Monthly Archives: February 2012

Stagefright at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds 25/2/12

Had a rare trip to the theatre last night to see Stagefright, a new play by Michael Punter about the distinguished Victorian actor Henry Irving and his business manager Bram Stoker, for whom at this point Dracula is no more than a pipedream. The two find themselves locked into the Lyceum Theatre overnight after a successful production of Faust and their initial easy banter gives way to unease and then terror when a seemingly supernatural presence starts to make itself apparent.

Stagefright is great entertainment, and Punter relishes the opportunity to deflate Irving’s pomposity and drop pointers to Stoker’s eventual fame via a witty and accessible script. A sense of humour is evident throughout, which helps to heighten the effect of the half a dozen or so shock moments that occur beautifully, and the staging of the various ghostly surprises can’t be faulted (an illusionist is in fact credited in the programme). Jonathan Keeble as Irving and Barry Ward as Stoker acquit themselves with just the right level of theatricality, and the set, copiously detailed as it is with Victoriana and thespian ephemera, is lovely to behold. A brisk production that crucially doesn’t take itself too seriously and provides some real thrills – worth watching out for.

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John Peel’s Shed at The Junction, Cambridge 24/2/12

John Peel’s Shed is an hour long presentation currently being toured by writer and broadcaster John Osborne, whose all-absorbing passion for radio paid off in 2002 when he won a box of records in a competition to devise a slogan for Peel’s Radio 1 show. The simplicity of his winning entry – “Records you want to hear, played by a man who wants you to hear them” – demonstrates how in tune Osborne was with Peel’s ethos of paying as little attention as possible to fashion-driven trends, hype and commercial pressures in favour of devoting his energies to unearthing truly original sounds and artists, and Osborne’s sweet and engaging talk is a fitting tribute to the spirit of the great man.

Now, John Peel is pretty close to being my all-time favourite human being, friends and family excepted, and while it was certainly tremendously touching to be part of the great outpouring of affection that was unleashed in the wake of his death it was also mildly irritating to witness his career and accomplishments being regularly boiled down to T Rex/Teenage Kicks/The Fall/Home Truths. Peel’s tastes were genuinely eclectic and unpredictable, and while it would be churlish to criticise the goodwill and effort that was expended to curate the various programmes and schedules that were broadcast in his honour I felt at the time that many of the musical choices were a tad safe and acceptably mainstream – wouldn’t it have been more fitting to play a few long and unlistenable hardcore techno tracks, interspersed with some terrifying Scandinavian death metal and some joyous, if not necessarily comprehensible, African gospel? Thankfully Osborne avoids this establishment reduction of what made Peel such a one-off: firstly, the records that he draws from his prize box to play between sections of his talk are pleasingly obscure and appropriately non-commercial (Atom and His Package, anyone? What about Oizone? As in Boyzone songs played by an Oi band) and secondly, he doesn’t feel the need to dwell on Peel at all when recounting his formative musical memories – his working assumption is that his audience doesn’t need any further summaries of the man, leaving him free to talk more about radio in general, and his relationship with it.

Osborne loves radio and has a rare curiosity about it, to the extent that he’s prepared to spend months making sure he’s managed to spend a full day listening to every single station available to him. His accounts of the esoteric delights put out by small community stations are hilarious, but somehow life-affirming (I particularly liked the idea of the programme consisting of nothing but the sounds picked up by a microphone left on a living room floor for half an hour) and his gradual coming to terms with the blandness of modern day Radio 1 when forced to listen to it all day during a spell working in a warehouse casts light on the resilience of the human spirit. He’s an open, almost naively positive, presenter with a generous and winning manner – I think Peel would have approved. Podcasts featuring some of the records in the box are available from www.johnpeelsshed.com.

A Dangerous Method: …but a pretty unthreatening movie

Something of a change of pace for celebrated body-horror director David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method is an adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play about the professional disagreements between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, arguably the two most significant figures in the history of psychoanalysis. Freud is keen to keep all psychological research on a strictly scientific footing in order to deny critics of his controversial findings easy leverage to discredit him, while Jung, who is initially a loyal disciple of the older man, finds himself increasingly drawn to investigate non-rational ideas such as telepathy and the collective subconscious. The catalyst for this change in Jung’s thinking (in the film, if not necessarily in real life) is the seemingly hopelessly hysterical patient Sabina Spielrein, who he successfully treats using Freud’s techniques and then finds himself both drawn towards and challenged by when it becomes clear that she has an interest in and considerable talent for psychoanalysis herself.

This is a talky and in some ways rather old-fashioned film, being made up as it is mainly of long dialogue scenes between two or three of the principals in beautifully recreated early twentieth century studies and parlours, but it’s a lot more entertaining than my dry description above might lead you to believe. Michael Fassbender seems to have a contract to appear in every arthouse movie at the minute, but that’s fine, as he’s clearly earned the privilege – in his earnest and conflicted take on Carl Jung he’s almost unrecognisable as the man who gave us Shame‘s sex-addict – and Viggo Mortensen also gets a chance to show his versatility as the sometimes wry, sometimes waspish Freud, again miles away from his usual quiet-hero roles. Keira Knightley gets the chance to try out both her Russian accent and some faintly disturbing facial contortions in the early scenes when she’s in fits of hysteria (it’s a Cronenberg trademark to sometimes dispassionately depict his cast members as essentially writhing pieces of meat), though for me she’s just too much of a famous face to allow proper suspension of disbelief. The script is sharp and intelligent, presenting Jung’s multiple dilemmas sympathetically, while handing most of the pithy punchlines to Freud, and Cronenberg keeps things moving at a pace, changing locations and situations briskly enough that you can just about forgive me using the hoary old practice of using voiceover to relay the contents of handwritten letters to the audience. More than anything else though it’s the immaculately rendered but never over-fussy period details that make this a pleasant film to spend time with: beautiful Swiss country houses with lakes, elegant Viennese architecture, stylish and never crumpled costumes and some very pleasing facial ornamentation (beards, spectacles, pipes and hats). Definitely not a major piece of work, but more than adequately diverting, and despite a couple of pretty mild sex and violence scenes proof that Cronenberg can still deliver even when he’s reining it in.

Nick Coleman: The Train In The Night

I’m a sucker for books written by middle-aged music journalists about their formative years and the records and bands that have moved or carried particular meaning for them (Giles Smith’s Lost In Music and Nick Hornby’s semi-autobiographical High Fidelity being two notably fine examples), so when I happen upon one written by someone who grew up in my home town I’m not going to pass it by. Nick Coleman’s The Train In The Night even bears a vintage-looking photograph of a young man carrying that most evocative of all things, an Andy’s Records carrier bag, and gratifyingly it turns out that, like me and Nick Hornby, Coleman also had a spell doing musical National Service at Andy’s.

The Train In The Night does however have more of a tale to tell than just a bunch of admittedly very well-turned and amusing anecdotes involving inappropriate DJ-ing at village fetes and strings of ill-fated and ego-ridden amateur rock bands. Its principal hook is that it contains an account of how Coleman suddenly and debilitatingly lost all hearing in one ear and how after a long period of acclimatising to the constant howling tinnitus, the frequent nausea and the total lack of physical balance he started to make tentative steps to listening and enjoying music again, albeit in a very different way. These sections have more in common with the books of neurologist Oliver Sacks than those of Smith or Hornby (and in fact Coleman does at point engineer a short meeting with Sacks in an attempt to gain insight into his condition), and are fascinating for the picture Coleman draws of how his perceptions of music have changed: from a 3-dimensional architectural space to a flat schematic diagram. Initially he’s unable to tolerate any loud or irregular sound at all, with the electric guitars and drums of bands like Led Zeppelin reduced to meaningless and arhythmic noise, but eventually his brain seems to compensate, with the result that he can now gain pleasure from music, even if it’s unclear how much of his pleasure is being derived from memory rather than present sensation.

Coleman sensibly alternates the chapters dealing with his deafness with accounts of growing up just outside Cambridge and the ridiculously intense nature of teenage boys’ dedication to progressive and otherwise non-radio friendly rock music in the early 70s. These sections are funny and touching, and Coleman has a real gift for describing both the sublime and ludicrous sides of an obsession with guitar bands. A particular highlight is his summary of the Rolling Stones “It’s Only Rock’n’Roll” single, which he accurately nails as shoddy and cynical, while at the same time declaring that he loves it so much he’d like it played at his funeral, while the passages that deal with his classical music loving father’s earnest but futile attempts to form an appreciation of his son’s new passion are really quite heartwarming. This is a lovely memoir, as well as an absorbing account of a man coming to terms with a distressing condition.

The Woman In Black: life in the haunted house yet

You know, sometimes it’s best not to mess around with a winning formula. The Woman In Black, a new film based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, is so shamelessly respectful and observing of all the well-worn conventions of the haunted house story that it could have been scripted by The League Of Gentlemen, but is also bizarrely refreshing in its refusal to tack on any postmodern or subversive twists. This is a film that really should have been released around Halloween, when it would have provided a good traditional alternative to the definitely more cerebral and introspective The Awakening.

The Woman In Black is produced by the venerable and recently re-activated Hammer Films, whose reputation was made back in the 1950s by lurid and unabashedly straightforward adaptations of stock horror properties like Dracula and Frankenstein, and pleasingly there’s precious little messing around with the set-up here: young lawyer Arthur Kipps is sent to a remote Northern community in order to negotiate the sale of a particularly forbidding and spooky house, which has previously been the scene of a number of tragedies and premature deaths. On arrival, Kipps finds the citizens of the town far from welcoming, and it is only through bribery and the assistance of an enlightened local land-owner that he’s able to even reach the house, which is dramatically situated on an island only reachable at low tide – needless to say, his explorations of the house and its grounds uncover more than just the paperwork he needs to complete his assignment.

Part of the pleasure of the piece is watching the film-makers steadily working through the checklist that starts with the steam train journey and the suspicious locals and turns into a veritable inventory once we get into the interior of the house: cobwebs, chandeliers, stuffed animals, music boxes that spring into life unexpectedly, creepy glassy-eyed dolls and rocking chairs. Thankfully this is all skilfully assembled and paced, and the look of the film is terrific (sort of autumnal and glossy at the same time) so it’s easy to just go with it, and the long wordless section in which Kipps gets progressively more freaked out in the dark house shows really pretty masterful handling of what could easily have been hackneyed effects like subliminal shots of faces at windows and sudden outbreaks of rattling and creaking noises. Plotwise, the cat gets let out of the bag surprisingly early, but the film doesn’t seem to have any problems maintaining one’s interest to the end. Daniel Radcliffe puts in a surprisingly convincing, and even nuanced, performance in his first post-Harry Potter outing, although he does look a bit young to have a four year old son, with the rest of the cast having fun with some fairly stock roles – Janet McTeer in particular seems to positively relish her bereaved mother freakouts.

So, this film is in a lot of ways more like a theme park ride than a piece of drama, but that’s OK, as it’s an effective one that fulfils its mission commendably, and it’s got an admirably brisk running time of just 95 minutes too. And it makes a nice change from watching bloody vampires again.

Carnage: people like you make me sick

Age and scandal has not prevented veteran director Roman Polanski from continuing his series of blackly comic films about people going mad in claustrophobic apartments (see Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, Bitter Moon and The Pianist). The latest installment is the comparatively lightweight Carnage, adapted by Polanski and Yasmina Reza from Reza’s play of the same name and starring Academy favourites Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz as a pair of brittle and self-absorbed couples who contrive to rub each other fairly spectacularly when they meet to discuss and resolve a minor flare-up between their respective eleven year old sons. This is as stagy a film as you’re likely to see this year – the action takes place in real-time almost entirely within one room, and although it has an admirably short running time of 79 minutes it s script must contain more dialogue than most films of twice that length. Polanski loves to create and exploit tension, and Carnage sets the audience on edge right from the start with Foster and Winslet’s patently insincere middle-class reassurances to each other, Reilly’s blithe platitudes and Waltz’s callous disinterest, and although you can tell roughly where it’s all going there are a couple of shock moments that had the audience at my screening gasping. While it’s undoubtedly all good, squirmy fun, and a tremendous workout for the cast to boot, the film does also feel a bit inconsequential and lacking a killer punchline and you wonder whether Polanski felt constrained by issues of taste and decency given recent and not-so-recent events in his life. Carnage is a great title, but this film seems more like a pillow fight.

The Descendants: families, can’t live with ’em…

The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne, whose other credits include the immortal Sideways, is a Hawaiian-set family drama that hits enough familiar beats to let you feel comfortable (business-minded father is forced to bond with unruly daughters, a moral dilemma about the potential lucrative sale of unspoiled land for commercial purposes) while still featuring several satisfyingly unpredictable twists in the narrative. It’s adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and the sometimes blunt and self-interested, sometimes unexpectedly subtle and compassionate nature of many of the family members seems more characteristic of a well-written book than your typical reductive Hollywood screenplay. George Clooney takes the lead role as Matt King, a lawyer and sole controller of a family trust that would command a very high purchase price, whose life gets somewhat up-ended when his not-quite-estranged wife suffers a serious water-skiing accident that leaves her in a coma. Subsequent revelations and meetings cause King to re-evaluate some of his relationships and to seek unusual forms of closure.

Clooney’s in every scene of the film and it’s a strong performance, with his trademark charm largely ditched in favour of a convincingly harried and occasionally short-tempered approach. His character is often on the back foot here and it’s refreshing to see him playing shock, tiredness and anger so well. The supporting actors are good as well, with Shailene Woodley standing out as King’s seventeen year old daughter and a pleasingly gruff cameo from the great Robert Forster as King’s not to be crossed father-in-law. This is a film that succeeds due to its intelligent and non-ingratiating script rather than any flashy directorial flourishes and Payne wisely keeps it simple, but it’s unusual and fascinating to see footage shot in Hawaii that avoids the clichés and includes footage of tower blocks, motorways and suburban homes. My main problem with the film is that I wished it was funnier, but I suspect that’s my problem, not Alexander Payne’s. It’s definitely worth a look.