Category Archives: Reviews

At English National Opera: La Boheme

A painter, a poet, a scholar, a musician, a seamstress and a singer walk into a Parisian cafe … and start singing in English. Welcome to La Boheme, where the title remains French but the words have been translated from the Italian into English. The Bohemian life at English National Opera in fact but even here, in this very-easy-on-the-eye production from polymath Jonathan Miller, it still ends with the Marcello’s howl of despair over the body of the dead Mimi.

Things move slowly in the world of opera so only now, some 120 years on from the era, are there now open, mainstream, discussions about quite how many classics of the repertoire feature dead young women. We’ll wait to see what changes in future productions in terms of emphasis or drawing new ideas out of the text and music. For now, this 2009 example is a splendid example of a fully traditional interpretation: the garret is a garret, the cafe a cafe, it snows on the streets of a recognisable Paris, and the characters move and act as the directions and music have always told them to. Which makes it, unfairly, sound like a warhorse. Being Miller, it looks stunning – the set movers received a round of applause at one point – and gives space the characters to come to life. If it lacks the intimacy that Boheme always seems to me to demand, I’ll put that down to the fact that intimacy is hard within the gargantuan dimensions of the London Coliseum.

It’s a fact that those same dimensions can often cause voices to be lost. Sitting in the Upper Circle (get me), that was the case a bit this evening. Nothing too catastrophic but if I were the kind of demanding person who takes this seriously, I’d be cross. The highlights were all sung magnificently though. Welsh soprano, Natalya Romaniw as Mimi, in particular, had the most wonderful tone and range throughout. Nicholas Lester also deserved the applause for his Marcello, and Nadine Benjamin was a damn fine Musetta. All of this under the baton of Valentina Paleggi who was making her debut conducting the ENO and who, to this ear, did a more than decent job.

The ENO is, rightly, much maligned these days. Its slimmed down schedule and questionable artistic and commercial choices make it an easy and deserving target. But on nights like this you want to forget all that. Boheme a great opera and productions that do it justice are a special pleasure. This was one such. Hopefully, we’ll be hearing more about quality like this (played to a pretty full house) and less of the managerial nonsense in the future.

Film Review: High Flying Bird

‘I love God and all of his black people.’ This is the mantra that Spencer, a Bronx basketball coach who builds up players only to see them put into the system where their talents are controlled by people who can’t play basketball (so they invented ‘a game on top of a game’), insists is said whenever anybody brings up the institution of slavery with relation to the modern day NBA.  The fact that this is important should alert you to the fact that whilst High Flying Bird is very much a film about sport, it is resolutely not a sports film. And that’s no bad thing.

Funded by Netflix and shot by Steven Soderbergh on a smartphone for a budget of around $2m, High Flying Bird gets everything done inside 90 minutes. Given that there are talking heads with current players and the usual credits to run that probably means we’re looking at around 60-70 minutes of actual film. Or, about the same length of time as the average tedious speech took in the second series of Westworld. Soderbergh gets fun, he directs things at a pace, he uses the distortions and wide angles allowed by the smartphone beautifully. The script, from Tarell Alvin McCraney (writer of Moonlight), keeps things going forward whilst allowing us just enough of a glimpse into the characters’ worlds.

Race dominates. The players and the people on their side are all black. The owners and their shady dealers are white. Our way in to this world is agent Ray (Andre Holland) who has the number one draft pick, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) on his books. They would both be sitting pretty but for the fact that the players and owners are in dispute so the NBA is in lockout. No games are being played, no money being made. Ray, whose ultimate goal could be an end to the lockout, or just some money, or maybe a wholesale reinvention of the ownership of basketball, flies between his ex-assistant, the mother/agent of a big name player, his former mentor, the players’ union legal rep, and the owners’ group’s head honcho, fast-talking throughout and trying to bend the rules of the game on top of a game.

If it’s hard to describe what actually happens then, in part, it’s because so much hinges on understanding the disruption taking place. And that could last as long as a tweet impression or it could be as longlasting as a trade deal. For a 75 minutes of action film, there is a lot to think about.

The script is sharp, the observations brutal. We may quibble that Netflix themselves get a positive mention but then it is only a quibble. Soderbergh is on fire here and he draws top drawer performances from his cast. A special mention to Jeryl Prescott who takes the role of Emera Umber (the aformentioned mother/agent) and makes you want to see a whole series of her owning every scene she’s in.

So, we’re in definite slam dunk territory for Netflix. Another strong film to add to their growing library. One that I think we will be talking about for a long time to come.

On the Radio: Discovery – Night Parrot

 

I’ll admit that until listening to this programme I had never even heard of the night parrot, let alone given much thought about whether I cared about the ongoing survival of this “fat, dumpy, green, parrot” whose habitat is assumed to be the remotest spots of the Australian continent. “Assumed to be” because, being blunt, no one really has much of a clue about the bird and, from 1912 to 1979, no one actually saw one.

Dr Ann Jones from ABC Australia was our guide. With a microphone so sensitive it made the gurgle of her stomach sound like the oncoming fury of Revelations, she, with fellow ornithological hunters, lay in silence in the loneliness of the night listening for a call that may not even be there. Meanwhile, as we waited, she told the story of what we know about the night parrot.

‘We’ in Australia might not be that straightforward. ‘We’ as in the people who founded the South Australian Museum in 1856 is not quite the same ‘we’ who know the indigenous dreaming stories in which the night parrot features. 28 of the thirty or so night parrot specimens in museums were bagged by the same white gun-toting collector before that final sighting in 1912. So what ‘we’ know comes mainly from him. The traditional elders meanwhile have other stories to tell but even they aren’t sure where the night parrots may be.

Covering some 3,000km of Australia, parts of which are accessible only to those with permits and some of which are secret for conservation reasons, this was an engrossing journey. We had decapitated birds, dodgy twitchers and an ongoing challenge for how conservationists can conserve a species when they don’t know how many of the blighters there are or where they’re hiding.

Like I say, I didn’t even know what the night parrot was at the start of the programme. Now, via the power of a well produced radio documentary, it’s a story I think everyone should know.

On The Radio: Mark Steel’s In Town (Hastings)

“You’re at the end of the line, so no one is going to be checking up on what you’re doing …” so runs one of Mark Steel’s observations about Hastings (and St Leonards) in the opening episode of the ninth series of Mark Steel’s In Town. Having laughed along to dissections of all manner of places across the British Isles it was time for a gaze I’d sort of assumed to be fair, accurate and amusing to be turned on what is now my home town … so I was glad we got the FILTH acronym out of the way at the start so I could actually enjoy what I was hearing.

There’s a sort-of truth that you think columnists are wise until they write about something that you actually know about. I tossed aside a promising book about the shipping forecast because its description of the crossing to Shetland was deliberately downcast to score points with London readers whereas my experience of the ferry was joyous. I was slightly afraid that listening to long-time hero of mine Mark Steel talking about the place I am now proud to call home could be the same. Mark doesn’t know it but we go all the way back to a Radio Five (pre Five Live) programme he did about English cricket. I’d have been heartbroken if he’d got Hastings wrong.

Thankfully, he didn’t.

Yes, I’ve spoken with people who think the journey from Hastings to Bexhill is onerous. I’ve even been in several Old Town shops and been thoroughly confused as to what, exactly, their selling point was, even as I was handing over cash for a purchase. I’ve been amused that the Asda was forced into saying it was the St Leonards branch whereas the Tesco (in St Leonards) can call itself the Hastings branch. I was unaware of the conflict of the light on one side of the pier to the other but all too aware that any day of the week in any part of Hastings can produce a show and a march that needs to be accompanied by a drink or several. And, god, we all know about the drugs and the homelessmess but how nice not hear it as a stick to beat us but as a reflection of what it means to be a hard-to-reach, determined-to-be-itself town. There can’t be too many places where the parkrun startline is adjacent to where several homeless people sleep and the volunteers check on them before setting up.

All this came through. And the obsession with pirates and 1066. I speak as someone whose kids have had parties aplenty at the 1066 Gym and who love the 1066 Bakery and as someone who enjoys a good breakfast at the Route 1066 cafe. I don’t often make it to Pirate Day or Jack in the Green though. An autistic son who needs routine couldn’t cope – that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

So, impartially, another excellent episode of a fine Radio 4 series. And, as a thoroughly biased resident of Hastings for the past six years who never plans to leave, a fine celebration of the best damn town in the country.

TV Review: Transfers (Transferts)

Five years after falling into a coma, carpenter Florian Bassot wakes to find that, thanks to the wonders of science he has made a full recovery. Granted this recovery comes with the downside that his mind is now occupying an entirely new body, a body that previously held the lifeforce of Sylvain Bernard. And who is Sylvain Bernard? Oh, he’s just a cop tasked with preventing the illegal transfer of minds into new bodies and rounding up those who undertake such activities. Just as well that’s all that could go wrong. It’s not like an upturn in religious mania, a twisted avenger called Woyzeck trapped in a young girl’s body, and a dodgy pharma company could be about to make things worse. Or a love triangle. Or … a whole lot of other stuff.

Transfers (Transferts in French) crams a lot in. But unlike some sci-fi that mistakes melodrama and technology for plot and intrigue, it does so in a way that feels, within its world, almost completely believable. Bassot’s survival has been made possible by his devoted wife and the emotion of her betrayal as her husband drifts more towards the life of his body rather than his brain is one aspect of the story (amongst several) that simply wouldn’t feature in some other narratives. Similarly, the aforementioned Woyzeck (brilliantly played 14 year old Pili Groyne) has a depth that the character doesn’t need to drive the plot along but which makes it more compelling when they do.

The turbulent world of Florian/Sylvain is, with an abundance of digressions, the heart of the series and the role is well played by Arieh Worthalter. It was genuinely disturbing to see his face grafted onto other people during his moments of regression, and also the sheer ups, downs and confusion of trying to keep a personal mask in place whilst inside madness reigns was consistently well delivered.

I also like that the religious side wasn’t delivered in any sort of patronising way. The believers were sincere and their reasons for belief, even if they drifted into cult-like behaviour, were plausible. Obviously, because this is TV, the actual leader was dodgy but then there’s no point having high powered people in drama if they actually believe what they say. The faith amongst the regular characters is represented by Béatrice (Brune Renault) whose own emotions are often no less turbulent than those of the transfers.

The downside is that this is six episodes and done. I can’t see that it’s been renewed so even with the opening (no, not a spoiler) at the very end for a possible next series this could be all we’re getting. A shame if it is, I’d like to visit this world again and do so deeper exploration.

On the radio: Ropewalk House

Into a building that once housed the longest ropewalk in the world walk a small acting company looking to create a new immersive piece loosely inspired by the myth of the minotaur. But this building is not what it seems and whilst they may leave their own threads behind, they will keep losing their way as relationships, moods, stories and walls all shift.

Ropewalk House was recorded and part-improvised in a venue that writer Anita Sullivan refers to as having too many doors. And so doors, and their inherent lack of honesty about what is on the other side, featured a lot. As did some neat revelations about characters revealed through the sort of worlds they would imagine for themselves. The director Jarek (Nigel Barrett) noting that the man on a tapestry reflecting his own state of looking at a tapestry was somewhat fitter than he himself really was, for example. Meanwhile, some people would just like to get on with making a play whilst others are just keen to find the way out again … but are now finding that their individual threads are getting dangerously knotted.

There were some strong vocal performances. I particularly liked Hannah Ringham as the Production Manager, Sarah. And, proving that the Ringham family must be quite annoyingly talented, the music by Ben and Max Ringham added to the whole atmosphere of confusion and menace.

Radio drama comes in for a lot of criticism but none of that should ever be directed towards Drama on 3, in which consistently good strand this was another strong entry – and a fine example of the kind of drama that works best in audio. Those sounds struggling just beyond the realm of normal hearing will be circling the edges of my brain for a while.

Film Review: Leave No Trace

Hidden amongst the dense growth of a public park outside Portland, damaged veteran Will lives with his daughter Tom. Their dwelling is a canvas sheet under which they cook, play chess, read about seahorses and generally carry on as far away from civilisation as possible. Trips to the city for supplies are rare. One day, they are spotted and, from there, this straightforward, if bizarre, existence will not be the same.

Leave No Trace holds an approval rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, was Mark Kermode’s Film of the Year and is listed with ‘universal acclaim’ on Metacritic. I’m not exactly going against the consensus is saying that it’s an impressive and emotionally impactful film.

Debra Granik follows up her 2010 fim Winter’s Bone by again returning to people whose existence is tied together intimately with their environment. Then it was the wintry Ozarks, now the damp green of Oregon. In both, it’s a teenage girl who must find a path for her own life after something shocking happens to destabilise the world her father has created for her. And, as with Winter’s Bone, the direction and photography is so tender you almost believe you could reach out and touch the foliage.

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie are Will and Tom. Foster, now making something of a habit of being good in decent films, whereas this seems to be the first significant role for McKenzie. In both their individual scenes and their interaction, they are both note perfect. It’s hard to see how the relationship, in all its complexity, could be put across better. This is a film where dialogue is spare so every word counts, and motion and gesture are significant.

In other hands, the story of Leave No Trace would have been just another coming of age story, or a tale of people on the edge struggling against (or with) a system that can’t understand them. Of course it is all that. But with Granik’s direction, the steady and confident storytelling, and the wonderful central performances, it is also so much more.