The Smiths

A Taste of Honey

24/09/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I first encountered Shelagh Delaney through The Smiths, way back when, before Morrissey disgraced himself. His gorgeous early songs are littered with her words, and her face features on both album and single covers. As a young Moz-fan with literary pretensions, of course I read A Taste of Honey; of course I bought a video of the film. Since then, I’ve seen a few theatre productions too, but – honestly – tonight’s interpretation is my favourite of the lot.

Bijan Sheibani’s Honey might not be as gritty as some versions, but it illuminates the dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the play more effectively than I have seen before. The characters are more ordinary, more credible, than they sometimes appear, the quirky expositional dialogue rendered somehow hyper-real.

Jodie Prenger excels as Helen, the non-maternal mother-figure who dominates the play. She’s resentful of her teenage daughter, Jo (Gemma Dobson), seeing her as an encumbrance, a dead weight dragging her down. Unsurprisingly, Jo is resentful too; she demands attention, yearns for Helen’s love. But Helen’s too busy thinking about herself and her sex life to care what her daughter’s up to, and Jo has learned not to expect much from life. Even as she’s losing her virginity, in thrall to erudite sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes) – whose race doesn’t seem as relevant as it did in 1958 – she’s gloomily predicting that he’ll walk out of her life.

And she’s right.

Jo seems doomed to follow in Helen’s fucked-up footsteps: by the second act, all too predictably, she too is a pregnant teenager, alone and dreading motherhood. Her best friend, Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson), really wants to help; he’s even prepared to try to make a heterosexual relationship work. But Jo knows that can’t fly – and Helen’s not about to let Jo find happiness anyway.

In this National Theatre production, relationships are centre-stage. Poverty is less of an issue than it usually seems in this play: Helen’s marriage to the rich-but-odious Peter (Tim Carey), for example, seems borne more from greed than financial necessity.

The ever-present three-piece band is an interesting touch, lending the piece a kind of louche, lounge-bar-style seediness. The songs are beautifully sung, underscoring the emotional effects of the characters’ actions. I like the direction (although perhaps the scenery doesn’t need to be moved quite so much): the business and bustle, the use of understudies as strange double/twin stage hands.

This really is a ‘revival’ in the truest sense of the word – breathing new life into an ageing classic, making it relevant to today’s audience.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The More You Ignore Me

13/07/18

The More You Ignore Me, written by Jo Brand and directed by Keith English, has the potential to be very good. Based on Brand’s 2009 novel, it tells the tale of Alice (Ella Hunt), a teenager struggling to cope with the demands of her mother’s mental illness.

Things at home are tough: her dad (Mark Addy) is a gentle soul, and he does his best to keep things ticking along, but he’s not having much success. Alice’s mum, Gina (Sheridan Smith), spends most of her time immobilised by medication, sedated into a miserable paralysis – relieved only by episodes of psychosis, when she becomes volatile, railing against a world that can’t accommodate her needs. Alice is isolated: she can’t invite friends over to her house, and even though she has a lovely boyfriend, Mark (Alexander Morris), she’s persona non grata as far as his small-minded parents are concerned, the stigma of her mother’s condition being far too much for them to comprehend.

And then, one day, Ella hears The Smiths performing on TV and – like so many 80s teens – identifies with Moz’s lost-boy lyrics, convinced at last that there is somebody who really understands. She writes to Morrissey, pouring out her heart. And – to her delight – he actually replies.

It ought to work. Morrissey himself might have slipped from grace in recent years (oh Moz, I wish you didn’t think the way you do), but The Smiths songs stand the test of time, and I’d rather judge the art than the artist anyway. And Ella Hunt is mesmerising in the lead role, giving a subtle, heart-rending performance that always elicits sympathy. Mark Addy is terrific too, all good intentions and broken heart. Sally Phillips’ turn as the UK’s only under-worked GP is a nice diversion, Alexander Morris is convincingly awkward, and Clive Mantle’s Dunk is a beacon of hope.

But there’s a curious disconnect between these understated, naturalistic characters and the cartoonishly broad strokes applied to Gina and her family. The cast is strong – Sheridan Smith is undoubtedly a fine actor, and Sheila Hancock ought to be a good choice to play her mother. But it doesn’t work: it’s like they’ve wandered in from another, much worse, movie. There’s no nuance here, no sense of who they are and, in Gina’s case, of what’s been lost. Her father and brothers (Ricky Tomlinson, Tom Davis and Tony Way) are even more ridiculous, a trio of stereotypes with no credibility.

In the end, I’m left feeling frustrated by this film, not least because Ella Hunt’s performance deserves a more consistent vehicle.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

England is Mine

10/08/17

England is Mine, the Morrissey biopic, is a bit of a let-down – much like the man himself. And, believe me, this is not a sentiment I’m happy to express. I loved Moz as a teenager and young adult; I still love the Moz I carry in my heart. It’s just hard to reconcile the boy he was with the immigration-hating Farage-fan he has become in later life. I hoped the film might redeem him – and it does, to some extent – but it’s a weak, diluted story, that leaves out all of the interesting bits.

There is stuff to admire: Jack Lowden is ace in the lead role, convincingly conflicted, straddling that odd line between shyness and arrogance. The first forty minutes or so are very good indeed, conveying a real sense of the stultification Steven Patrick felt, trapped in a world where no one saw more for him than the same as they had, all repetitive jobs and dull relationships. Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a lone bright star, opening up the world to him. And Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence) offers another ray of hope, another route out of this Billy Liar life: these two characters are particularly well-acted, their larger-than-life personae portrayed with impressive subtlety.

There are lots of enjoyable little references to Smiths lyrics too: we see young Moz standing ‘under the iron bridge,’ walking through ‘a darkened underpass,’ staring at ‘the rocks below.’ He and Linder enjoy their afternoons at the cemetery, claiming words as their own, or producing the texts from whence they were ripped. There is fun to be had in spotting these.

But, honestly, it’s not enough. Where’s the music? I’m assuming efforts were made to secure the rights to at least some of the Smiths’ output? Or did writer/director Mark Gill really want to make a biopic that misses out the legacy of its main man? Okay, okay, the story ends before the Smiths begin, but surely the closing credits could have incorporated something relevant? Instead, the music throughout fails to set the scene: it’s all the stuff that Moz enjoyed, but there’s no context for it, nothing to show how wonderfully out of step he was. There’s a poster for Duran Duran at the end, which goes a little way towards establishing this idea, but there’s nothing aural to consolidate it. It’s a film about music. The soundtrack really matters here.

Also, there’s half an hour where nothing happens. Almost literally nothing. Moz has lost his rubbish job; his dreams of stardom are in the dust, because Billy Duffy has left him behind. He’s depressed. He takes to his bed. On the rare occasion he gets up, he mopes. If ever there’s a perfect moment for a montage sequence, this is it. We could have whipped through this in five minutes and then moved on. Instead, we’re there with him: bored, fed-up and underwhelmed.

‘To say the least, I’m truly disappointed.’

3 stars

Susan Singfield