Thursday 29 October 2015

Theatre Review: Pig Farm (St. James Theatre)

“What does a man have to do to run a pig farm around here?” wonders the harried Tom (Dan Fredenburgh), the hero (of sorts) of Greg Kotis’s comedy, which has just opened at St. James Theatre, in a production directed by the aptly named Katharine Farmer.  As the owner of a struggling farm in an unspecified area of Hicksville, USA, Tom’s troubles are multiple: a dopey hired hand, Tim (Erik Odom) who’s as much hindrance as help, and a frustrated wife, Tina (Charlotte Parry), who’s desperate for a kid. Mostly, though, Tom’s worried about the impending visit from an Environmental Protection Agency officer, Teddy (Stephen Tompkinson), who, when he arrives, turns out to be a gun-toting functionary with a habit of walking into the couple’s kitchen at decidedly inopportune moments.

A slice of rowdy backwoods Americana with a touch of the Coen Bros about it, Pig Farm is unexpectedly engaging for a good part of its running time. Although there are weaker elements from the off (the running-gag repetition of the characters' alliterative names, for one), Kotis – best known for writing the book and lyrics for Urinetown - shows skill in keeping the dialogue just the right side of cartoonish, using hick diction for poetic as well as comedic effects.

The play’s satire on changes in farming practices and federal government interventions is well managed, and Farmer’s bright production seems to find the writing’s strengths, aided by a fine set design by Carla Goodman and some great   music choices. (No production that includes Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” as interval music can be entirely without merit.)  The excellent cast also performs brilliantly. Parry, in particular, even manages to bring some plangent grace notes to what could be an extremely problematic characterisation, as she skilfully conveys Tina’s longings, while also throwing herself with hilarious abandon into a sex scene with Odom that’s a great parody of the Lange/Nicholson kitchen encounter in The Postman Always Rings Twice

Given these strong points, it’s a shame that Kotis’s play finally blows it, undoing its competent work with a grotesquely extended final stretch that’s off in every department, not least in its cavalier approach to violence. (Lapped up by most of the chortling audience, it must be said.) Since, by this stage, the protagonists have gone beyond caricature to actually mean something to us, the final slide into bloody farce not only seems about the weakest way possible for the play to conclude: it also makes you feel an idiot for caring in the first place.

Booking until November 21st. 

Tuesday 20 October 2015

“A Kind of Liberation”: An Interview with Małgorzata Szumowska about Body/Ciało

As international as it undoubtedly is, the London Film Festival makes one concession to old-fashioned Englishness with its rather quaintly-titled “Filmmakers’ Afternoon Teas.” Held at The Mayfair Hotel, these gatherings give journalists the chance to meet directors in an informal setting, for either one-on-one or roundtable interviews.
Having admired Body/Ciało at this year’s Gdynia Film Festival (you can read my full coverage of the Festival here), where the movie won the main “Golden Lions” prize, I was happy to have the opportunity to speak with Małgorzata Szumowska about the film. Born in 1973, and an alumna of Kraków's Jagiellonian University and of Łódź Film School, Szumowska had made two features before her breakthrough film 33 Scenes From Life  (33 sceny z życia(2008) brought her to wider attention. Since then, Szumowska has established herself as one of Poland’s most interesting contemporary filmmakers, and one who’s eager to explore controversial subject matter,  be it prostitution  - in the Juliette Binoche-starring Elles (2011) - or a Catholic priest’s recognition of his homosexuality  in  In the Name  Of (W imię....) (2012).
Body/Ciało strikes me as Szumowska’s most accomplished and sustained work to date, however. Combining elements of detective drama, supernatural enquiry and deadpan black comedy, the movie focuses on a widowed prosecutor (veteran Janusz Gajos), his anorexic teenage daughter, Olga (newcomer Justyna Suwała), and the latter’s therapist, Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), a spiritualist who believes that Olga’s mother is trying to make contact from beyond the grave. At its heart, Body/Ciało is essentially another work that pits reason against faith, presenting an archetypal face-off between cynic and believer. But the idiosyncratic spins that the film puts on that familiar premise make it an appropriately haunting experience, and one of the year’s most significant Polish productions.

“I tend to begin with a word, or an image that I want to explore,” Szumowksa tells me, when I ask her how the film evolved. “Initially I had the idea of writing about anorexia, after meeting someone who was dealing with this condition. However, that ultimately felt too limiting. I didn’t want to make an issue film here, but rather something that explored the concept of the body more broadly.”

Bodies young and old, thin and fat, healthy and dead,  fill the frames of Szumowska’s movie, which is shot in a cool, dispassionate style. As with In the Name Of, the director collaborated on the film’s screenplay with the cinematographer, Michał Englert (who is also Ostaszewska’s partner), and I wondered how writing with a DP impacts upon the creative process. “It means that we’re thinking about form and the visual style from the very beginning,” Szumowska says. “Michał will often send me images and clips as we start. They might be from films or music videos, but that’s how we begin to develop our approach and to think about the look and tone of the film.”

Alongside its highly distinctive visuals and framing, Body/Ciało is also striking in its incorporation of pop music. Szumowska employs two songs in the film. One is Gerry and the Pacemaker’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the spiritually-minded Carousel, and later co-opted as a football anthem, which is employed in the film as a possible message from the dead matriarch. The other track is the punky “Śmierć w bikini” by the iconic Polish rock band Republika, which scores a memorable bare-breasted dancing scene by the veteran actress Ewa Dałkowska. When I ask Szumowska about her reasoning in choosing these tracks, it soon becomes clear that both songs have highly personal associations for the filmmaker.

“Ah, Liverpool!” Szumowska says delightedly, with reference to “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” “My son and I are big football fans. We were listening to various anthems, and this one stood out, especially for the lyrical content, which connects with the film’s themes. As for 'Śmierć w bikini' I have very fond memories of listening to Republika when I was a teenager in the 1980s, and of seeing them in concert. In those grey, oppressive Communist days, a band like this represented freedom for us, a kind of liberation. There is something so absurd about 'Śmierć w bikini', and yet it’s a bit scary and sexual at the same time. As with  'You’ll Never Walk Alone' I was also drawn to the lyrical content, and felt that it could serve the film.”

The absurd, the sexual, the scary: Body/Ciało combines all of these, and Szumowska says that she’s always excited by “mixing genres,” viewing this as a way of “keeping the audience off balance.” The film is also hybridised at the level of its title, with its combination of English and Polish. “In part this was for practical reasons, since there was already a popular Polish film called Ciało,” Szumowska admits, referring to Tomasz Konecki and Andrzej Saramonowicz’s 2003 comedy. “Naturally, we wanted to distinguish our film from that one.  But the title also speaks to a duality that’s at the heart of the film. So many of the scenes have double meanings, or can be understood in two ways. In addition, increasingly in Poland, the younger generation moves fluidly between Polish and English. The title was a way of referring to this, too.”

While Gajos and Suwała were awarded the Best Actor and Best Debut prizes at Gdynia, Maja Ostaszewska was overlooked for her work as Anna, though Szumowska has described her performance as in many ways “the heart of the film.” “The role was written for Maja,” Szumowska tells me. “She’s been in many movies and is also well respected as a theatre actress. Since she has quite a glamorous persona, some people were surprised that we would think of her for an asexual character such as Anna. But she’s a wonderful actress and of course she could do it. And we were well aware of the comedy she could bring to the role.”

Part of the comedy in the early scenes of the film comes from Anna’s interactions with her dog, a massive mutt named Fredek; their bond is revealed in a priceless sequence that wouldn’t have been out of place in Turner & Hooch. “The dog certainly improvised,” Szumowska says, wryly. “He just pulled Maja along in those scenes where she’s walking him.”

The working-class Polish neighbourhoods depicted in Body/Cialo are far from glamorous, either, but the film gives them a particular grandeur and, at times, a strange beauty, as in a striking  shot in which Anna sits dwarfed by massive tenement housing behind her. I recall the experience of watching Body/Ciało at a public screening in Gdynia, the cinema packed with an appreciative and responsive crowd, despite the film already having opened in Poland several months before the Festival. To what extent does Szumowska see Body/Ciało as telling a specifically Polish story?   

“Well, the context is certainly Polish, and of course there are certain elements that will resonate strongly with Poles. But we were striving for something universal, too, and ultimately the film is a family story. This is what films should provide, I believe: universal stories, emerging from a particular context.  Polish audiences do seem to love this film. But I’m happy that it also travels well.”

Szumowska has another screenplay already completed, and while she was reluctant to divulge too many details about it at this stage, she hinted that the movie  might in some way be an elaboration of the themes explored in Body/Ciało 

The new project's working title? “Face.”

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Theatre Review: French Without Tears (Orange Tree)

Genevieve Gaunt in French Without Tears (Photo: Richard Davenport)

With his sparkling, affectionate revival of French Without Tears, Paul Miller delivers one of the year’s most purely pleasurable productions. Terence Rattigan’s 1936 comedy, about the romantic complications among a group of English youth at a French summer school, was the playwright’s first big stage success. The play was also one of the primary targets for the anti-Rattigan brigade of the 1950s.

French Without Tears, which has some affinities with Rattigan’s 1943 While the Sun Shines (revived at Pentameters back in 2011 [review]), clearly belongs to Rattigan’s early period, and, while there are some subterranean links to his later dramas, it would be a mistake to look for too much depth under the play's shiny, epigram-strewn surface.  Still, if French Without Tears is essentially a trifle, it’s a well-constructed and fairly substantial one that’s not without some insight in its gleeful exploration of the machinations and the madnesses of love.

As usual, Miller very much takes the text on its own terms, refusing to place it in knowing quotation marks, or to dress it up with contemporary nudges and winks.  The result is the kind of blissfully confident production in which every element feels in sync. And the evening has one undeniable asset: the brightest (and hottest) young cast to currently be seen on a UK stage.

There are several star-making turns: from Genevieve Gaunt as Diana, the cooing, sulky, ever-manipulating seductress who’s recognised that her only talent is to make men fall for her, and who intends  to exploit that gift to the full; from Joe Eyre and William Belchambers as her current love rivals, Kit and Rogers (Eyre spends most of the second half in one of the year’s most memorable costumes, while Belchambers allows his hilariously awkward, deadpan Commander to lighten up by just the right degree); and from Tom Hanson, who’s adorable as the marvellously uncomplicated, French-mangling and tart-loving Brian. 

Tom Hanson in French Without Tears (Photo: Richard Davenport) 

As Alan, vacillating between submitting to his father’s plans for his career and pursuing his own writerly ambitions, Alex Bhat makes a sensational professional stage debut, moving from shrewd, smug observer to befuddled participant as Diana turns her attentions his way. Veteran David Whitworth is priceless as the school’s Prof Maingot, demanding that French be spoken at all times and forever entering the scene just when the tensions between the men are about to get physical. And Sarah Winter (who made a minor role in the Finborough’s 2012 revival of Hindle Wakes truly memorable) is appealing as Maingot's daughter, who’s nursing her own unspoken crush on Kit.  

In short, the production has a wonderfully generous sense of ensemble, and, throughout, one feels the entire cast’s sheer pleasure in the rhythms and wit of Rattigan’s dialogue, and the funny lines they get to deliver. Our own current toff-bashing cultural moment might make French Without Tears a hard sell to some. But leave any such prejudices at the door and it’s impossible not to get swept up in the beguiling effervescence of Miller’s perfectly charming revival.

Booking until 21st November. Further information at the Orange Tree website

Thursday 8 October 2015

CD Review: The Light Princess Original Cast Recording (Mercury Classics/Universal, 2015)

Levity Forever! In the anniversary tribute piece that I wrote about The Light Princess, I noted that it was hard to believe that a year had passed since the show opened at the National Theatre. Well, now two years have passed since The Light Princess’s great NT debut, and the Original Cast Recording of Samuel Adamson and Tori Amos’s vibrant musical fairy-tale has, at last, been released on Mercury Classics/Universal. As dedicated followers of this show know by now, good things (or - c’mon! - “better than good” things) come to those who wait, and the chance to finally own a copy of this score is joyous indeed.

The reason for the lengthy gestation of the OCR has been down to Amos’s involvement in other projects (a new album and world tour last year) and her commitment to micro-managing this release, which she’s produced with her usual team, and Adamson's close collaboration. Not for Amos the shove-the-cast-in-a-studio-and-get-it-recorded-fast tactics of most OCRs. Rather, she’s approached this recording with all the commitment, care and attention-to-detail that she’s brought to bear on her best studio albums. Boasting full lyrics, detailed plot synopsis and exquisite photos of the NT production (many being presented for the first time), the packaging of the two-CD set is stunningly beautiful. Such elements as the synopsis and the photos are also a handy addition for those experiencing the musical for the first time, without the benefit of the memories of the superb, surreal stage pictures conjured in Marianne Elliott’s terrific production.

While many of us loved the The Light Princess’s score from first encounter, and were excited to go back and experience it many (many…) times in the theatre, the music proved to be the most divisive element of the show, with a number of commentators bemoaning the score's lack of “accessibility” and absence of - gah - “memorable tunes”. Frankly, such complaints never held much weight (pun intended) for those who’d truly paid attention to the show. Instead, such remarks revealed that Amos and Adamson had co-composed a musical too sophisticated and intricate for some tastes, and painfully exposed the lack of an adequate vocabulary to really discuss and explore new musical theatre writing on the part of many British theatre critics.  

Such criticisms can now be silenced. With enhanced strings, a more central place for Katherine Rockhill’s terrific piano work, and lush production, the beauty, depths and detail of the music emerge as clearly as a bell on the OCR. Amos and her team have ensured that the score leaps off the speakers here: fresh, supple, shimmering, chamber-intense, always expressive of the characters’ personalities and emotional states, always a motor for the unfolding narrative.

The Light Princess is, indeed (and perhaps problematically so for those who prefer their musicals po-mo ironic), a score that runs on pure emotion, encompassing delicacy, stridency, playfulness, gleeful exuberance and operatic ache in order to tell what is, at its very tender heart, a coming-of-age story of an archetypal variety presented through the contrasts, parallels and pairings of its two protagonists’ worlds. What’s striking is that the show doesn’t descend to mere camp. It’s sharp, witty and cheeky, sure, but Amos and Adamson’s emotional acuity ensure that the piece never shies away from doing justice to difficult, complex feelings. The sense of emotional ebb and flow, the meaningful transitions, the refrains and variations, the exquisite melodies that may be employed only once, the stunning build of the ambitious sustained sequences “Queen Material”  and “Nothing More Than This” can be fully explored and savoured here, along with the terrific vocal performances from the cast– all of whom reprise their roles from the original production.

In performance, Rosalie Craig did so many fresh and in-the-moment things as the gravity-free heroine that to hear her performance "fixed" by a recording may seem inevitably reductive. Yet Craig's shrewd choices here mean that her Althea remains a wonderfully complex, protean creation, and her sublime delivery of  “My Fairy-Story,” “Better Than Good,” and “Darkest Hour” retains every bit of the soaring passion and bite that it had in the theatre. Craig’s is a thrilling, generous performance; one for the ages.  The brilliant Nick Hendrix sounds beautifully sweet and strong as Digby, and his duets with Craig on “Althea” and “Amphibiava” are among the funniest, sexiest, most poignant duets in any musical, period. As the controlling Kings, Hal Fowler delivers a properly scary “Proverbs” - accompanied by seismic piano crash from Rockhill –while Clive Rowe’s Darius remains one of the finest achievements in the actor’s distinguished career, his fearsome bellow at the climax of “The Whistleblower” turning, heartbreakingly, into the vulnerability of a little boy as he begins to realise the damage that his actions have wrought. 

It’s part of the project’s embracing generosity of spirit that each cast member gets their moment to shine, though: whether it’s Laura Pitt-Pulford’s contribution to the swaggering “Sealand Supremacy” (what I think of as the show’s “Bonnie Tyler moment”), Amy Booth-Steel’s Piper fiercely challenging Darius on “The Whistleblower”, Malinda Parris’s sensational, hilarious “Scandal”, or Kane Oliver Parry, as Llewelyn, harmonising exhilaratingly with Hendrix on “Bitter Fate”.  

There are, inevitably, some losses to "just" listening to the show: the series of four “Hellos” that invariably brought the house down at the coda are absent here, for one. Still, the show’s themes emerge with perfect clarity: the seductions of escapism; the balance required in human affairs; the challenges of two teens dealing with maternal loss and paternal legacy. “I’m a d’Arcy/Heartless brutes that’s what we are,” cries Althea on the show’s startling operatic apex, “No H20”, in which she believes herself to be (literally) bolted to her fate. The sentiment is echoed on the aforementioned “Bitter Fate,” where Digby resigns himself to his belief that “I am the solemn Prince; and to be the solemn King’s my lot”.  The fact that both characters find ways to not have their identities and fates controlled by others is part of what makes The Light Princess the affirmative, empowering and cathartic experience that it is (and all-of-a-piece with Amos’s body of work, too).  

Moreover, those who know the score will note, and take delight in, some new additions, including an expanded version of the joyous “Gravity”. That song is also included as one of the "Bonus Tracks" on the OCR, alongside Amos’s piano-and-vocal versions of “Darkest Hour” and “Highness in the Sky”. Though not precisely essential to the album as an experience, both tracks are lovely additions, and “Highness in the Sky” is especially noteworthy, with Amos’s urgent, tumbling piano work and sensual, caressing delivery allowing certain details of the composition to emerge afresh, especially when she reaches the “Everything’s changing, we’re not as we were” lyric.

For those of us who were deeply changed and inspired by The Light Princess over its run at the NT listening to the OCR provides all the joy and emotion of revisiting an old friend after a long separation. For those who didn’t see the production, here - at last - is the chance to experience one of the most original, inventive and richly textured musical scores of our time. And so:  Levity. FOREVER. 

The Light Princess is released on 9th October. 

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Theatre Review: The Wars of the Roses (Rose, Kingston)

My review of Trevor Nunn's production of The Wars of the Roses is up at The Reviews Hub. You can read it here.

Thursday 1 October 2015

Theatre Review: Crush (Richmond Theatre, & touring)

My review of Crush is up at British Theatre Guide. You can read it here