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Friday, January 30, 2015

'James Veitch: Work in Progress' at the Pleasance Theatre, 29th January 2015

Friday, January 30, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


As always, please bear in mind that The Pleasance's current comedy season is intended to showcase works in progress. It's a dick move to criticise someone working out the particulars of their act; you don't get to be a shining star at the Edinburgh Fringe without a bit of trial and error.

I've always been wary of including technology in performance. The moment you bring a laptop, projector or phone on stage you're introducing a thousand different variables. Before you know it you're bound up in a cocoon of USB, HDMI and power cables, each with their own very important socket to be in. James Veitch lives within this rat's nest of wires, his act relying on a Macbook Pro, an iPhone, a projector, a keyboard and the co-operation of a sound man way up high. Bigger men than Veitch have foundered against technological rocks like these.

Fortunately, Veitch is a genius - it says so on his business cards. Coming straight to us from the corporate world of Apple, if anyone canget all this technology synchronised it's him. Even if he wasn't wearing an Apple branded t-shirt you'd figure him for the Genius support type; rake-skinny, thick-framed glasses and a pallid complexion that suggests long, late nights in, illuminated only by the cold glow of a Retina screen.

In terms of personality he's flighty and high-strung, flitting between several different subjects at once, all peppered with self-deprecation. It's as if his lips can't keep up with the speed of his mind, uhmm-ing and ahh-ing down a couple of trains of thought at once. He reminded me of a young Woody Allen, performing as much to himself as to the audience - a stage persona that flirts with innocence and optimism before collapsing down to a rueful core.

Much of what saw being worked out last night were tricks and games played with websites and apps. The best example was lifted from his previous show. Veitch signed up 'Guardian Soulmates', his profile picture showing him with a friendly duck. Upon his account being suspended on the grounds that no other person was allowed to be in the picture, he complained and got it reinstated.  He then followed this up by sending the website an angry letter from the duck. The duck then got it's own (far more successful) dating profile.

Veitch & duck
Told through Powerpoint it's an engrossing, surreal and deeply funny routine, apparently influenced by the precise geekiness of Dave Gorman. But the theme of screwing with the established rules of websites and apps goes on to head pretty damn close to the bone. The most striking part of the set revolves around 'Be My Eyes'; an app for people who're blind that lets them contact a sighted person who will describe what their phone camera is pointed at.

Problem is, there's a huge imbalance between potential helpers and those who need assistance. Veitch decides to have some fun with this enormous bank of patiently waiting eyes. Feigning blindness he holds a letter up the camera: it's a goodbye from his dying Grandmother. She says she has one, final, crucial, all-important piece of advice for him - but the letter eventually trails off into frustrating incoherence. 

The idea of some good-natured soul getting suckered into first breaking a death to a blind guy, then being unable to finish reading the letter, is funny. Funny in a goddamn cruel and morally questionable way granted, but still funny. Problem is, in technical terms it doesn't quite come together. Maybe the app is crappily coded, but the voices coming down the line sound like drowning robots, reduced to disjointed metallic whining.

Things get even more confusing when Veitch bravely attempts it live. The randomly picked responder sounds like he's in a bathroom and seems to care little about reading the letter. It's the kind of great idea that, if it worked as planned, would be the delicious cherry atop a fluffy comedy cake. But there's a heck of a lot riding against it working live - so many stars have to align just right.

Despite the technical hitches throughout the act, momentum is just about maintained. We skip willy-nilly between topics, but usually alight on some well-observed aside. My favourites were a great gag about being unable to connect to the omnipresent BTOpenzone wifi, the realisation that living alone finally allows you to see how long shower gel really lasts and using the looparound 'Lost Forest' level in The Legend of Zelda as a metaphor for life.

Veitch is clearly not short of inspiration; tossing out original, interesting and imaginative ideas like confetti. It's an extremely promising act, especially when you take into account how polished the older stuff is and imagine the newer stuff taken to the same level.  I'd love to see this show with the creases firmly ironed out and the gags polished to a mirror sheen. It's brimming over with potential and as long as the tech behaves itself this should knock audience's socks off.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

'Beyond Clueless' (2015) directed by Charlie Lyne

Wednesday, January 28, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Who would have thought the sight of a fresh-faced Freddie Prinze Jr could conjure up such nostalgia? There's a lot of him in Beyond Clueless, as well as his teen star cohorts: there's Seann William Scott! Mena Suvari! Matthew Lillard! Seth Green! Jason Biggs! Everyone is so young, hopeful and fancy-free, sure that these days of wine and roses will never end. Oh you sweet summer children, such naïvety...

Beyond Clueless is a docu-collage knitted together from US high school movies, examining their fashions, psychologies and ideological underpinnings. It's worthy of attention: year on year Hollywood cranks out high school movies, always pieced together from the same basic building blocks. You've got your jocks, skaters, nerds, preps and cheerleader cliques. You've got mean gym instructors, awkward transfer students, sexy French teachers, bitchy popular kids and dorky stoners. We troop through school theatre, the big game, debate club, SAT exams and, that all conquering social colossus, the Prom. Having grown up in Britain, I have no first hand experience of US high school, but I've lived thousands of simulations.

In its parade of semi-forgotten faces toothily grinning under regrettable haircuts, Beyond Clueless presents us with a vision of neverending adolescence. As Matthew McConaughey memorably said in Linklater's Dazed & Confused "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age." The film congeals hundreds of slightly different cinematic high schools into an omnifictional megaschool where Cady Heron can rub shoulders with Peter Parker, Cher can warily eye up Kathryn Merteuil and Rachel Lang can telekinetically tussle with Nancy Downs.


With Fairuza Balk as dispassionate narrator, we're led through the showers, classrooms, gyms and playing fields of hundreds of schools, constantly zeroing in on the common elements. This culture is approached with a rigorous anthropologists eye, giving us examinations of the role of the 'new kid' and the clique system, the consequences and dangers of not fitting in, explosions of violence and frothy oceans of teenage lust. 

Though there's hundreds of films here a few are singled out for closer inspection. Watching critical analyses of The Craft, The Rage: Carrie 2, Euro Trip and Idle Hands was like catnip for me. These films are trashy, but Beyond Clueless gives them totemic significance; Rosetta Stones for understanding the teenage psyche (or what old white studio heads imagine the teenage psyche to be).

Charlie Lyne's editing goes a long, long way towards elevating these films to cultural artefects. I wouldn't recommend anyone actually watch the execrable Carrie 2, but slicing out the few genuinely interesting bits and presenting them to us in montage makes it feel worthy of study. This kaleidoscope effect echoes Adam Curtis' style, the images may not logically fit together but they do work subconsciously, fractured moments building up to a meaningful jigsaw. This woozy effect is further underlined by a truly excellent score from Summer Camp, current champs of retro-flavoured, sunkissed synth-indie. 


Excellent pacing and scoring allows Lyne to gently ratchet up the pace, culminating in a terrifying litany of violence set to relentless electronic pounding. It's a hell of a sequence, a blizzard of bloody blows and children waving guns at each other. In moments like these, with all extraneous narrative distraction stripped away, Beyond Clueless achieves Herzoggian ecstatic truth. Individual films futilely grasp at that indefinable teenage emotional intensity, capturing brief flashes here and there. Here, in concert, that intensity is realised, and it makes for breathtaking cinema.

That said, there's some slight friction between the critical and aesthetic ambitions. Analyses of, say, puberty in Ginger Snaps, are right on the money but a little obvious. Similarly, a lengthy probe into Euro Trip's latent homoeroticism is cleverly observed, but the argument peters out towards the end. 

This criticism applies to the film as a whole, it's strongest when delving into psychology and subtext but lacking when tying it all together into a conclusion. I was reminded of the Žižek Pervert's Guide to... documentaries: both they and Beyond Clueless search for meaning in mainstream cinema, yet while Žižek successfully grounds his analyses in a wider sociopolitical/ideological context, this largely eludes Beyond Clueless. 

That aside, this is a brilliant piece of playfully subversive and archly funny analytical cinema that's tuned right into my sensibilities. Where the hell else am I going to see unjustly ignored classics like 2001's Josie and the Pussycats given the attention they richly deserve? But Beyond Clueless's real strength lies on the visual/auditory level: to watch is to step into a pop-inflected hyper-real dream of the past.

If you're even remotely interested in digging beyond the surface of pop culture you'll dig this.

★★★★

Beyond Clueless is on limited release now.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

'Shakespeare in Love' at the Noël Coward Theatre, 26th January 2015

Tuesday, January 27, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


"Shall I compare thee to a... autumn afternoon... to a... spring morning.. to a s.... something!" The sight of William Shakespeare scratching fruitlessly away, frustrated that he can't conjure forth magic is a compelling one. Everybody knows Shakespeare's works, but the man himself? He remains elusive, known to us only through a handful of letters, contemporaneous accounts and legal documents. Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the 1997 Oscar-winning film, aims to reveal what was going on behind the legend.

Here we have a young, not yet firmly established, Will Shakespeare (Orlando James) jockeying for position in the world of Elizabethan theatre. With a couple of minor successes under his belt he's on the up and up, yet still labouring in the shadow of Kit Marlow (Edward Franklin). Positioned at the centre of a morass of competing creditors, egotistical actors and hungry audiences, the pressure is on for a hit. Fortunately he's cooking up a humdinger: 'Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter' (though the title could use some work).

He'd be making great gains, if it weren't for crippling writer's block. The cure turns out to be the fragrant Viola De Lesseps (Eve Ponsonby). She's a lover of theatre and poetry trapped in the bondage of Tudor aristocracy. Arranged to be married to a titled man and shipped over to a Virginia plantation she exists in a state of frustrated misery. She lifts her spirits with a spot of cross-dressing, disguising herself as 'Thomas Kent' and auditioning for the role of Romeo. What follows is a whirlwind of mistaken identities, theatrical intrigue, slapstick comedy and hot n' heavy sexual passion - Tudor style!


The idea of a young Shakespeare only able to write his most famous plays because he was essentially living one is dramatically seductive; allowing for a tonne of literary allusions and metafictional elements. Large chunks of the play rely on the audience picking up on references to the plays. These range from the clever; Shakespeare exclaiming "O Brave New World!" when he uncovers Viola's drag act, to the clunky, a dog is chased off stage to shouts of "Out, out damned Spot!" (conjuring more groans than laughs).

With the original script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (now rejigged by Lee Hall), the play never lets up with the Elizabethan theatre references . These gags are one of the main pillars of the play; the references allowing the audience to feel smart. Though the constant knowing winks flirt with obnoxiousness we stay on just the right side of charming. It's a close call, lurking in the background there's the suspicion that Shakespeare in Love is a hollow plastic facsimile of literature - for those who'd like to experience culture without exercising their mind.

Fortunately the show is so bright n' breezy and the cast so effortlessly charming that it's easy to quash that fear. From the moment the curtain rises the show is suffused with a whipcrack energy. The wooden set, echoing Elizabethan theatres, features two large balconies above the stage. These constantly teem with life, performers gazing down at the principals below, people clatter up and down the stairs and clamber over each other's shoulders.

This hive of activity, often featuring a live band playing the score, is deeply satisfying to watch - quoting the aesthetics of Shakespearian theatre with a generous sprinkling of modern playfulness. Buoying this up are a tremendous cast; everyone from the principals to the supporting players dialled into precisely the same wavelength, bouncing off each other like a giant theatrical pinball machine. Particular accolades go to Paul Brennan's Fennyman, who adorably travels from ganglord torturer to fanboy thesp - giddy with excitement about getting to play the apothecary. Peter Moreton's enormous ham Burbage also impresses, though a part this bombastic is a gift to any actor. There is also a dog, which is received with rapturous applause at every appearance. The dog is fine, but its arrival too easily melts the audience's hearts - it feels like cheating!


Everyone here is very talented, but this show lies or dies in the romantic comedy partnership of Orlando James and Eve Ponsonby. James is very good as Will, perfectly conveying the young Shakespeare as a dissolute "bankside poet". There's an arty bohemian hunkiness to the way he dances across the stage in glee when caught up in love or hurling himself to the floor in melodramatic misery. But it's in the magnificent Eve Ponsonby that the show truly finds its soul, finding a tightly coiled spring of sexuality underneath the Viola's restrictive bustles and petticoats and unleashing it with a triumphant *SPROING!* At all times she's an absolute pleasure to watch, imbuing what could easily be some textbook tomboy with brains, agency and attractive, gutsy determination.

Shakespeare in Love is not an important play - it has absolutely nothing to say about the state of the world, zero political positioning and no theatrical innovation. As an experience it's sweet and fluffy as a meringue, so gossamer light that it could blow away in a mild breeze. This isn't going to shake up the West End, but it's very good at being funny, charming and romantic. A minor, slightly forgettable, triumph, but a triumph nonetheless.

Shakespeare in Love is at the Noël Coward Theatre until April 18th. Tickets here.

Huge thanks to the wonderful Rebecca of OfficialTheatre.com for the ticket!

Monday, January 26, 2015

David Elms at the Pleasance Theatre, 25th January 2015

Monday, January 26, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


From December to February, The Pleasance Theatre is transforming into a laboratory. Clad in surgical whites, clipboard in hand, comedians are playing scientist; experimenting with new material, figuring out timing and discarding the failures. The audience are white rats; gags being tested on us and our reactions intently studied. Given that these are works in progress it'd be wrong to rigorously review them, but comment? Ah why not?

On last night was David Elms, who comes lightly garlanded with a smattering of awards; making two 'Best One-Liner' lists from the Edinburgh Fringe, finalist in the Chortle Student Comedy Awards and Edinburgh University's Stand Up of the year. I'd never heard of him, but those who had spoke highly of him so expectations were sort of high.

Then again, stand-up comedy at 8pm on a Sunday evening doesn't quite feel right. After a busy weekend all I wanted to do was cocoon myself in a duvet and burrow far into the sofa. But there's no time for lazing around and so, groggy and sore-limbed, I ventured into the frozen January night. In my heart of hearts I hoped he wasn't going to be the kind of comedian that spends an hour yelling and furiously showering the front row with spit.

Thankfully David Elms is to Sunday evenings as raspberry jam is to a steaming slice of hot toast. He's an introverted, almost priest-like, presence; softly whispering into the mic in cool, measured tones. Each syllable and glottal stop is precisely deployed, fluttering softly over the audience like confetti. He's so hushed that the bustling sounds of the bar below threaten to drown him out. There's a fragile meekness in the way he peers out over the stage lights and says "go easy on me" .

I don't think he had too much to worry about, the audience appeared to be solidly composed of fans. When he asked if anyone was here that hadn't seen him before, just a few hands popped into the air. Though this was a sold out show he appeared a  bemused that anyone had turned up at all, asking "why are you here anyway?"  His ultra low-key style seems relies on a well-behaved audience (I find it difficult to imagine someone heckling him), all of us happy to tolerate the odd scrappy digression and meandering anecdote

The act itself consists of 'yer average white middle-class miseries; though as this is 'yer average white middle-class Islington audience they go down a treat. So we get material about buying a hypoallergenic dog, worries over a receding hairline, giving up sugar and liberal guilt over appearing in advertisements. Domestic observational humour usually drives me straight to cynicism, but well, it's Sunday evening and who's got the energy for that? It reminded me of flicking through The Observer supplements and being dozily amused at what Tim Dowling's kids have gotten up to this week.

At the core of this is a desire to "get across what life is really like"; Elms explaining that he's trying to inject some genuine truths about life into the show. High points are a beautifully played bit about how people are always looking at his new wife and expectantly saying "not long now..." Through a combination of cranking up the ridiculousness of his delivery and a mischievous glint he makes an innocuous phrase deeply surreal, building to a really kickass punchline. 

Somewhat less successful is a late shift into drag. The sight of Elms in a wig and dress is worth a giggle (though honestly he looks pretty good), but once you've chuckled it doesn't really go anywhere else. Putting on a cod-Spanish falsetto voice, the already languorous pace slows to a frustrating crawl, and worse, a crawl bereft of jokes. It's a relief when he finally takes the wig off and resumes playing 'himself'.  

There's a conspiratorial nature to Elms' stage persona; as if purely by attending we're in on a secret joke. He's at his most charismatic when chatting with the audience; tossing out the gentlest of gentle burns, asking people about their lives with sincere interest, peering curiously into the crowd when someone laughs randomly and fretting over what might think of him. Late in the show he confesses that he was paranoid that tonight wasn't going to work, that this was nowhere near close enough to be a show. He needn't have worried; though the focus could be a little stronger everything is securely laced together through sheer force of personality. 

Elms is an easy man to like, which makes it easy to root for him, which makes it more than easy to laugh along. I think he is pinning down "what life is really like": it just so happens that his life is pretty blissful right now, which is reflected in the cheery content. Comedy as cosy as a goose-down duvet might not be everyone's cup of tea, but on a Sunday evening? Yes please.

The Work in Progress Season continues at the Pleasance Theatre until 25th Feb. Tickets here.

Friday, January 23, 2015

'Mortdecai' (2015) directed by David Koepp

Friday, January 23, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


In the absence of press screenings (always a worrying sign) I trooped up to Angel and forked out for a ticket. At the Islington Vue they directed me to a tiny screen I'd never even noticed before, tucked away under the stairs next to the fire exit. I was greeted with a small, empty cinema occupied solely by a bearded old man in a giant coat.  He nodded as I passed him, then I smelt the TCP.  The guy stank of it - he must have been glugging bottles of the stuff

Nobody else showed up. Ten minutes into Mortdecai I heard the sound of peaceful snoring, which proved to continue for the duration. I figure he came to the cinema purely for the warmth. I've got to commend him for getting something positive out of this experience, because all I got was a sucking sense of horror, disappointment and  boredom.

Mortdecai is an embarrassment for all involved; from Johnny Depp's crushingly unfunny lead through David Koepps's amateurish direction, through the score that sounds like The Real Slim Shady right down to the mangy mongrel of a script they're grinding their way through. Apparently Mortdecai is based on a series of books by a guy called Kyril Bonfiglioli, but I'll be damned if I've ever heard of them. Now, the advertising campaign for Mortdecai has been awfully vague about what this film is actually about, so let me fill you in.

Hilarious!
Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is a wacky upper-class English art dealer who travels the world getting into unlikely scrapes with his manservant (Paul Bettany). He lives in some old country pile with his long suffering wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), who's exasperated at Mortdecai for frittering away their money on some kooky scheme or another. Now, after an £8 million tax bill, they're at the point of insolvency, selling their family heirlooms and even *gasp* considering opening the house to the public.

The film itself revolves around Mortdecai attempting to secure a long lost Goya painting that'll solve his worries and pay off his taxes. Heading the investigation is MI5's Martland (Ewan McGregor) a university friend of Mortdecai who's also in love with his wife. Tracking down the painting involves all kinds of unlikely scrapes, misunderstandings and crap puns. Naturally this is all hilarious.

Oh wait.

No.

It's not hilarious. This is shit.

Mortdecai turns out to be the awful (yet logical) conclusion of Johnny Depp's success in Pirates of the Caribbean.  12 years ago he thrilled audience with the vulgar, semi-drunken louche Captain Jack Sparrow. Women wanted him, men wanted to be him; his performance singlehandedly launching a multibillion dollar franchise that still threatens multiplexes to this day. After Pirates nobody could tell Depp to stop acting like an ass, so we got Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Lone Ranger. With each self-consciously zany role Depp sacrificed a fragment of audience goodwill. Mortdecai marks the moment that goodwill runs out completely.

Watching him cavort about the screen is like watching a drunken uncle at a embarrass himself at a wedding. You cringe and watch through your fingers as he tries to chat up the bridesmaids, attempts to take the stage to sing with the band and crack bad jokes. Everyone sits there in frozen horror at what they're watching, wishing someone would take him outside and call him a cab.

Mortdecai is so stupendously crap that you might suspect it's some elaborate form of flagellation, a suicide pill of a script designed to torpedo careers. But Depp behaves as this is the height of humour, bumbling like a cut-rate Inspector Clouseau through lifeless slapstick and inane misunderstandings. At one particularly low point he has to shuffle down a corridor with a boner sticking out of his pants. Worryingly, there's no hint of shame as he does this -  as if Depp genuinely, truly believes that people will lap this shit up. I can only compare this sense of comedy delusion to Mike Myers' similarly disastrous The Love Guru.

It's difficult to convey just how off-putting the Mortdecai character is; constructed with the idea that we'll be charmed by his eccentricity and root for him against the squares. But the combination of Depp's comedy cockney accent, the stupid moustache and the sub-vocal wibblings add up to a truly hateful cinematic creation who you wish the very worst for.

An unhappy Paul Bettany
The rest of the cast approach the material with a combination of desperation and gritted-teeth professionalism. Ewan McGregor and Gwyneth Paltrow do their level best to get through this unscathed, gingerly interacting with Depp as if he's a much-loved relative in the early stages of dementia. In Paul Bettany the misery is more obvious; this is a top class actor relegated to the role of moronic comedy butler. Stare into his eyes and you see a man resolving to not just sack, but brutally assault his agent. 

In every possible regard Mortdecai fucking sucks. Tragically everyone knows this but Depp, which is probably why this is being quietly squeaked into cinemas in the ass-end of January sans press screenings. I think it's time to stage an intervention:

Mr Depp, you need to stop. This is rock bottom. Put down the silly hats. Take off the beads. Throw away the eyeliner. For god's sake you're pissing away every happy memory audiences have of you. Look at Nicholas Cage - look at him - do you want to end up like that?! I didn't think so. Mr Depp, stop.

Please stop.


Mortdecai is released today.

'The Lark' at The Rose Playhouse, 22nd January 2015

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


As much archaeological dig as theatre, The Rose Playhouse isn't the cosiest space to spend a January night. Nestled underneath a skyscraper, it's unheated and cavernous, the air rapidly chilling to a couple of degrees above zero. I'm wearing a few extra layers and swaddled in a blanket, but the cold still creeps its way in. The ghastly thought strikes me that being stuck atop a burning bonfire might not be so bad after all.

I'm here for Defiant Reality Theatre's production of Jean Anouilh's The Lark; a play about the trial, condemnation and execution of Joan of Arc (Maud Madlyn). Captured by the English and considered a political hot potato, the authorities want her out of the way; trying her on charges of heresy (and cross-dressing).Eager to prove she's either mad or lying they quiz her on complex ecclesiastical philosophy and ask her to recount how she rose from an illiterate peasant to leading France's armies.

In flashback we see the young Joan experiencing terrifying visions of the Archangel Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret instructing her to support Charles VII (Tristan Hyde) and save France from English tyranny. This is a big ask for a teenage girl, especially coming straight from God. Nonetheless she miraculously succeeds, and through flashback we watch her transformation into a symbol of religious adoration and example of military ingenuity.

Cackling from the sidelines are her judges and captors. Leading them is the Earl of Warwick (George Collie), portrayed here as a basically decent (if slightly dim) man tasked with an unpleasant job. He's played here with a slightly Alan Partridge bumbling quality, making cringeworthy comments to Joan and seeking the politest way out of any situation. More sinister are her inquisitors (Samuel Heagney, Pip Gladwin and Lawrence Toye). These vulturelike, black-cloaked presences surround Joan, peppering her with questions laced with condescension and mockery.

The the story of Joan of Arc isn't exactly sunshine and roses, so it's surprising that The Lark so damn funny. Though Madlyn's Joan is never anything less than a paragon of sincerity and righteousness, every other character is a grotesquely overwrought caricature. Paradoxically this makes the heaven-struck visionary the only sane person around. Rather than a fierce, violent warrior this Joan's best weapon is her brain; manipulating the dozy men around her with appeals to their vanity and using their low opinion of her as a woman (and as a peasant) to her advantage.

Maud Madlyn as Joan
The best examples come in two brilliantly comedic scenes. The first where Joan convinces the incredulous Robert de Baudricourt (Pip Gladwin) to grant her armour, horses and a retinue of men-at-arms to accompany her to see the Dauphin. North plays a great preposterously pompous ass, harrumphing and bumbling around the stage like he's stepped out of a pantomime.  The second features the awkward, incompetent Dauphin. In him Tristan Hyde appears to be channelling the late Rik Mayall, showing us a deeply stupid individual whose ego is gradually inflated by Joan. He's a quintessential coward here, Joan harnessing that fear to get what she wants.

The tone reminded me of CBBC's excellent Horrible Histories; both shows determined to blow away the stuffy cobwebs of academia and, through comedy, make the past something we can empathise and emotionally engage with. The Lark generally succeeds at pinning this tone down, largely courtesy of the wonderful performances of George Collie and Tristan Hyde. Of the cast, these two truly grasp the twin requirements of being both comedic and serious at once. 

Not every member of the cast navigates this territory successfully. In particular Lawrence Toye spends most of his time on stage furiously mugging, constantly contorting his face in an exaggerated manner that only succeeds in distracting from everything else on stage. It's perhaps unfair to criticise given that the entire male cast does a lot of face-pulling, but this could really be toned down a bit and still be effective.

But the centrepiece is undoubtedly Madlyn's Joan. She's a rock of faith in a mire of corruption and preening vanity. Madlyn pitches her between mania and terror, giving her the wide-eyed glistening gaze of the pious. Crucially, while utterly convinced of the truth of her visions, she's riddled with doubt and fear. In a feminist twist, this Joan is ultimately concerned with maintaining her chosen identity in the face of men who'd reduce her to a mere baby-making, sock-mending machine.  She turns the final moments of the play, where Joan realises that she can face either a horrific death as the legendary Joan of Arc or a lifetime of purgatory as a quiet, ignored pet, into a unexpected triumph. Madlyn plays making the decision to be burnt alive perfectly, making it not only understandable but the obviously correct choice.

Maud Madlyn is no Maria Falconetti, but I've seen a lot of Joans over the years and Madlyn is easily in the upper echelons. The Rose Playhouse's performance space forces the audience into close proximity with the action and it's difficult not to feel a twinge of sympathy and emotion when Madlyn turns her smart, desperate true believer eyes in your direction, as if seeking salvation from those who've paid to watch her suffering.

While the Rose Playhouse might be chilly as hell at this time of year, The Lark is funny, interesting and moving enough to stave off even frostbite. Though you'll laugh this is also a sincere and touching piece of drama that does justice to the legend of Joan of Arc. Check it out, but be sure to wrap up warm and accept the theatre's offer of a blanket!

The Lark is at The Rose Playhouse until; 31st January 2015 All Performances at 7.30 pm (Sundays at 3.00 pm only) No Monday Performances

Thursday, January 22, 2015

'Theatre Ad Infinitum: Light' at the Barbican Centre, 21st January 2015

Thursday, January 22, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Dystopian cyberpunk mime theatre? Sign me the hell up. When I read about Light, described as "blending anime-style storytelling and a pulsating soundscape"" I couldn't get a ticket fast enough. I always enjoy science fiction theatre; it's difficult enough to realise a fantasy world in cinema, let alone on stage. So companies that take up the challenge tend to be of the ambitious, experimental and bold variety.

Those qualities apply in spades to Theatre Ad Infinitum's Light, but sadly they don't add up to a particularly enjoyable experience. Staged in the depths of The Pit - the Barbican's deepest theatre - we're utterly entombed in concrete. Down here nothing gets in, not the sounds of the traffic, not phone network signals and certainly not a ray of sunlight. As we begin we're plunged into pitch darkness and tossed forward in time to an Orwellian nightmare.

This is future of interconnectivity between humanity, where thoughts can be tossed between skulls as easily as sending a text message. These wonder implants might have once had the potential to unite us in empathy, but they're been appropriated by an authoritarian government to police the thoughts of the citizenry. It's now illegal not to be implanted; the memories, desires, dreams and ambitions of every person filtered through state surveillance.


Our hero is Agent Petrus, charged with hunting down those who've had their implants removed, torturing those he captures and working his way up the ladder to the terrorist's leader. It's a stressful job and adding to his woes is that he's the son of the Glorious Leader, who considers him a disappointment in failing to stamp out the resistance. But things are soon to change for Petrus as he discovers the true nature of his world, the past those in power would rather keep hidden and some dark family secrets.

In every respect this is dark stuff; from the crushing misery of the futuristic surveillance state to the literal darkness we're enveloped in. Told entirely through mime (with dialogue on surtitles above) the primary methods of communication are motion and light. This is extremely minimalist theatre; what's on stage pared right back to the bone. Characters wear identical black jumpsuits and move between pools of torchlight, the scenery created through a couple of strips of LEDs held in different configurations. 

It's undeniably visually striking, the lack of detail allowing us to imagine a future far more detailed than anything a production designer could cook up. There's a film-noir aesthetic to the hunts and interrogations; the cast's faces uplit to create a sinister chiaroscuro effects. A dry ice haze that hangs over the stage makes for a literally dense atmosphere, allowing the performers to remain invisible so long as they're not directly in the light. This means they can sinisterly loom from anywhere, fostering appropriate levels of paranoia. Perhaps most cleverly, this technique also allows the company to 'edit' their play like you would a film. In dream sequences we can 'cut' from the dreamer to seeing what's inside his mind, giving the piece an expansive, spontaneous quality that's difficult to capture 'live'.


So with all that going for it, how can Light not be that great? Well, once you've gotten over being thrilled by the novel aesthetics there's not much else to fixate on. The show lasts about an hour, but you'll have seen practically every trick it has to offer after about fifteen minutes. It quickly transpires that no matter how imaginatively you use two strips of LEDs, a couple of torches and some red gels you're limiting yourself.

This leaves the story to hold our attention. On paper it's a pretty straightforward sci-fi tale, but the lack of spoken dialogue makes it next to impossible to empathise with the characters and often makes it pretty tricky to even follow what's going on. Not to mention that the structure is a little wonky, the hero disappearing from the plot in favour of a lengthy flashback sequence. There's a tension between the symbology of the piece (having the characters communicating only by electronic text is entirely appropriate) and the actual enjoyment of watching it.

If this were half an hour long I'd be singing its praises to the heavens. But, as pretty as it frequently is, fatigue rapidly sets in. Light is technically and politically excellent, containing some wonderful imagery and imagination, but just can't quite sustain its aesthetic high-wire act, so I was disappointed when I realised I'd ever-so-gradually become a bit bored.

Light is at the Barbican Centre until 24th January. Returns only.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

'New Atlantis' at The Crystal, 20th January 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


In 1627 Francis Bacon published his utopian novel New Atlantis. Here he laid out an optimistic vision of humanity's future where "generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendour, piety and public spirit" thrive. It sounds lovely, but reality has fallen somewhat short of his dream. This is where LAStheatre steps in with New Atlantis, this event, part of the Enlightenment Cafe series, is an educational, interactive theatre experience that examines the consequences of climate change and and forces us to grapple with the consequences of our actions

Step through the glass doors of The Crystal and it's 2050 and you're in the headquarters of 'New Atlantis'. This organisation, replacing the defunct United Nations, was created to implement solutions to environmental catastrophe or, ultimately, to save the human race. But New Atlantis is undergoing some changes; its leader, the elderly Bryony Weller (Tricia Kelly), is stepping down due to ill health and the we must select a replacement for her.

The candidates for the job represent competing philosophies for dealing with environmental catastrophe. Representing Industry is Marcia Weiss (Nicola Blackman), whose technocratic free market politics promise prosperity without alterations to quality of life. Defence is headed by Major Simeon Giallo (Jonathan Jaynes), who explains that with resources dwindling we need collectivisation backed up by military might to ensure fair distribution. Nicola MacGloss (Nicky Goldie) leads Reform, arguing that we need to change the way we live, encouraging reduced consumption of meat and rethinking consumerism. Finally there's the mysterious Generation Alpha, a revolutionary group comprised of disenfranchised youth arguing that we need to rip it all up and start again.


Once this has been established we're left to explore New Atlantis at our own pace. The experience is subdivided department, various rooms exploring diverse topics like combating piracy on the high seas, the ethics of extracting Antarctica's natural resources, space exploration and debates on environmental social policy. This set-up rewards the curious, outgoing participant; there's a mix of actors and proper scientists milling about, all eager to draw you into a debate or explain some esoteric bit of climate science.

My first impression was that the amount of data on display was a bit overwhelming. I examined the blueprints of an experimental tri-hulled ship with interest, but had very little idea what to make of it. It's only when I threw myself into a couple of arguments that things really came together for me. In one of the Reform rooms, debates on possible future policies were taking place and so, to liven things up a bit, So I forcefully advocated mandatory veganism, state seizure of farmland, contraceptives in the water supply and the distribution of suicide kits to the elderly.  Hey - big problems require bold solutions, right?

After exploring each department we head back to the main room to hear stump speeches by each candidate. These are painfully realistic, stuffed full of vague promises, fancy rhetoric and snide insinuations. The much discussed Generation Alpha makes a dramatic and timely appearance, 'hacking' the broadcast and giving us a fourth option of 'revolution'. We then vote on what we want to happen and, hearteningly, the crowd chooses to put its trust in the youth, rip up calcified power structures and start again.

In trying to both educate and entertain, New Atlantis is to some extent pulling in two directions at once. Repeated like a mantra is the phrase "of course, back in 2015" when discussing issues. This is of course perfectly understandable, the show's sincerely scientific bent means the further it strays into futurist speculation the less useful it is. Still, it does somewhat drain away the idea of immersing ourselves in the world of 2050.

Bigger problems lie in the extremely anticlimactic ending. Everything has been leading up to the big vote to decide the course of the future. By the time we come to press the button a lot of thought should have gone into our decision, which is largely about balancing the freedom of individuals versus the survival of the species. It's tense as the results are read and then finally a winner! Supporters of the other sides gasp. The winners cheer. And then? Well, the lights go up, we collect our coats and leave. It would have been nice to learn what the consequences of our choice were, some kind of reaction from the other candidates or speech from the victor. 


Dramatic quibbles aside, at least New Atlantis succeeds at being extremely interesting, teaching me all about the sobering long-term effects of environmental damage. There's interesting background about the future desertification of the central United States (which results in mass immigrations to Canada), the rationing of London's water supply or energy company executives being convicted for damaging the environment. In a world this screwed (most climate scientists say we're even now long past the point of no return) the policies of all three positions are equivalent to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

The show is full of quiet, insistent explanations that the situation as it stands is unsustainable, and that as long as we labour under the delusion that globalist, consumer capitalism is indefinitely sustainable we're pigs blindly trudging up a slaughterhouse conveyor belt. It's not that that there's no hope, but in the course of our lifetimes anyone under 50 is going to have to re-evaluate their privileged geographical, economic and political position.

So what did I conclude from New Atlantis? Primarily that the human race is an instinctively greedy species that can't help but consume resources to the point of depletion and has little-to-no real grasp of the long term consequences of our actions. So are we boned?

Yup. 

We're so boned. 

New Atlantis is at The Crystal, Royal Victoria Docks until 25th January. Tickets available here.

'The Tea and Crumpets Filmcast Episode 13'

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


My appearance on episode 13 of the Tea and Crumpets Filmcast. Dominic Mill and Liam Dunn host, together with Dr Lindsay Hallam, Matthew Lee and myself. On the chopping block this week: Whiplash, Testament of Youth, Into the Woods, Birdman, American Sniper, The Woman in Black 2, the Oscar nominations and many, many more.

Download as MP3 (right click, save as)
Or listen on We Got This Covered.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

'Kingsman: The Secret Service' (2015) directed by Matthew Vaughn

Tuesday, January 20, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Mid-way through Kingsman Colin Firth and Samuel L Jackson mutually bemoan the death of the "gentleman spy movie". In 2015 the three JBs, James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, staked out a common ground of po-faced lunkery, where hard-nosed, gritted-teeth realism rules the roost. Gone is the camp-cool of cigarette lighters/hand grenades, literal poison pens and stun gun umbrellas. Or at least they were gone until Kingsman, adapted from Mark Millar's comic of the same name

This is film has all of the above, plus a eccentric baddie with a scheme for world domination (and a proper mountain lair), plus a sexy henchwoman with a weird gimmick,  plus an unexpected trip into outer space. With all those arrows in its quiver how could Kingsman possibly screw up?

Well...

The titular Kingsmen are super-secret super-British spies. Driven by a fetishisation of Savile Row class, they're neatly coiffed, highly trained, practically superheroic special agents who go where others cannot. The organisation is the epitome of class and style; using their anachronistic behaviour as cover for their lethality. Our guide through this world is veteran Kingsman Galahad (Colin Firth), who's on the look-out for new agent material.

He finds what he's looking for in Gary 'Eggsy' Unwin (Taron Egerton). Eggsy is an angry young Londoner trapped on a council estate with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Rock of Gibraltar. Dressed in sports gear, knockoff Burberry and deploying barrages of Sarf Lahndan slang at whoever gets in his path he's more Alex DeLarge than James Bond. But soon he's at Kingsman Training Camp, competing with a load of snot-nosed Etonians for the one vacancy


As Eggsy he learns the ropes, bristles against this plummy-voiced classmates and learns lethal new skills, Galahad investigates the sinister Valentine (a lisping Samuel L Jackson), head of a mysterious conspiracy that's sucking in the rich, famous and talented from around the world. Soon the two plot strands dovetail and our young hero has to step up and save the world from certain doom.

Much of Kingsman focuses on satirising/dismantling class and wealth privilege. Politicians, musicians, celebrities and tech geniuses are exposed as self-serving hypocrites who wouldn't hesitate to throw the rest of us to the dogs. Given that the film gets its aesthetic thrills from aristocratic iconography you can easily level the accusation that Vaughn is having his cake and eating it. How can you satirise the rich while idolising their trappings?

Fortunately the brash working class punk hero just about saves the tone. Eggsy instinctively pricks holes in pomposity, gives as good as gets when classist jibes are tossed his way and, most importantly, treats the whole 'Kingsman' persona as a role to play. Even when he's besuited and gadget-laden he's still that rough kid from the streets. So while the message is a bit wobbly at times it all just about hangs together; though there's a slight sour note in the implications that the world's problems can be laid at the feet of "new money".

That a modern action film sets out to grapple with British class conflict is laudable even if it does so slightly ineptly. Bigger problems lie in the film's unevenness: the first half of the film is cheap n' nasty, as if the production budget were curtailed midway through production. There are big steaming heaps of low-budget CGI all over the shop and some extremely tacky looking set-dressing. Weirdly this is all at its worst in the opening scenes and gradually improves throughout the film; the impression being that Vaughn allocated the lion's share of his budget to the finale and costuming and skimped elsewhere.

The easy high point is a church-based action sequence that's as disturbing as it is kinetic. This is essentially Colin Firth vs the Westboro Baptist Church; Vaughn taking a sadistic glee in sending a Firth's highly trained killer into a crowd of fat, racist homophobes and turning him loose. It's a symphony of slashed open necks, shattered spines, impalings and true-believer's brains being splattered over stained glass windows. And it's all set to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird. The sheer bloodlust raises an eyebrow, but it's hard to deny the Ichy and Scratchy gore-glee.

Thamuel L Jackthon
Low points are the deeply dull training sequences - basically Men in Black minus the imagination. When you're watching sequences you seen done better a hundred times before the film becomes rote, the dialogue sliding into predictable stereotype. Similarly much of the climax involves the lead running down endless identical corridors shooting identical jumpsuited henchmen, it's repetitive, feeling like something to pad out the run time.

With its teenage hero, cartoonish tone and sense of adventure, the film fits neatly into the young adult market. Stock developments like a naive kid being sucked into a fantastical world and becoming the master of it are the meat in which these stories are made of (and textbook Campbell). In fact, trim the copious gore and swearing and you'd wind up with an effective kid's film. But with all the impalings, exploding heads and anal sex gags it instead lands firmly around adolescence - a movie tailor-made to appeal to 15 year old boys.

Kingsman is not a very good film. But hidden within the budget SFX dreariness are flickers of imagination and audacity. I can't deny the sheer fun of watching a neon jellyfish, head-popping extravaganza soundtracked by Pomp and Circumstance, or a sexy amputee breakdancing with literal blades, but there's just too much mediocrity weighing this down to make it truly worthwhile.

★★★

Kingsman: The Secret Service is released 29th January

Monday, January 19, 2015

'Big Hero 6' (2014) directed by Don Hall & Chris Williams

Monday, January 19, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Peeling back the mirror-polished carbon-fibre shell of Big Hero 6 reveals a bustling throng of fascinating influences. At its most basic level Disney's latest is a superhero origin tale via Japanese pop culture: mashing together sentai shows, classic manga and Marvel comics into a surprisingly coherent whole. 

In a Neal Stephenson-esque touch, our hero is named Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter). He's a young, spikey haired robotics prodigy. We first meet him defeating all-comers in an underground robot fight club, his harmless and cute looking contender proving to be more capable than it first appears. Though he triumphs over his opponents, his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) warns that this is a waste of his talents and drags him to his "nerd school". This proves to be a prestigious high-tech university, where students are given access to the latest materials and development technology.

After introducing Hiro to classmates Honey Lemon, Go Go, Wasabi and Fred, Tadashi shows off his own laboratory. Here we meet his masterpiece: Baymax (Scott Adsit), a nurse robot that Tadashi envisages helping people worldwide. With his soft white spheroid proportions and minimalist features Baymax looks the Michelin Man as redesigned by Apple. He's programmed to scan and offer medical assistance to anyone suffering even a minor scrape, only deactivating when told "I am satisfied with my care".

But this is a superhero movie and tragedy is always just around the corner. And so, as Act 2 opens, a bereaved and numbed Hiro has taken possession of Baymax and is gradually molding him towards becoming an all-purpose crimefighter in order to get revenge on those that've wronged him. He's soon joined in his quest by the other university students, each with their own technological superhero suit, as they attempt to track down a mysterious masked villain.


This is by the numbers, but there's enough little wrinkles present to set Big Hero 6 apart from the crowd. The biggest is Baymax, who's as funny a character as Disney have created in the last 20 years or so. With his rounded body and dainty motions his every tiny motion packs a gag, especially when trying to reconcile his nurse programming with the kickass robot superhero Hiro desperately wants him to be. By the time Hiro has outfitted him with a jetpack and is flying about on his shoulders there's more than a touch of How To Train Your Dragon to the pair, but whereas Hiccup is trying to make his dragon less fearsome, Hiro is trying to subvert his instinctively caring nature and turn him into a badass.

The film is easily at its best when the action is confined to Baymax and Hiro, the directors giving a masterclass in comedy physicality as Hiro squeezes and shoves the rubbery robot through action sequences, playing straight man to the robot's concerned inquiries about his physical and mental health. Occasionally it feels as if the film was developed entirely from the idea of 'A Boy and his Bot', there's so much focus on them that the other characters end up a bit undeveloped.

While eye-catching; fellow Big Hero 6ers Wasabi, Fred, Honey Lemon and Go Go are relegated to being 'the fast one', 'the girly one' and so on. The villain of the piece has a visually dazzling superpower yet suffers the same problems, his motivations understandable but drawn in simplistic strokes. He does have a empathetic dimension but this pales in comparison to, say, Tangled's Mother Gothel or pretty much any Pixar baddie. Even with a paltry ten or so characters there's only really room to develop Hiro and Baymax, the rest a victim of a short run-time and (I suspect) some trimming of a longer script.

The flip side of that is that the film rockets along at some speed, serving up exciting action sequences and comedy skits at breakneck pace. These car chases, superhero fights and slapstick (or all three at once) are beautifully conceived and executed, crammed full of tiny details and gags so quick you'll blink and miss them.


Though it might be a touch on the short side, Big Hero 6 certainly is dense. My personal highlight was San Fransokyo. The only clumsy thing about this wonderful mashup is the name; otherwise it's an intelligent cocktail of pagodas, townhouses, trolley-buses, blimp/turbines and futuristic architecture. This neon denseness reminded me a hell of a lot of Studio 4°C's excellent Tekkonkinkreet (with a more than a smidge of Osamu Tezuka), a tech utopia populated by oversized advertising statues, dayglo flourishes and an abundance of careful details that really reward the close observer. A lot of people have spent a lot of time realising San Fransokyo and their efforts were well spent, this is one of the most attractive fictional locales I've seen in some time.

Big Hero 6 isn't going to go down in history as an all-time Disney masterpiece and it's certainly not going to achieve the same level of cultural penetration as last year's Frozen. That said, it's an energetic, imaginative and precision-crafted animation with a tonne of love poured into it (and in Baymax at least one truly memorable character). But though pretty and entertaining it falls short of the classic it could feasibly be.

★★★

Big Hero 6 is released 30th January 2015

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