Maxine Peake

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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Funny Cow

22/04/18

If Adrian Shergold’s film tells us anything about life in 1970s England, the overriding message is that being a female standup comedian was clearly no laughing matter. Take the eponymous Funny Cow for example – we are never told the character’s actual name and indeed, when we first meet her, she’s still Funny Calf (Macy Shackleton), a self-assured youngster with a tendency to live in a dream world and tell tall stories, something that earns her the undisguised hatred of her peers. She is going through what might be called a troubled childhood. Her mother (Christine Bottomley – and later in the film, Lindsey Coulson) is a hopeless alcoholic and her father (Stephen Graham) a short-tempered bully, but none of this is enough to subdue her fighting spirit.

Pretty soon, FC has grown up to be Maxine Peake and has acquired her own short-tempered bully of a husband, Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the script). Bob is an aggressive slob, ever ready with a foul-mouthed put-down and a helpful head-butt whenever his wife steps out of line. But FC remains indomitable, and at a working men’s club one evening, has a kind of epiphany when she witnesses veteran comic, Lenny (Alun Armstrong), toiling his way through a time-worn routine to the undisguised derision of the audience. She is the one person there who finds him funny. She decides this is the life she is destined for and, whatever it takes, she’ll make it happen. The two of them form an uneasy alliance, as she follows him from gig-to-gig, watching his inexorable slide into oblivion while honing her own craft.

Funny Cow is a strangely unsettling film – it tells its story though a series of vignettes and cuts back and forth in time with a kind of gleeful exuberance, each section marked by hand written title cards. The stand-up routines we’re offered aren’t generally all that amusing – indeed, most of them are more like tortured confessionals, as FC talks direct to camera. It certainly isn’t a recruiting campaign for would be stand-ups. Even when she’s made a success of her chosen career, FC is shunned by virtually everyone she knows. A scene where she makes an uncomfortable visit to her brother, Mike (also played by Stephen Graham), and his family is particularly toe-curling.

It’s by no means a perfect film. The usually dependable Paddy Considine struggles somewhat as Angus, the middle class bookshop owner to whom FC runs when she realises she can no longer live with Bob. There’s nothing wrong with his performance per se, but the script somehow fails to give him a single line that convinces, making him little more a caricature, all vintage brandy and visits to the thee-ay-tah. It’s one of the film’s few missteps.

But one thing is for sure: Peake is an extraordinary presence in the lead role, displaying an almost luminous quality that seems to light up the screen whenever she appears. Here is a brilliant actor at the very height of her powers and this performance confirms her as one of the best and most versatile of her generation. It’s also a film that stays with me long after I’ve left the cinema, aided no doubt by Richard Hawley’s memorable theme song; he also makes a cameo here as a would-be performer at FC’s first disastrous audition.

Eagle-eyed viewers will spot some genuine comics in cameo roles: Dianne Morgan, Vic Reeves and John Bishop to name but three. Keep your eyes peeled for others.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Skriker

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4/07/15

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

The Falling

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03/05/15

Carol Morley’s The Falling is an intriguing and occasionally mesmerising film, that has somehow managed to stake a claim at the multiplexes, amidst the tub-thumping superhero and action flicks. You’ll have to go back a long way to find something similar; all the way, in fact, to 1975, and Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, with which this film seems to share an affinity for the languorous, sensual qualities of nature. Weir’s story was, of course, based in Australia and this one, somewhere in the UK (it’s never actually specified exactly where) but Morley is fond of counterpointing luscious shots of lakes and woods with the tightly corseted, emotionless wasteland of a girls’ private school. Indeed, the two films have so many scenes in common, I refuse to believe that it’s coincidental.

It’s 1969 and the wild and rebellious Abbie (Florence Pugh) is beginning to discover the depths of her own sexuality. Her best friend, Lydia (Maisie Williams) can only watch helplessly as Abbie is inexorably drawn away from her towards Lydia’s brother, Kenneth (Joe Cole). Lydia lives with Kenneth and her tightly buttoned mother, Eileen (Maxine Peake) an agoraphobe who never leaves the house and who seems incapable of portraying any kind of emotion whatsoever. When Abbie finds she is pregnant, it threatens to blow apart the closeted world of the private school she attends and Lydia starts to look for ways to procure an abortion for her friend – but shortly afterwards, Abbie collapses and dies. The resulting shock has a profound effect on her fellow pupils. Lydia begins to experience rapturous fainting spells and as hysteria mounts, more and more more girls (and even one of the female teachers) experience the same phenomenon. In the film’s most powerful scene, pretty much the whole morning assembly succumbs. Is it simply a case of mass hysteria? Or is something deeper and more sinister at work?

The film revels in throwing out more questions than it has answers for. Morley’s slow, sensual direction generates an atmosphere of incredible tension and there are occasional uses of subliminal imagery that lend the film an almost hallucinatory quality. As Lydia, Williams delivers an unforgettable performance, while Pugh is so charismatic that her memory haunts the proceedings despite her early exit. Interesting too, to see former Merchant Ivory pin-up Greta Scaachi, taking on the role of the school’s sternest teacher.

The Falling is by no means a perfect film, but it’s far more experimental than most movies you’ll see these days and it has an ephemeral quality that will prompt you to talk about it long after the final credits have rolled. Not something you would say about Iron Man or The Avengers.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Hamlet

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Royal Exchange, Manchester

29/09/14

Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, Hamlet is surely the most daunting for any actor. The Royal Exchange’s version runs for a bum-numbing three and a half hours and incorporates so many famous soliloquies and one-liners, that even the most accomplished actor must work overtime to maintain concentration. Thankfully, that’s not a problem here, because this is one of the most compelling and satisfying Shakespearian adaptations I’ve ever seen. It might seem a novelty featuring a female actor in the lead role but it’s by no means a new idea. Sarah Siddons was the first to do it in 1777 (in Manchester, appropriately enough, though its reported that she had to drape herself in a long dark shawl to ‘preserve her modesty.’) and there have been a whole string of female actors who have followed in her footsteps over the years though, interestingly, nobody has attempted it since Frances De La Tour in 1979.

Sarah Frankom’s gutsy modern day retelling of the story features some brilliant touches. I loved the fact that Claudius and The Ghost were played by the same actor (the ever brilliant John Shrapnel) and I loved that Polonius had become Polonia – Gillian Bevan’s assured performance turning the character into an overreaching Mother. Her constant attempts to wheel and deal a marriage for her shy daughter, Ophelia (Katie West) provided the biggest laughs of the evening. And best of all, finally – FINALLY, here was a production that made good use of those two perennial encumbrances, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, characters that many modern productions skip completely. Here they were portrayed as two punky slackers from Hamlet’s youth, always ready with a quip and a packet of crack cocaine, their cheery natures only making their ultimate betrayal all the more affecting.

But of course no production of Hamlet can succeed without a charismatic lead player and I’m happy to report that Maxine Peake is simply astonishing in the role, by turns melancholic, sarcastic, brash and (why not say it?) macho. Make no mistake, this is an ensemble production in every sense of the word, yet pity the poor actor that must compete for the audience’s attention whenever she swaggers onto the stage. Even the climactic sword fight (an element on which many a production has foundered) is fast, furious and nail-biting right up to the final moment. The final applause threatened to take the roof off the building.

Due to its unprecedented popularity, the Exchange has added another week to the run. Get hold of a ticket by any means you can, because this is Shakespeare at its very best. A triumph.

5 stars

Philip Caveney