Friday, 22 April 2016

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: an American tragedy

It was 27 years ago when the National Theatre last produced August Wilson’s breakthrough play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, with Hugh Quarshie wearing tights trousers to strut his stuff on top of a table.
I saw it twice: the first time to review, and the second – under the leaking roof of the Hackney Empire, to growl quietly in appreciation at Mr Quarshie.

This new production offered a welcome chance to reappraise it.

It’s Chicago, 1927. A quartet of four musicians meet in a studio for a recording session with Ma Rainey – the ‘Mother of the Blues’ – and, while they wait for the diva to arrive, the good humour of their banter thins to reveal underlying tensions.

The ingredients are simple: four talented men (and one woman) who are of use to white music bosses as long as their music produces cash dividends.

But the three older members of the quartet – bookish pianist Toledo, band leader Cutler and bassist Slow Drag – have all found ways of dealing with their situation as black men in the US.

Trumpeter Levee, however – hardly a boy at 32, but still the youngest of the four – is caught between rage at the situation and an ambition to have his own band and write his own material that sees him act with overt deferentiality toward the studio boss.

While the central theme here is an exploration of the African-American experience, it also does much more.

One of the interesting things here is how stories provide a defence.

Toledo, Cutler and Slow Drag tell stories that, to varying degrees, have an aura of folk tale or myth about them. Religion features, but not simply as comfort (it is the reason why Toledo’s wife left him, for instance) and often bound up with folktales.

When Cutler tells them a Faustian tale from his own home town, Toledo nods vociferously, noting that he’s heard the same thing, hundreds of times.

The stories reflect a shared experience and sense of community – beyond the purely historical, biographical and rational – and they appear central to the men’s sense of self and their ability to weather the indignities that are thrown at them.

Cutler, Toledo, Levee and Slow Drag
Even Toledo’s book-learned philosophy and history add to his defences.

But Levee, however, has no such stories and no such learning.

He joshes at the others until, challenged over his attitudes toward white people, he reveals how, as an eight-year-old child, he had seen his mother gang-raped by white men, and his father was subsequently hung and burned for daring to exact revenge.

There is no mythology here; nothing other than a raw, horrifying description of what a child witnessed; no shield against the weeping sore at the core of Levee’s being. He has no defence against his experiences.

Religion offers no comfort: when a row breaks out over his perceived blasphemy, we discover that his mother cried for divine help as she was raped, so he continues to challenge God to strike him down.

In all that he does, Levee pushes boundaries, as though deliberately daring those around him to respond negatively.

And when the levee eventually – and inevitably – breaks, it is with tragic, if unexpected, consequences.

This is a superb drama – a tragedy that operates on many levels – with dialogue that possesses a music of its own to counterpoint that blues that the characters are together to record.

And the National has – once again – given Wilson’s play the cast and production that it deserves.

Dominic Cooke’s direction never lets it sag. Ultz’s set is pared back and cleverly allows a sense of the liberating nature of the music (in a space that seems never to really end), the claustrophobic nature of the limits placed on black lives, and the social relationship between black and white men.

Title apart, Ma Rainey is not the central character here, but while she is on stage, she needs to exert a big, powerful influence – and Sharon D Clarke is marvelous in the role. Thank goodness too, that she gets one full song to show us what a fantastic voice she has.

Clint Dyer as Cutler, Lucian Msamati as Toledo, Giles Terera as Slow Drag and O-T Fagbenle as Levee all turn in top-notch performances – in terms both of their musicianship as well as acting.

You have until 18 May to catch this. It is very much worth the effort. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

The best food advice is simple – make it yourself

Authentic carbonara. Honest
In a surprise move today, Mars Food announced that it was going to add new labels to its foods to indicate what should only be eaten once a week and what could be eaten on a daily basis.

This is largely a response to the government’s recently-unveiled sugar tax, and products would be in the once-a-week category because they contained high levels of sugar salt or fat.

So it’s probably fairly safe to assume that “a Mars a day” will no longer be recommended as the ideal way to “help you work, rest and play”.

Setting aside for the sake of this post the fact that increasing evidence is helping to topple the myth that fat, per se, is bad for you, one is left wondering just how much sugar and salt is in some of the Mars products.

The two brands mentioned are Uncle Ben’s and Dolmio, and Mars Foods claims that “some foods were higher in salt, sugar or fat to maintain the “authentic” taste of products”. So let’s take a little look.

A 500g jar of Dolmio bolognese original pasta sauce apparently serves four people and provides one portion of your fruit and veg for the day. The usual price at Ocado is £1.79.

It contains: Tomatoes (76%), Tomato Paste (11%), Onions, Sugar, Cornflour, Lemon Juice, Salt, Sunflower Oil, Basil (0.3%), Garlic, Parsley, Herbs, Spices.

A jar of Dolmio’s bolognese low fat sauce (same weight and price) contains exactly the same ingredients. Presumably, since no percentages are given below 11%, the percentages on oil and sugar change a little as it claims to be a low fat version.

The same company’s lasagna “creamy pasta sauce” (470g jar for £1.80) has a rather more complex ingredient list: “Water, Sunflower Oil, Modified Maize Starch, Butter Fat (from Milk), Sugar, Fat Powder (Palm Fat, Lactose, Milk Protein), Natural Flavouring (contains Celery), Lactose, Broth Powder (Sugar, Flavourings, Yeast Extract, Dried Glucose Syrup, Salt, Coconut Fat, Sunflower Oil, Smoke Flavouring, Milk Protein), Salt, Acid (Lactic Acid), Stabiliser (Xanthan Gum), Milk Proteins, Antioxidant (Rosemary Extract)”.

Dolmio’s “lasagne meal kit original” (807g for £3.99) contains: “Tomato Sauce for Lasagne: Tomatoes (67%), Tomato Paste (19%), Lemon Juice, Onions, Cornflour, Sugar, Salt, Basil, Garlic, Herbs, Spices, Creamy Sauce for Lasagne: Water, Cream (20%) (from Milk), Modified Maize Starch, Fat Powder (Palm Fat, Lactose, Milk Protein), Salt, Garlic, Milk Proteins, Sugar, Onion Powder, Spices, 9 Lasagne Sheets: Durum Wheat Semolina”.

The company’s carbonara microwave sauce (150g for £1.40) “serves one”) contains: “Water, Cream (from Milk) (14%), Ham (5.9%) (Pork, Water, Brine Mix (Dextrose, Stabiliser: Triphosphate, Flavouring, Antioxidant: Sodium Ascorbate), Salt, Preservative: Sodium Nitrite), Modified Maize Starch, Cheddar Cheese (from Milk) (2.0%), Broth Powder (Sugar, Flavourings, Yeast Extract, Dried Glucose Syrup, Salt, Coconut Fat, Sunflower Oil, Smoke Flavouring, Milk Protein), Milk Proteins, Salt, Garlic (0.2%), Yeast Extract (contains Barley), Spices, Sugar”.

Uncle Ben’s chilli con carne medium sauce (450g for £1.79) contains: “Tomatoes (51%), Lemon Juice, Red Peppers (7%), Red Kidney Beans (7%), Onions, Tomato Paste (6%), Pinto Beans (5%), Sugar, Cornflour, Spices (of which Cumin, Jalapeño Powder), Salt, Parsley, Coriander, Onion Powder, Cocoa Powder, Herbs, Colour (Paprika Extract)”.

Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour original sauce (450g for £1.79) contains: “Water, Tomatoes (17%), Sugar, Onions, Pineapple (6%), Vinegar, Carrots (5%), Cornflour, Red Peppers (3%), Celery, Green Peppers (3%), Bamboo Shoots (2%), Tamarind Juice, Salt, Colour (Paprika Extract), Spices”.

In some cases there’s no much obviously wrong with the ingredient lists. Although who puts cornflower in a basic tomato sauce?

A basic tomato sauce requires finely-chopped onion, softened in some olive oil, with either skinned, fresh tomatoes or a tin of good-quality ones added, a squeeze of purée, then a pinch of salt and maybe a tablespoon of milk to cut the acidity, a little time and a few gentle stirs. Rocket science is is not.

Cornflower doesn’t come into it. Nor does sugar. And it’s a fair bet “sunflower oil” isn’t an “authentic” ingredient in Italy.

And once you get to the lasagna or carbonara – go on: hands up who looks at those ingredient lists and actually wants to eat that?

There’s one very simple way to avoid the crap and the inauthentic ingredients in these products – eat fresh food rather than processed.

The prices can make it appear that this is the affordable way to eat: that £1.79 for a jar of sauce might look very cheap, but as illustrated above, you don’t need much to make a decent tomato sauce. Oil, purée, seasoning and milk are store cupboard ingredients. Tomatoes and onions – well, you’ll be able to make more than £250g per person for your money and, by doing it that way, you’ll get two portions of veg.

To clarify further: you can get a 400g tin of high-quality, organic tomatoes from Ocado for 89p. A portion of veg is classed as 80g (or a handful), so that’s a portion per person for four. A couple of onions gives you a second portion – large brown onions at Ocado are 24p each. So that’s £1.37 for tomatoes and two onions. The other 42p will probably cover your store cupboard ingredients. And, as with the jar of sauce, you still need to add meat and pasta to make your Bolognese.

Of course, if you were really trying to be “authentic”, you’d need some celery and carrot too, plus red wine, garlic and bay leaves – and that’s before you get to the meats (pancetta and minced beef), the pasta – tagliatelle, NOT spaghetti – and Parmesan cheese to serve.

I shiver at the thought of that carbonara being “authentic”. But then again, part of the trick of Big Food is to work on the basis that most people won’t know that’s it’s wrong and won’t question such a statement, so they’ll get away with it.

By the way, carbonara is simple.

Dice some good pancetta (or top-quality, unsmoked streaky bacon) and cook gently in a little olive oil.

Cook your spaghetti. When it’s done, drain and mix in the bacon.

Stir grated Parmesan into a bowl with a beaten egg or two and then, with the pasta off the heat, gently fold the eggy mix over to coat the pasta – and serve.

Or if you want to be a little different, try the Perpignan way – the best I’ve ever had and which I replicated here.

Whatever you do, you do not want it scrambled – just a silky egg coating on the pasta.

So … no water, no cream, no modified maize starch, no cheddar cheese (what planet are these people on?), no “broth powder”, no sugar, no yeast extract, no glucose syrup, no coconut fat (WTF?), no sunflower oil, no smoke flavouring, no garlic …

And I would confidently assert that my version is a damned sight more “authentic” than anything that has a Dolmio label on it.

* All ingredients lists reproduced as they appear online.

Monday, 11 April 2016

The Eagle has landed to leave the establishment flustered

For those of us who are long enough in the tooth, memories still exist of the career of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards, Britain’s lone ski-jumping competitor in the 1988 Winter Olympics.

In most cases, that’ll not so much be for his actually managing to land some jumps – and set new GB records in the process – but more for his excited, flapping celebrations after jumping.

It might not be the main aim of Dexter Fletcher’s ‘dramedy’, Eddie the Eagle, to rectify that situation, but one of the things that the film does achieve is to remind us that Eddie (real name Michael) was not quite the sporting buffoon that most will recall.

In reality, this son of a plasterer and a factory worker was a good downhill skier, who had a number of medals and trophies to his name and had only narrowly missed selection for the 1984 Games.

The film makes sure we’re aware of this – and then takes us on a journey with Eddie as he converts to ski jumping and sets his sights on exploiting a loophole in British Olympic rules that means he only needs to compete in order to gain selection for the 1988 team.

That, however, is without taking into account the British Olympic Association’s stubborn commitment to avoiding having someone from such a background sullying the team.

As only a slight aside, it reminds me of people in Lancashire saying that the only reason that the likes of David Hughes and Jack Simmons never got called up to the England cricket team was because the sport’s rulers were worried ‘they’d eat their peas with a knife’.

How Eddie gets on in Calgary is familiar terrain, but the story that has been forgotten is just how he got himself there in the first place.

It took real guts – or a slate loose, as they say of goalkeepers: make up your own mind – to do what he did, with no funding and against a background of being considered a joke.

The films adds a character in Bronson Peary, a washed-up former US ski jumper who finally agrees to coach Eddie, but this is pretty much crucial to allowing the eponymous dreamer someone to build a relationship with and bounce off in the film, as well as providing a sub plot.

The pace is good and it offers the chance to revel in some wonderful Bavarian Alpine scenery – Garmisch-Partenkirchen is Garmisch-Partenkirchen, while Oberstdorf stands in for Calgary.

Taron Egerton does a fine job as Eddie – complete with all his little tics and quirks.

Hugh Jackman adds a bit of Hollywood glamour as Peary, with more coming from Christopher Walken as his former coach – and all of which stardust presumably helps broaden the film’s potential market (it’s already earned its money back, apparently).

Tim McInnery is superb as the odious British Olympic official who takes a particular dislike to Eddie, while Jim Broadbent lends some delightful warmth (if more were needed) as a British TV commentator at the Games.

Keith Allen and Jo Hartley are in fine form as Eddie’s parents, and Iris Berben adds further class as the bar owner who gives Eddie a job while he’s training in Garmisch.

It even has the advantage of a sort of ‘companion’ album (not the soundtrack, per se) of new songs from ’80s stars, including the likes of Midge Ure, Marc Almond and OMD’s Andy McCluskey – plus a duet from Egerton and Jackman.

All things considered, it is a heart-warming, life-affirming film – and that would be enough to make it worth an evening out.

But there’s a little something else here too – a bit of steel at the core of what could otherwise be viewed exclusively through a potentially sentimental prism.

In being on the side of the ‘little man’, it gives one big finger to the British sporting establishment; to the snobbery and arrogance not just of the officials, but also the sort of people who were acceptable competitors.

It raises the question of just what constitutes the Olympic spirit: an elite sportsperson, subsidised heavily so that they can train and compete all year round, or someone who has to sleep in a van just to be able to get on the snow?

And that’s without getting into the question, which the film touches on, of establishment hypocrisy over ‘amateurism’.

All in all, Eddie the Eagle is well worth a viewing.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to fairytale land we go

Been there!
Once upon a time, after wandering around a medieval town for several days, someone thought that it would be a good idea to binge on fairytale films.

Easter, of course, offered the perfect opportunity to indulge, so a list was prepared, cushions plumped and the cupboard checked for appropriate amounts of nettle tisane.

In the event, the list was overtaken at the start by the discovery that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) was on the telly.

Fascinated by the idea of updating fairy and folk tales – or to be more specific, allowing them a space in which to continue evolving – this seemed like a perfect place to begin.

In the event, that perfection was in illustrating how to get things wrong.

A US-German collaboration, written and directed by Norwegian Tommy Wirkola, it brought together creative talent from those countries, plus the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Iceland, Poland, New Zealand, Canada, Finland and more.

The idea of the children growing up and becoming witch hunters is fine – and full of potential. It might be over egging the pudding a bit to make the adult Hansel a diabetic as a result of the witch’s attempts to fatten him for the oven, but we can let that slide.

Tarantino. Without the laughs.
However, it’s all over the place in terms of any sense of time and place. Poor old Augsburg is a specifically-named location in the story – presumably because it’s nicely medieval – which is then screwed all over by a sort of semi-steampunk aesthetic that’s at least a century too late (and I like steampunk). 

The director apparently thought the weapons should look as though H&G had made them. They dont. Black leather dusters are seriously cool – but out of place here.

Fairy tales can be seriously dark and violent – I am entirely happy with both – but this uses violence gratuitously and in a way that makes you think it’s actually trying to be a Tarantino film. Without any of the wit.

There are other irritants.

The international nature of the cast is fine – but then why have Brit actor Gemma Arterton, who plays the adult Gretel, using a faux American accent?

And oh god the constant pronunciation of Hansel with a long, American ‘A’, grated almost to the point of a foot going through the telly.

I was close to shouting about ‘cultural appropriation!’ – and that’s something I consider to be a bonkers idea, since it assumes cultures come in locked geographic/ethnic pigeon holes that have never mixed and informed each other (until now) and never should.

So, just to be clear, I hated it.

Still, if you never experience dross occasionally, how can you judge quality?

Anyway, next up was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, a 1962 MGM affair, filmed in Rothenburg ob der Tauber itself (and with a glance at Neuschwanstein), so enabling a spot of ‘been there!’ film tourism.

Brothers Grimm – with Rothenburg and skewed perspective
It’s a pleasant enough film about the brothers – and interestingly, the four tales that were included were not the most famous ones – but it suffers from having been filmed in Cinerama, which turns the television screen into a sort of triptych, warping some of the perspective.

In contrast to Hansel and Gretel, the international cast is allowed to use whatever accents they’re used to: that the brothers (Lawrence Harvey and Karlheinz Böhm) speak in received English and with a German accent is not remotely problematic.

Not sensational, but worth seeing nonetheless.

Next up was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - a film I haven’t sat down to watch from A to Z for donkey’s years, and one that was, to be perfectly honest, rather shoehorned into this selection because its locations included, err, Neuschwanstein and Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

But actually, given the lack of any real character development of authot Ian Fleming, it works rather well as a fairy tale, since these are full, after all, of types, rather than 3D characters.

That’s not to say I don’t like it – in fact, a proper viewing restored my pleasure in it and reminded me that the dire matteing on the flying sequences should not be allowed to overshadow what is, by and large, a delightful film.

Gert Fröbe, Lionel Jefferies and mad scientists (inc Max Wall)
This is another international cast, but thankfully, Dick van Dyke was not, on this occasion, told to try any accent but his own. And it doesn’t matter that he has a soft American burr, while the rest of his family have pretty cut-glass accents.

Gert Fröbe is wonderful as Baron Bombast, James Robertson Justice is, well, James Robertson Justice (his real-life story would probably astonish you – look it up), Robert Helpmann is fabulously creepy as the Childcatcher, Lionel Jefferies is a super Grandpa and Benny Hill illustrates the point that comics can turn in serious performances.

And so what could possibly follow that?

Well, one of the things I’d been tempted into getting was 2014’s Maleficent - although I’d also been tempted to buy Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters on the grounds that it looked a really interesting take on the story, as recorded by the Grimms.

I put it off for a few days after the H&G experience, but eventually decided that it had to be watched.

And I’m very glad I did. It’s a fascinating take on Sleeping Beauty – so much so that there is a great deal of material around involving really very serious discussion of its themes.

Angelina Jolie – and a raven!
When the fairy Maleficent has her wings cut off, it can be viewed as a metaphor for rape – the writer and star, Angelina Jolie, certainly thought so, so it’s not just a viewer’s interpretation.

But the problems begin if you start reading the rest of it too literally from that point. I saw one writer complaining that, while the rape metaphor was clear, the subsequent story made it appear that the only way for a female rape victim to recover was by enacting revenge.

It’s fine to make the comparison, but this is also a fairy/folk tale – and indeed, such a reading of the film rather simplifies what actually does happen and how the characters develop.

And if you want to look for themes in it, then one of the others is the question of a nature-based world v an imperialistic/capitalistic one. This was certainly something that occurred to me when watching it (and it’s not a unique observation), but if you try to take it too far, then you’d do your head in.

It’s sumptuous to look at – the CGI works so well; conjuring worlds, but never detracting from the human.

Jolie is really in fine form – it’s a cracking performance. And she turns in a perfectly comfortable non-American accent (a tad softer than as that other very modern fairy tale character, Lara Croft).

Actually, accents are an interesting point here – we have a mixture between English and Scottish in an international cast. And no, it’s not one that comes down on simple good v bad lines. But directing actors to use specific accents here makes a kind of consistent sense, whereas the issue in H&G does not.

German vultures. No, seriously.
After that, I happened upon Channel 5 showing Disney’s iconic 1937 Snow White, which I haven’t seen in absolutely decades (it was one of the first films I ever saw, on a cinema re-release).

The plot is maintained pretty straightforwardly from the Grimms – one of the major changes is in giving the dwarves names and personalities; the character drawing is better than the late ’70s era Disney and the backgrounds are beautiful and delicate, while the witch is still, I’m sure, terrifying for young children.

The only thing I found myself muttering about was the presence of two vultures: there are no vultures in Germany – and it grates a tad. 

Mind, crows or ravens dont have yellow legs and beaks either – well, not in Europe, at any rate.

But it remains a standard of the fairy tale film genre and formed a perfect addition to the list I had set out to consider.

There are still two definite films to come from that original list but for the time being, that’s a good chunk of fairytale viewing under my belt.