Blakeson - Writer

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

Monday, February 27, 2012

"For Once"

My first visit to the studio space at Cardiff’s newly redeveloped Sherman Cymru was to see “For Once”, from Shropshire-based Pentabus Theatre – remounted after a successful few weeks at the Hampstead Theatre last July, and off on tour once the Sherman run is over. Tim Price’s sensitive and witty chamber piece sees a middle-class family attempting to hold things together following a deeply unfortunate incident which has left their small community devastated. Geraldine Alexander and Patrick Driver are effortlessly likeable as April and Gordon, the traumatised parents of Jonathan’s Smith’s unhysterical teenager Sid, who has survived the tragedy, although he has lost some good friends, and the sight in one eye. Through intertwining monologues with illustrative interjections, we gain a clear picture of a cosily suffocating village existence (claustrophobic enough even before the dreadful event), and of the protagonists’ variously unsuccessful coping strategies. Orla O’Loughlin skilfully directs the action such that life is seen to go on (on Anthony Lamble’s cleverly all-encompassing domestic set), even as each character lets us in on his or her predicament; the sound design (by Christopher Shutt) is subtly impressive. Dark secrets emerge, and the play ends on an ingenious visual metaphor, with Sid choosing to keep himself blind to a disaster occurring within his own home. Nothing revolutionary here in terms of form or content, but human drama at its most relatable and engaging.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

"The Muppets"

It’s a truth now generally acknowledged that Michael Caine’s tear-jerking performance as Scrooge in “A Muppet Christmas Carol” is one of the highlights of his (let’s face it) patchy career; Jim Henson’s creations have been bringing the best out of their celebrity guests for four decades now (Buddy Rich’s duet with Animal is well worth seeking out on Youtube). As with the best of their work, new film “The Muppets” satisfies because of its refusal to cheapen the franchise either by insulting the intelligence of the child audience, or pandering to cynical grown-ups with knowing adult references. The plot sees brothers Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (who appears to have some Muppet heritage, although this is never mentioned) make a pilgrimage to the Muppet’s L.A. studio tour, accompanied by Gary’s fiancée Mary; they discover that the Muppets’ legacy is threatened by evil tycoon Tex Richman; their task is to persuade the retired Kermit to get the old gang together to put on a fund-raising show. Originality, then, is not the point, but the screenplay is pitched perfectly, as are the songs, by Flight Of The Conchords’ Bret McKenzie; director James Bobin is also a Conchords veteran, and does a beautiful job of playing with the visual disparity between human and Muppet, and staging the classical-Hollywood-style dance numbers. Amy Adams is a stand-out as the sweet, frustrated Mary; so is Chris Cooper as the bad guy (one can even forgive his rap); and the various celebrity cameos (e.g. Dave Grohl, Mickey Rooney) are appropriately brief. If there is a weak point, it’s the performance of Jason Segel, whose limited facial expressions convey the impression that he’s not taking matters entirely seriously; which tends to undermine his excellent work as co-screenwriter (with Nicholas Stoller). This aside, though, it’s great fun, with the theme of self-actualisation – a “family” film in the best sense of the word.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

"A Gringo's Journey" / "Nine Suitcases"

Two monologues – or, more precisely, duets between actor and musician. Both slice-of-life narratives, adapted by David Prince; both exploring the limits of human endurance. Otherwise, there were few similarities between these plays, presented together under the auspices of the Welsh Fargo Stage Company, at Chapter, Cardiff. First up was Mandan Productions’ “A Gringo’s Journey” (from a book by Cris Osborn), in which Alex Harries plays a backpacker who decides, on impulse, to cycle from Colorado to the southern tip of  South America (via Canada, for reasons which weren’t explained). Director Zoe Davies took full advantage of the mobility inherent in the story to create an entertainingly physical spectacle; Harries was an effortlessly engaging hero; and the live, onomatopoeic score, provided by Matt Salisbury (on percussion and occasional banjo) was highly sympathetic and effective. The tale descends into darkness as the traveller is stuck by debilitating illness along the way, but the conclusion (perhaps a few minutes too slow in coming) is an upbeat one, and the general tone affirms faith in humanity. Which is in deliberately stark contract to the second piece, Mercury Theatre Wales’ “Nine Suitcases”, directed by Lynn Hunter, adapted from Bela Zsolt’s memoir of a life in limbo - in a hospital in a Hungarian ghetto, where a Jewish writer awaits deportation to Auschwitz. The title refers to the symbols of the affluence previously enjoyed by the already jaded protagonist, compellingly played by Prince himself, whose world-weary demeanour seemed designed to undercut assumed audience over-familiarity with the general context. The eerie, folk-inflected live score (with pre-recorded elements), provided by Bethan Morgan (on violin and bodhran) was profoundly evocative (although on occasion it did drown out the words); the overall experience bracingly traumatic. A delicately balanced, dramatically satisfying double bill.

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