Monday 18 December 2017

Theatre 2017: 10 Favourite Productions

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (Harold Pinter Theatre) 
(Photo: Johan Persson)

(Photo: Krzysztof Bieliński)

THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH (Attic/Merton Arts Space)
(Photo: Claudia Marinaro)
ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)
(Photo: Steve Tanner) 

JOAN (Ovalhouse)

AN OCTOROON (Orange Tree) 
(Photo: The Other Richard)

(Photos: Jane Hobson)



 (Photo: Johan Persson)

Bonus: Twelfth Night (National Theatre), Happy (Vault Festival), Directors' Festival (Orange Tree) [review]

(Photo: Robert Day)

Worst: Obsession (Barbican) 

Monday 11 December 2017

Review of the Year: Cinema 2017: 15 Favourite Films

I was only able to cover one film festival - Transatlantyk Festival here in Łódź - in 2017, but nonetheless managed to see a pretty good range of films from all over the world throughout the year: one of the benefits of living in a cinephile's city. Hollywood mainly disappointed or disgusted (on screen and off), but elsewhere there was much to celebrate and to be inspired by. There were some great communal experiences - the shared laughter at Lost in Paris, the shared shock and awe at mother! - but, most of all, 2017's films felt like very private and interior experiences to me, making spaces for reflection that I'm truly grateful for, especially in the current climate. In no particular order, here are fifteen of my favourites of the year (plus extras, disappointments and non-favourites).

A Ciambra (dir. Jonas Carpignano)
Jonas Carpignano's debut feature Mediterranea (2015) was an intimate drama of contemporary immigration experience that combined the humanism of a Vittorio De Sica with the rough sensuality of a Claire Denis. Produced by Scorsese, A Ciambra is a superb semi-sequel that switches the spotlight to Mediterranea's precocious tearaway (Pio Amato) as he comes of age in the Romani community of Gioia Tauro and faces difficult  choices of allegiance.

Frantz (dir. François Ozon)
L’amant double (dir. François Ozon) 
I'd started to give up on Ozon after several lacklustre efforts  (Young and Beautiful and The New Girlfriend, ugh).  But Frantz and L’amant double constituted a terrific return to form that neatly encapsulated the two sides of the director’s sensibility: elegant, earnest classicism, on the one hand, and trashy, sexy cheek, on the other. The films were linked by twisty, but brilliantly lucid, cinematic story-telling, fine performances, and freshly subversive takes on that habitual Ozon theme: the possibility (or otherwise) of substitution and replacement. 

Lost in Paris (dir. Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel)
The only film I saw this year that made me weep with laughter, this joyous comedy of City of Lights misadventures serves up some blissful Tatiesque slapstick as it brings together a meek (yet increasingly intrepid) Canadian librarian and a cheerful vagabond in the search for an errant Aunt. With Emmanuelle Riva belatedly proving herself a comedy virtuosa in one of her last screen roles.   

God’s Own Country (dir. Francis Lee)
Francis Lee makes a beautiful debut film here, charting the love affair between an unhappy young Yorkshireman (Josh O’Connor) and the watchful Romanian migrant worker (Alec Secareanu) who’s hired to help out on the former’s farm. The pair’s progression from hostility to tenderness is poignantly and perceptively charted, creating a love story of contrasting  personalities to rival Weekend (2011) as well as another fine entry into the growing canon of contemporary British rural dramas. O'Connor and Secareanu are terrific, and there's subtly amazing supporting work from Gemma Jones and Ian Hart; in fact, I'd put this in a double-bill with Tom Browne's Radiator (2014), another great Jones-starrer, that's also among the best British films of the last few years. 

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A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)
Rooney Mara is a vacuum, Casey Affleck’s more expressive with the sheet over his head than without it, and the whole thing starts out like an arch hipster take on Truly Madly Deeply. Yet A Ghost Story reveals grander, weirder designs as it progresses, and I gradually found myself captivated and  deeply moved by the odd rhythms and juxtapositions of this singular odyssey through time and space.

Maudie (dir. Aisling Walsh)
“The whole of life, already framed, right there.” A superb performance from Sally Hawkins is the centrepiece of Walsh’s lovely, low-key biopic of the Canadian “primitive” artist Maud Lewis. As much as a portrait of the artist, the film is a portrait of a relationship, and one that doesn’t shy away from difficult, complicated emotions. To that end, Hawkins is ably supported by Ethan Hawke as the uncommunicative grump of a spouse whose worldview (not to mention windows and walls) is gradually changed by his wife’s spontaneous artistry.

mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
“Baby…?” From domestic unease to full-scale apocalyptic vision, Darren Aronofsky’s latest was by turns chilling, ludicrous and powerful: a delicious slow-burn turned orgy of excess that has a lot on its mind - including creativity, the insanity of celeb culture, spatial transgression and gender roles - as it reveals the allegorical implications at the heart of the house. Richard Brody puts it best in his fine review.

Manifesto (dir. Julian Rosefeldt)
Strange Little Girls Goes to the Movies, as Cate Blanchett slips into thirteen personas to deliver a range of manifestos in settings that are occasionally complementary but mostly delightfully incongruous.  Dada ignites a fierce graveside eulogy while Claes Oldenburg’s “I am for an art…”  provides the basis for  a conservative family’s prayer; in the final section, the focus turns, beautifully, to film, as a teacher offers a lesson that veers from Brakhage to Dogme. What sounds like an exercise in pretension proves to be a surprisingly funny, enjoyable, humane and dramatic as well as a challenging experience, with  Blanchett using the mannerism that’s come to define some of her screen performances to best effect (and with a dose or two of self-parody), as she creates some indelible presences.  “I am for an art…” well, rather like this one, as it turns out.  

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Summer 1993 (dir. Carla Simón)
A beautiful Catalonian film that captures the contours of a grief that’s barely been comprehended, let alone assimilated, Simón's movie charts the struggles of  the orphaned Frida (Laia Artigas) to settle into living with her Aunt and Uncle following her mother’s death from AIDS-related pneumonia. Alert to the rhythms of childish play and the casual cruelty that can underpin it, Simón has made a deeply personal film based on her own experience, but one that never feels self-indulgent or that locks the viewer out. The handling of the child actors is beyond praise, with Artigas and Paula Robles (as her little cousin Anna) creating a girlhood double act to rival those in Carlos Sauras Cria Cuervos (1975), Victor Erices The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (a clear intertext for the film), and Dorota Kędzierzawska’s  Crows (1994).

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Chavela (dir. Gund and Kyi)
Working against the popular doomed-female-artist mode of Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015) and Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? (2017), Gund and Kyi’s doc Chavela is a triumphant rejoinder that, without sanctifying its subject, offers  a loving tribute to the iconic singer who shook up Mexican music with her extraordinary voice and challenging persona. In a film that elegantly combines interviews with footage of the singer’s intense performances, Pedro Almodóvar puts it best, as he describes seeing Vargas perform live: “She was like a priestess: she saw that you’d made mistakes in love, and she saw your deep torments. You felt that shed absolved you of your sins - and then encouraged you to commit them again.”

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My Happy Family (dir. Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross) 
A 50-something teacher leaves her troublesome family and moves into a modest Tbilisi apartment by herself. That action yields funny, painful and surprising results in Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross's perfectly picthed drama, which deals with the always-challenging negotiation between our own desires and the demands or expectations of others. 

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A Quiet Passion (dir. Terence Davies)
Not without some awkwardness - the Wildean pastiche of the opening scenes is a little much  - Davies’s portrait of Emily Dickinson deepens as it progresses, creating a film that ends up as strange and single-minded as its subject. And after her amazing work as the dying matriarch in Josh Mond's  James White, here's another transcendent performance from Cynthia Nixon. 

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Insyriated (dir. Philippe Van Leeuw)
From A Ghost Story to A Quiet Passion, mother! to Maudie, expressive use of domestic space  distinguished many 2017 films that I liked, none more so than Philipe van Leeuw’s distilled and intense drama that documented 24 hours in the life of a Syrian family (and neighbours) holed up in their home during a siege in Damascus.  

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Little Men (dir. Ira Sachs)
Though  a 2016 release, I can’t not include Ira Sachs’s superb drama, which I was  able to see for the first time this year, and which was among the films that affected me most profoundly. Shot in the same bright, airy, welcoming style as Love is Strange, to which it forms a clear companion piece, this portrait of a teen friendship tested by real estate market forces was quiet, observant and compassionate towards all its characters. (Imagine if Ken Loach had taken on similar material...)   

Image result for pokot images agnieszka holland

BonusPokot (Holland), The Bekscinkis: A Sound and Picture Album (Borchardt), Centaur (Kubat), Dunkirk (Nolan), The Sense of an Ending (Batra), Paris Can Wait (Coppola), The Eagle Huntress (Bell), Tehran Taboo (Soozandeh), It Comes at Night (Shults), The Lost City of Z (Gray), Heal the Living (Quillevere), La Familia (Rondón Córdova), Wonder Wheel (Allen), Their Finest (Scherfig), Lady Macbeth (Oldroyd), Waiting for B. (Toledo/Spindel).

Favourite DVD Reissues: Daughters of the Dust (Dash), Life is Sweet (Leigh).

Disappointed: The Square (Östlund), Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino), The Florida Project (Baker), The Party (Potter), I Am Not Your Negro (Peck), Get Out (Peele) (On the latter, God bless you, Armond White). 

Worst:  Wind River (Sheridan), Let the Sunshine In (Denis), Song to Song (Malick), Return to Montauk (Schlondorff), Aurore (Blandine Lenoir).

Still UnseenHuman FlowFaces Places, Phantom Thread. 

Tuesday 5 December 2017

CD Review: Nighthawks, Peter Horsfall (APP Records, 2017)

Reviewing Peter Horsfall's delightful jazz EP How Can We Know? last summer, I expressed my hope that it would be the prelude to a full LP soon. Well, just over a year on, Horsfall has released his debut album, and the results more than build on the promise of the EP. With a title borrowed from Edward Hopper, a lovely cover design that tips its cap to Tom Waits, and beautiful booklet paintings by Cecile McLorin Salvant, Nighthawks is darker-textured and more ambient than How Can We Know? It's a complete, cohesive package that conjures nocturnal ambience across its 10 carefully sequenced tracks, which include three appealing instrumental interludes. Horsfall has described the album as "a tribute to the ballad form," and  old and original material blends seamlessly, with Horsfall's vocals accompanied by sensitive backing from his Kansas Smitty's House Band bandmates: Giacomo Smith on sax, Joe Webb on piano, Ferg Ireland on double bass and Pedro Segundo on drums.

The absence of Horsfall's distinctive trumpet-playing may be a disappointment, but it's compensated for by the strength of his vocal performances here. The opening bar-room croon of the superb title track is instantly seductive, as Horsfall's light, airy tenor finds deeper resonances. Indeed, the album succeeds in bringing out a variety of fresh qualities in his voice while maintaining a consistency of tone, from a superb take on "Sunset & the Mockingbird," which weds new lyrics to Duke Ellington's melody, through the heartfelt declaration of "Couldn't Stop Lovin' You, with its subtly swoony backing vocals and guest appearance by David Archer on guitar, to the elegant farewell of "This is Goodbye." In a silly season dominated by cobbled-together Christmas release cash-ins, the depth and authenticity of Nighthawks is immediately refreshing. It's a lovely album that deserves wide exposure.  

You can listen to tracks from Nighthawks and buy the album here.

Friday 27 October 2017

Theatre Review: Romantics Anonymous (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Forget Follies. (And, believe me, when it comes to that damn “Loveland” sequence, I’m still trying to....) A little further down the Southbank there’s now a lovely, intimate, humanly-scaled alternative. As the opening production of her final “Winter Season” as Globe Artistic Director, Emma Rice has turned the stage of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse into a chocolate factory, adapting Jean-Pierre Améris’s 2010 French-Belgian rom com Les émotifs anonymes into a sweetheart of a new musical that charms and amuses throughout.

Rice and the Globe board may not have proved to be an ideal match, but Rice and “le cinéma Français” certainly are, as previously demonstrated by Kneehigh’s glorious take on Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg back in 2011. Romantics Anonymous has a similar kind of spirit to that show: ludic and loving, soulful and silly, by turns. But, though difficult themes are glanced at, there’s much less melancholy in this material. Working with lyricist Christopher Dimond and composer Michael Kooman, Rice makes Romantics Anonymous into the equivalent of a big, warm hug: just what’s needed to brighten winter nights.  

The plot concerns the burgeoning romance between two characters with social anxiety issues. Angélique is a timid girl who, wishing to build her confidence, starts attending sessions at the “Les émotifs anonymes” support group. Through a contact there she ends up working as a sales rep at the chocolate factory run by Jean-René, a guy who, it turns out, is even more introverted than she is, as he skulks in his office listening to passive aggressive self-help tapes. A disastrous date follows, before love starts to blossom. But with the factory under threat, Angélique may be called upon to truly overcome her inhibitions and reveal her own secret chocolate-making skills.

Rice has said that she wanted to make Romantics Anonymous “very European” in tone, but in many ways the show feels British through and through: I found myself thinking of The Two Ronnies and Dinnerladies at various points. As in Cherbourg, the Frenchness of the source is intermittently played up with “haw-hee-haw-ing” cheek, particularly when the beret- and striped-shirt-sporting ensemble archly croon the hilarious “Don’t Think about Love” while wheeling out a bed and flinging rose petals for our hero and heroine’s first night together.

Dimond and Kooman have talked about French influences on the score, too – from Satie to Debussy – and, played here by a skilled quartet (Sophie Creaner on woodwind, Mike Porter on percussion, Llinos Richards on cello and MD Jim Henson on piano), the music has a lovely, light, gently undulating quality, with just enough bite and quirk to make revisiting the score an attractive proposition. The lyrics are variable, but sung with conviction by the cast, who seize on the wittiest lines and deliver them with gusto.

Indeed, Rice has recruited many of her favourite actors for this confection (including several from her Twelfth Night, which opened the “Summer of Love” season back in May). They all shine, with Carly Bawden (Twelfth Night’s minx of a Maria) and Dominic Marsh making a charmingly awkward pair; they’re especially delightful when singing together on “Some Things are Too Good for Words,” as funny and sweetly sexy a duet as recent musical theatre has offered.

Bawden and Marsh are well supported by a superb ensemble who multitask with gleeful aplomb, whether it’s Marc Antolin as a computer geek and a strident chef, or Joanna Riding moving from gruff Corrie-ish factory worker to incongruously sexy matriarch. (Riding also takes the wheel for one of the funniest driving sequences that the stage has seen recently.) I also loved Gareth Snook as both Angélique’s father-figure benefactor and a highly-strung prospective female buyer, and Natasha Jayetileke as the support group attendee who’s so bad at saying “No” that she buys PPI twice a week. (Since Rice, in her "Letter" regarding her departure from the Globe, seemed to define herself as a people-pleaser, can we detect a bit of wry self-portraiture here?) Lez Brotherston’s glowing design (with location shifts signalled by neon signs) also helps to keep the proceedings fleet and fluid, and Etta Murfitt’s witty choreography makes the most of the small space. 

Romantics Anonymous is slight, and those resistant to Rice’s brand of whimsy will doubtless find it too winsome a proposition – though in fact there’s a steely undercurrent to the show's presentation of the courage it takes to embrace change and face fears. The ending feels a bit rushed, and not quite magical enough, yet. Still, small of scale but huge of heart, this show is a charmer, and a perfect start to the final season of Rice’s all-too-brief time at the helm of the Globe.

Romantics Anonymous is booking until 6 January. Further information here

Theatre Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Merton Arts Space, & touring)

Published in 1886, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich remains among the most immediate and moving of all literary meditations on mortality, documenting the demise of a seemingly successful man, a legal functionary, as he belatedly questions the value and purpose of his life. Rosemary Edwards, a translator of the text, describes the novella as “a powerful, sombre record…[It] gives what Tolstoy required art to give: it is kinetic, moving the reader to intense pity and awareness of the spiritually therapeutic properties of prolonged physical suffering finally resolved in death.”
Sounds a cheerful proposition, right? Well, Stephen Sharkey, in his expert new stage adaptation of the novella, succeeds in retaining the intense moral seriousness of Tolstoy’s vision while also incorporating some elements of dark humour – a touch of Beckettian irony – into the mix. Sharkey has shaped the narrative into a dramatic monologue performed by one actor in under one hour, and while this has resulted in some necessary stripping away – of elements of social context, of the protagonist’s background and family history – the essentials remain, sometimes even gaining potency in their new form as an embodied, closely shared theatrical experience. This is adaptation as distillation, and Sharkey, whose other adaptations include writings by Dickens and Dostoyevsky, has done a hugely impressive job of giving Tolstoy’s work a vivid, fresh and immersive theatrical life.
Pungent and wry, Sharkey’s text is expertly served by Attic Theatre’s production, directed by the company’s Artistic Director Jonathan Humphreys, which (as staged at Merton Arts Space) makes the play into a thrillingly intimate experience. At once eerie and welcoming, Grace Venning and Jess Bernberg’s brilliant design (set/costume and lighting, respectively) places the audience at tables lit by lanterns, conjuring an atmosphere of séance that feels entirely appropriate for Sharkey’s revisioning of the material as a ghost story of sorts. Jack Tarlton’s spectre-like Ivan takes his place amongst us, a spirit who’s unsure if we can see him. Once reassured, he begins to tell his tale: that of a St. Petersburg-born magistrate whose life – with its unhappy marriage, social climbing, gambling, and Law Court duties – is abruptly curtailed when he’s struck down with a mysterious illness some time after an accident.
As Ivan – by turns bitter, denying, scared, confused and questioning – gradually confronts his fate, so other presences (a dim prospective son-in-law, a hypocritical friend, a kindly young peasant carer) come into focus, with Sharkey also spotlighting Tolstoy’s indelible image of impending mortality as “the black sack,” both feared and desired by the protagonist. 

A show as intimate as this one naturally stands or falls in large part on the strength of its actor, and it’s hard to see how Tarlton’s performance as Ivan could be bettered. From the opening moments, Tarlton makes us his fellows and confidantes, directing lines at individual audience members, taking a seat at certain tables, or even (in a gesture evoking the already-famed performance art set-piece in Ruben Östlund's new film The Square [2017]) climbing atop one table to lay himself out as a corpse. Now still, now charging, Tarlton’s attention to the rhythms of the text is evident vocally as well as physically, and he keeps a palpable tension in the air, not allowing us to forget that Ivan’s fate is the common fate of everyone present. There’s catharsis in that recognition too, though, and Tarlton brings to Ivan’s journey a true sense of spiritual and emotional progression. It’s a terrific performance, rich and generous, unsentimental and intensely felt, and one that’s destined to make a deeply personal impression on all who see it.
In another generous gesture, Attic have been staging a stripped down, “pop up” version of the show, for free, at libraries in the Merton area. It’s to be hoped that Humphreys’s haunting production, and Tarlton’s great performance, continue to get the further life that they deserve.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich was performed at Merton Arts Space between the 6 and 29 October 2017, before one night at Theatre N16, and four free performances at libraries in the Merton borough.
Photos: Claudia Marinaro

Monday 23 October 2017

DVD Review: Life is Sweet (dir. Mike Leigh [1990]; BFI, 2017)

My review of the new BFI DVD/Blu-ray re-release of Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet (1990) is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Saturday 23 September 2017

CD Review: A New Way, by Amy Clarke (2017)

Though composed and developed over a number of years, the thirteen carefully crafted songs that make up Amy Clarke’s debut album A New Way form a compelling and cohesive whole. As its title suggests, this is a record that’s concerned with transition and change - its difficulties, challenges, opportunities - and Clarke approaches the theme from a variety of perspectives, offering character portraits, relationship confessionals and spiritual ruminations while sustaining an intimate, confiding tone throughout.    

A single, stark piano note ushers in the arresting opener “Rain Come Round”: the song then picks up pace with rolling percussion and an urgent vocal as Clarke anticipates a tempest to come: “Tornados, I have lived where they land/ But this time I am not frightened/I have built a better border/and I’m safe here from your storm.”     

A New Way is indeed heavily piano-based: the classically trained Clarke is a versatile and creative player who combines jazz, rock, pop and classical elements in her arrangements. Liner note thanks expressed to Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan (with whom Clarke has collaborated) feel apt; in fact, at times the album seems to set up a warm sisterly dialogue with Amos’s just-released latest record, Native Invader [review], in its potent exploration of feminist and ecological themes. The connection is especially evident on the beautiful centrepiece “Between the Ice and the Ocean”, with its “Reindeer King”-evoking imagery, and on  “We Are the Web,” an ardent plea for unity between humans and the natural world: “we must listen to each other/listen to our Mother/to heal her and to make her whole.”

Occasionally, as on the closing “Shine,” Clarke’s lyrics resort to more generic statements of uplift, but the album isn’t afraid to introduce some  discordant elements as well. The terrific “Belmont Blues” is an ambivalent relationship reminiscence delivered in a sultry, defiant style. The elegant and touching “From Here” doubts that divisions can be bridged. “Once” combines graveness and buoyancy to compelling effect. “Goddess” offers a double-tracked, gently percussive, spirits-evoking assertion of personal power and the challenge of its maintenance, as Clarke challenges herself: “I must remember to remember this.”

Still, the album’s tone is, overall, loving, open and conciliatory, as evidenced on the title track, which draws assurance and inspiration from mindful attention to nature’s offerings and a recalibration of perspective. Most moving of all is the celestial “Ella Mira,” a gorgeous ode to unexpected faith wrought from fleeting connection that works as love song, spiritual declaration, and cosmic reflection. Delivered in Clarke’s warmest vocal tones, the song encapsulates the best of A New Way. It's a cleansing and inspiring  album by a talented artist to watch. 

A New Way is released on 5th October 2017. Further information here.

Thursday 31 August 2017

Theatre Review: Follies (National Theatre)

 Znalezione obrazy dla zapytania Follies national theatre poster

Do people really enjoy Stephen Sondheims sour sentimentality songs like Every Day a Little Death?’” wondered Pauline Kael in 1978. The answer, these days at least, seems to be a definite Yes: so much so that every major revival of a Sondheim musical becomes a cultural Event and even shows that were indifferently or negatively received at their premieres are now all treated as classics of the American musical theatre. As such, its no surprise that the hype machine has gone into maximum overdrive for Dominic Cookes production of Follies (1971) at the National Theatre, with the production billed as the latest dazzling take on a musical masterpiece.
Is the show a masterpiece, though? Theres no doubt that there are some wonderfully enjoyable bits throughout Cookes lush and lively production: whether its a charmingly staged Beautiful Girls; Janie Dee coarsening up to deliver a biting Could I Leave You?; a tap-happy “Who’s That Woman?”, exuberantly choreographed by Bill Deamer; Di Botcher’s knowing, gutsy take on “Broadway Baby”; or Imelda Staunton and Philip Quast wringing maximum emotion from a great “Too Many Mornings.”
A problem for me, though, is that Follies is just that: bits a selection of skits, routines and turns in search of a dramatic centre. Its no surprise that the show has had so much success in concert presentations, since theres no plot to speak of, just a situation: the reunion of a group of former showgirls (plus spouses) on the stage they used to share, shadowed by their younger selves.
James Goldmans book (rewritten for some productions but apparently presented in a slightly tweaked version of its original form here) provides scenes that are just sketchy little blurts. The piece seems to have many more protagonists than it knows what to do with, or that can be developed in any depth. As it is, the characters scuttle around Vicki Mortimer’s ever-revolving, crumbling-theatre set, dropping waspish quips or soppy revelations, stopping occasionally to sing. But don’t expect to learn much about most of them, as they’re shuffled on and off.
Clearly the structure is meant to evoke that of Follies shows, but that doesn’t make it particularly satisfying, conceptually or dramatically. There are few arcs, and so the show feels incohesive, thin, unintegrated: a selection of broads, belting. (At first it looks like Tracie Bennett is going to do something really fresh with “I’m Still Here”, starting the song in a more muted conversational style, but by the end the song’s become a generic camp show-stopper.)
Only four characters - Staunton’s Sally, Dee’s Phyllis, Quast’s Ben and Peter Forbes’s Buddy (played in their younger incarnations by Alex Young, Zizi Strallen, Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig, respectively) - really come into focus, and I’m afraid their relations are mostly marked by the “sour sentimentality” that Kael identified as characteristic of Sondheim. Amid the quartet’s quarrels, Dee is the funniest and Staunton is most successful at bringing humane touches throughout listen to her lovely light pause before Sally delivers her married name - but it’s not a happy development when we’re cued to understand that the character is simply, in Sondheim’s definition, “crazy.” If Staunton’s much-anticipated Losing My Mind feels self-conscious and slightly disappointing, to me, it’s possibly because its part of the Loveland sequence: an expressionistic dream/nightmare vision of the characters’ different neuroses that I found to be a bit of a kitsch horror.
By this point, in fact, Follies seems to have degenerated into a something of a style exercise, and it seems that most of its number could be shuffled around and placed anywhere without the show losing too much. Compared to other theatre-maker Sondheim musicals, I’d rank it as better than the endlessly blasting Gypsy but inferior to the nuanced and truly touching Merrily We Roll Along. Cooke’s production is going to get lots of praise, and maybe its as good as it could be. But, for all its undoubted high spots, Follies is such a bitty piece of work that its hard to imagine any production really making the show cohere.

Monday 14 August 2017

CD Review: Native Invader by Tori Amos (Decca, 2017)

“Knowledge sown in Gaia’s bones…/Her uncorrupted soul/Will not be possessed or owned.” Briskly intoned by Tori Amos and her daughter Natashya Hawley on the centrepiece song, “Up the Creek,” these lyrics are among those that cut closest to the heart of the concerns of Amos’s new album, Native Invader, a record which frequently turns to nature, to the rhythms of (Mother) Earth, as a source of strength and wisdom against divisive, destructive forces. As the album’s pitch-perfect title suggests, and its closing (bonus) track “Russia” makes clear, these forces may be internal as much as external, referring to illnesses and disabling thoughts that might inhabit/inhibit an individual as well as to the oppressions perpetrated by leaders against their own people or against the land itself.

Originally inspired by a Smoky Mountains road-trip undertaken last summer, the album, Amos has said, dramatically shifted its focus due to two events: the result of the US election in November, and a stroke that left her mother Mary partially paralysed and unable to speak. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Native Invader combines and fuses all these elements, resulting in a work whose overt combination of personal and political preoccupations makes it a spiritual sister to two of Amos’s masterpieces, Scarlet’s Walk (2002) and American Doll Posse (2007).

Such syntheses have always been central to Amos’s music, of course. At her best, she’s an artist with an extraordinary gift for taking the temperature of the present moment, but doing so via unpredictable excursions into myth and history, and references (variously arcane or direct) to personal experience that render her work truly unique. The aforementioned “Up the Creek,” for example, is an urgent, echoy duet that feels both edgily contemporary – synth stabs, dramatic electronic flourishes, cathartic piano breakdown – and weirdly old timey in its incorporation of the expression “Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise” (itself made into a Jerry Reed-penned, Johnny Cash-popularised song in the 1950s). That expression (apparently a favourite of Amos’s beloved Cherokee Grandfather) is suitably subverted here, not least through a title that nicely nods to the notion that the phrase might refer to the Creek people as much as a body of water.

In its allusiveness, then, Native Invader is an album that makes the listener work: don’t be surprised to find yourself inspired to brush up on the theories of Carl Sagan, Thomas Nast’s 1830 cartoon of Andrew Jackson as the “Great White Father,” or the Veil of Veronica at various points as you listen. Following such trails is not only productive and exciting, though: it also seems absolutely central to the anti-isolationist ethos of an album that stresses the value of making connections, of seeing one thing in terms of another. Of building bridges, not walls.

As an in-house production built around Amos’s collaborations with her engineer/guitarist husband Mark Hawley (plus John Philip Shenale on two tracks), Native Invader shares much the same base as its predecessor, Unrepentant Geraldines (2014), which came after two of Amos’s most ambitious collaborative projects: the epic classical song cycle Night of Hunters (2011) and the sublime musical The Light Princess (2013) at the National Theatre. But the sound here is darker, richer-toned, and more ambient than the lighter, lower-keyed arrangements on Geraldines, sometimes gesturing back to Amos’s more elaborately produced works:  from the choirgirl hotel (1998), To Venus and Back (1999), and Abnormally Attracted to Sin (2009).

A case in point is the album’s stunning opener “Reindeer King,” a majestic seven minute epic on which strings and synths are used as haunting accents to Amos’s piano-work, which is gorgeously rich and deep here. In commanding voice, Amos locates the listener (after Eliot) “at the still point of the turning world,” reporting the title character’s advice to the divided. Entrancing and cinematic, it’s a spine-tingling song, destined to be canonised as a classic in her catalogue.

Without ever quite hitting that height again, the rest of the album offers many pleasures and puzzles for the listener. Those with kneejerk objections to Hawley’s guitar-playing (which is rather dominant throughout the first half) may be as resistant to the record as those sad cases who still keep complaining when each new  Amos album turns out not to be More Boys For Pele.

But those listening without prejudice will find that Hawley’s contributions add nuance and atmosphere at their best.  Warm washes of guitar reverberate through the measured, deceptively mellow first single “Cloud Riders,” on which a shooting star serves as an ambiguous portent of challenges to come, and the sensuous “Wildwood” which finds replenishment in the forest on its way to a poignant reunion. Meanwhile, there’s wah-wahing urgency to the intricate “Broken Arrow,” another standout track that advocates the avoidance of snap judgement reactions to political events at the same time as it urges citizens’ to vigilance of those in power. Amos drops a heart-stopping piano part behind her tribute to the resilience of “Lady Liberty” and the nation she represents: “she may seem weak/we may be battleweary/still those songlines sing.”

The album gets into somewhat stickier territory when it ventures into what has been one of Amos’s strongest suits: couples’ communication and relationship conflict. The twitchy, skeletal “Chocolate Song,” a tale of warring opposites spun from a domestic scene, works best as a rejoinder to Geraldines’s “Wild Way.” But the notion of “vowels and consonants” as “weaponry” was more dynamically explored on Night of Hunters’s great “Battle of Trees,” while the cooed opening line to the chorus sadly sounds destined for a Thorntons’ commercial. The softly pulsing “Wings” fares rather better as a song of relationship renegotiation, Amos bringing both sadness and sultriness to her delivery. Still the track doesn’t quite take flight, especially when the lyric “Sometimes big boys they need to cry” renders the theme too explicit.

More compelling and mysterious by far is the plaintive piano dirge “Breakaway,” a quiet heartbreaker that laments betrayals, words unsaid and associations regretted, Amos smuggling in a tribute to a cherished collaborator and a reference to Miss Saigon, to boot. The beautiful “Climb” movingly sketches out suggestions of childhood transgression, trauma and shaming (and the challenges of overcoming that legacy) to brisk acoustic guitar and piano, with superb lyrics to make Sylvia Plath proud.

The one-word-titled alliterative songs are among the album’s oddest impulses. “Bang” is driving and dramatic, boldly subverting anti-immigrant sentiment through astrophysical references as it defines all humans as refugees from the cosmos, “molecular machines” composed of star stuff. “One story’s end/seeds another to begin,” Amos intones, and the song builds to an exhilarating finale. “Bats,” by contrast, is drifting and ambient, Amos’s narrator anticipating the arrival of a mythological female force: “dripped in mist sisters rise/quietly from the fens and marshes/… Keep breathing, girl.” “Benjamin” celebrates other subversives, approaching the “Juliana vs. United States” climate change case via the figure of a “science whiz” investigator. There’s some lyrical awkwardness here, but the track’s proggy, retro ambience is arresting, with bleeps and buzzes providing their own message to decode.

The song leads into the album’s closer “Mary’s Eyes,” on which Amos confronts her mother’s aphasia. In contrast to the more intense and lugubrious tone of the similarly-themed  title track of The Beekeeper (2005), the vigorous piano work and beautiful strings here give the track an uncanny jubilance, as Amos refers to attempts to communicate through music. The sentiments expressed in the chorus encapsulate the mood of an album that's as devout as it is questioning, its merging of Christian, Pagan and Native American beliefs speaking not only to Amos's personal history but to the history of America itself. In a culture that presently feels so divided and fragmented, the record seems dedicated to revealing the importance of connection, the multiple ways in which, as “Mary’s Eyes” has it, “patterns matter/stringing sequences together matters.”

The titles of the bonus tracks, “Upside Down” and “Russia,” gesture back to two of Amos’s earliest songs. Intimate piano-only numbers which are equally delicate yet determined in tone, the former focuses on an outsider’s resolution to see the happiness of others as inspiration rather than threat. Book-ended by numbers station samples, “Russia” is more pointed, highlighting the divisions stoked by both Left and Right as it locates State surveillance in the East and West. A Russian leader (though not necessarily the one you might expect) gets name-checked, as Amos at last unfurls the album’s title here.

It's a stirring, quietly anthemic conclusion to an album which, despite a couple of underachieving moments, feels vital, its combination of the combative and the conciliatory speaking directly to our polarised period. Encompassing earth and sky, spirit and machine, science and soul, Amos has once again produced a richly absorbing record that bestows balance, bringing us back to ourselves, giving us the strength and courage to go on.

Native Invader is released on Decca Records on 8th September 2017. 

All album images by Paulina Otylie Surys.

My interview with Amos will be published at PopMatters next week.