Murder on the Orient Express film review ****

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Murder on the Orient Express, 27th November 2017

Stage or film, acting, managing, directing or producing, Sir Kenneth Branagh always makes sure he is right at the centre of things. Always has done. I bet he even pops out to Starbucks when it is his turn to get the lattes in. He probably even organises the on-set Secret Santa. And why not. He is bloody good at what he does and he can get things done. I confess not everything he does is entertainment gold but you can’t argue with his record. In his last eponymous season at the Garrick, (move over Davey boy), in 2015 his Leontes was immense and his physical comedy in The Painkiller belied his 55 years. And you can take your pick of his proselytising Shakespeare leads, stage or screen, (we could do with a real life version his Henry V right now I reckon). The man loves Shakespeare so as far as I am concerned he can do no wrong. The thing is that Sir Ken is an almighty show-off, which, let’s face it, is no bad thing for an actor to be.

So why shouldn’t he have some fun with Agatha C’s arguably most ingenious whodunnit. Yes it has been done to death (tee, hee), and we all know how it ends, but who cares when it is this much fun. With a couple of exceptions, (Johnny Depp, quelle surprise, as pantomime villain, and, to a lesser extent, Michelle Pfeiffer, as a cougarish, femme fatale), the stellar cast he has assembled doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to start chewing the scenery, but it is good to have them along for the ride. And Branagh himself is so mannered as Poirot, complete with risible accent, ludicrous moustache, immaculate suit and, especially at the end, bouts of preposterous philosophising, that it makes up for the under-utilisation elsewhere. Penelope Cruz gets to do buttoned up, doom laden Catholic, (Spanish obviously not the character’s original Swedish though that might have been a fun accent), William Dafoe, a BOGOF routine, with a sinister, racist Austrian before reverting to type, Judi Dench a haughty, mittel-European grunt, Derek Jacobi an Ealing-style, gor-blimey butler and Daisy Ridley an incredulous toff. The talents of, in particular, Manuel Garcia-Rolfo and Olivia Colman get less of an airing, which is a shame, but blame AC for serving up her Last Supper of suspects (a motif that is mined by KB).

Sir Ken takes a similarly selfish approach to his directorial duties coming over all Orson Welles and Wes Anderson, with his mix of angles and shots, and his exquisite set and costume staging for the “action”. He shoves in a prologue in Cairo which I adored. to show just how clever Poirot is, like a vintage OCD Belgian Bond. The camera drones get a good workout and if you like trains, which I do, you are in for a treat. It might distract a bit from the “suspense” but when you know the outcome so what? It is shot on handsome 65mm which adds to the old skool feel. 

It seems once again that Sir Ken’s confidence, which rubs off on everyone around him, has paid off. Despite the muted critical response the box office receipts are rolling in to add to the unsubtle product placement. So we will be getting a Death on the Nile, and I predict, some time ahead of Christmas 2021, an And Then There Were None. Agents of the thespian great and good, get on the phone to Sir Ken now.

Mosquitoes at the National Theatre review ****

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Mosquitoes

National Theatre, 18th September 2017

Two sisters. Some sad stuff happens to them. Sciencey backdrop.

There you go. That’s Mosquitoes. Except that is isn’t. Lucy Kirkwood is not the type of playwright to let us off the hook that easily. She chucks a lot into this pot, brings it to the boil and what a tasty stew comes out after two and a half hours or so. It may be a bit rich but, ultimately, is easily digestible.

Mind you without the two Olivias, Colman and Williams, I doubt this would be half as good. You know the thing where you see a play, and the leads are so utterly convincing that you swear no one else could carry it off. Until you see someone else playing the part as well or better and you realise that the actors were just bloody good at their jobs. Well in this case I really doubt the performances could be bettered. They were the two sisters, Alice and Jenny, made more potent because they look like they could be sisters. (I know this leaves me caught in a simplistic, mimetic trap but in this case really helps that they looked the parts).

For at the heart of this play is the relationship between them. Whilst Ms Kirkwood is becoming ever more ambitious in her plays, and the themes that they engage with, what I love about her writing is the portrayal of the relationships. From the moment Alice feels Jenny’s pregnant bump to the last moment, having come full circle, to substantially the same scene, the sisters dilemmas felt vital and real. Indeed the metaphor of the circle is writ large in the play with the set comprising two giant circles, in part to represent Alice’s work as a scientist at CERN (the home of the Large Hadron Collider). The mosquitoes of the title also get a couple of metaphorical look-ins.

Along the way Ms Kirkwood asks some big questions. How should scientists, for whom science is defined by uncertainty, engage with us lay-people, who fervently need science to deliver certainty? What is the value of physics to society and where are we in reconciling the quantum mechanics of the very small with the forces that govern the universe and the physics of the very large? Where does “God” fit in? What will happen at the end of time? What is the nature of intelligence and how does this relate to emotion? What drives the “success” and “failure” of siblings within a family? Why has women’s contribution to science been so undervalued? How to balance work and family? Yet this all sits comfortably inside the boundaries of the drama – even when we go off the naturalistic piste.

I gather Olivia Colman is a bit ambivalent about the stage. She shouldn’t be. We see from her TV performances that she possesses an uncanny ability to create an intense emotional connection with us the audience, even when playing the most “ordinary” of characters. And she repeats the trick here. Jenny isn’t as bright as sister Alice, as Alice and mother Karen, pointedly, patronisingly and repeatedly remind her. And Jenny makes mistakes. Foregoing the MMR vaccine having swallowed the autism connection bullshit from the media, and in spite of Jenny’s protestations, has fatal consequences for her child. She is estranged from her husband. She sells dodgy insurance from a call centre. But when Alice’s life unravels, as her awkward son Luke is bullied and then absconds after engaging in some over-enthusiastic hacking, it is Jenny that Alice turns to. And it is Jenny that is dealing with Mum’s incipient dementia.

Olivia Colman plays Jenny with an earthy, matter-of-factness. There are a lot of laughs from her lines. She says what she feels and takes risks that Alice cannot or will not. The “emotional intelligence” yin to the “academic intelligence” yang of Olivia Williams’s Alice. Olivia WIlliams perfectly captures Alice’s emotional uncertainty. Luke’s father has left and her devotion to work leaves her son even more alone. The absent father pops up as The Boson, who is also our narrator for the big science lessons, a satisfying conceit. Paul Hilton, last seen by us as Peter Pan here at the National, grabs this role with both hands. I was also mightily impressed with Joseph Quinn as Luke, in a role with some similarities to the last time I saw him in Katherine Sopher’s devastating Wish List at the Royal Court. Amanda Boxer’s Karen is also beautifully realised: you can see echoes of her personality in her two daughters. Sofia Barclay, as Luke’s treacherous friend, and Yoli Fuller, as Alice’s beau, turn in skilful performances in vital roles.

Rufus Norris’s direction is as astute as ever. There is a lot packed in her, and even with the excellent performances and stunning set (courtesy of Katrina Lindsay), sound, lighting, music and video, this still required an expert hand at the tiller. If the director’s job is getting people on and off the stage to paraphrase Peter Brook, then Mr Norris can feel well satisfied, for on and off was perfectly executed.

So all in all a hit. I don’t know if it will pop up elsewhere but this is another production that gives the lie to the “NT has gone wobbly” nonsense meme. And, having covered the secrets of the universe and the mysteries of particle physics here, I have no idea where Lucy Kirkwood’s unbounded imagination will leap to next.