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Friday, December 2, 2016

Review: 'Chi-Raq', directed by Spike Lee

Friday, December 2, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Chi Raq is a mess. A loud, energised, angry, colourful, adventurous and usually pretty goddamn cool mess. It's one of those movies that makes you wonder how they got the budget to pull this off, but are thankful that someone stumped up the cash. After all,  a contemporary Chicago gangland reimagining of Aristophanes' 411BC play Lysistrata, reworked as a fourth-wall bustin', satirical sex comedy, quasi-musical with dialogue in loose rhyming verse is a high concept to scale.

But Spike Lee is definitely the man for the job, Chi Raq positively trembles with the amount of enthusiasm, sincerity and unalloyed self belief that he pours into just about every frame. 

Chi-Raq opens to Nick Cannon's Pray 4 My City, printing the lyrics in block capitals on the the screen. We learn that more Americans have been shot to death in Chicago than were in Afghanistan and Iraq, Cannon's song, delivered with coolly straightforward anger, explains what it's like living in urban wartime: "This is an emergency / Police sirens, everyday / People dyin', everyday / Mamas cryin', everyday".

Lee quickly sketches  up in the Trojans v Spartans gang war: the opposing sides locked into a retaliatory spiral of death. Someone gets shot at a concert, causing a house to get burnt down, causing machine gun fire to crackle through the city streets, causing.. well you get the picture. It'd be a tragedy if it were just young men gunning each other down, but the situation comes to a head when a young girl is senselessly killed by a stray bullet.

Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of gang leader Chi Raq (Nick Cannon) decides to take action. Inspired by the true story of Liberian peace activist (and Nobel Prize Winner) Leymah Gbowee, she corrals Chicago's women and commits them to a sex strike, chanting "no peace, no pussy!" or, as the men put it, "these hoes have shut down the penis power grid!". 


That kicks off the film's descent into hot-blooded lunacy, which begins with the women taking control of the National Guard building (via a Porky's style kinky ruse), propelling their strike to a global feminist movement that concludes with a pay-per-view 'first to cum' showdown between the equally horny Lysistrata and Chi-Raq ("This is better than the Superbowl!").

You can say one thing about Lee - he's rarely dull. This is film-making with a bad case of ADD, Chi-Raq sometimes feeling like ten overlapping music videos are running concurrently. Still, the badass gangsta scenes are firmly lodged in caricature; the rival gangs looking like they've strolled out of The Warriors, and, though Lee peppers the film with shots of Chicago graffiti, the film lacks the powerful sense of time and place that (among other things) makes Do The Right Thing an all-time classic.

But Chi-Raq steamrollers its way through most of this stuff with a pure hearted, righteous indignation about the state of the world. Lee wants us all to know in the most direct terms, the precise, abhorrent nature of the way African-American urban communities are fucked over by the police, the government, gun manufacturers, druglords, gangsters, materialistic culture, substandard housing, lack of healthcare and lack of jobs. Lee sprinkles these didactic speeches throughout the film - be it through the snazzily suited narrator figure of Dolmedes (Samuel L Jackson munching his way through the scenery), Angela Basset's bruised yet noble Miss Helen or the feminist revolutionary awakening of Lysistrata herself.

Though Chi-Raq is sprawling, overlong at two hours and with a lot of quasi jokes that fall flat (many feeling like they're improvised on set), it's like few other films you'll see in cinemas. Lee wears his heart on his sleeve - using Chi-Raq as an imaginative and impassioned plea for sanity, justice and humanity. 

★★★★

Chi-Raq is in UK cinemas now. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review: 'Little Red Riding Hood & Other Lost Girls' at the Crouch End Arthouse, 24th November 2016

Friday, November 25, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Bad things happen in the woods. Deep within the tangled foliage, where the trees blot out the sun and the ground grows boggy, chaos reigns. This is the kingdom of the wolf: a rapacious, amoral force of nature that creeps, hunts and pounces, devouring anyone unfortunate to end up in its clutches. AThis far into woods, if you scream, no-one will hear you. Yet a little girl skips daintily through all this on her way to visit her grandmother. This is Red Riding Hood, or Little Red Cap, or (from the wolf's perspective) dinner.

Everywhere wolves have lived seems to have some folk story variation on the same themes: the wolf's cunning and treachery, and the little girl's initial obliviousness and hidden cunning that lets her escape (or not, in the darker variations). Performance storyteller Nell Phoenix, part of the 'Crick Crack Club', guides us through this literary thicket, identifying the common thematic strands that exist everywhere from Staines to Japan and weaving them together into a deeply satisfying whole.

First things first, Phoenix is an amazing storyteller. Her voice is acrobatic, one moment a gutturally charming wolfish growl, the next sweet as sugar. She picks through the syllables and pauses of her tale like a mountain goat skipping up a cliff face - confident, able and never close to putting a foot wrong. On top of that she has an enviable and evocative control of her body language, hunching over into crone-dom or puffing her shoulders out to communicate the wolf's size and power, or gradually shrinking herself down to show us five increasingly small children.

Phoenix could make reciting the phone book fascinating, but here the content is at least as compelling as the delivery. In a gentle folk history lesson we travel through various European forests (French Red Riding Hood brings wine and cheese to her grandmother, while her German equivalent brings beer and sausage), all the way to a loose and surreal Chinese sister story which features an animated severed head and a demonic talking cabbage.

Common to all is the diabolical trickster wolf and the vulnerable young girl. The original Little Red Riding Hood story dates from about the 10th century, so it functions pretty straightforwardly as a warning that medieval children shouldn't stray too deeply into the woods - after all they're in danger of actually getting eaten by wolves. But as the story mutates over the years, the wolf becomes a symbol of sly, manipulative masculinity and his ambitions of consumption become a metaphor for sex.

This is all played with the utmost charm and creepy insistence, Phoenix describing the wolf as having a 'creamy' voice and taking care to accentuate his physique, hairiness, leering smile and, eventually, his cock. The children's stories get increasingly icky undertones, hearing variations in which the wolf instructs Little Red Riding Hood to remove her clothes, piece by piece, and eventually climb into bed naked, next to his bristly body.

It's at this point that the season title Fairytales for Grown-Ups makes sense. Folk tales and storytelling traditions like this are messages from the past, true unfiltered insights into the minds of now dusty and forgotten ancestors. I was enthralled, entertained and little blown-away by Nell Phoenix. If you spot her performing I'd urge you to check it out. If not, the next two in this performance series promise to be as good.

★★★★

Fairytales for Grown-Ups continues in 2017 with 'Rebranding Beelzebub' and 'Others from the Other Side' at the Crouch End Arthouse. Details/tickets here. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review: 'Tonight with Donny Stixx' at the Bunker, 18th November 2016

Saturday, November 19, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Poor little Donny Stixx. Born with a club foot to a mother that despises imperfection, socially maladjusted and trapped in a delusion that stardom is just around the corner. Life has dealt him the worst possible cards yet Donny is certain he's holding a winning hand.

Philip Ridley's Tonight with Donny Stixx is an autopsy of a shattered person desperately trying to reassemble himself. He's played by Sean Michael Verey delivering an 80 minute monologue on a flat, empty expanse of grey. 

We first meet Donny as a warped entertainer, struggling through banter audience banter and emitting periodic barks of forced, machine-gun laughter. Donny cargo cults his way through how he thinks a light entertainer should behave, but his obvious lack of charisma and faint desperation quickly unnerves. That awkwardness only amplifies as he responds to a silent question from the audience and explodes into spittle-flecked, red-faced rage and yowls that he will not talk about the massacre he committed.

Wait, what? 

Slowly the pieces begin to fall into place. The jeans, sneakers and plain blue t-shirt outfit suddenly clicks into place and we realise we're locked in prison with Donny. This awkward, scary and volatile kid has done something awful.


Gradually we learn more about Donny. Driven by Oedipal desires, he hates his Dad and is devoted to impressing his monster of a mother. She applauds his amateur magic act - and so he becomes "Donny Stixx, the boy with tricks". Having gained his mother's approval, he sets his sights on magical stardom, beginning to put on little shows for friends and family. But are they laughing with him, or at him?

Sean Michael Verey fully inhabits Donny, lurching the poles between obsequiousness and raving psychopathy. Being sat in close proximity to him feels genuinely dangerous, especially given his tendency to approach the front row, eyes rolling around in his head like snooker balls, teeth bared, face red and sweat rolling down his face. Verey also makes fantastic use of the space, sometimes shrinking at the back corner of the stage before charging forward and looming over us, lost in confused rage.

Ridley has always had a great handle on showing broken minds trying to paper over the cracks, and Donny is up there with hus best. Without ever slipping into exposition, he paints a realistic psychological profile of a boy desperate to entertain and please people, but pathologically unable to. There's a painful ratcheting up of the tension as we gradually deduce the chasm between Donny's perception of reality and how it actually is. Towards the end, one of the central pillars of Donny's sense of self is demolished, sending him freewheeling towards atrocity.

Tonight with Donny Stixx is a determinedly focussed production, shearing away every distraction to rub our nose in burning human wreckage. It's one of those productions that lodges firmly in the mind; Verey's contorted face and sad/vicious eyes sure to turn up in a nightmare one day.

★★★★

Tonight with Donny Stixx is at the Bunker Theatre until 3rd December. Tickets here.


Friday, November 18, 2016

Review: 'The Residents' in New Cross Gate, 17th November 2016

Friday, November 18, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


In the long run we're all ghosts. Vast swathes of London housing dates back about a hundred years: bricks and mortar that have borne witness to everything from V2 bombs to flower children. If you live in an old house you find yourself wondering about those who trod these floorboards in years gone by, imagining what kinds of drama might have taken place within the walls you now reside. And one day, future Londoners living in your house will imagine you.

Teatro Vivo's The Residents saves us the trouble of imagining, placing us inside a room in a house (the location shifts every week) and spinning a ghost story that spans centuries. The conceit is that we're there to view the property, our group shown about by Debbie Korley's enthusiastic estate agent. But before too long the radio is emitting distorted screeches, the lights are flickering on and off and someone.. no, something is scuttling around the skirting boards.

Soon the former inhabitants of the building make an appearance, all played by Kas Darley and Mark Stevenson. These range from a Ukrainian woman fleeing the war and dealing with a grumpy elderly builder, a primly buttoned up Edwardian couple and a mournful looking pregnant woman. Director Sophie Austin gradually weaves these vignettes, together with the estate agent framing device and some VO from local residents, into a pointed political comment on property as 'homes' and the importance of local community.

First and foremost, despite its haunted house trappings, The Residents isn't particularly scary. You're not going to jump out of your seat in surprise or feel a burning sense of dread. That's largely down to the simple fact that the ghosts are all too human and empathetic - less vengeful spirits seeking justice and more echoes of the past only able to passively affect the present. Similarly, the spooky sound effects are maybe a teeny bit Hammer Horror.



But while not scary, it is interesting . I enjoy playing detective in theatre, and assembling the big picture from the morsels the show doles out is satisfying. You begin to pick up on the connections between each era and the way that the neighbourhood has evolved around them. The flip side of this that it's  frustrating when you can't figure something out. One mini-story revolves around a wife's dark secret, as far as I can tell we're never explicitly told what it is. Also, a side explanation of two black holes colliding to cause the phenomenon we're seeing is entirely unnecessary.

Where the show unambiguously succeeds is in its stance on the current housing crisis. The housing market is a linchpin of the economy, with houses increasing viewed as an investment or business opportunity rather than as homes to live. This commodification has accelerated enormously over the last twenty years, with overseas buyers, buy-to-let and unscrupulous landlords sending prices skyrocketing way beyond the reach of the average Londoner.

The Residents calmly and straightforwardly railing against the idea of the property market in favour of homes and local continuity. After all, if a neighbourhood is composed of isolated, transient strangers then who has the impetus to make long term improvements and build community relations?

This is absolutely a show with its heart in the right place - politically it hits the nail right on the head. But as a piece of drama it falls a bit short, its knotted narrative of past residents never quite unravelling into coherence. It's a shame, the idea of a show gliding between different properties and telling their stories as it goes is a potent one, but in this instance a bit more storytelling discipline would go a long way.

★★


The Residents runs until 3rd December. Tickets here.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review: 'Princess' at the Lost Theatre, 16th November 2016

Thursday, November 17, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Princess is completely baffling. It bills itself as "finding the feminism in Disney", yet feels more like being trapped in a shitty goth nightclub. Rather than some exploration of gender politics, this is primarily a bunch of attractive dancers in bad wigs hurling themselves around the stage to dated plastic pop music

Tautly muscled men in papier mache rabbit heads strike poses, women dressed like cheerleaders in a Marilyn Manson video shake their asses, a troupe of people with hexagonal heads march across the stage. At one point someone perches in a giant wobbly teacup. With furrowed brow and thoroughly scratched head, a couple of words reverberated around the inside of my skull: what the fuck is this?!

It's never a good sign when you have to retreat to the programme to understand what you're looking at, but sometimes you don't really have a choice. So, twenty minutes I gave in and popped it open, to be told that a summary of what I was watching right now was  "to be a true princess one must submit to all the wishes and woes, the young girl fails to be initiated. Striving to become the perfect princess she must shake of [sic] her demons". I glanced back up at the stage to see a topless dude barrelling around the stage flapping big glittery wings. Hmmm.

This general bewilderment never lifted. Without the programme's (somewhat garbled) assistance I doubt I'd ever have worked out even the broad strokes out of the plot - which is apparently about a young girl's self empowerment through.. uh.. princesses? I guess? Smothered deep within the impenetrable choreography, boring pop music and revealing costumes there's apparently some kind of deconstruction of the princess archetype, but it's so faint you want to call up the Large Hadron Collider dudes and ask them to work on unearthing it.

This vagueness, coupled with the fact that much of the show features sexy girls in revealing costumes wiggling their butts, makes Princess's claims of "finding feminism in Disney" risible. Giving it as much credit as possible, the conclusion that animated princesses are questionable role models for young girls begs to be met with a deadpan "well duh."



By the midway point most people will have concluded that if it doesn't make sense by now, it's probably not ever going to. So you just check out and enjoy the skimpily clad dancers cavorting around in front of you. On this base level of appreciation Princess scrapes by - I'm not going to sit here and deny I don't enjoy watching attractive people writhing around in silly costumes. But even the dancing looks a little under rehearsed. I'm usually pretty easy to please on this front, but even I notice that the performers are off the beat, out of sync with each other and/or missing their cues. 

Let's face it, it's never a good omen when one person simultaneously writes, directs, choreographs, sings the songs and produces a show. There are a handful of multitasking polymath geniuses out there, but all too often it's a sign that you're in for a vanity project. When you've had as much experience with crappy theatre as I have, you can read between the lines and realise that it's less that the show could only ever work with one person doing all these jobs and more that everyone else realised early on that they'd be onto a loser.

By all accounts the guy responsible for this, Stuart Saint, is a talented dude. He's done five straight years of well received panto in the Leicester Square Theatre, and you can tell Princess is something of a passion project for him. In interview he explains that Princess has been worked on since 1996(!!!), and this extended creative gestation has done the show no favours whatsoever. Sometimes you've got to face up to the fact that, even with 20 years of work behind you, it's sometimes best to 'kill your darlings'.

Saint would have done well to heed the words of a latter-day Disney Princess and let it go, because this lumpen heap of 'I don't know what the fuck' is pleasing nobody.

★★


Princess is at the Lost Theatre until 19th November. Tickets here.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Review: 'The Worst Was This' at the Hope Theatre, 10th November 2016

Friday, November 11, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


The Worst Was This feels like two plays have crashed headlong into one another. The resulting tangled wreckage is a strange beast: a gothic quasi-Elizabethan portmanteau of horror and historical intrigue that simmers in a cauldron of steampunk burlesque, homoerotic desire and self-referential commentary about the state of theatre.

Plotl A follows a young William Shakespeare (Ben Clifford) furtively passing off the plays of Christopher Marlowe (Robin Heller) as his own. After that famous Deptford bar fight Marlowe's considered dead, yet has secretly become a scarred recluse. Marlowe figures he can exploit Shakespeare's charisma and good looks to get his plays produced, and Shakespeare craves Marlowe's tutelage in order to become a better writer. 

Plot B is a kind of ersatz Sweeney Todd. Mad pub landlord Agatha (Sarah Barron) is an amateur necromancer dead set on reanimating corpses. They're supplied by lunkhead Bones (Mark Jeary), who takes receipt of whatever's left over from Agatha's experiments and turns it into delicious food for all and sundry. Agatha enjoys her work (though is a little discouraged by her lack of success, while Bones is having an ethical dilemma about whether it's right to murder innocent people.

The two stories never meet, despite them taking place in the same building at the same time. This makes for some seriously disjointed drama, neither plot benefiting from constantly switching focus to see what the other one's up to. 

It's clear that the Shakespeare/Marlowe story has had the most work put into it. Still, the whole 'did Shakespeare really write his own plays?' theorising is pretty played out, not to mention that the 'Marlovian' theory this play works on is pretty much discredited.


Then again, something not being true doesn't mean it can't be entertaining. Buuuuut, well, this ain't. Matte O'Brien's script is peppered with Shakespearian quotes and quasi iambic pentameter, but the references are unhappily crowbarred into place and the poetry is leaden (granted, much of that is intentional). There's just no real insight into either of the two playwrights or their work, just a vague command to 'feel' the emotions in a play rather than simply recite them.

(On a more personal bugbear: Christopher Marlowe is referred to throughout the play as 'Chris'. Call him 'Kit' dammit: a) it's actually what people called him and b) it sounds 100x cooler than 'Chris'.)

This leaves the necromantic publord to pick up the slack, which despite being simpler and broader, is much more fun. This is primarily down to Barron and Jeary, who ham it up as much as they can without descending into panto. This is where the majority of the laughs come (though the most amusing moment comes when a prop gets tangled in someone's costume), the two having genuine comic chemistry with each other and a willingness to go big.

The Worst Was This feels like a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen. There's just no detectable creative direction or vision, just competing ideas struggling for attention. Each plot strand would benefit from separation from the other, probably better off being staged as two separate plays than awkwardly mashed into one another. 

On top of all that, it's a technically scrappy production, for example there's typos in the projected scene transitions (e.g "decrepid" for "decrepit"), not to mention an uninspiring set and iffy costuming. While I'm sure it was fun to Wild Goose Chase to devise and rehearse this, they seriously need a bit more discipline and attention to detail.

The Worst Was This isn't the worst, just not very good.

★★

The Worst Was This is at the Hope Theatre until 26th November. Tickets here.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Review: 'Still Ill' at the New Diorama Theatre, 4th November 2016

Friday, November 4, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


In Still Ill, Morrissey asks one of the classical biggies of philosophy "Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?" Are we creatures of intellect or instinct? Are we beholden to our flesh? Do we fool ourselves when we imagine transcending these prisons of bone, sinew and blood? 

It's weighty dramatic territory, but there's few more appropriate prisms to examine it through than psychogenic disease, specifically functional neurological syndrome disorder (FNsD). 

FNsD is a condition in which you begin suffering neurological symptoms like unexplained weakness, seizures or loss of muscular control (to name but a few). If you research these symptoms online, the first thing that's going to leap out at you are two terrifying words: brain tumour. So you make the trip to the hospital and end up nervously lying inside an MRI. When the results come back, the doctor happily explains that there's no physical abnormalities in the brain.

Awesome! There's nothing wrong with you! But even after the all-clear the symptoms persist, maybe even get worse. There's something wrong with you, but the doctors say you're completely fine. Suspicions start to build that you're malingering: making the whole thing up for attention. After all, there's nothing wrong with you, and 'nothing' can't be treated. And yet you're in constant agonising pain. 

Up and coming young actor Sophie (Sophie Steer) finds herself trapped in this cruel medical oubliette. The condition first rears its head as she's playing a doctor in a cheesy medical drama. During a stressful day on set her left hand contorts into a paralysed claw. Terrified, she consults a doctor who injects it with botox; it's miraculously and instantly cured. Problem is, botox only starts working after two days.

As the months progress things only get worse. Sophie begins suffering frequent seizures, chronic pain and even loses muscle control in her leg, confining her to home. The once ambitious young actor is reduced to listlessly watching TV and researching her condition online, each possibly diagnosis inevitably leading down a medical dead end. She grows depressed. Her brother Mark, initially sympathetic, grows suspicious and resentful. All too soon, life has turned to shit.

Still Ill is a marvellous bit of drama: stuffed fulla dramatic creativity, top notch performances and lots and lots of interesting medical information. It's an hour and forty minutes straight through, yet manages to avoid being dull by deploying a tonne of contrasting tones - running the gamut from broad comedy right through to bone-chilling medico-horror.


Sophie Steer is the star attraction: pouring every last drop of her soul into an incredibly physically and mentally demanding role. It's pretty breathtaking stuff, the character going on an odyssey to the depths of frustration, pain and misery. Sounds pretty heavy right? Fortunately it's a journey leavened with humour, and saved from sentimentality by some pretty severe probing of the fourth wall.

Mind you, Hamish McDougall and Harriet Webb are no slouches, believably inhabiting a variety of supporting characters. They fill in the dramatic blanks, constructing a world of helpful yet emotionally distant doctors, snippily caricatured TV production crews and support ground attendees. 

On top of all that, the show is liberally studded with countless imaginative bits of staging, set design and lighting. Characters reach 'through' television sets, conduct brain surgery on a cauliflower, cover the stage in discarded medical supplies, insert a catheter up a cucumber cock or conduct mock Skype sessions through on-stage cameras. In addition, there's some seriously smart blocking - at one point confining Steers to the far corner of the stage, isolating her even within the set.

But the performances and theatrics are all in service to director James Yeatman's masterful control of tone and pace and on-stage live musician Zac Gvirtzman. Still Ill is a show of lulls and swells, snowballing from calm to complete sensory overload. These moments press you back into your seat, the drama almost symphonic as it reaches a series of crescendos that perfectly simulate the stress, frustration and misery experienced by the lead character.

Since watching Todd Haynes' excellent 1995 film Safe, I've been fascinated by psychogenic and psychosomatic illnesses; having spent time reading about medically strange conditions, like electromagnetic hypersensitivity, Morgellons and multiple chemical sensitivity. They present a curious paradox: when external or physical causes have been empirically ruled out, how do you explain a a patient that their life is ruined purely because of their malfunctioning psyche? How can you deliver that information without passing the blame onto them. It's easy to discount these conditions as 'all in the mind': these people are experiencing pain, and medicine is largely failing its obligation to sooth and treat it.

This is the second great play I've seen this week named after a Smiths song, the other being the excellent Rubber Ring (the obvious lesson is to only go see plays full of Moz references). Still Ill deals with this tricky (and unfortunately still fringe) medical subject with style, grace and empathy, making for an enormously affecting bit of theatre. You leave with Morrissey still jangling around in your head, still asking "Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?"

I dunno.

★★★★★

Still Ill is at the New Diorama Theatre until 19th November. Tickets here.

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