David Moorst

Peterloo

04/11/18

As somebody who lived and worked in Manchester for many years, the title of this film strikes a resonant chord with me. It refers to a particularly horrible massacre which occurred in the summer of 1819, when a huge crowd of peaceful pro-democracy campaigners marched to St Peter’s Field to hear a speech by acclaimed orator Henry Hunt, and were promptly set upon by the local yeomanry and a detachment of Hussars with sabres drawn. In the ensuing melee, 15 people were killed and more than 500 were seriously injured. The event was subsequently airbrushed from the pages of history and rarely spoken of. It’s not taught (much) in schools and many people – even those who live in the city where it occurred – have never heard of it.

One man who clearly thinks of this as a major injustice is Mike Leigh. Peterloo is his attempt to rectify the situation and it represents his most ambitious undertaking to date, portraying the slow build-up to the event and the massacre itself, whilst still employing his unique (at least in film) improvisational technique, where the actors inhabit their characters and devise their own dialogue. I’m sorry to say that I don’t think it works too well when applied to something of such immense scale. Sure, Leigh has visited the pages of history before, both in Topsy Turvey and in Mr Turner but, in both cases, he was working on a smaller canvas. Don’t get me wrong, I’m generally a huge fan of Leigh’s films, but what works brilliantly when applied to more intimate events founders somewhat here. Mind you, to be fair, the film does start well.

We meet Joseph (David Moorst), a young bugler at the Battle of Waterloo, clearly deeply and permanently traumatised by his experiences. The war over, he heads home on foot, to find his family struggling to survive in a country assailed by the corn laws, which prohibit the import of cheap grain. Family matriarch, Nellie (Maxine Peake), and her husband, weaver Joshua (Pierce Quigley), can barely afford to eat, so it’s hardly surprising when they find themselves increasingly drawn into the pro-democracy movement and looking forward to the great day at St Peter’s Field, when thousands of people in similar situations will come together to challenge the powers-that-be. The settings are convincingly done. Here is real squalor, real hardship, a million miles away from the chocolate box imagery so beloved of many period dramas – and early scenes of luckless individuals in court being sentenced to heinous punishments are powerful stuff.

But there are a lot of characters to take in – so many that, inevitably, acclaimed actors are demoted to tiny, walk-on roles. And there are speeches – a lot of speeches – so many that the film’s two hour running time starts to drag, especially in the long sequence depicting the mass gathering at St Peter’s Field. Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), heralded as a hero by the protesters, is depicted as a rather unpleasant, horribly self-serving prig who clearly thinks himself a cut above the working-class people whose plight he is supposed to be representing. The people would clearly have been better served by speaking for themselves.

If there’s a problem, it’s that virtually every establishment character we encounter is a smirking, pompous and downright unpleasant individual verging on caricature. This reaches its apotheosis in Tim McInnery’s turn as the Prince Regent, a bloated, giggling buffoon, not so much out of touch with the electorate as living on another planet. Of course the ruling classes’ behaviour was abominable, but this seems crude and over-simplistic.

And then of course, there’s the massacre itself, a lengthy sequence that really ought to bring us to tears of outrage – but the film’s 12A rating obliges Leigh to hold back from making it too visceral and the result, with sabres clearly hitting little more than fresh air just feels clumsy and unfocused. If ever a sequence cried out to be properly storyboarded, this is it.

This isn’t a total dud. Indeed, there’s plenty here that does work but, I think, too much that really doesn’t. I feel bad for not having enjoyed it more. I really wanted to like it, but ultimately, it feels like a missed opportunity. This is such an important subject, one that symbolises a turning point in British history and the democratic movement. I can’t help feeling that it deserves a better film than this.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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Into The Woods

Unknownimages

09/12/15

Royal Exchange Manchester

As Christmas draws inexorably nearer, the Royal Exchange have indulged themselves in the family-friendly epic that is Into The Woods. As ever, Manchester’s premier theatre aren’t doing things by halves. With a cast of nineteen and a running time of three hours, Stephen Sondheim’s celebrated fairytale mashup is a challenging production in every sense of the word.

I have to put my hand up at this stage and admit that Sondheim isn’t a great favourite in our household. Sure, James Lapine’s lyrics are quirky and clever but sometimes, I find myself wishing that Sondheim would just offer us a couple of great melodies, something to sing in the shower. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this is a superb production and that Sondheim fans (of which there are many) are going to be delighted with what’s on offer here. It’s a big step up too from the recent lacklustre movie version. Certainly the audience on the night we attended were clearly thrilled by what they saw and, little wonder, because choreographing a cast of this size in and around the compact circular stage of the Exchange requires the kind of discipline normally reserved for synchronised swimming events.

ITW is essentially an amalgamation of all your favourite fairytales – Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzle… given a satirical twist. The first half of the show offers a traditional happy ending and the second, gleefully subverts that, pointing out that most situations don’t tend to fit into such a convenient format. In a strong ensemble cast it’s tough to pick out favourites but Gillian Bevan, as The Witch, certainly casts a compelling spell whenever she’s on stage, while Alex Gaumond as The Baker, is a likeable performer with a plaintive singing voice. A shout must also go to young David Moorst as Jack, who’s gormless manner garners much laughter.

There’s plenty here to delight an audience, not least the ingenious staging, which manages to make a convincing forest sprout up right in front of our eyes; and there’s a wolf-evisceration scene that genuinely made the audience gasp in a ‘how did they do that?’sort of way. Oh yes, there’s also a fleeting appearance by a golf buggy… well, why not?

This is a Christmas cracker of a show, suitable for people of all ages, even if you won’t go home singing any of the songs, because they’re just a bit too complicated for that. If you’re planning a seasonal family outing, this could be the perfect  thing to get you into the festive spirit. Book now while the going’s good.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney