Saturday 12 September 2015

Theatre Review: Photograph 51 (Noël Coward Theatre)

Photograph 51: Photo: Johan Persson
Science on stage can yield mixed results, from the charm and cheek of Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy, through the deep intellectual pleasures offered by Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen  to, most recently, the cutesy superficiality of Nick Payne’s Constellations

Photograph 51, Anna Ziegler’s new play about  Rosalind Franklin, the British scientist who helped to discover the structure of DNA but who, as a woman, was ultimately sidelined from the story,  isn’t quite up to the Copenhagen level. But it’s a lot closer to Frayn than to Payne. It’s a sober, solid, serious-minded piece of writing, sometimes a bit too eager to tell where it might show, but astute, nimble and thoughtful, nonetheless. Michael Grandage's characteristically crisp, lucid production – 95 minutes, no interval – keeps up the pace, delivering a gripping evening that, though starting a tad stiffly, gradually thaws into surprising emotion. Christopher Oram's design evokes both the restrictive walls of fusty academia and the puzzle of a chessboard, as its protagonists’ grapple with the mysteries of scientific discovery (and the mysteries of each others’ personalities, too).

Beyond the telling of an important, still-relevant story - as recent ill-advised comments have shown, the status of women working in science is far from resolved even now - the production’s big draw is, of course, Nicole Kidman, returning to the London stage for the first time since her turn in The Blue Room set an over-excited Charles Spencer salivating about “theatrical Viagra”. It’s to Kidman and Grandage’s great credit that her performance as Franklin never feels like a star turn: defining Franklin as someone who wasn’t “a showman”, Kidman captures without fuss and with great feeling the character’s prickly defensiveness, her intellectual drive, and her latent longings.

Echoing Franklin’s position as a woman in a man’s world, the production surrounds Kidman with an all-male cast, comprised of Will Attenborough as James Watson, Edward Bennett as Francis Crick, Stephen Campbell Moore as Maurice Wilkins, Patrick Kennedy as Don Caspar and Joshua Silver as Ray Gosling. Attempts at humour sometimes feel forced but Kidman and Campbell Moore succeed in making something truly moving of the Wilkins/Franklin relationship – with its misunderstandings and missed opportunities - finally revealing the piece to be a melancholy memory play at its heart. It’s doubtful that Photograph 51 will constitute anyone’s idea of “theatrical Viagra” but its quiet intelligence and unflashy approach make Grandage’s production a definite asset for the West End. 

The production is booking until 21st November. Further details here.   

Friday 11 September 2015

Concert Review: Stockport to Memphis - Barb Jungr, Crazy Coqs, 6th September 2015

Celebrations of Stockport – the Greater Manchester town described in hackneyed terms by Paul Morley as a place of “slumped skies and enclosed air … the town I couldn’t wait to escape from” – can’t be said to be ten a penny. But, never one to take the predictable view, Barb Jungr offered a love letter of sorts to the place that she grew up on her great 2012 album Stockport to Memphis. That record represented something of a departure for Jungr, combining songs by some of her favourite writers – Dylan, Mitchell, Hank Williams, Sam Cooke – with original, deeply personal compositions that reflected on Jungr’s background in Stockport, thereby evoking what the singer believes to be the “special connection” binding the North-West of England and North American coasts.    

At Soho’s wonderful Crazy Coqs club on Sunday night, Jungr (fresh from the recording of her new album and her debuting of a Beatles show in the States and at Edinburgh) revisited Stockport to Memphis in spell-binding fashion with Simon Wallace (co-composer of most of the original songs on the record) on piano and Davide Mantovani on bass. Listening to this trio – and this is the fourth time I’ve seen them on stage in the past year, following their Valentine’s Night show and two City of London Festival gigs – is an unalloyed joy, their wonderful rapport delivering shows that are always reliably confident and accomplished but also always fresh, spontaneous and surprising. The nimbleness with which Jungr, Wallace and Mantovani move through moods, making connections between apparently disparate songs, is simply sublime. Combining the observational humour of a Victoria Wood with the all-out, passionate intensity of an Edith Piaf, Jungr’s performances are totally fulfilling emotional experiences, leaving the audience elated, inspired and, at a profound level, changed.

The set-list for Sunday’s show, the first of a series of Jungr residencies at Crazy Coqs, re-ordered and often subtly re-arranged some of Stockport to Memphis’s songs, adding additional surprises, to boot. Jungr’s years of close attention to, and committed performance of, the work of numerous song-writing greats has clearly had its benefits on her own song-writing, which is evocative, economical, rich in specific detail, yet full of open spaces for the listener. The beautifully constructed “New Life,” referencing both her leaving of Stockport and her parents’ emigration experiences, resonated deeply, gaining even greater poignancy and pertinence in the context of the current refugee crisis. The slinky “Urban Fox” presented an encounter with the titular critter as a reminder of the natural wildness suppressed by gentrified city living. The album’s title track was as punchy and affirmative as the full-band album version, as Jungr joyfully evoked her early musical discoveries and the exciting, still-evolving journey that they set her on.     

Between these songs, Jungr vibrantly interwove material from the album by other writers that complemented the original material beautifully. Highlights included a magnificently aerated, gender- switched version of The Zombies’s “She’s Not There”, a liberating take on Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon’s “Breakin’ Down the Walls of Heartache” and an achingly beautiful reading of The Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues.” Jungr transformed that boisterous song into the tenderest and most redemptive of ballads, digging deep in to the redemptive sentiments of Scott and Wickham's lyrics: “Tomorrow I will be loosened/ From bonds that hold me fast/The chains all hung around me/Will fall away at last”. Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" was ingeniously reinvented as a dialogue, and Jungr's delivery of the line "His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean" was especially cherishable. On Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”, Jungr departed the stage and ventured into the crowd, directing the “you’ve been faithful – give or take a night or two” lyric at a (slightly perturbed-looking) audience member.   

There are few more gracious and hospitable artists than Jungr, few who create such an inclusive and loving ambience for the audience. But, like all the best performers, Jungr also keeps a palpable element of unpredictability, of danger – even of punky threat – in the air, ensuring that the evening never gets too cosy. This was nowhere more apparent than on a breathtaking rendition of Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole” which moved from gleaming-eyed parody to visceral emotion as Jungr brilliantly embodied the narrator’s wavering between resistance and capitulation to the Devil’s temptations. She closed the show with Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. Deeply moving, and again unavoidably illuminating responses to the current crisis, it was the perfect benediction with which to send us travelling on.

Jungr returns to Crazy Coqs on Oct 4th. Details here

Film Review: Irrational Man (dir. Allen, 2015)

Woody's Allen's Irrational Man is out in the UK today. You can read my review of the film from Cannes 2015 here

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Theatre Review: When We Were Women (Orange Tree)

Abigail Lawrie and Mark Edel-Hunt in When We Were Women (Photo: Ben Broomfield) 

The 2015/2016 Orange Tree season opens with a small but well formed gem: a play of great beauty and subtle power, presented with exceptional delicacy and care. Sharman Macdonald’s When We Were Women premiered at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe back in 1988, but hasn’t had a major production since. Eleanor Rhode’s revival for the OT not only makes a compelling case for this particular text but also leaves you longing to see more of Macdonald’s work on the London stage. (The playwright’s best known plays these days are When I Was A Girl I Used to Scream and Shout and The Winter Guest, filmed by Alan Rickman, with Emma Thompson and Phyllida Law, in 1997.)

When We Were Women unfolds in 1940s Glasgow where Isla - a teenage girl living with her parents, Maggie and Alec, and with two older brothers fighting in the war - meets Mackenzie, a naval officer with a rather mysterious past. The play interweaves two time-lines, separated by a year or so, as it examines the fallout of that encounter and its impact upon the couple, and on Isla’s family. 

With its echoes of several other Scottish plays – notably Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep (1947) and Stewart Conn’s I Didn’t Always Live Here (1973) – the latter memorably revived at the Finborough by Lisa Blair in 2013 [review] – Macdonald’s play finds fresh, idiosyncratic life in a scenario familiar from many a folk ballad: a girl’s seduction by a sailor. On the surface, the play looks like straightforward social realism, but it has its stranger, ghostlier side, and Rhode’s production attends to both elements brilliantly. Macdonald’s dialogue is rooted in the poetry of Glasgow dialect speech but in ways that don’t feel affected or ostentatious, and the play features some striking semi-soliloquies throughout.  

There’s subtle expressionism to this production’s aesthetic, evident in James Turner’s spare set (a kitchen table set upon a wonky, cracked granite floor), David Gregory’s sound design and, especially, Mike Robertson’s outstanding lighting, which picks out the protagonists in surprising shafts of illumination. (This is, without doubt, one of the best, most inventively lighted shows I’ve ever seen at the Orange Tree.) The attention to ambience – which becomes, at times, rather noir-ish – generates surprising intensity, and allows the production to take on the contours of a reminiscence, a misty memory, while at the same time keeping the characters vivid and present, even when their interactions feel tantalisingly ambiguous.

Lorraine Pilkington and Abigail Lawrie in When We Were Women (Photo: Ben Broomfield)

As in much of Macdonald’s work, mother/daughter dynamics are central to When We Were Women, and the scenes between Isla (Abigail Lawrie) and her mother Maggie (Lorraine Pilkington) are particularly strong in their bracing combination of tension and tenderness. Once something of a libertine herself (“mah wild Maggie”, as Alec fondly reminisces), Maggie has, due to circumstance and compromise, gradually settled into an altogether different role. The contradictory messages she sends to her daughter (insisting that a woman must “cleave to her man”  but also “keep things from them, keep a bit of yourself private”) feel exactly judged. It helps that Lawrie and Pilkington are a striking physical match-up, and that the performances of both actresses are exemplary, with Lawrie making a terrific stage debut here following her acclaimed work in the BBC adaptation of The Casual Vacancy.

Steve Nicholson combines bluffness, bullying and beneficence as the hard-drinking patriarch; a late sequence in which he and Maggie outline to Isla their decision about a pivotal matter - the same decision, reached for different reasons - is perfectly played. The cast is completed by Mark Edel-Hunt as the troubled Mackenzie and by Sarah-Jayne Butler as Cath, a significant figure from his past. Both actors have strong, memorable moments. 

There’s nothing remotely modish about When We Were Women and the play’s refusal to milk its premise for more obvious melodrama may disappoint some. But those who do respond to Rhode’s production will find that this very tender, dolorous drama casts a haunting spell.

Booking until 3rd October. Further information at the Orange Tree website

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Theatre Review: McQueen (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

My 3.5* review of John Caird's production of James Phillips's play McQueen, currently at Theatre Royal Haymarket, is up at Official Theatre. You can read the review here

Festival Review: David Byrne's Meltdown 2015 (Southbank Centre)

My piece on David Byrne's Meltdown Festival, with spotlights on Estrella Morente's and Carmen Consoli's shows, is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.