EIFF: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

“Bright moments.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

“STATURE, JOHN! STATURE!”

Pardon me. While this We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a slight, rather limp feature that leaves little impact, the way Crispin Glover delivers this line during one of this film’s emotional outbursts may be the most quotable moment of the festival for me. So that is definitely a plus.

Directed by Stacie Passon, from a script by Mark Kruger based off Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel, this film earnestly attempts to capture the eerie Gothic aesthetics of big-empty-house-filled-with-tragic-memories stories, but comes up with not much exciting or original to do with it. Sisters Constance and Merricat Blackwood (Alexandra Daddario and Taissa Farmiga), and their uncle Julian (Glover) live in the ominous Blackwood manor, near a small town filled with citizens who hate their guts. The film never really clarifies why the animosity has arisen, except general resentment of their wealth and oddness. To be fair, as Daddario, Farmiga and Glover play them, the Blackwoods are certainly wealthy and undoubtedly odd.

Constance is rarely found without an unnaturally wide smile and a disingenuously kind word for everything, though past tragedy seems to have instilled in her a crippling fear of leaving the manor (a fear which is conspicuously unexplored beyond a passing reference). Daddario plays Constance with a certain recognizable glint of 1950s maddened-housewife mania, which suggests some truly sinister effects of their upbringing, but is also cloyingly one-note. Farmiga is much more irritating as Merricat, who glowers and stomps around leaving bizarre mystical offerings and trinkets around, believing herself a kind of sorceress able to protect the house and her sister with hexes and magic. Julian, his mind gone after the same tragedy that took the sisters’ parents’ lives, is mostly portrayed as an annoyance, though Glover does well to conjure a level of pathos to his sad situation. 

The result of these characterizations is mainly a simple dispassion for whatever happens next. Each character is thinly developed, quirky often to the point of being aggravating, and generally just an uninteresting figure. The most interesting character, then, becomes Sebastian Stan’s intrusive Cousin Charles, who appears suddenly and suspiciously in their lives to “help,” and presumably collect a share of their fortune. Passon’s direction almost immediately clarifies that he is bad! and not to be trusted!, which is initially fun, but continues with so little nuance that one can essentially predict every development between the family members from then on. Charles manipulates the soft Constance, antagonizes the more suspicious Merricat, and disrespects the puzzled Julian, particularly when Julian mistakes Charles for his brother, the girls’ father, and yells at him about “STATURE!” This moment really makes the film.

Stan is impressive, and the standout performer, though that may be unfair given how thinly the other characters are written. Charles does not ever quite have a clear goal or intention, but the predatory way he installs himself in the family and imitates the archetypal patriarch are fun to watch, and he is certainly made fun to hate. If only Passon had made more in this film as fun to watch, it might feel less hollow. But as it stands, We Have Always Lived in the Castle cannot maintain its occasionally bright moments of weirdness and character conflict, instead listing into drab, predictable tales of male aggression, female weakness, and societal disquietude. There are richer, scarier, more engaging tales of a similar aesthetic to be found elsewhere. 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “Bodies at Rest”

“A bombastically good time”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

More like Bodies under extreme physical exertion. This film has everything. Guns, fistfights, Christmas, air ducts, maniacal villains, walkie talkies, white tank tops, glass smashing, metal crunching, bones squelching, bodies flinging, explosions exploding — well, I should say it has everything from a description of Die Hard. 

This is not entirely a surprise, considering it’s helmed by Renny Harlin, the director of the impeccably named Die Hard 2: Die Harder. And its references do not stop with John McTiernan’s genre redefining classic; everyone from John Woo (with a shot-perfect recreation of Hard Boiled) to Tarantino to Jackie Chan gets their action-packed work borrowed from here and there. Though to its credit, Bodies at Rest has a commendably original setup.

The film takes place on one very intense Christmas Eve, when a record-breaking rainstorm forces the citizens of Hong Kong to stay indoors overnight. At the city hospital, a stoic and assured doctor (Nick Cheung) and cheerful young nurse (Zi Yang) stay after hours, swapping stories about their aspirations and day-to-day work in the hospital morgue. Suddenly, they find they must defend themselves and their workplace when a mysterious trio of brutes breaks in to retrieve an incriminating bullet from one of the morgue’s recently received stiffs. From there, Harlin directs the action with clear talent, with high-flying camerawork and eye-popping choreography coming at the audience from every angle. The camera flips, turns, swerves, and lurches as Cheung and Yang fight their way through the thugs’ various attacks. These initially mild-mannered workers prove remarkably adept at flinging fists and bodies around and against things, even as the criminal ringleader (Richie Jen) comes up with dastardly ways of trying to bend the doctors to his will. Some moments of breakneck intensity might make one wonder where these medical professionals learned all this fight choreography, but realism is quite clearly not Harlin’s intention. 

One wonders, then, after an hour of body-flinging, metal crunching and line-screaming, what Harlin’s intention actually is. The film has action and bombastic combat to spare, but it all just happens without much reason or tension. The doctors fight, they get away, they get caught, they fight again, they come up with plans, they get away, they get caught — it goes on in this manner for essentially the whole time. Some amusing uses of the hospital facilities are highlights of this otherwise fairly monotonous story — especially when the doctors use various chemical reactions to fight off the baddies with the power of science. Additionally, one sequence in particular, involving some of the most insane action editing I’ve seen, had the audience not only gasping but laughing out loud and on the edge of their seat at once. The script, written by David Lesser, shows a real knack for action storytelling in this moment and precious few others — unfortunately this spark of inventiveness rarely returns to the screen. 

This film simply packs in too much cheesy extravagance and not enough variety or intrigue. While it is a bombastically good time if you are into smash-em-ups, Bodies at Rest achieves little outside of a few good moments, and for your time, you are likely better off seeking out a different Hong Kong action flick that handles its style and substance better. Maybe feast your eyes on an all-time great of the genre like Hard Boiled, if you haven’t already. 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Good Dog (Traverse: 14-16 Feb.’19)

Image: tiata fahodzi compnay

“Noble intentions.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Stories of life, growth and perseverance in dour and desperate neighbourhoods are undoubtedly worth telling. The nooks and crannies of experiences otherwise overlooked by mainstream culture are often rich with opportunities for pathos, expression, and diversity, and as citizens we all ought to champion stories of the oppressed and disregarded. Arinzé Kene’s Good Dog (2017) is certainly one of these stories. It is not, unfortunately, a compelling or engaging piece of theatre, and for all its noble intentions, the flaws in design and execution are too great to overlook. 

The play is a one-hander, with a runtime of two and a half hours. In the Traverse Theatre’s staging, directed by Natalie Ibu, actor Kwaku Mills portrays Boy, the sole character onstage, who narrates this sprawling, multi-year tale as he grows from a young, bullied child to an older, disillusioned and distraught teen. The story focuses on a dreary street in Tottenham, north London, on which despondent drunks and anxious shop owners face off against violent youths and, from time to time, the long arm of the law. Boy observes these disparate characters with intrigued attention and with the help of various voiceovers his narration layers the street with detail. The twists and turns of Kene’s script cover myriad subjects of life in this place and in his time, from South Asian immigrants trying to live up to their forebears’ expectations, to local infidelity, to racially problematic beauty standards, to concepts of nonviolence and protest, to undiagnosed dyslexia in impoverished youths, to 90s-centric toys and technology. The visuals are mostly dark, harsh shadows, enveloping Amelia Jane Hankin’s stark set: a blunt, grey cube in the center of the stage that resembles nothing so much as a kid’s (tower) block , but evokes the air of unpleasant, grungy decay that seems to envelop the whole place, at least in Boy’s eyes.

As Kene writes him, and Mills plays him, Boy is the center of all the world’s woes. He is mercilessly bullied in school. His mother both cannot afford to and seems uninterested in buying him the amenities he desperately craves. He seems to have no friends, no confidence, and in everyone’s eyes but his own, not much of a future. When the audience first meets Boy, he is an outspokenly optimistic kid, who believes that if he does good, ‘good’ will circle back to him later in life, and so he willingly undergoes derision and torment at the hands of local bullies, and others, because the more he forgives them, the better his life must eventually become. It does not take long, however, for the cruelties of life in this area to drag him so far into crippling misery and senseless pain that the fable of ‘good things coming to those who wait’ starts to ring completely hollow for Boy, and he realizes that letting the onslaught of life beat him down is never going to liberate him. It was only going to make things worse.

Midway through Good Dog, the audience may feel the same. Not only because the central metaphor of Kene’s script (a pair of dogs Boy observes clashing with each other over many years) is so obvious that its eventual payoff could have come 90 minutes earlier without any meaning lost, but mainly since this production is long, exhausting, and clunky. The sound design, by Helen Skiera, is cacophonous, grating, and more inane than affecting. The choreography of Boy’s solo performance, whose movement was directed by Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster, is disorienting (see Boy inexplicably leaping on and off the grey block while he walks around, which happens a lot). Mills’ accent, assisted by dialect coach Joel Trill, was noticeably strained and inconsistent, so that Boy sounded like he was warming-up in rehearsal, well way from the street and . Technical elements smack of artifice and there’s that uncanny smugness that much of contemporary British theatre seems to be slipping into.

It is remarkable that Mills was able to learn two and a half hours worth of lines and movement and perform them onstage on tour. One wishes, however, that the lines and movements were not as derivative and staid as these. The character seemed a strange fit for Mills’ talents and overall his performance was wasted. 

This is understandable, however, given Kene’s script, as that is the weakest element of the production. The tone and content of Good Dog are suffocatingly bleak, and lack both a sense of humour and an ounce of self-awareness. The phraseology Kene employs is labyrinthine and more irritating than anything else. A few thin jokes about naughties nostalgia got a snicker here and there, but the one genuinely hilarious and surprising moment came when a supporting character dies in such an improbable and horrifying manner that the show’s claims to authority or seriousness were dashed in full there and then. The death in itself is, of course, not intentionally funny, but brutally tragic, and yet as this piece is written, each scene seems hellbent on topping the last one with even more misery and suffering, and the showy depravity of this character’s final moments can do nothing but amuse.

Good Dog is coated in emotional squalor – a poor and baffling choice. Most of Kene’s narrative seems more interested in simply shocking an audience into stupefied submission with ‘Look how sad this can get’ antics than telling a story in a creative or engaging manner. It is telling, and rather depressing, that this script has been picked up and praised by critics. From my point of view – and, ok, I don’t know London’s meaner streets – it sounded very contrived and ends up with the most incompetent portrayal of a marginalized voice that I have seen. 

Which is a shame, because again, stories such as these frequently offer important perspectives, which others should listen to. But Good Dog ends up taking all the worst elements of ‘important’ dramas and shamelessly repeating their most self-serious moral mantras so that they come off as painfully obvious by the time Boy utters them. Of course, much of the subject matter the show deals with is hugely important but nearly all of it has been handled more intelligently and dynamically in narratives like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), Strictly Arts Theatre’s outstanding Freeman (2018), and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). This last connection is especially relevant, as Kene chooses to include a riot sequence at the end of Good Dog so reminiscent of Lee’s Do the Right Thing climax that it seriously threatens to overstep the bounds of homage. 

Good Dog ends with an affirmation of accepting conflict and learning how best to fight back against the ‘bigger dogs’ of this world, even if it means being ‘put down’ in the process. The metaphor is overly wordy, unclear, and could do with some further consideration of just what it is trying to say. In that manner, it suits the larger production perfectly.

 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller 

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Touching the Void (The Lyceum: 25 Jan – 16 Feb. ’19)

l to r. Patrick MacNamee, Josh Williams, Fiona Hampton, & Edward Hayter

A hell of a ride

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars Nae Bad 

 

I’m what you’d call a “small-time climber”. I used to get drunk on Arthur’s Seat a lot, and am occasionally known to change lightbulbs and hang things using a cheeky ladder or two. But despite my solid credentials, I haven’t got the first inkling as to why someone might upgrade from ‘Ladder’ to ‘Pile of rocks .. and death’, and although Touching the Void certainly gave me an insight into those who do, I can’t say I left as a Gore-Tex convert.

Touching the Void, from director Tom Morris and based on the book by Joe Simpson, follows climbers Joe (Josh Williams)  and Simon (Edward Hayter), who face true calamity on their descent of the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes. The plot is fairly complex from a “Who’s doing what, when?” perspective, but the most basic synopsis without spoilers is:  things don’t go amazingly well. What follows is an excruciating story of sweat and almost supernatural human will – and even if the details tell you how it ends, it’s still a hell of a ride.

What works in this show is incredibly clear from the get-go: it’s a spectacle. The Carroll-esque flock of chairs floating above a neon jukebox, the unnerving dark abyss created only by light and sheets, the climbable, rotating metal strut cliff face. As just something to watch, this show is an utter delight. Actors, obviously trained to the point of safety, almost seem a dynamic part of the scenery as they scrambled, hung and climbed over places I’d never even seen lit on a Lyceum stage before. Forget the plot – the performances told an unspoken story of sweat and suffering before the play even began.

The theme of spectacle returns once again if we concentrate on the acting. Each of the four characters had at least one moment where it was abundantly clear why they had been chosen for the role. Fiona Hampton (as Sarah, Joe’s sister)  even got some tears from my theatre partner that night, using nothing but an empty stage and a letter. My personal MVP goes to Josh Williams, however, if only for the sheer grit it must’ve taken to drag himself around the stage and still emote realistically for a solid forty minutes. All good news for the theatre-going public.

However, as this show quite emphatically demonstrates, for every climb there is a fall. And unfortunately, there were a few trenches that this production did not seem to have the will to climb out of.

I wanted to like this show. I liked the ideas at play, I loved the staging – but I have never seen a show so willing to undercut its own potential excellence for seemingly no reason. The source material is jaw dropping and the actors are clearly talented, and the play is full of moments which if left to stand on their own, within their moment, are powerful. But for some reason it seems like it doesn’t have enough confidence that they will stand, and so things are extended, or repeated or just simply cluttered up and sabotaged by so many different elements that the simplicity and effectiveness of the particular is lost. This happens consistently: one of the most frustrating examples includes a tense and exciting scene of Joe and Simon battling a storm on a cliff face, which was then overlaid with Patrick McNamee’s soothing, folksy twang, quipping merrily around like he’d spent his time offstage pounding hash and Ordnance Maps.

Or, even worse, a legitimately good scene just simply goes on too long. A painful scene of a man dragging his broken body across a rock ridge is harrowing for ten minutes of sobbing and inching, but after twenty with little more than a weird song (we will get to those), it feels a lot more like filler than chiller.

But most frustrating of all were the dances and choral spoken word. In amongst what is clearly a physically capable and dedicated cast with choreographers who can achieve so much in other areas, it baffles me why numbers like an unexpected spoken word rap about Ice Axe technique could not only mismatch tonally but also feel as if they’d barely been choreographed at all. The use of repetition and spoken word material has the potential to be well done, but at best it breaks the play’s natural flow, and at worst is actually a little boring after the third chorus of “Because it’s [F -ing] there”.

More than anything else, this was a disappointing show. All the more so because those glittering moments of excellence weren’t just in my privileged reviewer dreams but are there on stage – for just a second. It feels as if this production could have been much more than it was, and didn’t trust the talent it had and the story it adapted. Looking at other reviews it seems I’m quite lonely here on my Portaledge. Maybe I just don’t get it, but knowing that less is definitely more for Alpine Climbers, I found myself longing for it to be the same of theatre adaptations as well.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 25 January)

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Valhalla (Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh College of Art: 11 – 22 Dec.’18)

“I look forward to more of TwelveTwelve Theatre’s bold programming and productions.”

Editorial Rating:  2 Stars

Do politicians reach Valhalla, that great hall of slain warriors? No, they don’t, and Ronan Jennings’ valiant play shows why. You need to be dead, mighty, and Norse. Jennings’ principal candidate has led a bloody revolution, for sure, but he has a French name and is stuck behind a desk. Still, Joy Division’s Candidate plays on from 1979 and provides the sombre mood music.

Twelve Twelve Theatre’s production is in the Wee Red Bar in the College of Art. It is a handy space but with no stage as such and with only a minimal set it is unfortunately not equipped to suggest the final overthrow of the Imperials by a people’s army.

Four characters find their way through unseen rubble to the seat of power, the old imperial palace that has its vodka store miraculously intact. Guillaume (resolute and deluded by Andrew Johns Cameron) may have won the war but he is plainly rubbish at making peace. ‘His’ city, Belogard, is without water and riots are around every corner. His bright idea to arm the citizenry is not working out as he hoped.

Three women would oppose this megalomaniac, each one – in my book – worthy of a place in Folkvangr, the other Valhalla, presided over by Freyja. Eloise (Hana Mackenzie) is trapped between loyalty to the Leader and a winning humanity; Ingrid (Debi Pirie) has the best lines when she rounds on Guillaume, the born-again fascist; and Zaitsev (Christina Kostopoulou), a cool emissary from a neighbouring state who is there to seize a favourable trade deal from a country in ruins. Surely an available Brexit analogy here?

Forget lofty mythology and Imperial Stormtroopers; the whole idea is too big, too self-important. It helps if you scale Valhalla down, away from chemical weapons and child soldiers, down to comic strip frames. There’s a nasty Colonel Boris in Herge’s child-satirical King Ottokar’s Sceptre and that’s where I see this piece, in 1938, where a plot to overthrow a good ruler is discovered and thwarted (by Tintin and his wee dog). Guillaume, like Hitler, has penned his own Memoirs of the Common Man.

The best is in determined acting, the brutality of a couple of confrontations, and Guillaume’s laughable ignorance of what-to-do-next. Economics is not a minefield that he’s happy in. The worst is in the reduction of history to pop pistols and bombast like ‘tackling a wolf in single combat is the way to high office’, even though Odin would applaud. Regardless, I look forward to more of TwelveTwelve Theatre’s bold programming and productions.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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Solarplexus: An Alternative Energy Play (ZOO Charteris: 3-27 Aug: 19:35: 60 mins)

“Affectingly haunting musings.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Oddly, there are more shows than ever this year where I personally have felt a performer is too good for the show they are starring in. This is particularly true of Melissa Mahoney and Solarplexus: An Alternative Energy Play. The show, written by Michael Galligan, deals with a near-future where solar fires are plaguing Earth and a mega-corporation known as Syzygy has proffered a ‘solution’ to the problem by creating a giant space station that will bathe the world in constant daylight. A genius inventor/farmer/tin-foil-hat wearer (played by Gilligan), however, has made an energy-producing bike named Mercury Daniels, that can somehow stop all of this and save the world. His daughter, Ellen (Mahoney), contacts him and tries to help stop the plot, while his son Frank (Sam Metzger) has started working for the corporation and its evil boss (Justin Picado), leading to a frenetic mission and intergalactic madness.

There are standout elements of this show that really shine. Mahoney, first and foremost, delivers a strong performance and an excellent onstage presence; she holds the show together in more ways than one. Another stellar presence in the production is Justin Picado, multi-roling as the maddened Syzygy CEO, a messenger from the Sun, and a few other surreal presences; Picado has very clever comic timing and physicality, and similarly to Mahoney, could and should really knock it out of the park if given more compelling lines to perform. Also onstage but in the corner is composer Robert Fernandez, who live-scores the show with remarkably fun musical motifs and sounds. Credit to director Jaye Hunt for placing him in view of the audience, for most of the entertainment in the show can be derived from watching him work.

The rest of the production is unfortunately a let-down. The plot dissolves into flat, unconvincing absurdity, which could be entertainingly surreal if it was not constantly interrupted by uninteresting arguments and character moments. The constant bickering between Ellen and Frank, as siblings who took very different paths in life, possibly due to their father’s treatment, is so overplayed it becomes simply irritating to listen to. The same jabs and judgements are repeated over and over and over, never improving in form or content; the interjections from their father, also played by Galligan, do not particularly help, possibly because his characterisation seems straight out of the notoriously neglectful Rick from Justin Roiland’s Rick And Morty. Some lines and concepts are fascinating, yet most are delivered during the intermittent cacophonies of the characters simply talking over each other, so they have little impact. The jokes, of which there are surprisingly few, are also quite unmemorable; thankfully, Mahoney and Picado are quite good at stepping in to save the moment when certain punchlines fall conspicuously flat.

Solarplexus is an odd watch, and contains some affectingly haunting musings on what could result in the end of the world: corporate greed, public disinterest, and personal irresponsibility. Yet though these concepts are raised, the show is not particularly risible to an audience, and perhaps could do with a slight rewrite and a more dynamic second half. 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

A Very Brexit Musical (La Belle Angele: 2-26 Aug: 17:00: 60 mins)

“Freddie Raymond as Joris Bohnson impresses with scene-stealing buffoonery, powerful vocals and a shining stage presence”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

It’s no surprise to see many Brexit-themed shows at the Fringe this year, and A Very Brexit Musical is a newly developed work from students at Robinson College, Cambridge. While for any student group it’s a tremendous achievement to start from scratch to compose, write, produce and bring to Edinburgh an hour-long musical, the end result in this case, leaves a little to be desired.

To begin with, the narrative of this show is about as convincing as the argument for Brexit itself – painfully thin. Journalist at the Maily Dail, Peter (Rory Russell), is caught between wanting to please his editor, Roland (Will Debnam), and office crush, Jen (Emily Webster), by producing pro-brexit propaganda articles, while staying true to his own values – and potentially losing his job and lover in the process. As a set-up it’s a pleasing way into the political argument, but in reality, the development of this storyline (and characters within it) is so limited and lost in amongst the other stage capers that it almost becomes worthless.

Many of the key political figures surrounding the vote are characterised and given scenes and ditties, though few of these add anything to the artistic merit of the piece, other than being somewhat amusing. Figel Narage and Joris Bohnson (no points for guessing which real-life people these characters are based on) seem to be constantly trying to meet on the down-low to sing bad-guy songs, Cavid Dameron bemoans not knowing what to do, and Mheresa Tay positions herself as the sexy bad girl perfectly placed to take over as the leader of the party. Were this production a Brexit cabaret, such interpretations and stand-alone songs would make for witty entertainment, but in the context of a narrative musical, it’s all very disjointed and seemingly thrown-together for the sake of it.

Overall the score is pretty good – there’s some nice variety from tune to tune, though lyrics could pack more punch and help drive the narrative. There are also some impressive attempts at choreography, including an unexpected tap routine, and while not everyone in the cast is a natural dancer, movement sequences are delivered with enough panache to be enjoyable.

In terms of performance it’s Freddie Raymond as Joris Bohnson who impresses most, with scene-stealing buffoonery, powerful vocals and a shining stage presence. Jessica Philips turns in a sassy and controlled performance as Mheresa Tay, while Will Debnam also elicits several chuckles as Maily Dail editor, Roland.

Overall, this is quite a fun show if you’re not expecting anything too deep or intelligent from it, but given its lack of convincing narrative, purpose or call to action, unfortunately, for me, it’s uninspiring.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED