DVD Review: Mamma Mia! (2008)

All hail Mamma Mia! As we tentatively await the sequel, I revisit a film I can’t ever imagine not loving

“I won’t be muscled out by an ejaculation”

With Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again just about to hit cinemas, I thought I’d revisit the original Mamma Mia! film to remind myself of its pleasures, Pierce Brosnan’s singing and all. Released in 2008, it managed that trick of defying a lukewarm critical reception to garnering huge popularity, something repeated by The Greatest Showman (it’s almost as if film critics can’t quite imagine audiences wanting to see a harmlessly fun musical…). 

And that’s what this is in the end, lots of fun and silly with it. Based on the iconic jukebox musical of the same name, it’s a whole load of ABBA songs strung together on a gossamer-light plot of romantic comedy gold. Where it succeeds, as with the musical, is in taking the job at hand most seriously, whilst never taking itself too seriously at all. Songs are in the right places, serving as motors in the narrative, and there’s an integrity to the whole thing, even when its daft as a brush.

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Review: Saint Joan, Donmar

“Must a Christ perish in every age to save those that have no imagination”

This
 is Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan but very much via Josie Rourke, as the medieval piety of the pre-show entertainment gives way to the uber-modernity of this interpretation with the opening flourish of a tablecloth being whipped away (more impressive than it sounds!). The gods being worshipped here are high finance and business as scenes are set in companies like Vaucouleur Commodities Brokerage and Dauphin Holdings, Evan Davies and Bloomberg news tickers give us regular updates and it is in the midst of all this that Gemma Arterton’s Joan arrives, the sole figure in period dress. 

Dealing with an amusing take on the egg crisis of the first scene, and using Skype to correctly identify Fisayo Akinade’s spoiled manchild heir of a Dauphin in the next, the modern take is clever but there’s a strange tension that never quite resolves. The text has been cut but not completely modernised, so talk of battles and forts sit alongside the rise and fall of stocks and shares and it doesn’t settle into an interpretation that didn’t leave me going ‘you what now’ until it starts to play the drama straight as in the English plot to bring about the downfall of the woman uniting the French against them. Continue reading “Review: Saint Joan, Donmar”

Review: The Invisible, Bush

“When I was growing up the poor were seen as unfortunates. Now they’re seen as manipulative. Grasping. Scroungers. It’s very sad”

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new drama The Invisible finds itself caught between two stools really – nominally a play about the effects of the decimating cuts to the Legal Aid system, it tries so hard not to be full of such dry legalese, instead focusing on the lives of the people who would use it – who desperately need it – that it almost goes too far in becoming something else entirely. Sponsored by The Law Society as it is with a supporting leaflet giving facts and figures, it’s thus a surprise that this is how it plays out.

At the heart of it all in Gail, an overworked solicitor working in a London law centre that is being threatened with closure due to Coalition cuts and from her spins the spider-web of stories. Like the Irishman who can’t pay his bills, or the Pakistani housewife being abused by her husband and mother-in-law. Gail tries to find some respite in online dating but even there she’s tracked down by a man looking for free legal advice – Lenkiewicz leaves us in no doubt as to just how many people have relied on this service and now find themselves in dire straits. Continue reading “Review: The Invisible, Bush”

Film Review: Mr Turner (2014)

“There’s no room for cynicism in the reviewing of art”

One might equally say there’s no room for cynicism in my reviewing of Mike Leigh’s work, such a fan of his oeuvre am I and the laidback, gruff charms of Mr Turner are no exception, confirming the iconic director in the full flush of his prime. Timothy Spall has already been deservedly rewarded for his wonderfully harrumphing performance of the last 10 years of the life of this most famous of painters and it is a compelling portrait, of a man established in his world as a bachelor, a master painter, and later a lover. Leigh’s episodic style fits perfectly into this biographical mode, dipping in and out of his life with the precision of one of Turner’s paintbrushes, colouring in a captivating collage of his later life.

Spall is excellent but around him, the women in his life provide some of the most hauntingly beautiful moments of the film. As Sarah Danby, the mistress and mother of the two daughters he would not recognise, Ruth Sheen is piercingly vivid, her barely contained fury resonating deeply. As Hannah Danby, her niece who was Turner’s long-suffering and long-serving housekeeper, Dorothy Atkinson is painfully brilliant as a woman subjugated and subdued by his wanton sexual advances, the psoriasis that afflicted her, and her deep love for the man. As “self-taught Scotswoman” and scientist Mary Somerville, Lesley Manville near steals the film in a simply beautiful self-contained vignette. Continue reading “Film Review: Mr Turner (2014)”

Review: Ballyturk, National Theatre

“It feels like we might be less than we were in a place we don’t know now”

Set in “no time, no place”, with characters merely named 1,2, and 3, and doing marvellous things with yellow jumpers, talc, 7 inch records and a pile of chocolate bourbons and pink wafers, you’ll understand that Ballyturk really is the type of show you need to see to truly understand. Enda Walsh directs his own play fresh from premiering it in Galway this summer and it is a breathless delight, although through the piercing humour, one catches glimpses of an absolute bleakness.

I could talk about Kate Prince’s energetic choreography which calls to mind a hyped-up Morecambe and Wise, or the endless surprises hidden in Jamie Vartan’s design which capitalises on the height and depth of the Lyttelton Theatre, the powerfully evocative compositions from Teho Teardo which combines 80s delights like ABC and Yazoo with moodier self-penned work and the extraordinary textures of Helen Atkinson’s sound design which brings the town of Ballyturk to life. Continue reading “Review: Ballyturk, National Theatre”

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest, Harold Pinter Theatre

“It wouldn’t be like this at the National”

Does the West End really need another straight production of Oscar Wilde’s old war horse The Importance of Being Earnest? Apparently not, as the new productions lined up each have their own spin – 2015 will see David Suchet take on the role of the redoubtable Lady Bracknell for Adrian Noble and 2014 sees Lucy Bailey impose her own conceit onto the show which allows her to gather an ensemble of more seasoned professionals than might normally be expected to take on this play.

That she does with the help of extra material written by Simon Brett which sees this starry cast take on the mantle of am-dram society The Bunbury Company of Players who in turn, are putting on their take on Wilde’s play as part of their summer season. So before Algernon and Jack have even taken to the stage, we’ve been inducted into the mini-dramas of the company themselves – Nigel Havers’ lothario now having an affair with a third woman in the group, Siân Phillips and Patrick Godfrey’s long-married couple fussing and bickering, Cherie Lunghi’s would-be diva complaining about her costume not fitting… The scene thus seems set for a melding of onstage and offstage drama which would bring something new to this old classic.  Continue reading “Review: The Importance of Being Earnest, Harold Pinter Theatre”

Review: Translations, Rose Kingston

“What the hell, it’s only a name. It’s the same isn’t it. Well, isn’t it?”

In something of an anniversary year for them, English Touring Theatre are having themselves quite the 21st birthday. Howard Brenton’s Eternal Love has been revived to great effect, Blanche McIntyre’s take on Noël Coward looks set to be an exciting highlight of the summer and their production of Brian Friel’s Translations, co-produced with the Rose Kingston and Sheffield Theatres, turned out to be an absolute cracker in a month that has already seen a lot of great theatre that is sure to figure heavily on all our year-end lists.

Set in 1833 in a Gaelic-speaking hedge school in Donegal, the lives of those in this quiet rural teaching establishment are set for massive upheaval with the arrival of a British Army platoon who have the job of redrawing territorial boundaries and translating all of the local Gaelic place names into English. Ageing school master Hugh’s two sons embody the conflict – the one having stayed on to become an apprentice at the school, the other becoming an interpreter in Dublin and only returning to turn his home from Baile Beag to Ballybeg.  Continue reading “Review: Translations, Rose Kingston”

DVD Review: Anton Chekhov’s The Duel

 
“You sap the foundations of civilisation”

Based on one of Chekhov’s novellas, The Duel is set in a seaside town in the Caucasus which could be somewhere like Sochi (if I’ve got my geography right). But the Winter Olympics are far from the subject here, unless they’re giving out medals for passive-aggressiveness, pretentious moping and hopelessly futile inaction. These of course are the hallmarks of Chekhovian drama and they’re all present and correct in this 2010 film by Dover Kosashvili which boasts an excellent Anglo-Irish cast including Andrew Scott, Tobias Menzies and Michelle Fairley. 

The plot focuses on Scott’s Laevsky, a Russian aristocrat whose sense of entitlement has abdicated any form of responsibility from his life. So he’s hugely in debt, he’s careless in his work at the civil service, and he’s engaged in an affair with a married woman, Nadya, whom he has coaxed away from Moscow. But he doesn’t love her and when the news comes that her husband has died, thereby freeing her to marry her lover, Laevsky withholds the information from her. All the while, he stands in pernicious moral judgement of all those around him, truly a product of the decaying society of this Mother Russia.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Anton Chekhov’s The Duel”

Review: Misterman, National Theatre

“Do you know what I’d do if I didn’t have my senses?”

There’s something to be said for a set design that can take your breath away at a theatre that one has visited many, many times, and Jamie Vartan has achieved it here with his cavernous transformation of the Lyttelton’s stage for Enda Walsh’s Misterman. It’s an effect to take in for yourselves as the safety curtain descends, so I won’t ‘spoil’ it, but it really is excellently done. And given that Walsh has written a one-man show, for friend and previous collaborator Cillian Murphy, it is a brave move but one that largely pays off as Murphy produces a performance that more than fills the space.

Thomas Magill is a disturbed young man from the small Irish town of Inishfree who is seeking sanctuary in an isolated warehouse for reasons unknown. Hyped up on vast amounts of Fanta and Jammie Dodgers that literally fall from the sky, he’s a would-be preacher who sees angels, a tortured soul who can’t deal with real life, a storyteller who takes us through the assorted characters of the local villagers whose morality, or lack thereof, he is determined to correct, as it emerges he’s telling us about the events of a particular single day. Continue reading “Review: Misterman, National Theatre”

DVD Review: Casanova

“Be the flame, not the moth”

Taking in Lasse Hallström’s 2005 film version of Casanova was quite an odd experience in the end, a rather overwhelming sadness at Heath Ledger’s passing struck me from the off, in a manner that hadn’t hit me before, even whilst watching his final performances in The Dark Knight and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus much closer to his untimely death in 2008. But I was resolved to watch as many films with Helen McCrory in as possible and so I continued with it.

She plays Casanova’s mother and so her appearance was limited to an opening sequence which set the scene for the film, her leaving him with his grandmother as a young boy and then disappearing from his life. [SPOILER ALERT] She then reappears in the finale in the nick of time to save Casanova’s bacon and is involved in the swashbuckling, sword-brandishing showdown as all those trying to catch up with the lusty lothario chase him through the streets of Venice. It’s a small role, and one that sadly allows little opportunity for McCrory to really make her mark, one would be hard-pressed to really remember her in this particular film, but sometimes that is just the way it goes. Continue reading “DVD Review: Casanova”