patriarchy. This is evident not only in the traditional attitudes of Amaka's mother-in-law, who's motivated by a desire to have her 'husband's name live on',  but also in a chilling sequence in which a group of women, stirred by the rhetoric of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, take it upon themselves to denounce Amaka as a witch. 
The movie benefits from assured performances from its cast but special mention must go to Uche Nwadili in the lead role. Nwadili has such a strong presence that Amaka never seems a mere hapless victim of events; cool on the surface, she keeps us attuned to the characters' turbulent thoughts and feelings all the time. By the wrenching final scenes, in which Amaka is driven to an action that we really, really hope she won't undertake, B For Boy has built up a Dardenne-esque level of dramatic intensity. Dedicated simply to 'mothers', it's a terrific debut from a talented young filmmaker. 
Mother of George
Dosunmu's Mother of George — the director's second feature following the acclaimed Restless City — explores startlingly similar territory to B For Boy. Just like Anadu's film, Dosunmu's movie is also concerned with the pressure placed upon a Nigerian woman to please and placate her family by conceiving a male child. In this case, the protagonist, Adenike (Danai Gurira, of TV's The Walking Dead), is an immigrant living amongst New York's Yoruba community, but facing similar demands as Anadu's protagonist does in Nigeria. As Adenike submits to the pressure exerted by her mother-in-law, and takes drastic steps to ensure a pregnancy, Mother of George and B For Boy establish themselves as companion pieces, with some similar scenes and characters in common. However, the stylistic approach of the two films could hardly be more different.  
Where Anadu opts for a straightforward, clear shooting style, in which we're always certain what and who is in the frame and what their relationship to one another is, Dosunmu goes in the opposite direction, giving his movie an extremely distinctive look and atmosphere that conveys an immigrant's experience in a highly stylised manner and which clearly exhibits the influence of the director's background in music video.
Bradley Young's cinematography eschews obvious New York landmarks entirely. Instead, the camera glides and floats around the characters (who are often reduced to body parts), coming to rest in unexpected places. Angles and editing are off-kilter; the shots frequently focus on the face of the character speaking while completely obscuring the person being addressed. The whole look is blurry, gauzy with a distinctive colour palette, creating a dreamy, soft-focused texture. Moving through the city or the house, the harried yet graceful Gurira is often shot slow-mo, recalling Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. Indeed, Dosunmu's abstract style sometimes suggests a merging of Wong's work with that of Claire Denis – right down to the casting of one of the latter's regular collaborators, Isaach de Bankolé, as Adenike's spouse Ayodele.
The director's idiosyncratic approach has its strengths and its drawbacks. On the one hand it provides the movie with a wonderfully suggestive, sensual ambience that keeps the viewer intrigued throughout. On the other it means that the characters don't fully emerge and that the film lacks the narrative drive of B For Boy. Doubtless Dosunmu would argue that that's not what he's going for here, but once melodramatic revelations start coming to light in the second half the film stutters, since the groundwork hasn't quite been laid for this shift. The observations made about women's position in a patriarchal society do come through, but in a muted way; ultimately, Adenike's dilemma feels distanced and the climax lacks impact.
Nonetheless, Mother of George is a striking piece of work and one that will likely reward repeat viewings. The extent to which its style serves its subject matter is debatable, but there's no denying the power of Dosunmu and Young's exquisitely composed images to linger in the mind.        


Thursday 4 September 2014

Theatre Review: Daytona (Richmond, & tour)

My review of David Grindley's production of Oliver Cotton's play Daytona is up at British Theatre Guide. You can read it here.