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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review: 'Mother!' (2017) directed by Darren Aronofsky

Tuesday, September 19, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Mother! reviewed by David James

Rating: 5 Stars

It was somewhere in the middle of the third act that I realised that Mother! is not going to be financially successful. Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to weird film-making, the excellent Noah primarily baffling audiences and his criminally over-looked The Fountain vanishing without a trace. But Mother! might be one of the craziest films ever to get a major release.

Watching the trailer after seeing the full feature, you realise that Aronofsky has executed a cinematic sucker punch, reeling in the audience with the promise of a sleek psychological horror studded with A-listers and then hitting the gas and careening straight into crazytown. What audiences actually receive (and there's going to be heavy spoilers from here on out) is a movie that hates God and Christianity, arguing that it has warped humanity into something monstrous and that institutionalised religion has poisoned the world.

To achieve this, Aronofsky reworks the Bible into a creepy domestic drama. The world is reduced to an isolated house, occupied only by a frustrated poet God (Javier Bardem) and a female personification of Gaia, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence). Their relative peace is disturbed by the arrival of the first man (Ed Harris), who moves in uninvited and quickly makes himself at home.


Soon after we see him with a suspiciously rib-shaped wound in his side, his wife (Michelle Pfieffer) shows up: a similarly destructive presence who alienates and scares Gaia, culminating in the pair plucking the forbidden fruit, incurring God's wrath and being kicked out of Eden. 

Soon after, Cain and Abel arrive and commit the first murder, leaving behind an indelible stain of violence that gradually corrodes the whole world. We descend into a nightmare house party that's only ended with a cataclysmic flood that drives the uninvited guests from the house. It is not in the least bit subtle, but then subtlety is highly over-rated.

The film concludes with one of the most insane sequences I've seen in cinema. Mother gives birth to the infant Jesus, who is soon snatched from her grasp by God and delivered to a crazed mob, who pointlessly kill it and then devour the corpse in a demented cannibal nightmare. The West is culturally inoculated against how freakin' weird Christianity is, but this violently strips all the liturgical mystery away and (exactly as the Catholic Church does) takes the Bible at its literal flesh-munchin', blood drinkin', word. 

At this point, it's understandable at this point why audiences have rejected Mother! so violently. After all, your average moviegoer is probably not up for seeing a newborn baby being torn apart and eaten by psychos. But this imagery and these ideas comprise the core of our culture and Aronofsky makes a persuasive argument that the ecological destruction that threatens our very civilisation is a symptom of it.

As the film accelerates towards its apocalyptic conclusion, we finally understand the relationship between the patriarchal God and the feminine Mother as a theological separation of Creator from 'creature': institutionalised religion providing the philosophical framework upon which nature is brutally subjugated to man's will. 



Aronofsky is frantically yelling that humanity is on the precipice of catastrophe and chaos, trapped in a cycle of narcissism and consumption and poisoned by false dreams of spirituality and immortality. The only possible conclusion to all this comes in cleansing waves of fire: Mother Nature's reset button.

It's light years beyond its cinematic contemporaries (it's also objectively a technical marvel) and once the dumb-ass reactionary negativity dies down, is going to be recognised as a modern classic (at which point certain people will claim to have secretly liked it all along). Honestly, if you have the slightest interest in cinema as an art form you owe it to yourself to see this: films like this simply do not come along very often.

Right now the world feels like a chaotic, scary place with a real 'last days of Rome' vibe. Watching Mother! isn't going to get rid of those sleepless nights you've been having, but it will provide the context for them. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Review: 'Talk Radio' at the Old Red Lion, 31st August 2017

Friday, September 1, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments



Talk Radio reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

"When you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you." This is Barry Champlain's life in a nutshell. Fuelled by nicotine, cocaine and whiskey, he's a late night talk radio host who dishes out constant verbal pummellings to his listeners. First, they're ridiculed, then they're lectured, and finally a slap on a big red 'end call' button consigns them back to the anonymity from whence they came.

Champlain's callers either hate or worship him, running the gamut from Nazis that accuse him of being part of a global Zionist conspiracy funded by Israel to the batty old ladies who just want to talk about their pets. Gradually we understand his callers as a kind of hydra, each caller a different head on a Reagan-era gestalt, bristling with racism, sexism, paranoia, mental illness, perversion and masochism. 

Each night he wrestles this beast, his unbridled fury bolstering his listening figures as the public tunes in to hear what the hell the wild man of radio is going say next. They know him as a disembodied voice, we in the audience see him as something more feral - a wolf in a zoo pacing a soundproofed cage, his eyes gradually hollowing out as he slowly comprehends the barbarity and banality of the general public.

Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio is now 30 years old, and this revival is set to the background of a completely transformed media landscape. American Talk Radio is now the stomping ground of grumpy old conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, with the real pulse of society now throbbing away on Twitter where each person makes their own contribution to the global consciousness, 140 characters at a time. 

Viewing Champlain through a contemporary lens leads to some uncomfortable conclusions. Back in the 80s, the shock jock was kicking back against a sanitised mass media that embodied Nancy Reagan's good old fashioned American values. This world is now dead, sacrificed in the name of the self-worship and narcissism that has reached its zenith in President Donald J. Trump. It's now easy to see Champlain's shock jock as a harbinger of Trump himself. It's sad, but all-too-easy to imagine Champlain approaching his sixties with a red MAGA cap firmly jammed down upon his now thinning head.

Talk Radio almost entirely relies on the talents of whoever's playing Champlain and Matthew Jure more than delivers. He's scarily committed to the role, embodying the character as much with his furious ranting as when he's frustratedly searching for a cigarette in the studio. Frankly, it's nice to see an actor come at a role as hard as Jure does here, playing him without a trace of irony, parody or satire. When the most unconvincing part of the performance is a dodgy wig, you're doing something right.

Bolstering all this is one of the finest sets I've seen all year, courtesy of Max Dorey (whose work I've admired in many prior productions). It's an exhaustively detailed recreation of a period era radio set, everything from the analogue broadcasting equipment right through to the Reagan/Bush bumper stickers at the rear of the stage and the Cleveland Indians 'Chief Wahoo' sticker on the wall of the studio. Even if the play weren't much cop, audiences would probably get their money's worth poring over the exquisite care with which this place has been constructed.

Perhaps the only real downside is a lack of narrative propulsion. Bogosian teases us with promises of melodrama, before quickly snatching it away and poking fun at our naivety for believing in it. Even the overarching plot that tonight is Champlain's one shot at national syndication eventually sputters out and is largely forgotten. 

What we're left with are a man and a microphone, and when this man is as compellingly written and expertly performed, that's all you need.

Talk Radio is at the Old Red Lion until 23rd September. Tickets and details here.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: 'Reprehensible Men Part II' at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 16th August 2017

Thursday, August 17, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reprehensible Men Part II reviewed by David James

Rating: 2 Stars

Dan Horrigan's Reprehensible Men Part II consists of five short monologues performed by various actors. As you can probably guess from the title, all are men, and all the characters they perform all fall on the wrong side of the moral compass. 

With an empty stage populated by a solitary chair (a second eventually arriving), director Phil Setren clearly wants to avoid any distractions that might get in the way of the performances and script. This proves a double-edged sword as performances run the gamut from intense to hammy and the writing has a nasty habit of disappearing up its own arse. 

The worst offender is the opening piece. Christopher Preston is lumbered with an absolute dog of a monologue that opts for self-conscious verbosity to defining character or telling a story. It's a real teeth-gritter, bombarding the audience with literary flourishes and half-assed rhetoric that reminded me of Harrison Ford's famous comment to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars: "George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it!".

Fortunately, it's all uphill from there. Each performer recognises the opportunity to show off their particular skills. Jamie Pigott gives a rangy, wounded performance as a guilt-ridden lover, with his monologue containing a particularly nice observation about concealing the intensity of past loves from your current squeeze. He's followed by Gareth Radcliffe, who does an excellent job of directly interacting with audience members and subsequently cranking up the tension.

But the best of the bunch comes last. Christopher Sherwood is an excellent actor and benefits from having one of the more straightforward stories to tell. He's all lean muscle and frustration, pacing the stage like a caged animal. In a successful dramatic flourish, he invites a member of the audience up on stage to read a crucial part of the piece. This is a gamble, but it paid off last night.

Five back to back monologues over the space of just over an hour proves to be a difficult writing exercise. Over just 10-15 minutes you have to introduce the character, set up, tell and conclude the narrative and, well, be interesting

Reprehensible Men Part II just doesn't achieve that consistently - the choice to sacrifice clarity for style making it difficult to properly get to grips with the characters or their stories. On top of that, despite the characters coming from a wide range of social and educational backgrounds, they all drop ten-dollar words as if they've guzzled a Thesaurus, unnecessarily revealing the author's hand.

If the best of these were expanded, maybe something with a bit of nuance and room for a bit of literary experimentation could arise. As it stands this is a painfully cramped show, the brief time we spend with each character and the unfocused writing preventing any real engagement.

Reprehensible Men Part II is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 19 August. Tickets here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review: 'Dark Room' at the Etcetera Theatre, 14th August 2017

Tuesday, August 15, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Dark Room reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

In Jim Mannering's Dark Room, four social misfits get together to discuss their shared passion. They spend their time bickering over the quality of the coffee, chatting about their club subscriptions and swap thoughts on the random stranger they're going to kidnap, torture and brutally murder.

Wait.. what?

This darkly comedic one act play introduces us to characters who're as domestic as they are psychopathic. We begin with 'A' (Roger Parkins), a corpulent Mummy's boy with the unfortunate hobby of exposing himself in parks. An organised, bookish type, he realises that the perfect murder will need accomplices, and forms a partnership with the angry and veiny 'B' (Jim Mannering) and 'C' (Rebecca Finch), who has honed her feminity to razor sharpness. The play opens with the introduction of new member 'D' (Arthur Gall), who is pleased as punch to be selected to join this exclusive club.

The rest of the play follows them as they stalk their target, conduct 'simulations' of his torture and get to know one another. Each of the four is sharply written, with their own foibles, mannerisms and peculiarities that cause low-level frictions within the group. For example, 'A' is fussy and precise, enjoying the power of being the group's leader and maintaining decorum almost as much as the disembowelling. Together they make for a finely balanced ensemble, having enough in common to make it plausible they're together while being so different that humorous situations naturally well up around them.

It's an impressive piece of writing: focused, funny and always moving forward. These qualities are enhanced by four performances that never put a foot wrong. I adored every moment Roger Parkins was on stage - frequently reminding me of a homicidally included Mark from Peep Show. Mannering's 'B' also impresses, forever teetering on the edge of caricature but never quite crossing the line. Finch manages to show some real demented dangerousness going on behind her eyes, flashing them seductively like a snake sneaking up on an unsuspecting mouse. 

Great as all that is, I can offer Dark Room a rare compliment: I was disappointed when it finished. The vast majority of plays I see I generally think could lose 10-15 minutes of waffling or unnecessary subplots and still be great, but this ends at such a high point that I found myself craving more, wanting to see the grisly conclusion to the tale.

I was thinking about this on the way home and realised that there's a neat moral equivalency going on between characters and audience by the play ending this way. They, like us, are hungry for blood n' guts - hungrily anticipating watching someone jerk and gurgle on a meat hook. It both implicates wider appetites for violence and humanises the play's serial killer characters, and makes for a neat writing trick.

As you can probably tell I deeply dug Dark Room. It's nice to see a play that's confident enough to simply tell a well-written story. It's so engaging I think these characters and situation could stand being expanded to a much longer piece.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Edinburgh Fringe: 'A Girl and a Gun' at Summerhall, 9th August 2017

Thursday, August 10, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

A Girl and a Gun reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

A Girl and a Gun takes its name from the famous Godard quote: "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun". It remains an accurate summation of much of a mainstream movie industry that's stuck telling the same two or three stories in slightly different permutations. Images of men with gritted teeth and distressed vests, a big gun in one hand and a simpering babe in the other, are so common that it's easy to take them for granted.

Louise Orwin is battling against that with this show, which deconstructs the language, visuals and themes of action cinema. It's as if a big box of DVDs has been poured into a cauldron and boiled down until only their whitened bones of the form are left: a collection of disconnected plot beats, snatches of macho dialogue and a big box of prop guns.

Orwin has used this detritus as the DNA of A Girl and a Gun, which has a fascinating gimmick. Each show stars Orwin and a different male performer who has absolutely no idea what the show will consist of. He simply has to follow directions on a video monitor that tells him what to say, how to behave and what to wear. It puts a juicy power imbalance dead centre, while Orwin's constructed narrative is all about steel-jawed gunslingers treating a submissive woman badly, what we actually see is a nervous man struggling to keep up with the script contrasted with a confident performer who knows exactly what's going to happen.

It leads to some funny moments: the male performer trying desperately to put on some cowboy chaps, or attempting to stylishly twirl his gun and accidentally snapping a piece off it. It also leads to some fantastic tension, both when the guy is told to verbally abuse and demean Orwin, and when he's ordered to slap her and spit in her face. The show excels in making these moments skin-crawlingly awkward, but with the twist that it's the man press-ganged into the role and the woman in charge.

The show also has an excellent grasp on the aesthetic of cinema. Filmed through two cameras, we always have something to mentally cut away to, or just to deliver a smouldering close up. The soundtrack is also on point, crammed fulla "familiar songs" very much in the mould of a Tarantino film. 

But while A Girl and a Gun is a successful, clear and forceful intellectual experiment, it's not amazing theatre. By dint of its construction it's very stop start, with a decent chunk of the run time spent watching the actors sit around silently waiting for their orders to appear. There are moments where the enforced artificiality creates a weird, almost Lynchian, disconnect between performers and audience, but occasionally it just strays into the realms of 'a bit boring'.

This wasn't exactly helped, in the show I saw, by a technical glitch that meant that the actor's commands began looping, and the performance appeared to start again. I initially thought it was some experimental alienation-y Brechty kinda deal, but actually, it seemed to be a screw up that necessitated pausing and restarting the show.

I enjoyed A Girl and a Gun, but with some reservations. I can't reasonably dislike any show that paraphrases Alien's "Look at all my shit!" monologue from Spring Breakers (a film which, incidentally, deconstructs a lot of the same stuff this show does), but the intentional artificiality gets a bit tiring. If you're going, just bear in mind that Orwin's priorities lie with making a point much more than entertaining an audience.

A Girl and a Gun is at Summerhall, Edinburgh Aug 10-13, 15-20, 22-27. Tickets here.

Edinburgh Fringe: 'Dust' at Underbelly Cowgate, 9th August 2017

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Dust reviewed by David James

Rating: 5 Stars

At first, dying doesn't seem so bad. No-one hassles you, there's no worries about eating, sleeping or shitting and you can go wherever you want. Much like your corpse, death looks kinda chilled out. Or least, it does for Alice, a newlydead suicide who appears liberated by the whole affair. It seems that death has done what antidepressants never could and cured her depression, which makes sense, you can't have fucked up serotonin levels if you don't have a brain!

Over the course of Dust, Alice unravels her life, drifting invisibly between her family and friends and taking in their reactions to her death, as well as intermittently flashing back to the unhappy chain of events that terminated with pills and razorblades.

Written and performed by Milly Thomas, Dust yo-yos between sardonic chirpiness and bottomless existential blues. Alice is compelling company from the off, beginning the show in dialogue with her corpse as she apologises for the way she's mistreated it over the years and also ogling the way her pallid skin is attractively 'marbled'. In a weirdly touching moment she crouches down between her own legs to get a glimpse of her own genitals. Sure they're just beginning to decompose and her labia are flecked with dried blood (there is an impressively gross moment earlier when the mortician removes her moon cup), but hey - when else are you going to get the chance to peek up your own chuff?

After the morgue, she drifts back to her friends and family, whose grief and loss is played straight. It's moving stuff, particularly the moments when her father breaks down and lets out an animalistic bellow as he hugs her corpse, the blank-faced stare of her detached stoner brother, or the guilty tears of her ex-boyfriend as he receives an exceedingly miserable blowjob. 

Alice uneasily observes them, cracking jokes to try and puncture the tension. But while she has a very well developed shield of glibness that can deflect most emotional shit, this stuff hurts. Throughout Dust, a slow sense of guilt builds up in Alice as she repeatedly sees the consequences of her suicide, guilt that soon combines with the frustrations that come when you divorce the world of the living.

Alice's life was a chaotic spiderweb of anxiety, pain and misery, surrounded by people whose awkward, well-meaning help just made it worse. The only moments of purity and control came at the end of a knife, the pain of self-inflicted wounds briefly overriding away all the misery. Everything sucked and the future looked crappy. I hesitate to say that Alice makes a good argument for committing suicide but you can absolutely understand her motivation.

Dust is not pro-suicide, but rather than make a saccharine argument about the essential sanctity of life, Thomas emphasises the downsides of death. Removed from the living, Alice is cursed to permanently observe: having to cope with small annoyances like not being to use her smartphone ("it's just a lump of metal and plastic now") to bigger stuff like, y'know, being trapped forever in an isolated purgatory with no chance of escape. 

In Dust, the true tragedy of suicide is its absolute finality, arguing that sure, life may be utter shit right now, but as long as you're alive there's the possibility that things might improve. Hope is fragile, and in the pitch black of depression it can seem absent, but it never truly disappears. But Dust explains that, after death, hope is gone. You are trapped in aspic, preserved only in the memories of your loved ones. When Alice slowly realises this she can only scream "I'M STILL HERE!", as if the uncaring void gives a shit.

Milly Thomas walks paths most playwrights wouldn't dare tread, her style often reminding me of the darker works of Chris Morris. But while her other plays always contain eye-opening scenes and kickass dialogue, I've taken issue with their structures as a whole. But I've got no issues with Dust - this is a complex and bold piece of writing that makes a great philosophical argument at the same time as being really goddamn entertaining and beautifully performed. I've rarely seen a standing ovation so well earned.

Dust is at Underbelly Cowgate Aug 10-14, 16-27. Tickets here.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Edinburgh Fringe: 'Victim' at the Pleasance Attic, 9th August 2017

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Victim reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

Victim is a neat little one woman show about the uneasy relationship between prisoner and prison guard. Written by Martin Murphy and performed by Louise Beresford, the piece switches between two people that occupy the same environment but from very different perspectives. 

We first meet Tracey, a confident and likeable woman who's been working as a prison guard for a couple of years. She's built up enough experience to be aware that prisoners can manipulate guards, but not quite enough to fully develop the mental plate mail that prevents them getting under her skin. Right now she's fascinated by new arrival Marcia, whose conviction for assisting in the murder of her baby has dominated headlines.

All too soon we meet a character on the other side of the bars. Prisoner A23174 Siobhan has murdered her ex-boyfriend and has set herself up as a 'fixer' to the other prisoners, able to provide drugs, mobile phones and favours... for a price. She's also the new cellmate of Marcia, recognising that she can use Tracey's interest in her for her own ends.

Whichever character is being portrayed is shown by a red and blue light behind the performer, though this is arguably unnecessary as Beresford does such a great job defining each character's body language and behaviour. She's an easy performer to like, drawing the audience into the story with liberal amounts of eye contact and occasionally physically interacting with them. I had a pleasure of her in Siobhan mode draping her arm around me as she explained that women are more natural predators than men.

Murphy's writing is also packed full of entertaining and well-observed incidental details. Tracey relates the tale of a man whose arse was as full of treasure as Aladdin's cave, the gormlessness of a prison art therapist or the illicit thrill of having a breakfast of canned gin and Quavers on a train.

But while Victim is engaging I don't think the two women's stories dovetail together as neatly as they should. There's some meaty drama late in the production after Tracey slips up and gives Siobhan some leverage over her, but the consequences don't quite live up to their ominous promise. Perhaps a more steady and thorough corruption of Tracey and more extreme consequences for the two women would have made the title Victim that much more ambiguous.

It leaves Victim is an entertaining but not crucial watch. It's in competition with a hell of a lot of one woman/man shows across the Fringe, the best of which almost literally knocked my socks off. This has above-average writing and Louise Beresford can rightly be proud of her performance, but it doesn't quite do enough to distinguish it from the competition.

Victim is at the Pleasance Attic Aug 10-15, 17-28. Tickets here.

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