Blakeson - Writer

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

"Sinners Club" / "Flash"

My latest theatre-reviewing assignments are both singular, musically-oriented pieces of work. 

First up was “Sinners Club” from Gagglebabble at The Other Room, written and composed by, and starring the ridiculously talented Lucy Rivers. It places the audience in the studio as a concept album on the theme of the sad life of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain (who happened to have been born in Wales) is being recorded – highly innovative and heartfelt.

Lucy Rivers (photo: Kieran Cudlip)
The other was a work-in-progress by Morgan Thomas, staged at the University of South Wales: “Flash” which uses his fan-dom of Freddie Mercury’s Queen to reflect, in an apparently shambolic manner, on mental health issues. A fascinating project, and one which looks likely to develop further in the months to come.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

"T2: Trainspotting"

I was probably too old and non-druggy to identify over-much with Danny Boyle’s original adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting”; I simply recognised it as a powerfully significant cinematic achievement. Obviously, when the sequel was announced, I feared the worst, such ventures seldom going well. I need not have worried, however – the sure hand and visual inventiveness of Danny Boyle, not to mention John Hodge’s gifts as a screenwriter, the narrative richness of the source material and a remarkable cast have ensured that a “Gregory’s Two Girls”-style disappointment is avoided by some distance.

The plot of “T2:Trainspotting” involves the return of Ewan MacGregor’s apparently sorted Renton to his home town of Edinburgh, 20 years after abandoning his friends, having let them down badly. The ensuing events involve the varied reactions of Ewen Bremner’s hapless Spud, Johnny Lee Miller’s scheming Sickboy and the psychopathic Begbie, played by Robert Carlyle, who pretty much steals the film; while Veronika, Sickboy’s East European girlfriend (Anjela Nedyalkova) looks on in bemusement.

The film is about nostalgia, and regret and the pull of home, not to mention the problem of coming to terms with a disappointing middle age. Boyle gives us brief, telling images of the first film (occasionally to confusing effect, not helped by the fact that MacGregor and Miller hardly look older than they did in 1996), as well as making full use of his box of cinematographic tricks. The music of Young Fathers is cleverly threaded throughout the soundtrack, multiculturalism being part of the new subtext.

T2…” is a more than worthy successor to the epoch-making original.

"T2: Trainspotting" (Sony)

My most recent theatre reviewing assignments have been two wildly contrasting one-person shows: Conor Mitchell’s “The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon” – an avant-garde musical meditation on the life of Henry VIII’s first wife; and “A Regular Little Houdini”, written and performed by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams, and set in his home town of Newport in the early part of the 20th century. Each fascinating in its own way, but aimed at entirely different audiences.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

"La La Land" / "The Snow Queen"

Damien Chazelle’s third feature, “La La Land” starts as it means to go on, with an unashamedly lavish song and dance set-piece taking place in a Los Angeles traffic jam, immediately succeeded by a brief, surly encounter between the two characters who eventually turn out to be the principals: Emma Stone’s Mia, an aspiring actress, and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, an intense jazz pianist, who is something of a purist.
A slow-burning romance ensues, with the magical moments played out as classic widescreen movie musical numbers, enhanced by 21st century CGI. As the relationship progresses, however, the staging becomes more prosaic.
The theme of the piece is the importance of chasing one’s dreams, and the inevitable disappointments and compromises which one has to encounter; although in Sebastian’s case, the compromise involves a lucrative job in a pop/soul combo with old friend Keith (John Legend). Mia’s journey has a few more bumps in the road, but somehow one is never convinced that she is a failure-in-waiting.
Stone’s apparently effortless likeability is the film’s main selling-point, her open features regularly filling the screen; her soul-destroying audition scenes are particularly tense. Gosling’s character is more of a closed book, although it’s good to see him essaying light comedy, and his keyboard skills (mimed or otherwise) are impressive.
The overall impression is of experiencing a contemporary Broadway musical, complete with not-quite-memorable tunes. Technically, the film is a significant achievement, however, and it certainly hits home emotionally, the ending being especially clever.
La La Land” is beautifully realised, and worthy of all the awards buzz, falling short only because it skimps on the darkness.
"La La Land"

My hometown Christmas treat this year was “The Snow Queen” at the New Victoria Theatre in Newcastle-Under-Lyme (shamefully, my first visit in many years). This boasted a surprisingly large ensemble (compared to Cardiff productions), with many cast-members also part of the on-stage band in Theresa Heskins’ take on the Hans Christian Anderson classic. There were hints of Miss Havisham in the title character, folksy, Brecht-Weil-tinged songs, and a bit of a science-fiction spin at the denouement. Very enjoyable.

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Festive Theatre 2016

Obviously, the highlight of the past few weeks has to be the Pixies gig as reviewed in my previous post. There have also been a few theatre trips, though:

Most recently was an unlikely double-bill; “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the very likeable Christmas show for under-sevens at The Sherman; and, in the evening, “OTUS”, an intriguing hybrid dance/circus piece from Company Oliveira & Bachtler in the Dance House at the Wales Millennium Centre.
"The Emperor's New Clothes" (photo: Kirsten McTernan)

Looking further back, there was “Some People Talk About Violence”, from Midlands-based Barrel Organ at The Other Room; the Sherman’s Christmas show for over-sevens, “The Borrowers”; the dreamy and tragic “Light Waves, Dark Skies” from We Made This at Chapter; and “Looking Through Glass”, the none-more-dark festive offering from difficultstage, once more at The Other Room.

"Looking Through Glass" (photo: Kieran Cudlip)
All very stimulating, but frustrating, for obvious career reasons.

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Pixies in Cardiff

“Everyone’s so old” said a voice, in the crowded pub around the corner from the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena, just before the Pixies’ gig. Alright, the voice was mine; the band did form, after all, thirty years ago (in Boston Massachusetts), becoming UK indie favourites (much played by John Peel and his night-time Radio One colleagues) in the late 1980s. And there was definitely the whiff of nostalgia in the air.

Those questing souls who could be bothered to make it into the venue before 8pm were rewarded with a short but intense set from Malmo-based four-piece Fews, who delivered some tasty, drone-inflected power-pop, the single “The Zoo” going down especially well.

The headliners kicked off their 100-minute concert with “Bone Machine” (the first track from “Surfer Rosa”, their debut album), segueing into classic single “Monkey Gone To Heaven”; the set as a whole, however, leant heavily on the newer material, such as the punky “Um Chagga Lagga”. Most of the hits were present, however: “Wave Of Mutilation”, “Velouria”, “Debaser”, Neil Young’s “Winterlong”, Here Comes Your Man”, “Caribou”; and “Where Is My Mind” in particular prompted a mass outbreak of smartphone video-recording.

Black Francis was coolly authoritative throughout; long-time co-guitarist Joey Santiago seemed in good health following his recent trouble; drummer Dave Lovering was the exuberant solid rock (and occasional vocalist); and the charming Paz Lenchantin seems to have slotted seamlessly into Kim Deal’s role as moderating female influence (although Deal’s “Gigantic” was absent from the set).

New single “Classic Masher” (one of the best things they’ve ever done) signalled that things were drawing to a close, and following an epic “Vamos”, the band seemed to disappear into clouds of smoke, but emerged to conclude with an even more epic “Into The White”, led by Lenchantin. They then took a graceful bow before abandoning the faithful to their mental exhaustion.

Pixies taking a bow (picture: Pixies)

Less of an exercise in nostalgia, then, than a lesson from a gang of old masters in how to weave a spell. Exhilarating.

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

"Arrival", "Blink", "Love, Lies & Taxidermy", "Cascade Dance Theatre", "Word, Image, Digital"

Recent reviewing assignments have included Phil Porter’s charmingly messy romantic comedy “Blink” at The Other Room; a diverse trilogy of small-scale contemporary dance pieces from Cascade Dance Theatre at Swansea’s Taliesin Theatre and, most recently, at The Sherman, Alan Harris’s “Love, Lies & Taxidermy”, a fast-moving teen-romantic comedy set in Merthyr.

"Blink" (photo: Aenne Pallasca)
 I also went to see Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival”, in which Amy Adams plays a linguist who is called in to attempt to facilitate communication when a number of huge obelisks from elsewhere in the universe arrive on Earth (or rather, hovering over a number of locations on it), since their intentions are unclear. It is a thoughtful take on Cold War-inflected alien invasion movies of the 1950s, with the military primed to attack and more scientifically-minded voices advising caution. Adams is the humanistic focus, receiving able support from Jeremy Renner as a wise-cracking physicist, Forest Whittaker as the buttoned-down military man under pressure, and Michael Stuhlbarg as the more gung-ho government agent. It’s not exactly action-packed, and the cerebral take on the representation of the alien language (rather like smoke-signals) means that developments are as hard for the audience to decode as the characters. A clever narrative twist towards the end, however, plunges us into deep emotional waters, forcing us to face impossibly profound issues. Powerful work, which lingers in the mind.


I couldn’t make it to the inaugural New York Jazz Film Festival, but at least my film of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Jazz Fantasia” was there, and picked up a prize in the “mixed genre” category, which was nice.

I also gave a rare academic presentation, speaking at a symposium entitled “Word, Image, Digital”- a return to Cardiff University where I did my first degree. My contribution was about films made by myself and others of poems posted to the no-longer-extant Poetry Storehouse website, and it seemed to go down quite well.

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Friday, October 28, 2016

"Blackbird" / Artes Mundi 7

David Harrower’s Olivier Award-winning play “Blackbird”, from Those Two Impostors, is the latest piece being hosted by The Other Room Theatre, and my most recent reviewing assignment. The tale of a young woman confronting the middle-aged man with whom she had a sexual relationship when she was 12, it is very well acted, but I found it a tad troubling in its apparent even-handedness.

"Blackbird" (photo: Kirsten McTernan)

Also opening in the past week has been Artes Mundi – the 7th edition of the biennial, international art prize, exhibiting in Cardiff. I went to see those elements of it which are at the National Museum, and while there was plenty of interesting stuff on offer – I experienced only a few minutes of John Akomfrah’s migration-themed installation films, and Amy Franceschini’s ambitious “Future Farmers” project looked interesting - the most immediately arresting piece was Bedwyr Williams large-scale “slow” video “Tyrrau Mawr”, imagining a futuristic city in North Wales, with accompanying narration. I fully intend to go again and watch the whole 20 minutes.

Tyrrau Mawr (Artes Mundi)

And another biennial visual arts event, Cardiff Contemporary is also on, and currently livening up the city centre.

Laura Ford's redecoration of Cardiff Castle's Animal Wall for Cardiff Contemporary

Earlier in the week, I was one of a group of filmmakers who met with the latest intake of students of the University of South Wales’ Masters in Film Production, as part of a promising initiative from B.F.I. Wales – aiming to match our proposals with the students’ final projects and the B.F.I.’s know-how in terms of funding. All the others who were pitching were vastly more experienced than me, but it was, at the very least a valuable learning experience.

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