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Saturday, May 30, 2015

'Dogs of War' at the Red Lion Theatre, 29th May 2015

Saturday, May 30, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Dogs of War is high concept stuff. The conceit is a young man bedevilled by invisible dogs. Everyone else can see them, he can't. It feels borne of 5am insomnia, an idea kindled into a powerful and bizarre play. The result is a weird cocktail of down-at-heel kitchen sink drama, warped hallucinogenic comedy and social commentary - hard to pin down or  neatly categorise.

Set in rural Northern Ireland, we explore the woes of a troubled family who've escaped England for the peace and anonymity of the countryside. Mam (Maggie O'Brien) suffers from long-term mental illness, manifesting as paranoid delusions and aggressive lashings out at her family. Dad (Paul Stonehouse) is more carer than husband, a man who's been visibly eroded by the stress of caring for her - finding refuge in dodgy carpentry and endless cups of tea. 

Our starting point is the return of their son Johnny (Richard Southgate). He's just completed the first year of a history degree, and is obviously rather nonplussed at having to trek all the way to the middle of nowhere to his parent's new house. Spiky and snobby, he stands aloof, preferring to retreat to his bedroom and play an online military conquest game.

Yet soon he finds his deepest worst fears realised - his mother's mental illness is manifesting in him. The first terrifying inklings are his being unable to perceive the family's three boisterous dogs. Later he begins to suffer delusions of grandeur, having tripped out conversations with a Northern Irish accented apparition of Cleopatra (Melanie McHugh). As tempers and sanity fray at the edges, ominous portents mount. In the second scene someone is cleaning an antique shotgun - is everyone going make it out alive?

Maggie O'Brien and Richard Southgate
The malleable reality and emotional tension make for immediately compelling theatre. This is aided by a detail-orientated set with a dog motif, shabby wallpaper and ever-so-slightly off kilter geometry. The Red Lion Theatre isn't the largest performance space, but Libby Todd's set shrinks it even further - squeezing the audience's noses right up against the fourth wall. As we descend into hallucination the cast invade the audience space, squeezing in and out of the old pews, sitting on the audience's laps and perching at the extreme corners of the room.

This makes for an intense atmosphere, aided in no small part by light and sound design that succeeds at both creating a dowdily realistic world of hissing electric kettles and an expressionist inner-world of neon, high contrast electric lighting and striking spots of colour. Most memorable is a sense of the family kitchen as a bubble of reality - when the character's cross the boundary there's a flash of lights and high-pitched squeal, as if the theatrical medium itself is protesting.

It's that playfulness with the medium that most struck me about the tale. Theatre commands its audience to suspend its disbelief more than nearly every other medium. The very act of watching actors perform on stage requires you to overlook the many artificial elements surrounding them. Most of the time this is done entirely unconsciously - we can take mime in our stride - if the actors behave like something is there, for all intents and purposes, it is. 

Dogs of War screws around with the fundamental theatrical notion, the invisible dogs existing in some indefinable half-reality between the perceptions of characters and audience. Johnny straddles the two, making frequent trips into the audience space to observe his family from our removed viewpoint. As I saw it, mental illness here is a symptom of being a character in a play. After all, being observed, judged and laughed at by a silent, invisible crowd would make anyone paranoid.

Richard Southgate and Melanie McHugh
This is sophisticated metatextual gristle, but there's a nagging suspicion that Dogs of War is exploiting mental illness to make that point. To give it due credit, there's a decent wodge of stuff in the programme explaining precisely how the play addresses real life concerns, that the play supports the Rethink Mental Illness campaign and urges us to rethink stigma and bolster our compassion.

That's all gravy, but ultimately, having a mentally ill character hallucinate a comedy take on Cleopatra and gradually lapse into a Julius Caesar delusion is uncomfortably close to the knackered mental illness stereotypes of believing you're Napoleon. Fortunately, succour can at least be taken in the sensitive and empathetic writing that emphasises the pain of loss of self-control, strained social relationships and the assault on dignity that mental illness can cause.

So a tricky one. Dogs of War is a wonderfully performed play - Maggie O'Brien gave me literal goosebumps at some points - and excellently turned out in all respects. But I'm still not quite sure precisely what it's getting at. My cynical side says that it's sensationalising mental illness to entertain, but my optimistic side looks to the mile-wide streak of kindness that runs through every inch of the material. Perhaps it's that tension that makes it such an idiosyncratic experience. I can recommend it purely on that basis - at the very least it provokes debate.


Dogs of War is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 20th June. Tickets here.

Friday, May 29, 2015

'The Theory of Relativity' at the Drayton Arms Theatre, 28th June 2015

Friday, May 29, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

No-one can deny that they've crammed an awful lot of talent into the top floor of the Drayton Arms Pub. The Theory of Relativity, a loosely constructed chamber musical by Neil Bartram, works as a beautiful showcase of what these impressive young talents can put together. It's always a pleasant sensation to spot familiar performers on stage, even more so when they're generally among the stand-outs of their various productions.

Structurally, The Theory of Relativity is a series of vignettes centred around the, interconnected lives of a group of college-age Americans - their fears, passions, histories, ambitions and desires. For example, a woman sings out a bad relationship, a man experiences melancholy at life at home moving on whilst he's at college, a nervous physics major prepares for a date, someone deals with their cat allergies and so on.

But.... *deep breath*.

This is gloopy, sentimental, mawkish-as-all-hell BULLSHIT! Listening to college kids moaning about their parents getting divorced, worrying that their parents want them to be an electrician or simply yammering out syrupy, Hallmark card level rubbish about how much we all need each other jams on my annoyance button like few others. It's not just that it's painfully North American in that moronically sincere starry-eyed 'aw gee we're all super wonderful, folks' kinda way, it's that these are the epitome of 'white people problems'. 

Worse, it's swaddled in layers of pseudoscientific claptrap in which, say, Newton's laws of motion, or Einstein's theories used as metaphors for human relationships. I reserve an especially acrid place in my heart for this kind of thing, literary devices that are as cliched as they are unimaginative. Now, I'm not some stone-hearted cynic - I don't mind the occasional dab of sentimentality - but this is about as fun as being forced to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes.

*and exhale*

Having said that, I can't pick any holes in this particular production. These are performers so talented that it's a tiny bit awe-inspiring to spend an hour or so in the same space as them. In concert, they project an incredible confidence and charisma, looking like nothing less than the future shock troops of the West End. They carry themselves with the subtly unconscious ease you see in people who are not only naturally gifted, but have the discipline to elevate their talent through countless hours of practise and toil.

I was pleased to see Joshua LeClair, who impressed as Arpad in She Loves Me back in February. Sure, the metaphor for sexuality at the centre of Apples and Oranges is, to put it mildly, torturous - but he performs the hell out of it, crowbarring every nugget of emotion and personality he can. 

I also got a tiny little thrill when I realised Natasha Karp was in this, who stood out a mile at the recent You Won't Succeed On Broadway If You Don't Have Any Jews revue. She was the best thing there and one of the best things here, mixing up a rat-a-tat vocal style with believably frazzled physicality in Cake and, in The End of the Line, one of the more palatable (by which I mean crueller) songs, affects a quick and effective physical transformation alongside Ina Marie Smith.

As a demonstration of talent, The Theory of Relativity is hard to find fault with. The jaunty, upbeat book covers a wide range of styles - from Sondheim-esque word salads right through to hyper-emotional torch songs. This gives every performer space to excel, making for a truly egalitarian show where all are on equal footing. It's just a damn shame that the tone of the show is so pukemakingly cheerful - with just a sprinkling more poison and a little pinch of malevolence I'd have found it much more palatable.


The Theory of Relativity is at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 13th June. Tickets here.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

'Son of Man' at the Bread and Roses Theatre, 27th May 2015

Thursday, May 28, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Or The Secret Diary of Jesus Christ, Aged 14 3/4. Tucked away in the top room of the pleasantly lefty Bread and Roses Pub, Alexander Nye's Son of Man makes an effort at tackling some weighty metaphysical questions. What is the true nature of the Christian God? How does he relate to other deities? What was Jesus up to during his difficult teenage years? What informed the philosophies and teachings of this most influential of religious leaders?

Set in 6AD, we meet a teenage Yeshua (Jesus' original name) dealing with some pretty familiar growing pains. He's falling out with his family, butting heads with authority, struggling to define his own identity and becoming quietly convinced that there's something indefinably special about him. Given the mysterious nature of his parentage, his blue eyes and light hair, most treat him as Mariam's (Claire-Monique Martin) bastard Roman child, making him a pariah unable to participate in Jewish religious ceremonies.

The background to this is the relationship between the twin towns of Nazareth and Sepphoris, separated by just three miles. Nazareth is strongly Jewish, while Sepphoris is a cosmopolitan, Roman-controlled worker's town that tolerates freedom of religion and other, more salubrious, activities. Prime among them is a brothel, staffed by the atheist prostitute Ishtar (Thalia Anagnostopoulou). Itinerant religious teacher Eli (Michael Musa Idris) is a reluctant friend of Ishtar's, spending his downtime in the brothel when he's not preaching his visions of an awe-inspiring 'Christ Angel', through whom God made the universe. 

Eli, Yeshua, Mariam and Ishtar and others soon become entangled, each representing differing religious perspectives. As the characters bounce off one other, the young Yeshua begins to gain perspective on his actions, philosophies and ethical code - eventually setting himself on the path to become the badass zen-terrorist Messiah we're all familiar with. It's basically Batman Begins with less ninja training and more epistemological debate.

It's also a tale doled out with a whiff of self-satisfied blasphemy. So, the virgin Mary ends up unhappily working as a prostitute, devoted proto-Christian Eli ends up in a passionate gay tryst with his student, the prostitute Ishtar spends part of a scene rubbing her "cunt" (a word enunciated here with particular relish) on someone's head and, perhaps most heretically of all, it's heavily implied that Christ's divinity arises from epilepsy rather than God. I've got no beef with any of that, but in concert they feel like a somewhat juvenile attempt to shock.

But it doesn't succeed at shock, instead landing at camp. For example, when a character is traumatised upon learning their penis has leprosy it rather undermines the thoughtful spiritual questioning and instead brings to mind a Bible translated by John Waters. This campness is further sustained by the characters taking any opportunity to descend into histrionics. Damn near everyone goes balls out crazy at some point, replete with loud yelling, threats of violence and megalomaniacal ranting.

Still, at least that means that Son of Man isn't boring. There's nearly always something eye-brow raisingly bonkers happening on stage, and a couple of the characters and performances are genuinely interesting. The two best are Michael Musa Idris' Eli, combining a beardy masculine forthrightness with genuine intellectual curiosity. In terms of sheer physicality he deeply impresses, constantly tearing up bread and banging his thick wooden shaft against the stage. Anagnostopoulou's Ishtar, memorably described as a "philostitute", is also great fun to watch; finding a spiky, lascivious moment in almost every line and injecting much needed upbeat femininity into a tale of angry, serious men.

Entertaining as all that is, trying to work out what Son of Man is actually about turns out to be a bit of a headscratcher. There's an unfocussed quality to the writing - one moment we're exploring the Jewish right to Israel, the next homosexuality and Leviticus, the next colonisation under a foreign power, the idea of feminist prostitution and many, many more. 

Most significantly, we're pummelled with all sorts of competing religious viewpoints; that the God of Israel and the Creator God are separate deities, that the various pantheons of Roman, Greek and Canaanite religions are reflections of characteristics of the one true God, the importance of the 'Christ Angel' in Messianic prophecy and so on. What I took away was that while Christianity might present itself as a straightforward truth, the realitylies in a deeply confusing knot of competing ideas and visions, only some of which found their way into the modern Church.

It's certainly an interesting piece of theatre, though not a truly successful one. Still, I can't fault the ambition in trying to recreate Biblical Nazareth above a pub in Clapham. The best praise I can give is that it successfully held my attention, primarily through curiosity at which weird philosophical direction it would spin off in next. 


Son of Man is at the Bread and Roses Theatre from 26th May to 13th June at 7.30pm. Tickets here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

'The Choir' (2015) directed by François Girard

Wednesday, May 27, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Truly, the world was crying out for a PG-rated Whiplash. The Choir (aka Boychoir) is a tranquilliser pill with a slick and sugary coating that follows genre beats with slavish adherence and, appropriately for a film about a choir, ultimately settling for vanishing unseen into the cinematic crowd.

Working the classical a rags to riches template, our hero is tousled-hair moppet Stet (Garrett Wareing). He's literally a kid from the wrong side of the tracks - trains run right past his house. Stet is a troubled kid in that Hollywood sort of way, getting into fights at school and caring for his unconscious alcoholic mother. She's perfunctorily dispatched in a car crash about five minutes in, and Stet falls into the care of his father (Josh Lucas).

Unfortunately for Stet, it turns out he's the secret product of a one-night stand and his father absolutely does not want his 'real' family discovering his existence. So, in an unlikely twist, he's dispatched to the megaposh 'Boychoir School'. Stet has oodles of raw vocal talent, but is way behind the other children. But, under the tutelage of perfectionist Carvelle (Dustin Hoffman), snippy British teacher Drake (Eddie Izzard) and ex-student Wooly (Kevin McHale), there's a chance, a superslim chance, that just maybe, he could become the best damn choirboy they've ever seen.

The problem with The Choir isn't one of construction and technique. By and large this is a decent looking film, the school itself is an attractive location and David Franco's cinematography makes a point of finding the most interesting framing, backgrounds and shot set-ups. 

I can't pick any bones with regard to the performances either. Garrett Wearing is obviously an actor to watch, brimming over with an extremely River Phoenix-esque inner tension and making the transformation from bad kid to boy angel broadly believable. Hoffman and Bates both perform precisely to spec: both effortlessly good, though neither remotely stretching themselves. Izzard also impresses, managing to find something interesting to do in practically every line (although his close-eyes-wave-hands-in-the-air musical appreciation schtick gets a bit old by the end).

Neither does it trip up on the musical front. If you're really into lots of prepubescent boys singing in absurdly high-pitched voices, The Choir more than has you covered. Even if that doesn't float your boat you can't deny the film sounds great, particularly the moments when Carvelle deconstructs the choir and shows the audience how everything fits together.

Sadly, the real crimes here are ones of extraordinarily limited ambition. From the moment Stet arrives at the school you can tell precisely where all this is going, right down to individual character beats. You might assume that a film that telegraphs what's going to happen so baldly might make a surprise swerve in the final act - no such luck. Like a freight train juddering down the tracks, The Choir is going to end up at it's intended destination right on time with a minimum of fuss.

Knackered plot device after knackered plot device is deployed: a half-assed rivalry with a posh kid, the stern teacher with a heart of gold, a training montage, the aversion of last minute disaster and so on. The effect on the audience is one of mild boredom, not helped by a script that assumes the audience are morons. "This is really hard music!" exclaims a moppet while looking at the morass of notes Stet must wring from his throat. Yeah, no shit kid, we can see that.

The Choir is even more disappointing given that this is directed by François Girard, whose daringly structured Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is one of my benchmarks of cinema about music . There, Girard was at pains to emphasise that musical virtuosity couldn't be adequately captured using traditional cinematic forms - a lesson he appears to have forgotten in churning out this sentimental doggerel.

Most obviously, the film suffers in comparison to last year's Whiplash, which tells broadly the same story but far, far, far more interestingly. Hoffman's Carvelle isn't fit to lick Simmons' Fletcher's boots, despite both being cut from the same mold and professing the same philosophy. Whiplash feels like you're drinking a triple espresso - The Choir feels like you're drinking lukewarm, unpleasantly milky tea.

Probably destined to be forgotten, The Choir could perhaps make a footnote in history as a promising role for its child star. Whatever 'it' is, Garrett Wearing has it, and his performance elevates what could have been teeth-grindingly crappy into mere safe, fuzzy mediocrity. That's not a huge improvement, but hey, I suppose it could have been worse.


The Choir is released 10 July 2015.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The London 2 Brighton Challenge 2015, 23rd May 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Writing about an athletic event isn't my usual style, but I think people would like to know what running a 61 mile ultramarathon is like. I've been running for about ten years, doing alright at various 10ks, half marathons and marathons over the years. But, I'd never exhausted myself to such a degree that I had to stop moving. I'm curious as to where, precisely, my body's physical limits are. Presumably there's some moment where I've consumed every bit of energy available to me, where my muscles give up the ghost and I collapse to the ground in a unconscious boneheap. 

Finding that moment was why I entered this ridiculous 61 mile ultramarathon from Richmond Park, London to Brighton Race Course. I applied for entry way back in August of 2014, the lengthy wait making the idea of actually running that far feel like a mercifully distant prospect. Yet, as 2015 hove into view I had to start making plans.

Setting aside my Sundays, I embarked on a lengthy, time-consuming training programme that saw me run back to my house in Central London from every terminus on the London Underground and spend countless hours bobbing about on woodland tracks on the periphery of the M25. Finally, with more than 400 miles of training under my belt I was (according to what I'd read) physically ready.

Doing something like this isn't some lazy run in the park - you've got to be prepared. I did my research and drew up a list of things I'd need in every eventuality. You can see the extensive results above, including many disgusting glucose gels, sports flapjacks, head lanterns, water bladders, painkillers, anti-friction creams and specially designed long distance running socks. It's a lot of stuff, but you don't want to be caught short 40 miles in and realise a £3 hat could be saving your life right now.

Similar levels of preparation had to be directed at my body the week before the run. My start time was 06:10, meaning I had to be awake at 04:30 to get a taxi to Richmond. This necessitated a week of waking up at 5am and mooching around in the morning twilight waiting for the day to begin. I also had to jam as many carbs down my throat as possible and avoid booze and anything especially gut-troublingly spicy.

Eventually, all the prep was done and I found myself at the start line at 6am on Saturday morning. The sun was just under the horizon, the ground dewy and the temperature pleasant. I ignored the zumba warmup happening near the start and focussed on the sign saying 'Brighton: This way'. The final few minutes seemed to zoom by as I set up my GPS tracker, music playlist, stopwatch and pedometer. And them, before I knew it, I was away.

The first ten miles were easy street. The sun was shining, I was surrounded by happy runners and watching the sunrise glitter off the Thames. I kept reminding myself to enjoy this easy bit as much as I can, to slow down and conserve energy for later. The elite runners swept past me off into the distance, as did many others. Every ultramarathon guide I read had advised me to 'run my own race', not to compete with others or let them dictate my pace. So I ambled along, pleasantly watching the numbers on the distance markers tick upwards.

All too soon I found myself a quarter of the way through, at the 15 mile rest stop. I was in good spirits though trying to ignore a faint discomfort in my left knee and the bridge of my right foot. Experience had shown me that these aches and pains come and go as your body warms up, but even so, feeling even a glimmer of pain at this stage can't be good.  After all, things are only going to get worse before they get better.

A welcome sight.
By the time I'd run my first marathon of the day I could definitely feel the first symptoms of fatigue setting in. My calves and quads were tightening up in a familiar way, no doubt anticipating what would usually be the end of a long run. But I had a long way to go yet. Buoying me up was a rest stop fully stocked with treats - though I couldn't stomach half of them. I settled for a couple of slices of fresh pineapple - the most delicious pineapple I've ever tasted. Then, back to the trail.

As the sun rose in the sky I approached the halfway point, tendrils of tiredness making their way around my body. For the first time I began to experience psychological trouble as well - by this point I'd run 30 miles and felt like I'd come an awfully long way. Now I had to do that all over again. I grimly gulped down an absolutely foul sports flapjack and pressed on, switching up my gait in an attempt to stretch my calves out.

Tiredness setting in.
At the 34 mile mark I hit the big mid-point rest-stop; Tulley's Farm. I stopped for 15 minutes, retrieved my backup bag and restocked my pack with snacks and water. There was a canteen set up with a buffet of delicious looking hot food, piles of pastries, a salad bar and sweets. I settled for a scoop Mediterranean curried pasta, some coleslaw and some cucumber. Unfortunately my numbed sense made it thick, goopy and cardboard-like - the pasta sticking to the roof of my mouth like glue. I swallowed what I could, disposed of the rest and headed back out.

It was here that I switched up my music choices. Prior to this I'd stuck to low-key indie and film scores - music to lull myself into a trance. I wanted to try and disassociate myself from what was happening to me. But, frankly, the droning apocalyptic rhythms of Clint Mansell's score for The Fountain were getting me down. I made an informed and intelligent decision to switch to The Prodigy's 2010 live album World's On Fire. 

With Maxim Reality's demented MCing ringing in my ears I had a burst of energy. Suddenly I felt like the king of the world! My misbehaving legs suddenly decided to cooperate and I sped off through the woods. This coincided with a some delusions of grandeur. As I air-boxed, jumped up and punched the air and yelled out Prodigy lyrics, I realised I hadn't seen anyone else for a while. Maybe.... I was winning this race? Maybe I could go at this speed for the next 40k? Maybe, just maybe, I was invincible, indefatigable - that I had unlocked some kind of inexhaustible superhuman energy reserve inside myself...

It turned out I hadn't. My bloated ego came a quick cropper at about the 50 mile mark, all vigour leaving my body like the last dregs of juice being sucked out of a drinks carton. Halfway up a gigantic hill my muscles polled themselves and unanimously decided to go on strike. I was reduced to a red-faced sweaty shuffle, feeling the beginnings of a light-headedness. I weaved a little on the trail, and as I reached the top I stopped for a moment to eat a chocolate bar and compose myself.

This was bad. Worse than bad, but I didn't have far to go. Over and over again I told myself that each puny, slow step was one more towards the finish line. Spiky shard of pain were making a comprehensive world tour of my body, with lengthy stops on my back, kidneys, lungs, hips and groin. Even my teeth hurt! Worst of all, my traitorous legs were somehow beyond pain, more like lead weights under me; I'd never felt this damn tired before. I began distractedly muttering to them; "Look guys, I know I haven't treated you well these last few months, but I just need you to cooperate for a couple more miles and you can rest..." 

Things carried on in this vein until the last few miles. Now I could see the sea ahead of me and, in the distance, the stand of the race track. I squeezed my eyes closed and pressed on as fast as I could, trying to convince myself that experiencing this exquisite exhaustion was the whole damn reason I'd signed up for this in the first place. Knowing that didn't help a great deal, but still, I inched ever closer to the end.

Final stretch...
Finally I made it onto the Brighton race track. I had family and friends waiting for me, and I didn't want them to see me in knackered agony. From somewhere, god knows where, I found some unused burst of speed, some injection of adrenaline as yet unused. I picked up to a sprint as I entered the final straight and, weirdly, it felt smooth, easy and relaxing - like gliding effortlessly through the air. I finished, got my medal, a glass of Cava and hugged my family and had some photos taken.

I was a bit dislocated, but happy to not be running any more. After an absolutely excruciating massage I began to shiver uncontrollably - though a hot chocolate sorted that out. Later, I hobbled out of there, pleased with myself for running 61 miles, but a bit numb and blown out. Though it'd taken me 13 hours to get here it felt strangely compressed, the trail melting together into one long procession of trees, runners, snacks and hills.

My hope for the race was that it'd show me some part of my personality I'd never unearthed before, some primal, universal exhaustion that lies under all the civilisation. This didn't happen - I was switched on and felt like 'myself' all the way round. I still don't even know what my surrendering point is - maybe I can't reach it through running. 

Two very sore legs.
Still, I do have the satisfaction in signing up to do a preposterously tough physical challenge, training my body to cope with it, preparing my equipment, organising myself and executing the plan without giving up. I finished it without blisters (thank you Trail Toes cream), without suffering any permanent injury and without consuming a single painkiller (which felt like cheating). I now know that I can do this kind of thing, and that I can push my body pretty damn far - which theoretically means I don't have to do it again.. right?

This wasn't some world-shaking spiritual experience. It was 'merely' an extraordinarily long, extraordinarily painful race - one that I can quite happily fit into the same continuum as every other race I've run. But it is extraordinarily satisfying - as far as challenges go I'd recommend every serious runner tackle an ultramarathon at some point, it's an experience like few others.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

'Sense of an Ending' at Theatre503, 20th May 2015

Thursday, May 21, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I've got to admit, I wasn't exactly looking forward to Sense of an Ending. While I love theatre that grapples with weighty subjects, I couldn't quite imagine how the horror of the Rwandan Genocide could possibly be translated on a fringe theatre stage above a pub. Then again, Theatre503 are vying for the top position in my personal Premier League of London theatre; I've never seen a bad play here.

I still haven't. Ken Urban's Sense of an Ending is an extraordinarily powerful piece of theatre that approaches this most difficult of subject matter with confidence, intelligence and a surfeit of humanity. 

Based on a true story, we follow New York Times reporter Charles (Ben Onwukwe) as he investigates the involvement of two Benedictine nuns in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Sisters Justina (Lynette Clarke) and Alice (Akiya Henry) are about to be sent to Belgium from Rwanda to stand trial for crimes against humanity and homicide. The accusations are that the nuns, who are both Hutu, were faced with hundreds of Tutsis seeking sanctuary from the horrific ethnic cleansing sweeping across Rwanda. When the Interahamwe Hutu militia arrived, the charges allege the nuns them with petrol and looked on as thousands of men, women and children were burned alive.

Aiding the reporter are soldier and guide Paul (Abubaker Salim), deeply suspicious of this uninformed outsider globally broadcasting his views about something he has no direct knowledge of. We also soon meet his friend Dusabi (Kevin Golding) who, as the only known survivor of the massacre, might be the key to the truth of what really happened.

Charles functions as our viewpoint character, his opinion and emotional state roughly linked to that of the audience. His role, as laid-back impartial interrogator, is to unearth some truth behind the multiple stories he's presented with. Understandably, his initial reaction is to doubt that two nuns could perpetuate such an atrocity, figuring that they're merely useful scapegoats for wider crimes. But the more he learns the more his opinion changes, the aloof reporter gradually charting a moral black hole from which no light escapes.

The staging is minimalist but high impact. A wooden floor demarcates the edge of the stage and a semi-opaque series of plastic boards partially conceals the rear. The effect is that the scenery almost appears to bleed into the audience space, subtly eroding the fourth wall and emotionally involving us. The rear of the stage functions as a hazy window through time, dead characters appearing as hazy memories.

It's a hugely effective way to separate past from present, ably aided by Joshua Pharo's ambitious and perfectly executed lighting design. It's usually a bad sign to discuss lighting in a theatre review - generally suggesting you've run out of things to say - here it's an integral part of proceedings, with key characters lit in bold, primary coloured chiaroscuro. Elsewhere, subtle touches abound, from the gently moving lights flickering through wooden slats, to gradual dimming as we work through trauma, through claustrophobic sudden darknesses that coincide with emotional peaks.

But ultimately, all this top notch stagemanship comes in service to the uniformly extraordinary performances. It'sdifficult to single anyone out for special praise, but even so, Lynette Clarke and Akiya Henry as the two nuns are jawdroppingly amazing. The characters are an apparently paradoxical mix of spirituality, femininity and horrific cruelty, elements that seem impossible to knit together. Yet the two manage it swimmingly, gradually peeling back layers of deception and delusion to reveal their corroded souls.

Credit too to Kevin Golding, whose recounting of the massacre is so disturbing and evocative left the audience so stunned you could hear pin drop. Dusabi is a broken man, his rheumy eyes and slumped posture speaking of a man who is almost literally the walking dead. When he finally launches into his testimony the lighting drops, he asks the reporter to close his eyes, and walks 'us' through the  experience. As he did so the hair stood up on the back of my neck and my palms became clammy. Anything that achieves that is something special, a moment up there with anything I've seen on stage in the last few years.

Outright recommending Sense of an Ending is a tricky proposition. This production has the power to ruin people's nights. As I lay down to sleep last night I couldn't get it out of my head and it was the first thing I thought of when I awoke. But it's a stunningly effective piece of drama, exploring the very limits of human behaviour, morality and, eventually and blessedly, forgiveness. This is by no means an easy experience, but it is a tremendously important one.


Sense of an Ending is at Theatre503 until 6th June. Tickets here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

'The Flannelettes' at the King's Head Theatre, 19th May 2015

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The vocal power and attitude of Motown is often in curious opposition to the lyrical content. Strong, bold and dynamic women strut across the stage, yet all too often they're plaintively offering themselves in submission to their men, asking Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, explaining that they Ain't Too Proud To Beg and even to the the masochistic self-justification of He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss). 

This weird dichotomy frames Richard Cameron's new play The FlannelettesSet in a Yorkshire mining village, the show centres on a shelter for women escaping domestic abuse. This safe haven is run by the kind and practical social worker Brenda (Suzan Sylvester), part therapist, part best friend and part mother to all those that need her services. Just arriving (and sporting a painful looking black eye) is Jean (Celia Robertson), who's escaping nearly 20 years of mental and physical abuse. Hovering at the periphery are two men; pawnbroker and sometime drag queen George (Geoff Leesley) and hapless Community Support Officer Jim (James Hornsby).

Also arriving is Brenda's niece Delie (Emma Hook), lead singer of the titular Flannelettes. Delie is a curious character; described as having the body of a 22 year old and the mind of a 12 year old. She works as a litter picker for the council and is so fastidious about her work that she's just received a trophy from the Mayor. The characters exists in a curiously honest limbo, blurting out whatever's on her mind and simply trying to do what little good in the world she can.

But shit is about to go down. We're introduced to the fragile Roma (Holly Campbell) - coerced into prostitution by her manipulative drug dealer boyfriend. Soon events are piling on top of one another, exposing the squalid seam of abuse, corrupt and sexual exploitation that lurks just below the surface of society.

The Flannelettes isn't an easy watch. There's several deeply uncomfortable passages that recount horrific instances of physical and sexual abuse. These are all the more powerful for being told in retrospect, implicating the audience by forcing us to stage them in our imaginations. This is underlined by some disturbingly effective makeup work; angry purple bruises suddenly appearing and gradually healing - horrible patterns of smashed capillaries shifting across the character's faces like cumulonimbus clouds across the sky.

Cameron is also successful in conveying the psychology of abuse; grappling with the paradox of women remaining devoted to men that have knocked seven shades of shit out of them. It's an incredibly thorny issue - the instinctive reaction to a character happily returning to a man that fractured their skull and literally dumped them in the rubbish is to assume she's utterly deluded. Yet The Flannelettes explores this intelligently; showing us the mental processes by which you can become convinced that your abuse is due to your failings and that you can do better.

This isn't exactly the feel good stage hit of the summer, but these are the kinds of important issues that theatre should be tackling. The show is aided by some juicily complex performances, particularly Emma Hook's Delie, who occupies a weird no-man's land between childhood and maturity. Also excellent is Celie Robertson, who throws many class subtleties into her performance, gently separating her from the rest. 

That said, for all its intelligence and social conscience, this is a rather unimaginatively staged production. A great deal of scenes are two person conversations, generally blocked in an  static fashion with the characters parked in position or sat behind a table. More problems come in some quite clumsy scene transitions, which, considering that this is mostly set in one location and the scenery consists of a table and chairs, seem bizarrely awkward. There came a point when I closed my eyes and imagined this as a Radio 4 Drama of the Week, which it may as well be in this form.

It's unfortunate that The Flannelettes stumbles a bit with regards to staging. There's a remarkably clear-eyed thesis on the links between economic depression and a rise in common cruelty tucked away in here, and for brief moments the power of this shines through the morass. Similarly, the 'Greek chorus' of Motown is a fine idea, but proves to be a seriously undeveloped one. A worthwhile experience but far from an essential one.


The Flannelettes is at the King’s Head Theatre, Upper Street, Islington until 6 June, evenings at 7pm. Tickets here.

Friday, May 15, 2015

'Avenue Q' at the Greenwich Theatre, 14th May 2015

Friday, May 15, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Avenue Q is Sesame Street for discombobulated twenty-somethings.  But whereas Big Bird and company teach children the alphabet and basic numeracy, the felt characters of Avenue Q guide its audience through ennui, disillusionment, heartbreak and poverty. Sounds like pretty rough stuff? Not when delivered by a googly-eyed puppet with someone's hand jammed up its arse. 

Opening off-Broadway in 2003 and transferring in 2006 to the West End (where it stayed for five years), Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez' show has lodged itself firmly in the stage musical firmament. This touring production feels like a victory lap, the audience I attended with greeting the characters, songs and one-liners like old friends. This was my first time seeing it, but I was buoyed up by the mountains of positive press and a near cult-like reverence towards the material. "You'll be humming 'Everyone's a Little Bit Racist!' for weeks!" the ysaid. Well alright.

Set in the titular avenue, we open with the arrival of 23-year old graduate Princeton. Clutching an English BA he hopes to make his mark in the big city, but almost instantly winds up indebted, unemployed and depressed. Some sun shines in the form of lonely heart teacher's assistant Kate Monster, whose neediness fits Princeton's neuroses like a jigsaw. Local flavour is provided by the other residents, closeted Bert n' Ernie analogues Rod and Nicky, comedy Japanese stereotype Christmas Eve, her obnoxious but good-hearted husband Brian, porn-crazed pervert Trekkie Monster and building superintendent Gary Coleman.

Their various problems: finding a job, poor money management, commitment issues in relationships, lack of direction in life and simply finding a place to live, are immediately recognisable to a young metropolitan audience. It's difficult not to feel a twinge of sympathy as the characters plaintively wish they were back in college, waste their money on booze or simply mope around miserably as their dreams deflate into a saggy mess. 

Those blues are offset by the fact that, well simply, they're being experienced by puppets. With the performers visible on stage at all times, there's an pleasant DIY nature about the production. This feeds into the fact that it's just plain ludicrous to see muppets engaged in hardcore sex, contemplating suicide or grappling with their sexuality. Combine that with witty lyrics and precision-tooled deployment of swearing, and you've got a show that broadly hits its comedic marks.

This is where my problems begin. You see, while Avenue Q is undoubtedly funny, it's not that funny. For example, the basic concept of a perverted Cookie Monster is solid, but it's a character whose single joke is repeated ad nauseum. The show is peppered with these one-gag characters, so repetitive that they almost (but not quite) wear out their welcome. It's a tricky one to pin down: I can't deny that I laughed, I just didn't laugh quite as much I thought I would.

I suspect this is due to the particularly American core of cloying sentimentality that lurks at the heart of Avenue Q. It promisingly flirts with genuine misery, explaining to the audience that they were lied to as children, they're not special, their dreams will go unfulfilled and that life is a nest of vipers waiting to swallow you up. Sure that's a bit of a downer, but hey, that's life. But it undermines this by eventually succumbing to a hugs n' tears happy ending. Even the puppet that got her head ripped off came back! Granted, my sadistic lust for puppet misery and pain is probably at odds with making a wildly successful international stage hit, but I prefer my comedy to come with a blackened, corroded heart.

Saying that, there's no fault to be found in the performances. The obvious stand-out is Sarah Harlington, switching effortlessly between the polar opposites of Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, puppeteering the hell out of them and singing beautifully. There's no weak links here, each performer cramming the felt characters with oodles of personality, pathos and humour. 

Given the rapturous standing ovation that greeted the end of the show I can only assume that fans were left satisfied. I can't deny I had a good time; impressed by the dynamic, adventurous lyricism, the skill of the puppeteers and the show's willingness to dip its toe into murky waters. But it's not quite the show for me, the shock factor felt muted and the 2003-era material ever-so-slightly dated. 

Also, though this isn't Avenue Q's fault, the Greenwich Theatre should fix its leaky roof. I had water dripping on my head throughout the show!


Avenue Q is at the Greenwich Theatre until 24th May. Tickets here.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

'Mad Max: Fury Road' (2015) directed by George Miller

Thursday, May 14, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

After a stunning series of trailers, each more cataclysmic than the last, I'd prepared myself for disappointment. After all, I've been fooled by trailers before and these were so great I suspected the film had blown its visual wad too early. Boy oh boy was I glad to be proved wrong. Fury Road is a two hour symphony of destruction, a visual and sonic feast so intense that it approaches abstraction.

Set in a post-apocalyptic Australia of "blood and fire", 'Mad' Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is a guilt-ridden desert wanderer. A solitary, silent and stoic figure, he's focused on one thing: survival. Not five minutes into the film he's captured and imprisoned by desert warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe, with control over water, fuel and bullets, has established himself as a God figure at the centre of aperverse dictatorial society. 

Legions of white-painted, suicidal 'war boys' carry out his violent bidding, while women are either sex slaves or perpetually pregnant human cows hooked to milking machines. A notable exception is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), badass supreme and trusted leader of Joe's war parties. But the mistreatment of Joe's wives has gotten to her, and soon she's leading an escape party across the desert, hotly pursued by a swarm of war boys in modified death-machines. Max ends up chained to the front of one of them, and so the stage is set for carnage.

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne)
It's difficult to emphasise how satisfying this action is. I have no aesthetic or philosophic axe to grind with regard to CGI, but Miller's practical effects are viscerally astonishing in a way that a render farm couldn't hope to capture. From the moment the first rusty metal hulk rumbles on screen we implicitly understand it's simple reality. As these spiky, juddering, roaring, flame-spewing hunks of metal clash amid clouds of dust, the film transforms into a kaleidoscope of chaos. It's the kind of action that drops your jaw to the floor - more you wonder 'how the hell did he film that?!'

The adventurousness continues into the score, which makes fascinating use of diegetic sound. JunkieXL's score is rhythmically accompanied by the throaty growl of engines, metal clanking against metal and the screams of the participants. The best example is the incredibly barmy war-machine-rig that accompanies the villains on their raids. On the rear are several drummers beating out a rhythm, on front is a red-clad man furiously shredding on a double-necked guitar. Which is also a flamethrower. Sonic strands weave in and out of the action in dizzying combinations; the confusion between what's diegetic and non-diegetic, combined with the visual overload leads to cinematic synaesthesia. 

I'd be over the moon with just that, but Fury Road isn't just carnage. George Miller, arguably the creator of much of what we consider 'post-apocalyptic', loads the plot with social relevance and pointed gender politics. All too often, post-nuclear settings are used as right-wing libertarian playgrounds where life has reverted to a rugged 'natural' form once the corrupt liberal society have been blasted away. 

Miller understands that this is bullshit, the world of Mad Max is less a place of freedom and more a place where the societal desires, needs and instincts are stronger than ever. The people of the wasteland desperately need gasoline, water and security, and so do we. The only difference is that we've insulated ourselves from the processes needed to supply it. Miller's world is the epitome of naked, vicious capitalism, the rabid competition between warlords underlining the fact that cooperation, kindness and empathy stand in eternal opposition to free market philosophies.

That point of view leads into the specifics of what Fury Road is about: sex slavery, rape and the broad objectification of women. Told in broad feminist strokes, the film shows us a battle of the sexes - domineering men seeking to possess, control and dehumanise women who have the gall to declare that they're no-one's property. The prime mover in this is Theron's impossibly badass Furiosa, who with a shaved head, robot arm, bad attitude and penchant for smearing oil over her face looks like a grown-up, pissed off Tank Girl. Furiosa is right up there with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, essentially sharing top-billing with Max himself. She's a wonderful creation, Theron mixing up rock-hard militaristic meanness that's punctuated only by brief, but touching glimpses of anguish and trauma. 

Fury Road isn't at all cryptic about any of this - going so far as to daub its message on the scenery at times. Nonetheless it's gratifying to see a straightforwardly, unselfconscious feminist film that also has people getting their faces ripped off, flaming tornadoes and rad fire-guitar solos. 

Whoever gave George Miller $150,000,000 to crash cars into each other in the desert deserves a medal. No action film is going to top this in 2015, so get yourself to the largest screen you can as soon as possible!


Mad Max: Fury Road is released 14 May 2015

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

'Danny Collins' (2015) directed by Dan Fogelman

Wednesday, May 13, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Danny Collins is the kind of movie you end up watching on a long haul flight when you've run out of things. It's not so much bad as unremarkable, aiming and succeeding at creating a mild diversion. It's a curiously tranquillised flavour of art; broadly competent, safe and with a dopily dog-like desire to please.

The story is developed from a real-life "and finally" news tidbit. In 1971 British folk singer Steve Tilston was interviewed in an obscure magazine in which he bemoaned the toxic effect money has on artistry. John Lennon read the article, sent Tilston an encouraging letter and invited him to chat on the phone. The courier, recognising the letter's value as a collector's item, nicked it. 34 years later Tilston finally learned about the letter's contents, leading to a moment of reflection on how his life may have changed had it reached him.

Danny Collins grabs this news nugget and runs with it. The obscure folk singer becomes the eponymous Collins (Al Pacino). After a promising start in the early 70s, Collins has morphed from Bob Dylan into Barry Manilow - spending his nights arthritically gyrating his hips to auditoriums packed with grey-haired old ladies. Sure he's rich, popular and successful - but is he happy?

He is not. It turns out that a fleet of luxury cars, a palatial house, a mountain of coke, lakes of booze and a zoned out bimbo girlfriend induce intense existential fatigue. Truly, the woes of this insanely rich celebrity are practically Shakespearian. A capper is put on things when Collins' agent Frank (Christopher Plummer) surprises him with the letter from John Lennon. This lights a fire under Danny, and he resolves to a) clean up his act, b) write some new music and c) reconcile with his estranged son (Bobby Cannavale).

This all happens in broadly predictable dramatic strokes, the film tossing in an adorable moppet with a medical condition, a weepy-of-the-week cancer scare and a flirtatious but chaste romance with Annette Bening. The film settles on a quietly conservative morality early on, chiding Collins for his ostentatious materialism and treating it as an enormous development when he eventually settles for regular brand materialism.

Fair play to Al Pacino though. You'd imagine that casting him as an egocentric rockstar would result in overacting so strong it'd figure highly on the Nick Cage-sacle. In fact he severely reins it in, playing the character surprisingly quietly and realistically, with big heaping dollops of pathos in his hangdog expression and slumped posture. In fact, he's so willing to look like a tasteless idiot that he becomes a bit Alan Partridge-y, not helped by his long-term residence in a hotel and flirtations with the staff.

Broadly speaking, everyone else in the film acquits themselves well. Then again, Christopher Plummer and Annette Bening aren't going to let you down. Bobby Cannavale impresses with a likeably stolid, Italian-American portrait of masculinity, as does Jennifer Garner as his wife - who has the stressed surburban mother role locked down these days. Nobody's going to win any awards for this, but hey, it's a paycheque right?

But it's not an actor or director who comes out of Danny Collins looking best - it's Hilton Hotels and Mercedes-Benz. Product placement is  one of those things it's best to accept in films, philosophically annoying, but easy to accept as a necessary evil as long as it's not in your face. Not so here; the film may as well be a feature length ad for Hilton, featuring people repeatedly saying how great their hotels are, their logo all over the place and many of the characters working for them.  Similarly, the Mercedes badge is front and centre throughout, exterior shots looking eerily like car ads for some gull winged luxury monstrosity.

As a film that could probably be adequately reviewed with a non-committal shrug, Danny Collins isn't exactly a must-see. Still, it's not bad bad, and though its morality is skewed in favour of small-c conservatism, consumption and materialism that's far from unusual in mainstream cinema. Still, if you do end up seeing it, there's far worse shite out there and anyway, by the time you're walking out of the cinema you'll have already started to forget it.


Danny Collins is released 29 May 2015

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