Sunday, July 06, 2014

After a War, Battersea Arts Centre

I had not expected orchids.

Up in the attic of the Battersea Arts Centre there is a calm green room filled with flowers. In the background voices speak softly, soothingly. It lends the space a Sunday afternoon stillness.

It is a delicate gesture, this room, which is part of The Listening Post, an installation by Tom Chivers and James Wilkes drawing on the stories of Battersea residents during the First World War. Lines from local poet Edward Thomas have been pasted on the walls. Voices whisper from speakers. In the war years Battersea Town Hall was used as a recruiting office and the Council Chamber used as a courtroom to try conscientious objectors. From the orchid room you ascend, passing under the rafters, noting stray roller skates and flickering clips of Charlie Chaplin; the overlapping voices are underscored by an ominous aeroplane drone and suggestive of suspicions hissed over back garden fences, the twitch of the curtain.

As part of LIFT, Tim Etchells and 14-18 NOW, After a War, described as a ‘three day takeover’ of Battersea Arts Centre is an attempt to explore the lesser known stories of the First World War, and the wars that followed, through a series of installations, talks and performances spread across and weekend and throughout the various rooms of the BAC. The stories told came from Africa, the former Yugoslavia, and South America, emphasising the global, that this was a war that encompassed the whole world.

The idea is to chart your own path through the day, though this can lead to lulls, and while it allows welcome breaks for contemplation it also creating a slightly disjointed, fragmented feeling. Later in the day Stan’s Café will be performing Finger, Trigger, Bullet, Gun, a piece in which chains of dominoes will be used to represent the men who fell, and The Tiger Lillies are hymning doomed youth, but during the afternoon it is possible to dip in and out of rooms, to listen to the looping memories of BBC foreign correspondent Lara Pawson while sitting in a high-backed armchair, to watch videos of Argentine men who served as soldiers during the Falklands War recounting their experiences, in Lola Arias’ installation Veterans, to sit on one of the carpet-covered benches that dot the BAC staircase and read through a long list of conflicts, some familiar, some less so, which forms Martin John Callanan’sWars in My Lifetime.

Bask at The Listening Post, a baize board and a map of the local area provide further snippets of stories, tales of early aviation, of suspect German bakeries. In the last room, a quartet of green bankers’ lamps mark out a space to sit and listen to further accounts of what it was to speak for peace in a time of war, to take that stand. The installation uses the atmosphere of these attic spaces to its advantage, the walls still mottled from Masque of the Red Death, the building seems to be speaking to you, telling you its stories. The speakers glint on the wall, unblinking, like little black eyes looking down on you, speaking, yes, but also watching and listening. The piece as a whole, I felt, could have benefited from more visual richness – I am greedy, I want more of these stories, and the chosen objects feel somewhat scattered – but as a response to the space and an engagement with the building, it draws you in.

In between shows I go and listen to Amber Burchart’s informative talk about the various shifts in fashion that occurred during the First World War. She is an engaging speaker, taking in the origins of the trench coat, the retinal delight that was dazzle camouflage and the Sapeur movement in the Congo in a short space of time.

Two pieces of performance dig deeper into the African experience of war. In the first, Statue of Loss, Congolese dancer Faustin Linyekula twists and contorts his body, his torso smeared with white, to a recording of the scratchy, haunting chant of a Congolese soldier in a Prisoner of War camp. These were men who were being disappeared, their role in the war erased, even as they were fighting and dying for the country that had colonised them. This ritualistic piece of movement and music, Flamme Kapaya playing guitar from his seat at the back of the room (the same Council Chamber where Battersea’s conscientious objectors were made to account for themselves and where two days ago Forced Entertainment performed the relentless, hypnotic, The Notebook) is an act of remembering.

Inua Ellams’ approach is verbal rather than physical. The Long Song Goodbye is a piece of storytelling which Ellams performs while sitting at a desk surrounded by mountains of bureaucratic clutter, ziggurats of paperwork. Each line of the play begins with the word ‘because’. ‘Because he’, ‘because it,’ ‘because they.’ It lends this melodic, flowing story of a father and son’s separation a sense of the fated.

There are more stories, further fragments, happening in other rooms. The day has a scratchy feel, of ideas being worked out and refined. It’s at its most engaging as an experience when the individual pieces echo one another, when unexpected parallels and contrasts emerge, when you open a door and stumble into a room full of orchids.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, June 23, 2014

Where on earth is Hamlet?

"The battle rages on. By lamp-light. At high speed. With a 3am kebab. With Steven Berkoff. Farce turns to horror. In a caravan. Haunted by a pigeon."

This year's Edinburgh Fringe programme condensed, continued over on Exeunt.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

In The Heights, Southwark Playhouse

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, a multiple Tony-winner which opened on Broadway back in 2008, is a large-hearted affair. Set in New York’s Washington Heights, a neighbourhood with a large Latin American population, it charts the stories of a number of characters, different generations of immigrants and their American-born offspring – money worries, family strife, love both requited and not – over a number of sticky city nights.

There’s a gentleness to all this, a sense of affection. The harsher side of urban life is not up for dissection here; despite the heatwave, this isn’t Do The Right Thing. Miranda is keener to explore the way immigrant communities work, the interconnectedness, the support network; this is undercut only by the poignant feeling that ever-rising rents will soon start to have an impact on this way of life, diluting things, forcing people to move out and apart.

Luke Sheppard’s London production captures the show’s energy, its capacity for uplift. It’s a deliciously vibrant production, the stage an arena for Drew McOnie’s often dizzying choreography. The music meanwhile is a mix of Latin sounds and hip-hop influences. The lyrics are consistently smart and funny, even if the sound quality means that some of the zippier lines get lost.

The performances are nicely judged, giving necessary shape to a large cast of characters, some drawn in marker pen, others in fine-liner. The heart of the piece is provided by Sam MacKay as the good-natured bodega-owner Usnavi, a decent guy who feels a little adrift following the death of his parents. Not that he’s lacking in family, the production makes clear, not with Eve Polycarpou’s Abuela Claudia and Damian Buhagiar’s mouthy young Sonny living nearby. Everyone looks out for one another in this neighbourhood; book-writer Quiara Alegria Hudes makes it clear that this comes at the cost of privacy – everyone knows each other’s business too and a girl can’t drop out of university without everyone soon finding out about it – but the production, in the main, is a celebration of community.

The set, a mix graffiti tags and corrugated metal, is relegated to the back wall, so that Sheppard and McOnie can fill the Southwark Playhouse stage with popping bodies and twirling skirts. There are a couple of stand-out sequences – the dramatic double of ‘The Club’ and ‘Blackout’ which ends the first act among them – but the production as a whole has a cumulative cheering effect, drawing the audience in, lifting them up.

Admittedly there’s not a huge amount of room for nuance when it comes to character though David Bedella does a good job of conveying paternal turmoil, as a hard-working man determined to do well by his family. That’s not to say the production is without emotional texture; while the plotting is predictable – Usnavi’s sold one of his customers a winning lottery, where might this be leading? – and there are few hard edges of which to speak, the tone is rarely cloying and a couple of moments are genuinely and unexpectedly moving in their exploration of what it is to move to another country in search of a better life, to leave one family behind only to find another.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Secret Cinema 21

After attempting something slightly different with their not so secret tie-in with Wes Anderson’s newly released The Grand Budapest Hotel – discussed in more detail here – the Secret Cinema team have pitched back into the black for their latest event.

The air of mystery is obviously a huge part of the process, the seeding of clues on social media – in this case a few evocative quotes and some details about an American mayoral campaign – is a key part of the experience. Once you’ve acquired your ticket, you’re assigned a ‘character’ and are told the location and given the dress code for the evening, but they still keep it zipped when it comes to the name of the film. While there’s much fun to be had in trying to unpick all this, there’s also the pressing question of what happens if the film turns out to be one you don’t like? Will it still be an experience worth having? A willingness to gamble certainly comes in handy (in more than one way, it turns out).

They’ve been doing this for a good few years now, tweaking things along the way but the concept remains the same. You’re buying a ticket not just to see a mystery film, but to participate in an immersive experience inspired, both directly and indirectly, by the world of that film. They’ve done Blade Runner and The Shawshank Redemption in the past, while recent experiences have been based on The Third Man and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; for the latter a vast disused office building in Croydon was transformed into the headquarters of a shadowy corporation but the results received quite a mixed response from audiences, the chief complaints being that the space was just too large and the cinema part of the experience – the screening of the film itself, on a series of small television monitors and projected on the side of the building – felt like an afterthought.

It looks like they’ve taken at least some of the audience feedback on board. Secret Cinema 21 seems more manageable in scale than their take on Brazil. You have the best part of two hours to explore the space before the screening, with time for further carousing afterwards. It helps that they’ve snagged a peach of a building for this one, a beautiful historic venue with its own array of secrets. They’ve also sourced some gorgeous things with which to furnish it and the whole space is attractively wreathed in whisky mist. But while it’s tempting to make comparisons, this isn’t Punchdrunk and the level of detail isn’t quite up to their standards, you soon start to spot the duct tape covering up wires, the cheap paper table cloths, the fact that the dollars have clearly been printed by photocopier. Small details, but ones capable of pulling you out of the world. Some of the rooms are dazzling, particularly those which made the most out of the building’s original art deco features and the grand central staircase, others feel a bit empty.

While Secret Cinema don’t really market what they do as being ‘immersive’ theatre in the conventional sense, the performance element is fairly central to the experience. You are given identities and tasks are assigned on arrival, usually involving tracking down various characters to squeeze them for ‘information.’ This has the effect of making you explore the space fully, racing up stairs and into basement drinking dens, sidling up to people by the roulette table, but I would definitely have appreciated a greater degree of narrative clarity, a bit more in the way of incentive; there didn’t seem to be much at stake over whether or not you completed these tasks, apart from the acquisition of more photocopier dollars.

Whereas Punchdrunk at its most enchanting feels like entering a dream world, it’s essentially a solitary experience, with the other masked figures (and their pointy elbows) part of the alien landscape, Secret Cinema is altogether more social. I took a friend, the Lawyer, who fully embraced the role-playing potential (particularly the double-dealing and bribery, the thrill of the grift), testing the interactive elements to the full. Some of the performers seemed more than capable of rolling with this, creating defined characters and having a lot of fun with it, while others seemed far less capable of keeping track of all the various micro-narratives they’d set in motion. I found myself feeling particularly frustrated when we’d finally completed our given task only to be dismissed with a hardboiled shrug. This was a recurring theme. Sure, this was in keeping with the world of the film, and made sense in that context, but it became grating after a while, repeatedly being told to ‘get lost’ or some such in a honey-thick American drawl. It also had the effect of shutting down my willingness to play.

The film turned out to be one I’ve always liked and the band and the dancing that followed was hugely enjoyable, but I found some of the interactive elements frustratingly undercooked and there was a creeping feeling of negativity that sucked the fun out of some exchanges. As an exercise in dress-up and play-acting for grown-ups, one liberally lubricated by booze – a temporary act of escape – it has a lot going for it, but I think I would have felt far more kindly disposed towards it, flaws and all, if it hadn’t felt so grasping.

This is my main problem with this incarnation of Secret Cinema. It’s currently priced in line with Punchdrunk (them again, sorry) but that’s just the start. Once inside there are numerous opportunities to part you with your green – not just bars and ‘diners’ but photographers too. The mark ups are pretty eye-watering, cocktails are OK, but £4 for a small can of warmish beer is a rip-off whichever way you paint it. The level of detail shown elsewhere seemed conspicuous by its absence too, cheap wine in cheap wine glasses at high prices, olives in plastic pots – perhaps if they’d been presented in an era-appropriate manner, if there’d been a bit more love and a little less grab, these niggles would have niggled less but as it was I became more aware of the cracks – the shoddy state of the ladies’ loos, the cloakroom attendants who seemed supremely pissed off at having to deal with wet umbrellas – than I might otherwise have been.

I had a grand time with my Lawyer, once we found each other – they have a tendency to split groups up on arrival – but a lot of that was down to how we chose to engage with it. On watching the film it was also possible to fully appreciate the little jokes, references and clues laced through what had gone before, how cleverly they’d built on tiny details and sub-sub-plots in the source material to create the world in which we’d just been playing, but this came a bit too late and didn’t quite make up for the sense of being squeezed.

Written for Exeunt

Friday, April 25, 2014

Orpheus, Battersea Arts Centre

Little Bulb Theatre’s enchanting reworking of the Orpheus myth returns to the Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre and if anything it’s even more magical on second viewing.

It’s a delicious thing, this show. Frankly, given the amazing space they’ve been given to play in and the proven appeal of many of the ingredients they’ve chosen to play with, it would be a surprise if it were otherwise. But that’s not to diminish Littlle Bulb’s invention and skill. Much like in a Wes Anderson film there are boxes within boxes, frames within frames, to their handling of the narrative. The story of Orpheus is told in the style of 1930s Parisian cabaret, with the Great Hall bedecked with red velvet and an array of tables in front of the stage behind which sit more conventional raked seating. The lovers are portrayed by legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt and an Édith Piaf-alike chanteuse Yvette Pépin as played by Little Bulb’s Dominic Conway and Eugenie Pastor. While Conway’s Orpheus remains mute, a calm, smiling presence, his guitar speaking for him, the angular Pastor purrs and smoulders as Piaf/Pepin/Eurydice, rolling her words around, revelling in the undulations of her accent.

Much of the storytelling takes the form of a series of mime sequences and tableaux performed against a backdrop of Debussy and silent movie style-captions. The cast don bunny ears and buck teeth to play woodland creatures or drape and cape themselves in white to play the denizens of the underworld. The dancing is intentionally heavy-footed, and there’s an air of polished amateurishness to the whole enterprise which is mostly pitched at just the right level to render it endearing rather than overly arch. The musicianship as ever is exemplary, but then that’s something of a given with these guys.

Alexander Scott’s production has some truly dazzling moments, particularly in the second half. The song ‘La Chanson de Perséphone’ performed by Tom Penn in male falsetto reminiscent of Anthony and the Johnsons is genuinely haunting, the deployment of the Grand Hall’s mighty organ remains an incredible, reverberative treat, and the climactic sequence – Orpheus and Eurydice’s last desperate dash towards the light – has the audience holding their breath.

While the staging on the whole feels slightly tighter than it did first time around, there are some issues with the lengthy ‘jazz’ interval. While the audience are encouraged to come and go as they wish while the band plays on, few did, and the resulting drag threatens to, if not quite break, than at least dent the production’s spell. This isn’t Little Bulb’s most ambitious show – it doesn’t have the delicacy or the heart-knotting quality of Crocosmia or the divisive alien energy of Squally Showers - it’s a romantic response to an incredible space, a confection, albeit an exquisite one – but taken as an experience in itself, as a night of music and magic and fizz and copious, warm-hearted charm, it’s vastly entertaining and intensely happy-making.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fatal Attraction, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction was a pretty nasty piece of a film-making, but a coldly efficient one; it set out to hit nerves and it succeeded. The character of Alex, as played by Glenn Close, single, childless, superficially confident but deeply needy, tactical self-harmer, a wrecker of homes and a boiler of bunnies, was written to put the fear of god into men of a certain age, and it worked, speaking to the social anxieties of the time and becoming the highest grossing film of 1987 in the process.

And now it’s here in the West End. Not an update, not even an adaptation really. Just the screenplay served up on stage. Very, very little has been done to address how the material might work in a theatrical setting. The biggest change by far is the reinstatement of writer James Dearden’s original ending. Alex was supposed to kill herself at the end of the movie, implicating Michael Douglas’ philandering New York lawyer Dan in her death. It was downbeat, bleak, made much more sense from a psychological perspective (at least within the universe of the movie), and – famously – went down like a lead balloon with audiences during test screenings. So a new ending was shot, in which Anne Archer’s betrayed wife got to blow the bitch away in the bathtub, although evidently neither Lyne nor Dearden were ever particularly pleased with it.

Given all that, it’s possible to see why Dearden might want to revisit the material, if rather harder to grasp what might be in it for anyone else. And because it follows the film so closely (up until the end at least), it’s impossible not to play the scene-by-scene comparison game and to find Trevor Nunn’s stage version wanting. For one thing, the attraction – kind of a crucial element – is pretty much absent. The early flirtation between Mark Bazeley’s Dan and Natascha McElhone’s striking, stylish business woman, Alex, is one of the better realised scenes, but it still doesn’t suggest the kind of heat that would make Dan risk so much so quickly. There’s also very little sex, bar a bit of heavy petting in an elevator: there’s no sweaty bed-sheet action, Bazeley doesn’t get to do that awkward trouser dance round Alex’s glamorous Manhattan loft and her kitchen sink, perhaps mercifully, remains buttock-free

The production is also curiously difficult to locate in time. A decision has clearly been taken not to set the thing in the 1980s. No-one sports a poodle perm, no one smokes, and the clothes are contemporary. But it’s a very odd kind of update. There are a couple of references to email and even one mention of Facebook, but no one has an iPad, no one sends a text, even the iPhones have the tinny rings of much older mobiles. Hardly any attempt has been made to explore the role the internet might play in Alex’s insertion of herself into Dan’s life – the one thing that might have given this production an edge of interest, instead it inhabits a sort of weird half-way space, a feeling only enhanced by the fact the characters spend so much time on the phone, calling – or failing to call – one another, having bitty, broken conversations while standing on opposite sides of the stage.

And then there’s the sexual politics. Obviously extramarital affairs were not the preserve of the 1980s, and the film was pretty ugly and reactionary even for its time, but it was reflective of a certain social, urban unease. Here, again, the production doesn’t quite seem to know where to put itself. “Girls like sex as much as boys,” Dan’s sweaty-palmed and recently divorced friend excitedly informs him, as if Sex and the City had never happened (though for all Kristin Davis’s Beth gets to do, it may as well not have done). The suggestion that Alex’s age and childlessness, coupled with the trauma of a past miscarriage, might be the root of her unbalanced behaviour – which is if anything emphasised here – is pretty dizzyingly offensive, regardless of when it’s supposed to be set.

McElhone has a degree of poise and presence as Alex, playing her as a more vulnerable, damaged character than Close did, but if anything her metamorphosis from being a woman rightfully pissed off at Dan’s abandonment to a stabby pixie dream girl is even harder to swallow as a result. Bazeley, meanwhile, just about convinces as a man in too deep; he gets across the character’s spinelessness, but lacks Douglas’ charisma. Occasionally he gets to deliver a few lines of soliloquy/voice-over but these feel as if they’ve been designed to paper over the set changes rather than to offer any psychological insight.

The set changes quite a lot by the way. Sometimes a few moving electric blue panels are used to convey a sense of the city, other sets are more detailed and realist (and fiddly to assemble). There’s also a very large cast for what could well have been played as a two hander, like they’re justifying the high cost of tickets by populating the stage. People are forever strolling purposefully from one side of the set to the other or standing in little whispery huddles that are meant to convey that we are in a “hot new bar” or a busy Manhattan law office.

Nunn seems to give up completely on making the piece theatrically viable towards the end; when Alex makes off with Dan’s daughter and a frantic Beth crashes her car in pursuit, it all happens off-stage, complete with comedy car crash sound effect. The final confrontation between Alex and Dan, in which he’s so incensed he comes close to killing her, plays out as one lumbering clunky fight scene, utterly lacking in momentum. And when the police come for Dan in the concluding moments one of them brings the bloody knife with him in a handy backpack, for the benefit of those who may have dozed off.

In the ending that was originally filmed, Close’s Alex slits her own throat, falling out of frame just as the blood starts to flow, with a few strains of Madame Butterfly playing in the background. Here Nunn has her bathed in red light, wearing a flowing kimono, plunging the knife into her belly, with Callas in full belt. All told, his production has the effect of ridding a thriller of the majority of its thrills (even the bunny boiling is fumbled), stripping the character of Beth of what little agency she ever had and making Lyne’s film feel like an exercise in taste and restraint.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Major Tom, BAC

Though hers is ostensibly a solo show, Victoria Melody is never alone on stage. She shares the space with her beloved basset hound, the Major Tom of the title, a magnificent beast; a creature of melancholic dignity – which he maintains even when being reluctantly made to parade around the stage. Rumpled and stumpy, his snout is framed by a pair of silken conker-coloured ears; he regards a proffered dog treat as if it had disappointed him in some profound way before curling up on his cushion and falling asleep, a state in which he spends most of the show.

The presence of her canine companion adds an extra element of liveness to the piece – every mildly inquisitive lift of his head, every tentative stretch and lumber into a more comfortable corner of the stage, is met with coos and giggles from the audience. This is never disruptive though; his presence is a pleasure, it adds to the show’s charm and warmth, and proves rather fitting in a piece which is, after all, about the culture of display.

Melody is interested in tribes, their codes, rules and rituals. She immerses herself in worlds, allows her life and her work to intersect and overlap in interesting ways. In the case of Major Tom, it’s the world of championship dog show handling she’s exploring while at the same time charting her active involvement in the beauty pageant circuit. She spent a year as Mrs Brighton, attending functions, cutting ribbons, teetering in vertiginous heels across rain-swept car parks, jiving in a tiara at Brighton Pride, before going on to compete for the title of Mrs England. Major Tom meanwhile proves such a hit on the amateur dog show circuit that Melody decides to enter him for Crufts.

The two strands of the show feed on one another. Melody juxtaposes her own physical transformation into beauty queen material – hair extensions, spray tan, endless sessions in the gym to shift the weight she had purposefully piled on over the ‘best Christmas ever’ – with her attempts to break into professional dog show handling with Major Tom. Both are subject to a ridiculous amount of physical scrutiny, prodded and poked, assessed and found wanting. He is deemed to have too big a rib cage, while a plastic surgeon tells Melody her mouth is upside down.

Melody intersperses accounts of her experiences with video footage – including a hilarious montage in which both herself and Major Tom are subject to an intense and somewhat extreme grooming regime. At times there seems to be a dash of Louis Theroux to her approach, though she gets far more deeply immersed and enmeshed in the worlds she’s exploring than he does, rather than remaining a wry outsider. This makes the show more personal, but also in some ways less bladed. The people she meets along the way – the beauticians, her fellow contestants, the various “Brians” of the basset hound world – remain sketches, briefly glimpsed, rather than emerging as characters in their own right. The piece focuses more on the codes and processes, the subtle hierarchies, rather than the people who participate and their motivations for doing so. It’s much less exploitative and uncomfortable as a result but also creates a degree of distance. We’re viewing these universes through her eyes, through her lens.

While I found myself wanting more analysis, I recognise that’s not what Melody was out to do here. She engages with these worlds on their own terms and presents us with their quirks and absurdities as she encounters them, without passing judgement, without drawing conclusions, leaving it all out there for the audience to digest. And as an exercise in light-shining, in briefly granting us a glimpses into shadowed and closed corners of British life, the show is never less than engaging. Melody is an affable, generous performer, funny and honest – and of course she has Major Tom as her stage-mate and sidekick, whose very presence – even while dozing, which he does for roughly 83% of the evening – is brightening.

Reviewed for Exeunt