Archive for April, 2010

The Real Thing

Posted in Theatre on April 28, 2010 by alexlarman

An old university friend of mine and I both studied Stoppard for our extended essays while we were students – leading to a treasurable encounter with the great man in the National Theatre’s bookshop – and we were talking the other night about our favourite plays by him. Our top 3 were identical – The Invention Of Love, Arcadia and The Real Thing – albeit in a different order, and it isn’t hard to see the connections between these great works. All deal with the complex, destructive vagaries of the human heart, not as a battleground between the sexes as in Marber or Albee, but instead in an intellectually and emotionally rewarding way, where the elaborate artifice of the witty, clever language and characterisation can collapse as abruptly as the house of cards in the play within a play at the beginning of The Real Thing.

The Old Vic’s new production is the first major revival since Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle played the playwright Henry and his actress wife Annie at the Donmar in 1999. Rather than Ehle, we have Hattie Morahan and Toby Stephens replaces Dillane. The play has sensibly not been updated from its 1982 original setting (though apparently a discussion about VCRs has been deleted), and the central themes of how a brilliant, witty and charming man can still find himself having to grow up from his literary Peter Pan existence and confront the realities of life and love still resonate as truly as they did in earlier productions.

Annie Mackmin’s fluent, lively and often hilarious staging does an exemplary job of bringing out the elements which many other productions might ignore, such as the meta-theatricality of the whole conceit – the play begins in media res with a hugely mannered extract from Henry’s latest, House Of Cards, and continues with extracts from ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, which Annie is appearing in, and even rehearsals of the dire agitprop play by a left-wing former soldier, Brodie, that she champions and that Henry is dragged into rewriting. There’s also a beautiful counterpointing to the laughs in the sense that virtually all of the characters – including Henry’s first wife Charlotte, splendidly played by Fenella Woolgar, and his daughter – find themselves abandoned and alone at some point. It’s a fascinating conceptual reading of the play, which, without making it sound unduly ‘difficult’, closely unifies it with Stoppard’s lifelong interest in language, gamesplaying and dramatic inversion.

However, what keeps this in the realm of ‘very good’ for me rather than takes it to classic levels is what I think is the miscasting of the two central roles. Stephens is an actor with charismatic brio, great stage presence and verve, but ever since a rather too over-hearty RSC Hamlet of his I saw, I’ve never been able to take him that seriously as a great intellectual. Of course, the whole point is that Henry’s cleverness and wit crumble at the first signs of real difficulty, but he’s a bit too confident and a bit too alpha-male to make this entirely convincing.

Hattie Morahan is Annie is entirely different; she’s a great actress, but more instinctively attuned to the high drama of Chekhov or Shakespeare than this. Her performance isn’t bad at all, but it’s over-dramatic and studied, which of course can exist in quotation marks, but here it’s just a perplexingly OTT reading of Annie as An Actress whose every moment is entirely studied. Were this Coward, it might work, but here it seems incongruous.

Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly compelling and intellectually satisfying reading of the play that foregrounds both the wit and the poignancy, with a more bittersweet account of the ending than I’d ever imagined from the text, or from other productions. The Monkees’ ‘I’m A Believer’ might be on the soundtrack, but when Henry and Annie are believing is open for debate.

Posh

Posted in Theatre on April 22, 2010 by alexlarman

Up and coming playwright Laura Wade’s latest work, Posh, caused a stir (and a run at the box office) before its first performance due to advance word that it would be a comprehensive demolition job on the ‘new’ Conservative Party, particularly their ever-controversial involvement with Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club. This is pretty accurate, although it was amusing to see that the Royal Court attracted more than its fair share of rugby shirt-wearing, ‘hooray!’-ing hearties on the evening that I saw it. Perhaps it will come to be regarded as a kind of rallying call for the breed, rather than a cutting and caustic satire.

Set mainly in a rural gastropub in Oxfordshire (although topped and tailed with scenes at a London club and Simon Shepherd’s suave Tory grandee Jeremy), the action revolves around a group of ten young men who make up the Bullingdon-esque Riot Club. Their dinners revolve around copious quantities of food and booze, followed by a ritual trashing, and then decamping to a club to get royally ‘chateau’d’. Unfortunately, this time round, there is more at stake. Members of the club (including Harry Haden-Paton’s smooth aristo Harry, David Dawson’s suave gay intellectual and Leo Bill’s aggressively nasty class warrior) are not only fighting amongst themselves as to who will take over the presidency with the departure of the incumbent (Tom Mison), but are starting to feel threatened by the way in which there doesn’t seem to be any place for them in modern society, in a world where the family seats have been given to the National Trust and people like, y’know, the poor and left-wing, actually can’t just be bullied or bribed into submission. Tensions will build, involving the gastropub’s owner Chris (Daniel Ryan) and his daughter Rachel (Fiona Button), and nobody will leave innocent.

How you respond to Wade’s invective will depend on many things, including your own background, political inclinations and class. I can imagine that the left-wing chattering classes will have a field day with this, as it more or less confirms every cliche or stereotype of the posh as violent, bigoted and hugely misogynistic. Likewise, I can’t see that the rugby shirt-wearing brigade are going to leave happy. But although her protagonists are hardly sympathetic, I think that Wade has absolutely nailed the demotic of the upper-class argot, and allows the characters to be witty and intelligent as well as thuggish and repulsive. Especially in the (somewhat overlong) first half, there are many properly good laughs, both with and at the characters. I’d also recommend everyone reads Andrew Haydon’s excellent blog on the play, which is a superb perspective on the unlikely appeal of the young posh.

The performances are all excellent, with the young male ensemble the best I’ve seen since the National’s 2004 production of The History Boys. Bill, Hadden-Paton (so good in The Rivals at Southwark earlier in the year) and Dawson (superb in the Lyric’s Comedians) are the stand-outs, on stage for nearly all the play and interacting with zeal and brio, but everyone is good, with Ryan, as the put-upon pub landlord, grounding the antics in recognisable humanity.

Lyndsey Turner’s staging features touches both brilliantly inspired (watch the Wright of Derby-esque picture in the first and last scenes) and more baffling – the barbershop quartet renditions of R ‘n’B hits over scene changes, for instance. But it’s a clear and fluid production, and mostly gripping throughout.  It’s probably 20 minutes too long, but this is still another Royal Court triumph, and, in the midst of the most socially divisive election for 50 years, all too timely.

And, thankfully, the protagonists are rather more interesting than this unfortunate:

Bang Goes The Knighthood

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on April 19, 2010 by alexlarman

I haven’t the faintest idea whether anyone who reads this remembers, but when the Duckworth Lewis Method album with Neil Hannon and Thomas Walsh was released last year, I wrote a long and rather involved blog in which I bemoaned the fact that Hannon – for me, one of the finest singer-songwriters of the past 20 years – had given up on what could have been a career to rank alongside the greats in favour of guest appearances on other bands’ songs and jokey side-projects. I ended up asking whether he could produce a Divine Comedy album that had the beauty, grandeur and brilliance that his undeniable talent could justify. Four years after the release of the underwhelming Victory For The Comic Muse, we have the answer.

The album begins very strongly with the subtle, beautiful and cleverly orchestrated ‘Down In The Street Below’. As Hannon relaxes with his inamorata, who he has smug conversations about inferior literary adaptations with as he ‘kisses your sleepy eyes awake’, there is the sense that his refrain that ‘it’s always a pleasure, and never a chore’ is only skin-deep. The ‘Plastic Palace People’-esque carnival chorus of ‘the street below’ makes it quite clear that there’s more – much more – going on. It takes a few listens, but this is one of the highlights of Hannon’s latter-day career.

The second song, ‘The Complete Banker’ is more problematic. On its own terms, it’s a rousing comic singalong as the titular protagonist gloats at the prospect that he, ‘a malignant cancer’ might be able to ‘build an even bigger bubble the next time’, even as he drives his vintage Bentley with ‘sweet Samantha’. Yet this is pretty much all it is – an amusing comic song which uses every rhyme for ‘banker’ except the most obvious, with a topical edge and some good wordplay. It’ll be fun live, but it’s hardly a profound reflection on the financial crisis.

The album is, it must be said, variable. There are some dull MOR songs such as ‘Island Life’ and ‘Have You Ever Been In Love’ which sound like theme tunes for bad British films of the 60s, and are squarely in the forgettable end of Hannon’s oeuvre. The lead single, ‘At The Indie Disco’, suffers from sounding like nothing you would ever hear at such an establishment. It has a wonderful moment when the strings soar and he compares his heartbeat to ‘the start of Blue Monday’, but by and large it’s a bit pedestrian.

The funny, Beatles-meets-ELO piano-based singalongs fare better – ‘Assume The Perpendicular’, a satire on middle class visitors to National Trust properties, is infectiously jolly and ‘The Lost Art Of Conversation’ has a great chorus and some hilariously inspired namechecks of the likes of David Jason, Joan Miro and The English Patient. Hannon goes a step too far with the silly ‘Can You Stand Upon One Leg’, which should have been left as a B-side but the closing ‘I Like’ is a nice paean to new love with the treasurable couplet ‘I like your mild political stances/I like your wild spontaneous dances’.

Every Divine Comedy album has at least one show-stopping epic ballad on it, and the one here’s called ‘When A Man Cries’, which does all the things you’d expect from a song with a title like that, and does them very well. It isn’t as grandiose or developed as something like ‘Our Mutual Friend’ or ‘Someone’, but it’s definitely a highlight.

If I sound agnostic about Bang Goes The Knighthood – and the title track has a wonderful moment of unexpected empathy with its Max Mosley-esque protagonist – it’s because it’s good but not great.  I accept that it’s been done on a far tighter budget than his earlier works (it’s his own record label, Divine Comedy Records, releasing it) and that the modest success of the Duckworth Lewis Method encouraged him to work in a similar vein again. But while I’m glad that Hannon is in a happy and settled place in his life as he approaches 40, I wonder what happened to the brilliant young man who wrote some of the best albums I’ve ever heard, and what he’d think of his older self.

Cemetery Junction & I Am Love

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2010 by alexlarman

‘Who wants to be alive when you’re twenty five?’

Ricky Gervais’ first two major forays into film, in the unexpectedly good Ghost Town and the unexpectedly bad The Invention Of Lying (the former which featured him as star and, one imagines, uncredited rewriter, and the latter of which saw him co-write and co-direct) were both commercially unsuccessful, perhaps indicating that the public are more comfortable with his stand-up and sitcoms than they are with his big-screen work. Tellingly, neither featured any creative input from his Office and Extras co-creator Stephen Merchant, so their first film together, Cemetery Junction, dealing with the pitfalls of growing up in 70s Reading – probably the most parochial subject imaginable for a British film. Thankfully, it’s excellent.

Dealing with the growing pains of three young men in their early 20s, the would-be insurance salesman Freddie (Christian Cooke), charismatic but troubled drifter Bruce (Tom Hughes) and loveable idiot Snork (Jack Doolan), the latter so-called because ‘he has a nose for muff’, the narrative revolves around Freddie’s determination to escape from the mind-crushing existence that his bigoted father (Gervais) and uninspired mother (Julia Davis) represent at home, and that slimy real insurance kingpin Mr Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes) and young pretender Mike (Matthew Goode) epitomise in the wide world of work. Freddie wants to escape and find himself, preferably taking the boss’ daughter Julie (Felicity Jones) with him. Bruce wants to shag and fight and insult his divorced, depressed father. And Snork…well he’s got a very fetching naked vampire tattoo.

A plot summary of this doesn’t make it sound like the most appealing prospect for a night at the cinema, and I fear that this will count against it, unless word of mouth is spectacularly good. But then did Extras or The Office sound like an especially enticing prospect? What’s so good about Cemetery Junction is the way in which Gervais and Merchant painstakingly paint a picture of a depressing world where everyone hasn’t so much settled for second best as never had any other options open to them. They’re helped by a brilliant performance in a small role by Emily Watson as Fiennes’ repressed, deeply unhappy wife, who works wonders with tiny, apparently inconsequential gestures that all give a cumulative sense of the kind of hellishly unfulfilled life that a woman like her could expect in such a grim environment.

Tipping its hat to Billy Liar throughout, most obviously at the climax, Gervais and Merchant steer the narrative to a series of reconciliations and happy endings, which feel deserved, if formulaic. Yet there’s an underlying poignancy to the laughs and farcical situations (it’s far funnier than some of the first reviews seemed to be hinting at, although calling it an out and out comedy is an exaggeration) that means that even the final uplift is tempered by the previous events. (For instance, what’s going to happen between Fiennes and Watson in the final scene?) A terrific soundtrack too, with Bowie’s version of ‘All The Young Dudes’ the standout choice.

Talking of soundtracks, Luca Guadagnino’s operatic I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton, is a film that gets a vast amount of its emotional power from its judicious use of John Adams’ music (from existing sources, rather than specially composed for the film), especially in its finale, where the third movement of Harmonielehre (Meister Eckhardt and Quackie) is used to stunning, thrilling effect. It’s a film that’s clearly a masterpiece of sorts in its use of colour, sound, editing and in Swinton’s beautifully calibrated performance as a repressed Russian in a wealthy Italian family who finds herself having an adulterous affair with her son’s chef friend. But the pacing is glacially slow and deliberate and the plot isn’t anything that hasn’t been seen before. Still, well worth a watch to see the work a director who is clearly fully in control of his medium.

London Assurance

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on April 7, 2010 by alexlarman

How often is it that you can go to the theatre and be physically giddy with laughter for two and a half hours? In my experience, it doesn’t happen very often, which makes Nicholas Hytner’s production of the little-known author Dion Boucicault’s 1841 play London Assurance a delightful surprise. With a top-quality cast including Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw and, delightfully, Richard Briers, this is the kind of Rolls Royce calibre production that the National Theatre at its best specialises in. What with The Habit Of Art, The White Guard and this, the South Bank is very much the place to be.

The enjoyably convoluted plot revolves around the prancing dandy Sir Harcourt Courtly (Russell Beale), a vain man who seeks to marry a young country heiress, Grace (Michelle Terry). His attention is first distracted by the unexpected appearance of his apparently saintly but actually dissolute son Charles (Paul Ready) in the country in disguise, and then by the appearance of the hunting-obsessed (and marvellously named) Lady Gay Spanker (Shaw) and her ga-ga husband Dolly (Briers). Sir Harcourt forms a near-obsessive attachment to Lady Spanker, and hilarity ensues.

Working with a subtly but highly appropriately modernized text (’script revisions’ are credited to the playwright Richard Bean), Hytner and his formidably talented cast get every single last laugh out of the material, and then several more. Russell Beale, who of late seems to have been specialising in more serious roles, returns to the fops and dandies that he began his career playing, and is uproariously funny as a cross between Uncle Monty and Toad of Toad Hall. He’s very nearly matched by Shaw as Lady Spanker, for whom every intrigue is hilarious, and where everything can be summed up with an apposite hunting metaphor. And then of course there’s the redoubtable Richard Briers, a man of whom it is memorably said that he is ‘a fully armed and rampant Spanker!’

This wonderful play is a hilarious and delightful evening, and highly recommended for everyone.

Kick-Ass

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on April 3, 2010 by alexlarman

‘With no power comes no responsibility’.

If, like me, you’re faintly bored of identikit superhero films in which any kind of edge or moral difficulty is subsumed to expensive CGI and rote action scenes, then you’re in for a treat with Matthew Vaughn’s hilarious Kick-Ass, which turns the entire genre on its head. It’s fair to say that this does for the comic-book action film what Scream did for the horror movie, namely pulling off the extremely delicate balance of playing the ludicrous material for near-hysterical laughs while also offering sophisticated thrills and visceral excitement. I expect that it will be a very, very big hit.

Based on Mark Millar’s comic book, the story revolves around an unexceptional high school student, Dave Lisewski (Aaron Johnson), who lives with his widowed father and harbours hopes that he will become a superhero, a feat he intends to accomplish by dressing in a customised wet suit and calling himself ‘Kick Ass’. This all goes somewhat awry, and he ends up hospitalised after an intervention goes wrong. However, as he becomes a YouTube phenomenon, he finds himself coming into the orbit of a genuine villain, crimelord Frank D’Amico (the ever-excellent Mark Strong) and two unusual crime fighters, Batman-esque ex-cop Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), both of whom have rather more ability at fighting baddies than he does.

Thus the scene is set for a clever film that not only offers scenes of laugh-out-loud violent absurdity (mainly involving the antics of the 10-year old Hit Girl, who, in Moretz’s game performance, redefines expectations of what a child actor should and shouldn’t do on screen) but also, rather gratifyingly, builds in momentum and intensity as it continues, ending with a pair of action setpieces that are up there with anything in The Matrix for excitement and spectacle. This isn’t to say that it takes itself too seriously – the excellent script (co-written by Vaughn and Mrs Jonathan Ross, Jane Goldman) contains endless witty one-liners and allows the likes of Clark Duke, as one of Kick Ass’ friends, to steal scenes of an altogether more domestic nature than the limb-lopping, Gatling gun-wielding spectacle of Big Daddy and Hit Girl in action.

There’s much more I can praise – the appearance of Christopher Mint-Plazze, aka McLovin; the clever score which pastiches music from its cinematic cousins; the excellent performances from a fine cast, with Cage (channelling Adam West) and Moretz the standouts; the subplot in which Kick Ass’ would-be girlfriend thinks he’s gay which leads to endless hilarity – but to say any more would be to spoil it. This will surely be one of 2010’s most enjoyable films.