Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Theatre Review: Medea (National Theatre, Olivier)




As Lucy Jackson has summarised recently, the myth of Medea is one that continues to resonate and reverberate powerfully in our culture, inspiring fresh revisionings in literature, art, film and on stage. That said, the 2012 incarnation of Euripides’s text - Mike Bartlett’s soap-opera-verging-on-sitcom variation for Headlong, which set the story in a contemporary English suburb  - struck me as mostly ridiculous, despite the committed efforts of Rachael Stirling in the lead.

Carrie Cracknell’s major new production for the National, which had its first preview on Monday, proves a much more assured, arresting and absorbing experience than Headlong’s. (This, despite the coughers, over-laughers and people who had certainly NOT switched off their fucking mobile phones who sadly constituted some of the first performance’s audience.) It’s a potent new version that - in aspects of its aesthetic as well as its overt, bracing feminism - feels all-of-a-piece with Cracknell’s recent projects: her much-admired A Doll’s House for the Young Vic and this year’s Blurred Lines at the NT Shed.  I don’t want to comment too specifically on the staging at this early point in the run, so as not to spoil the pleasure of discovery for others. But suffice it to say that Cracknell and Ben Power (who contributes a supple, fluid and robust translation) succeed in finding a contemporary context for the story that (unlike Bartlett’s) doesn’t make you cringe, that still allows for grandeur, and that cuts to the dark heart of the play’s exploration of the damage wrought by betrayed and thwarted love. Tom Scutt’s design - initially underwhelming; gradually revelatory - captures  precisely the production’s mixture of the intimate and the epic, the feral and the domestic. As does the score by Goldfrapp (a band whose charms have mostly been lost on me, I have to confess), who come through here with a series of evocative soundscapes that move compellingly from twinkling atmospherics to swelling choral surge.  
The production won’t be as divisive as the National’s spectacularly polarising Edward II was last summer, but it’s still one that audiences will debate and argue over, I think. There are, it must be said, some odd aspects: the under-utilising of Dominic Rowan as Aegeus , for one.  And while the all-female Chorus is a marvellous touch, and mostly brilliantly integrated, I could have lived without the Pan’s-People-via-Pina-Baush contortions that Lucy Guerin’s choreography puts them through at various points. 
Still, the production grips and moves. And at its centre is a performance by Helen McCrory that is as thrillingly rich and inspired as you could wish for.  Fierce yet fragile, bitingly witty and savage in self-laceration, the captivating McCrory shrinks the auditorium to intimacy as she also finds a devastating vulnerability and, yes, tenderness in the character, honouring all the contradictions of a woman turned “expert in terror, expert in pain.”  It is, already, a performance to haunt you, and one that, in the production’s stunning final third, communicates the play’s tragedy with the force of a thunderclap.

The production runs for 1 hour 40 minutes without interval. Booking until September 4th. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/medea?dates=all#tabpos 


  

Monday, 14 July 2014

Film Review: Begin Again (Carney, 2013)







John Carney's Begin Again offers more winsome (if tediously foul-mouthed) music-based uplift in the mould of the director’s overpraised Once, though decidedly glossier and with the dubious added bonus of Keira Knightley grimacing and gurning away in one of the lead roles. Knightley plays—or, in her usual manner, has a game go at playing—Greta, an English girl in New York who gets dumped by her musician boyfriend (Adam Levine, of Maroon 5, in a creditable film debut) and finds herself dragged along to an open mic night where she’s talent spotted by Dan (Mark Ruffalo) a down-on-his-luck music exec who hearspotential in her fey folky warblings. The film follows the pair as they collaborate on an album, its tracks recorded live in different locations in the city.


Carney can be insightful on music biz machinations and these aspects provide some of the more interesting elements of the picture. But Begin Again (which was called Can A Song Save Your Life? when I saw it at TIFF last year, and I’m not sure how much of an improvement the new title can be considered) is ultimately too transparent in its feel-good designs upon the audience and too clumpy in its plotting. It’s the kind of movie in which everything is on the surface, every emotional beat underlined and made obvious. Greta starts meddling in Dan’s personal life just so the pair can have a little spat but ultimately the movie is all about relationships getting repaired—lives being saved, indeed—by the healing power of song. That could work, were the featured tracks, written by the formerly-witty Gregg Alexander, not such bland affairs (just as they were in Once)—folk-influenced pop full of would-be poetic musings, and as forgettable as the film’s title. In addition, for all the wittering about artistic integrity and “authenticity” that goes on here, the movie itself feels mighty inauthentic: when the characters are in a tight spot, for example, they simply call on a beneficent multi-millionaire hip-hop star (Cee-Lo Green) to help them out.
 
Catherine Keener and Hailie Steinfeld go to waste as Ruffalo’s estranged wife and kid, but Ruffalo himself brings some rumpled charisma to his role and James Corden does some pleasantly relaxed funny-buddy schtick as Greta’s busker pal. The movie is undistinguished, and I found it resistible (much more so than the superficially crummier Walking on Sunshine; see below). But it probably pushes enough buttons to turn itself into a hit.





Friday, 4 July 2014

Film Review: Walking on Sunshine (dir. Giwa and Pasquini, 2014)




The success of Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia! (2008) and, more recently, Dexter Fletcher's Sunshine on Leith (2013) has pretty much made the jukebox musical into the default British film musical form these days. But whatever quibbles one might have about that, there’s no denying the silly retro charms of the latest addition to the fold, Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini’s Walking on Sunshine, which sets the entanglements of Brits in picturesque Puglia to a choice selection of 80s hit pop songs. With its gorgeous setting, its nuptials-based plot, its up-for-it cast and its locals reduced strictly to supporting roles (as eye candy or comic turns), it’s not hard to spot that Mamma Mia! is the movie that Walking on Sunshine desperately desires to be. But I for one found Giwa and Pasquini’s film a good deal more enjoyable overall. The plot is less stupid, the performances are less embarrassing, and, most importantly, Giwa and Pasquini have a better idea of where to place the camera than Lloyd did, staging some lively, wittily choreographed numbers.
  
There’s plenty of obviousness, of course - intercut hen and stag party sequences set to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Wild Boys,” for example- but also some real attempts to tell the story through song. There’s a great poolside “Venus” that becomes a creditable Busby Berkeley homage , a beautiful beach scene lit by The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” a surprisingly emotional climactic “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and, best of all, George Michael’s “Faith,” amusingly turned into a duet for two ex-lovers. And the movie sustains a friendly, affectionate tone throughout.
  
Throwing themselves into the dance sequences with great gusto and really acting their way through the songs, Annabel Scholey and Hannah Arterton are terrifically likeable as the sisters whose romantic travails provide the plot’s pivot (the former’s about to be wed to the latter’s Italian holiday romance ex; as in Vicky Christina Barcelona [2008] one almost senses the spirit of Henry James hovering over the premise. ALMOST). They’re gals of contrasting sensibilities, each with something to learn from the other, and the movie devises satisfying parallel arcs for both of them. X Factor alumna Leona Lewis doesn’t distinguish herself in her film debut but Greg Wise nicely updates his caddish Sense and Sensibility Willoughby with a fun turn as Scholey’s still-interested ex.
  
Of course, the movie has some shortcomings: the economic details of the characters lives aren’t so much fake as non-existent, and supporting characters (including Katy Brand’s erotic novelist pal) are underused. But, experienced with some equally 80s-enamoured pals (and, preferably, some booze), Walking on Sunshine more than does the job. Debbie Gibson, Tiffany and T’Pau tracks requested for the sequel, please.

Theatre Review: The Boss of it All (Soho)




Made between the controversial (and brilliant) Dogville follow-up Manderlay (2005) and the even-more-controversial (but less brilliant) Antichrist (2009), Lars von Trier’s 2006 work The Boss of it All feels rather like the von Trier film that got away. The movie certainly has its admirers (I know several people who swear by its greatness). But as a lower-keyed proposition than the attention-seeking shock-fests that have constituted most of von Trier’s recent output it’s a film that many may not be aware of. Which is a shame, as this corporate comedy based around a sitcom premise (an out-of-work actor is hired by the boss of an ailing IT firm to pretend to be the “real” boss and thus take the rap and the responsibility for unpopular decisions) sustains a droll, distinctive atmosphere, even if you don’t very often hear yourself laughing out loud.   
The first von Trier adaptation to make it to the UK stage, Jack McNamara’s skilful production for his New Perspectives company does make you laugh out loud. I found the play much more purely enjoyable than the film:  better structured, pacier, more focused in its exploration of the idea of leadership as performance, and, simply, a whole lot funnier. Making some judicious cuts to the plot and characters, McNamara retains - and, indeed, accentuates - some of the film’s arch meta conceits, including narration (provided by von Trier soundalike Claus Reiss) that comments  on the staging and anticipates audience response, which works nicely.  The production has a razor sharp clarity that's  aided by Lily Arnold’s sleek, stylish design and a cast – Gerry Howell, Ross Armstrong, Anna Bolton, Tom McHugh, Kate Kordel and James Rigby – who work together wonderfully well, creating a great office dynamic. Swift, smart and terrific fun.

Booking until 27 July.


Saturday, 28 June 2014

Interview with Jack McNamara About Adapting von Trier's The Boss of it All for the Stage





  
The mischievious 2006 corporate comedy The Boss of it All is one of Lars von Trier's less widely known works. Writer/director Jack McNamara has adapted the film for his New Perspectives company, and the production opens at the Soho Theatre next week, after an acclaimed run at last year's Edinburgh Fringe. Below, I talk to Jack about the process of adapting The Boss of It All for the stage.
  
AR: When did you first see The Boss of it All and what was your response to it? What was it about the themes that interested you?
  
JM: I knew von Trier’s work pretty well, but this one was a step away from the others. It was less of a formal experiment. More a good old fashioned story. But the thing that excited me was the tone, I think. Just this sparse, clinical Scandinavian feeling. It seemed such an incongruous atmosphere for the setting of a comedy and that appealed to me.
  
The film’s central idea – of an actor hired in to pretend to be the boss of a company – almost seems like a classical theatre premise. It’s simple, obvious but full of possibilities. And in its own quiet way, it also manages to raise a major question, about whether leadership in our society is ever more than a posture or performance.
  
What was it about the film that made you think it would work as a play, and would be a good candidate for a stage adaptation?
  
The main theme is performance, and somehow this is more potent onstage than on film. To some extent film is photographing reality, or a version of it, whereas when I watch a play, I never stop thinking that I am watching something artificial, no matter how good it is. So exploring this story on stage was a natural fit for me.
  
What was the process of getting the rights from von Trier like? Was he open to the idea of a stage adaptation, or did he take some persuasion?
  
I was lucky in that the agent who manages his rights was so open, supportive and encouraging. It’s amazing how the wrong gate keeper can really stop a project from happening. She was encouraging; however we were aware that this would be the first Von Trier in the UK, so it was not a dead cert that it would happen. I had to write the first draft for approval before being granted the rights. I made so many changes and altered so many scenes and characters. I was a little scared to submit it, so when I heard he had OK’d it I felt tremendously relieved and grateful. A more precious person might have taken issue with some of what I was proposing!
  
Could you talk a little about the process of writing the adaptation? What were some of the challenges involved? Have you made any/many changes in terms of plot or structure? Did translating the comedy of the film into a stage context hold any particular difficulties or challenges?
  
I wrote out the finished film by hand to begin with, and compared this to the screenplay (both were quite different). I then put both of them aside and just started writing a play from scratch. I felt that by going through the rewriting process I had somehow done my homework, and now I could just get on with writing the play I wanted to see onstage.
  
One challenge with the play was how to move between scenes in an elegant way. So I came up with the idea of making the scene changes very visible and integral to the action. The actors move the set around and at one point a voice over comes in and applauds them for their hard work. It all added to its deliberate self-consciousness as a piece of theatre.
  
Tonally it was a challenge to get right. On one one hand it was a straight comedy, but it also needed that kind of von Trier mischief to it. I didn’t want to copy any of Von Trier’s tricks, so I managed to find my own way of gently subverting the action.
  

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
   
How did the process compare to other adaptations that you’ve worked on? How does adapting a film differ from adapting prose works, such as the DeLillo and Bellow texts you’ve worked with previously?
  
I think the material tells you what it wants you to do with it. With Bellow, it was just amazing language so I didn’t really get in the way of that. I just found a structure to try and help give access to the language. But with von Trier I felt much more freedom to actually create a whole new play, as the main point wasn’t the language but the tone, characters and story. Yet it would never work as a direct lift from the screenplay. It had to be completely reconceived as a new play.
  
Did you watch the film with the actors in your production, or has your work with them been exclusively based around your text?
  
No, we avoided the film. There wasn’t a ban on watching it but I didn’t think it would be helpful. I think actors need to find their own solutions to things. And the casting onstage is incredibly different. For example, the bad businessman Finnur in the film is a massive Viking of a man, whereas in our production he is played by someone trim, lean and mean.
  
Do you envisage adapting other von Trier films for the stage?
  
Only if one of them calls out to me! He creates brilliant worlds to play around in. But I wouldn’t necessarily want to compete with iconic images. That can be a burden. The Boss of it All was ideal. It was my anonymous little baby.

The Boss of It All runs at Soho Theatre from Wed 2 – Sun 27 July. For further information and to purchase tickets online: http://www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/new-perspectives-presents

Theatre Review: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Savoy)

  
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - Frank Oz’s 1988 Steve Martin/Michael Caine-starring comedy about two men on the con on the French Rivera - was one of the cherished comedy films of my childhood: often watched and quoted. And a few years ago I was also pleased to finally see Bedtime Story, the original 1964 film on which Oz’s remake was based, with David Niven and – of all people! – Marlon Brando in the lead roles. It’s pretty good fun too: at least until its flat, moralising end.
  
But David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane’s musical version – which debuted in New York ten years ago and has been in the West End for a few months now – left me completely cold. I don’t think it’s over-familiarity with the source material that’s to blame: rather, it’s the blaring, Broadway-by-numbers treatment that the material’s been given. No-one expects subtlety or soulfulnessness from a musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, of course, but some wit and style (and a few good songs) wouldn’t go amiss. Alas, Yazbeck and Lane’s book and lyrics are wincingly mediocre, and the songs are poorly, clunkingly integrated. This isn’t a show that’s sparked or advanced by its musical numbers: rather, it stops dead for them, and you see the joins. Pretty much everything here feels forced, strained, effortful.
  
All flash and not an ounce of substance, Jerry Mitchell’s production exacerbates the weaknesses of the material with a superficial glam n gloss slickness that at the same time ends up looking rather cheap. The money’s up there on the stage, all right (in Peter McKintosh’s deluxe slidy sets and twinkly costumes). Yet aspects of the production - the pirouetting chambermaids; John Marquez’s thickly accented Chief of Police - suggest nothing so much as an 'Allo 'Allo! episode directed by a very off-form Bob Fosse.
  
In the leads, and providing the smuggest double act the West End has seen since Matthew McFadyen and Stephen Mangan graced the (equally God-awful) Jeeves & Wooster, Robert Lindsay and Rufus Hound spend as much time playing to the audience as to each other. You don’t feel an evolving dynamic between them and Lindsay – with Prince Charles impression and constant recourse to little hip thrusts – is especially irritating. And Hound’s big comic set piece - the classic “Ruprecht moment” in which the younger con artist poses as the older’s mentally retarded bro - is fumbled by being set against the reactions of a character about as crude as Ruprecht is himself (Lizzy Connolly, in a nightmarish turn as an heiress singing about her Oklahoma home). As the pair’s winsome target, Katherine Kingsley yelps in with a painfully shrill introductory number that’s a true Broadway horror (and does precisely nothing to establish her character), while Samantha Bond wafts through as the rechristened Muriel Eubanks of Surrey (what’s wrong with a little Fanny, one wonders?). Decidedly weak of voice (and not helped by lyrics like “I’ve been royally screwed”) she’s at least a respite from the other performers’ blasting. A charm-free throwback.
  
Booking until March 2015.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Theatre Review: Orange Tree Theatre Festival (Orange Tree)

 

Betsy Field in 7 to 75 (Photo: Robert Day)

 
Mums and sons. Daughters and Dads. Shakespeare/Coward/Beckett mash-ups. Gay rainbow rosary beads. Edward Snowden. Katy Perry. Plaintive (but playful) piano-scored puppetry. Synchronised hula hooping, Contemplations of the cosmos. What do all these (and much, much more) have in common? Well, they all feature, in one form or another, in the Orange Tree’s extraordinary Festival of Theatre, the last hurrah of Sam Walters’s 42 year directorship of the venue.

With typical self-deprecation, Walters has chosen to close out his tenure not with a self-directed production of a lost classic or a familiar favourite. Rather, he’s serving as producer and “curator” of this Festival, having invited a host of the theatre’s recent trainees to propose and direct short plays for production. The results, split into three Programmes which can be viewed on separate afternoons/evenings or together on one day, are stunning, and deserve much more media attention than they’ve thus far received. I saw all three Programmes on Saturday, and left elated and inspired by the sheer diversity and quality of the work on display, by the connections that the Festival makes cumulatively, and by its exhilarating mix of the traditional and the weirdly, wildly experimental.


Rebecca Egan in Non-Esential Personnel (Photo: Sarah Lam) 

The Lunchtime Programme comprises two plays, opening with Caitlin Shannon’s Non-Essential Personnel, directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou, and followed by David Siebert’s revival of Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare. Shannon was the author of The Getaway, the highlight of last year’s OT Directors Showcase. And she brings a similar kind of radiant empathy to this new “duet,” in which a widowed mother and her son (Rebecca Egan and Jack Parry-Jones) – she a council worker sent home as “non-essential personnel” following a bomb scare and he an astronomy/Internet obsessive dodging his exam revision – confront their grief and tentatively face the future. It’s a tender, intimate piece with lovely details, and Papachronopoulou’s sensitive production features a quiet heartbreaker of a turn from Egan as the Mum.


Paul Kemp and Carolyn Backhouse in The Actor's Nightmare (Photo: Sarah Lam)
By contrast, Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare is a marvellously contrasting proposition: a riotous meta-ride in which an accountant finds himself forced on stage as an understudy in productions of Coward, Shakespeare, Beckett and A Man For All Seasons, and attempts to fudge and ad-lib his way through the scenes. With a brilliant tour de force of increasing desperation from Paul Kemp in the lead, and delicious full-on turns from Carolyn Backhouse, Rebecca Pownall, Amy Neilson Smith and Christopher Heyward in support (Heyward’s hamming as Horatio in Hamlet is truly spectacular), Siebert’s production is pure pleasure and leaves you eager to see more of the great Durang’s work produced on UK stages.


 
Johanna Tincey and Paul Woodson in Mobile 4 (Photo: Robert Day)


Programme 2 mixes up four equally contrasting pieces. Orlando Wells’s engrossing Four Days in Hong Kong offers a distilled, plausible take on the Snowden saga, dramatising the whistleblower’s meeting with journos Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill in a Hong Kong hotel. Punctuated by portentous passages from 1984, and with great performances from Laurence Dobiesz, Karen Archer and Nicholas Cass-Beggs, Phoebe Barron’s taut production has style, wit and assurance as it lucidly brings out the play’s concern with privacy in the digital age and the moral implications of Snowden’s actions. John Terry contributes a fine production of Stephen Jeffreys’s funny, snark-with-a-heart Mobile 4, which explores the dynamics among a Northern commune involved in the art world, and Arlene Hutton’s Mametian I Dream Before I Take the Stand, directed by Katie Henry, finds a woman interrogated about her behaviour prior to a sexual assault. In terms of argument, this is probably the thinnest, most obvious piece here, but intense performances from David Antrobus and Heather Saunders maintain the tension.  Meanwhile, Amy Hodge’s thrilling, beautiful work-in-progress devised piece 7 to 75 suggests Caryl Churchill and Pina Baush collaborating on a reimagining of Albee’s Three Tall Women, as a quintet of performers – Simonetta Alessandri, Rohanna Eade, Betsy Field, Stella Nodine and Jessie Richardson –present five stages of womanhood via unashamed navel-gazing (literally), confessional monologues and a glorious interpretive dance sequence set – yes - to Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
 



Duck, Death and the Tulip (Photo: Robert Day)
  
The evening concludes with the mortality-themed Programme 1: Adam Barnard’s involving father/daughter drama Closer Scrutiny, with its intriguing structural quirk and moving finale; War Horse collaborators Andy Brunskill and Jimmy Grimes’s exquisitely enchanting puppet reimagining of Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip; and, finally, David Lewis’s Skeletons.
 
 



Paul Gilmore in Skeletons (Photo: Robert Day)
 
Here Lewis mines a similar type of family dysfunction to his previous How to be Happy and Seven Year Twitch, as a gay son (Ben Warwick), a voyeur brother (Paul Gilmore), a harried sister (Amanda Royle) and an Alzheimer’s-afflicted mum (Diana Payan) reunite for ructions and revelations. Happily, Lewis – who might be described as what Alan Ayckbourn would be if Ayckbourn was actually any good – has some terrific jokes and twists up his sleeve here (including a classic “coming out” gag) and Alex Lass’s well-judged production proves laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes touching too. Richly rewarding, challenging and surprising, the Festival as a whole is something special and makes for an original and inspired end to Walters’s tenure. It runs for just one more week, until June 29th, and I urge you to book for as much of it as you can.

Further information at the Orange Tree website.