Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Critical Week: Smiles everybody

Screenings continue to be a mixed bag of current releases and awards contenders. Higher profile films this week include Javier Bardem in the Spanish film The Good Boss, a blackly comical satire about the tension between a boss and his employees. And the true World War II adventure Operation Mincemeat has a first-rate cast featuring Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Penelope Wilton, Jason Isaacs and Johnny Flynn.

Flee • C'mon C'mon
The Hand of God
Boxing Day • Final Account
The main reason why I saw so few films this week: I spend eight hours watching The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson's hugely engaging documentary made from footage unseen for 50 years. It's essential for fans. Also a bit off the beaten path were the thoughtful and provocative Canadian drama I Am Syd Stone, addressing issues of sexuality in show business; Andrea Arnold's experiential doc Cow, following the life of a farm animal in a way that's riveting; the World War II doc Final Account, interviewing Germans who were children when the Nazis came to power; and the shorts collection The French Boys features five very strong dramas.

Coming up this next week, I will be watching Steven Spielberg's remake of the musical West Side Story, Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley, Lea Seydoux in France, the horror thriller Agnes, the drama Famous, the pantomime on film Cinderella and the shorts collection The French Boys 2.

Saturday, 27 November 2021

Stage: Double-pricked for Christmas

Pricked: Sleeping Beauty Got Woke
by Tim Benzie, Paul Joseph
dir Tim McArthur
music Aaron Clingham
with Grant Cartwright, Joseph Pollard, Lucy Penrose, Chantelle St Clair, Charlie Wood
Royal Vauxhall Tavern • 25.Nov.21-6.Jan.22

Shut down by the pandemic lockdown just a few days into its run in 2020, the riotously silly Pricked returns to the Royal Vauxall Tavern stage with a few timely story tweaks, swapped-out musical numbers and two new cast members. While LAST YEAR'S PRODUCTION felt fresh and absurdly funny, this year's show has a ramshackle charm that holds the attention based more on the sheer energy of the cast than anything else. And for me it had a whiff of deja vu that made it feel even more topical.

The tale of Sleeping Beauty gives the story its structure, although director Tim McArthur crafts it into a wonderfully deranged pub show that's definitely not for kids. Each scene is a performance, almost like an audition, as the characters introduce themselves and chat to the audience before performing a song or two, drawing on a range of musical theatre numbers and pop tunes. Updates for this year include bracingly current references to politicians and popular culture, plus an inspired, deliberately corny Abba reunion sequence.

It's still the story of Princess Aurora (Cartwright), who has been cursed by Maleffluent (Polland) to fall into a deep sleep on her 18th birthday. But Fairy Merryweather (Penrose) and a passing Prince (St Clair) intervene, plotting to rescue Aurora from Maleffluent and her conflicted sidekick Raven (Wood). None of these characters seem to have a clue what's going on around them, played amusingly by a gender-scrambled cast that continually questions the things written for them to do in the script. This includes getting impatient with the dream sequences and flashbacks that distract them along the way to the glorious holiday-themed wedding finale.

With boundless energy and considerable vocal skill, each performer dives into the wackiness, dropping in barbed asides and a continual stream of throwaway gags alongside the expected smut and innuendo. This means that quite a bit of dialog gets muffled in the mayhem, but the atmosphere is so bawdy and enjoyable that it never matters. And with lighter pandemic restrictions this year, the audience can more properly get involved with call-and-response moments, including lots of cheering, booing and singing along with the cast.

photos by Chris Jepson • 26.Nov.21

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Critical Week: Winter is coming

Yes, the weather has taken a turn in London, still sunny but much colder, perfect weather for going to the cinema. And holiday movies are starting to turn up as well. But I also saw a few big movies this past week, including House of Gucci, which stars Lady Gaga and Adam Driver in a soapy story of conniving and murder, and it's all true. It's also hugely entertaining. Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem play Lucy and Ricky in Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin's smart and pointedly topical drama set around the landmark 1950s sitcom. It's rivetingly well-made, and a lot of nostalgic fun too. 

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
Encanto • House of Gucci
Annette • Rebel Dykes
There were also two big animated features: Disney's Encanto is a charming, beautifully crafted bit of magic set in Colombia, while Sing 2 carries on the hilarious music-based antics of a group of animals as they take their show to the big time. I saw two British holiday-themed films: Aml Ameen's Boxing Day is a clever blend of traditional London romcom with a sharp depiction of the city's vibrant Caribbean subculture, while Silent Night is a black comedy starring Keira Knightley with a remarkably dark end-of-the-world edge to it. Less enjoyable was the sentimental drama Not to Forget, although its cast features ace Oscar-winning veterans Louis Gossett Jr, Cloris Leachman, Tatum O'Neal and Olympia Dukakis.

This coming week I'll be watching Javier Bardem in The Good Boss, Colin Firth in Operation Mincemeat, Noomi Rapace in Lamb, Stellan Skarsgard in Hope, the coming-of-age drama I Am Syd Stone and the Turkish drama Beyto.

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Stage: Gods and monsters

Outwitting the Devil
choreographer Akram Khan
dramaturg Ruth Little
writer Jordan Tannahill
dancers Mythili Prakesh, Luke Jessop, Jasper Narvaez, James Vu Anh Pham, Elpida Skourou, Francois Testory
composer Vincenzo Lamagna
Sadler's Wells • 23-27.Nov.21

There's an intense mythological sensibility to this piece by Akram Kham, which features six dancers with distinct physicalities wrestling with their destiny on a set that feels like an epic arena. It's a vividly involving show that will mean different things to each audience member, evoking a wide range of emotions as the characters grapple with each other. The performances are staggering, blending a range of demanding movement together to often exhilarating effect.

The scene emerges from the darkness, with figures on an empty black stage surrounded by blocks of various sizes. This creates the sense that we're outside time and space, watching gods and goddesses attempting to make sense of their own identities and responsibilities. As the movements evolve, characters begin to emerge. Some people are clearly in control, driving the action and provoking responses. Others are more passive or nurturing. At the centre is a woman who takes on a Mother Earth presence, and the others cower before her.

Performed at full energy by the talented dancers, the movement is absolutely breathtaking, occasionally resolving into glorious tableaux that look like illustrations from an ancient book. And the soundscape is composed by Vincenzo Lamagna to blend music and voice in ways that cut straight into the gut. Created workshop-style, the piece mirrors the saga of the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, who rescued a goddess, revolted against an overlord and defeated monstrous giants. Indeed, echoes of these legends are woven into the expressive choreography, which features flares of violence, compassion, lust and curiosity.

Like reading a poem or getting lost in an intricate painting, Outwitting the Devil is a piece that needs to wash over the audience without explanation. It's loaded with primal imagery that taps into the subconscious, revealing elements of humanity in strikingly unusual ways. It's also remarkable because of how difficult it is to describe in any real detail. Just see it if you get the chance.

photos by Jean Louis Fernandez • 24.Nov.21

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
Young Associates: Mixed Bill
Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells • 23-24.Nov.21

Landscape With Flying Man
choreographer-composer Magnus Westwell
movement artists Connor Scott, Konrad Plak, Max Cookward

Magnus Westwell plays with images of masculinity in this gripping and seductively sweaty piece, which features three very fit male dancers with bare chests spinning together and apart in various beams of light. They emerge at the start as a single being, perhaps as the body, mind and spirit of a bird-like man with what becomes an astonishing wingspan. Then they separate and regroup in different formations, working both together and against each other in deliberate, physically demanding movements that are beautifully choreographed and performed. And it's their interaction that creates moving moments along the way.

When Life Gives You Melons
choreographer Vidya Patel
dancers Aishani Ghosh, Tulani Kayanı-Skeef, Nandita Shankardass, Chandenie Gobardhan
composer Sarathy Korwar

Taking on a big theme, Vidya Patel uses an introductory film clip to comment on the issue of infanticide in South Asia, where boy babies are preferred over girls. Then four female dancers appear, pantomiming their daily activities to explore the feelings they are experiencing. As the performance continues, this evolves into increasingly complex choreography, emerging as a celebration of feminine energy, with a climactic view of women as goddesses. The narrative arc is vividly well crafted and played, mixing lyrical movement with clever lighting and sound to offer a powerful final kick.

I Wonder If You Know What I’m Talking About
choreographer Olive Hardy
dancers Annie Edwards, James Olivo
composer Samir Kennedy

There's an engaging loose-limbed feel to this piece, which Olive Hardy sets out as an improvised dance for two people with distinct physicalities. They travel around the stage in ways that feel aimless, only interacting tangentially; the kinetic Edwards uses sharp movements while the much taller Olivo remains rubbery. Each is in possession of some sort of cushion, which they wrestle with in a variety of ways, expressing emotion in unexpected places. It's physically impressive, a fascinating and unpredictable display of dancing skill. But thematically it feels rather opaque. 

This Is Not a Penguin
concept-creation John-William Watson
performers Beth Emmerson, Heather Birley

Taking inspiration from cinema, John-William Watson maintains a wonderfully witty tone in this piece, which has an offbeat narrative that's set in a research station in Antarctica. There a scientist and her shadow pace in circles around a desk and chair, using clever repetition to establish patterns and then break them. They also drop in amusing dance moves, which are performed with deadpan humour and augmented by some very clever shifts in lighting, including superb moments of shadow play. The soundtrack features a terrific variety of audio clips, including snippets from Werner Herzog's wonderfully unhinged Antarctica documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

photos by Camilla Greenwell • 23.Nov.21

Saturday, 20 November 2021

Stage: The struggle is real

dir Botis Seva
costumes Ryan Dawson-Laight
lighting Tom Visser
music Torben Lars Sylvest
with Jordan Douglas, Shangomola Edunjobi, Joshua Nash, Ezra Owen, Hayleigh Sellors, Victoria Shulungu, Naima Souhair
Sadler's Wells • 19-20.Nov.21

A staggeringly intense expression of emotions, this dance piece by Botis Seva leaves the audience both shaken and exhilarated. It unfolds as a carefully assembled explosion of movement, light and sound, reverberating with the helpless feeling that the world around us is a dangerous place. But it's also infused with the hopefulness that comes with love, acceptance and mutual support. It's a proper stunner that demands a lot of both the dancers and the audience.

Emerging from the darkness are seven performers with their heads covered in hoods. They often face upstage, so seem eerily anonymous as they move in ways that look physically taxing, precisely in tune with each other as the choreography cleverly uses echoing and mirroring to force the eye across the stage. Along with a churning score that features snippets of voices, the lighting is integral to this as well, isolating people, cutting them out of the group, using the inky blackness as effectively as a spotlight.

As the programme continues, events take place that are heart-stopping in the way they're performed, with the dancers spiralling into situations that are reminiscent of street protests, storming the capital and rioting in prison. There are also quiet moments of more positive interaction. And along the way, a series of chilling deaths are brilliantly performed in inevitable slow-motion. Seva's choreography is kinetic and razor sharp, constantly surprising in the way it pushes the dancers to their limits.

The movement is seriously impressive, simply because it's so complex and difficult, punctuated by the pulsing soundscape and light design. But it's the way the emotions churn up throughout the piece that pulls the audience in deeply. So as the dancers shed pieces of clothing, or emerge with props that are inventive and even witty, we become invested in a depiction of human resilience in times of violence, illness or domestic turmoil. So at the end, when they finally lose their hoods and reveal their faces, we see ourselves on stage with them.

Rehearsal photos by Camilla Greenwell • 19.Nov.21

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Critical Week: The eyes have it

Screenings are beginning to crank up as awards season begins. I'm a member of three groups of critics that give out year-end awards, and there are quite a few films I still need to catch up with before ballots are due, starting in mid-December. I managed to see one this week, the biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye, adapted from a favourite documentary of mine (from 2000), now starring Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield as tele-evangelists Tammy and Jim Bakker. Even if it feels a bit satirical, it's a strikingly well-made, even-handed film with a strong emotional kick. Samantha Morton stars in the Welsh comedy-drama Save the Cinema, based on a true story about a community trying to save their local theatre, with a little help from Steven Spielberg. It's perhaps too warm, but thoroughly engaging.

The Power of the Dog • The Feast
Petite Maman • C'mon C'mon
Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
Hide and Seek
Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars in Hide and Seek, a thriller remade from a Korean movie. It's slick, but seems to have lost much of its oomph in the translation. Celine Sciamma continues to surprise with the wonderful Petite Maman, an inventive look through a young girl's curious eyes. The Spanish drama Isaac bristles with nostalgia in a knowing story of old friends reconnecting. And the documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time unpicks the life of one of my favourite authors with lots of wit and some seriously amazing archival footage, plus the personal story of a long friendship.

Coming up this week, I'll be watching Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardos, Lady Gaga in House of Gucci, Keira Knightley in Silent Night, Lea Seydoux in France, Disney's animated musical Encanto, the animated sequel Sing 2, the double collection of shorts The French Boys and the Nazi legacy doc Final Account. I also have a few stage shows to watch.

Friday, 12 November 2021

Stage: A riotously rude treat

Dick Whittington: A New Dick in Town!
by John Bradfield, Martin Hooper
songs John Bradfield
dir Andrew Beckett
with Jonny Peyton-Hill, Matthew Baldwin, Keanu Adolphus Johnson, Nikki Biddington, Bradley Walwyn
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 2.Nov.21 - 16.Jan.22

It seems impossible that writer Martin Hooper and writer-composer John Bradfield have missed a single gag in this fabulously naughty pantomime, which updates the legend of London's iconic 14th century mayor into the riotously queer present day. Everything about this adult-aimed production is firing on all cylinders, including the innuendo-stuffed dialog, catchy songs, ceaselessly up-for-it performances and superbly inventive sets. Often painfully funny, the show also carries a wonderful emotional kick.

It's the tale of hopeful young Dick (Peyton-Hill), who arrives in London not with a cat but a sassy Insta-star Frenchie named Ariana. But his fashion career is cut abruptly short. Then he meets street-smart Alex (Johnson), who is earning a crust selling generic Covid vaccines and believes that he is the Spirit of London. Alex's undertaker father Fitzwarren (Walwyn) is also taken by Dick, which explains why he's ignoring his wife Sarah (the great Baldwin, in his seventh Above the Stag panto). Meanwhile, Queen Rat (Biddington) is determined to be elected London's next mayor, chasing the action to a Mediterranean island where Fitzwarren's much livelier twin brother (also Walwyn) holds the key to everyone's fate.

Biddington, Johnson,
Peyton-Hill and Baldwin
Comical touches spring from every direction, including broad slapstick, witty wordplay, wacky character details and random asides. Almost every joke elicits a big laugh, while the songs are also packed with cleverly playful lyrics that are both ridiculous and instantly evocative, such as a celebration of going on holiday and ordering dinner from an illustrated menu. Of course, the title character's name is the main source of double entendre, accompanied by timely jabs at everything from politics to pop culture.

Each of the five cast members is on scene-stealing form, although it's Baldwin's impeccable timing and quick-witted improvisational skills that shine the brightest. As the show's dame, he's loveable and outrageously hilarious, constantly injecting deranged rhyming slang amid a wildly colourful parade of costumes. Biddington's villain adeptly channels rock-goddess mayhem as she creates constant chaos. And Walwyn's dual role is hugely amusing even before the brothers have their enormous confrontation, a genius combination of clever direction and sharp-witted acting. Which leaves the endearing Peyton-Hill and Johnson to infuse the show with heart and soul. And even more ribaldry.

Biddington and Walwyn
This is a relentlessly rude show that's refreshingly unafraid to go for the smuttiest joke imaginable, maintaining an unusually high energy level from start to finish. It's inventive and unexpected, beautifully staged with eye-catching video-augmented sets that vividly create atmospheres from rat-infested sewers to a sun-drenched paradise. And it's the perfect tonic for pulling us out of our pandemic funk just in time for the holidays.

For details: ABOVE THE STAG