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Thursday, July 2, 2015

'Love and Mercy' (2015) directed by Bill Pohlad

Thursday, July 2, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Ah the sixties musobiopic, we meet again. This is a genre plagued by cliché, inherently bereft of suspense and often overshadowed by truly colossal egos. All too often we have stars smothered under bad wigs and prosthetics doing impressions rather than acting, struggling through scripts that bear the fingerprints of lawyers. There's only been one in the last decade that's really been artistically worthwhile; Todd Haynes' chopped and fucked Bob Dylan autopsy I'm Not There.

In an optimistic twist, Love and Mercy shares a writer with I'm Not There (Oren Moverman). So is this that rare biopic that has something to say rather than playing it safe regurgitating the facts? Love and Mercy certainly has a promising subject; former Beach Boy and musical genius Brian Wilson, known as much for his battles with mental illness as his dense, experimental pop compositions.

Also optimistically, Love and Mercy experiments with a bifurbicated narrative. We alternate between the mid 60s, where a young Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) is fighting to create his genre-defining pop symphony and the 1980s where an older Wilson (John Cusack) has withdrawn into nervous isolation under tyrannical psychoanalyst Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).


Though the form may be rote, you can at least rely on the music biopic to sound great. It's arguably worth seeing this in the cinema purely to hear Pet Sounds and what would eventually become SMiLE played loudly over a cinema sound system. Atticus Ross, composing and sound mixing, makes this into an auditory treat. Instruments are intelligently isolated, rising and submerging in the mix to create a vague sense of what it must be like to devise this music. 

The highlights are the meditative sessions where Wilson lies back, closes his eyes and we hear a collage of fragments of songs playing over one another, sound effects and snatches of dialogue. This, more than anything else, gives us a window into the artist, listening as he processes his experiences and inspiration into his music.

Sadly that proves to be the one true high point of the whole affair. Love and Mercy quickly indulges in some of my most despised musobiopic clichés. The most egregious offender comes when Brian's tinkling around on a piano trying to nail down a song. His brother helps him out, pointing out that a barking dog in the room is picking up "some good vibrations". Eesh. Later, there's even a moment where Wilson's abusive dad scoffs "Brianin five years no-one will remember the Beach Boys, or you". This stuff is so cheesy/lazy - you'd think after the genre had been parodied so hard in Walk Hard writers would have taken note.

Similarly bad are some clunkingly heavy-handed visual metaphors. At one point we find Wilson hanging onto an inflatable in the deep end of a swimming pool. His Beach Boy brothers sit on the steps; "Come on guys, join me in the deep end!" Wilson shouts. "No, we prefer the shallows" they reply. You can all but feel the director nudging your elbow, insistently whispering "get it.. get it?"


The performances aren't exactly anything to write home about either. Paul Dano as the younger Wilson is the obvious highlight, managing to infuse this slightly portly, shy musician with a peculiar charm. There's an element of the child to his performance, from his conversational style to his physique. Cusack, by contrast, is a bit miscast. Bearing next to no physical resemblance to Dano (or Brian Wilson), he convey little if anything of what's going on inside his head. The enigma of Brian Wilson precludes any straightforward explanations, but Cusack can't even offer us theories.

The supporting cast are all broadly okay, though something must be said about Paul Giamatti's diabolical doctor Landry. Chewing scenery like a starving man, Landry is depicted as a villain of comicbook proportions, probably one step away from donning a suit of power armour and swearing revenge on Batman. The cherry on top is a completely ridiculous wig that constantly threatens to upstage Giamatti.. He plays it very over the top, but I can't deny that it's entertaining. I wish they'd given him a moustache to twirl sinisterly. 

Love and Mercy is, sadly, just another bog standard musobiopic. There's glimmers of experimentalism in there and some top class sound design that might edge it towards watchable, but knackered genre conventions are in full force. If you're a Brian Wilson fan you'll eat it up, if you like The Beach Boys music it'll be a diverting enough experience. Sadly, Love and Mercy never quite finds its own angle on its subject, making it a missed opportunity.

★★

Love and Mercy is released 10th July 2015

Saturday, June 27, 2015

'Asking Rembrandt' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 26th June 2015

Saturday, June 27, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Set within fragments of a gigantic picture frame, lit with warm sepia-tinged light and spattered with long-dried paint, the set of Asking Rembrandt believably drags its audience back to well-used studio in 17th century Amsterdam. This is the setting for Steve Gooch's exploration of art vs commerce, told through a year or so in the life of Rembrandt.

We meet Rembrandt (Liam McKenna) at a difficult time. He's an established master craftsman producing a steady stream of work - every well-to-do mokummer wants a Rembrandt hanging above their fireplace. Problem is, they want a portrait as status symbol rather than to appreciate Rembrandt's artistry. As such they pepper him with demands and alterations - his experimental leanings squashed under the popular idea of what a Rembrandt painting is. Now he's got a reputation as difficult, when clients are splurging hundreds of gilders for a portrait, figuring 'the customer is always right'

His personal situation only adds to his woes. Following the death of his wife Saskia he's taken up with former maid Henni (Esmé Patey-Ford), their unmarried status causing the disapproving church to publicly brand her as a "whore". The rest of his personal relationships are similarly rocky; his son Titus (Loz Keyston) bridling under his father's ego; and John Six (John Gorick) doing his best to keep their friendship sliding too far into business.

Asking Rembrandt's best quality is that it's straightforwardly interesting. Seeing Rembrandt, whose name has become is a byword for 'master painter', as a conflicted, indebted and stressed craftsman instantly humanises him. You might think that you'd struggle to relate to the interpersonal and financial worries of a 17th century Dutch painter, but very quickly we understand and empathise with him.

That's down to skilful writing, backed up with what I assume is an awful lot of careful research. It's also equally due to wonderfully earthy performance from Liam McKenna. This Rembrandt is a fleshy, sturdy, deeply proud character - almost Falstaffian in his body language and behaviour. Some of the finest moments are when he talks dirty, telling Henni that he'd like to "lick her like a bear with its tongue in a honeypot". Oh Mr Rembrandt, I've come over all a-flutter!


Rembrandt's sexual and artistic confidence goes some way to the art vs commerce debate at the centre of the play the much needed emotional dimension. We can see why his partner loves him, why his best friend wants the best for him and why his son (despite his protestations) craves his father's respect. By about the halfway point we're invested in what Rembrandt is doing, rooting for him to be able to express himself without financial and social shackles.

Despite those successes, there's a sense of slightness in Asking Rembrandt. Coming in at a svelte 75 minutes we whistle through time at breakneck speed. For example, at the close of one scene Henni informs Rembrandt that she's pregnant, the next scene she's 8 months in and a couple of minutes later the baby's arrived. This makes the secondary characters into satellites orbiting Rembrandt rather than people in their own right. Perhaps the biggest victim of this is his son Titus, who gets a few short scenes to define his character.

Similarly, though the emotional dimension is welcome, the play does eventually boil down to a slightly dry argument on the compromises an artist must make to put food on their table. As I said, this is definitely interesting, but it settles on massaging the brain rather than trying to whomping you in the heart. 

Asking Rembrandt is (as is standard for the Old Red Lion) a technical success. The set oozes personality and the soft lighting subtly recalls Rembrandt's aesthetic. The cast are similarly top class: McKenna the obvious star attraction but Patey-Ford's Henni is impressively full of joie de vivre, managing the impressive feat of making a 17th century dutchwoman's costume rather coquettish. Despite these positives, I never quite felt involved in proceedings, admiring the play from a academic distance as opposed to losing myself in its rhythms and passions.

★★★

Asking Rembrandt is at the Old Red Lion until the 18th of July. Tickets here.

Friday, June 26, 2015

'Amy' (2015) directed by Asif Kapadia

Friday, June 26, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


In which we observe a talented and charismatic woman gradually descend into alcoholism and mental illness, culminating in her skinny corpse being wheeled into the back of a van. This is the story of Amy Winehouse, as told by Senna director Asif Kapadia. The magnificent Senna (maybe the greatest biographical documentary ever) ended with its subject dying in mangled wreckage. Amy ends in much the same way, surrounded by the final shreds of her talent, dignity and sanity.

It's easy to forget just how quickly and brightly Amy Winehouse burned. The release of Back to Black in 2006 made her an immediate icon, her tattoos, beehive hairdo, Camden-style , confessional lyrics and that voice defining her as something new, propelling her to fame and wealth beyond her wildest dreams. Five short years later she was dead.

Working almost entirely from archive footage, Amy traces the singers teenage musical beginnings, ascent through the music industry and eventual drugged out stupor. It's an incredibly bleak film; every pre-fame image of the young, smiling and vivacious artist tainted by our knowledge of what's to come.

Leaving aside the emotion for a moment, it should be emphasised what an outstanding researcher and editor Kapadia is. God only knows how many hours of footage he must have trawled through to construct this film, piecing together a narrative from thousands of disconnected video clips from many different sources. It impresses upon you how thoroughly a contemporary life can be documented; a mosaic assembled from cameraphones, news reports, television shows and family videos. 


Context comes from contemporary interviews with key figures in her life. Cleverly Kapadia doesn't use the bog-standard 'talking heads' style, preferring to overlay the interviews onto relevant footage. This draws up a gentle documentary tension; in the interviews with figures the film treats critically, what they're saying and what we're seeing don't quite add up. The overall effect is that, by the time the credits are rolling (with new footage still playing over them), we feel as if we've genuinely gotten to know Amy Winehouse.

This is, of course, an illusion. How can you truly understand someone through two hours of edited clips? But it's an effective illusion, Kapadia manipulating our perceptions of his subject in order to subtly communicate his message. This proves to be a critique on the exploitation of talent, laying out who 'used' Winehouse and why.

But it's less a process of identifying and condemning 'villains' and more a critique on the processes that allowed them to behave in the way they did. For example her father, Mitch Winehouse, doesn't come out of this looking especially amazing, but he's more stupid than malicious. Another potential villain, her ex-husband Blake Fielder winds up as just another victim  - a mirror of Amy Winehouse minus both talent and charisma.

The real villain of the piece soon rears its head; a voracious media fuelled by you and I. There's a epilepsy warning before the film that proves entirely warranted when the paparazzi swing into action, jostling the increasingly confused looking singer in a nightmare strobe world of flashes and screaming. If this is what life is public is like, no wonder so many celebrities go bananas. Kapadia reserves most of his venom for the media, condemning the comedians that made light of her condition, the salacious news reports that wallowed in her misery and the intrusive cameramen that jammed lenses in every private moment.


Paradoxically, Kapadia is quite happy to use that stolen footage in his film. In an affecting moment we see a paranoid-looking Winehouse staring through the slats of her bedroom window, shot through a telephoto lens. It's faintly hypocritical to condemn the tabloids then use their footage, but it's hypocrisy with a point. In watching Amy you feel an extreme empathy with her, as if you're on the same side. Yet, in effect, by delving through a jigsaw puzzle of her private moments you're engaging in precisely the same behaviour that drove her to an early death.

By the time we see her body laying under a blanket you should ask yourself exactly what you're getting out of this. "Aw, what a sad story" sentimentality? Smugness in watching someone successful fail? The vicarious thrill of watching a hedonist burn out? We all try to fit Amy Winehouse's biography into a preordained narrative, scratching away at reality until she's less a human being and more a romanticised archetype.

I can't deny Amy's quality: the music is amazing, the subject is fascinating and Kapadia's technique is second-to-none. But the process of watching the film turns us into vultures, greedily stripping the last chunks of meat off her mouldering carcass. Clearly no lessons have been learned from this whole affair; presumably the next talented and troubled hot young musician that comes along will suffer much the same miserable fate. It's for that reason that I found Amy such a profoundly sad experience.

★★★

Amy is released 3 July 2015

Thursday, June 25, 2015

'The Tribe' (2014) directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky

Thursday, June 25, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


The Tribe sounds like a parody of arthouse cinema. It's from the Ukraine. It's shot in bleak government buildings. It's brutally violent and unflinchingly sexual. The characters communicate entirely in sign language - Ukrainian sign language. There is no dialogue. There is no score. There are no subtitles. 

Every inch of The Tribe appears designed to baffle, annoy and perplex your average cinemagoer. This makes it an exceedingly unfriendly film in almost all regards, yet, to those with a certain level of cinematic patience and the stomach for the uncomfortable, Slaboshpitsky's film pays dividends.

Now, given that the film's entirely in unsubtitled Ukrainian sign language (which, surprise surprise, I don't know) my plot summary is going to be a bit vague. The Tribe explores the seamy criminal underbelly of a deaf school somewhere in the Ukraine, examining how pupils are exploited by the teachers and each other. The lead is a new pupil (Grigoriy Fesenko), who is soon up to his eyeballs in prostitution, petty theft and casual violence.

Though for the most part we see things from his perspective, this is also the story of two girls (Yana Novikona and Rosa Babiy) who spend their nights as prostitutes to a car park of truckers. The new pupil is soon tasked with acting as their pimp, though complications arise when he falls in love with one of them. Problems begin to mount as two of their teachers make preparations to sell the girls into sex slavery in Italy, causing the new pupil to descend into violent revenge.

Or at least, that's what I think was happening. You spend a lot of The Tribe trying to figure out what's going on at any given time. This isn't the most complicated of plots but the obvious language barrier prevents any complex characterisation and narrative. So you start approaching the film in archetypes, one person's 'the mean one', another's 'the creepy teacher', 'the violent kid' and so on. 

Even without language its hard to completely lose the plot, but even if that did happen you could spend a happy two hours wallowing in Slaboshpitsky's awesomely portentous style. This is cinema as sledgehammer; the film composed of long, unblinking shots that follow the characters in and around their environment. For example, in one shot we track four children moving through a park, as we pan right more join them until 20 or 30 are perched on crumbling brick walls. Then vicious beatings break out, complete with the deaf children silently signing their enthusiasm for it.


All this is set within a crumbling, graffiti-covered frozen world entirely devoid of beauty. You can practically smell the rot emanating from the ruined ceilings and stained walls. These locations, hopefully soon earmarked for the wrecking ball, are lit by fluorescent lights that give everyone an unhealthy malnourished pallor. This hellish environment drags the film gently towards horror; especially in The Shining-esque tracking shots that explore the endless corridors of this hell-school.

And y'know, not only does it look nightmarish, but the events in it aren't exactly super happy joy time either. Be prepared for vicious beatings, abuse of a boy with Down syndrome, joyless mechanical sex, bashing in of skulls and one of the most disturbing abortion scenes I've ever seen in a film. Seriously - I've sat through the famous ultra-nasties (120 Days of Sodom, A Serbian Film and so on), but parts of The Tribe made me genuinely nauseous.

Part of it arises from the lack of vocalisation from the cast. The frantic signing feels less like we're watching the children communicate with each other and less like a portal straight to their hearts. There's something very 'off' at watching atrocities happen in dead silence, with just the faint hum of the strip lighting and exhalation of breath after blows functioning soundtrack. Some part of your brain rebels, insisting that something intangible is very wrong with this picture.

So is it a film that I can recommended? Well, it's technically, artistically and performatively outstanding in practically every way - from the precision-tooled elegance of the long tracking shots, the desaturated colour balancing, not to mention the cast of deaf Ukrainian teenagers, all of whom turn in excellent performances. But under all that there's a whiff of sadism, Slaboshpitsky going out of his way to create a viewing experience that crawls under your skin.

It's one hell of a cinematic achievement, but by God it's not for everyone. If you're the kind of person who enjoys viciously 'difficult' cinema you'll be in your element here: Slaboshpitsky turning in a film that meanders into the same bleak stylistic territory as Satantango, Antichrist or the works of Michael Haneke. If you count those among your favourites, by all means dash to The Tribe. If you're more of a Disney kind of person, I'd advise giving it some serious thought before watching this. You might never be the same again.

★★★★

The Tribe is on limited release now.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

'Slow West' (2015) directed by John MacLean

Wednesday, June 24, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


The psychedelic Western ranks highly in my obscure film genre top ten. In these rare films, agoraphobia inducing scenery stands for the spiritual infinite, and combined with antisocial (usually bearded) men-on-the-edge, usually makes for enjoyably bonkers cinema. Jodorowsky's inestimably grand El Topo is king of the genre and bubbling under are its buddies Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the recent Jauja and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (to name but a few). Slow West can stand proudly alongside them.

The directorial debut of former Beta Band member John MacLean, Slow West is a classic hero's quest. The teenage Jay (Kodi Smith-McPhee) is travelling through the 1870s American wilderness in search of his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius). It's his fault that she and her father had to escape from their native Scotland, but with a romantic heart and charming naivety he's braving mile after dangerous mile to track her down. 

Unbeknownst to him he's not alone in his pursuit. Both Rose and her father's faces peer from wanted posters across the west, attracting the attention of a gaggle of disreputable bounty hunters. Prime among them is Silas (Michael Fassbender), a rough and tumble Han-Solo-a-like who figures Jay's is his best bet to find them. So he befriends the young Scot, gives him advice on life beneath the stars and guides/follows him towards their mutual goal - never letting on that while Jay is seeking love, Silas is seeking blood.

This sets the stage for a picaresque road western in which the unlikely pair encounter weird characters, along with generous doses of peril, intrigue and danger. By way of an example; our naifish hero meets a trio of Congolese musicians in the middle of nowhere and they exchange philosophical pleasantries on love and life in perfect French, or befriends a suspiciously Werner Herzoggy Bavarian ethnographer, or has a tense confrontation with Native Americans that unexpectedly devolves into slapstick. It might sound a bit twee on paper, but the intention is to contrast mannered symbolism with grubby realpolitik.

Perhaps the closest thematic companion is the above mentioned Dead Man. There, Johnny Depp's innocent 'William Blake' wandered aimlessly through a monochrome landscape, encountering cowboys played by the likes of Iggy Pop, Crispin Glover and Billy Bob Thornton. But where Dead Man shows us how the environment causes the slow disintegration of its heroes psyche, Slow West shows a more submissive landscape. This is, after all, entirely appropriate - we did indeed tame the Wild West - mystical forests "from which no man returns" now strip malls and McDonalds.

This is conveyed in long, intoxicatingly beautiful shots. McLean increasingly emphasises the blue of the sky and the fluffiness of the clouds against dull earth tones, with the contrast increasing the more we progress through the film. The zenith is a goddamn beautiful shoot out set in and around a house in the middle of a corn field. The house is new, white wood, the sky is blue, the corn is a lush yellow - all spattered by gobs of thick crimson blood. 


There's time enough for the small things too. Use of tilt shift focus contributes to a hallucinatory effect, often combined with surreal imagery. In the most memorable shots, our hero examines an apparently gigantic mushroom, and later we slowly zoom in on ants swarming around the barrel of a lost revolver (apparently quoting the opening sequence of Lynch's Blue Velvet). 

Upon all that sits two marvellous performances by Smit-McPhee and Fassbender. Though each individually impresses, it's when they bounce off one another that they really shine. These interactions are filled with nuance; secret smiles when Jay devises a solution to a problem that impresses Silas; or the myriad ways in which the actors convey their growing trust in one another. Also, and it somewhat goes without saying, but Fassbender looks cool as hell as a cowboy, obviously relishing playing a windbitten, rough-edged outlaw.

The title doesn't lie. Slow West in no particular hurry to get to its conclusion, happy to settle for being gently lyrical rather than propulsive. Though not without the occasional hard edge, it stands out as a curiously optimistic Western, one in which (for once) kindness stands a chance of triumphing over bloody amorality. An excellent directorial debut.

★★★★

Slow West is on general release from 26 June.

Monday, June 22, 2015

'A Single Act' at Theatro Technis, 19th June 2015

Monday, June 22, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Something terrible has happened in central London. Shellshocked commuters stumble home, ears ringing from the crash of atrocity, eyes stinging from billowing clouds of disturbed dust. People stare glassily at one another, struggling to process the new world they find themselves in. Precisely what happened remains elusive, but we understand that London has suffered its own 9/11.

Jane Bodie's A Single Act treats the attack like a stone tossed into still waters, ripples reverberating through society. She zeroes in one two relationships: one steadily deteriorating from the moment of the attack, the other told in reverse, showing how a toxic, abusive relationship can stem from once promising beginnings. As the twin tales wind about one another we understand that violence isn't confined to the blast of the bomb or the leaden thump of fist on flesh, but in the lasting impact upon society at large.

Our couples are Michelle and Scott (Lucy Hirst and Tom Myles), and Clea and Neil (Katherine Stevens and Philippe Edwards). All four occupy the same dramatic space, taking turns to occupy a moodily lit Ikea furnished flat. Michelle and Scott are in an obviously poisonous relationship, Scott's affections having warped from romance to possessiveness and violent jealousy; leaving Michelle bruised, battered and with a fractured psyche. Meanwhile Clea and Neil drift inexorably apart, their cosily middle class existence disintegrating piece by piece.

First staged in spring 2005, A Single Act eerily presaged the London terror attacks of that summer - this production coming almost exactly a decade later. This lends it a contemplative mood: while the original text explored the hypothetical effects of such an attack, this production can work from historical perspective, picking at our collective societal scab.


Two particularly strong thematic strands are helplessness and frustration. Neil, a well-to-do artsy middle class photographer, finds himself twisting in the wind. Previously content to merely witness the world around him, his worldview crumbles as he watches the attack to the soundtrack of clicking cameraphones. He's disgusted at the people blithely snapping away, but soon turns that disgust inwards, resolving to do something - anything - to soothe his injured soul. This manifests in emotional distance from his partner and mysterious midnight excursions. Neil is suffering the nihilistic trauma of realising he's a mote of dust caught in the wind, buffeted by forces way beyond his comprehension.

A similar process happens to Scott, but here love has curdled into violence. It's as if the ever-present sight of destroyed buildings drives him towards violence as the solution to his problems. Here a chicken and egg scenario arises - is Scott an intrinsically violent man encouraged by what he sees in front of him, or a kind man infected by omnipresent destruction.

A Single Act never comes down on one side or another, teasing us with implications and gentle nudges. It's refusal to completely explain its argument can get a bit frustrating - especially given the opaque ending, chronologically jumbled ending. Then again, dealing with intense trauma isn't a process with a clearly delineated end, and it's refreshing to see a production that so obviously wants its audience to intellectually evaluate what they've seen.

Though A Single Act is purposefully vague, everything else in the production is honed to razor sharpness. My favourite visual flourish was dousing the actors in a thin layer of talcum powder, resulting in each hug, hit and kiss sending plumes of dust spiralling through the harsh stage lighting. This perfectly feeds into the wider themes of violence having invisible consequences - each interaction literally leaving a residue hanging in the air. 

The individual performances are similarly on point, with Tom Myles' Scott drawing most attention. He's a fascinatingly intense actor, both terrifying as he beats and controls Michelle and bashfully sweet as he romances her. Something awful happens in his eyes when he cycles between the two, his gaze deadening like a shark as it moves in for the kill. This accentuates his ramrod straight physicality, imperceptible shifts in the way he holds himself leaving him looking as if he's possessed by some demonic spirit.

It's a damn fine piece of theatre, one that sent shivers up my spine on several occasions. Everyone in Duelling Productions, should be proud of staging a production with this much power and insight. I eagerly await whatever they're cooking up next.

★★★★

A Single Act was at Theatro Technis until the 20th. Production info here.


Friday, June 19, 2015

'Chef' at the Soho Theatre, 17th June 2015

Friday, June 19, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Food is a fantastic dramatic metaphor. The best food and the best art both get under your skin, both bear the fingerprints of its creator and both communicate complex emotions without words. Not to mention the sheer visual dynamism of preparation and presentation, or simply describing it in strings of luscious, saliva-inducing adjectives. Sabrina Mahfouz's Chef uses food as a reflection of its subject's soul: no matter how much shit is heaped on an individual they are still capable of wonderful things.

Chef comes pre-garlanded with praise, nabbing the Fringe Fest Award at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival. It's a scanty 50 minute monologue, presented with minimal stagecraft and little theatrical frippery. There's a sense that the dead wood of theatre has been pared away - allowing us untrammelled access to an interesting person: almost theatre as confessional rather than narrative.

Said interesting person is 'Chef' (Jade Anouka). Going in we know that she was a haute-cuisine head chef and is now a convicted inmate running a prison kitchen. Salacious questions immediately pop to mind - what could have precipitated such a fall from grace? How could someone used to expressing themselves through food work in such a restrictive environment? What on earth did this woman even do?

All these answers are revealed in a chronologically jumbled story that gives us insights into family, victimhood, self expression, guilt, denial and joy. It'd be remiss of me to spoil the revelations in Chef, but I can say that by the time we're applauding we've seen a three-dimensional portrait of a genuine human being, one obviously informed by personal experience.

There's a ragged honesty to Mahfouz's writing style. Her broad technique here is to build to an emotional peak (recounting some grim act of abuse) then undercut that with subversive humour. In less capable hands these opposite forces would undermine one another, spoiling the mood. Yet Mafouz deploys comedy and tragedy with precision timing, playing us like a fiddle.


Aside from these clever rhythms, there's some straight-up beautiful descriptive writing on display. My favourite was a description of an uneaten Chinese takeaway: "noodles gloomily looking through foggy containers / at a scene of all too common domestic distress / chunks of sweet and sour chicken solidifying / under the soundwaves of unextraordinary anger". The text is studded with these wonderful turns of phrase, viscerally constructed, full of satisfying alliteration and harmonic phrasing.

This is all beautifully played by Jade Anouka. The confined upstairs room of the Soho Theatre allows a performer to engage with their audience, something that Anouka instinctively grasps. Throughout she makes eye contact with her audience, peppering us with rhetorical questions and the occasional accusatory glance. The effect is that, as we swerve towards darker themes, we're right there with her - almost implicated in her situation. Similarly, shifts in body language, from confident gesticulations to an inverted stillness, go a long way in accentuating the rhythms of the text.

Throughout we keep returning to food; Chef breathlessly describing a perfect peach, coconut tofu curry or hibiscus sorbet. It sounds delicious, the enthusiasm of the performance and the knowledge in the writing conveying an infectious passion. What I took away is that there are some incorruptible passions in life, and food is one of them. The misery inflicted upon the character cannot damp her enthusiasm and pride in her art; though her life is a shambles her soul remains intact.

I've always held that brevity doesn't indicate a lack of depth. In just 50 minutes this manages to pack in more sincerity, truth and humanity than some pieces manage in a couple of hours. I've always enjoyed seeing monologues performed, and this marks one of the best I've seen this year. It's a complex, troubling piece of work that doesn't offer up any easy answers. It's also warm-hearted, funny and approachable. A definite win all round.

★★★★

Chef is at the Soho Theatre until 4th July. Tickets here.

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