Sunday, 19 June 2016

Ever wondered what your pets do when you're out?

It happens so often. As you pull the front door to, there is a moment when you wonder just what goes on when you’re not there. What do the furry members of the household get up to.

I admit it: I have actually waved goodbye to our three cats on occasion by telling the oldest of the trio, Boudicca, not to let the younger ones have a party and wreck the place.

And I’m sure that I’m not unique – though I’m also prepared to bet that at least some of it can be blamed on Animal Magic – the children’s TV programme that ran from the 1960s to the ’80s, which saw Johnny Morris voicing assorted animals and birds.

Indeed, The Other Half and I have, on more than one occasion, ‘voiced’ animals and birds we’re watching at the time (we do a great routine for seagulls).

As such, The Secret Life of Pets was always going to be our list of films to see.

We’ve known about it since last July, when, on our return to cinema viewing after 16 years away, a trailer preceded Minions, last summer’s release from Illumination. The chance to catch a preview was too good to miss.

As a bonus, Illumination’s latest release is preceded by Mower Minion, a new, four-minute short featuring the banana-loving yellow creators of chaos.

The plot of our main feature is straightforward enough: in a bustling New York, the life of Max – a little terrier – is disrupted, when his owner brings home a new dog, the huge, shaggy Duke.

When they don’t get on, that leads to the pair getting lost in the streets of the city, without their collars – chased by wardens as strays, before being rescued by Flushed Pets, a revolutionary group of formerly domesticated animals led by Snowball, a tiny, cute but psychotic bunny.

But when they are revealed to Snowball and his crew as “leash lovers,” the situation looks desperate.

Can they escape? Can they get home? Can they get on? Will their friends be able to help?

With obvious similarities to Toy Story, this is a feel-good, family film.

At 90 minutes it speeds along at a merry pace, with new characters introduced throughout.

There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and more than a few references for adults to knowingly spot.

This may not be complex stuff, but it is a real pleasure – and is quite gorgeous to look at.

And the makers have also spent time genuinely watching animals to know how they move and react in certain situations – there will be much that you’ll recognise.

So, if you want something to make you laugh uproariously and forget the state of the world today, The Secret Life of Pets is a great option.

Oh – and the makers even manage to get a Minions reference into the film too.
It opens properly this Friday across the UK.

Friday, 10 June 2016

ENO's Tristan strikes the wrong chord

There was probably going to be a time when I saw a production of an opera that was trying just too, too hard.

Unfortunately, it happened at the London Coliseum, at last night’s opening of the English National Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

It’s difficult to know where to start, so probably best to do so at the beginning.

The orchestra under Edward Gardner was in good form – the prelude was beautiful, if perhaps a tad slow. But that would be being overly picky and, given what followed, I’m determined to grasp at all available straws.

The sets have been designed by world-renowned artist Anish Kapoor, and Act I takes place within a series of three triangular boxes.

This is good: it bolsters a sense of the divide between the lovers – including a divide of social convention – with a void between them for most of the act. It also has drama.

The metallic surfaces reflect light superbly and glow. I rather assumed that we would continue with something similar throughout, since it seemed set to convey Wagner’s ideas around night and day very well.

It might have needed to be built a little more strongly, though, since a bit of early business between Kurwenal and Brangäne gave one section a severe shaking. And some of the audience apparently missed out on some of the ‘action’ as the walls created blocked sightlines.

But oh, the ‘business’. As one young member of the audience noted to me in the first interval, it was all very “distracting”.

Nice set – shame about the costumes
In their respective compartments, Tristan and Isolde are dressed by their servants, bit by painful and inexplicable bit: he as a Samurai warrior, she in a ridiculously over-large crinoline – only for both of them to cast off these garments the  minute that King Mark turns up.

A King Mark of Cornwall, that is, who had apparently wandered into the Mikado dressing room and emerged on stage as an aged Japanese emperor.

Given that Kurwenal and Brangäne were attired and made up as Restoration fops, this was a cultural mash up on speed.

There was, of course, the music. And Wagner’s music is sublime.

On the singing front, Craig Colcough as Kurwenal and Karen Cargill as Brangäne gave wonderful vocal accounts; one can easily conceive of the latter as an Isolde herself.

Stuart Skelton as Tristan is a fine tenor who seemed wooden in the first act in particular, but probably in large part because he was having to act the mannequin as he was dressed.

Heidi Melton is clearly a good dramatic singer, but there is a tightness in her voice in the upper registers, and she lacks the tonal warmth of Cargill.

But if Kapoor’s first-act design worked well, the second act was less convincing – then again, it suffered from crackpot direction that no amount of design could have salvaged.

Daniel Kramer may be in the process of taking over the reins at an ENO that is struggling, on and off stage, but on the basis of this production, that does not give great cause for optimism.

Why, oh why, oh why would you have the lovers play out the great love scene in Act II as though they’re mentally-ill self-harmers?

One could say that ecstatic love is akin to a form of mental illness, but in the context of this work, using the idea of self-harm does two things.

First, it diminishes the power of the love that is central to Wagner’s vision.

Second, it buys into the idea of the final part of the opera as a ‘liebestod’ – literally, a love of death.

That was not something that Wagner ever called it or intended. Isolde does not die at the end, but experiences a transfiguration to join Tristan on some eternal plane.

Love on a gurney – watched by an old man
Now you’re welcome to say that that’s bonkers, but the whole point of Tristan and Isolde is this extraordinary, transcendantal love – are we now so cynical and so enamoured of victim porn that we have to see it like this, with the lovers themselves as damaged, vulnerable human beings who need to be protected (strapped to a hospital bed) for their own sakes?

I skipped the final act. I realised that there was simply no way that I could make my first live ‘liebestod’ this one.

Later, via social media, I was informed that I was “lucky”.

But not only did Kramer’s direction leave me cold, I have absolutely no idea what costume designer Christina Cunningham was thinking. Okay – I have a little with the dandified servants (overweening court officials), but once you’re straining to find a rationale, you’re in trouble.

As to the Samurai and Japanese costumes – I can only guess that this is some convoluted way of hinting at ritual suicide and thus, again, playing to the whole idea of the love being a love of death.

And why was King Mark played as such an elderly man? In the story, hes the uncle of a teenage Tristan, so hardly has to be ancient. Was this an attempt to make the audience consider the potential consummation of his marriage to Isolde as akin to child abuse?

The problem here seems to be: get a world-known artist to design the sets (knowing this will get attenntion), skimp on the leading singers and season with gimmicks.

Perversely, perhaps, my ear was in practice enough to really appreciate, for the first time live, the marriage between word and music – something that Wagner strived to make completely organic.

What a shame that such a moment of personal development came in such a dismal production.



Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Threepenny Opera – get ready for Brecht on 'roids

It says something when critics are confused. And looking at some of the reviews of the National Theatre’s new production of The Threepenny Opera, a number of the critics out there are very confused.

For instance, it had been cleansed of all politics, suggested one review – which, were it true, would make it the most bowdlerised piece of Brecht ever produced.

It is also patently untrue and begs the question of what any such reviewer thinks is politics – let alone whether they actually know anything at all about one of theatre’s most iconic writers.

Brecht himself voiced the opinion that the British did his work no favours, treating it too reverentially and making it po-faced rather than fun.

The Other Half – a serious Brechtophile and a half – and I have been fortunate enough to see a number of productions that suggest Brits have learned how to do Brecht.

These included the 2009 National Theatre production of Mother Courage, with Fiona Shaw in the lead and songs reworked and played live by Duke Special, so we were expecting great things on our return to the Olivier for his most famous work.

A new adaptation by Simon Stephens has made textural changes – for instance, to more strongly reference bankers, which illustrates just how much this production is very conscious of its political heart.

Rufus Norris has enjoyed a mixed reception to the start of his tenure as artistic director at the National.

In a online comment after the Guardian review, one wit noted dryly that, in the style of its famous reviewer, Michael Billington, Norris’s latest outing had been given a three-star rating, meaning that it could be anything from crap to life changing.

So it was with the merest hint of trepidation that I entered the theatre last Friday evening. I don’t want to see Brecht treated like a religious text, and I’m far from being against adaptation and so on in principle, but would it really work?

Over the following three hours, there were moments when it felt as though I was closer to the soul of the Weimar cabaret scene than I have ever been before – even when listening to the songs of that era.

Brecht’s tale of London’s underworld, where the poor cannot afford ethics, is as resonant today as ever. Hypocrisy, the bread and circuses of pageantry, sex and violence and sexual violence, now with added gender play – it’s all here.

Roslie Craig as Polly and Rory Kinnear as Macheath
As too are beggars, disabled military veterans, crooked coppers and men whose minds have been damaged by war – appropriately, in Afghanistan.

While some changes have also been made to the song lyrics, Kurt Weill’s score is treated with due reverence and performed superbly by an eight-piece band, as it was originally. And this, of course, includes the iconic Mack the Knife.

It’s difficult to reconcile the doubts of some critics as to the quality of the singing – it was excellent throughout and Weill’s music has rarely sounded so downright, deep down sexy.

Indeed, many of the songs offer a very different feel to the general cynicism and decadence of the whole, giving characters the chance to reveal that they do dream and imagine something better, in sharp contrast to their physical, everyday lives.

But here’s the nub. In enjoying the dysfunctionality that is portrayed in front of us, we become complicit in the cruelty. It’s like Jeremy Kyle on speed.

Brecht has tied us in philosophical knots – with a piece of theatre that claims to eschew any moral.

Norris’s direction is spot on, giving us a performance of unrelenting energy and pace.

Vicki Mortimer’s design is wonderful – making the artifice and theatricality absolutely clear. Having characters enter and leave by tearing (or cutting) their way though paper flats is really effective – and the ruined mass of flats that creates Macheath’s den is so evocative of the decay all around (and also reminiscent of the set in GW Pabst’s 1931 film version).

The costumes evoke the Weimar period, with added Keystone cops and robbers.

The cast is uniformally excellent.

As Macheath, Rory Kinnear seems to be a physically calm presence in the midst of a whirlwind of action around him. But there’s always something sinister in that calm; a sense of latent violence – he brings to mind the brooding menace of the Mitchell brothers in EastEnders, but with knobs on; a thug with a soft underbelly.

But as Peachum, Nick Holder outdoes him in the nastiness stakes – perhaps most particularly when turned into a rotund Louise Brooks-alike in the second act; pinstripe suited and on black heels, threats and brutality his daily currency.

Nick Holder as Peachum and Peter de Jersey as 'Tiger' Brown 
Haydn Gwynne as Mrs Peachum is in wonderful form, while Rosalie Craig makes a marvelous Polly – apparently vulnerable and naïve, yet hard as nails when she needs to be.

Sharon Small is a super Jenny – her Surabaya Johnny is simply excellent, ranging from the poignant cry of a dreamer to the incandescent rage of the abused.

A special mention too, to Jamie Beddard as Matthais, one of Macheath’s four core gang members: casting a disabled actor in the role brings an extra dimension to the work’s sense of being about the disenfranchised and discarded of society, and Beddard’s performance adds a really ballsy note to proceedings.

It is great to see Elisabeth Hauptmann’s contribution as collaborator recognised – her German translation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera formed the basis for The Threepenny Opera.

This production might not be ‘life changing’ theatre – but it is an excellent, provocative, in-your-face, fuck-you evening’s entertainment that will live for a very, very long time in the memory.

I rather think Bert would have approved. The Other Half certainly hasn’t stopped singing since.

It’s in repertory until October. Find out more at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The incontinence of noise

Young, well-spoken and well-to-do, she sat at the back of a bus, phone to ear, explaining to a friend in a carrying voice about that afternoon’s appointment with her gynecologist, seemingly oblivious to all those around who were perhaps less than enthusiastic about the details of the encounter.

On a train, speeding north from London, a young man, seated at a table in a standard-class carriage, opened his laptop and decided that this was the perfect environment in which to conduct a business video conference call. Everyone within three or four seats in all directions was included – irrespective of their wishes or even the interests of business confidentiality.

These are two snapshots of a modern Britain where humans have become noise incontinent. And they will be familiar to most of us.

But it is not just a matter of conversations made public. It’s one thing for headphones to leak sound, but at least the wearer is making an effort.

Yet it is now the norm, in urban areas, for the first good weather of the year to see windows and balcony doors flung open, and music ‘shared’ with neighbours.

“Music,” that is, consisting of little more than booming bass. The same “music” that you’ll hear from passing cars, whether the windows are down or not.

But this is not simply a matter of individual behavior.

In shopping arcades, going far beyond the curse of muzak, shops blast out sound – presumably, because a psychologist somewhere has discovered that hi-tempo, booming tracks encourage spending and quickly.

The Arndale in Manchester is one example: on a visit one Sunday morning, only the Waterstones Bookshop and Games Workshop were peaceful – although both were busy. Even the Disney Store was playing music loudly – hi-tempo and with a beat, albeit rather more in keeping with little pink princesses.

On a larger scale, it is now apparently acceptable for a rave festival to be arranged and staged within 50 metres of homes, and if residents do not like feeling their bones rattled, that’s their misanthropy.

It never is, incidentally, Chopin rattling someone else’s windows – or Johnny Cash or Dean Martin or even Abba or the Stones.

But try to find a coffee shop – chain or independent – that doesn’t insist on providing some sort of soundtrack to your morning cappuccino. It might just be the radio, but you could be forgiven for thinking that we are scared to sit peacefully; to allow ourselves the opportunity to hear ourselves think.

There is a narrowing of basic good manners here – not a conscious one, but resulting from a sense of individual entitlement that requires no justification and expects no challenge.

‘Why do you think it’s fair for you to make other people listen to your conversation/music?’ This is not a question that usually earns a classier philosophical response than some form of take on a shrugged ‘because’.

Although in order to do so would require a way of explaining why the ‘right’ to converse or play your music in such a way as to force it on others trumps their right not to have it thus inflicted. Since nobody is saying that you cannot play your music or have your private conversation, then that would be difficult.

Perhaps much of it is about consumption.

On one level, we consume the gadgets that allow us to converse wherever we want. And then we consume anything we put on them. Except that, since we are encouraged increasingly to keep it in the cloud, we don’t really have it at all. When we want to conspicuously consume that tune again, we have to download or stream it once more – possibly with added consumption via whatever charges our telecommunications provider might levy.

On another level, there is a growing emphasis on consumption as a core part of citizenship: see all manner of things, from the small-state fundamentalism of the concept of the ‘citizen consumer,’ to the rising importance in the economy of the retail sector (and therefore of our personal and collective consumption).

You can find florid declarations of spending as a patriotic duty to aid the nation’s economy, while increasing suggestions that we’re in for a period of sustained low interest rates (in part because of past and present spending on ludicrously-inflated mortgages) produces a concomitant sense that we might just as well spend our hard-earned, then.

Once having consumed, we then have the right to enjoy that consumption. And after all, if it is a patriotic act we have carried out, then who can deny us enjoying it in whatever way we please? There’s no such thing as society any more anyway.

Now consider the onslaught on personal privacy of the last decade or so: the UK as the CCTV capital of the world; attempts by governments to introduce ‘snoopers’ charters’ to combat terrorism and child abuse º the two terrors of our age: all produce a semi-constant response of how, ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear’.

The ‘rights’ and ‘entitlement’ of the conscientious consumer sit well with an era in which the desire for privacy can be viewed as an admission of some guilt or other.

Consume, let others see your consumption – and never worry if you’re being overheard or watched, because it’s happening anyway. Quiet and privacy cannot be bought and sold: they have little value.

This incontinence of sound – this droning, banging, driveling bombardment of noise – is itself symptomatic of something wider: of a dumbed-down public discourse where whoever shouts loudest is heard; where considered arguments are battered out of the way by sensation and fact-free claims.


Will it take until all the satellites fail and all the ‘clouds’ burst and all the gadgets seize up to make us appreciate once more, quietness, a private conversation and music enjoyed without the need to foist it on others?

Or before then, will it dawn on people that all this incontinent noise is simply one more cover for our intellectually incontinent politicians and the corporatocracy on whose behalf they work?

Friday, 3 June 2016

By providence, a preacher worth watching

Preacher – the cast
It’s been pretty much gospel that Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s seminal comic series, Preacher, would never make it on screen.

Rambling across 75 issues from 1996 to 2000, the Vertigo-published story was apparently stuck in various layers of development hell for years, amid general feelings that it was ultimately impossible to film.

But fast forward a few years, when Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Sam Catlin took up the challenge for AMC – and now we’re able to see the results.

In the UK, the pilot premiered as an Amazon Prime exclusive a fortnight ago. The first ordinary episode will air on 6 June, also on Amazon.

So far, we’ve had the chance to meet the three main protagonists: Jesse Custer, a small-town Texas preacher with a dodgy past who is struggling with his faith; Cassidy, an Irish vampire, and Tulip O’Hare, Jesse’s gun-toting ex.

Around the world, various clergy are exploding in front of their congregations in an unexplained manner – apparently, this includes leading Scientologist Tom Cruise, which may give you an idea of the humour on display.

But while Jesse prays for God to give him a sign of his existence, his body is invaded by something that gives him a strange, new power over people – although he has yet to realise this.

If it has moments that seem to channel Tarantino, it also has moments of surprising tenderness – not least in how Jesse treats the bullying sheriffs son, a young man whose attempted suicide by shooting himself in the mouth has failed, leaving him disfigured in such a way as to become known as Arseface.

The whole thing is dark, violent, funny, mixed-up and deeply un-PC stuff; part western, part road movie, part crime caper, part supernatural thriller, part horror story – but if you’ve ever read the comic, you’ll already know this.

And if you haven’t, then you’re in for a wild, genre-defying ride – and not one for those inclined to take offence easily.

It looks superb, with a wonderful sense of the vastness of the Texan landscape.

And the casting appears inspired. Dominic Cooper looks perfect as the eponymous cleric and nicely conveys the conflicts in the character.

Ruth Negga as Tulip is as feisty and takes-no-nonsense as you’d expect, but it has to be said, on this first outing at least, that Joseph Gilgun is going to steal the show as Cassidy.

It’s a fascinating point that none of this triumvirate of leading actors are from the US: Cooper and Gilgun are English; Negga is Ethiopian/Irish.

And that continues throughout the cast.

On the basis of the pilot, we’re in for a thoroughly entertaining time.

But the start of Preacher was not the only comic-related noteworthy moment of last week.

Arriving on my desk was a very nice hardback edition of the first four issues of Providence by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows.

This short series of just 12 issues started last year. This first trade is a hardback, limited to just 6,666 copies.

Set in 1919 in the US, Moore returns to his exploration of Lovecraftian horror, intertwining it with elements of real history to create a layered story.

The central character here is Robert Black, a young man trying to make his way as a writer, first as a New York reporter and then with the aim of writing a Great American Novel about the occult ‘outsiders’ that he seeking out – as a metaphor for social outsiders in the country.

And central to this is Black’s own mixed status: at once, part of the privileged white establishment, he is also Jewish and gay, hiding both from most of those he encounters.

But for all that, he is also not immune to bigotry himself.

Some commentators have noted that Black is not particularly likeable. The real point is that he is a flawed and complex character – which is actually what you expect in something by Moore.

And this being a Moore work, it also defies it’s nature as a comic to include substantial amounts of text – both pages from Black’s diary and also from leaflets and books he collects.

Burrow’s art works well in conveying a sepia world that is never far from the strange and the dark.

All in all, a grown-up comic treat.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Through the Looking Glass: we're not really in wonderland any more

Alice In Wonderland, Tim Burton’s 2010 take on Lewis Carroll’s 19th-century surreal classic, was generally given the thumbs down by the critics, but a global box office take of $1.025bm for Disney, for an outlay of around $200m, ensured that it was a success – and that a sequel was likely. 

Now, in Alice Through the Looking Glass, Burton has returned to Carroll. This time, though, he’s one of the producers, with the directing reins handed to James Bobin and Linda Woolverton returning for scriptwriting duties. 

The first film was messy, but still fun.

This is messier still and has been roundly trashed by the critics, but still has merits – although they’re perhaps harder to find.

Like the first film, it’s “based on” Carroll’s characters, with Alice as an adult.

It opens three years after the last film, with Alice – now the captain of her late father’s ship – steering it away from Chinese pirates and back home to Blighty after a three-year voyage.

This fantastic escape gives time to re-establish that she has lost none of her feistiness or bravery, and that ‘impossible’ remains, for Alice, a dirty word.

But once back at home, all is not well, and she finds herself plunged back into a fight to retain her chance for adventure and wonder against conventional expectations and pressures.



Just in time, Absolem the butterfly (formerly the caterpillar), reappears and leads her to the mirror that offers a door back to Wonderland.



And once there, Alice discovers that the Hatter is dying – and that only she can help.



Absolem is, once again, voiced by Alan Rickman – his last performance before his untimely death at the beginning of this year, and it brings a lump to the throat to hear his voice.



At the heart of this film is the idea of time – you can’t get it back – and how you must live every day to its fullest extent and make sure you never live to regret any bad relationships with your loved ones.



And if that sounds clunky, it’s because it is: twee, sentimental and hamfisted.



Keeping the world running
Some of it – perhaps especially not being able to tamper with time and the dangers if you do – are laid on with a JCB: and for goodness sake, do the writers think none of us have ever seen Star Trek?



I love the characters and I loved how the first film developed them. But even though it’s good to see so many of these cinematic friends again, it’s hard to care much about what happens to them – especially as the bulk of the film drags.



We get backplots aplenty, explaining how the Red Queen became the nasty character we’re familiar with (and how she got her big head) and how the Hatter became, well ... the Hatter.



Dysfunctional families, eh?



And there is Time himself, in the persona of Sacha Baron Cohen, trying to prevent Alice from breaking time itself.



Now, as I said, there are compensations.



In the last quarter, it eventually gains real pace and a sense of tension and even passion. Finally, you are drawn into caring what happens. But it takes a long, long time.



If there is a sense that Johnny Depp is pretty much treading water as the Hatter, Mia Wasikowska turns in another enjoyable and solid (if not Earth-shattering) performance as Alice.



Anne Hathaway’s White Queen is as vague as before, but as we start to understand the reasons for the relationship breakdown between her and her sister, the Red Queen, the contrast becomes more understandable.



As for the Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter returns and adds some much-needed energy to proceedings.



Baron Cohen, once over an initial bit of clowning, is actually very good.



Incidentally, how many times in mainstream Western cinema has a scene been played between actors with three names each – Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen?

We get a brief cameo from Sherlocks Moriarty, Andrew Scott, who seems to have cast in order to bring that character to this film.



Wilkins tries to work out how to make things right
And I did like Wilkins, Time’s long-suffering, robotic butler – played by Muppets puppeteer Matt Vogel, with Toby Jones voicing, although why a character with such an English name should look and sound German is a mystery.



The biggest compensation is that it is visually superb – dazzling in places, not least in the time-travel shots and in Time’s castle, where there is also a rich, blue and gold palette that brings to mind Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.



And the visuals are not harmed by being viewed in 3D: having only seen my first 3D film 10 months ago, I’m certainly getting value from those glasses!



Alice Through the Looking Glass is ultimately disappointing. In some ways, having Burton’s name attached actually adds to the disappointment, because we expect such great things from him – and for a reason. But then again, whatever you may read or hear from the critics, it isn't some sort of cinematic version of the Titanic either.

And like its predecessor, it’s probably a fair prediction to say that its hardly likely to be flop.