Blakeson - Writer

Cardiff-based film, theatre and gig reviews, cultural ramblings, whingeing, short films, etc.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017


I realised, as I settled in to watch “Dunkirk” that I have seen all of Christopher Nolan’s feature-length films on the big screen (apart from his low-budget debut “Following”, which I caught up with on television). It was, therefore, the promise of an all-enveloping cinematic experience which drew me to resist my long-standing aversion to war films (“Apocalypse Now” excepted). I have to say I’m glad I made the effort.

Even on a standard cinema screen, Nolan is adept at ensuring that we are up close and personal in all of the three story-strands. The action is most sweatily tense when as we follow the fate of the British WW2 soldiers, overseen by an anxious Kenneth Branagh, waiting to be evacuated from the French coast and facing constant danger from Nazi bombers. Mark Rylance’s plucky boat-owner, setting off across the Channel to rescue stranded troops faces his own traumas; and the plucky Spitfire pilots, led by Tom Hardy, tasked with fending off German planes, are stuck with the most conventionally heroic and visually familiar narrative elements.

Nolan’s cleverly-structured script situates the three stories in different time-scales, ensuring that they converge at a climactic point. The dialogue is straight from period cinema, but the sense of dread is palpable, and in the midst of impeccably choreographed and photographed mayhem - hats off to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema - at least one tragedy comes out of nowhere. Hans Zimmer’s score riffs cleverly on Elgar, and subtly ramps up the tension.

There have been many bloodier or angrier or more frenetic war films, and Joe Wright’s “Atonement” certainly gave far more of a sense of the scale of the event – 400,000 troops are spoken of here, but largely unseen. It is Nolan’s focus on individual experiences, however which, with great effectiveness, conveys the sense being a part of greater events whilst still being isolated from them.

This is filmmaking at its most involvingly cinematic.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"Where Do Little Birds Go" / "Seen" at The Other Room

The second Cardiff Fringe Theatre Festival took place last week, colonising unusual venues in various parts of town. I only managed to make it to one show: the Welsh premiere of Camilla Whitehill’s “Where Do Little Birds Go”, in the intimate downstairs vault of the Little Man Coffee Company in the city centre. A one-person play based on the true story of a young woman’s traumatic involvement with the Kray twins in 1960s London, it was highly evocative, with a very effective central performance from Kate Elis, and some clever sound design.

Kate Elis (photo: Ben Jones)

More recently, following on from June’s Young Artists Festival at The Other Room, the temporary companies which were formed to perform short plays by established writers were re-convened. This time we gave those pieces which were written by newer playwrights during the week another rehearsed reading, this time in front of a paying audience, under the banner of the venue’s regular “Seen” events. Thus, I got the chance to direct three of my original four actors in a re-staging of Gareth Ford Elliot’s drug-dealer monologue “Bull Shade Skank”, which was great fun. It was also useful sitting in on the post-show feedback session, during which audience-members offered valuable insights into each of the pieces (the other writers being Luke Nixon, Jenna Beth Lowendahl, Hefin Robinson and Melangell Dolma). A much-needed reprise.

By the way, I wrote more extensively about my experience of the Young Artists Festival on my National Theatre Wales Community blog.

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Thursday, July 06, 2017

"Baby Driver" / "Moment(o)s"

Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” is obviously the work of a man who is obsessed with both pop cinema and pop music, playing much of the time like an extended, Tarantino-influenced music video. It is the story of a tinnitus-afflicted young getaway driver, played by Ansel Elgort, who gets in too deep with his ruthless boss - Kevin Spacey at his playfully chilling best – whilst falling in love with Lily James’ guileless waitress. The arrival of Jamie Foxx’s truly unpleasant hard-ass criminal signals a turn away from shallow showiness, while Jon Hamm also impresses as a more ostensibly friendly co-conspirator. Boasting much audacious synchronisation of soundtrack with action, and some witty car-chases, “Baby Driver” is technically impressive, whilst not being too cool to make us care about the central protagonists. Beautifully done.

Lily James and Ansel Elgort in "Baby Driver" (Working Title)

My most recent theatre reviewing assignment was “Moment(o)s”, actress and director Elaine Paton’s account of her struggles with mental illness, turned into a kind of cabaret, with the help of local performance art duo Mrs & Mrs Clark. Uneasily entertaining, and full of unhappy reminders of my years working at Whitchurch Hospital.

"Moment(o)s (pic: Kirsten McTernan)

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Other Room - Young Artists Festival 2017 / "The Graduate" / "Wonder Woman"

I’m still struggling to process the transcendent experience which was my participation in the Young Artists Festival at Cardiff’s The Other Room Theatre. The 2017 event was the third – I attended the first as an audience-member. This time I applied as a “young” director (painfully aware both of my lack of experience, and that I would be, by some distance, the oldest person involved), and was delighted to be accepted.

The Festival involves talks and masterclasses from all sorts of theatre professionals (re starting a theatre company, obtaining funding, casting, PR etc), and culminates in the production of five new short plays, to be performed in a block, over three nights. I was lucky enough to be assigned Matthew Bulgo’s “The Language Of War” – a play
about long-distance warfare -  as well as a talented and committed young cast (Tia Benvenuti, Toby Burchall, Grant Cawley and Deborah Newton Smith). The general feedback was that it all went off pretty well (even Matthew seemed not to be overly offended by my treatment of his piece). We also had the opportunity to work on a rehearsed reading of a play by young writer Gareth Ford-Elliot, which was also a valuable exercise.

A wonderful, if tiring week; and if nothing more comes of it, at least I can say that I directed a play (a world premiere, no less) at one of the most important fringe theatres in the U.K.

Catherine McCormack as Mrs Robinson (photo: Manuel Harlan)

This year’s birthday trip was a short walk to Cardiff’s New Theatre, to see director Lucy Bailey’s touring production (from West Yorkshire Playhouse and The Curve, Leicester) of Terry Johnson’s adaptation of “The Graduate” – the classic tale of American middle-class discontent, and a favourite film of mine. Jack Monaghan (an actor previously unknown to me) was hugely impressive as the confused Benjamin Braddock, although inevitably owing something to Dustin Hoffman’s legendarily neurotic portrayal. Catherine McCormack’s Mrs Robinson was somewhat less reminiscent of Anne Bancroft’s original – screechier, and more irritating than sultry, such that one could better imagine Benjamin tiring of her, especially when reacquainted with her daughter, Elaine, played as something of an innocent by Emma Curtis. The whole tone of the piece seemed spikier than Mike Nichols' film, and one might even argue that the ending has been somewhat improved. The video back-projections and dreamlike scene transitions were also a nice touch. An excellent evening.

I rather enjoyed Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman”, despite it not entirely making sense, in common with most comic-book films. The pulchritudinous Gal Gadot is perfect in the leading role, as the initially naïve, super-powered Amazon princess who finds herself, via international spy Chris Pine, embroiled in World War I. The computer-generated pyrotechnics manage not to impede the story-telling – the heroine striding across No Man’s Land is an especially impressive image; but Jenkins’ masterstroke is the casting, with Danny Huston and Elena Anaya as hissable villains, and decent roles for familiar British faces such as Lucy Davis, Ewen Bremner and, most significantly, David Thewlis. There’s been some debate about the film’s feminist credentials, but this is a rare Hollywood movie with a female central protagonist who is both an object of desire and a role-model of moralistic pro-activity, so I see nothing to complain about.

"Wonder Woman" (Warner Bros)

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

"Jamais Vu" / "R.A.T.S." / "Flowers" / "The Tempest"

A remarkably mixed bag of theatrical experiences in the last couple of weeks.

Up first was the frankly, barking mad, but promising “Jamais Vu (Brexit Means Brexit)”, an angry, experimental music theatre piece from Weeping Tudor, performed in front of a very small audience in a function room at the Wales Millennium Centre. I returned to that venue a few days laters (on Champions League Final night) to see a showing of Kyle Legall’s long-gestating “RATS – Rose Against The System” in the roof-space; a lively, colourful metaphorical reflection on the tension between old and new Cardiff Bay.

A few days later, at Chapter, young company Big Loop presented “Flowers”, ostensibly featuring two immature young men messing around in a florist’s, but developing into something more profound – a suitably multi-layered diversion for Election Night. And, most recently, the latest outdoor Shakespeare production from inclusive company Taking Flight – “The Tempest” in Thompson’s Park; highly accomplished and accessible (in at least two senses of the word).

Steph Back in "The Tempest" (photo: Jorge Lizalde)

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Sunday, May 28, 2017

"How My Light Is Spent" / "Last Days Of Judas Iscariot" / "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol, 2"

A recent reviewing assignment was “How My Light Is Spent” the latest play by Alan Harris, and one of the winners of the Bruntwood Prize in 2015. It is the Newport-set tale of the developing relationship between a recently unemployed man, played by Rhodri Meilir, who feels that he is literally disappearing, and Alexandria Riley’s phone-sex worker, who is also floundering. Both actors also take on the roles of other, equally lost supporting characters, in this funny and poignant piece. Another co-producing triumph for the Sherman Theatre.

"How My Light Is Spent" (photo: Jonathan Keenan)

Most recently, I had the chance to review one of the end-of-year productions from the Richard Burton Company at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – “Last Days Of Judas Iscariot” by New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. Given the size of the cast, and the combination of a serious religious theme and a profanely comic tone, it hasn’t been professionally produced as often as it might have, so I was grateful for the opportunity to see it. Doubtless amongst the excellent company there were actors I will one day boast about having in the same room as.

I only went to see the first “Guardians Of The Galaxy” film some weeks into its cinema release, struck by its surprise success, and found it charming, if nonsensical. The second film in James Gunn’s series makes even less sense, involving as it does, Kurt Russell turning up as Chris Pratt’s alien father, who is actually a planet (or something), and Pratt’s gang of misfits being chased across the universe by a gold-painted Elisabeth Debicki after stealing some batteries. It was good to see a beefed up role for Karen Gillan, however, as Zoe Saldana’s understandably bitter sister; and the whole thing is colourfully entertaining, and full of Python-esque self-undercutting humour.

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Thursday, May 04, 2017

"twenty16" / "My Country; a work in progress"

By some strange coincidence, the last two plays I’ve been to review are both self-proclaimed “state of the nation” pieces.

First, there was “twenty-16”, at Chapter, in which a number of young people from Ystradgynlais, guided by professional theatre-makers, presented a performance which looked at how they saw both their lives and the world as a whole, from the vantage-point of being sixteen years old. Very entertaining and moving, and quite heartening.

At the other end of the scale, in terms of international prestige, was the touring production of “My Country; a work in progress”, at the Sherman; the National Theatre’s response to the U.K.’s vote to leave the E.U., developed by listening to voters and asking Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy to shape their interview responses into a narrative. Not nearly as dry as one might have expected, and full of celebratory moments, but every bit as incoherent (perhaps intentionally) as the actual public debate involving actual politicians.

"My Country..." (Photo: Sarah Lee)

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