There’s a definite independent movie feel to Manchester By The Sea – the ‘Manchester’ in question is a coastal town in Massachusetts, officially ‘Manchester-by-the-Sea’, as opposed to the Manchester in New Hampshire (let alone the Manchester in Lancashire, which was the only one in my frame of reference prior to seeing the billboards for this motion picture). At the centre of the movie’s narrative is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who quickly wins the affections of a tenant in the suite of apartments for whom he serves as handyman, but loses his patience with other difficult customers, particularly a Mrs Olsen (Missy Yager), who swears profusely at him, so he eventually swears back. Elsewhere, there are pub fights that keep occurring as the film progresses, but not the story does not unfold in strict chronological order, and some work is required on the audience’s part to piece everything together. Fair enough: it keeps things interesting and intriguing, and there wasn’t too much to work out, so it was never confusing.
As someone who is totally shit at expressing himself properly in social situations (I’m one of those that thinks of the perfect responses either on the Tube home or at some point the following day), I had a lot of empathy for Lee, even if I don’t bother thumping people who irritate me to the hilt – mostly because that would involve too much thumping. An underlying long-term medical condition, details of which are disclosed in the course of the film’s narrative, affect Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), and he passes suddenly. As with the underlying condition, the circumstances of his death are known to those who’ve seen the film. No doubt if this was a play, this actor would come back on at some point as someone else, but, as it goes, we don’t see him again, at least not chronologically speaking.
This presents a problem: Lee is, again for various reasons that the script makes clear, the only viable ‘guardian’ for Joe’s son Patrick (an astonishingly convincing Lucas Hedges). There’s a lot of pain and heartache that Lee encounters, after his own children pass away in a house fire, though I take it (unless I am very much mistaken) this happened before his brother died. The response from the authorities fascinated me – I would have thought, given the precise particulars, Lee might have had to stand trial for manslaughter. But the local police were quite clear that no criminal act had been committed. It even stuns Lee: “You mean, I can go?!”
There’s no group therapy, or expensive one-on-one therapy, or anything like that critical moment in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s Will breaks down in front of Robin Williams’ Sean (“It’s not your fault” repeated ad infinitum). The guy just knuckles down and gets on with it, as so many of us have to do with the harsh realities of life. I loved how the practicalities of dealing with Joe’s estate and Patrick’s schooling and upkeep kept coming to the fore. One minute Lee is trying to sort out his own domestic affairs – geographical inconvenience being just one aspect – and another he’s driving Patrick to a band practice session, or giving him money for an ice cream, or trying to converse with the mother of Patrick’s girlfriend long enough for the young ‘uns to get some bedroom activity before dinner. And on, and on, and on. It’s as relentless as daily living is.
Generous doses of humour, either because of blokey banter or because of an awkward scenario – there’s plenty of both – provide another layer to this already deep and thoughtful movie. It could have been rather snooty and pretentious, what with all that music at apparently pivotal moments, and the deadpan stare that Lee has more often than not. All in all, though, it’s a riveting and captivating couple of hours at the pictures.
The last major protest that comes to mind against a theatre production in London was one headed by the religious extremist group Christian Voice, who protested Jerry Springer The Opera (in my view, it wasn’t really an opera) for portraying an adult Jesus in a nappy and other aspects of that show deemed offensive to certain religious people. Of course, if one has a religious faith, one would have thought that faith would be strong enough to withstand a show’s lampooning of it – consider, for instance, the response of the actual Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to The Book of Mormon musical.
I do not, as it happens, understand all there is to be understood about ‘yellowface’ (nothing to do with religion, phew!), except that in the context of the protests against In The Depths of Dead Love, it has gone far beyond a previous meaning, where Hollywood studios would put make-up on Caucasian actors to make them look East Asian. This practice still goes on – I don’t see many films, and never have been a movie buff – but I do recall Jim Sturgess (as well as other white actors) in Cloud Atlas appearing as though they were Asian. What the protesters here object to, amongst other things, is that no East Asian actors were auditioned for any of the parts with Asian names.
The Print Room, the host venue and production house for this run of In The Depths of Dead Love, has few friends amongst East Asians in the London theatre community, having accused them of bullying on social media. It even claims Equity has misrepresented them: Equity, being a performers’ union, doesn’t ‘represent’ theatres at all. But, as with the Jerry Springer case, a protest arises more interest in a show rather than less, and I must confess that had it not been for the very angry remarks made by people who sit on either side of the fence, I may never had bothered trekking over to Notting Hill to see this play.
I begin with a spoiler: there is no literal ‘yellowface’ going on in In The Depths of Dead Love. The press release, as I understand it, may have mentioned that it was set in ‘ancient China’, with no further specifics as to which century or in which part of China. There is no mention of setting in the show’s programme, however. It really could have been set anywhere before the telephone was invented, as characters are only exposed to further information by word of mouth. There could, I suppose, have been written correspondence, but this seemed unnecessary as the characters are well within comfortable commuting distance. And by commuting, I really mean walking.
To then have allegedly Chinese character names – Mrs Hu (Jane Bertish), Lord Ghang (William Chubb), Chin (James Clyde) and Lady Hasi (Stella Gonet) – therefore seems odd for a play with British accents. ‘Hasi’ to me sounds more Bollywood than Chinese. In any event, I don’t see why Western character names would not have sufficed. As I say, there isn’t any actual yellowface going on – nobody looks remotely Chinese. Even the costumes are Western. And despite a relatively short 95 minute running time, it takes an awfully long time to make one point: do what you damn well like (within reason, of course), and don’t let anyone stop you.
There’s this well. It’s bottomless, and those who pay the correct fee can jump in it and not come back. I found the writing, though mildly humorous in places, to be ultimately infantile, as though a primary school child had thumbed through a thesaurus and found miscellaneous ways to describe chucking someone in. It’s a form of Dignitas before there was Dignitas, but without any forms and signed documents in the presence of independent witnesses (and all the other jazz that indemnifies Dignitas from being sued by objecting relatives and other interested parties).
Some people take the plunge, eventually. (Or do they?) It got so boring and drawn-out I felt like bunging them all in there myself. Or ‘push’ them. Or ‘tip’ them. Or ‘barge’ into them. Or strategically place them in. Or deliberately ‘shove’. There’s not much to take away from this play, other than that those stupid and selfish enough to take their own lives despite not having a terminal illness, will find the determination to do so. I suppose there might be a consideration of what others could do to reach out to such people contemplating being taken by their own hand, but the play doesn’t explore this: a missed opportunity to give audiences something to think about.
It’s all over the place. It’s so sedate it has the sense of urgency that exists amongst Post Office staff when there’s a queue of customers waiting. Dull with a capital D.
(Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge)
Set in the near future, the 22 July “immediately after the date of performance” as directed by a note in the script, BU21 is a chillingly realistic (albeit fictional) account of how different characters cope after an act of terrorism both literally and figuratively smashes Fulham and surrounding areas. There is no attempt to depict the disaster itself, but rather descriptions, for the most part in the form of monologue, to describe both what happened and what is happening ‘now’. The latter proves more interesting – how do these people pick up the pieces and in some way move on from a life-shattering experience?
The set is nothing to shout about, though both the sound (Owen Crouch) and lighting (Christopher Nairne) are, to use a phrase in the show that raised titters because of the context in which it was said, “well executed”. Occasional breaches of the fourth wall have varying degrees of effectiveness – I’m still not sure what to make of Alex (Alex Forsyth) practically barking, “It’s not a rhetorical question!” at a man in the front row at the performance I attended. His is, however, the most intriguing character of the six the audience is presented with, beginning by almost immediately plunging into a consideration (while still in character) of what it even means to come to the theatre to see a show of this nature: “As far as I can tell this is essentially a financial exchange where you’ve paid money to be entertained by […] human suffering.”
Hmmm. There are quite a few ‘hmmm’ moments in this dark-humoured piece of theatre. Take Floss (Florence Roberts) and Clive (Clive Keene), whose rom-com scene somehow – somehow – summarily fails to be disjointed and in bad taste. There’s Izzy (Isabella Laughland), a business executive, Graham (Graham O’Mara), a tradesman (or, for a more colloquial interpretation of what he does, ‘white van man’), and Ana (Roxana Lupu), now wheelchair-bound. The show, let’s face it, works better in London than it would anywhere else. Not that it wouldn’t work anywhere else – it absolutely would – but in the descriptions of the King’s Road and other specific places, the play becomes so easily absorbing in a way that had it been set somewhere else, would have taken more time to appreciate fully.
There’s much to think about as these stories unfold. Graham’s story was the one I reflected on most: when other people are so insistent on shoving a television news camera in his face, what was he supposed to say? In the end, telling it like it is would have been so much easier for him; instead, he works and works in the months following to keep up a pretence – and Alex is not much better, covering Graham’s back rather than revealing what really transpired. Other lies are told elsewhere, other moral dilemmas to consider.
At times the play is simply so very blunt, and most characters more often than not let out too many expletives too often. There are, however, people out there whose only operative adjective for anything and everything, in the course ordinary conversation, is “f---ing”. I am reminded of the story about a nun who wrote to the letters page of a national newspaper, recounting an afternoon when she was randomly called a “f---ing nun”. She mused, “Well, I can’t be both, can I?” Still, in the boldness and forthrightness of these characters lies something un-British and unreserved. Whether this helps or hinders the show is a matter of personal preference: for me, it makes for crystal clear character development, for sure. With gripping storylines, this is a challenging and powerful piece of theatre.
What’s surprising about this theatrical adaptation of The Kite Runner is that its world premiere was as long ago as March 2009 – it’s taken almost eight years to reach the West End, a long wait given the runaway success of the novel and the motion picture. This production likes to keep things simple, for the most part, in terms of staging. I loved how not every single thing was acted out. It was as if the audience was assumed to have intelligence, and a good deal of it, to know by way of the spoken dialogue, that a car journey is a car journey without actors miming opening doors, ‘getting in’ and closing the doors, one of them holding an imaginary steering wheel and both of them bouncing up and down to indicate movement. Not that there isn’t any miming: how would one feasibly go about credibly flying a kite in an indoor proscenium arch auditorium?
The play lets itself down in the opening scenes. In the audio commentary that accompanies the film, the creatives talk about using Dari and Pashto, the official languages of Afghanistan, as well as English, dependent on whom is speaking with whom and in what context. That is fine in a film – indeed, as the creatives point out, film audiences find it more authentic when conversations are carried out in the language in which they would naturally be expected to be conducted, and there are subtitles to translate. The problem here with the play is that there are no subtitles provided, and the audience therefore has no idea what is going on. There are, these days, ways and means of ‘surtitling’ (with words above rather than below); the Royal Opera House, for instance, makes regular use of this. Huge chunks of dialogue between Amir (Ben Turner) and Hassan (Andrei Costin) are thus missed. Mercifully, this is only true, as I say, of the opening scenes.
Even so, alienating audiences so early on is a real pity, particularly as both actors inhabit their characters so well. The portrayal of them as children is rather like that of Mickey and Eddie in the early scenes of Blood Brothers. Here, though, Turner’s Amir also acts as narrator, repeatedly directly engaging the audience. I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the book is included in the play, given both the breadth and depth of the salient themes. Some periphery details, almost inevitably, have been cast aside. And yet, this show gives the impression that it isn’t in a hurry to tell its story, despite its relatively sprightly pace.
It’s an incredibly hospitable production, too, insofar as the audience is spared the ‘hair-dryer treatment’. I suspect if this had been a Royal Shakespeare Company production, for example, there would have been considerably more shouting going on. And, given the war zone setting, a lot more fake blood. Even when Farid (Ezra Faroque Khan) yells at Zaman (David Ahmad), or Amir has an outburst at Rahim Khan (Nicholas Khan), it’s entirely believable without being ear-piercing. If anything, the play is almost too calm, but it suits a British audience, understated yet enlightening.
I have no idea whether the accents in this show are properly authentic, and remain undecided as to whether it really matters. Aside from Ben Turner as Amir, who is as central to this play as Christopher Boone is in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, there are stand-out performances from Assef (Nicholas Karimi) and Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh). Some mesmerising music comes from Hanif Khan, single-handedly providing a distinct Afghan atmosphere to proceedings, a presence as constant on-stage as Turner’s.
This is a hard-hitting play, running the full gamut of human emotion from the joy of an engagement to multiple tragedies – and not just at the hands of the Taliban. It’s truly felt by the audience, too: at various times hearty laughter ripples across the auditorium, other times audible weeping. A deep and challenging production.
I didn’t realise it was still possible to even get financial backing for an old-style film like La La Land, with borderline absurd reasons for a song and dance and an in-and-out-of-love underlying storyline. It may have been something to do with where I was sat in the cinema auditorium, but the orchestra, even in a Hollywood film, with all the post-production mixing and editing, threatened to drown out the vocals.
Not that anyone really belted as they would on a Broadway or West End stage, and a lot of the vocals in the larger ensemble numbers sounded too similar to be distinct voices, which makes me suspect (not having read up about the film or having to hand the sort of background information that I am (sometimes) supplied with before seeing a show at the theatre) – that there might just be some lip-synching going on. This is nothing new, really: it’s Peggy Wood who we see as the Mother Abbess in the motion picture version of The Sound of Music, but Margery McKay that we hear singing ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’.
This show – sorry, sorry, film – wastes no time in launching into an all-out musical number. Imagine that iconic music video of REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’, but instead of a mellow and reflective tune (that comes later), people stuck in a traffic jam get out and take out the jazz hands and dance moves to an upbeat song. Even I found this a little difficult to get my head around – there’s little gladness in a traffic jam even in the theatre. The nearest thing to a ‘happy, happy, joy, joy’ approach when getting around a metropolis that comes to my mind ‘There Is Life Outside Your Apartment’ from Avenue Q , and even there there’s . Nonetheless, here, this is winter, and it’s ‘Another Day of Sun’. No wonder there are reported water shortages in that part of the world.
The only way, then, to distinguish one season from another is to have signs telling us we’re in spring, or ‘fall’, or whatever. Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), a pianist, drives a convertible all year round, though strangely it’s never too hot to sing and dance. Variation in the styles of numbers is achieved by Sebastian’s strong interest in jazz. But for all the razzmatazz and exhilaration of the big and bold numbers like ‘Someone In The Crowd’ and the contemporary-styled crowd-pleaser ‘Start A Fire’, the movie’s strongest number by some distance is the contemplative ‘City of Stars’, so good it is not only reprised twice but is the winner of the 2017 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.
There’s a lot for aficionados of musical theatre to recognise from elsewhere. Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, does audition after audition but with no luck. Think Cathy Hiatt in Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and the number ‘Climbing Uphill’. Keith (John Legend) comes along and gives the struggling Sebastian a leg up into the big leagues: take any show you like where the main protagonist is suddenly given a second chance and seizes the day. But it’s not all wholly predictable – I didn’t foresee the ending turning out as it did, for instance.
It’s certainly a very strong cinematic experience. A scene at the Griffith Observatory is nothing short of breathtaking. Both Gosling and Stone are well-cast, him with an edgy grittiness that makes Sebastian so much more than just another slightly out of left field musician with a crazy dream, her so compelling as someone who pushes and pushes with everything she’s got, only to find it’s not quite enough. Or is it? I’ve seen Mia’s sort of theatrical debut from a reviewer’s perspective, a near empty theatre with box office takings that would could never break-even, and most of us seated were either press, agents, or friends and family with comps. It was all the more uncomfortable seeing it from Mia’s perspective.
There is, therefore, a large dose of reality about the difficulties encountered pursuing a career in the entertainment industry – and keeping going even if one does ‘make it’. The chemistry between the two leads is entirely believable. This, combined with the escapist song and dance, make this a joyous, both light and dark humoured, wonderful motion picture.
“Every show,” the website for The Woman in Black West End play warns, will contain a school party. That was enough to put me off for years, until I thought I would see a performance right at the start of the Spring Term. There wouldn’t possibly be a school party in on day one of the state school term calendar. But there was. Thankfully, they were perfectly civilised pupils who sat in the correct seats (I once had an altercation at Richmond Theatre in Surrey with a schoolgirl who had the cheek to ask me if I wasn’t actually meant to be sat in the row behind, before a teacher kindly intervened) and didn’t rustle confectionery, or text during the performance.
What re-sparked an interest in it was a show I have been back to more times than I dare admit, in a relatively short space of time, Half A Sixpence. In that show, an all-singing, all-dancing musical extravaganza with at least two dozen actors (as opposed to the two-hander thriller that is The Woman in Black), the central character goes by the name of Arthur Kipps, as it is in the novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul by HG Wells, on which Half A Sixpence is quite loosely based. As I pointed out after the first London preview of Half A Sixpence (a preview that, almost entirely for technical reasons, was re-classed as a ‘rehearsal’ – and by ‘technical’ I specifically refer to set and lighting issues), there are now two major London shows with Arthur Kipps as the main roles. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before I found myself seeing the ‘other’ one.
As there is no demand for reviewers to attend shows in the bit between Christmas and New Year I took the opportunity to spend some of the free time at my disposal reading Susan Hill’s book, The Woman in Black, and watching the motion picture, starring Daniel Radcliffe. As one can imagine, it’s the book that contains the most detail, a point so eloquently explored in the stage adaptation, where there’s a line by The Actor (Joseph Chance) about how if Kipps (Stuart Fox) were to read out the whole thing, it would take about “five hours, at least”.
It’s not so much that the play is an abridged version, but that theatrical devices are used to bring the text to life. The background to the main story, as far as the stage play is concerned, is that Kipps wants to tell his story to family and friends. But, being a solicitor, and not a performer, he has hired the services of The Actor to assist him. It is barristers rather than solicitors who speak for the clients in court, so it is entirely possible that a solicitor’s public speaking skills are not up to scratch, even if they are perfectly capable of engaging in private conversation.
The set is remarkably minimalist – even Kipps at one point openly wonders how certain aspects of the narrative are going to be sufficiently depicted. It’s remarkable that the play has lasted so long, as parts of it do feel a tad dated. One or two scene changes involve the sort of clunky pushing and pulling around of props and set that I would normally expect to find in one of London’s pub theatres. While the apparently scary moments didn’t always frighten me personally – the sudden cacophony of noise jolted me more than anything in the storyline, especially the first time it happened. I was, nonetheless, engrossed by everything that was going on. Worth seeing.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.