Month: February 2016

In The Vice Like Grip Of It

Unknown

27/02/16

Lowry Studio Theatre

This two-hander created by Ivo in conjunction with Routes North, takes a long, paranoia-drenched look at the subject of surveillance and the ways in which it can infiltrate contemporary life. ‘Him’ (Leigh Kelly) and ‘Her’ (Jo Tyabji) move into a new apartment and set out their furniture. They talk about some unspecified ordeal they have been through (there are allusions to the London bombings, but it’s never really pinned down). Electronic music creates an atmosphere of tension throughout, though it occasionally overpowers the dialogue in some of the early scenes. There are several slo-mo/fast forward sequences, matched to pulsing light and projection effects, which, though initially appealing, are somewhat overused.

As the couple’s life together progresses, ‘he’ becomes increasingly proprietal, watching ‘her,’ recording her, asking questions about how she’s spent her day, becoming ever more intimidating. This clearly refers to those recent cases of undercover police officers becoming intimate with the women they have been assigned to watch, but once again, it’s never clearly pinned down and in the end, I felt this was the main problem with In the Vice Like Grip Of It – it’s a play that deals in generalisations, rather than actualities. It alludes to real life happenings but never fully identifies them and the result is an unevenness of tone that prevents the story from fully gripping the viewer.

In the end, I was left wanting more information than I actually received. There were some nice moments here but not enough to hold my attention throughout and ultimately, what is the play’s central message? That surveillance can be bad? That for a relationship to succeed there needs to be mutual trust? Surely these are universal truths, already widely known – and this play doesn’t really offer any new insights to aid our understanding.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Endgame

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26/02/16

HOME, Manchester

Endgame is a bleak play – by any standards. “The end is in the beginning – and yet you go on,” says Hamm, with a fatalistic, morbid acceptance of his looming demise. The script is deft, funny and thought-provoking – of course it is; it’s Beckett; his place in the theatrical canon is patently deserved – and the acting and direction here are pretty top-notch too.

Let’s deal with the elephants in the auditorium: Roy Cropper and Peter Barlow. It’s true – actors David Neilson and Chris Gascoyne are both well-known for their parts in Coronation Street. And it’s a fame that the promoters have been keen to exploit: on the publicity posters for this play, the men are instantly identifiable as their TV counterparts; on stage, however, they are barely recognizable. I’ve never really understood why people are confounded by an actor’s ability to perform a different role; it’s kind of in the job description, isn’t it? And these two are very good indeed.

If anything, it’s Beckett who feels over-familiar, not the actors performing him. The audacity of his ideas has been diluted – by time as well as exposure. And yet this production is still well worth seeing: it’s a masterclass in precision and control. Chris Gascoyne’s Clov is a perfect clown, a physical embodiment of futility and despair. There is humour here too, in the repeated movements and the spiteful asides, and comic timing of the very best. David Neilson is equally skillful: his Hamm is a raging, wasted, tragedy of a man, whose cruelty is wrought from desperation; I felt a glimmer of sympathy for Hamm tonight, and I never have before. Peter Kelly and Barbara Rafferty (as Nagg and Nell) give strong performances too; indeed, the saddest moment in the play is theirs, I think: roused briefly from the dustbins where they are living out their final years, they reminisce, recalling the April afternoon they went out rowing on Lake Como. “We had got engaged the day before!” “You were in such fits that we capsized.” The dreadful contrast between this happy memory and their current circumstances encapsulates the agony that underpins Endgame. They are us, aren’t they? And still we go on.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Husbands and Sons

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23/02/16

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Welcome to the world of DH Lawrence – a world of coal and sweat, where every husband is a drunken, boorish tyrant, where every wife is a much put-upon angel, and where every mother secretly harbours an unhealthy regard for her own son.

Husbands and Sons is a curious concoction, a mingling of three early plays by Lawrence – The Daughter-In-Law, A Collier’s Night Out and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd – all of which take place in the same village, which has allowed adapter Ben Power to overlay them, so that one piece of action appears to comment on the next. The protagonists are onstage most of the time, while the script cuts nimbly back and forth between the three households involved – the Lamberts, the Gascoignes and the Holroyds. At first, this technique is disorienting; it takes a while to settle into the rhythm, but eventually you do and things pick up.

The Exchange is famous for its sets and this one is remarkable in its ingenuity. The three households are delineated by ranks of cast iron cooking ranges, sculleries and dining tables, all balanced precariously on top of the colliery, represented by heaps of coal and a grilled floor, lit from below. It looks fantastic.

But there seems to be a lack of consistency in the style. Why, for instance, go to the trouble of creating plumbed-in taps that spout real water and cooking ranges that belch real flame, and then oblige the actors to perform a mime every time they enter a house: opening and closing invisible doors, removing and hanging up imaginary coats and hats? It just looks odd amidst all the naturalistic clutter. Another puzzling detail – two bread tins, complete with knives, are used to prise out… fresh air. In her programme notes, director Marianne Elliott claims that she wanted the audience to ‘concentrate on the people and not get bogged down in the detail of the bread or the stew or sweeping the floor,’ but the absence of these things made no sense when so many other fripperies were included. If we’re meant to concentrate on the actors, why surround them with so much paraphernalia? Or, if this level of detail is required, why not see it through consistently?

There’s no doubting the quality of the performances here. Anne Marie Duff, making her debut at the Exchange, has little to do in the first half, but really comes into her own in the second as the tragic Lizzie Holdroyd, obliged to deal with the sudden death of her boorish husband, Charles (Martin Marquez), killed in a colliery accident. Meanwhile, Lydia Lambert (Julia Ford) is trying not to feel jealous of her son’s new flame and over at the Gascoigne house, Luther (Joe Armstong) has been unfaithful to his wife, Minnie (Louise Brealy), and has got one of the neighbours in the family way. Reparation must be made, it seems but what does Minnie have to say about it?

What you feel about this production will probably depend upon how you regard the writing of D H Lawrence. There are many who think of him as a genius, a man before his time. Others simply see him as a sex-obsessed neurotic with a large chip on his shoulder. Husbands and Sons is an interesting piece that takes time to build in intensity, but we feel it is somewhat compromised by unnecessary complications, that have nothing to do with the performances or, indeed, the script.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

 

 

The Finest Hours

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21/02/16

A rare Disney vehicle that doesn’t involve animation or slapstick humour, The Finest Hours (forgettable title) is based on a true story and depicts a daring rescue mission carried out in the heart of a terrible storm off Cape Cod in 1952. In terrifying conditions, a huge oil tanker is not so much battered by the storm as actually ripped in two, drowning its captain and most of the crew, but leaving the rear section still afloat with thirty two men on board. It’s down to quietly spoken engine-room man, Ray Sybert (Casey Afflick) to take control of the situation and devise a way of keeping what’s left of the tanker above the waterline until help gets there – but in the days before GPS location existed, how is anybody ever going to find them?

Help eventually comes in the shape of handsome coastguard officer, Bernie Weber (the angel-faced Chris Pine)  who has recently become engaged to the feisty Miriam (Holliday Grainger). Having failed to save some local seamen in a recent maritime tragedy, Weber has something to prove, so despite being warned by all and sundry that he’s embarking on a suicide mission, he selects three plucky crewmen and sets off into the heart of the storm, trusting on good luck and previous experience to guide him.This would seem unlikely if it didn’t hap[pen to be true.

The Finest Hours is a handsomely mounted film, that has much to recommend it. The period detail is convincingly evoked, there are nice performances from the ensemble cast and the storm at sea sequences are suitably immersive, occasionally downright thrilling. If in the end it’s all a bit reminiscent of The Perfect Storm, it matters not one jot, because if the aims of this film were to entertain and enthral then it achieves them with ease. In what’s becoming an increasingly popular trope, the end credits show images of the real life heroes alongside their screen counterparts, allowing us to see just how faithful the filmmakers have been to their source material.

A word of warning though. Anyone planning a cruise in the near future may want to give this one a miss.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Bone Tomahawk

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20/02/16

Some films acquire a cult status almost by accident. Others, come galloping over the horizon, waving flags and blowing trumpets to announce that this is their greatest ambition. Much of the advance talk about Bone Tomahawk suggests that this is surely the latter kind of beast. And what a curious beast it is, an 18 certificate mash-up of John Ford’s The Searchers and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. Let me warn those of a nervous disposition that this is an extremely visceral movie with unflinching scenes of bodily carnage.

Of course, like many other films these days, it hasn’t made it to the multiplexes, but interested parties will find it at the independent cinemas – we caught it at Home, Manchester. Set in the Wild West at an unspecified time, it tells the story of the abduction of a white woman by ‘troglodytes.’ Yes, you read that right. Writer/director S. Craig Zahler clearly thinks he’s neatly sidestepped the issue of showing native Americans in a bad light by making his baddies inbred mutants, who no local tribe wants to claim as their own. The trouble is, he’s not really fooling anyone with this approach. Presenting his villains in this dehumanised way is actually a bit of a cop-out, a way to avoid dealing with the very important issues of identity and representation.

The abducted woman is local medic Samantha (Lili Simmons) whose husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) is currently laid up with a badly injured leg. He insists on going after his wife along with grizzled Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) his likeable old deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and a local dandy, Brooder (Matthew Fox, finally finding a decent post-Lost role). The four men set out on their quest and the film’s most telling moments are concerned with the interplay between them. But as they draw nearer to the hidden valley where the troglodytes dwell, things take a particularly nasty turn…

Bone Tomahawk is by no means perfect – there are some clunky moments in there and I thought the ending was decidedly unimpressive. What’s more, Samantha seems to survive her terrible ordeal without smudging her makeup. But despite its shortcomings, I rather enjoyed the journey. Clearly shot at a fraction of the budget of a big Hollywood movie, the sheer weirdness of the film does tend to exert a hold on the viewer, even if some of the violence is of the ‘look away quickly’ variety. I can honestly say I’ve never seen another Western quite like it – and for that alone, it’s worth seeking out.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Richard Herring: Happy Now?

Unknown

19/02/16

Quay Theatre, Lowry, Salford

Any fears that Richard Herring’s newfound domesticity might have blunted his comic edge are soon allayed as he strides out on stage and takes command of the packed and very enthusiastic audience at the Quay Theatre. This new show is distilled from the various things that have happened to him since Lord of the Dance Settee and it’s clearly been a tumultuous time. I don’t know quite how he does it, but Happy Now? takes a look at a whole series of common experiences and gives them that distinctive edge. His description of his new daughter arriving screaming from his wife’s vagina is quite frankly hilarious and his contemplation of how it would be if you were introduced to somebody at a party in similar circumstances is even funnier. Laugh? I nearly wet myself.

Yes, of course there’s a vein of sentimentality here, it would be odd if there wasn’t but he continually undercuts that to remind us that comedy can be mined from the most unexpected places. A routine where he’s left in charge of his baby daughter and begins to imagine the worst things that could possibly happen to her is a great example of this – we’re laughing uncontrollably whilst telling yourself you shouldn’t really be finding this funny at all.

His interpretation of the popular nursery rhyme about five little monkeys jumping on a bed was a high spot for me, as he imagines the simian-doctor repeatedly visiting the scene of yet another monkey mortality and asking, ‘you remember what I told you yesterday? About no more monkeys jumping on the bed?’

It’s gratifying to see so many people turning out for one of the hardest working and original comedians currently treading the boards. Happy Now? Is midway through a nationwide tour. He’s at the Epstein theatre in Liverpool tonight (20th Feb) and there’s a whole host of venues to follow through March and April, one of which must surely be somewhere near you. If you can get hold of a ticket, (and hurry, most venues are close to sold out) do so.

You will laugh long and you will laugh hard. In these troubled times that’s something to be cherished.

5 stars

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Richard Herring – Interview

Richard Herring is clearly in a good mood. He’s well into his nationwide tour of Happy Now? and in a couple of hours is due to play the sold out Quay theatre at Salford’s Lowry. With all that going on, he’s nevertheless agreed to put aside twenty minutes or so to talk to us. The setting is his less than salubrious dressing room, somewhere behind the stage and as we set up our little recorder he’s pleasant and relaxed.

We begin with a jokey question, one that will be familiar to followers of his RHLSTP podcasts: where does he get all his crazy ideas?

‘I don’t really know,’ he admits. ‘I suppose a lot comes from my own experience, true stories that I’ve ‘found the funny’ in. It comes from the state of mind where I question things too much. It’s pedantry, really. Not good for life but good for comedy.’

So does he see himself more as a raconteur than as a man who tells jokes?

‘The show is certainly becoming more story-based. It’s probably because of the blog.’

As his followers will know, Herring writes a daily blog and never misses, even when his life is at its most frantic. It makes for interesting and informative reading about the day-to-day experiences of one of the country’s finest comics. I ask him if there’s a compulsive-obsessive side to his personality. There’s surely no other comedian who goes to such lengths to document every aspect of his life.

‘Yes, definitely. You’ve got to be careful when you talk about these things, because there are people with much more serious compulsive-obsessive disorders but there is an element of that in me. There have been times when I’ve thought about giving up the blog, when I’ve not been enjoying it so much but somehow I can never bring myself to do it, and it is such a fertile place for finding new material. Mind you, I’m getting better. The other day I broke the Ferrero Rocher thing…’

This is a reference to the fact that every Valentine’s day for the past nine years, Herring has bought the infamous chocolates for his wife, beginning with one and doubling the amount purchased each year, with the intention of building a huge pyramid of the things. This year he uncharacteristically forgot. Not that it mattered too much. ‘She doesn’t even like Ferraro Rocher that much,’ he admits. ‘She said she’d prefer a new bag.’

It’s been a year of huge changes for Richard. He’s become a parent, and for the first time in years he didn’t go to the Edinburgh Festival but what, we wonder has been the biggest change for him personally?

‘Well, certainly becoming a father has been the biggest change – and this show is all about whether I have finally found contentment and peace, which I think I have, to an extent. I think I’ve found contentment now, that I’m happy with my place in comedy and where I am. Ten years ago, I’d have been wanting more fame, but I’ve realised that where I am now is more rewarding, more creative and importantly, more anonymous. I can go to the park with my child and not be pestered by the paps, unlike say David Mitchell and Victoria Coren, who seem to be endlessly bothered by them.’

Any regrets about not doing Edinburgh?

‘No. I actually enjoyed not going, not losing money, not having all the pressure of doing it. I realised that I’d actually been quite unhappy doing it for much of the time. Last year really wasn’t a happy experience.’

He’s referring to the double whammy of the 2014 fringe where he had two shows – Lord of the Dance Settee and a semi-serious play, I Killed Rasputin. We saw and enjoyed them both, but clearly not enough people did. Herring had anticipated losing twenty thousand pounds (everyone loses money at Edinburgh) but in the event, he actually lost considerably more. Little wonder that he decided that a series of gigs in London’s Leicester Square Theatre – where he recreated all twelve of his Edinburgh shows over one month, was a more viable alternative and one that would allow him to stay closer to home.

People say that the best humour comes from anxiety. Can real comedy come from a place of contentment?

‘I think comedy is essentially laughter in the face of horrible things, which is why I will do comedy about the worst parts of life. It’s a way of confronting those things and thereby overcoming them. But parenthood comes with its own particular set of anxieties and I exploit those to the full in the new show.’

Our last query comes courtesy of our twelve year old niece, Esme, who has provided us with an ‘emergency question’ . So we ask it.

‘If you had to choose, would you rather be a unicorn or a vampire?’

Herring laughs. ‘That’s a very good question, ‘ he says. ‘I would definitely be a vampire. It’s sexier. A unicorn is a kind of sexless thing.’ He grins. ‘I know vampires are not very nice, but I’d say they have a more exciting life.’

Philip Caveney and Susan Singfield

 

 

Brooklyn

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17/02/15

‘Missed this film at the multiplex but caught it at an Indie.’ This is something I seem to be saying with increasing regularity, these days. Take Brooklyn, for instance, critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated, yet it just about managed to scrape a week at Cineworld, to be replaced no doubt, by Dirty Grandpa or something equally vacuous. We caught it at the Heaton Moor Savoy – and while I’m on the subject, how gratifying it was to see this recently refurbished cinema completely sold out at 3.30 pm on a wet Wednesday afternoon, proving that there certainly is a big audience for this film, provided it’s advertised correctly.

Brooklyn is an unashamedly old-fashioned movie, based on the book by Colm Toibin and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby. In 1950s Wexford, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is failing to flourish. She has no job and (even more shameful in that era) no prospect of marriage, so when New York-based Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) arranges for her to emigrate to New York, she jumps at the chance, leaving her older sister, Rose to look after their widowed mother. Once in Brooklyn, Eilis finds a job in a swish department store and a home in a boarding house on Clinton Street run by Mrs Keogh (a delightful cameo by Julie Walters). But it isn’t long before romance arrives in the shape of Italian-American, Tony (Emory Cohen). As is usual in such stories, the path of true love seldom runs smooth and when Rose dies suddenly, Eilis has to head home for the funeral – and once back in her mother’s vicelike grip, life becomes increasingly complicated…

This is a pleasurable, warm bath of a film – there are no great surprises here, but the 50s setting is beautifully evoked, the performances are uniformly good (particularly from Ronan, who fully deserves her Oscar nod) and the story is strong enough to hook you to the end. There’s enough resonance in what happens here to strike chords with most older viewers and in the end, this is perhaps the film’s greatest strength – an everyday tale of an everyday Irish girl cast adrift in an unfamiliar location.

Charming.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney