Tuesday, 22 February 2011

10 stories about smoking

Always a sucker for a book jacket that has the wow factor, one that does so by brazenly flouting current social etiquettes is likely to appeal to me even more. And so to Stuart Evers' Ten Stories about Smoking which looks, as you might have guessed, like a rather stylish giant cigarette packet, and which is filled with ten smoky tales metaphorically sucked through the filter of a cigarette, a cigarette that's both tantalisingly tangential and central to each of the plots.

Flicking back the flip top of a (quasi-contraband) giant cigarette packet in an enclosed public space inevitably has its thrills (for me, anyway), and so I did it, not only did it, but loved doing it - right there, on the tube, in plain sight of everyone; I eased out the stories from the packet, and it gave me an illicit buzz. But that's where the gimmick ended...

The stories don't disappoint, far from it - inhaling each story is a hauntingly wonderful experience; each muses with pensive melancholy on life - on love, betrayal, destruction and seduction - and circumnavigates the central tenet that there's a certain empty (and destructive?) hollowness lurking at the centre of human emotion and existence, however intense or robust they may seem. Much like a cigarette itself. Moving and thought provoking, there's a beautiful delicacy to the way these tales of disaffection burn down to the filter, searing to the core of fragile human sensitivity like a butt stubbed out on the flesh.

The book's launch party, open to the public and on from 7.30pm - 10.30pm, Wed 23rd at The Queen of Hoxton, £5, should be an amazing event with artists from the worlds of film, theatre, music and spoken word reinterpreting the 10 stories...

Friday, 18 February 2011


I'm not sure what happened at the National Theatre on Wednesday night. Apparently it was a stage adaptation of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller. I'm not so sure, more like a viciously masticated version of the brilliantly disturbing Romantic novel by Mary Shelly, a story that weaves the horrors and fears of childbirth (her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft died during Shelly's own birth, and Mary Shelly herself was pregnant when she wrote the book - she delivered the manuscript mere weeks before she gave birth) with the vibrato contemporary social paranoia relating to the advances of science and the industrial age.  I'm not sure if this production could have been any worse if it had been turned into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The good news is, the production sold out before the run began, so unless you have tickets, you can't see it. the bad news is you almost should see it, it's THAT BAD.  what can Danny Boyle have been thinking?

Where to start? The script, probably, which was at best lamentable, at worst laughable, and not in the way intended... which leads me on to: where did the random injections of comedy come from?  i thought the story was supposed to resonate on a philosophical and tragic level. apparently not. the funny moments were utterly bizarre and not that funny. anyway, that was a minor grievance in the grand scheme of things. the script basically drew out the most basic elements of the story, and that's it. a GCSE synopsis in script form. and, actually, not even that. Absent of nuance or subtlety, it failed to tease out themes with anything more than an obvious poke. Brrr.

On stage you're thrown straight in to the meat of the plot, with the monster fighting his way free from a oval membrane and thrashing about the stage, naked, sort of moany-howling as he tries to speak and walk for the first time. i worried this period would never end. it certainly took it's time. It was gratuitous, unnecessary, overlong and overindulgent and, much as i am a super-fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, for a monster,  is a was a little, errr, un-monster like. pretty hot even, i'd say, save from a scar on his head (pretty much the only real sign he'd been assembled from the bodies of dead drunks and criminals). Which is about as far from the gigantic proportions of the monstrous beast you can get, really. scary? hell no. well scary in the sense of ordering a monster and getting a scarecrow. anyway, what really confused me is that Frankenstein (Johnny Lee Miller phoning in his performance according to Hannah and completely failing to convey any of the  character's demonic obsessiveness or conflicted agonies throughout) rather than being abjectly repulsed by his sinful, unnatural creation and rejecting him with vitriolic fury simply takes one look, says 'eeew', and scarpers. as you don't even see him create the monster, their bond is negligible. It totally undermines the entire rest of the play ie there is no real spark to ignite the monster's sense of rejection, which builds into a fury culminating in a killing spree that includes Frankenstein's brother. you have no sense of the unhappy rejection mounting to volcanically eruptive proportions at all. there is no real relationship to be rejected from. And as for the S-P-E-L-T O-U-T'  homo-eroticism... sheesh! someone stick a machete in my head, please.

Skip to the action as it unfurls in bosom of the Frankenstein clan and you have love interest Naomi Harris tearing to shreds what pathetically poor dialogue she is handed, a father who delivers lines in such a way that to compare him to wood would be to flatter him, and extras who conform to type in the most grating manner - plump maid with a west country accent, anyone?

This is the kind of theatre that makes me hate the theatre - it's over the top, 'actorly', heavy handed. sadly it's the sort of thing that people who don't go to the theatre might be tempted to book for but, having watched, will leave not just sorely disappointed, but put off booking for other things.  i wanted to shout: THIS IS NOT WHAT ALL THEATRE IS LIKE, I PROMISE.

What was, however, undeniably brilliant was the set - it was knock your socks off... steam trains power into the audience like the oppressive insistence of the industrial revolution, and scientific progress itself. The monster's shameful retreat to the countryside, where he takes refuge with a blind old man sees the appearance of a cocoon like sanctuary, a pale white Wendy house with translucent walls, it's both a metaphor for the sight of the old man and a protection from prying and hateful eyes, as it blurs and softens reality. Incidental usage of rolls of grass, showers from above and flames are all imaginatively introduced, conveying distance, variety, and changing scenery of the monster's journey with ease and speed. Very clever is the civilised beauty of the Frankenstein home which on its underside is symbolically all jutting beams, slimy walls and murky shadows, a lair where Frankenstein retreats to create a she-devil mate for the monster. The white shards of arctic ice that set the scene for the final chase between monster and creator envelop the audience - we are the landscape of the chase between monster and creator, science and civilisation... and finally the lights... above the stage are a sea of lights hanging down - domestic seeming lights clustered together through which light swims like on rippling waves. They are beautiful, magical, emotional and incredibly powerful, sweeping you along involuntarily - but which ultimately only serve to exaggerate all that's missing on stage below them.

Kinky Sex: A Sermon

So, it's a bit after the event, but my valentine's weekend was rather more filled with sex and lovers than i expected... yes, OK perhaps not literally, but what the hey, it was a riot. Friday saw me head to Battersea Power Station for a Lost Lover's Ball, which despite sounding like a woeful soft porn flick in the blurb was actually a pulsating throng of fancy-dressed and masked people buoyed by enthusiasm for partying hard. I basically went for the location, and it was amazing to be at such a lavish party inside the dilapidated ruins of such a landmark building - surreal in an industrial wonderland kind of way... Super fun on the dance floor segued into a Saturday filled with heavy remorse and self loathing, so I was fit for nothing come Sunday but a sermon condemning me to hard time in hell. or so i thought. The School of Life's Sunday sermons are a world away from trenchant religious preaching, but are filled with fire and brimstone none-the-less; evangelising comes from maverick speakers about unusual topics. This week's sermon was on Kinky Sex by Grayson Perry (watch it online here in a little while) who, dressed in a black rubber dress with exaggeratedly large breasts, the nipples of which were pierced, held forth about the glorious perversions of kink and how the truly kinky (like transvestism) is a compulsion, not a saucy foray for a Friday night by 'vanilla' couples, a compulsion that's forceful, unignorable, innate. we finished the sermon by joining in song... the 'hymn' was Venus in Furs. gloriously appropriate, i thought...

Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather
Whiplash girlchild in the dark
Comes in bells, your servant, don't forsake him
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart

Downy sins of streetlight fancies
Chase the costumes she shall wear
Ermine furs adorn the imperious
Severin, Severin awaits you there

I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears

Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather
Shiny leather in the dark
Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart

Severin, Severin, speak so slightly
Severin, down on your bended knee
Taste the whip, in love not given lightly
Taste the whip, now plead for me

I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears

Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather
Whiplash girlchild in the dark
Severin, your servant comes in bells, please don't forsake him
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Children's Hour

You may know this play as the film The Loudest Whisper with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. I didn't, so went along to the Comedy Theatre's current production starring Keria Knightley, Elizabeth Moss and Ellen Burstyn, happily unaware of the shocking plot twists in store. It's a fantastic play, which, in brief and without the major revelations, tells the story of two female teachers who have worked long and hard to establish a girl's boarding school, but whose efforts are viciously undone by the spreading of a malicious rumour fabricated by one of the girls to avoid punishment after running away, purporting that they are lesbians.

Although the lesbian aspect of the story is less shocking now than when the play was first staged in 1934, much of the story's emotional cut and thrust still resonates deeply with contemporary audiences - well with me at least. What affected me most was the darkly potent power of gossip and here say. The wily cruelty of bullying manipulation. The tragedy and harm that can be done when acting from panic rather than with rational consideration. The agony of being in love with someone you can't have. Not quite understanding the emotions behind your own actions. The agonising oppression of guilt. Wavering loyalty, faltering courage, abject betrayal. I gasped with disbelief on several occasion, mouthed 'no!' too and hid my face in my hands. not in a panto way, in a genuinely physically moved way. It's a great play if you ask me.

I very much liked the blue washed wooden board of the set and the shabby chic decor. i loved the school girls' 1930s maroon tunic uniforms and the teachers' mid-calf skirts, tucked in blouses and neat little bobs and sensible-heeled Mary Janes. Aesthetically the decor and costumes were unobtrusive, elegant and effective, adding to the atmosphere without scene stealing.  The performances were wonderful too, from all the leads, but i was especially entranced by Bryony Hannah as the liar Mary - a loathsome, detestable, evil witch disguised as a little girl.  Ellen Burstyn was perfect as her soft-touch alarmist grandmother who, while poised and elegant, isn't poised or elegant enough to stop her wild panic from causing havoc. Elizabeth Moss brought a quietly tragic resplendence to the role of Martha, the unfortunate subject of the most cruel dramatic irony in that she doesn't understand about her character what the audience can see only too clearly. Keira Knightly, initially outshone by Elizabeth Moss (whose part is, in truth, the more interesting one), admirably holds her own, i think (jutting jaw and ridiculous poise aside - she needs to relax, big time - she's always such an actress rather than an actual person), a perfect schoolmarm whith whom you might very well fall a little bit in love with and later a nervy shadow undone by those she tried to help. All in all a great play, wonderfully performed.

As a minor addendum, it playwright Lillian Hellman has a long relationship with the author of the hard boiled detective novel The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett. Not only is this an utterly fabulous book, but Dashiell is the name of my new godson, born not three weeks ago...

5x15: a mixed bag, but worth it

The last time i went to 5x15 (a monthly storytelling event a bit like The Moth in NYC, and where 5 speakers each stand up and talk for 15 minutes about a subject of their choosing) it was for the launch,and I'm thrilled the project has gone from strength to strength. Happily the second strength has landed them in The Union Chapel on Upper Street, rather than The Tabernacle in Notting Hill which is not only SUPER convenient for me (I live very near) but such a fabulous location - candlelight, columns and stained glass windows certainly lend a certain theatrical grandeur to the proceedings.

Monday night's speakers included the rather ill-prepared Janet Street-Porter who ranted about dining out and waxed lyrical about shower caps; Jay Rayner who treated us to an impromptu jazz performance on the ivories and raved about it's wonders; Paper Cinema staged a paper animation of a sinister Edgar Allen Poe story involving a town overrun with the dead who terrorise then woo the villagers; Tiger Mother Amy Chua, (above, teeny tiny) who agitatedly attempted to defend her rather draconian and exacting parenting methods; and the glorious, inspiring, thoroughly wonderful Judith Kerr, author of one of my favourite books of all time, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit - a fictionalised account of her own childhood flight from pre-WWII Germany to Switzerland, Paris and eventually London - which is what she talked about here: she was utterly magical to hear, especially with her cut glass war-time accent. 

For more info, visit 5x15.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Playing with moustaches

Seems I'm not the only one who likes playing with moustaches. This kids play set from Cow&Co seems to agree they are fun for all the family. Who's have thought? Still, £74 (yes, you read right) seems a little steep.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

John Stezaker

The John Stezaker exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is a complete joy to wander round. You can absorb the ideas and aesthetics, and push them round your mind marinating on them without wrenching your brain into a achingly high gear (nice on a Sunday afternoon) yet still feel nudgingly challenged and provoked.

Most pictures are minimalist collages that take images of glamorous men and women, some movie stars, some in fact actual film stills, and montage them, often ever-so-slightly altering them, but to great effect. A beauty becomes a curious monster with eyes fanned out (very bottom); two faces are joined with only one perfect meeting place (below); silhouettes obscure an image but instead of a black shadow, the silhouettes is a second face that fits into the first one like a puzzle with the wrong picture. My favourite images were the  portraits with a wide square cut out. Some, like the above, give an almost surreal telescopic perspective into the mind of the subject - a picture perfect waterfall or a tunnel into the vacant distance. Others leave the square blank, a Tabula Rasa or blank slate where the viewer can project their formulation of the subject's thoughts or what might be happening in a scene or what a person's eyes might look like and signify, into the gaping hole that demands to be filled.

John Stezaker is on at the Whitechapel until March 18th.