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Friday, September 19, 2014

'The Dance of Reality' (2013) directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Friday, September 19, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of the most fascinating cultural figures of the last hundred years.  Equal measures director, actor, artist, philosopher, author and magician he's produced works of genius across a many media, developed his own religion and travelled the globe giving giving philosophical lectures on his philosophy. Like most people I became a fan through his films; the first time I saw The Holy Mountain knocked the stuffing out of me, instantly becoming my favourite film of all time.

Rabid for more I hunted down everything I could find that he'd touched (though I never got my hands on his poorly received 1980 film Tusk).  Once I'd exhausted his cinematic works I moved onto his writings.  As the years passed I resigned myself to never seeing a new film from him, you'd hear odd whisper about phantom projects like Son of El Topo or King Shot, but the financing always fell though and the hype amounted to nothing.

But here we are.  After 23 years a new Jodorowsky film: The Dance of Reality. Virgin mental soil to be ploughed. Has the master lost his touch? What fantastic images lie within?   Can this possibly live up to expectations?  Five minutes in a feminine, blue clad boy had killed every sardine in the ocean.  Later I would see a busty opera singer urinate on her plague-stricken husband.  Soon after there'd be a dog dressed as a kangaroo, graphic genital torture and a man inflicting brutal psychic kung-fu on parading Nazis.  He's BACK, baby!

All of Jodorowsky's major films are autobiographical to some extent, though previously confined to his philosophical and symbological development.  The Dance of Reality, adapted from his own autobiography, skews closer to history than any of his previous films in depicting Jodorowsky's actual childhood.  Shot through with a procession of indelible imagery, the film is a perfect realisation of the director's philosophy that "reality is not objective but rather a “dance” created by our own imaginations."

Born to Jewish-Ukrainian parents in the Chilean city of Tocopilla, Jodorowsky puts his younger self and father Jaime (played by his son, Brontis Jodorowsky) through a series of allegorical trials.  Childhood is presented as a world of strict binary divisions; the young Alejandro forced to choose between masculine and feminine, faith and atheism, fascism and communism, charity and selfishness and so on.  

Jodorowsky paints his upbringing in broad, traumatic strokes.  Most notably his mother and father physical manifestations of their traditional gender roles.  His mother (who only communicates through opera) is caring, artistic, soft, healing and erotic, while his father is uniformed, angry, disciplined and physically strong.  This will change.

One of Jodorowsky's trademark philosophical flourishes is the disintegration of boundaries. These can be physical, historical, ideological or psychological, but by the end of the film the walls are comin' down.  There's a but of beautifully straightforward philosophy early on when Alejandro encounters the 'Theosophist' (played by Cristobal Jodorowsky, the director's son).  He hands Alejandro three medals, the Christian cross, the Jewish star of David and the star and crescent of Islam, saying "They think they're separate, but melt them down in an oven and they will turn into a single drop."

Alejandro's father undergoes this process, going into the oven a hard-nosed ideologue and coming out as some kind of ruined saint unwilling to accept enlightenment.  Late in the film, with wild and hair and thick beard, Brontis Jodorowsky begins to bear an eerie resemblance to the younger Jodorowsky we know from El Topo and The Holy Mountain. A hall of mirrors effect quickly develops among the three central characters: the director as a boy, the director's father (also a symbol of Jodorowsky himself) and the director himself as ghostly presence.

This tangle is a cinematic realisation of Jodorowsky's self-devised psychomagic therapy. The method works as an exploration of the unconscious mind and to relieve repressed trauma. This trauma can be accumulated over the course of a lifetime and unconsciously passed through generations.  This dovetails with his theory of the unconscious as "over-self", and the collective weight of history pressing down upon individuals.  A human being thus becomes like a flower pressed in the pages of a book, locked in place with invisible psychological pressures acting on them from all sides.  

The key to relieving that pressure is the transmutation of psychology, history and compulsion into imaginative, artistic acts.  So, The Dance of Reality is a performance; the creation of the film a psychomagical exorcism of the director and a nudging of his audience towards an artistic reimagining of their own lives.

Still with me?  That all sounds a bit high-falutin I know, but Jodorowsky's work invites this kind of analysis. Anyway, even if you're not on board with esoteric mysticism this is still an incredibly beautiful and imaginative piece of cinema.  Jodorowsky scatters indelible images through his films like confetti, occupying a unique territory somewhere between the circus and the psychologist's sofa. It's nearly always surreal (and often disturbing), but it's a rarely sincere brand of surreal, images chosen because of their precise meaning rather than for shock value.

At 84 Jodorowsky shows no signs of slowing down, though this could very well be his last film.  It would be one hell of a cinematic swansong if it were, the elderly artist reflecting on his distant, dreamlike childhood and turning that fertile clay into art.  The film ends with the young Alejandro purposely marching through a sea of photographs of those left in the past; the ghosts of memory.  We cut a boat, and the director protectively embracing his younger self.  The captain is Death, and Jodorowsky slips away across the white void of a Styx, reciting his own eulogy:
"I soar away from the past, land in the body present, bear the painful burden of years, yet in the heart keep the child. As the bread of life. As a white canary. As a worthy diamond. As a lucidity without walls. Wide open doors and windows through which blows the wind. Only the wind. Just the wind."


The Dance of Reality is available on VOD now.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 17th September 2014

Thursday, September 18, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Sam Mendes' Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is big in every conceivable sense of the word.  No expense has been spared in realising Dahl's idiosyncratic, imaginative vision. Elephantine, impossibly detailed sets process across the stage in a dizzying demonstration of what loadsamoney can buy a production. There's no denying that this is the razzliest, dazzliest thing on the London stage at the moment, the sheer scale of the thing a monument to a financially tumescent West End.  But is it any good?

No.  Not really.  

Don't get me wrong, it's certainly not boring. Every couple of minutes they'll wheel out some stunning bit of production design to gawp out, the cast will do a song and dance on it and you'll give them a deserved round of applause. But the experience as a whole is oddly hollow, the glitz in place to camouflage the fact that there's not much going on here.

Somewhere down the line, the wonder and whimsy of Dahl's book has been lost in translation.  At first glance the book appears perfect fodder for adaptation into a stage musical.  After all it's essentially a series of larger-than-life set pieces populated by larger-than-life characters shot through Dahl's trademark sadistic sense of morality, and anyway, it was already successfully translated into musical form in the much loved 1971 film adaptation.  Surely you'd have to try pretty damn hard to screw this up.

But the ball has been fumbled.  Skulking around the back of my mind during the entire show is the RSC's competing Dahl adaptation: the marvellous Matilda, a dramatically precise and beautifully realised musical that's far superior to Charlie.  Now, Matilda is no slouch when it comes to crowd-pleasing theatrics, at least in terms of spectacle Charlie has it beat.  But that's the only area in which Charlie comes out on top.

The crucial difference between is personality.  Matilda Wormwood is rounded, likeable and interesting, whereas Charlie Bucket is the dullest child in the Dahl canon. His personality consists of subservient acceptance of poverty, saint-like niceness and... that's about it.  No wonder this show effectively shunts him off stage for much of the second half, favouring the obnoxious yet far more entertaining gaggle of Salt, Teavee, Beauregarde and Gloop.  But without a decent protagonist to pin our hopes to, the show never quite finds its emotional centre.

This is compounded by the entire first act taking place in the grim, post-apocalyptic nightmare where the Bucket family ekes out their subsistence existence.  This place is so cartoonishly horrible that it makes it impossible to empathise with Charlie's poverty, so your enjoyment largely rests on whether you find the antics of Charlie's bed-dwelling octogenarian relatives amusing. This material isn't awful, but with the titular chocolate factory sitting in tantalising silhouette at the stage rear you wish they'd pick up the pace and get on with it. After all, we're here to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, not Charlie and the Mad Max Hellscape.

Even after we retake our seats for the second half we're still not in the damn factory yet. Finally, mercifully, we make our way inside - and from here the show is a straight run of glittering stagecraft until the curtain falls.  But though the children's antics in the factory are entertaining (I particularly liked Veruca Salt, who though a complete nightmare at least knows what she wants out of life), it still never quite hit the dramatic sweet spot.

This is partly the responsibility of Alex Jenning's Willy Wonka, who never achieves the sinister eccentricity that the show needs to work.  He's an aloof, cultured and faintly snooty Wonka, all crucial traits but that quite gel into a fully rounded character.  The key to making Wonka work as a character is to show us glimpses of his insecurities - his desperate need to hide them the reason for all the showmanship.  Jenning's Wonka is too confident a showman - we never see the cracks in his visage.

Also harming the show is the purely functional songbook.  It's notable that by far the best musical number is Pure Imagination, the only song used from the '71 movie.  Here the show achieves that elusive synthesis of emotion, whimsy and spectacle, the glass elevator sequence looking great and, just for a moment, genuinely inspiring.  The rest of the songs are considerably less memorable, it's been less than a day since I saw the show and I can't hum any catchy melodies from it.  Worse, the songs are so loud and lyrically dense that it's difficult to make out what they're singing about.  The worst offender is the frantic rap that introduces Violet Beauregarde, the lyrics completely drowned out in an overly busy soundscape.

I feel somewhat disingenuous slating the show this much.  Herculean efforts have gone into realising Dahl's world on stage, the mind boggles at the amount of time, talent and money required to stage a show this big and complex.  There's a decent argument that it's worth seeing Charlie just to marvel at Mark Thompson's outstanding sets, fractally crammed with infinite flourishes of artistry.  The child performers, no doubt the cream of London's stage schools, all acquit themselves brilliantly, keeping the show consistently entertaining as simple spectacle.  

Spectacle isn't enough though.  Afterwards that hollow feeling grows and grows as you try to grasp the heart that must be somewhere under all these smoke and mirrors.  You come up empty handed. There's sound.  There's fury.  But it in the end it signifies nothing.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.  Tickets here.

Huge thanks to Official Theatre and Rebecca Felgate for the ticket.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

'Third World Bunfight / Brett Bailey Macbeth' at the Barbican Centre

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Commander Macbeth, leader of a bloodthirsty militia raping and pillaging its way through the Democratic Republic of Congo, strikes an imposing figure. Illuminated from behind by tessellating patterns of light his features slowly melt away into silhouette; reducing him from an individual into some sick ideal of an African warlord.  AK47 clutched in hand, tyrannical physique swaddled in camouflage gear and surrounded by baubles of Western extravagance he could be any one in an infinite procession of brutal bastards, each rising up through blood and intimidation to wreak havoc with armies of drugged-out child soldiers.

Brett Bailey's adaptation of Verdi's opera goes for the jugular early and often, a slimmed down, muscular Macbeth shot through with angry, intelligent politics and realised with neon pop-concert staging.  In an opening preamble we read that in 1935 an amateur opera company visited the city of Goma and staged Verdi's Macbeth.  They disappeared, leaving behind a case filled with dusty old costumes and scoresheets.  The conceit of this show is a modern company discovering this case and creating their own production influenced by the recent history of the DRC.

You don't need to be particularly clued up on recent African history to know that this region is drenched in blood and plagued by atrocity.  This makes it fertile ground for a reimagining of Macbeth, the 11th century tangle of nobles, castle, dynasties and witches replaced by militia commanders, secure compounds and predatory multinational corporations.  This cycle of rising warlords battling for control of regions, gaining power and being subsequently slaughtered by their rivals fits Macbeth like a glove.  

Commander Macbeth (Owen Metsileng)
Reimaginings of Shakespeare set in the present often feel crowbarred into shape to fit the circumstances.  For example, a recent prison-set Hamlet worked well enough, but you could see the ragged edges where medieval Denmark didn't quite fit.  So it's a little scary how perfectly Macbeth slots into this time and place.  Perhaps this isn't so surprising though; after all Idi Amin did famously dub himself "the uncrowned King of Scotland".

Central to Bailey's adaptation is the reimagining of the witches as besuited representatives of the Hexagon Mining Corporation.  The DRC is rich in minerals, notably gold and tantalite, both crucial in keeping the West equipped with shiny new phones and tablets. Under the bloodsoaked soil lies a fortune for the canny investor, but one dependant on buttering up the local despots.  Here, the witches aren't mystical dealers in prophecy  but actively manipulating events to their own ends, using Macbeth's ambition as a means to gain control of these resources.

Commander Macbeth (Owen Metsileng) thus becomes the military arm of Western corporate interests, his militia doing the dirty work that the corporation officially washes its hands of.  His transformation is soon made literal when Macbeth dons a ceremonial hat in the form of a bloody fist, turning his body into a limb.  Though the character is venal, bloodthirsty and cruel this overt manipulation makes sympathetic.  Bailey paints him as a puppet unable to see his strings, strings that tragically are all too visible to the audience.

Lady Macbeth (Nobulumko Mngxekeza), introduced washing clothes by hand tub undergoes a no less disturbing transformation.  She becomes fatally infected by Western consumerism, swaddling herself in Harrods jewellery and dressing in haute couture.  The cycle of murder she and her husband become locked in is twinned with their desire to lead a fantasy life of luxury dangled like a carrot on a string by the corporations seeking to exploit them.  Key to this is that Shakespeare's Macbeth begins as a noble, whereas this couple start with nothing, clawing their way up from the dirt.  In a dog eat dog world no wonder they cling to what they've gained with murderous jealousy.

Transferring ultimate responsibility for these events from Commander Macbeth to the Hexagon Corporation gives Bailey's opera a sharp political bite.  Subtle links in staging and costuming connecting the colonial past to modern corporatist control. We gradually realise that Macbeth's rise and fall has been carefully orchestrated; the ultimate aim to keep the region unstable and ripe for exploitation.  After all, a democratic, authoritative government might put in place labour laws, export taxes and consider nationalising industry - all anathema to corporations for whom profit is above all else.

That all sounds a bit heavy for a night out right?  Fortunately this Macbeth is also riddled right through with a surprising amount of sly humour and wit for a show that features dead babies and photos of corpses.  For example, Macbeth informs his wife about his initial encounter with the witches by text message: "Met witches in forest.  Said I'd b King.  L8r bbz X"  The opera is also peppered with foul language, as Macbeth belts out Verdi's opera the surtitles inform us he's ranting about "motherfuckers!" and yelling "fuck them all!". Opera is usually pretty staid (or at least its usual audiences are), so it was refreshing to hear an audience laughing so hard.

Neocolonialist bastards, skulls and dead babies.
I was initially faintly suspicious that an opera using the DRC conflicts as a backdrop was being a touch exploitative.  There's a slight queasiness about a classy London opera audience being entertained by tales of African barbarism, nodding in understanding, then retreating to bourgeois suburbia.  This is largely defused by a series of cards introducing us to the performers and their backgrounds: most are war orphans from the area and a few are former child soldiers.  Their beautiful singing underlines the our unthinking complicity in their pasts - singing ironically (though I guess appropriately) interrupted a few times by chirping mobiles from the audience.

At just an hour and forty minutes this rockets along without pausing for breath, mixing together Verdi's music with glittering disco balls, back-projected animations and costuming with one foot in reality and the other in allegory.  It's consistently entertaining and warmly performed - every couple of minutes there's a flourish of imaginative staging that keeps audiences engaged. Above all this is a fiercely intelligent dissection of the corporate forces that keep the DRC wading knee-deep through a river of gore - Macbeth turning out to be the perfect vehicle for this grim tale.

'Third World Bunfight / Brett Bailey Macbeth' is at the Barbican Centre until 20th September.  Tickets here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

'In Order of Disappearance' (2014) directed by Hans Petter Moland

Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

"Snow falls on the just and unjust alike in Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance. The white stuff has always been a great symbol of the nature’s indifference to man – a blanket that erases everything under static, frozen purity. To battle against snow is like ordering the oncoming tide to retreat.

In Order of Disappearance finds its Canute in Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård). He lives in a remote, snowblasted town in the backwaters of Norway, devoting his life to the vital task of clearing the roads of snow. His tool for this is a gigantic industrial plough, a fearsome mechanical beast with tyres wreathed in chains and an armored wedge bolted to the front. Nils is hugely respected, we meet him just as he receives ‘The Citizen of Year Award,’ and local politicians are trying to convince him to stand as a political representative. Life is good. Chilly, but good."

Read the rest at We Got This Covered.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

'A Most Wanted Man' (2014) directed by Anton Corbijn

Sunday, September 14, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Despair looms large over A Most Wanted Man.  As the last lead role of Philip Seymour Hoffman there's a pang of emotion as appears, every minute that ticks by one less until he'll never be in a new film again.  But leaving such extratextual concerns aside, that this is a deeply bleak movie about broken people half-heartedly running through routines, and, given that this is an adaptation of a John le Carré novel, that routine is spycraft.

Set in modern Hamburg, the titular wanted man is Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin).  He's a Chechen Muslim fleeing the wars in his home country. He's traumatised by his brutall tortured at the hands of Russian intelligence, his body a map of scars and cigarette burns. The Russians inform the Hamburg spy community that Karpov is a dangerous extremist, a one man terror threat.  

The Hamburg spy community, still smarting with residual guilt that the 9/11 attacks were planned from the city, fixates upon Karpov, desperate to acquire him for their own ends. Prime among them is Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an veteran spy running a small-scale extrajudicial intelligence operation. Unbeholden to any state he does the tasks that the law prevents the other agencies doing.  

Soon we're wrapped up in a knotty mess of various agencies jockeying for turf, planting bugs and cameras everywhere, clandestine meetings in smoky cafes and people being black-bagged off the street and bundled into vans.  As in every le Carré adaptation the film all but demands close attention, lest you forget the differing motivations of the numerous shadowy groups of besuited figures.

At the core of A Most Wanted Man is an ethical battle between cinematic pleasure and real-world politics. Though reality is dialled up, Bachmann's spy team is still roughly analogous to Mission: Impossible (or any number of action movie spy crews).  It's thrilling to watch them work; be they in a race against time to plant bugs and camera before their target becomes suspicious, exchanging under the table information through cigarette packets or stalking people through the busy Hamburg streets.  Corbijn's spycraft is hardly sexy, but there's a Germanic care and precision to it that's easy to admire.

Taken in isolation the actions of our lead characters are pretty damn far from heroic: a litany of invasions of privacy, manipulations of trust and mental torture (backed by the subtle threat of physical torture).  Yet by dint of the narrative focus these are nonetheless our heroes, audience identification with them cemented by our shared perception of the world through a camera lens, in their case security footage and bugs, in our case a cinema screen. This identification gives us a vicarious thrill. Wow, what if I was a spy?  How cool would that be?

The notion of a secret world existing in parallel with our own is a seductive fictional device. Thus, A Most Wanted Man is essentially Harry Potter for grown-ups.  Both exploit the same suspicion that there's something going on around us that we're not privy to, and both feature characters that become sucked into this secret world.   Though cloaked in gritty reality, spycraft may as well be wizardry for all the relevance it has to the average viewer, andso  despite our best efforts we end up rooting for this team.

Pushing back against that is the deepening realisation that our cool, sexy, interesting and smart protagonists are monsters.  Corbijn and le Carré are at pains to emphasise that not only are our hero's methods ridiculously unethical, but ineffectual and without purpose. Spies are repeatedly quizzed as to why they're doing this, always falling back on the meaningless mantra that they're "making the world a safer place".  

The intelligence community is thus exposed as simply going through the motions.  They need to be seen to be doing something to justify their existence, and victimising traumatised asylum seekers and innocent members of the public is better than twiddling their thumbs. Their lack of ideological passion is contrasted with the focussed aims of their enemies, who are at least fighting for something they believe in.  As Walter Sobchak said, "Dude, at least it's an ethos!".

Our hero's lack of focus suffuses the film with nihilism, expressed not only their actions but in Corbijn's desaturated visual style.  Our heroes are constantly placed in boxes within boxes, whether it be in cramped basement headquarters, booths in cafes, glass meeting rooms within offices or vans in car parks.  This, coupled with a repeated motif of characters being obscured: behind smoked glass, blocked by scenery or behind opaque plastic sheets works to separate these people from the 'real world', underlining their removal from reality as we know it. 

When they do break into the real world it's presented as a chaotic, senseless mess. So, for example Bachmann's carefully ordered world completely breaks down when confronted by a packed, sweaty nightclub.  The implication quickly becomes that these people are less fighting to make the world a safer place and more to construct a reality that justifies their continued existence.  

The battleground for this debate takes place over the haggard, almost albino, features of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Chain-smoking, glugging booze by the bottleful and with lidded, rheumy red-eyes he looks desperately sick.  These are the physical manifestations of his increasingly cynical view of his role in the world, something contrasted against his lint-free, perfectly coiffed CIA counterpart.  It's not a career defining performance, but it's one hell of a swansong.

A Most Wanted Man isn't a perfect movie (Rachel McAdams is totally miscast), but it's got political, moral and ethical complexity baked into its DNA.  Corbijn walks the tightrope between these poles with skill, aided by le Carré's rightly cynical tone. A quiet, sinister and darkly compelling piece of cinema.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

'You're Always With Me' at the Lost Theatre, 12th September 2014

Saturday, September 13, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

You're Always With Me is a curious piece of theatre that often feels like it's fallen out of a time warp.  Written by Soviet playwright Ilyas Afandyev in the early 60s it's a chewy chunk of social realism about factory workers, pokey flats, familial betrayal and love found in odd places. This is the the first English production of a play that seems to have made little cultural impact outside its native Azerbaijan - using Google as a metric, the only search results for the play link to this production and it merits but a passing mention on Wikipedia in Afandyev's bibliography.

So what have we been missing out on?  This is of an unlikely love story of middle-aged factory owner Hesenzadé (Doug Devaney) and the teenage Mergilé (Stephanie Harte).  Hesenzadé is a solitary widower, introduced happily chatting away to what turns out to be the ghost of his wife.  Despite being eligible, financially secure and handsome he never remarried, transferring his paternal emotions onto his employees.

Meanwhile Mergilé is a girl desperately in need of a bit of kindness.  Following the death of her father in World War II her mother, Mezaket (Zara Plessard) married the dastardly Faraj (Karl Niklas). He's a petty domestic tyrant, marching around the house hissing orders, terrorising the family, purposefully spilling orange juice on the floor and generally being a bit of a dick.  Now he wants Mergilé gone, intending to convert her bedroom into his study. So, putting the clamps on Mezaket he demands she choose between her husband and her daughter.  Goodbye Mergilé.

With Mergilé miserable, lonely and needing a job it's all too natural that she latches onto the fatherly Hesenzadé.  As the two grow closer the town's collective eyebrow slowly raises and Mergilé's mother angrily tries to convince the two to knock if off.  And thus drama is sown.

This is a curious love story.  Mergilé is all over Hesenzadé like jam on bread, practically throwing herself at him in a series of clumsy flirtations. She cleans up his flat, makes him tea and pays him increasingly bizarre compliments.  A highlight is when she calmly explains she's been secretly observing him through the window for years, in particular claiming that his hands have become powerful symbols of security and strength for her.  Frankly if a girl said that to me I'd be nervously eyeing the door and worrying about the health of my pets.

But Hesenzadé apparently takes all this in his stride, spending most of the play calmly sitting on a sofa sipping tea.  I never once got the impression that he was even a little bit romantically inclined towards Mergilé.  Instead he treats her with affable politeness, offering up fatherly nuggets of wisdom and treating her romantic advances with polite tolerance.

I'm genuinely not sure if this total lack of romantic response from Hesenzadé is intentional or a flaw in the performance or translation.  Confusingly in the final scenes he appears to undergoing some kind of teary heroic sacrifice by leaving Mergilé and setting her up with a younger man. Considering he's spent most of the play nonchalantly treating her as a semi-pleasant distraction this all feels a bit unwarranted.

The upshot of this is that Mergilé ends up looking increasing barmy, descending into dreamy romantic bliss over the most unlikely of candidates.  She's a rather simple creature to psychologically diagnose: with "Daddy issues" written all over her.  Her idolisation of her dead father, hatred of her stepfather and transference of these emotions onto Hesenzadé is bordering on dramatic cliche - especially when she apparently begins to properly crack up and begins seeing her wicked stepfather in every other man.

It's difficult to work out precisely why You're Always With Me never quite gels.  Is it the translation? The performances? The direction?  Is the play old-fashioned? Am I missing some 1960s Soviet allegory?  Whatever it is, it's fair to say that there's something malfunctioning.

By and large the cast do a decent job with often clunky dialogue.  Devaney and Harte don't even have a smidge of romantic chemistry, but their respective tranquillised/manic personalities at least make for a interesting combination of characters. Plessard as the angry, guilt-ridden mother makes a decent stab at combining the two emotions. Niklas ends up in Disney villain territory as Faraj, but throws in a much needed shot of comedy as harried factory supervisor Badal.  Sadly there's not really much scope for anyone to really cut loose, especially as many potentially dramatic scenes are hamstrung by being conducted over telephone.

As the curtain fell my first thought was "is that it?"  It's not that You're Always With Me is a particularly terrible production, but there's not a great deal to recommend about it.  You can tell that this is a play with a point - what that point is is beyond me.

You're Always With Me is at the Lost Theatre until the 27th of September.  Tickets here.

Friday, September 12, 2014

'Forbidden Broadway' at the Vaudeville Theatre, 11th September 2014

Friday, September 12, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Forbidden Broadway is luvvie crack. Pricking pomposity is a rich seam of humour and there are few more puffed up targets than the West End.  With half a billion pounds (!!!) spent on tickets to the London stage, the West End's collective ego has rarely been this bloated. Corporations hungrily jostle for a piece of the pie and budgets spiral off into infinity as audiences demand ever bigger spectacles. The knock-on effect is a minimisation of risk, theatres clogged with safe investments: safe adaptation translated the safest of safe ways.

These are ripe prospects for parody and Forbidden Broadway takes the stage with knives sharpened.  The night functions as a 'roast' of the West End, parodying specific productions and personalities with a series of musical numbers.  There's a big hurdle to overcome in parodying West End shows, namely that you really need some serious talent to cover the standard West End songbook.  

So it's fortunate that Forbidden Broadway has one of the talented quartets you'll see in the West End right now, parody show or not.  Christiano Bianco, Anna-Jane Casey, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis display a frighteningly accurate talent for chameleonic transformation.  One moment they're squeaking about the stage as Matilda Wormwood, the next they're raucous, yelling soldiers or a manic, sequin-encrusted Liza Minelli - their individual personalities shining through the myriad characters.  

The success of Forbidden Broadway lies in its ability to make you laugh at references you don't get.  To fully appreciate everything here you'd need an encyclopaedic knowledge of not only the current productions of the West End stage, but the professional culture humming away backstage and the last 50 years of musical theatre here and in New York.  For example, there's a number devoted to the ego of producer Cameron Mackintosh, the radio gossip of Elaine Paige and the staging preferences of Trevor Nunn.

There is a knowledge barrier to entry, but it's set mercifully low.  I go to the theatre in London a couple of times a week and at least a third of these gags went straight over my head - but I still laughed.  A pinball fast ricochet momentum builds up, the cast pinging off each other and quickly achieving a gags-per-minute speed that beats damn near anything else on the London stage.  Not all of them hit equally, but between the curtain's rise and fall you'll spend more time laughing than not.

Personal highlights were a vicious piss-take of the zombie-like Miss Saigon, compressing the plot into a half-baked splodge of melodrama. It's here that Forbidden Broadway's skills are most keenly felt; the ability to peel away the layers of pretension to poke fun at the core of a musical, picking precise, perfect moments to parody.  In mocking the questionable racial politics of the show it flies pretty close to the bone in terms of taste, but does so with enough confidence and verve to get away scot-free.

Another bright spot was a takedown of Once, a show I haven't even seen (but from what I've heard fully expect to despise).  We get right to the heart of things from second one; the stage filling with cheeky, cheery accordion playing Irish folk types singing about potatoes and Lucky Charms.  It's hardly the most cerebral attack, but the bluntness pays off.  This is also the one point in the play where the cast crack up themselves, their enjoyment infectiously transmitting to the crowd.

There are a few moments where not knowing the subject of parody begins to affect the humour. Throughout the show there's playful caricatures of various divas - some of whom I was familiar with and some of whom I'd only vaguely heard of.  See Me on a Monday jabs at the singing skills of Bernadette Peters and, to be honest, I don't know a huge amount about her other than that she's a famous Broadway star.  

It's in numbers like these that the Broadway origins are exposed. Obvious care has been taken to pick sketches relevant to the London stage, but there's the odd exception that doesn't work as well as the others.  A duet between two bitchy Spanish stars of West Side Story is more likely to confuse London audiences than entertain - I had no idea who either of these women were.  On a similar bent there's precious little material here that's exclusively London focussed - I was craving takedowns of flops like From Here to Eternity, I Can't Sing! or Viva Forever! But these are quibbles rather than genuine complaints and it seems churlish to complain that my particular bugbears weren't catered for.  

The key to Forbidden Broadway's success is that underneath all the acid wit and pitch-perfect comedy it's built on a bedrock of love the medium.  It mocks because it wants the stage to improve and grow, the real bile reserved for mediocrity and neverending productions (mocking Les Miserables with Ten Years More!).  The frequent insights into backstage politics, the process of prostituting your talent in crappy shows, and the simple boredom of being stuck backstage waiting for your part means the show attacks from a position of experience, insider authority always shines through.

Forbidden Broadway is deeply funny, whip-smart and superhumanly energetic.  Honestly, my review could be as simple as this: "I laughed and laughed and laughed".  Top stuff.

Forbidden Broadway is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 22 November.  Tickets here.

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