Thursday 27 November 2014

Theatre Review The Hypochondriac (Richmond, & touring)

My review of Lindsay Posner and Lisa Blair's production of Richard Bean's adaptation of The Hypochondriac is up at British Theatre Guide. You can read it here.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Film Review: My Old Lady (Horovitz, 2014)

Israel Horovitz's My Old Lady is out in the UK now. You can read my review from this year's London Film Festival here.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Theatre Review: Twelfth Night (ETT and Sheffield Theatres, touring)

My review of Jonathan Munby's rosy touring production of Twelfth Night (ETT/Sheffield Theatres) is up at British Theatre Guide. You can read it here.

Monday 17 November 2014

Theatre Review: Pomona (Orange Tree)

Having kicked off his first season with two fine productions of a determinedly realist, domestic nature – one (The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd [review]) a classic; the other (The Distance [review]) contemporary - Paul Miller now ventures into considerably weirder, wilder terrain with his third offering as artistic director of the Orange Tree.
Named for a mysterious locale in the middle of Manchester (an empty lot that used to be a dock; a “hole in the heart of the city,” if you will) and exploring urban unease, ignorance and alienation with wide-ranging allusiveness and plentiful injections of the surreal, Alistair McDowall’s Pomona has already generated considerable online hype: enough to entice theatregoers who’ve previously taken zero interest in this venue over the years. And even those of us who feel that the show doesn’t quite live up to the build up (or to the wildly over-effusive praise that followed Friday’s press night) would be hard-pressed to deny the ambition of this erratic but consistently intriguing piece of writing, the impact of which is much enhanced by Ned Bennett’s arresting production.
In interview, McDowall has identified a bewildering array of intertexts and inspirations for Pomona, from Faulkner, Fellini and Foster Wallace to Flannery O’Connor through Buster Keaton, Pokémon and Dungeons and Dragons. Overlooking the (rather more obvious) debts to Simon Stephens and Sarah Kane that the piece exhibits, it’s video games that have clearly had the most direct impact upon the play both formally and tonally, and which give the evening much of its excitement and novelty value.
Like many an RPG, the play pivots upon a quest narrative of sorts, one based around a girl called Ollie (Nadia Clifford) and her search for her missing sister. “Lot of talk about people disappearing. Pomona’s a place that finds itself in those conversations,” reveals a character early on, and Ollie’s quest is interwoven with various other narrative strands – among them, those involving a testy procuress, a runaway wife and two “security guards” charged with undertaking a killing – as the drama builds up to a jagged, jittery portrait of the multiple kinds of maltreatment and maleficence occurring in the metropolis.
For better and for worse, Pomona is every inch a young man’s play. It’s show-offy, self-consciously “edgy,” paranoid about power, and it offers a modishly grim vision of a society based on exploitation, violence and abuse (prostitution, porn, trafficking and snuff are all evoked at various points): the kind of vision that tends to get some critics very excited indeed. “Everything bad is real” declaims a character at one point; other proffered pearls of pessimism include “[t]he whole world hates women,” and a definition of life as “built on [a] foundation of pain and shit and suffering”: “a cycle of shit…A drowning in oceans of piss.” Well … shit.
With a looping, non-linear arrangement of scenes, McDowall works hard to ensure that there’s no chance at all of a viewer fully grasping the piece on a first viewing, either. And it’s only through reading the play afterwards that I began to make connections between characters and events which remain frustratingly opaque in performance. As a puzzle-play the piece lacks the concealing-and-disclosing elegance of a work like Ana Diosdado’s amazing Yours For The Asking, which was performed at the OT in 2012. Elegance, clearly, is not Pomona’s intended effect, but there are problems, I think, with the way certain scenes here fail to connect and achieve their full resonance.
But for all its overt pretentions, willful obfuscations and irritating digressions (an opening riff that attempts to do for Indiana Jones what Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns did for The Simpsons; a later semen-focused fantasy), Pomona is also a work of some genuine vision, and Bennett’s production helps to uncover its stronger aspects for the most part. Technically, the production is truly terrific, with a great lighting design by Elliot Griggs - flickering neon and sudden plunges into darkness - and choreography by Polly Bennett that sometimes sets the seven-strong cast in motion like so many online avatars. The roughing up of the repertoire also extends to the roughing up of the auditorium with Georgia Lowe’s spare design creating a pit in the stage where the protagonists confront each other.
The staging supplies several electrifying images, aided by the intimacy of the OT’s space. And Bennett also shows his adroitness by knowing when to cut back the flashiness and bring the proceedings to a quieter, more subdued place, too. One of the most haunting episodes is a hushed encounter between two characters – the one a victim, the other a perpetrator of abuse – that’s expertly rhythmed and performed to perfection by Rebecca Humphries and Sean Rigby. The ending of the show, however, feels oddly limp.
By turns brilliant and baffling, silly and scary, Pomona will be a big hit. In terms of mood, language and attitude it’s precisely the kind of play that a lot of people are desirous to see right now. A great deal of calculation has gone into it, and in my opinion the end result is more artful than genuinely insightful, ultimately. Nor is it correct to say (as some ill-informed tweeters have been saying) that this is a play that’s single-handedly “revitalised” the Orange Tree repertoire: the programming at this venue has always been much more adventurous than the media has chosen to recognise, with the last year alone seeing plays by Caryl Churchill, David Mamet, and Stephen Sewell performed, not to mention a wide-ranging Festival dedicated entirely to new writing. Still, Pomona looks likely to represent a turning point in perceptions of the theatre, and confirms McDowall as a writer to watch. The piece offers much to admire, much to take issue with. But it’s a show to see, and to argue about.
Pomona is booking until 13 December. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Theatre Review: East Is East (Trafalgar Studios)

I hadn’t really planned on catching Sam Yates’s revival of East is East, which is being produced as part of this year’s Trafalgar Transformed season. But an unexpected opportunity to see the show arose and I found myself wending my way over to Trafalgar Studios on Tuesday night. I couldn’t be happier that I did. Ayub Khan Din’s play, based on his own experiences as the son of a Pakistani father and a British mother in Salford in the 1970s, debuted in 1996 to much acclaim  and was filmed (with decidedly mixed results) by Damien O’Donnell in 1999. (It’s also one of the first plays that I was assigned to teach ten years ago.) 

Though often perceptive in its portrait of a family caught between cultural traditions, the piece isn’t without its flaws, but it remains an important work with strong audience appeal. And it’s hard to imagine seeing the play better served than it is by Yates’s punchy yet sensitive and perfectly pitched production.   
Another striking set – evoking the interior and exterior of cramped terraced housing – by the ever-inventive Tom Scutt helps, as does a great sound design by the equally distinctive Alex Baranowski. But most important of all are the nuances that Yates and the cast find in the material, subtleties that were almost entirely absent from O’Donnell’s overly broad, cartoonish screen version.
Elements of soap and sitcom do remain, especially in the final scene, a funny yet slightly problematic set-piece that pushes the play into full-tilt farce with the inopportune appearance of a model vagina. But the production is also alert to the subtler tones of Khan Din’s writing and communicates them in a way that ensures that the family’s arguments and alliances, its tensions and sudden turns into tenderness, really resonate.

The plot pivots around two main events – a belated circumcision and a double arranged engagement – that feel a tad contrived. But, as in the director’s superb production of J.B. Priestley’s Cornelius, there’s terrific attention to detail here that pays dividends: whether it’s Jane Horrocks’ Ella and Sally Barnes’ (wonderful) Auntie Annie gossiping with gleeful morbidity over local deaths and suicides, or the exhilaration of an illicit bop in the family’s chip shop. 

There’s an extra frisson to the production, too: the fact that Khan Din himself is taking on the role of George, the tyrannical patriarch closely inspired by his own father. Whatever degrees of catharsis or torment Khan Din might be going through in playing the part there’s no denying that he excels in it, not stinting in showing George’s cruelty and hypocrisy (which has seen one son flee the family nest) yet also locating a core of sadness and loss in the character that is, nonetheless, never sentimentalised.
He’s beautifully matched by Horrocks: fag almost perpetually in hand, and teetering captivatingly between doll-like vulnerability and defiance as she suffers the violence of her spouse yet proves unable to resist puncturing his flagrant romanticising of his homeland. The actress’s quirky intonation ensures that a line as innocuous as “Where’s that Meenah with them biscuits?”, delivered in the white heat of a social gathering about to go spectacularly off the rails, becomes a comic gem.
Playing the kids caught in the cultural cross-fire there are terrific turns from Michael Karim as Sajit (snuggling into a pongy Parka as both armour and comfort blanket), Taj Atwal as the sparky Meenah, Darren Kuppan as the toeing-the-line Maneer, Nathan Clarke’s art student Saleem, Ashley Kumar’s playboy Tariq and Amit Shah’s passive Abdul, with the dynamics of sibling rough-and-tumble perfectly caught. And the skilful Rani Moorthy and Hassani Shapi also maximise their impact as the family’s prospective in-laws, amusingly preening themselves on their social standing yet also adding important contours to the play’s exploration of immigrant experiences.
The quality of the performances and the attention to atmosphere ensures that the production retains the savour of a particular time and place while also gesturing outwards, generously, to conflicts that are relatable to all. Highly recommended.
The production is booking until January 3rd. Further information, including details of irresistibly bargainous £15 Mondays, here.

Theatre Review Symphony (Soho Theatre)

My review of Symphony at the Soho Theatre is up at The Public Reviews. You can read it here.

Top 50 Tori Amos Songs

The great @torisongs has held a vote for the Top 50 Amos tracks. Full results released soon. This is what my ballot paper looked like, complete with a favourite lyrical nugget from each song.

1.       “Winter”     “The ice is getting thin.”

2.       “Precious Things”      “Little fascist panties tucked inside the heart of every nice girl.”

3.       “Liquid Diamonds”    “Calling for my soul at the corners of the world.”

4.       “Sugar”                “Cold War with little boys.”  

5.       “Silent All These Years”       “Your eyes focus on my funny lip shape.”

6.       “Pretty Good Year”    “The eternal footman bought himself a bike to race.”

7.       “Cooling”          “Fire thought She’d really rather be Water instead.”

8.       “Purple People (Christmas in Space)”   “Just when you escape, you have yourself to fear.”

9.       “Taxi Ride”       “Even a glamorous bitch can be in need.”

10.    “Yes, Anastasia”     “If you know me so well then tell me which hand I use.”

11.    “Zero Point”       “I got a way to the Maya oh yeah.”

12.    “Forest of Glass”  “A doubt awakes, a voice dares to ask.”

13.    “Hey Jupiter”             “Your apocalypse was fab.” 

14.    “Honey”    “Cowboys know cowgirls ride on the Indians’ side.”

15.    “Me and a Gun”       “I haven’t seen Barbados so I must get out of this.”

16.    “Code Red”         “Sometimes I love myself best alone.”

17.    “Crucify “           “Figures that my courage should choose to sell out now.”

18.    “Jackie’s Strength”     “My bridesmaid’s getting laid.”

19.    “Scarlet’s Walk”       “What do you plan to do with all your stories?”

20.    “Tear In Your Hand”   “Smashing in a cold room.” 

21.    “Caught A Lite Sneeze”    “Rent your wife and kids today.”

22.    “Dragon”      “You called it dark but now I’m not so sure.”

23.    “Leather”       “Why am I here?”

24.    “Garlands”    “Phileda’s Lesson: We’re not his possession.”

25.    “Siren”    “Coquette call in for an ambulance.”

26.    “A Sorta Fairytale”  “Feel better with Oliver Stone.”

27.    “Glory of the 80s”    “My husband ran off with my shaman but they love me as I am.”

28.    “Upside Down”       “You always find my faults faster than you find your own.”

29.    “Welcome to England”   “Let the liquid take off what you’re on.”

30.    “Fearlessness” “Did we begin without knowing it/To find fault in every gift?”

31.    “Professional Widow”   “Brown may be sweeter.”

32.    “Twinkle”    “She worked at an Abbey in Iona and...”

33.    “Datura”  “Is there room in my heart for you to follow your heart?”

34.    “iieee”    “Need a lip gloss boost in your America.”

35.    “Northern Lad”  “You change like sugar cane.”

36.    “Etienne” “As the gypsy crystal slowly dies.”

37.    “Job’s Coffin”   “To see what you’re gonna do.”

38.    “In The Springtime of His Voodoo”   “Right there, for a minute, I knew you so well.”

39.    “Body and Soul”     “Boy, I think you need a conversion.”

40.    “Oysters”      “Found a little patch of heaven now.”  

41.    “Little Amsterdam”     “Her best friend is a sun dress.”
42.    “Girl Disappearing”    “I'm boycotting trends, it's my new look this season.” (Duh!)

43.    “Shattering Sea”      “Every curve of every brutal word.”

44.    “Barons of Suburbia”      “Piecing a potion to combat your poison.”

45.    “Gold Dust”         “You can see in the dark, through the Eyes of Laura Mars.”

46.     “Programmable Soda”    “Then I just back off the vanilla.”

47.    “Blood Roses”        “God knows I know I’ve thrown away those graces.”

48.    “Beauty of Speed”   “I must break through the bleak of winter, through your latest barrier.”

49.    “The Wrong Band”  “She says it’s time I open my eyes.”

50.    “Velvet Revolution”  “Feeling radical in cotton.” 



Monday 10 November 2014

Film Review: The Imitation Game (Tyldum, 2014)

Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game is out in the UK on November 14th. You can read my review here.

Friday 7 November 2014

#LDNTheatreBloggers Meet-Up (Monday 3rd November)

It was great to meet and/or catch up with fellow theatre bloggers and writers at the latest Official Theatre gathering on Monday night. Hosted by OT’s indefatigable (and, as always, immaculately costumed and coiffured) Rebecca Felgate, the event this time took place at the Beak Street Soho Grind cocktail bar. As well as opportunities for networking and ideas-sharing, the delights of the night included games and competitions (in which we were pleased to learn about the similarity between “cum face” and “cocktail-shaker face”; thanks for that, Adam ;-)), plus a lovely performance by the singer-songwriter Bity Booker. Those in attendance also had the opportunity to find out about the evening’s sponsors, SeatPlan, a new website which is looking to provide reviews for every seat in London theatre, and, to that end, is encouraging theatre-goers to upload their experiences, tips and photos. You can do that very thing at the website here, and also have the opportunity to earn theatre vouchers for your contributions.
The evening also made me think a bit about blogging and how my feelings about it have changed (or not) over the years. I set up Boycotting Trends at the end of 2008 for practical reasons (the teaching of a “social media” component of a Reading the Media course) and the writing of the blog has served as both complement to - and, at times, I admit it, a distraction from - my academic work ever since.
Balancing the blog with contributing to other websites, my dedication to blogging has ebbed and flowed just as the format and frequency of what I’ve posted here has changed and shifted. And it’s probably fair to say that my ambivalence about social media has only intensified in the intervening years. But there’s no denying that blogging has become a significant and enjoyable part of my writing routine, and has led to all kinds of opportunities I would never have foreseen, from interviewing to film festivaling to annoying Neil LaBute. It’s also led – last but certainly not least - to the establishment of several of my most treasured recent friendships.
Despite the often-discussed controversies of arts blogging, I see the form as offering – at its best - the opportunity for a widening of a critical conversation that too often sees the triumph of hype over real, detailed analysis in the mainstream media where corporate control dictates what’s written about and – I firmly believe – how it’s written about, too. As I was commenting to a friend a couple of weeks ago what I enjoy most is the freedom of blogging, of not being bound by editorial demands or strictures here, of being able to write, as I did recently, a 2000 word tribute to a show that changed my life.
Evenings such as Monday night’s meet-up offer the reassurance of bloggers as a community, sharing insights, approaches and enthusiasms about aspects of the arts that we care about deeply. Thanks, Official Theatre, thanks SeatPlan.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Theatre Review: Coolatully (Finborough)

My review of David Mercatali’s production of Fiona Doyle’s play Coolatully (this year’s Papatango New Writing Prize winner) is up at The Public Reviews. You can read it here.

Film Review: Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014)

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is out in the UK now. You can read my review from this year’s LFF here.