Manpower

26/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

As we sit in the semi-darkness, a man in a plaid shirt (Alistair Lownie) is extolling the virtues of expensive stereo systems. He wants to be sure that we don’t allow ‘the salesman in the Next suit’ to fob us off with something inferior. The cables we use are every bit as important as the hardware, he assures us. Whatever we do, we should never use the cables that actually come with the system; they are rubbish! As he talks, the lights come slowly up to reveal a stage that is littered with great chunks of firewood, a table containing a hi-fi and what looks like several items of flatpack furniture. We are in the realms of experimental theatre here, and anyone looking for a straightforward narrative is going to be bitterly disappointed.

Then a woman (Katherina Radeva) appears. She’s dressed in a slinky red dress, her makeup is artlessly overdone and she’s gurning and winking suggestively at the audience. As the man plays a series of MOR tracks, she reveals that she’s a Bulgarian immigrant, and launches into a rambling speech about the history of the UK as it appears to her – all jumbled and confused because of her indiscriminate reading of the news. She is a staunch fan of Mrs Thatcher, concerned about the state of modern masculinity, and is convinced that Brexit is an inevitable result of the proliferation of DIY stores like B & Q and Homebase. Her views are lifted from various publications, but they are awkwardly, sometimes comically, skewed. As the speech progresses, becoming ever more tortuous, the man embarks on a DIY project of his own, building the framework of what looks suspiciously like a man cave and pausing occasionally to cue up the next track – Emerson Lake and Palmer, Elton John, Dire Straits, Pulp…

In truth, I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be taking from this – so I’m glad of the opportunity afterwards to have an informal chat with Lownie and Radeva, who explain how the project came about and what the thinking is behind it. Radeva’s character is intended to be an unreliable narrator, she says. Born in Bulgaria under a Communist dictator and now living in Scotland, Radeva’s background is in performance art, rather than in acting and this is certainly reflected in the chaotic set and the exaggerated posturing.  Lownie’s character, he reveals, is desperately trying to cling on to outmoded aspects of the traditional male role model. A powerful sequence towards the end of the production is nothing more than a string of familiar clichés, each one more vacuous than the last, but performed in this way they seem to offer something of genuine authority.

Two Destination Language’s Manpower is certainly thought-provoking stuff, even if my main thought is ‘what the hell does this all mean?’ I think it’s also quite a brave undertaking by the duo, who have been performing and reshaping this piece for something like two years. When they started, Trump was just coming to power. Now the inexorable approach of Brexit means they are genuinely worried for their future together. Manpower has one more performance at the Traverse before embarking on a nine date tour of the UK.

If it comes your way, do go and see it – and please let us know what you think. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions. I’m not sure this entirely works, but I’m nonetheless pleased to have had the opportunity to view this uncompromising and challenging production.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney 

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The Lottery Ticket

26/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 

We’re always being told that theatre should be as accessible as possible. Few initiatives exemplify this ideal more successfully than the Traverse Theatre’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint seasons. For just £13.50, punters can enjoy an original hour-long piece of theatre, a tasty snack and a drink of their choice. During a grey Edinburgh lunch hour, it’s certainly gratifying to see the auditorium packed with eager theatre-goers, making the most of the opportunity.

The Lottery Ticket, by Donna Franceschild, has the air of a whimsical contemporary fable. Two homeless men wake up after spending the night in somebody’s garden bin shed. They have been violently ejected from a shelter the night before and one of them has sustained serious injuries in the altercation. They are Salih (Nebli Bassani), a Turkish/Kurdish asylum seeker and his friend, Jacek (Steven Duffy), a Polish handyman, now suffering from a couple of broken ribs. Both of them desperately need money  – Jacek to send home to his loved ones and Salih to facilitate his return to his homeland – but neither of them can see a way to solve their respective predicaments.

When Jacek discovers that a current lottery ticket has mysteriously found its way into his pocket, the fervently religious Salih decides that this is a sign from Allah that their luck is about to change for the better. But then they are discovered by house owner, Rhona (Helen Mallon), who has a very pressing need of her own. She’s in desperate need of a plumber but it’s a Saturday and she can’t get anyone to come out to deal with the issue. If only she could find somebody to fix the problem…

Watching this wry and sometimes challenging story play out is a rewarding way to spend an hour. Bassani and Duffy are charismatic performers who make an engaging double act, while Mallon’s character is more acerbic and adds a little acid to the mix. As the two men struggle with the intricacies of her overflowing toilet, we learn more about their backgrounds: about the circumstances that have brought them to where they are today – and we come to appreciate that good fortune can appear in many different guises.

This is a charming and immensely likeable slice of theatre. As I head for the exit afterwards, I can’t help thinking that all lunch times should be as fulfilling as this one.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Still Alice

25/09/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Still Alice started life as a novel, self-published by Harvard neuroscientist Lisa Genova in 2007. It tells the story of Dr Alice Howland, a – wait for it – Harvard neuroscientist with young onset dementia, charting the impact of this terrible disease on both Alice and her family. Its success led first to commercial publication, and then – such was its appeal – to adaptations for both stage and screen. The movie version (which we reviewed in 2015: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2015/03/17/still-alice/) secured Julianne Moore an Oscar, and it’s clear that the eponymous Alice requires a strong performer.

In fact, this touring production by the Leeds Playhouse utilises two strong performers in the central role. This is playwright Christine Mary Dunford’s masterstroke: Alice’s inner self (Herself) is played by Eva Pope, while her physical manifestation belongs to Sharon Small. The two start off almost identical, dressed in the same clothes, mirroring each other’s moves. Herself does not have much to say, because Alice can articulate her thoughts. As her condition worsens, however, Herself becomes louder and more vocal, speaking up when Alice can not. They become separate entities with bigger spaces between them, but Herself is never less than nurturing and protective. It’s an effective device, performed in an understated and unfussy way that makes it really powerful.

Of course, Alice is not the only one affected by her diagnosis and deterioration: the play focuses too on her family’s struggle to deal with this new version of their wife and mom. She’s no longer a fit and healthy high-achiever, a Harvard professor with an enviable career. Her son, Thomas (Mark Armstrong), who’s about to become a father, is especially troubled: he wants his mother back. He’s confused and angry; refuses to accept reality. Her daughter, Lydia (Ruth Ollman), seems to be coping better. She hasn’t always seen eye to eye with Alice (she’s chosen acting over academia, and Alice thinks this is a mistake), but she’s able to support her mother through her illness with an open mind and gentle acceptance.

But it’s Alice’s husband, John (Martin Marquez), who bears the brunt of the responsibility, and he does his best to care for his wife, while – sensibly – ensuring he looks after himself too. He’s a research scientist, and he doesn’t let his home life impinge on his career. Why should he? Alice has always been a careerist too; she wouldn’t want him to abandon his passions. This tension is beautifully realised, with sensitive direction from David Grindley, and a subtle, convincing performance by Marquez.

The set, designed by Jonathan Fensom, manages to be both naturalistic and metaphorical: we start with a cluttered stage, filled with the detailed trappings of a family home – a fitted kitchen, a three-piece suite – but, slowly, scene by scene, this paraphernalia is stripped away, until we’re left with an empty space, all we – and Alice – can see reduced to the present moment: two chairs, a handsome man with a checked shirt. What’s startling is that this is not an unhappy place; Alice has found peace and acceptance of a sort.

It’s a heart-breaking and thought-provoking piece, with much to recommend it. If I’ve a quibble, it’s the moment when Alice delivers a speech at an international conference. I want this to be more of a battle cry, or at least to illuminate something new; it doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t already learned by this point in the play. It’s a climactic scene,  pregnant with possibility, and I don’t feel it achieves all that it could.

Still, that doesn’t prevent this from being an important piece of theatre, and well worth going to see. It’s at the King’s until the 29th September, and will be at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow from the 13th to 17th November.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Big Lebowski

24/09/18

The news that The Big Lebowski is celebrating its twentieth anniversary has a strangely sobering effect on me. Can it really be that long since I first saw it?  Twenty years? And then comes the knockout punch: my interest in the films of the Coen Brothers goes back much further than that.

In 1984, as a film reviewer and broadcaster for Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio, I saw their brilliant debut film, Blood Simple, and was lucky enough to interview them afterwards. They were a revelation, Joel and Ethan, these two nerdy kids with weird Minnesotan accents, who gleefully told me how they’d raised enough money to shoot the first three minutes of the film – and how they’d then shown that footage to a bunch of investors and asked them for the money to shoot the next three minutes – and so on and so forth.

I remember thinking that these two would go a long way, but I couldn’t then have guessed at the prodigious output they would eventually be responsible for – how their names would become the closest thing to a seal of quality that the movie world has to offer. Oh sure, we can all name Coen Brothers films that haven’t quite hit all the targets – The Ladykillers, anyone? Intolerable Cruelty? But the truth is, the Coens at their least effective are better than many directors at the top of their game.

Hell, The Big Lebowski isn’t even their best film, but it’s surely their most loved and the one most likely to be accorded the term ‘cult movie.’  At its heart is Jeff Bridge’s iconic performance as The Dude, a man who has developed slacking into a fine art. He may stand for many things we wouldn’t personally encourage, but we cannot help but adore him as he stumbles haplessly through this tale of mistaken identity, cowboy monologues, naked performance art and tenpin bowling. Mind you, there’s more than just Bridges’ efforts behind this beauty. John Goodman as Walter, a man perpetually boiling over with anger management issues, has surely never been better. And there are other, smaller roles featuring brilliant actors all giving it their absolute best – Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, all nailing what amount to little more than cameo roles and giving their characters life beyond the screen. There’s even a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ appearance by David Thewlis that’s nearly worth the price of admission alone.

The plot? Well, now, that’s so throwaway, it barely merits a mention. It’s essentially an excuse to link together a series of comic set pieces, Busby Berkely-inspired dance routines and some of the most quotable one-liners in film history.

I’m clearly not alone in my admiration for Lebowski. The biggest screen at the Cameo Cinema is pretty much sold out on a Monday evening, proof if it were ever needed of the high esteem in which this film is held. When I originally heard about the re-release, I thought, ‘Nah, I’ve seen it so many times before… what’s the point?’

But who was I kidding? The chance of watching it again on the big screen overruled common sense. What else was there to do but put on my ‘Dude’ T-shirt and get on down there? Because this is a film you can watch time and time again, and still find fresh revelations. Plus, viewing it with an audience just reminds you how good it really is.

The Dude abides. He really does.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

A Simple Favour

23/09/18

After the hysterical social media mauling that Paul Feig received over his all-woman remake of Ghostbusters, I fully expected him to navigate back towards the safer waters of his earlier material, but with A Simple Favour, he’s attempted something altogether trickier than the ‘women being outrageous’ comedies that made his reputation. It’s evident from the very start, as vintage French jazz oozes over the credits, that he’s trying to emulate one of those twisty-turny Gallic neo-noir thrillers of the 1950s – indeed, one of the characters even mentions Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, without so much as raising an ironic eyebrow.

A Simple Favour is the story of Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), an endlessly sparky single mother, trying to be positive after the death of her husband and half-brother (in the same car crash), and channeling most of her spare time into the Vlogs she does, which offer cookery tips to hard-pressed ‘moms.’ As a result, she is soundly patronised by the other parents at the school and doesn’t really have any close friends.

Her life changes dramatically, however,  when she encounters Emily (Blake Lively), a mysterious mover and shaker in the fashion industry, who lives in the kind of dream home that Stephanie has always fantasised about, and who has the dreamboat husband to go with it. Sean (Henry Golding) is a failed-novelist-turned-college-lecturer, a man who is clearly putty in his wife’s manipulative hands.

One day, Emily asks Stephanie for the titular favour. Could she pick up her son from school and look after him until Emily comes for him? Stephanie readily accepts, seeing a way for the two of them to develop their friendship, but as the days pass by and there is not so much as a text message from Emily, Stephanie begins to realise that something is wrong. She decides to do a little digging… and discovers that her new friend has several dark and troubling secrets.

Of course, this being Paul Feig, he keeps the tone comic throughout, something which works well enough for the first two thirds of the film, as Kendrick and Lively strike verbal sparks off each other – but, in the final third, when the storyline strikes out into darker territory, he might have been better advised to ease off on the chuckles. The problem with this lightness of tone is that nothing ever feel convincingly threatening. The various revelations, as they drop, lose much of their power and, instead of suspending my disbelief – as I need to – I start to notice how wildly implausible much of the storyline is. I also can’t help thinking of an alternative twist, that I’m convinced, would work better.

Look, this isn’t by any means a terrible film. Kendrick is as delightful as ever, Lively is convincingly seductive and, as for Golding, he clearly has a huge future ahead of him. But this doesn’t quite come off. Nice try, but no cigar.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Little Stranger

22/09/18

Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a curiously enigmatic and unsettling tale, and its transition from page to screen is profoundly satisfying. It’s a ghost story without ghosts, a horror film without real scares. And yet an uneasy sense of impending doom pervades the piece, and the tension in the cinema is almost palpable.

It’s 1948, and Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has returned from years of study and army-medic work to his Warwickshire hometown. He’s ill at ease here though, all too aware of his humble origins, and still obsessed with Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked as a maid.

Called to the Hall to minister to an ailing servant, Faraday finds himself drawn to the Ayres family: the ailing matriarch (Charlotte Rampling), who’s haunted by memories of her dead daughter, Susan; Roderick (Will Poulter), who’s struggling to cope with both the physical injuries and the mental stress he’s brought with him from the war; and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who – tasked with looking after them both – is bored and isolated in her idyllic country prison. But the relationships they forge are as unhealthy and demanding as the mouldering ancestral home, and it soon becomes clear that things are not going to end well.

This is a fascinating film, directed with the precision we expect from Lenny Abrahamson, following the award-winning Room. I like the careful slowness of it all, the repressed emotions that reverberate and shimmer. Domhnall Gleeson’s performance is wonderfully understated, the clenched jaw and tense body language testimony to just how much this man has to conceal: his past, his class, his raging desire.

Ruth Wilson is utterly convincing as the gauche Caroline Ayres, an unhappy blend of self-doubt and entitlement, both poor and rich, privileged and trapped. Of course, the whole film is a kind of commentary on class, on what it makes us and how we respond to it. And it’s as illuminating and disturbing as the shadows haunting Hundreds Hall.

The muted, misty colours of the post-war landscape mirror the shadowy ambiguities of the story, where we’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is supernatural or not. It’s frustrating, all this teasing, but that’s no bad thing: it only adds to the film’s potency. Truly, this is an enthralling film.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Crazy Rich Asians

19/09/18

I’m conflicted about this movie before I even enter the cinema.

On the one hand, I’ve been reading a lot about representation, and how stupidly rare it is for mainstream American movies to feature Asian characters in lead roles, despite Asian-Americans making up a sizeable minority (5.6%) of the population there. So Crazy Rich Asians, with its Asian cast, writer and director, is a welcome reminder that the US is a diverse place, and that there are different cultural perspectives from those we’re offered time and time again.

On the other hand, the trailer has alarmed me. It seems to be wealth porn, revelling in images of lavish houses and designer clothes, first class this and diamond that – not so much aspirational as simple showing off. I’m alarmed rather than impressed by the excesses showcased here.

True, the film makes some attempt to comment on the over-abundance of everything, to dismiss as shallow the trappings of the 1%. But it’s never very convincing in its condemnation, luxuriating as it does in expensive frippery.

Based on Kevin Kwam’s novel of the same name and directed by Jon M Chu, Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU. When her boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), invites her to Singapore – to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family – she’s excited: she’s never travelled before, and she’s keen to see the world beyond America. What she hasn’t realised, however, is that Nick is super-rich: his family are property magnates, the wealthiest in Singapore. And they have very definite ideas about the kind of girl that Nick should marry: American is bad enough, but working-class and fatherless? That’s too far beyond the pale.

Characterisation is this movie’s major strength: the actors are all accomplished and the roles are distinct and largely believable. Wu and Golding make an appealing central pair, and there are some delightful supporting characters, notably Rachel’s college friend, Peik Lin Got (played with relish by the charismatic Awkwafina), and Nick’s fashion-forward cousin, Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos).

But the storyline is clichéd and – dare I say it? – dull. It’s also very American-centric, despite its Asian credentials. The underlying message seems to be that the American way  (the pursuit of individual happiness, following individual passions) is right, and that the Singaporean ideal (at least as espoused in this movie) – of destiny, of family ties and responsibility – is wrong. Rachel has nothing to learn from the people of Singapore, but they have much to learn from her. And this makes me quite uncomfortable.

I’m also bored by all the depictions of excess wealth, and irritated that this movie tries to have its cake and eat it, mocking the vulgarity of Charlie (Harry Shum Jr)’s stag do, whilst revelling in his ludicrously OTT wedding. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of Nick’s cousin, Astrid (Gemma Chan), whose defining moment seems to be the ’empowering’ realisation that she doesn’t have to hide her million dollar earrings from her husband, nor of the final, celebratory party – complete with rooftop synchronised swimmers, because what’s a party without them? – which seems to contradict entirely the sentiments preceding it.

All in all, I’m frustrated by Crazy Rich Asians. I don’t know how it can appeal to anyone who’s even slightly socialist. In its favour, it has showcased a plethora of Asian actors, and I hope that we’ll see them again – in better films than this.

2.7 stars

Susan Singfield