Month: July 2015

The Legend Of Barney Thomson

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Robert Carlyle has been suspiciously quiet of late, but The Legend of Barney Thomson, based on a series of novels by Douglas Lindsay, puts him on both sides of the camera, as he directs and stars in this gruesome farce concerning the misadventures of a Glaswegian barber. Barney (Carlyle) has been working at Hendersons for most of his adult life but because he lacks ‘the chat,’ he’s beginning to prove unpopular with the regular customers and is on the verge of being given the push. This is a disaster for him as Barney is a tragic character. He has no real friends and his diffident personality (a far cry from Begbie in Trainspotting) means that everyone takes advantage of him. This includes his pushy mother, Cemolina, (a scene-stealing turn from Emma Thompson as a chain-smoking, foul mouthed harridan with a gambling addiction.) Meanwhile, Glasgow is being rocked by a series of murders, made even more shocking by the fact that the killer has a predilection for mailing body parts from the victims (all male) to the next of kin. Events become more complicated when Barney unexpectedly finds himself in the frame as a potential murder suspect and soon falls under the watchful gaze of the vicious DI Holdall (Ray Winstone).

Once you get past the outrageous nature of the plot and the fact that everything is played with the volume turned up to eleven, there’s much to enjoy here as the hapless Barney stumbles from one potential disaster to another. Carlyle uses some infamous Glasgow locations as his backdrops and even though the results are unlikely to endear themselves to the Scottish tourist board, they give the film a definitive look and style that speaks volumes. There are also some superb cameos here – Tom Courtney as the priggish Chief Superintendent McManaman is an absolute hoot, while Ashley Jenson makes a meal of her role as an uptight Detective Inspector locked in a bitter feud with Holdall.

While the film is far from perfect, it’s nonetheless entertaining and occasionally had the sparse audience at the showing we attended laughing out loud. But a quick glance around the less-than-packed auditorium speaks volumes for its chances of success. A pity, because this is a bold film, that takes no prisoners. And that’s a rare thing in these troubled times.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Inside Out

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Viewers of a certain vintage may retain fond memories of The Numskulls – a weekly story in The Beano which featured the inside of a young boy’s head and the cartoon creatures that operated his moods, emotions and functions. The similarities are probably coincidental, but with Inside Out, it’s as though the team at Pixar took that same basic premise and elevated it to levels of sophistication that The Beano could only dream of.

Most of the action takes place inside the emotional world of a young girl called Riley, who has recently been uprooted from her home in Minnesota to live in an unfamiliar new house in San Francisco. The dominant force in her world up to this point has been Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) but as Riley’s comfortable existence is rocked by unforeseen problems, the other resident emotions – Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear start to exert their influences too. Writer/directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have created a complex internal world where everything depends on the different emotions working together as a team. Joy is convinced that in order for Riley to be truly happy, her influence must dominate proceedings. When Sadness (Phyllis Smith) attempts to be involved, the equilibrium is upset and Riley’s world appears to be in danger of coming apart at the scenes. Joy and Sadness now have to team up in order to put her back on an even keel.

Pixar have always been brilliant at creating films that are as appealing to adults as they are to children and after a recent run of disappointments (Cars 2 anyone?) it’s great to see them back at the top of their game. Indeed, Inside Out is so sophisticated you can’t help suspecting that the adults get by far the better deal here; where else would you find a kid’s animation that gleefully references Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? Don’t get me wrong, the film is surely big enough and shiny enough to keep the younger members of the audience happy, but they’ll be missing so many sly in-jokes and observations that can really only be fully appreciated once maturity has kicked in.

Suffice to say that this is delightfully inventive stuff that never loses pace or its unerring sense of direction, and there’s a conclusion here that will wring real tears from all but the stone-hearted. When Pixar was purchased by the Disney organisation, there was much dark speculation that it would find itself neutered by the House of Mouse, so it’s heartening to report that Inside Out steers well clear of the usual ‘quest for happiness’ ending and opts instead for something a tad more realistic. Don’t miss this one – and whatever you do, don’t feel that you need to have a child in tow in order to enjoy it. This film would give Sigmund Freud a run for his money.

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to vacate your seats either. In the usual Pixar tradition, there’s an end credit reel that provides some of the film’s funniest moments.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

We Are The Multitude/Gary: A Love Story


24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester


Time was when the 24:7 theatre festival spanned a whole week and featured a host of new productions. Over the past 11 years it’s played to 40,000 people and has enjoyed the backing of the Arts Council and Manchester City Council. This year, largely because of difficulties with funding, the festival has been drastically scaled down to a single weekend, featuring just a handful of plays and talk is that this may even be the last time it happens: a real tragedy if that proves to be the case because it has always been a source of exciting, thought-provoking theatre and this year proves to be no exception. I hope it won’t end here, and it was heartening indeed to see that the John Thaw Theatre was absolutely packed for the two performances that B & B managed to attend.

We Are The Multitude, written by Laura Harper and directed by Liz Stevenson, is a tightly constructed two-hander which plunges a couple of University office employees into a long dark night of the soul (or more accurately a morning and afternoon of it) when they discover that they are the only workers who have come in to the office on the day when it has been occupied by ‘The Multitude,’ a group of militant activists who are threatening to blow the place to kingdom come, if their demands are not met.

Simon (Andy Blake) is a once-promising author who after failing to write the difficult second novel has had to buckle down to the realities of an unfulfilling desk job. Lisa (Amy Drake) occupies the desk next to him and is currently preparing herself for a meeting with HR, citing bullying from her boss, after she refused to allow Lisa to take time off to attend a funeral – that of her neighbour’s cat.

The chalk and cheese pairing of the two protagonists yields plenty of laughs – right from the start it’s clear by the state of their respective desks that here are two people who are destined to get right up each other’s noses – but as their situation becomes ever more perilous, they inevitably begin to open up to each other and reveal the tragic truths of their respective situations. It soon becomes clear that they have more in common than anyone might have supposed. Both performances are spot on, with Drake in particular mining her hapless character for maximum laughs. There’s also a last minute twist that few people will see coming.

Funny, but ultimately poignant, WATM makes for an entertaining and occasionally surprising hour of theatre.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney


Gary: A Love Story is writer James Harker’s debut play – but it doesn’t show. This is a confident, assured two-hander, directed with deft precision by Danielle McIlven – and it’s a joy to watch.

The protagonist is Andrew, brother of the eponymous Gary and the hour-long drama charts the ups and downs of their relationship, as they grow from children into young adults. Andrew is the high-achieving older brother, protector of his needier, ‘Mum-says-I’m-special’ sibling. Gary is naive, enthusiastic, excitable and vulnerable, a target for bullies and easy to manipulate. Andrew clearly loves him, but just as clearly finds him exasperating and a drain. They draw together in the face of family turmoil – their father’s leaving; the arrival of a new stepdad. And they fall apart when, on leaving school with good exam results, Andrew is employed on a management training scheme, while Gary, who has failed all of his exams, even the science he has so enjoyed – starts dealing drugs and idling his life away, alienating his family and bringing trouble to their home. Andrew loses patience and they fall out. It’s a heartbreaking tale; poor Gary never stands a chance. The odds are stacked against him: really, what is he supposed to do? He’s a sweet boy; it’s not his fault that there’s no place for him; it’s not his fault he’s not the clever one. Tragically, inevitably, he ends up in gaol – and Andrew is forced to re-evaluate his feelings for the baby brother with whom he has shared so much.

The set – two chairs, an old juke box and stacks of cardboard boxes – is a treasure trove of evidence, bearing witness to the past. When Andrew, in the grip of emotion, begins to destroy it, the whole edifice explodes – and it’s a devastating moment for the audience as well.

Both performances here are top-notch. Reuben Johnson, as Andrew, has the showier role, but Craig Morris, as Gary, is the perfect foil.

Truly, this is a gem of a play, with beautifully realised characters and dialogue. I have no doubt we will hear more from playwright James Harker.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield




– How about a zombie film? Starring Alpha-Republican-hardman Arnold Schwarzenegger, you say.

– Nah, I say. I think I’ll pass. I mean, I do quite like stories of the living dead, but I really can’t be doing with all that boring Mr Macho stuff.

– Go on, you say; it might be good. It’s been plucked from Hollywood’s infamous ‘Black List’ of unproduced scripts and championed by Schwarzenegger himself.

– And that’s supposed to make it better?

– Well, we haven’t got anything else planned for the evening.

And, you know I’m a sucker for the whole cinematic experience, even if I’m not so keen on the movie, so yeah, why not? And off we go.

And, oh, but am I glad we did.

Maggie is a zombie movie unlike any I have ever seen. John A Scott III’s debut screenplay is slow and tender, warm and sad. There’s only minimal lurching and wounding, and the bullets put through the zombies’ heads are shot reluctantly and with compassion. Maggie (Abigail Breslin) is a wayward teen, who, having run off to explore the bright lights of the big city, calls home to ask her father (Schwarzenegger) for help. She has been infected and is in quarantine.

This particular dystopia is more humane than most. Infected people are assessed and then allowed home to live out the remainder of their ‘human’ days. When the time comes, they are supposed to return to quarantine, where they will be dispatched via lethal injection. Police patrols have lists of those on furlough, and round up those whose families struggle to give them up. The focus then is not on survival; it’s not about encountering the slavering hoards and protecting what you have from others who want in. Instead, this is the story of a family learning to let go.

There’s not much in the way of backstory or character development – and I think that’s to the film’s credit. Maggie’s likes and dislikes, dreams and fears are just not that important now. She and her family are living in the present, dealing with the day-to-day. We are trusted to engage with their predicament on this human level; the fripperies we use to label and identify are stripped away and we are left with just the basics: love and empathy and muddling-through. I thought it was wonderful. Even the dragged-out ending (Now? No. Now? Not yet. Now?) served to underline the hardship: how do we know when the time is right; when are we ever ready to accept a loved one’s death?

So this is a zombie movie, yes, but it’s also unlikely to appeal to those in search of frights and thrills. It’s more of an allegory, really, for the way we deal with disease and disaster. (And yes, I know that zombie movies are usually allegorical to some degree, but this is one more so. It’s Allegory Plus.)

It’s definitely worth watching.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Stand Up For Sarah

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The Comedy Store, Manchester


Smoke machines. What are they all about? The people who run the Comedy Store, Manchester own one and they’re not afraid to use it. It spills out a smelly fug of chemicals as we take our seats for tonight’s show and, as we’ve chosen positions near the front, the effect is a bit like sitting in the midst of an army of people smoking Capstan full strength. It creates no special atmosphere whatsoever. Unless you think a dodgy smell is something to savour. Just saying.

Tonight’s show if for a special cause – Thameside nurse, Sarah Swindells has terminal cancer and the entertainers are raising money to pay for some special treatment which is not available on the National Health. All the performers have donated their talents free of charge and there’s an encouraging turnout for a midweek event.

Thankfully, the smoke machine takes a break and out strolls our MC for the evening, veteran comedian Mick Ferry. He’s been around the block and knows just how to work an audience. An Australian visitor is singled out for some choice taunts (mostly the fact that he’s wearing more layers than everyone else) and a luckless tattooed  Mancunian builder called Billy is elected to start the applause but becomes the butt of several jokes, because he keeps wandering off to replenish his drinks. If an MC’s remit is to warm up the crowd, Ferry manages it expertly and introduces the first proper act of the evening.

Justin Moorhouse has also been around the block a bit. Some of his observations about his ‘other half’ feel a little over familiar. Lines like ‘you start off riding a bucking bronco, then find yourself straddling a leathery old cow,’ are clearly not intended to endear him to the feminists in the audience, but he settles into a better groove when talking about the ever-expanding universe. His impersonation of Stephen Hawking (sounding rather more like Kermit the frog) brings the house down.

Next up, Joe Lycett takes the stage, coming on like an oafish bellowing lager lout and my heart sinks; but it’s a clever bit of misdirection. He promptly starts talking in his ‘real’ voice, explaining that’s he’s just come from a stag party and that he’s simply been exhibiting learned behaviour. His camp, bitchy tone puts me in mind of the late, great Kenneth Williams, while his scattergun approach to comedy keeps taking us in unexpected directions. If there’s a prize for the most inventive comic of the evening, he wins it hands down and a joke about the chastity belts features in Mad Max: Fury Road is filthy but hilarious.

After a short break – and another unwelcome appearance by that bloody smoke machine – the event continues. The oddly named Penella Mellor wanders on and delivers a beautifully constructed routine on a somewhat controversial topic – children and how much she hates them. And, having established that there are several primary school teachers in the audience, she goes on to explain how they are responsible for making children even more annoying. Her deadpan serious expression as she delivers gems like; ‘ a margarine tub sprayed silver is not an acceptable birthday present – especially when I checked and there was a spa day on Groupon,’ has the audience (including the aforementioned teachers) in stitches.

Our final act of the evening is Daliso Chaponda. (I have to come clean at this point and admit that Daliso is a longstanding friend and he’s probably the main reason why we’re here tonight.) He hails from Malawi and much of his humour derives from canny observations where he compares the culture of his homeland to that of the UK. With Daliso, it’s all in the delivery. His distinctive voice and his range of accompanying animated expressions really help to sell the material. One lady sitting a few seats away from me is laughing so hysterically, I start to worry that she must be struggling to breathe. Daliso’s material is also somewhat ruder than I remember, but his charming air of innocence as he delivers the more risqué lines means that he can get away with murder. All in all, it’s a fine set which brings this memorable show to its conclusion.

An entertaining evening of laughter, all in aid of a really worthwhile cause. Whats not to like? (Apart from the smoke machine.)

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Hector and the Search For Happiness



The presence of Simon Pegg in a movie can usually be relied upon as some kind of quality control, but as Hector and the Search For Happiness proves all too readily, this can’t always be relied upon. Based upon the best selling self-help book by Francis LeLord, the film tells the story of Hector (Pegg) a successful psychiatrist, happily living in London with his girlfriend Clara, (Rosamund Pike.) But talking to a succession of depressed people on a daily basis eventually has an inevitable effect on him and he undergoes a bit of a mid life crisis; whereupon he tells Clara that he needs to go off and ‘find himself’ or more accurately, to find the essence of pure happiness.

To this effect, he visits China (for no apparent reason other than Chinese people are considered to be quite happy.) He  goes to work with an old college friend in Africa, and, in the final segment, he visits Los Angeles and his old flame, Agnes (Toni Collette) now a happily married woman with two children and a third on the way. Pegg tries hard to instil the proceedings with some degree of interest but is ill served by a story that despite involving so much travel is clearly going nowhere. It’s all a bit vapid to be honest. There’s some nice scenery to enjoy along the way and several serious actors appear in minor roles – Stellan Skarsgard, Jean Reno and Christopher Plummer to name but three, but apart from a few fridge magnet bon mots, there really isn’t an awful lot to be gleaned from the story, which eventually collapses into a conclusion that is so mind-numbingly predictable, we could have saved Hector the price of all those air fares.

2 stars

Philip Caveney

Damson – Tasting Menu

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Damson, Heaton Moor


We don’t generally review restaurants more than once and I’m more than aware that we have already waxed lyrical about Heaton Moor’s Damson a couple of times, but here’s the situation. We had something special to celebrate and it came to our attention that the restaurant now offered a six course tasting menu at £49.50 per head, served with matching wines for an extra £25. Now, I’ll grant you, this is probably not the kind off money you’d be looking to spend in an ordinary week, but for a special occasion, it’s something you might seriously consider trying. And let me ask you this. How can I not write about the best meal I have ever eaten? Seriously, it was that good. Please bear in mind, that though what I am about to describe may sound like a mountain of food, the portions are skilfully sized to ensure you can enjoy it all without feeling over faced – and the staff here are attentive, and will always accommodate you if you should ask for a short pause between courses.

We began with a tasting of seasonal soup, in this case, potato and fennel. Served in a cup, it was light, creamy and utterly delicious, just enough to whet the appetite and get those taste buds tingling for the delights to come. The soup was matched with a glass of citrusy Pino Grigiot. A very good start.

Next came grilled scallops, with compte cheese and cauliflower croquettes, accompanied by wild garlic, hazelnuts and truffle. Perfectly pitched and as light as air, this came with a glass of Circumstance Rosé, the slightly acidy tang of the wine a perfect companion for the moist and delicious scallop.

The third course was grilled fillet of plaice, served with Jersey royals, sprouting broccoli, sea aster, cockles, mussels and wild garlic pesto. If I had to choose a favourite dish from the selection, this might just take the edge. The plaice was melt-in-the mouth tender and delicately showcased by its delightful companions. The accompanying wine here was Picpoul de Pinet, a fruity zesty white. Sipped at beforehand it was okay, but tasted with the fish, it became exquisite and served as a perfect example of how intelligent wine-matching works.

Now for another standout: roasted rump of lamb with pea and mint mousseline, english asparagus, baby gem, whole grain mustard, morel mushrooms and salt and pepper sweetbreads. In a word, wow! The lamb was so tender and immersed in the mousseline, it tasted like heaven on a plate. Here, the chosen wine was a rich, robust red, Andes Peak Carmenere. Actually, on reflection, this course is neck-and-neck with the previous one as my favourite.

Time for a dessert? Oh yes, especially when it’s a chocolate cremeux with passion fruit and praline ice cream. Sometimes words fail to adequately describe just how delicious a sweet can be and this, I’m afraid, is one of those occasions. Suffice to say that the cremaux was… mmmmm. And the ice cream… aaah!

And so finally to cheese – or more accurately a generous tasting of three English and three French cheeses, served on a board and accompanied by bread, crackers, red grapes and a couple of sticks of celery. Even we struggled to finish this off completely but we were left comfortably full and ever so slightly sozzled, which is of course, the object of the exercise.

Make no mistake. This is a tasting menu to challenge the biggest names in the business and I can’t imagine how it might have been bettered. It’s customary in these reviews to focus on the meals shortcomings, but… try as I might, I couldn’t find one. I should perhaps point out that vegetarians needn’t feel left out of the game as a meat-free version is also available.

So, all of you out there who appreciate fine dining… the next time you have something special to celebrate, you know exactly where to go.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Jurassic World

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In 1993, the release of Jurassic Park was a genuine game-changer. It was the first time that CGI had been convincingly used to create realistic-looking dinosaurs (rendering the pioneering stop-motion work of people like Ray Harryhausen obsolete virtually overnight.) It was directed by Steven Speilberg at the height of his powers and even if Michael Crichton’s source novel was just anther riff on one of his earlier ideas (Westworld), it nonetheless deserved to be the blockbuster it undoubtedly was. There were a couple of underwhelming sequels in the 90s that never really capitalised on the central premise and now here we are, more than twenty years later and Jurassic World has recently become the biggest grossing film in history.

I put off watching this one for quite a while, mostly because I suspected I’d be disappointed. But after all the furore about its earnings, I had to give it a shot. What becomes clear from the outset is that despite the care and effort that has been lavished on making those dinosaurs look absolutely real, no such effort has been made with the screenplay, which features so many ridiculous ideas, it’s hard to know quite where to start.

It’s twenty two years after the events of the first film and Jurassic World on Isla Nublar is now a successful theme park. Quite how the operators obtained the licence when so many of its previous visitors had been eaten by the exhibits is never mentioned. Let’s face it, in terms of safety records, this place makes Alton Towers look like a vicarage tea party. In a sort of amped-up version of Sea World, tourists flock to watch the antics of giant dinosaurs. Well, yes, who wouldn’t? But there’s a problem. Apparently, audiences are growing tired of seeing ‘ordinary dinosaurs.’ Yeah, like that would happen. With this in mind, the island’s boffins have been doing a bit of gene splicing and have come up with a bigger, louder, toothier creature called Indominus Rex, which they’re keeping in a secret enclosure on the island. Apparently, it occurred to nobody that this might not be the most sensible move ever.

Now we’re introduced to Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) who operates in some kind of PR capacity at the park. Just to give her something more to worry about, she’s tasked with looking after her two cuddlesome nephews who are on holiday, escaping from their parent’s marital problems. You can’t help wondering how Claire ever got her job; she’s frankly useless at PR and even more useless at looking after kids, making one bad decision after another, each one seemingly intended to plunge her luckless nephews deeper and deeper into the brown stuff. It gets worse. The woman doesn’t even have the sense to take off her high heels when running from a dinosaur! Luckily, she has hunky Owen (Chris Pratt) to fall back on. He’s an animal expert who is currently training three velociraptors to work as a team – sort of like a Dino Whisperer. But he’s somewhat hampered by the ambitions of Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) a ruthless park contractor who is such a pantomime villain, he may as well have the word ‘dodgy’ tattooed on his forehead. Hoskins sees the velociraptors as potential military weapons and is clearly biding his time, waiting for the right moment to step in and take control of them.

That moment arrives when the Indominus Rex escapes (honestly, who saw that coming?) and starts gleefully chomping down on the tourists. It’s now up to Claire and Owen to sort out the situation…

Look, I get that Jurassic World is a family film, one that has to appeal to viewers from twelve to twelvety and I can’t really argue with the kind of success it’s enjoying, but honestly, how did this damp squib of a film become the runaway success of the year? There’s not an original idea in it, all the best sequences riffing on tropes that featured in the original. The lack of chemistry between Dallas Howard and Pratt is a real problem (a scene where they pause mid-carnage for a quick snog is rewarded with gales of laughter from the audience.) And perhaps most damning of all, there is no sense of peril here – remember the knockout scene in Jurassic Park where the kids were pursued into a kitchen by the velociraptors? You actually felt they could die in there. There’s nothing here to equal that – the two kids in this movie experience all kinds of dangers, but you never feel they’re being threatened by anything more lethal than a shedload of pixels. It’s by no means an awful film, it’s just a bit… meh.

I’m looking forward to the next one in the series, where Dallas Howard, Pratt and the entire board of Jurassic World end up in court, accused of causing the deaths of hundreds of innocent tourists. Now that would put a different spin on the franchise!

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Love and Mercy

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Music biopics can be perilously tricky affairs. Far too often, they come across merely as karaoke reruns of the original events and only a very few ever succeed (or even bother) to try and probe beneath the shiny surface. Happily, Love and Mercy belongs in the latter category. Bill Pohlad’s film offers two Brian Wilsons for the price of one.

In the 1960’s-set first strand, a bulked up Paul Dano does an uncanny job of portraying pop music’s most celebrated tortured genius, complete with the chubby bewildered features and the pudding basin haircut. The recreations of the band’s early concerts and TV appearances are uncannily accurate. After the Beachboys’ initial successes with their surfing songs, Brian suffers a debilitating panic attack on an airplane, and elects to stay in the studio and create music while the rest of the band head off to Japan on tour.

In the second, 1990’s-set strand, we meet another Brian Wilson, post nervous breakdown and in the clutches of bullying psychiatrist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giametti in a fright wig, looking strangely like Melvyn Bragg.) In these sequences, Brian is played by John Cusack, who is of course a very accomplished actor – but he  looks nothing like Wilson, or for that matter, Dano. The conclusion has to be that the director was trying to make a statement about his subject’s schizophrenic nature but I couldn’t help feeling that he’d have done better to stick with Dano throughout.

Once the two time frames are established the film cuts effortlessly back and forth, between two major stories. In the 60’s, Brian’s mounting confusion alienates him from his fellow band members and family – but here the film manages to nail the creative process of recording better than most other films I’ve seen. It’s wonderful to watch as a pop masterpiece like God Only Knows is assembled virtually note by note, before finally blossoming into the sublime finished product we know and love.

In the second storyline, a heavily sedated Brian, always accompanied by Landy and his henchmen, wanders into a car showroom to purchase a Cadillac and makes a connection with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks.) The two of them start to date and Melinda quickly begins to realise that Brian is under Landy’s control, every bit as much as he suffered under the tyranny of his abusive father, Murray. But how can she extricate him from his self-inflicted woes? And does Brian even want to be rescued?

This is by no means a perfect film, but it’s intriguing and compelling enough to keep you hooked to the end and there’s some fabulous sounds to enjoy along the way. At the film’s conclusion we get the added bonus of the real Brian Wilson performing the wistful song from which the film takes its title. You don’t have to be a Beachboys fan, but it certainly helps.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Skriker

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Royal Exchange Theatre/MIF15, Manchester

The Skriker is a screaming, hurtling explosion of a play, quite unlike anything I have seen staged at the Royal Exchange before.

I’ve never seen the Exchange like this before either; it’s been transformed to accommodate this play. From the moment we enter the beautiful old building, we know something’s different: there’s an avenue of trees casting a dappled green light, and the glass theatre-pod in the middle of the Great Hall is shrouded in black.

We’re in the first gallery; as we settle into our seats and peer down into the gloom, it takes us a while to notice that all 400 of the stage-level seats have been removed, making way for a series of rough wooden tables, laid out like the spokes of a broken wheel. It feels, somehow, like being inside a tree.

Although our seats give a us a clear overview of the performance space, the intention, clearly, is an immersive experience: there are chairs at most of the tables, and about sixty audience members thus become part of the set. They are, then, more than witnesses: they are complicit and involved. If they chose to, they could intervene…

I’ve long been a fan of Caryl Churchill’s work; she asks difficult questions without obvious answers, and seems to revel in the awkwardness of rejecting clear-cut rhetoric. Yes, she’s political, but she’s not interested in soundbites or tub-thumping. The world is more complex than that, and so are our reactions to it. This refusal to tread a familiar path is reflected in the theatrical form. Churchill’s plays do not conform to any accepted norms – and they’re not always easy to watch.

The Skriker, certainly, is a challenging piece. The eponymous role, played here with great relish and enormous talent by Maxine Peake, is a kind of ancient fairy, a damaged, polluted, angry spirit, raging at humans for destroying the earth. Josie and Lily, two troubled teenagers, become the focus of the Skriker’s fury, forced to confront the calamity that climate change has wrought.

The banquet scene, set down in Fairyland, is central to the play and it’s here that the themes are crystallised. Josie, propelled into this underworld by greed and curiosity, participates enthusiastically in the feast, even when an anguished woman reveals that the glistening platters are actually laden with parts of her body: ‘That’s my head!’ It makes no difference; the revellers continue to gorge, even as they witness her destruction, their dancing becoming ever wilder and more reckless. The woman implores Josie not to drink the wine, making clear that, if she does, she too will be destroyed. But no one heeds the warning. It’s not the subtlest of metaphors and – in a play this complicated – that’s no bad thing. Here, it seems, is a central premise we can use to inform our understanding of other, more opaque ideas; here, we have a clear allegory for mankind’s wanton destruction of the planet, continuing, as we do, to drive, fly, hunt rare animals, overfish the seas, cut down rain forests and frack our blighted earth

It’s an important play: frightening and angry and funny and weird. Maxine Peake is perfectly cast as the shape-shifting fairy; she inhabits each persona so completely, it’s a wonder to behold. It doesn’t matter, really, that she overshadows the younger, less experienced actors playing Josie and Lily (Laura Elsworthy and Juma Shorkah respectively), as this was always meant to be the Skriker’s play. The ensemble of wraiths and spirits embody freakish malevolence and anxiety, and the choir cements the savage beauty of the other-worldly air.

A full five stars for this one, then, but if you go to watch it, be prepared: this is not light-hearted entertainment. It’s hard work – but it’s worth it.

5 stars

Susan Singfield