Every Brilliant Thing at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

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Every Brilliant Thing

Orange Tree Theatre, 17th October 2017

This jolly looking fellow is Jonny Donahoe. He is currently the latest incumbent in the one man show, Every Brilliant Thing, at the Orange Tree Theatre. The play was originally written by Duncan Macmillan (he of People, Places and Things, Lungs, 2071 and a bunch of masterpieces in German) in 2013, and has basically been travelling round the world, to venues big and small, ever since. This is the last leg of the latest incarnation. It was commissioned by Paines Plough, that wonderful institution, dreamt up in a pub four decades ago, which acts as a national theatre for new plays.

EBT tells the story of a seven year old who begins to make lists of things that make life worth living for in response to his mother’s depression. It charts the relationships between the boy as he moves into adulthood, with his Dad, his Mum, who attempts to take her own life, and, eventually, girlfriend. Jonny Donahoe uses the audience to call out items on the list and, for some lucky punters, to play key characters in the narrative. So those who are shy of audience interaction need to hide in the shadows. What this brings though is intimacy and empathy in buckets. Particularly in the cozy surroundings of the Orange Tree.

Now a story like this isn’t going to work without an actor who is up to the task. Mr Donahoe most certainly is. He is a comedian by trade which partly explains why this is so funny. That, and the expertly crafted writing of Duncan Macmillan. I seem to remember that People, Places and Things also had a few laughs scattered throughout. Its subject, addiction, was also an unlikely candidate for mirth. Having said that, when Mr Donahoe needed to ratchet up the pathos, he was just as adept. There is something of the child still about our Jonny which, even as he ages, ideally fits the character, and it is impossible not to bowled along by his enthusiasm, even for a grumpy old git like the Tourist.

A play about how to deal with depression could easily have been too whimsical or too maudlin. It is not. To call it “life-affirming” risks cliche but it gets pretty close. Should this pop up again in your neck of the woods go see it. Then you can add it to your own list of brilliant things.

 

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre review ****

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The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

The Criterion Theatre, 15th October 2017

Abandoned by the SO, and with BD now, like MS, deep in academe, LD and I needed entertaining. The solution. A fix of Mischief Theatre. Now it is not the first time we had seen this. The whole family had been to TCAABR before, and we have hoovered up the rest of Mischief’s output with relish.

Why? Because it is very, very funny. We would probably still say The Play That Goes Wrong is the best of the three, and TCAABR works in a very different way, what with its “screwball” feel and American setting, but frankly all three, (assuming Peter Pan Goes Wrong pops up again – maybe courtesy of Auntie Beeb), are must sees. TPTGW is on tour in the UK next year. Do not miss it if it comes anywhere near you.

Comedy in the theatre is tough to pull off. Comedy in the theatre which really makes you laugh is really tough to pull off. Comedy in the theatre which makes a diverse audience laugh is even tougher. TCAABAR takes a surefire plot winner, a bank heist, and, with a combination of unsubtle punnery, farce, slapstick, visual jokes, often spectacularly constructed, and one-liners, the nine strong cast, (the three original MT founders are now in the Broadway runs I think), fair whizz through the action so that the whole thing is done and dusted in a couple of hours. This is an extraordinary physical performance from all concerned as much as anything else.

No plot details here. You will see for yourself if you have any sense. What I will say, and this is where a second viewing, (from stalls vs our original circle perch), really drives it home, is just how flipping clever the whole thing is. Not just in terms of the action, but how this fits together with the set. The proscenium arch stage in the Criterion, which itself is buried underground, is not huge and shifting between the scenes requires precise stagecraft. The eight main characters, and one other actor who takes on all the other roles, also act as a chorus during the transitions which are often accompanied by musical numbers which match the 1958 Minneapolis setting. Adding yet more texture.

My guess is that this is going to run for some time yet but no point in delaying the pleasure. Get the family out for a Christmas treat. It might turn out to be your seasonal highlight.

 

The Wedding Present at Cadogan Hall review ****

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The Wedding Present

Cadogan Hall, 14th October 2017

Regular readers of this blog (remember chums, the best clubs are exclusive) will be aware that the Tourist doesn’t really do “gigs”. It is all a bit loud for his aged ears. The number of bands/artists he would pay money to see is severely limited and dwindling in number thanks in part to the Grim Reaper. Many venues are beyond the pale on the grounds of comfort, excessive booziness (the Tourist has taken a vow of abstinence following many happy years of excess) or claustrophobia. Festivals need friends and time, both of which the Tourist seems unable to cultivate.

Here though was a rare, and, as it turned out, wonderful exception. Even the most casual observer of the pop panoply  will know that, to paraphrase the immortal JP, “the boy Gedge has written some of the best songs of the Rock n Roll era”. He has also written some of the best tunes, and created some of the greatest guitar melodies. The latest Wedding Present double album, Going, Going …, is, I admit, maybe not their finest work, but it is still, like the albums The Fall and Wire churn out, light years ahead of anything the youth can create. I pray Gedge has finished yet.

It does begin in a strange vein with four post-rock instrumental tracks, Kittery, Greenland, Marblehead and Sprague, with slower tempi and expansive dynamics. A small choir and a classical ensemble (strings and a trumpet) are used to grand effect. Given that this concert was a run through of the album, said choir and players were up there on stage with the band. The contrast between Dave Gedge’s and Marcus Kain’s driving guitar rhythms, Charlie Layton’s thumping drums and Danielle Wadey’s swirling bass, and the wordless choir and soaring strings, maybe works a bit better on the recording than live but it is still a worthwhile departure. The good news is that from Two Bridges onwards, we get back firmly into classic WP territory, with professional Yorkshireman Gedge muttering the usual maudlin, but somehow still intensely moving, poems on failed relationships and unrequited love over the pumping (less jangling) rhythms we know and love.

Smashing stuff. A few pretentious black and white landscape films to add to the mix, some proper cranking up to 11 of the guitars in parts, and even a couple of encores, Perfect Blue from Take Fountain, and, as the reward for the patient enthusiast, the classic fugal Bewitched from Bizarro. What a racket at the end. Now I have to say of all the varied material from Going, Going …, which looks back to a lot of Gedge’s previous songs, my favourite is Rachel, which is a preposterously catchy, innocent pop masterpiece. I am also partial already to Little Silver, Birdsnest, Bells, Broken Bow and Santa Monica (the final track which culminates with some painful but exquisite chord progressions).

Best of all it was at the Cadogan Hall. One of my favourite venues (though my last visit was to hear some Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and a capella Poem settings – pick the bones out of that contrast). Nice little perch in the balcony. Loud enough but not deafening. Lots of room around me. And what seemed like a nice crowd with just enough distinctive quirkiness and maturity.

Now there was a time kids, in 1990 I think, when the Wedding Present churned out Top 40 hits at breakneck speed. I appreciate that is likely pre-history to you, but if you were to listen to Grandad’s ravings, (me not Gedge though the vintage is comparable), here are 10 you might start with. (Hopefully they are on that Spotify).

  • Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft from George Best
  • What Did You Last Servant Die Of from George Best
  • Shatner from George Best
  • Brassneck from Bizarro
  • Kennedy from Bizarro
  • Take Me from Bizarro
  • Corduroy from Seamonsters
  • Octopussy from Seamonsters
  • Don’t Take Me Home Until I’m Drunk from El Rey
  • You’re Dead from Valentina

 

 

 

Victory Condition at the Royal Court Theatre review **

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Victory Condition

Royal Court Theatre, 12th October 2017

Apparently the writer of Victory Condition, Chris Thorpe, likes to experiment with the dramatic form. I haven’t seen Confirmation, a one man work in which he also took the lead as a white supremacist, which apparently prodded and provoked its audience. It sounds uncomfortable but fascinating. In other works he has stamped on a mobile phone and set Tory party press statements to death metal tracks. Sounds like a top bloke.

However, I wasn’t entirely enamoured with this Victory Condition. A couple, simply titled Man and Woman, return from a holiday in Greece, to their tasteful, if somewhat bijou, metropolitan flat, (an ingenious design from Chloe Lamford which doubles up for B also showing at the RC – B at the Royal Court Theatre review ***). They unpack, they get changed, have a drink, make a snack, play videogames, get a pizza and generally potter about in choreographed cozy domesticity. They don’t speak to each other. Instead they narrate, through two cut-up independent monologues, an entirely different reality.

Man, played by Jonjo O’Neill, with his lilting Northern Irish voice, tells the story of a government sniper, who falls in love with a person he sees from his position, imagines that person (we don’t know their gender) having a dream about an alien invasion, and eventually shoots the person in order to turn them into a martyr, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, equally eloquent as Woman, recounts a narrative about a person who has a brain haemorrhage on the Tube on their way to work. This person seems to be imagining a meeting at work where time stands still. Then then she opens up to all manner of other, seemingly unconnected events around the world, and maybe a trauma from their own childhood which has caused the clock to stop. Her monologue, memorably, imagines just how mundane our own behaviour would be in the event of increasingly catastrophic events that imperil human existence.

Now this summary is based on reading the text. As you can see I am not sure I fully grasped exactly what the two characters were describing. I also note that the dialogue at the end of the play where Man and Woman discuss their own lives back in an ostensibly “real” world was omitted from this production directed by the RC’s own Vicky Featherstone. There was instead just a few seconds at the end, following a flash, where the couple acknowledged each other. Some of the stage directions which describe a cityscape beyond the flat’s interior, which seems to be succumbing to some sort of disaster or attack, also appear to have been omitted. This means that the enigmatic texture of the play was amplified. Put this together with the cut-up nature of the monologues and the message here was difficult to discern.

Nothing wrong with theatrical elusiveness and formal experimentation. Here though it did make me wonder whether the insight justified the effort involved in following the two monologues. Some of the images which flowed from these monologues were undeniably striking, as was the contrast with this routine of “ordinary” life, but ultimately I just couldn’t engage with the two characters up there on the stage. I closed my eyes a few times. Not through boredom but just to see if this would actually work better as an entirely aural experience. It did.

B at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

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B

Royal Court Theatre, 12th October 2017

I wasn’t entirely sure what to see from the plays on offer in this latest season at the Royal Court. I don’t know enough about the writers and the teasers on the website are exactly that, teasers. Seeing too many is an extravagance, but waiting for reviews risks missing out on some outstanding theatre. Sounds like I’ve already ballsed up by missing The Fall if my friend the Captain is to be believed, and she usually is. And now, with this play B and Victory Condition, both of which had their moments, but were not altogether convincing, I am beginning to doubt my picks. Still first world problems. eh.

B was written by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon and commissioned by the RC. Chile has a history of impassioned political protest, which has spilled over into violence, with several hundred bombings since the constitutional changes in 2005. “Noise” bombs, intended to cause damage to property and highlight apparent injustice, are prevalent. This play, which concerns a plot to plant just such a bomb, therefore lost a little bit in translation here in the genteel surroundings of Sloane Square.

It is set in a room in a flat where Marcela (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and Alejandra (Danusia Samal) are being comforted by neighbour Carmen (Sarah Niles). Marcela’s boyfriend has apparently been killed by a terrorist bomb. This turns out to be a ruse as Marcela and Alejandra are hatching their own bomb plot. Jose Miguel (played by the ever watchable Paul Kaye) turns up with the bomb. Cue a nervous run through of the plan which is played, successfully, for comic effect. As the night wears on though the motives behind the plot are exposed with Jose Miguel advocating a more violent approach to protest than the two women. The tone shifts, the black comedy evaporates, and we build to three impassioned monologues from each participant questioning why and what and why they are doing. Carmen the neighbour returns and is not quite what she seemed. There is a dramatic finale.

Sounds good on paper right? I agree. It also reads pretty well in the text. The problem is that the tone oscillates and the tension, which should build to breaking point given the material, just never seems to ratchet up. I suspect this is not the fault of the production under the direction of Sam Pritchard and designer Chloe Lamford, but lies in Mr Calderon’s claustrophobic and phlegmatic plot. I am not sure that enough really happens, or that we find out enough about the three conspirators, early enough in the play. Which leaves the three, admittedly fervent, monologues near the end shouldering much of the interesting and unsettling debate between the unfocussed, politically naive but heartfelt protest of today’s youth, with the more organised, direct and ideologically informed revolutionaries of previous generations.

I went with the SO. She can write the sort of sharp, sarcastic, Pinteresque (sorry its the only word for it) dialogue that this started off with in her sleep. She wasn’t best impressed. Mind you if she had stayed for Victory Condition I reckon I would have been in real trouble. Such is the danger of picking theatre in advance. Ho hum,

 

Blade Runner 2049 film review *****

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Blade Runner 2049, 12th October 2017

Confession time. I think the original Blade Runner film is OK. Even in all the re-cut versions. Not brilliant, not a great leap forward in the cinematic science fiction genre, not a searing insight into the human condition. Just OK. Worth seeing but just didn’t have much to say. Whisper i,t but a bit like Philip K Dick’s stories; once the central conceit is out it is all a bit predictable.

I also think Harrison Ford, even in American Graffiti and The Conversation (which are brilliant films), right at the beginning of his career, always looks like a small part of him would rather be somewhere else. With this in mind I am always a little chary of any film where he is involved.

However I have to say I was bowled over by Blade Runner 2049 and am even prepared to forgive Mr Ford’s passable impression of a septuagenarian Putin as he puffs his chest out and roars gruffly at the film’s climax. (To be fair his grizzly Deckard was actually pretty good). Of course the film looks superb courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins. You will purr inwardly with pleasure at some of the visuals and all the imagined technology. There is surely enough burnt orange sky, acid rain and neon signage to keep afficionados of the original film very happy. I also think I might prefer Vegas in this, rather than its current, look. The score is imposing, an electronic howl which imitates the original Vangelis pulse but wisely nicks a lot from the late C20 masters like Xenakis and Ligeti.

Of course there are also some superb performance: even I, who is very suspicious of all Hollywood actor types until they prove it on stage, have to admit Ryan Gosling is the real deal (even after his inauspicious beginnings, I mean Disney, not Canada). Mr Gosling here is a master of restrained emotion – notably in the scenes with holographic partner Joi (Ana de Armas) – exactly what his character demands. Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, Mackenzie Davies as Mariette and Carla Juri as Dr Ana Stelline, also stood out for me.

And of course the film plays with some big, bold and important ideas, about what it is to be human. Yet it is the way that director Denis Villeneuve, and co-writer Hampton Fancher, allow these ideas to breathe that is most impressive about the whole enterprise. Avoiding too much CGI crash, bang, wallop (though there is plenty of this at the end), and stretching the film out to 160 minutes, all helped but this was no guarantee of metaphysical success though.

The pace is undeniably languid in places, (which I gather is a problem for some), but this means there are plenty of scenes and lines which explore the border between humanity and artificial intelligence, in, er, a very human and intelligent way, if you see what I mean. As it happens, I reckon the meaning of consciousness will increasingly become a feature of everyday discourse. Which will be fun. When neuroscience shows us that we have no free will. Or that there is no such thing as the “mind” or the “soul”. Have a read of that Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari to get into the swing of things.

It also helps that there is a decent plot here, albeit as old as the hills with its variation on an “orphan” setting out to uncover his true past. Moreover the nods to Franz Kafka’s novels, with their themes of alienation and helplessness, are inspired and give the film some backbone. In contrast to his namesake Ryan Gosling’s Joe K has agency however, even as he threatens the Wallace Corporation, the inheritor of the Tyrell Corporation’s legacy, headed by the eponymous Niander, played with gnomic gusto by, who else, Jared Leto. We learn very early on that K is not quite what he seems, but how he came to be turns out to be a satisfying detective puzzle. It is only at the end (after a fine homage to Kubrick’s The Shining) that the film lapses into the obvious.

So a marvellous film which is way better than the original. If you want explosions stick with Star Wars. If you are prepared to put a bit more in, (and to cross your legs), then this is infinitely more rewarding. I suspect the whole thing is littered with references which may not have been revealed on first viewing. Thus making it even more appealing to the pretentious, intellectual w*anker like me. Neat.

 

 

 

The Real Thing at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****

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The Real Thing

Rose Theatre Kingston, 10th October 2017

Thinking cap donned it’s a short hop to the Rose for the next leg in my Stoppard education. And what a fine lesson this production, (shared with the Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre), tuned out to be. Once director Stephen Unwin, (a great friend of the Rose from his tenure up to 2014), and his fine cast got into the swing of things the dexterity of Mr Stoppard’s fabrication was revealed in all its glory.

Fabrication of course being the key word since there is an awful lot of artifice on show here. First performed in 1982 this is a play about life imitating art through the fabric of love, marriage and infidelity. It was instructive to see this production the day after the new Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith as Chekhov deals with similar themes and is TS’s inspiration. Given TS’s mighty brain I suspect the parallels are not co-incidental. That’s the thing with Stoppard. The more you think about it the more there is to think about. I sometimes wish I had a magical pause button when watching TS plays so I can just stop and soak in all the rich layers.

The action kicks off in the tastefully furnished home of architect Max and Charlotte (a perfect pitched set from designer Jonathan Fensom). Charlotte has just returned from a business jaunt. Max accuses her of adultery. Charlotte flounces out. We see Charlotte again but now she is married to playwright Henry. Turns out the previous scene was the play within a play from the pen of Henry. Called House of Cards. Doh. The real Charlotte is not best pleased with the lines given to the character Charlotte. Then the real Max (yep, you got it, he is called Max) turns up with actor wife Annie. Henry needles Annie about her involvement with cause celebre Brodie, a soldier imprisoned for protesting. Turns out though that this an act as we discover Henry and Annie are having an affair. The affair is subsequently revealed, Annie leaves Max for Henry. Henry tries to capture his feelings for Annie in a script. Act 2 and we move on a couple of years. Annie wants Henry to ghost write Brodie’s play. Henry thinks this work is awful. Annie gets cast in Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Henry visits Charlotte and daughter Debbie, who has some pointed views on monogamy. Annie has an affair with young actor Billy though this may again be a rehearsal. Henry’s jealousy spills over. Brodie pitches up and it turns out he is a dickhead but mimics Henry’s own arrogance. He leaves and we end with news of Max’s new marriage.

The play has a hefty dose of autobiography and it is not difficult to see TS himself in the character of Henry, notably in the monologue about the exactness of prose, which is a classic, and in the questioning of the politics of the left. Henry is a massive intellectual snob and a dreadful pedant. The dissection of the business of acting, and the playful structure of the drama with its echoes and returns, is so elegant it takes your breathe away. But what I found most fascinating here was the exploration of doubt in the context of love and fidelity. Nothing new about that but the way TS keeps probing Henry’s own vulnerabilities is what makes this play special and is what makes it a much more “direct” watch than some of TS’s other smartarse plays. Within this elegant fabrication of words and plot there is are real people bursting with contradictions. You might not like him, and you may find his cerebral (mandatory word in all TS reviews) elitism suffocating, but you can definitely see where Henry is coming from.

Aim high. Don’t mix up the person with his or her art. Don’t abandon the romantic ideal. Beware of politics in art. Think about how people “see” you and how people “see” themselves. These are just a few of the things I got to musing on during and after the performance. I just don’t know how TS manages to pack this much in yet still provide an entertaining, and of course, very funny story.

As you might have surmised this is only going to work if the actor playing Henry is up to the task. Laurence Fox indubitably was. It seems to me there needs to be the right length of pause before Henry delivers his inevitable “last word” in each conversation as his brain runs through the possibilities. Mr Fox seemed to get this and expressed Henry’s faint incomprehension of those around him. Adam Jackson-Smith’s Max was suitably colourless. Rebecca Johnson as Charlotte and, especially, Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Annie were both impressive in the way they captured the women’s brisk efficiency of life and love in the face of Henry’s self-absorption. Santino Smith as Brodie and Kit Young as Billy were spot on with the few lines they had and I will look out for Venice van Someren, who played daughter Debbie, in future productions.

My guess is that even with all of the art that TS serves up to a director it is still possible to make a pig’s ear of this play. Thankfully Stephen Unwin and his colleagues manufactured a silk purse. Another great evening in the company of Mr Stoppard.