Thursday, 11 August 2022

Critical Week: Life is like a golgappa

London's heatwave continues, following the driest July in 111 years with an uptick in temperatures that has everyone heading for anywhere that's air conditioned, like a movie theatre. This week I particularly enjoyed India's lovely Forrest Gump remake Laal Singh Chaddha, which adapts the story to make it culturally resonant in unexpected ways while emphasising the epic romance at the centre of the plot. David Cronenberg's latest body horror drama Crimes of the Future has had a mixed reaction since its Cannes debut, but I loved its moody tone, insidious plot and deeper themes. Great cast too, led by Viggo Mortensen, Lea Seydoux and Kristen Stewart.

Fall • Laal Singh Chaddha
Nope • Girl Picture
And then there was the bracingly original coming-of-age comedy Funny Pages, by filmmaker Owen Kline, starring Daniel Zolghadri as a teen cartoonish. It's in-your-face funny, and emotional too. The thriller No Way Out has some nicely harrowing and sexy touches, but is ultimately too grim. There were two very different animated movies: From Japan, Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko is a dramatic anime with a remarkably strong point of view about its quirky characters. And from Estonia, The Old Man: The Movie sends its characters on a wildly surreal and utterly bonkers adventure. Finally, the finely assembled documentary Bloom Up takes a remarkably straight-faced look at an Italian couple that runs parties for swinging couples.

Films to watch this coming week include Harris Dickinson in this year's Palm d'Or winner Triangle of Sadness, Colin Farrell in After Yang, the splintered-reality comedy Look Both Ways, the horror movie Glorious, the thriller The Runner.

Sunday, 7 August 2022

Stage: What happens in Malta...

Straight and Narrow
by Jimmie Chinn
director Mark Curry
with Lewis Allcock, Todd Von Joel, Carol Royle, Kerry Enright, Harriett Hare, Damon Jeffrey, Gavin Duff
sets/costumes David Shields
lighting Vittorio Verta, James Whitmarsh
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 3-28.Aug.22

This revival of the late Jimmie Chinn's astute mix of comedy and character drama has sadly had its run cut short when Above the Stag Theatre abruptly shuttered its doors on 7th August. It's a terrific show that plays out like an especially witty sitcom even as it begins digging deeply under the surface. There's a lot going on between these beautifully realised characters, and the themes feel as timely today as they did when the play was first staged in 1992.

Narrated to the audience by Bob (Allcock), the show unfolds out of sequence in a clever way that builds intrigue into the humorously awkward situations. He begins with a little stand-up monologue that highlights the central idea about how we so easily tell little lies in an effort to protect each other. Without ever preaching, the show then unpicks this idea with farcical precision, revealing a series of relationships in ways that draw out telling insight.

It's 1980s Manchester, and Bob shares a kitchen installation business and a home with his partner Jeff (Von Joel). But his drama-queen mother Vera (Royle) thinks Jeff is just a housemate who is distracting Bob from finding a wife. The story begins as Bob's sisters are housesitting while he and Jeff are on holiday in Malta. Lois (Enright) is heavily pregnant with her fourth child with Bill (Jeffrey), who hilariously has learned to stay out of the family chaos. Nona (Hare) is still reeling that her husband Arthur (Duff) ran off with another woman, although he turns up later.

Then Bob and Jeff return home, and something momentous has happened in Malta. Bob is wounded, Jeff is confused, and Vera is the only one who doesn't know that they are a couple in a crisis. What follows expertly puts each of the characters on the spot, forcing them all to examine the point where the truth and lies are coexisting in their connections to each other. And since neither Bob nor Vera are particularly good at facing the truth, they're the ones who are going to have to take the trickiest journeys.

Each cast member hits the comical beats expertly while adding layers to his or her character, drawing out intriguing details that provoke strong reactions even as we're laughing. Their amusing interaction echoes with terrific one-line zingers. Royle is the scene-stealer, reeling off the best jokes (most of which Vera doesn't get). And the writing smartly shifts the audience sympathies back and forth between Bob and Jeff, giving Allcock and Von Joel some very strong moments along the way. All of which makes this a show that gets under the skin and keeps us thinking about both its smaller joys and its resonant kick. Keep an eye out for another revival.

photo by PBG Studios • 6.Aug.22

Thursday, 4 August 2022

Critical Week: Take aim

Londoners aren't used to such a long spell of warm, dry weather, so it's especially unusual to see the parks turning golden rather than green. (Although this is something I grew up with in Southern California.) It's been warm enough to welcome trips into air conditioned cinemas to cool off. The bigger films this week were the Predator prequel Prey, an involving and well-made 18th century adventure with some proper suspense, even if some cliches are distracting. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer are terrific as siblings in Jordan Peele's Nope, a witty and inventive take on the alien invasion thriller that's involving, surprising and perhaps just a little overcooked. 

Bodies Bodies Bodies
Fadia's Tree • Luck
And then there was Brad Pitt, who saunters engagingly through the silly chaos of Bullet Train, a messy action comedy that feels oddly thin despite terrific performances from an ensemble cast that includes Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Joey King and the great Hiroyuki Sanada. The brightly hued animated adventure Luck has a lively story, with terrific voice work from a starry cast that includes Jane Fonda and Whoopi Goldberg. Charlotte Rampling is of course terrific in the dark, witty and thoughtful Kiwi drama Juniper. And the refugee doc Fadia's Tree tells a vividly personal story of a life diverted by conflict.

This coming week I'll be watching the thriller No Way Out, coming-of-age comedy Funny Pages, India's Forrest Gump remake Laal Singh Chaddha, comedy-drama anime Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko, quirky claymation adventure The Old Man: The Movie and the documentary Bloom Up.

Tuesday, 2 August 2022

Stage: Someone else's story

The Musical in Concert
music Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus
lyrics Tim Rice, Björn Ulvaeus
director-choreographer Nick Winston
with Samantha Barks, Hadley Fraser, Joel Harper-Jackson, Frances Mayli McCann, Ako Mitchell, Craige Els, Vas Constanti, Trevor McDonald
musical director Freddie Tapner
lighting Ben Cracknell
video design Duncan McLean
Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London • 1-2.Aug.22

Originally staged in 1986, following the 1984 concept album, this musical has had a bumpy history as a Cold War romantic thriller that opened just as global politics were shifting dramatically. While it is packed with belting anthems (including one titled Anthem), it's an intricately plotted tale of chess players navigating a thorny political landscape with added forbidden love. And because it's almost entirely sung, the complex twists and turns are often lost in muffled lyrics. Still, it carries a proper emotional wallop, even in a concert staging like this one.

An enormous orchestra and choir fill the stage, while the action takes place on risers around and in front of them. It opens on Freddie (Harper-Jackson), a bad-boy American chess champion who is defending his title against the Russian master Anatoly (Fraser). The hotheaded Freddie has simmering flirtation with his second Florence (Barks), who is exasperated by his swaggering image. As a Hungarian, she finds some affinity with Anatoly, blossoming into a romance when he defects to the West. But he has a wife, Svetlana (McCann), and children back in Russia, and the powers that be are making underhanded deals to bring him back under Soviet control.

Fraser & Harper-Jackson
The show's first half features a string of huge numbers, performed at full-voice by Barks, Fraser and Harper-Jackson, plus Mitchell as the Arbiter and Els as Anatoly's second Molokov. Barks gets the two best songs, the furious Nobody's Side and plaintive Heaven Help My Heart, while Harper-Jackson registers beautifully with the soaring Pity the Child. But with everyone singing their heart out, there's no perspective to the show that might bring the audience into the story. We are merely observers of each person's separate journey, so it's difficult to get very deeply involved.

Things get more textured in the second act, shifting from Harper-Jackson's riveting One Night in Bangkok to the show-stopping duet I Know Him So Well, gorgeously rendered by Barks and McCann. Each performer is on top of his or her game, creating vivid moments even if the show never coalesces into a compelling narrative. So it seems confusing that Florence emerges as the protagonist, simply due to Barks' powerhouse emotive presence. Costumes and lighting make clever use of colour, although the staging further blurs the focus with far-too-busy background dance choreography and persistent video projections that seem overly pointed and a bit random.

It's great to see this show on a big stage like the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, mainly because the songs are so triumphant and passionate. But even as a first-rate concert production, there could have been more nuance in the sound mix and choreography. And while the show's lack of a point of view will always be a thorny problem, attempts to restage it and perhaps make it more engaging will always be welcome. 



See also: 
Kinky Boots - The Musical in Concert (8-9.Aug.22)
Treason - The Musical in Concert (22-23.Aug.22) 
For information, visit THEATRE ROYAL DRURY LANE >

photos by Mark Senior • 1.Aug.22

Thursday, 28 July 2022

Critical Week: Let's talk about love

Screenings are few and far between at the moment, with most smaller releases running scared from the single big movie that's either coming out this week or is still dominating the box office. But there are still some good things out there - both in cinemas and on streaming services - even as the blockbusters have been merely ok so far this summer. One of the most endearing films of the year is Billy Porter's comedy-drama Anything's Possible, a teen romance that's packed with heart and just enough realistic edge. And the newcomer leads, Eva Reign and Abubakr Ali (above), are terrific. Meanwhile, this week's big release is the animated DC League of Super-Pets, a comically entertaining adventure packed with genuinely smart gags delivered by a scene-stealing vocal cast, even if the superhero formula feels as stale as ever.

Hit the Road • Sharp Stick
Ali & Ava • Hypochondriac
More intriguing was The Score, an inventive genre mashup starring the terrific Will Poulter, Naomi Ackie and Johnny Flynn that features romance, comedy, violence and musical numbers. Juliette Binoche stars in master filmmaker Claire Denis' Both Sides of the Blade, a boldly complex French drama about relationships and regret. And the horror thriller Hypochondriac finds some original, and deeply unsettling, things to say about mental illness while properly freaking us out.

Screenings remain thin next week, but I'll be watching Brad Pitt in Bullet Train, Charlotte Rampling in Juniper, the Predator spin-off Prey, the animated adventure Luck and the refugee doc Fadia's Tree.

Friday, 22 July 2022

Critical Week: Mask up

The weather in the UK has broken all records, unbearably hot temperatures for a nation that has so little air conditioning. Thankfully, I was able to escape to cool theatres and cinemas! And the warm weather is continuing, so I'll be on the look out for ways to avoid the sweatiness. Films this past week included the Austen-style period romance Mr Malcolm's List starring Freida Pinto and Sope Dirisu. It's engaging but feels very gimmicky. And then there was Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, a surprising remake of Blazing Saddles as an animated kid-friendly romp set in feudal Japan. It's silly fun, perhaps too messy for children, but fans of the original will enjoy the references, including Mel Brooks voicing a new take on his original role.

The Big City • My Old School
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time
A little further afield is the British historical drama Prizefighter, about 1800 boxing champ Jem Belcher. It's simplistic, but is boosted by having Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone in key roles. Katie Holmes writes, directs and stars in the pandemic romance Alone Together, which is warm and engaging, and also predictable. The comedy-drama The Shuroo Retreat, follows a journalist to a wacky self-help weekend, with results that are funny and remarkably complex. The British romantic drama You Are My Sunshine is clearly a labour of love by inexperienced actors and filmmakers. It's awkward but has its moments. And there were two more selections of shorts in the Girls Feels series: Forces of Nature and Skin Deep, taking bold, insightful looks at young women coming of age.

Films to watch this coming week include the animated adventure DC League of Super-Pets, Juliette Binoche in Both Sides of the Blade, Will Poulter in The Score, Billy Porter's comedy-drama Anything's Possible and the horror thriller Hypochondriac.

Friday, 15 July 2022

Stage: Hear our voices

by Elliot Clay
dir Hannah Benson
with Luke Bayer, Hiba Elchikhe, Hannah Lowther, Rob Madge, Georgina Onuorah, Ivano Turco
orchestration Auburn Jam
choreography Tinovimbanashe Sibanda
set & lighting Andrew Exeter
The Other Palace Studio • 8.Jul-4.Sep.22

This world premiere show calls itself a "pop song cycle" rather than a musical. Indeed, it features neither a narrative nor defined characters; it's a collection of impassioned musical numbers that express the emotions of people who have been labelled as millennials. Writer-composer Elliot Clay has clearly been inspired by Jonathan Larson with these Rent-style rock numbers, a mix of powerful anthems and soulful ballads that describe this generation in their own words.

This is a reflective and defiant cry for understanding, as most songs explore issues of self-doubt that young people experience even as they are fiercely proud of their individuality. It's perhaps a bit repetitive, and not as deep as it seems to be, but then that's also part of the point. Millennials are generally defined as young people who have struggled to find their identities, putting off big life decisions like buying a home or getting married due to a combination of personal, cultural and economic issues. And both the writing and the design work remind us that they also popularised avocados.

The six cast members burst with energy throughout this performance, moving among the audience and encircling the avocado-shaped stage with its trampoline stone. They have a terrific sense of camaraderie between them, and each boasts a belting singing voice, while their colourful costumes help them play knowingly with a range of queer sensibilities. Both the solos and group numbers pulse with soulful electricity, conveying the inner desires of these young people to both find their place in the world and make themselves known.

Impressively, the entire space has been reshaped as a playroom, with the audience sitting on beanbags, in a ball pit, a bathtub or on blankets and cushions scattered around the glittery, shiny room. The effect is like being at a garden party as a raucous performance unfolds around you. And while the feelings are resonant and the songs infectious, perhaps some clearly constructed characters or storylines might have made it even more memorable. That said, it's a striking reminder that this particular generation isn't facing anything new: older or younger, we all have to come to grips with the same things.

For information, visit THE OTHER PALACE >

photos by Mark Senior • 14.Jul.22