Thursday 29 January 2015

Theatre Review: Di and Viv and Rose (Vaudeville)

Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose has proved itself to be the little play that could since its debut in 2011. First seen in Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs studio space, with Tamzin Outhwaite, Nicola Walker and Claudie Blakley playing the flat-sharing heroines of the title, Anna Mackmin’s production later graduated to Hampstead’s main stage, with Anna Maxwell Martin and Gina McKee replacing Blakley and Walker. And the production is now settling in for a four month West End run at the Vaudeville, with Outhwaite still on board as Di, and Samantha Spiro and Jenna Russell completing the cast.
The reasons for Di and Viv and Rose’s success aren’t hard to gauge, for Bullmore’s play is an affable, easily relatable, instantly accessible work, one which, in its focus on friendship and its years-spanning time frame, sometimes suggests a female rejoinder to Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg, itself currently enjoying a West End transfer following its Donmar revival last year.

Actually, the play that Bullmore’s nods to most directly and self-consciously isn’t Reg, though. Rather, it’s Pam Gems’s 1976 Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi (also a Hampstead success story that went on to a West End transfer, interestingly enough), which was revived at the Finborough by Helen Eastman in 2013 (review here). Like Gems’s, Bullmore’s focus is also on female friendships forged in poky premises, in this case the bond formed by three women who share a flat at university in the 1980s.
Di (business studies) is a sporty lesbian, apparently frank and forthright, but not yet out to her parents. Viv (sociology) is a prim, ambitious student, diligently beavering away at her work on women’s clothes as social signifiers. And Rose (art history) is a posh scatterbrain, generous with her emotional and sexual affections and resolved to bed as many boys as possible. The drama follows the women through university and beyond, as their lives converge and diverge, always with the memory of their time as students as a bond that unites them.
Bullmore's play is at its most beguiling when at its most relaxed, capturing the rites and rhythms of student flat-sharing with affection and nice attention to detail, whether presenting impromptu bops to the Pretenders or cider-supping from wonky bowls. It’s rather less good when cooking up crises for its heroines, though. A sexual assault strand feels awkwardly interpolated from the off, and some of the later Big Dramatic Events can feel a little bogus, too. Though far less pessimistic in its vision than Gems’s play, the drama can’t be accused of presenting a sappy version of sisterhood. But some of the confrontations that erupt between the characters feel tedious and shrilly over-extended, especially in the weaker second half, in which the play – and this production, in particular - also suffers from the loss of one of its principal assets.
Despite some under-designed scenes in the second half which make the production look like it’s still taking place in a rehearsal space (the move to the larger venue may account for this), Mackmin finds most of the writing’s strengths, though, zipping the action along with songs that include “The Love Cats,” “Running Up That Hill” and – slightly bizarrely for the moment it's scoring – Robert Wyatt’s take on “Shipbuilding.” The production also benefits from good-to-great work from its actresses. Spiro doesn’t always seem entirely in her element as Viv, but she has some splendid, caustic moments. The only member of the cast to have been with the show from the start, Outhwaite has kept her performance lively and fresh. And Russell (straight outta Urinetown) is just superb, bringing wonderful warmth and captivating naturalness to her characterisation of perhaps the nicest nympho the stage has ever seen.
None of the actresses convinces as the 18-year-olds they start the play out as, so much so that the line “We’re very mature for our age” suggests an in-joke. But they’re witty and inventive enough to transcend that, just as the play itself transcends most of its flaws through sheer likeability.
Booking until 23 May.
Ticket provided by Official Theatre and SeatPlan.

Film Review: Joanna (dir. Kopacz, 2014)

One of three Polish films nominated in categories at this year’s upcoming Oscars (the others are Tomasz Śliwiński's Our Curse and – of course! – Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida), Aneta Kopacz’s Joanna is about as delicate and as discreet as documentaries come. What’s remarkable about the movie is that this delicacy and discretion is achieved in spite of the film’s charged and emotive subject matter, which is nothing less than the premature ending of a life.
Joanna Sałyga was a 30-something wife and mother diagnosed with cancer, who documented her experiences in blog posts (and, later, a book) that took the form of addresses to her 5-year-old son, Janek. Those unfamiliar with Joanna’s story won’t find it neatly summarised in the documentary, though. Rather, Kopacz’s film approaches its subject more obliquely, eschewing introductions or explanatory information to gently deposit us instead within the day-to-day domestic routines of its protagonists. As we see Joanna and her family on woodland walks, engaged in cooking, or playing with Lego, a sense of everyday normalcy is established. This makes the gradual realisation of what Joanna is going through - which we’re first tipped off to in fleeting references to pain and medication and then a brief glimpse of an Oncology and Chemotherapy ward - all the more devastating.
The movie features a number of intimate scenes between Joanna and her husband Piotr; one of these starts out wryly (with Joanna suggesting that she hold an audition for Piotr’s next wife on her blog) before turning wrenching, an example of Kopacz’s sensitivity and rigour in modulating the movie’s challenging shifts of tone. However, the film’s primary focus is on Joanna’s relationship with Janek, an open-hearted mother/son bond that’s characterised in equal parts by easy-going playfulness, sharp challenge and tenderness.  As Joanna reads Janek her writings, which take the form of observations and advice, the viewer might be reminded of Bruce Joel Rubin’s underrated My Life (1993), in which Michael Keaton played a dying father recording video messages for his as-yet-unborn son.

Yet Kopacz’s film goes deeper than Rubin’s managed, ultimately. Ever so gently, her movie gestures towards larger existential questions, not only of life and death, but also of identity and understanding. It opens, after all, with Janek responding to his mother’s enquiry “Why would you like me to write about you?” with the rejoinder “Because I want to know what I’m like.” (To which Joanna’s characteristically questioning response is: “If I describe you, will you then know what you’re like?”). How we know others and how we experience the world are concerns of the movie, and I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent film that’s conveyed with more perspicacity what a child intuits and what remains beyond the scope of his comprehension. Curious and a bit precocious, Janek’s questions to his mother veer from the delightfully surreal (“Can little Dalmatians drink milk from a cow?” he wonders at one point) to the raspingly poignant. We know that the boy is just starting the painful process of understanding his mother’s imminent passing when he asks her: “What do you dislike about our house so much that you want to move out?”     

Shot by the talented Łukasz Żal (co-lenser of Ida) Joanna is attentive to atmosphere, its ambient moments, nature shots and haptic imagery sometimes enhanced by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s subtle score. Joanna’s main advice to Janek is to “pay attention” to the texture of everyday experience, to “what … you feel when you eat your favourite pizza, when you cuddle a cat, or when you just rest your head on the pillow.” The movie appears to have taken its own cues from such counsel. Quiet and watchful, "tactful" in more ways than one, the film doesn’t force things and, remarkably, it never feels like it's invading privacy, either. “I’m not making a movie about dying, I’m making a movie about life,” Kopacz has remarked. And in the 45 minutes of this modest yet profoundly resonant  film she has indeed achieved precisely that.
You can watch a Q&A from Polish Filmmakers NYC: "New Voices, Ancient Echoes" screening of Joanna here.

Thursday 22 January 2015

Theatre Review: East is East (Richmond, & touring)

Sam Yates's great production of Ayub Khan Din's East is East, starring Jane Horrocks and Mr. Khan Din himself, is now touring. You can read my review for British Theatre Guide here.

Thursday 15 January 2015

Theatre Review: Pig Girl (Finborough)

The plays of Colleen Murphy have become something of a staple of the Finborough’s programming over the last few years, resulting in the playwright’s tenure as Canadian Writer-in-Residence at the theatre in 2011-12. The last work by Murphy to be staged at the Finborough (albeit all-too-briefly) was Armstrong’s War in the summer of 2013. This was an intimate and incisive two-hander about a Canadian Girl Guide assigned to read to a soldier hospitalised following an injury incurred in the Afghanistan War. Ignited by captivating performances from Jessica Barden and Mark Quartley, Jennifer Bakst’s frills-free workshop production was simply beautiful, and delicately lit up every nuance of the drama to create a deeply humane and poignant duet.
Though retaining something of that play’s intimacy, Murphy’s latest work, Pig Girl, is a very different proposition indeed to the emotionally complex but comparatively consoling Armstrong’s War. Pig Girl is a bruising, intense and thoroughly disquieting work that proved deeply divisive upon its world premiere at Theatre Network in Edmonton, Alberta in 2013, where, as well as praise from some commentators (the play won the Carol Bolt Award), the piece found itself taken to task for everything from exploitative violence to  appropriation of voice.
Part of the controversy that Pig Girl stirred up in Canada was due to its inspiration in real events: namely, the murder by a man named Robert Pickton of a large number of mostly First Nations women in British Columbia. While Murphy has stressed that the play is “a work of imagination,” its basis in the Pickton case isn’t hard to see. Still, the harsh denunciations that Pig Girl received from some quarters in Canada seem misguided. For, in Helen Donnelly’s gripping production at least, the play looks nothing less than a deeply feminist, profoundly political work, whose critique of the apathy of the authorities in dealing with the disappearances of girls from marginalized groups communicates clearly and urgently.
The play is constructed, essentially, as two interwoven two-handers. Murphy juxtaposes the torment of a woman held in a barn by a volatile captor with the ordeal experienced by the woman’s sister, as she attempts to convince a police officer to begin the investigation of her missing sibling. These two separate male/female encounters posit a parallel between the horrific crimes occurring in the barn and the wider cultural abuses of a society that seems indifferent to the fate of drug-addicted sex workers, especially those from non-white backgrounds.
Alert to the ever-shifting rhythms of Murphy’s language – which is sometimes beautiful and poetic, at others intensely ugly and visceral, but always rich in evocative detail – Donnelly’s production doesn’t flinch from the play’s discomforting elements. In the tiny confines of the Finborough, the play’s intensity level is high to say the least, enhanced further by a superb sound design by Fred Riding (snorting pig noises and the sounds of lashing rain provide the least welcoming of introductions even before the production begins) and Nic Farman’s crepuscular lighting.
The absence of names for the characters – identified simply as Dying Woman, Sister, Killer and Police Officer – immediately announces their status as archetypes. But the purpose of the piece is to go beyond such simplistic formulations and to reveal instead the particular histories of these individuals. Just occasionally, the writing resorts to cliché: I could have lived without the hackneyed revelation of the Killer’s own background of abuse which pins his pathology on (wouldn’t you know) a monstrous mother, even if this perspective does get nuanced by another character later in the play.
But, for the most part, the character dynamics are fascinatingly and sometimes surprisingly developed, and Donnelly gets committed, powerful performances from her first-rate cast, with Kirsten Foster as the fierce woman fighting for her life, Damien Lyne as her insidious tormentor, Joseph Rye as the policeman who ends up as haunted by the case as the victims’ families are, and Olivia Darnley, radiant with conviction and concern as the sister battling the apathy of the system in her attempt to discover her sibling’s fate.
It’s not a show to dispense much in the way of New Year cheer, then. But Pig Girl is a potent, provocative play, one that’s turned, by Donnelly’s fine production, into a requiem of sorts.

Booking until 16th February.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

Monday 12 January 2015

Film Review: Whiplash (dir. Chazelle, 2014)

Damien Chazelle's much-admired  Whiplash is out in the UK on 16th January. You can read my dissenting view of the film from the 2014 London Film Festival here.  

Thursday 8 January 2015

Film Review: Into The Woods (dir. Marshall, 2014)

Special effects-strewn, literal-minded, occasionally baffling, Rob Marshall’s take on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods can’t be said to herald the arrival of a great new movie musical. It’s easy to see the appeal to Disney of this 1986 show, which – in its mash-up of various Grimm stories – jibes nicely with the current vogue for cinematic revisions of fairy-tales. Yet, as with Maleficent (2014) et al., the end results don’t quite add up to the sum of several appealing parts here.
Ardent Sondheimites will doubtless be eager to pin the movie’s shortcomings on Disneyfication. That may be true up to a point, but I’d argue that the film merely highlights the problems inherent in the original Sondheim material: the bittiness of the structure, the sometimes inelegantly-integrated narrative strands, the sentimental lurches, and – let’s face it – a score that offers as much in the way of teeth-grinding jauntiness as it does exquisite beauty. It also accentuates some weirdly conservative underpinnings, making the piece look more reactionary than revisionist for the most part. A female character is killed off immediately after indulging in a brief transgression. Cinderella, ultimately, just wants to go back to sweeping the floor. The “alternative” moral lessons offered - “witches can be right, giants can be good, no-one is alone” – aren’t precisely profound. (A question: has anyone asked of this musical - as so many seemed to ask of Samuel Adamson and Tori Amos's vastly superior The Light Princess - "But who is this show for?")
The shakiness of Marshall’s direction (some scenes are execrably staged, especially those involving multiple characters at the mid-point of the movie) means that the film never inspires much confidence, and its tone wobbles all over the place. The manic cutting in the opening sequence attempts to bring the disparate strands together in a cinematic way. But still the characters’ clunky entrances and exits, and the jarring reporting of off-screen deaths, make the piece feel helplessly stage-bound, and the film never consistently achieves the fluidity to make it really fly.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t manage some high spots, especially in its more intimate moments. “Agony”, with Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s Princes ripping open their shirts in masochistic glee, is wittily done. Emily Blunt comes through with a fine, delicately shaded performance as the Baker’s Wife, and she and James Corden (as the Baker) duet delightfully on “It Takes Two,” one of the (too few) moments that genuinely does justice to the notion of the woods as a site of transformation for the characters. (Without Blunt to bounce off, Corden is bland.)
As in The Iron Lady (2011) Meryl Streep as the Witch again looks like she's just stepped out of Hocus Pocus (1993). But she brings great emotion to her reading of “Stay With Me”, and once more demonstrates her gift for really acting her way through the songs, even when getting (literally) overwhelmed by the staging on “Last Midnight.” None of the vocals make you cower in your seat the way the shrill Broadway OCR can but some of the performers (Johnny Depp as the Wolf; Annette Crosbie as Little Red Riding Hood's Grandmother; Simon Russell Beale as the Baker's Father) register so weakly that they might just as well have saved their energies. A mixed bag, to say the least.


Monday 5 January 2015

Book Review: Naked Cinema: Working With Actors by Sally Potter (Faber and Faber, 2014)

Always an exceptionally honest, erudite and insightful commentator on her own work and that of others, Sally Potter now offers her most sustained reflection yet upon her collaborative creative process in this thoroughly absorbing volume. Naked Cinema: Working with Actors finds Potter opening up about her filmmaking practice by focusing on the relationship that she posits to be the most central within that equation: that between director and actor. “[F]or a director, understanding how to work with actors is, in many ways, the most important, delicate and powerful skill he or she must develop,” Potter claims. “And this skill must be developed amidst a maelstrom of activity” (p. 4).
As a director who started out as a performer – and who returned to that role, somewhat controversially, as the star of her 1997 The Tango Lesson –Potter has certainly experienced both sides, now, over her forty year career, and she brings to bear an understanding approach to the demands and difficulties, the pressures and pleasures, of both roles. Accordingly, the perspective on the performer/director relation that’s advocated in Naked Cinema is one based around empathy, attention, rigour, challenge, flexibility, play. And yes: love.
Naked Cinema has a structure that reflects - indeed, embodies - its own emphasis on dialogue and collaboration between artists. It’s arranged in four “Parts” – “Preparation”, “The Shoot”, “Post-Production” and “The Interviews” - and opens with an Introduction in which Potter offers a short (or “potted”, if you will) autobiography. The Introduction sketches out her singular background in feminist-influenced dance, choreography and performance art, her first forays into experimental shorts, and her early inspirations. Then, in easily digestible sections, the first three Parts of the volume examine the various stages of filmmaking itself - from casting, financing and rehearsal through framing, blocking and editing to premiere and reception - always with an eye fixed firmly on the actor/director dynamic at every stage of the process.
All of this is rendered in eloquent, accessible language that invites the reader in rather than repelling them with jargon, and that combines reflection, enquiry and advice in equal measure. A self-described “autodidact” (p. xvi), Potter has learnt the craft of filmmaking “on the job” across avant garde and more mainstream productions, and her commitment to keeping film form fresh has been evident throughout her career, whether in the use of verse in Yes (2005) or the series of monologues that constitute Rage (2009). Frank and honest about her disappointments or perceived “mistakes,” and about what she’s learnt through working with others, Potter isn’t in any sense prescriptive or theory-based here. Rather, the filmmaker stresses “the necessity of a flexible, individual approach to actors” (xxiii) developed through close collaboration with each one in “an attitude of adaptability, flexibility and responsibility” (p. 69). The director, in Potter’s conception, isn’t a detached and distant figure, but an active, listening, watching presence, fully engaged with the work of the actors in an empathetic, loving way.

Potter is fully alert to the ineffable, spiritual side of her collaborations she’s developed, writing rhapsodically of special moments on set which have made her intensely aware of “the very roots of what acting can be: a profound circuit of energy between the watcher and the watched, in which we are reminded that we are alive” (83). However, at some level Potter’s project here is iconoclastic. She’s out to demystify the actor/director relation and to emphasise instead the extent to which it involves practicality, application and sheer hard graft. She’s out to democratise, too, eschewing the (patriarchal) notion that successful strategies of communication are gifts mysteriously bestowed upon a select few “geniuses”. Rather, for Potter, these are skills that are open to everyone, skills that can be learned, channelled, developed and honed. And yet what also emerges very strongly is Potter’s own fortitude and resourcefulness in bringing to completion challenging projects in the face of what she refers to as “the cultural discouragement at large” (182).
Reflecting her counsellor training, there’s the occasional shift into self-help mode in the volume, the use of statements of the “you can’t change what’s happened but you can change your attitude to it” variety. But the book is none the worse for its intermittent recourse to such uplifting affirmations, and its ability to inspire is best summarised by the “Postscript” that concludes “Part Three”: Potter’s “Barefoot Filmmaking manifesto”, which includes a number of coprecepts to encourage the aspirant or established artist, among them “Practise no waste – psychic ecology – prevent brain pollution (don’t add to the proliferation of junk)” (p. 139).
Naked Cinema would be a richly rewarding work if made up exclusively of Potter’s stimulating words. But in opening up the text to include the voices of a diverse range of actors who’ve appeared in her films, the book achieves greatness. The fourteen one-on-one interviews that conclude the volume may be, for the more general reader, the main draw to the text, and they are sensational: detailed, serious, touching, fun. It’s simply wonderful to hear performers as diverse as Jude Law, Julie Christie, Joan Allen, Steve Buscemi, Timothy Spall and Elle Fanning talk with more depth and insight about their craft and process than they’ve ever been invited to do before, and their evident ease with Potter yields terrific results
The interviews connect, complement and contradict each other in fascinating ways, as each performer outlines what draws them to a project, their process, and what they require from a director to aid them. The interviews range widely, taking in the whole culture as they touch on ethics and economics, on issues of gender and age. Simon Abkarian speaks movingly and poetically about his desire for the director to create “a space that is absolutely palpable for both of us, intellectually and with feeling” (p. 146). Riz Ahmed defines acting as, in part, “an escape from the labels that are put on me” (p. 164), and notes how, in a period of image-saturation and shrinking attention spans, cinema must continue to function as “the moving image at its most charged and emotionally potent” (p. 179). Christina Hendricks and Jude Law incisively assess the less palatable sides of the fame game, and Annette Bening describes the difficulties of dealing with the “demon” of self-doubt (p. 207).
Judi Dench discusses the mysteries of “presence” and the differences between acting for theatre and cinema (“In film, if you have the actual thought in your head, that will be seen in your eyes…” p. 282). Elle Fanning describes learning the value of rehearsal during the making of Ginger & Rosa (2012), of feeling more empowered to ask questions, and of how breaking for lessons as a child actor may actually help to keep a performance focused and fresh. Several of the actors speak quite touchingly of their need for respect and “kindness” from a director, and the setting of what Potter herself describes as “a tone of safety, integrity and openness” (p. 118) is identified by most as the condition under which good work can thrive.
Naked Cinema sets just such a tone for the reader across its intimate and involving 400 pages. Full of insight and intelligence, its concerns may seem specialised and particular, but the book turns out to resonate much more widely, its close focus on collaboration, communication and the forging of productive working relationships resulting in a text that inspires and empowers whatever your career or your creative pursuits.

DVD Review: I’m All Right Jack (dir. John and Roy Boulting, 1959)

Here, courtesy of StudioCanal, is a very welcome DVD and Blu-ray reissue for the Boulting Brothers's cherishable class-conscious comedy of union strife: a sequel of sorts to their 1956 A Private’s Progress with Ian Carmichael reprising his role as the Oxford innocent Stanley Windrush. This time out, the film follows Windrush as he takes a job at the missile factory owned by his Uncle (Dennis Price), where his bumbling efforts sometimes suggest a proto-Naked Gun film. But Windrush, it turns out, is actually only a pawn in the game of the management, who want to use him as the catalyst in a labour dispute that will bring them profit.
Though taken to task by some critics for anti-union bias, the satire is actually spread with satisfying even-handedness by the Boultings, with the Union, the bosses, employers and employees, the upper and working classes and flagrant militarism all targeted at various points. (“Missiles are making their own special contribution to peace in the world,” Price intones.) The tone isn’t genteel – the film is capped by cheeky nudist antics that wouldn’t disgrace a Carry On – but the script is smart (much more so than the recent Pride [2014], say) and the film adds up to a vivid portrait of a cross-section of British society on the cusp of change.
There are fun, artful characterisations from Terry-Thomas as an Army officer turned manager, from Liz Fraser as the blowsy girl Windrush falls for; from Richard Attenborough as Price’s conniving cohort, amusing bits of business for Margaret Rutherford (her upper-class matron appraising a copy of The Decline of the Privileged Classes), Irene Handl, Miles Malleson, and – at the centre – a turn of great inventiveness from Peter Sellers as the shop steward and union leader Fred Kite. Sellers scenes take the satire to a new level – "All those cornfields. And ballet in the evening” Mr. Kite rhapsodises, romanticising Russia – and give the movie some surprising depths of emotion as well.
Digitally restored, the film looks clear and crisp, and the restoration is supplemented by a few choice Extras too, including the Richard Lester-helmed short “The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film” and a lovely new interview with Fraser. This new edition is available from 19th January, and comes highly recommended.