Sunday 9 June 2024

Sundance: Find yourself

It's nice that the Sundance Film Festival: London is so manageable - just 12 features over fur days, plus short films and filmmaker events in a single venue. The programmers bring a terrific range of films and filmmakers over from the main festival in Utah. Most years there are only one or two films that I miss (it was only Skywalkers this year), and I also try to catch some of the shorts (see below). My favourite films this year were Kneecap, My Old Ass and the surprise film, which we had no idea about until the 35mm print began to roll. Here are some more short comments, starting with the closing film...

dir-scr Sean Wang; with Izaac Wang, Joan Chen 24/US ***.
Clearly autobiographical in nature, this teen drama isn't quite a coming-of-age movie, but writer-director Sean Wang refreshingly creates complex moments while making sharply pointed observations. So while this may be the usual collection of comically awkward and painfully embarrassing adolescent events, it also has several lovely things to say about generational issues in immigrant families. It may feel somewhat familiar, but there's a freshness to the approach... FULL REVIEW >

Kinds of Kindness
dir Yorgos Lanthimos; with Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons 24/UK ****
Returning to their surreally challenging storytelling style, Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimos Filippou have concocted three separate stories starring the same core cast. Each is a rather warped quest for some sort of redemption, with elements that ring true only within the reality of the narrative. And the actors deliver committed, eerily realistic performances that are often disarmingly emotional. With continual surprises, this is fiercely original and unforgettable... FULL REVIEW >

My Old Ass
dir-scr Megan Park; with Maisy Stella, Aubrey Plaza 24/Can ****
Rippling with authenticity, the dialog in this comedy-drama continually resonates, encouraging the audience to think deeply about things we take for granted. Writer-director Megan Park skilfully crafts a witty story that's packed with fully rounded characters who are hugely likeable even if they're imperfect. And with a wacky touch of hallucinogenic magic, the script finds a fresh new path into the coming-of-age genre that never feels simplistic or sentimental... FULL REVIEW >

Rob Peace
dir-scr Chiwetel Ejiofor; with Jay Will, Mary J Blige 24/US ***
There's a very strong true story at the heart of this film, full of complexities and issues that provoke thought. Although actor-filmmaker Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn't allow for much nuance in the way it's written, edited and played. Much of the dialog, as well as the overstated voiceover, are so on-the-nose that it's impossible to miss the properly important themes here. Still, it's finely played by a terrific cast, and the final sequence at least makes an attempt at feeling hopeful.

Girls Will Be Girls
dir-scr Shuchi Talati; with Preeti Panigrahi; Kani Kusruti 24/In ****
From India, this is a distinctive coming-of-age drama, beautifully shot and assembled to depict events through the eyes of a bright teen girl who is having her first encounter with love. This is a complex and remarkably insightful film, as writer-director Shuchi Talati draws on her own experiences, adding details that bring scenes to life with unusual subtlety. And unlike most teen movies, the story unfolds with an unflinching honesty in the way various events are depicted.

I also saw seven short films in the UK Shorts programme. My favourites were the surreal comedy Good Boy, starring Ben Whishaw as a guy grappling with the reality of his life; the beautifully shot and acted drama Essex Girls, about a teen girl who makes a discovery about who she is; and the amusing collage of Salone Love, which centres around a vox pop about love in Sierra Leone.

My Sundance London reviews will be linked on the website's FESTIVAL PAGE >

Saturday 8 June 2024

Stage: A knight to remember

Jazz Emu: Knight Fever
with Archie Henderson, Sofia Grant (keys), Nicky Green (synths), Angie Prasanti (bass), Joel Phillips (drums)
Soho Theatre, London • 3-22.Jun.24
Also at the Pleasance, Edinburgh Fringe in Aug and touring the UK in Feb-Mar 2025

With a wildly imaginative narrative, this show has an entertaining ramshackle vibe that almost allows us to forget that these are extremely skilled musicians and comics putting on a silly show. Cleverly framed around an epic quest, it's a performance that keeps us laughing with subtle gags, witty music and energetic physicality. So while Jazz Emu is essentially a clown, it's very difficult not to root for him.

We're watching the final rehearsal for the Royal Variety Show for Jazz and his band The Cosmique Perfectión, who are following Kelly Clarkson in the lineup. But for Jazz, the key question is who the King will give a knighthood to at the end of the night. And every effort he makes to gain attention seems to push him even further away from this ultimate honour. It also begins to feel doubtful that he can prove that other people love him as much as he loves himself.

As played by Archie Henderson, Jazz is a charmer with absolutely no awareness of himself or the world around him. How else would he get pulled into such an obvious fishing/malware scam? Or why else would he hire a clearly shifty publicist to help him secure the knighthood? With his elastic voice, he's also a gifted comic and singer who plays a range of instruments as he and the band perform his instant classic tunes, including the email "opera" My Brothe, the hilariously transgressive Eggerson Keaveney and the funky, insanely catchy Still Waiting. All of these have already become iconic on YouTube.

The humour is often surreal, finding laughs in the most unexpected places, from the frequent jabs at Kelly Clarkson to a cobra drinking lemonade. He recounts wonderfully ridiculous stories that spiral in wildly absurd directions, such as his brief experience of afterlife when he hit his head in a swimming pool. And his song about going back to the good old days is as stupid as it sounds, but also carries a wickedly sharp point.

This is a wonderfully slick show, with great live music accompanied by terrific video-screens that both add to the songs and push the narrative along. Each bandmate emerges with his or her own personality and skill, while Jazz has a lot of fun playing off the audience, many of whom are clearly already loyal fans. And seeing this show is a sure-fire way to become one yourself.

For information, 
photos by Dylan Woodley & David Monteith-Hodge • 6.Jun.24

Thursday 6 June 2024

Sundance: Make some noise

I completely missed last years Sundance Film Festival: London, because I was attending another festival at the time, so I'm enjoying getting stuck into the 11th edition of this mini festival, which shows a handful of highlights from January's festival over four days at Picturehouse Central, complete with filmmaker Q&As. The festival kicks off tonight with Kneecap, which goes straight in as one of my very best films of the year. Here are brief comments about that one and a few others. Plus Critical Week below...

dir-scr Rich Peppiatt; with Naoise O'Caireallain, Liam Og O'Hannaidh 24/Ire *****
An energising blast of fresh energy, this Irish comedy-drama fills the screen with characters who feel almost overpoweringly full of live. Rich Peppiatt writes and directs with an engaging urgency, propelling the audience through the narrative alongside these scrappy people, while at the same time making nuanced comments about important themes, personal issues and thorny political situations. This makes it an essential film for anyone worried about the future... FULL REVIEW >

I Saw the TV Glow
dir-scr Jane Schoenbrun; with Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine 24/US ***.
This surreal film is tricky to categorise, which is perhaps its greatest strength. It features elements of a coming-of-age drama and a wildly colourful sci-fi pastiche that's centred around a rather nutty vintage TV series. It's shot beautifully, with a gorgeous sense of light and colour straight from writer-director Jane Schoenbrun's imagination. And this moving and rather darkly powerful story explores how it feels to live outside of mainstream society, never quite knowing how to fit in. 

Sasquatch Sunset
dir David Zellner, Nathan Zellner; with Jesse Eisenberg, Riley Keough 24/US ***.
Defiantly offbeat, this is one of those one-off experimental movies that could only come from an extremely curious filmmaker. Make that plural, as brothers David and Nathan Zellner follow a bigfoot family over four momentous seasons. There's no dialog, although the creatures communicate with gestures, grunts and other noises. The film has a wonderfully deadpan sense of humour, even as the story turns dark and emotional. And the result is both involving and memorable.

Your Monster
dir-scr Caroline Lindy; with Melissa Barrera, Tommy Dewey 24/US ***
Mixing comedy, horror, romance and personal drama, this film by its very nature has an uneven tone. At least it's consistently enjoyable and engaging, recounting a funny-freaky narrative that takes on bigger themes surrounding loneliness, ambition and empowerment. But much of the story and many of the bigger moments feel a bit gimmicky due to the way they play on perceptions and fantasies. This means that the ideas resonate even if the characters and situations don't. 

Handling the Undead [Håndtering av Udøde]
dir Thea Hvistendahl; with Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie 24/Nor ***.
A meditation on grief and letting go, this film is steeped in Scandinavian gloom; it couldn't be much bleaker if it tried. And filmmaker Thea Hvistendahl certainly tries. Essentially a zombie arthouse movie, the script isolates three families in their singular experiences, dealing with the death of a loved one followed by an uncanny resurrection. The downbeat nature of the story means that this is not an easy film to watch, and it holds its nerve by never offering much hope. 

Never Look Away
dir Lucy Lawless; with Margaret Moth, Christiane Amanpour 24/NZ ****
With a quick pace and a blast of rock-chick energy, this biographical documentary about no-nonsense warzone journalist Margaret Moth is both entertaining and compelling. As a gifted camera operator with a larger-than-life persona, it seems odd that her story hasn't been told before. Actor-turned-director Lucy Lawless skilfully fuel the narrative with Moth's distinctive energy, which is reflected in interviews with colleagues, partners and family members, as well as her staggeringly unblinking footage.

My Sundance London reviews will be linked on the website's FESTIVAL PAGE >

~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~~~
C R I T I C A L  W E E K

This week's big press screening was a UK gala for Bad Boys: Ride or Die, which sparked a party atmosphere before the barrage of Will Smith/Martin Lawrence action mayhem on an Imax screen. The plot is as inane as expected, but the stuntwork is solid. There was also the smart and enjoyably bristly comedy-drama Reverse the Curse, written, directed and costarring David Duchovny; the British road story Cottontail, a moving look at family connections; the extremely quirky and entertaining fairy tale-style children's adventure Riddle of Fire; the achingly slow but sharply observant British drama Sky Peals; and the gorgeously shot Belgian drama Here, about two beautifully underplayed immigrants.

There will be more Sundance movies until Sunday, and then I am off to France for a few days at the  Annecy International Film Festival, which specialises in animation. So it's appropriate that I will also be watching Netflix's Ultraman: Rising and Pixar's Inside Out 2 on very big screens.

Sunday 2 June 2024

Screen: June TV Roundup

It's astonishing how much TV you can watch if you just slot in episodes in between doing other things. I'm astonished that I got through all of these shows in the past two months or so. Because I vote in a few TV awards, this is the season when everyone is sending me links to watch their shows and consider them for votes. This allows me to get ahead on several series, although it's impossible to watch everything. Or to even watch everything I want to see. Let's start here with the dramas...

Steve Zaillian takes a highly stylised approach to this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's iconic novels, writing and directing in a way that evokes 1950s-era Hitchcock. It's moody and gorgeous, even if it sometimes feels mannered and forced. And Andrew Scott's central performance as the opportunistic, conscience-free Ripley is utterly riveting from start to finish, often chilling in the way it sidesteps expected emotions. Supporting performances (including Dakota Fanning, Johnny Flynn and a superb John Malkovich cameo) also ripple with intrigue, while cinematographer Robert Elswit gives the Italian settings a monochromatic beauty. (Netflix)

Bridgerton: series 3
Things turn steamy very quickly, as Colin (Luke Newton) returns to London as a sweaty, hairy muscle hunk at odds with his former best pal Penelope (Nicola Coughlan). Romcom rules make it clear that these two will work out their differences, and they do so in an intensely entertaining, sexy way. Meanwhile, there are several more hugely engaging storylines swirling around, including more for siblings Eloise (a scene-stealing Claudia Jessie) and Benedict (Luke Thompson), which bodes well for future seasons. This is one of the most delightful guilty pleasures streaming anywhere. It's impossible not to binge the episodes the moment they land. (Netflix)

True Detective - Night Country: series 4
Jodie Foster is riveting in this fascinating anthology thriller, which this season includes hints of supernatural intrigue. This tale ripples beautifully, and very darkly, with the local politics and folklore in rural Alaska, set during the winter when the sun only barely peaks over the horizon. And the murder mystery at the heart of the show is both horrific and infused with an intriguing dose of magical realism. It's also filmed with some astonishingly outrageous visual flourishes, adding both picturesque and seriously grotesque moments. Superb costars include Kali Reis as a haunted local cop and the great Fiona Shaw as a rather otherworldly loner. (HBO)

Baby Reindeer
Cleverly mixing comedy into the darkest of dramas, this series is based on the life of writer and lead actor Richard Gadd, who boldly bares his soul while reliving a seriously harrowing series of experiences. He plays an aspiring comic who becomes the target of a relentless stalker (Jessica Gunning), a situation exacerbated by a previous sexual assault. The fact that he has written about this stirs controversy, but also makes the story even more honest and important than expected. So where these events go is staggeringly intense, and also so skilfully written and played that it's movingly cathartic. Essential. (Netflix)

Star Trek - Discovery: series 5
This final season unfolds with an limited series-style plot around which the excellent ensemble of actors gets to play out their own personal journeys, led by the superb Sonequa Martin-Green and David Ajala, plus terrific new crew member Callum Keith Rennie. There seems to be even more technical mumbo jumbo than before, and the plotting feels very corny, sending the crew on an implausible scavenger hunt leading to a mind-boggling tech, with scary baddies on their tail. Plus rather a lot of series-finale sentimentality. But it's easy to put that clunky writing aside because the characters and relationships are so strong. (Paramount)

With a deliberately twisty script by Abi Morgan, this missing-child thriller cleverly uses a children's TV show to add imaginative touches, including the title character, a man-sized monster puppet. Set in 1985 New York, it stars a seriously committed Benedict Cumberbatch as puppeteer Vincent, whose young son (Ivan Morris Howe) disappears, the final fracture in Vincent's marriage to Cassie (the superb Gaby Hoffman). But the best story thread involves the investigating detective beautifully played by McKinley Belcher III. With inventively detailed production design and salient social themes, the story is gripping even if it's naggingly over-controlled. (Netflix)

A Gentleman in Moscow
Ewan McGregor oozes charm in this gently amusing drama that spans the decades of the Soviet Union, as an aristocrat is spared the firing squad during the Russian Revolution due to his connection with a pro-communist poem. So he is instead placed under house arrest in a grand olde-worlde hotel. Over the years he befriends a young girl then becomes surrogate father to her daughter. He also has a decades-long fling with a sexy actress (played by McGregor's wife Mary Elizabeth Winstead). It all feels rather fable-like, but it's lavishly produced and warmly engaging. And there's a nice mix of earthy realism and dreamy wistfulness. (Showtime)

Sadly not as controversial as the internet outrage suggests, this series is less explicit than most, timidly shot through a disturbingly misogynistic perspective: women are naked objects, men are carefully concealed heroes. "Loosely based" on Italian pornstar Rocco Siffredi, it's skilfully produced to recreate the 1970s and 80s, and the actors are solid, particularly Alessandro Borghi as Rocco and Adriano Gianni as his thug brother Tommaso. Among the women, only Jasmine Trinca's vivid Lucia registers. But for a show about sex, it's never actually sexy, there are no likeable characters, and a current of homophobia runs through everything. (Netflix)

J U S T   F O R   L A U G H S

Hacks: series 3
Blisteringly well played by Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder, this comedy continues to push barriers with its story about ambition and creativity in show business. As Smart's established comic Deborah Vance pursues her dream of hosting a late night talk show, her relationship with Einbinder's writer Ava is stretched in ways neither of them expect. Episodes layer in fascinating details at every turn, even if some plot points feel a bit stale (such as Ava discovering what she thinks is an engagement ring in her girlfriend's things). But expanded roles for Deborah's family members add texture, as do starry cameos. And the performances are unstoppable. (Max)

Dead Boy Detectives
There's a nicely sparky tone to this offbeat series, which offers a mystery per week for likeable British teens Edwin and Charles (George Rexstrew and Jayden Revri), who died some 70 years apart and have chosen to remain on Earth as supernatural problem-solvers. The over-arching story is more than a little annoying, trapping the boys in the Pacific Northwest as two comically vile villains (Ruth Connell's Night Nurse and Jenn Lyon's witch Esther) send things nonsensically spiralling. But there are terrific side roles for Lukas Gage and Michael Beach, and some clever touches and themes amid the silliness. (Netflix)

Loot: series 2
Maya Rudolph is terrific in this show about an obscenely wealthy divorcee who is trying to devote her life to something more important through her charity foundation. But she also still enjoys living the very high life. Michaela Jae Rodriguez is excellent as the head of the charity, and their evolving relationship adds some bite to this season, as do expanded journeys for fabulous costars Joel Kim Booster, Ron Funches and Nat Faxon. There's a guilty pleasure element to this show, watching people spend absurd money in an attempt to do the right thing. And some new characters add additional spark, and a lot of laughs, this season. (Apple)

Palm Royale
Sudsy enough to hold the interest, this show is rather frustrating because its central character, Kristin Wiig's Maxine, is so oddly unlikeable. This isn't Wiig's fault; it's the premise itself. We never root for her to triumph in her pointless goal to surmount the social strata in 1969 Palm Beach, using the pedigree of her hapless husband (Josh Lucas) to try to establish her status. We're far more interested in Allison Janney's imperious queen bee, Laura Dern's new age dropout and especially Carol Burnett, who is awesome even when her nutty diva is in a coma. Even Ricky Martin, surprisingly solid as a snarky muscled pool boy, is far more engaging. (Apple)

Acapulco: series 3
Past and present finally collide this season as Maximo (Eugenio Derbez) returns to Mexico with his nephew (Raphael Alejandro), becoming part of the story rather than just bookending it with his narration. There are still flashbacks to the hilariously pink-hued 1980s with young Maximo (Enrique Arrizon) and his lively cohorts, who get up to all kinds of surprisingly complex antics. But this time there is also a much stronger connection with the present day, as plot threads hinge on various revelations that echo through the decades, and we get to see where several of these people end up. It's still a lot of fun, but with a bit more subtext than before. (Apple)

The Big Door Prize: series 2
After the frustratingly vague first season, this show thankfully gains a sense of momentum, with more nuance in the characters and their messy relationships, including some engaging ambiguity. It also feels a lot funnier, as connections between these people have ramped up due to additional discoveries about who they are and who they should become, thanks to this odd fortune-telling machine that throws their lives into chaos. It's a bit cartoonish, but Chris O'Dowd, Gabrielle Dennis, Sammy Fourlas, Djouliet Amara and Josh Segarra continue to shine in the ensemble cast, creating roles that are witty, complex and intriguingly sympathetic. (Apple) 

Abbott Elementary: series 3
A steelier edge kicks off this season with some unexpected textures. It's still relentlessly silly, using that same deadpan camera stare far, far too much. Even if the writers give up on the idea, there are intriguing layers of politics as Janine (Quinta Brunson) is working for the district, complicating her relationships with colleagues who are still struggling with budget cuts in this scrappy little state school. Janine's will-they-won't-they romance with Gregory (Tyler James Williams) is still eye-rollingly farcical. While Sheryl Lee Ralph continues to steal the show as the no-nonsense Barbara, and Janelle James' narcissistic principal gets funnier each season. (ABC)

The Conners: series 6
It seems like this show can simply run forever, with characters aging as their children and grandchildren face new issues in new times. Even back when this was called Roseanne (1988-2018), the generational comedy gave the show its kick, finding as much entertainment in old people moaning as in kids facing their own obstacles. John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert and Alicia Goranson are as strong as ever. And the wider variety of characters allow writers to take on themes without contriving too much. As always, the show presents recognisable realities and absurdities of present-day life without preaching, even if the points are clear. (ABC)

Night Court: series 2
While the scripts for this relaunched legacy series (1984-1992) are relentlessly goofy and a bit too quick to catch, the cast is bright enough to make it entertaining, often acknowledging the absurdity of the show's over-written and deliberately dopey sense of humour. The ensemble is ably led by the likeably offbeat Melissa Rauch and John Larrouquette. And the show makes terrific use of the night court setting, with a continuous parade of nutty guest characters. It's a bit frustrating that there isn't much going on under the surface to hold the interest and make us care about these people, but it keeps us smiling. (NBC)

R E A L   L I F E   V I B E S

Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces
Thoroughly entertaining, this two-part biographical doc is packed with fantastic clips from this iconic star's singular career. It's fun to be reminded of the many highs, and even his lows (like Pennies From Heaven) are significant artistic achievements. The first part explores his years as a groundbreaking writer and stand-up, leading into scene-stealing appearances on Saturday Night Live and classic comedy films. The second half looks at his more serious side, along with his interest in art, writing, his personal life and now Only Murders in the Building. It's bracingly honest and features a range of terrific interviewees. A must-see for fans. (Apple)

Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show
In everything he has done, Carmichael has found laughs alongside sharp commentary about larger issues. And now that he's so dramatically come out of the closet, this approach takes on a whole new range of topicality in this hybrid series, which combines fly-on-the-wall reality moments with confessional stand-up routines based on his experiences. Each brief episode is packed with moments that are breathtakingly honest, as Carmichael delves into both his past and the things he wants to improve about his behaviour. In other words, he is putting himself on-camera in a way that's astonishingly raw, hugely engaging and powerfully important. (Max)

I GIVE UP: The French series Fiasco has a great idea, set around a film production that goes wildly off the rails, plus an ace cast (including Pierre Niney and Francois Civil) and enjoyably full-on production values. But the writing is just too inane. As the show strained for laughs, I was exhausted after two episodes. (Netflix)

GUILTY PLEASURES: Britain's Got Talent (17), Drag Race UK vs the World (2), Selling the OC (3), The Circle (6).

NOW WATCHING: The Big Cigar, Expats, Fantasmas, The Regime, The Sympathizer, Sugar.

COMING SOON: The Acolyte, The Boys (4), Presumed Innocent, The Bear (3), That 90s Show (2), Sausage Party: Foodtopia, Lady in the Lake, Snowpiercer (4), Time Bandits.

Previous roundup: APRIL 2024 > 

Thursday 30 May 2024

Critical Week: You're a superstar

It's still been relatively quiet in London, a short week following the Cannes Film Festival. But things kick off next week with Sundance Film Festival: London; I'm looking forward to this four-day burst of cinematic life at Picturehouse Central. It's a fluke of the releasing schedule that I've seen 17 films that are being released this week in the US and/or UK. These are films I've seen over the course of bout a year and a half (many screened at festivals), but they are for some reason converging now in cinemas or streaming! All of the reviews are on the website

Robot Dreams • The Beast
The Dead Don't Hurt
Big Boys • What You Wish For
A House In Jerusalem
Pandemonium • Hidden Master
The Pilgrimage of Gilbert & George
Double Oscar-winners featured in two films I saw this past week. Jessica Lange is radiant in The Great Lillian Hall, a lovely drama about a fading theatre icon costarring Kathy Bates and Jesse Williams (above). And Anthony Hopkins shines in Freud's Last Session, a fictionalised meeting between the iconic psychoanalyst and author CS Lewis (Matthew Goode) that's beautifully written and packed with provocative ideas.

Offbeat films this week include Isabelle Huppert once again delightfully stealing the show in Francois Ozon's skilfully arch mystery comedy The Crime Is Mine; the warm and witty assembled family drama The Mattachine Family, starring the hugely likeable Nico Tortorella and Emily Hampshire; Richard Armitage in the often harrowing true-life WWII survival adventure The Boy in the Woods; the dark, moving British-Palestinian drama A House in Jerusalem; and the eye-opening London artists doc The Pilgrimage of Gilbert & George.

This coming week I'll be watching Will Smith in Bad Boys: Ride or Die, Jennifer Connelly in Bad Behaviour, David Duchovny in Reverse the Curse, Ciaran Hinds in Cottontail, British sci-fi drama Sky Peals, Wyoming-set fantasy Riddle of Fire, Belgian drama Here and road trip drama Summer Solstice, plus lots of movies at the Sundance Film Festival: London. 

Friday 24 May 2024

Critical Week: Into the sea

While the Cannes Film Festival continues in the South of France until this weekend, I've been keeping busy here in London with an eclectic collection of screenings. Most unusual was the Chinese animated adventure Deep Sea, which is dazzling to look at even if the story feels a bit busy. It's definitely worth seeing on the biggest screen possible.

Hit Man • Solo
Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In
In Flames • Kidnapped
The Garfield Movie
Last Friday I attended the UK premiere of Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, attended by the cast and crew. Anya Taylor-Joy is terrific in the steely title role, and the film boasts terrific action sequences even if it feels a bit thin. Jennifer Lopez stars in the sci-fi thriller Atlas, which is fairly simple but enjoyably packed with very cool tech. Greg Kinnear stars in two movies I watched this week: alongside Isla Fisher in the silly but cute family fantasy comedy The Present and opposite Terry Chen in the inspirational and relentlessly preachy fact-based drama Sight. And from Canada, the drama Solo is a gorgeously observed character study set in the drag scene. 

After seeing Hit Man last week, I thought I should perhaps catch up with Glen Powell's last hit, the romcom Anyone But You, which is deeply goofy but also sunny, charming and sometimes even a bit sexy. On stage, I also watched the superbly provocative musical comedy drama Piece of Me at Camden People's Theatre.

This coming week I'll be watching Jessica Lange in The Great Lillian Hall, Anthony Hopkins in Freud's Last Session, Richard Armitage in The Boy in the Woods, Francois Ozon's The Crime Is Mine, Palestinian drama A House in Jerusalem and the doc The Pilgrimage of Gilbert & George

Thursday 23 May 2024

Stage: Living on-camera

Piece of Me
by Claire Gaydon
with Claire Gaydon, Yasser Zadeh, Alex Roberts
director Eleanor Crouch • songs Claire Gaydon
music producer James Jacob
designer Charlotte Espiner • lighting Amy Daniels
choreo Seke Chimutengwende, Olivia Shouler
Camden People's Theatre • 21.May-1.Jun.24

With a hilariously deadpan sense of humour, this thought-provoking musical comedy drama springs from the life of writer-performer Claire Gaydon, which adds an unusually personal touch to the rather offbeat juxtaposition of pop stardom and social surveillance. It's a brightly energetic 70-minute show that holds the attention with its wry observations and almost pathologically catchy tunes, then turns into something darkly intriguing. 

The story opens on 8-year-old Claire (Gaydon), who lives in Lincoln and hangs out with her best pals Natalie (Zadeh) and Chloe (Roberts). Then Britney Spears' first mega-hit rocks their world. Diehard fans, they live vicariously through her stardom, and decide they need to be popstars themselves. So Claire writes a song, and they become celebrities in their school when they perform at an assembly and record a demo. But the band fizzles out when they're 14. Years later, they reunite to perform at a London venue, and Claire's obsession with CCTV cameras leads them to launch their own facial recognition company.

This last turn of events feels like it comes from nowhere, drastically changing the play's tone. Earlier scenes are punctuated with snappy video montages and elaborately choreographed musical performances, complete with complex lighting and costume changes. Then the final section sees these three childhood friends in an office discussing the nature of their work, differing in their opinions about video surveillance and data mining. But there is a fascinating thread here, as this springs from their conversations about how Britney has lived even the most private moments of her life in the full public glare.

The characters are skilfully performed by this tight trio. Gaydon cleverly nails Claire's intense enthusiasm alongside the dryly amusing Zadeh and Roberts, who bring terrific textures as the open-handed Natalie and sassy Chloe. Zadeh also plays DJ Andy, who happily joins the band when he can. The actors create infectious chemistry on stage that makes the characters both laugh-out-loud funny and also deeply endearing.

Gaydon's observations are often astonishing, comparing CCTV with paparazzi while offering brief blasts of lacerating social satire. The show is quick and clever, and also both wry and raucous. And in several meta moments it digs beneath the surface to question the nature of fame and privacy, the true meaning of success and the way politics almost always leads to manipulation. It's also so much fun that we want to see this band put on a full concert.


photos by Harry Elletson • 23.May.24