TV Review: Peaky Blinders Series 5

Series 5 of Peaky Blinders plots a particularly dark path for Tommy Shelby but leaves a little too much up in the air – spoilers abound

“It was a consequence of good intentions”

Getting Elliot Cowan into the new series of Peaky Blinders made my heart sing, getting him to play a closeted gay journalist was just gilding the lily, so naturally he didn’t make it past the end of the first episodes. Such are the ways that this show breaks your heart.

As the race through the years carries on apace, we’re now in the time of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the rise of fascism with the arrival of Oswald Mosley, and these two points are the main drivers of this fifth series. The recalibration of the family business to cover their losses, and Tommy’s burgeoning political career serving his increasingly varied ambition. Continue reading “TV Review: Peaky Blinders Series 5”

Web Series review: Jade Dragon

“You all look Chinese to me”

Just a quickie for this web series which I’ve been meaning to get around to for ages now. Written by Rebecca Boey (with Daniel York contributing one of the nineteen short episodes), Jade Dragon is a mockumentary series set in a Chinese takeaway which does a couple of crucial things.

One, it represents a much-needed, and still all-too-rare, opportunity for actors of East Asian heritage to work in a British media that feels stubbornly resistant to crossing this particular Rubicon of diversity. But it also offers up a non-judgemental, matter-of-fact presentation of what that British East Asian experience looks like in all its varied racism from overt violence to subtle othering. Continue reading “Web Series review: Jade Dragon”

Review: Snow in Midsummer, Swan

“Why do you silence me?”

A break from the old routine for the RSC here, with a play from the 13th century. Not only that, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Snow in Midsummer is an adaptation of Yuan dynasty drama The Injustice Done to Dou E by Guan Hanqing, marking a key milestone in the venerable institution’s avowed change of policy after the The Orphan of Zhao debacle in 2012. Transplanting the narrative into contemporary China, Cowhig and director Justin Audibert smash the ancient and the modern together to startling effect.

Dou Yi (Katie Leung) was a young widow executed for murder in the industrial town of New Harmony, proclaiming her innocence all the while and cursing the community in her final moments. The play starts properly three years later with her curse having come to pass, drought has devastated the area and local factories are on the brink of closure, Dou Yi’s spirit restlessly haunting them all, determinedly awaiting exoneration. A newly arrived businesswoman (Wendy Kweh) scents a takeover but as her young daughter’s dreams take a disturbing turn, she can’t help but get sucked into this world. Continue reading “Review: Snow in Midsummer, Swan”

Review: Shangri-La, Finborough

“Welcome to Authentic China”

What kind of holidaymaker are you? The type that looks for the first place to sell you a full English breakfast or the type that cringes when you hear another English accent in the place, usually over-emphasising at a sceptical waiter. If you tend towards the latter then you might have already heard of sustainable tourism, heck, even booked a trip wanting to fully embrace the authenticity of a place rather than its tourist-stuffed facade.
Amy Ng’s Shangri-La questions the very notion of whether its possible though – whether a form of pure cultural tourism can exist or if it is all a sham, something cooked up to relieve all-too-easily proffered wallets and purses. Until 2001, the Chinese Himalayan city of Shangri-La was known as Zhongdian, its renaming aimed to capitalise on the vogue for all things Tibetan, and Ng asks at what cost such decisions are made.
The prism for her often witty play is would-be photographer Bunny, a member of the Naxi minority ethnic group whose customs and ceremonies are buried deep in centuries-long tradition and secrecy. She’s making a living as a tour guide and when her local knowledge is called upon to give a private tour to a wealthy potential benefactor, she’s faced with the dilemma of what she’s prepared to sacrifice in the name of her individuality versus her people’s, something she has had to consider before.
Shangri-La thus plays out in two timeframes and this is something Charlotte Westenra’s production could make a little smoother. Julia Sandford’s Bunny negotiates the back-and-forth well though, caught between newly-introduced ideas of what her life could be versus the reality of what she’ll have to do gain it, and Rosie Thomson is excellent as two different women who can facilitate that change for her, gaining several laughs in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment with an iPhone.
There’s perhaps a little too much stuffed into the narrative for it to truly breathe. The complexities of Chinese authoritarian rule are only ever hinted at, the fascinating role of corruption glanced on briefly; fortunately, the focus on shady tourism sitting cheek by cheek with exploitation and poverty is fiercely examined, our own Western complicity left in no doubt whatsoever. There’s strong support from Andrew Koji’s Karma and Kevin Shen’s Nelson, two men with very different ideas on what’s acceptable and Ng pleasingly eschews giving us any easy answers.
Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Scott Rylander
Booking until 6th August

Review: Hidden, Royal Court

“Where are you from?
No, where you from?
Where are you really from?”

Live Lunch is an intermittent series at the Royal Court which acts as a showcase for writers both new and established to delve into under-explored areas of drama. In this instance, a group of playwrights were commissioned to create short plays with British East Asian experiences at the heart of their stories and the result is Hidden, six dramas “exploding myths, questioning types and discovering hidden narratives” of a section of the population who are chronically under-represented in British cultural life. Directed by Lucy Morrison, a company of eight actors gave two lunchtime readings of the programme.

There’s something rather awe-inspiring about the rehearsed reading format. With barely three hours of rehearsal for each piece and scripts in hand, there’s a rawness to the performance level which enhances it somewhat, the occasional stumble over words giving some of the texts a believably natural feel. And seeing the speed with which the actors traverse grand emotions as they flick from play to play is truly admirable, Lourdes Faberes particularly impressing in casting off a tear-soaked character to move swiftly to the studied enigma of the next. Continue reading “Review: Hidden, Royal Court”

Short Film Review: The Orphan of Zhao Redux

“What can ordinary people do?”

Based on The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang and mixing in texts from numerous other writers, Daniel York’s The Orphan of Zhao Redux is a most enchanting thing indeed. The play is perhaps sadly most notorious, in recent years at least, for being at the centre of a controversy when the RSC cast just three East Asian actors in minor roles (out of seventeen in total) in what has been known as the Chinese Hamlet, such is the piece’s significance. But York fully wrests ownership away from such unsavouriness to produce a gorgeous eight minute short that is a brilliant showcase for what might have been.

The film features fourteen leading lights of the British East Asian acting scene, the narrative scattered between them all and the text reshaped into something of a poem as just as much feeling as storytelling emerges through the individual lines. Ikin Yum’s stunning monochrome cinematography has been astutely edited by Andrew Koji and the beautifully evocative music underscores the whole affair with just the right level of intrigue and emotion. Not knowing the play didn’t matter a jot, the film stirs something elemental – especially in its haunting final minute – and had me thoroughly hooked from the start. Continue reading “Short Film Review: The Orphan of Zhao Redux”

Short Film Review #26

Rubbish

Rubbish sees Martin Freeman and James Lance reprise characters from an earlier short film Call Register, best mates Kevin and Julian. Once again tussling over a girl, in this case Anna Friel’s new neighbour Isobel, this time the scenario is around recycling in the flats where they live. Ed Roe’s film neatly punctures the hypocrisy that many of us carry about green issues, the lip service we pay and in this example, how that can rebound on us. Lance carries on his laidback swagger and Freeman is brilliant once again as the constantly over-compensating Kevin, aware he’s about to lose another girl to his handsome friend.


Elephant Palm Tree

Another film from Kara Miller and another two-hander that this time charts the quietly painful collapse of a marriage. No external factors are involved, it’s just a woman realising that the relationship to which she has devoted her life is giving her nothing back and asking for a divorce. But his (unspecified) high-flying job has kept her a very plush way of life and as they do battle over what she would walk away with, it becomes clear that whereas she’s ready to leave her man, her resolve may not be strong enough to divorce herself from this lifestyle. George Harris redeems himself a little for Frankenstein and Doña Croll is subtly affecting as the torn Martha, the difficulties of her life and decisions etched upon her face.


Project One

A rather fascinating project in which the medium  of short film is stretched to encompass the world of video games, all on the most meagre of budgets. It’s an experiment for sure, but worth a look.

I Am Bob

Donald Rice’s I am Bob is a rather amusing if slightly overlong film that plays like a homespun take on Being John Malkovich but with Bob Geldof at the heart of it. A mix-up with his chauffeur on a toilet break during a long ride up to a gig in Glasgow leaves him stranded in an isolated Lancashire pub without cash, cards or mobile. But far from being abandoned, it is hosting the 14th Long Marston Lookalike Convention and so he gets swept up in the baffling world of celebrity impersonations where David Bamber has already entered as Bob Geldof and the two have to do battle to be the most convincing Bob. It’s silly but fun and even if it stretches a little too languorously, it is always good-natured. 

Short Film Review #23

  My Dad the Communist from Tuyen Do on Vimeo.

It is tempting to see My Dad the Communist as something of a neat companion piece to Chimerica, featuring a Benedict Wong character responding to the events of Tiananmen Square in a completely different way but in truth, they are separate beasts and the only real thing linking them is the dearth of complex Asian-related stories on our screens and stages (although things do seem to be changing, slowly). This Lab Ky Mo film focuses on a typical British-Chinese family who work in a takeaway (where else?!) – Tony has lived all of his life in the UK yet his father has remained stubbornly, inscrutably Chinese in his behaviour, rarely uttering anything at all or showing any affection to his wife or son.
 
A car accident involving the older man motivates Tony to look back on his 20 year life and reflect on the rare moments that his dad did speak, realising the huge significance of those events, and the ones where he didn’t, imagining the parental figure he craved. Mo utilises the fantasy flashback several times to great effect, we really get a sense of being caught up in Tony’s reverie and it is really quite moving. Wong is customarily excellent as the taciturn father, Siu Hun Li is also strong as the son trying to do things differently, not least with his own new wife, an expressive performance from Tuyen Do.  

Continue reading “Short Film Review #23”

Review: The Fu Manchu Complex, Ovalhouse

“Well done my old flip-flop”

The Irish are a bunch of potato-munching ne’er-do-wells, the Scots are misery-laden domestic servants, the English are what-notting, closeted public schoolboys and the Chinese, well they need to get back to frying in the kitchen with their slanty eyes. From its opening vaudeville-style number, it is clear that The Fu Manchu Complex is determined to challenge notions of racial stereotypes and Daniel York’s play certainly does that with gleeful abandon, whether it manages to take the issue further and advance debate, understanding or appreciation is another matter.

Moongate Productions and director Justin Audibert use an all-Asian cast to tell this particular story – a Victorian murder mystery set in the East End of London – and they ‘white up’ to largely great effect. Paul Chan’s Sherlock-esque Nayland Smith is a charismatic lead, Andrew Koji is simply excellent as his lovelorn counterpart Dr Petrie and Moj Taylor’s grotesque housekeeper Mrs Hudson is vividly amusing as the two men set about investigating the encroaching ‘yellow peril’ and the rise of the shadowy figure of Fu Manchu who seems set on world domination. Continue reading “Review: The Fu Manchu Complex, Ovalhouse”

Review: #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Hampstead Theatre

“The art is in what happened to those people’s spirits”

The trick behind James Macdonald’s production of Howard Brenton’s new play #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is to suggest that the 2011 detention and interrogation of the artist by the Chinese authorities was as big and far-reaching a piece of conceptual art as any of his installations at the Tate Modern. Ashley Martin Davies’ design sets the drama in a gleaming white gallery with spectators lining up either side of a wooden crate, whose walls are opened up to portray the two different cells in which he was kept during the 81 days of his imprisonment. The observers, or netizens, remain onstage throughout as Ai is trapped inside the nightmarish absurdities of such an authoritarian regime.

Based on Barnaby Martin’s book Hanging Man which documented Ai’s ordeal using his own testimony, Brenton’s play eschews conventional dramatic structure – it is no secret that the artist is eventually released – for something more ruminative about the nature of incarceration. And in its focus on the detail of the situation, it is ultimately rather insightful into the labyrinthine complexities of living and working under an unbending state whose orthodoxy is struggling to deal with a dissident whose worldwide fame precludes any unexplained disappearance into the murky depths of the system. Continue reading “Review: #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Hampstead Theatre”