Category Archives: Reviews

Podcast review: Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect

As I write this, I am listening to Anoushka Shankar. Twenty-five years ago, if I had wanted to do this, assuming I could even have followed a remotely similar path to hearing about and then wanting to listen to an artist, it would have, at the very least, have involved me paying a library for a loan CD. Likely I would have had to buy an album. But, tonight, the music is coming via YouTube. I haven’t paid for it. I don’t even know if the video is legal and royalties will be forthcoming. And, as Jon Ronson points out at one point, the fact that the public care so little when musicians end up being forced to give their material away for free means that nobody cares at all when the people who are affected by the streaming revolution are the folk who make their living in porn. The Butterfly Effect takes as its starting point the creation of PornHub by “a man called Fabian” and follows the ripples out through all manner of stories. It’s a thrilling listen.

Fabian Thylmann is now 39 and is very rich. Combining the thinking of YouTube and his knowledge of data geekery led him to create the website that is now viewed by tens of millions of people, of all ages and backgrounds, every day. His appearances bookend The Butterfly Effect. Ronson is such a good investigator he could have taken any starting point and made the stories compelling. The series he did about ‘who controls the internet’ for The Guardian a few years ago is a good case in point. I never did find out who controls the internet but I do remember seeing the guy who wrote Rebecca Black’s Friday create something equally baffling for Ronson.

And so it’s the tales of people that make you listen. Some are almost harmless. A few wry asides about the quirks of the buyers in the custom porn world for example. Some make you angry like the details of some of the people on the sex offenders register and the impact it has on their lives. Some just leave you wanting the world to be a better place for all who deserve it. And there are plenty of examples of that. Ronson’s interest is not in the normally newsworthy items of trafficking or anything forced. No one is judged. Everyone is consenting even if the context of that consent could be situations well outside their area of control, all caused by those ripples in the air started by Fabian.

There is humour and sadness. Even just describing the dates and times when registrations on Ashley Madison spiked reveals so much about a world that is often hidden. This may not be a podcast for everyone. Some people will not be able to get passed their own feelings that pornography even exists. But for those who can this is a rewarding experience but never a comfortable one.


Film Review: Daphne

Daphne is the feature debut of director Peter Mackie Burns. He was 49 when it was filmed. Quite an old man to be putting out a first film. Surprising it’s taken him so long when it’s such an assured creation, and a double surprise that it’s a laser sharp observation of the extended youth of our 31 year old anti-heroine as she prepares, or doesn’t, to move on to the next stage of her life.

It’s also a Scottish-funded film that is all London. A film which has moments of wincing sensitivity encased in long stretches of ennui and cynicism. Love is declared through a hangover cure.  And through it all bestrides Daphne, played with gusto by Emily Beecham. She bounces onto and off men, mainly annoys women, and self destructs whenever salvation approaches. It’s testament to the writing, direction and performance that you don’t doubt how many people want to be with Daphne despite the fact that she is not going to be in any way grateful.

The city looks great too, or, at least it looks accurate. Not the isolating streets of, say, Light Sleeper nor the fake communities of a Richard Curtis world. This is a city with some bars, some cafes, a bus or two, and a late night convenience store. The one most people end up living in, at least for a time.

Daphne passes the test of feeling real even if the central character takes it to extremes. It’s a film worth catching. Hopefully Peter Mackie Burns will get another film out before he’s 98 and Emily Beecham will get another role this good before long.

On the radio: Between the Ears, “The Clash”

The new Radio 3 controller has made a big thing about the need to incorporate slow radio into the schedule, to have times when the world pauses and you concentrate on little details that might pass you by. Alan Davey thinks this is innovative. I think Alan Davey hasn’t been listening to his own station. Radio 3 has been doing slow radio for ages. Between the Ears is a case in point.

The Clash was almost stereotypical Between the Ears. I mean that in a good way. The context was an upcoming match between Cushendall and Ballycran, two Ulster-based hurling teams. One player from each side voiced some of their thoughts. Around them the voices of players and relatives listing their injuries. The noises of the game. And, then, a pause. Scratching. The worlds in which the instruments of the game, the hurleys themselves, are created. One man used only ash, another had mostly replaced it. Both talked lovingly of their creations. Reverential, like a sculptor talking about how they pry an image from stone. And then the sounds of the game. One team won, I didn’t notice which. But the world had been created for us all. One in which these sports, codified in the late nineteenth century but coming from something deeper and older, are a part of the natural rhythm of their country and their community.  It was all rather profound.

And more of this kind of radio is not a bad thing. It’s certainly preferable to the revolving chattering programmes featuring mostly the same people that Radio 4 is filling its schedule with. We all need to be surprised and intrigued by things we weren’t expecting and which require us to pay attention to the little details.

At the Donmar: The Lady from the Sea

As the programme notes, when Ibsen was first performed husbands and wives would leave the theatre in silence, unable to speak to each other about what they had seen. So much of the repertoire we have from the nineteenth century is about being trapped but Ibsen, almost uniquely, saw clearly that even in the freest strata of society it was the women who were constrained the most.

We are in the Caribbean in the twentieth century rather than northern Europe in the nineteenth – technicolor not monochrome. There is a safety in updating so far but not putting it in the present day. When one of the characters makes a joke about whether Oxford is really like the stereotype about three-quarters of the audience laugh politely in recognition. But there is no follow-up. Privilege has been tickled but not challenged. I don’t think this is the fault of the script – Elinor Cook’s new version – which has some absolutely fizzing dialogue. The daughters in particular have lines that should punch hard but they feel pulled.  There’s nothing wrong with the direction and performances either. Helena Wilson and Ellie Bamber as Bolette and Hilde work well, and Finbar Lynch and Nikki Amuka-Bird as the ‘couple with a few issues’ Wangel and Ellida connect brilliantly. There’s a neat set of supporting roles as well: Jonny Holden has fun as the ever-failing artist for example. The climax, as Ellida is finally given permission to choose and makes her choice, is well realised and effecting.

But nobody is walking out into the night unable to look their theatre companion in the eye. In Covent Garden the bright lights of the very expensive bars shine. The trees have been torn down and put in a tree museum, or rather any vestige that there was once a community of workers who gave the area life has gone, they exist only in reclaimed signs affixed to walls, in the names of the streets or in the ironic distressed artifacts accumulated in shops or in flats. Nobody freed them, they remain trapped and out of sight. If he were around today, maybe it is to them that Ibsen would turn his gaze. I wonder then if anyone in the theatre would be brave enough to watch.


Hastings Philharmonic: Mozart, Britten, Elgar, Holst, Schubert

St Mary in the Castle, I may have played with the filters – Copyright (C) Jon Smalldon 2017

It feels like a bit of a Father Ted joke: “How quickly can you get through a Mass?” Here, in the deconsecrated St Mary in the Castle, we ended the night with Schubert’s Mass no. 2 in G Major. Young Franz was eighteen when he wrote it and he was evidently in a hurry. The writing took six days. Performing it sees the piece over and done inside around twenty minutes. Even then there are moments of alarming beauty, for example as the solo voices entwine in the Benedictus. But then, that was a recurring theme in this well put together programme: shorter, possibly overlooked works, which still have the power to hold the attention and to move.

We started sprightly. Mozart’s Serenade in D Major (Serenata Notturna) was performed without conductor (I have no idea if this is normal) and standing up (I am sure this is not). The strings of the Hastings Philharmonic well-led by Angela Jung. The conductor returned for Britten’s Cantata Misericordium. If you like Britten it will be a piece you like; if you’re ambivalent you may have been wanting the interval. It was well performed though.

The second half started with Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E Minor. The programme rather undersold it by saying we should enjoy it as it anticipates greater work to follow. It’s certainly an odd piece as it is essentially a lovely and moving middle section bookended by two quicker (and much shorter) movements that repeat themes but don’t really go anywhere. I admired its eccentricity.  Next up we had Two Psalms via Holst. The choir combined beautifully with tenor Kieran White and soprano Helen May. And the evening ended with the aforementioned Mass which also featured the baritone of Jolyon Loy.

The turnout was a bit disappointing, I’d hoped to see the space a little fuller. I hope there’s enough going through the till to keep the professionals of the Hastings Philharmonic going. Maybe the audience was kept away because this was, after all, bonfire night. There were fireworks in the distance as I made my way to the seafront and a different set booming as I left. There weren’t many fireworks inside St Mary in the Castle tonight but sometime’s reflection and moments of beauty are what’s required and we got a fair bit of that instead.

On the radio: All of the Violence in the World

Ayesha Antoine – picture via the BBC

Sunday evening drama on the TV means something familiar, possibly in period costume, to ease you through the end of the weekend and into the working week. On Radio 3 they do things differently. Drama on 3, kicking off at 9pm, is often the most challenging piece of audio drama you’ll find that week. And so it was with All of the Violence in the World, in which playwright Jonathan Holloway interwove three groups of three children fighting for three different causes at three different points in history.

Those three periods were the Children’s Crusade of 1096, the Hitler Youth before and during World War II, and disaffected Muslims drifting to Syria from South London in 2007. In each, two boys and a girl. In each, direction from a well-spoken older generation. In each, the despair as grim reality collided with ideology and defeat. We had the cutting open of a murdered Jew to give her baby a chance of life and the execution of a Mayor who wanted to save his town from destruction.  And a little rape, torture, murder and every other war-time depravity. Ninety minutes of cosy teatime fun this was not.

But it was good. Ayesha Antoine, Jerome Holder and Daniel Ezra as the teenage soldiers repeating their fate across history did well to differentiate their characters and bring out their distinct personalities. Nicholas Woodeson as The Teacher was eerily compelling as the seducer of young minds: wars are fought by the young for the visions of the elderly. Jonathan Holloway’s script contained many sharp moments which were well-realised by a crisp sound scape and clear direction.

There was no happy ending. Just our children marching on. Unfortunately, it is the people who find their power through conflict who are most able to learn the lessons of history.

At the Jerwood: Paula Rego, The Boy Who Loved The Sea And Other Stories

Paula Rego’s take on “Baa Baa Black Sheep”

Sometimes it’s a pleasure to have your ignorances exposed. I’d not heard of Paula Rego before. She’s 82 and an actual legend so the failing and blind spot is mine. Thanks to this more-than-decent survey at the Jerwood, the first major exhibition by Rego in the UK for a decade and one which was part crowd-funded, I am now able to cross one more thing off the list of charges that make me a philistine.

Rego was born in Portugal in 1935 but has been associated with London, where she is now permanently resident, since the 1950s. Her art, usually a mixture of paint and printmaking techniques, features the sea heavily (hence its presence in Hastings now) and draws out the sinister and overlooked in folk tales and characters from novels, alongside more personal themes such as physical and mental health.

There are several ‘sets’ within the exhibition. Each is distinct and unified in style but obviously from the same creative mind. And what a mind. The stark monochrome sequence, including three blind mice dancing in ignorance of the blade, is brutal but beautifully rendered; the recurring Mr Rochester towers over all with his masculine fury; the boy who loved the sea is blue like the sea and the sky (because, as the text blandly states, he is dead).  What is notable is the vibrancy and clarity of the colours and/or tones and the determination to make each painting work hard for its meaning by filling the canvas with narrative and ideas.

The series of recent self portraits following a fall are different. With her hand less steady, Rego deliberately chose to create a carnival of twisted grotesques against stark, white backgrounds. There is colour and detail elsewhere. Here there is a very personal take on gore and little else. It is hard to look away. This sequence pairs with the intimacy of the Depression series which, again, lose the complexity seen elsewhere to draw out the nightmarish quality of that disease.  I found them quite overwhelming.

There are times when you might wince a little at the entry fee at the Jerwood (even if, as a place without Arts Council subsidy it is necessary). Now is not one of the times. Get to the Stade now and hand over your hard-earned money and see this exhibition.