Wednesday 31 January 2024

Theatre Review: Till the Stars Come Down (National Theatre, Dorfman)

An Anglo/Polish wedding taking place on a sweltering summer day last year is the focus of the new play by Beth Steel, which gets its world premiere in a vibrant, sometimes exhilarating production by Bijan Sheibani at the NT's Dorfman. Often described (in meant-to-be-praising yet slightly patronising-sounding terms) as a foremost contemporary dramatist of "working-class lives," Steel follows up The House of Shades with another intergenerational Nottinghamshire family drama, albeit one in which events are telescoped into a day rather than unfolding over decades.

Placing the audience on four sides of a set (by Samal Blak) that variously suggests pitch, sparring area and dance floor (and, as lit by the great Paule Constable, also gives off more cosmic vibes at times), the play's slightly Steel Magnolias-evoking opening scene plunges us without preamble into the dynamics of the family on the morning of the big day of Sylvia (Sinéad Matthews), as she, her two sisters, nieces, Dad, Aunt and assorted other relatives prepare for the ceremony.

The man Sylvia's marrying is Marek (Marc Wootton), a Polish immigrant who, having arrived in England on a Megabus with little money to his name, has since successfully set up his own business. Nonetheless, it's a union that certain family members - especially Sylvia's older sister Hazel (Lucy Black) - view with scepticism that's pretty close to outright hostility. And as the booze flows freely during the wedding reception, those xenophobic feelings are exposed, along with sundry other family rifts and secrets - including an illicit attraction that turns out to be a little case of history repeating.

At its big, messy heart, Till the Stars Come Down is yet another three sisters story. Sheibani's production works hard to get a Chekhovian flow of life and activity across, bringing characters of diverse ages into dialogue that's by turns wildly funny, perceptive and touching. (And there's surely a nod or two to the classic Polish wedding play, Wyspiański's 1901 Wesele, in there as well.Steel's play also has something of the rude English humour and cusp-of-caricature vim of April De Angelis' Kerry Jackson, staged by Indhu Rubasingham in the same auditorium last year - especially in the way it puts un-PC remarks seldom heard onstage (yet heard in Britain itself every day of the week) into the mouths of working-class characters who it refuses to demonise - even if the spectre of "punch up at a wedding" cliché hovers (and is finally fulfilled) at times. 

Overall, the writing here feels fuller, though, and ultimately more adept at interweaving personal and social concerns. Despite the large presence of Polish migrants in Britain since Poland entered the EU in 2004, dramatists have seemed reluctant to explore their experiences or the resulting tensions in UK communities. Sensitive to the context of a post-industrial community, Steel confronts both directly: while Marek expresses pride in the achievements of Poles who've moved to the area, Hazel resents the overburdened services that she blames for her mother's death, and feels threatened by a perceived shift in power. The play's inclusion of only one Polish character could be critiqued, but it works dramatically on several levels, as latent suspicion turns to scapegoating, and pits the family group against the outsider. 

As the bride caught in between, and gradually finding her voice in order to confront a family of more dominant personalities, Sinéad Matthews, always an asset to a production, captivates here. Among her many gifts, Matthews is great at conveying a character's contradictory, unspoken emotions: just watch the mix of embarrassment, pride, sadness and pleasure that crosses her face as Sylvia listens to her dad and then her new husband give their speeches. And there'll probably be few more joyous moments on a stage this year than the one in which Sylvia gleefully shakes off her anxieties to leap up on the table to dance.  

Lisa McGrillis and Lucy Black match Matthews brilliantly as the sisters, the former bringing some beautiful plaintive notes to her characterisation of a once-confident, now-cautious divorcee who's moved from the area for reasons that gradually become clear; the latter treading a difficult but believable line between sharp humour and bitterness as her fears about her own marriage come to the fore. (Black is especially devastating in a scene in which Hazel witheringly maps out her husband's likely future if he leaves her; this is Steel's writing at its best.)

As the rambunctious Aunty Carol, Lorraine Ashbourne relishes the lion's share of the quips, whether lamenting that she's being asked to leave before doing the Macarena, getting down to "Toxic," or revealing a few rather toxic views of her own as the night wears on. And Marc Wootton is perfect as the personable spouse - astute, hearty, curious, adorable when horny, but increasingly disinclined to put up with Hazel's passive aggression, and frustrated at his wife's reluctance to challenge it. 

The production gives the pleasure of a true ensemble, and the cast work together wonderfully well to convey a sense of complicated family life, with further texture provided by Ruby Stokes as Hazel's disillusioned teenage daughter and Alan Williams as the deadpan Dad at odds with his brother (Philip Whitchurch), feeling stuck since his wife's death, and giving a longer view of Polish presence in the town. 

Some elements, such as a "stopped time" conceit, are underdone, and the play's final tonal shift is extreme, with an ending that feels truncated. But Steel's refusal to shy away from big emotions or contrive cosy resolutions is admirable in itself. Essentially, Till the Stars Come Down is about a family reckoning in contrasting ways with change and transition. Expressing the theme, the staging cleverly keeps things in motion, adding a revolve to the central dinner scene, and getting the cast to physically "orbit" each other as Max Richter's recomposed Vivaldi plays. Steel has written an insightful, caustic but large-hearted play full of recognisable characters; both literally and figuratively, Sheibani's highly entertaining production ensures that we see them in the round.

Till the Stars Come Down is booking at the Dorfman until 16 March 2024. Further information here

Friday 26 January 2024

Film Review: All of Us Strangers (dir. Andrew Haigh, 2023)

"Going back home is always an interesting thing," said Andrew Haigh in a panel discussion on Looking, the HBO TV series of contemporary gay San Francisco life he co-devised. Haigh's radiant latest film, All of Us Strangers, represents a homecoming in several senses. Not only does the film, freely adapted from Taichi Yamada's engaging 1987 novel Strangers, boast an uncanny conceit in which a fortysomething protagonist, returning to his childhood house, finds his deceased parents still living there just as he remembers them - but Haigh also shot the film in his own childhood home in Croydon, adding another psychological layer or two to a work that often suggests a long-delayed therapy session. 

Queering Yamada's entirely straight Japanese novel into an English context,  All of Us Strangers is also a return to British gay cinema for Haigh, where he began his career with the odd documentary Greek Pete (2008) and his great feature debut Weekend (2011). Following the rather indifferent reaction to his two previous projects, the tough but tender boy-and-horse US road movie Lean on Pete (2017) and the salty sea-bound TV series The North Water (2021), the enthusiastic response to the new film indicates that Haigh has returned to the kind of filmmaking that most critics expect of him (a response which reveals its own uncomfortable truths about media pigeonholing of gay filmmakers).

It can't hurt, either, that in casting the film's central duo he's chosen two of the most popular actors on the planet at present. As the lonely pair who meet and connect in the weirdly empty London tower block they both live in, Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal bring all the feeling, magnetism and chemistry that you'd hope to their characters' developing romance. 

Still, the new film doesn't feel like a regressive step: Haigh continues to push himself in new directions with All of Us Strangers while retaining the special sensitivity and intimacy that have always distinguished his work as a filmmaker. Among the fresh elements is the film's dreamy, sensuous texture - equal parts unsettling and comforting - and the otherworldly quality that Jamie D. Ramsay's photography and Sarah Finlay's production design bring to "ordinary" urban and suburban locations. (Here's to the Whitgift Centre!)

For all the changes made to the novel, Haigh's adaptation also brilliantly conveys its sense of interior first-person experience, using expressionistic means to keep us in the headspace of Scott's Adam; the film might be best defined as magical social realism. And Haigh rivals François Ozon in his ability to convey a watchful sense of solitude and set-apartness on screen.

Scott has sometimes seemed overrated: I found his Hamlet impossibly affected and awful. But it's hard to see how he could be bettered here, with every subtle glance and gesture conveying the sadness, confusion and gradual opening up of a protagonist who's shut himself off from an early age due to loss and grief. His attraction to Mescal's younger, more extrovert but mercurial Harry feels fully believable; the actors' performances achieve a beautiful equilibrium throughout. 

Attentive to generational shifts in gay male experience - there's a great little moment in which the pair address their different views of the terms "gay" and "queer," which both have experienced as slurs - the film touches the rawest of nerves for gay viewers of a certain age, especially in its even-handed portrait of how even loving parents may inculcate shame and fear in gay offspring by an unthinking adherence to homophobic societal norms.

It's here that the film's "therapeutic" elements are most evident, as, after initial concern and confusion regarding his coming out, Adam's parents bestow beyond-the-grave love and acceptance, strongly recalling the scene in Weekend in which Tom Cullen's Russell comes out to Chris New's Glen as the latter "plays" his father. The film's attention to the ways in which parents and children might at once fail and support each other, its concern to heal and redeem what's been lost or unspoken, gives it a deep, primal resonance. (There's also a meta element, though thankfully unstressed - Adam, a screenwriter, is trying to write about his parents, suggesting a practical dimension to his "conjuring" of them at the family home.)

It helps that, as the very recognisable Mum and Dad, Claire Foy and Jamie Bell inhabit their roles with an amazing straightforwardness and no hints of spectral spookiness. A Christmas tree-decorating sequence in which Foy's quiet singalong to Pet Shop Boys' version of "Always on My Mind" becomes an understated expression of maternal love, is a particular heart-wrencher. It's one of several moments in which the soundtrack serves to enrich our understanding of character and relationships - as well as celebrating the queer culture hiding in plain sight in the British '80s mainstream. 

All of Us Strangers is overall a triumph: a deeply emotional, wryly funny and absorbing examination of traumatic loss, love, loneliness, and parent/child bonds. An intimate family drama, a tender and sexy love story, and an immersive psychological portrait that risks a surprise revelation and a cosmic climax in its final, Frankie-scored frames, Haigh's beautiful film ushers all of its viewers into a shimmering space between pain and consolation.  

All of Us Strangers is released in the UK on 26 January and in Poland on 9 February.