Nocturnal Animals – BFI London Film Festival


Tom Ford is known for making incredibly beautiful things, and his first foray into film-making, A Single Man, managed to combine style and substance to great acclaim. His second feature, Nocturnal Animals, which premiered at the London Film Festival, takes his work in a slightly different direction, adding a somewhat grisly, high-stakes thriller element that contrasts with the beautiful world of a prosperous gallery owner played by Amy Adams.

Insomniac Susan is a rich and renowned art dealer whose latest blockbuster show opens the film – which we see in the opening credits as a warped homage to Bond’s gyrating ladies. But despite her success it’s clear her outwardly perfect life has plenty of cracks; her handsome second husband has failed to attend the opening and rushes off on yet another “business” trip with his mistress, while a growing sense of unreality and emptiness begins to trouble Susan’s quieter moments. Out of the blue her novelist ex-husband sends her the manuscript of his first book, dedicated to her and fulfilling the potential she saw in him during their brief student marriage. But as Susan begins to read, the disturbing morality tale Edward has sent her takes hold and changes her perspective on the past.

Ford’s film is all about the rottenness that exists beneath the surface of things and how people can never escape the consequences of bad choices. In many ways it is a classic revenge tale that takes the audience into three worlds; the first dealing with Susan’s current life, the second the world of the book, and finally Susan’s memories of her first marriage evoked by the story she encounters. Complex as it sounds Ford interweaves the narratives convincingly, creating a film that’s not just a beautiful object but one that aptly reflects its subject matter by being tense, dark and uncomfortable beneath the surface.

Multi-narrative films can be difficult to pull-off but when it works well, such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, each piece acts like a jigsaw adding depth and meaning to the rest. Here, our protagonist is Susan who, much like the central character in A Single Man, lives in one of those stunning one level, waterside houses that are all glass and extensive space, the type of home that speaks volumes about the lifestyle of the people inside. We also see her in her perfect white-walled gallery, an almost antiseptic environment that is all about surface suggestions of achievement but never seem to actually touch Susan’s inner life.

Amy Adams is superb as Susan, who, with surprisingly little dialogue, is required to convey a detachment from her day-to-day life, a lack of meaning and growing wish to reconnect with an earlier time of purer emotion. Heavily made up as a career woman, as we flit between the present and her student past, we see her former more honest appearance, understanding instantly, as Ford would like us to, that she has become someone that only exists on the surface of herself rather than the creative thinker she once was. The arrival of Edward’s book and her shocked, fearful and perplexed reactions to it are something that wakes her up to herself, which Adams conveys effortlessly.

The second narrative dramatises the plot of the novel Susan is reading about a family forced off the road by some reckless young men while driving along a lonely stretch of Texan desert one night. It’s a classic suspense opener as the family – husband Tony (Jake Gyllehaal), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) – discuss the decision to drive all night to their destination rather than break the journey. Soon they are engaged in a frightening confrontation with another car that harasses them for some miles before forcing them to pull over. The way in which Ford controls the tension here is fascinating, and has much in common with Spielberg’s first movie Duel, in which a faceless lorry driver pursues and attempts to kill a car driver for no apparent reason.

The tension only ratchets up from here on as the family are tormented further by their assailants before a series of dreadful crimes take place. This story, which eventually stretches over several months becomes an almost Shakespearean revenge tragedy in which the inevitability of destruction for all in involved is palpable. Cutting tightly between this and Susan’s reactions, often to a throbbing beat, creates strong associations between the two and it’s no coincidence that Edward’s female characters and his ex-wife have the same shade of red hair.

Jake Gyllenhaal is very affecting as a man set on an unexpected path after a random encounter that changes his life irreparably. Tony’s initial devastation grows into an anxiety for justice that eventually curdles into a thirst for brutal revenge at any cost, which Gyllenhaal convincingly plays. But what makes this section so engaging is the dangerous unpredictability of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray, who leads the gang of attackers. Ray is essentially your worst nightmare, someone who initially appears outwardly helpful but with an overconfidence brimming with treacherous intent. He is absolutely in control of every situation and orchestrates the separation of the family with cold-hearted perfection. Remorseless, calculating and even proud of his crimes, Taylor-Johnson’s performance is one of the best portrayals of mercenary mercilessness you’ll see this year.

Gyllenhaal’s weakness as Tony is contrasted with a few interspersed scenes as his ‘real-life’ alter-ego Edward whose young relationship with Susan contrasts, in her mind at least, with the complicated and sullied world she now lives in with the man she left him for. Here Gyllenhaal brings a freshness and ardent youth to Edward’s early dreams to be a novelist, while we get the first hints that he doesn’t deal well with criticism. Ford doesn’t linger too long on these sections but these fragments of memory are just enough to reveal Susan’s mind.

This hankering for simpler, purer times pervades the film and while the novel sections focus on the cost of revenge, it serves to reopen Susan’s mind about her past and the choices she made. But Ford also feeds this through the movie in other ways, particularly in one of the film’s wonderfully comic scenes in the gallery as Susan, facing a woman on her team with ridiculous plastic surgery, talks about a less-is-more ethos, a biting satire of the world Ford sees around him.

Much like A Single Man, Nocturnal Animals is then a film about loss of self, about hankering for a happier time and the inability to ever go back. Ford handles the transition between stories with great confidence, nicely adding to the escalating tension and drama. The storytelling is somewhat linear and for the most part it goes where you expect it to, but Ford creates investment in his leads – and despite the crime story being a meta fiction within a fiction – the rising intensity and the contrast of sleek and gritty styles keep the audience’s attention nonetheless. Nocturnal Animals is not a perfect film, but it is a masterclass in taking a fairly straightforward plot and creating a suspenseful, sleek, beautiful, dark and gripping experience.

Nocturnal Animals was premiered at the London Film Festival and is released nationwide on 4 November in the UK and 18th November – 9 December in the US. More reviews from the Festival will follow as films as released in cinemas.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

American Honey – BFI London Film Festival


No one makes films like Andrea Arnold and as her latest, American Honey, receives its premiere at the London Film Festival it’s hard to believe it’s only her fourth, so firmly has she carved her niche as a creator of beautifully-made stories of real working class life. Unlike so many ‘Hollywood-ised’ versions of urban poverty, there’s no sheen of glamour on the people Arnold focuses on, no designer dirt, just an honest account of what you would see in millions of homes, brought to the screen predominantly by a cast of unknown actors who bring a raw vitality to Arnold’s work.

Back in 2009, Arnold burst onto our radar with the astonishing Fish Tank, one of those rare occasions when a film unexpectedly knocks you sideways and lingers in your consciousness. Her tale of a feisty yet vulnerable teenager, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who dreams of becoming a dancer but fettered by her Essex council estate upbringing gets involved with her mum’s new boyfriend, Conor, who ambiguously sits somewhere between a father-figure and a predator (Michael Fassbender). It is an extraordinary film about the particular difficulties of being a young girl growing-up thinking she’s an adult but still a child in many ways, of the vulnerability and invincibility of being a teenager, and finding out who you are.

In her first US-based film, Arnold’s American Honey covers similar themes but with an equally absorbing and epic examination of the challenges of growing up with deprivation and want. At its heart is an exceptional performance by newcomer Sasha Lane who’s kind-hearted, yet strong protagonist Star exposes her vulnerability through a series of reckless escapades. Abandoning her home where she is the primary carer for her much younger sister and brother, while enduring the groping attentions of her step-father, Star spontaneously choses a life on the road with a rag-tag bunch of fellow teens selling magazine-subscriptions for a shady operator named Krystal. Along the way Star falls for senior seller, and Krystal’s supposed lover, Jake, while taking crazy risks to ensure she doesn’t get left behind.

Arnold’s film is a near three hour marathon that, after a brief scene-setting section about Star’s life, follows the group as they move around the south trying to find new markets to offload their wares. As ever with Arnold, the surroundings are pretty grim as the characters move from sleazy motel to sleazy motel, mixing with truckers, Christian middle class home-owners and oil plantation workers in a vision of small-town America that feels real and visceral. It’s never preachy though and like Fish Tank before it, American Honey takes an almost documentary approach to cataloguing the way in which people live, from grimy bedrooms strewn with trashy clothes to homes years-deep in grease and urban decay.

Yet the tone of the film is actually quite optimistic, hopeful and at times even aspirational as Star and her new friends enjoy a sense of freedom being on the road and a wide-eyed enjoyment of the constant newness of the world they experience by being part of this group. By drawing attention to these lives Arnold is actually reminding us that for all the media condescension both in the US and the UK, working class lives are as rich and filled with the same kinds of humanity as any other. Seeing this story through Star’s eyes allows the audience to experience these emotions with her, recognising how normal and rounded they are – from the pain of first love, to the fear of striking out alone and the satisfaction of beginning to find a way forward. And while it may be a long journey, Arnold’s intimate film uses this epic scale to show us that experiences are relative, and vary in personal significance.

Sasha Lane was one of Arnold’s random discoveries and her performance reveals how close to her real life upbringing American Honey is. In a sense, it picks up where Fish Tank finished to consider the consequences of a young girl abandoning the safe and familiar for a life of unknown self-reliance – in essence a coming-of-age tale. Star is a fascinating mix of contradictions, as many 18 year olds are, and having partially raised her siblings, she has a caring and responsible streak that becomes important as the story unfolds. Frequently we see her rescuing and releasing trapped insects – a nice metaphor for her own character situation – offering them a freedom she also craves. But this sense of right is often concealing an enormous vulnerability that allows others to take advantage of her. It is testament to Lane’s layered and impressive performance that Star is seemingly unaware of her own weakness, often recklessly going off with strangers so certain is she that she’ll make a sale, but with little regard for her physical safety. That idea of teenage invincibility is convincingly played and spending three hours with her the audience becomes convinced that, like Mia, she will always be fine.

Arnold also specialises in highly ambiguous male characters, and even at the end you’re never quite sure whether Shia LaBeouf’s Jake is a good guy or not. The only major star name in the film, Jake is Krystal’s number 2, training the new recruits and possibly sleeping with the boss. What develops between Jake and Star is initially a tender love story, as the old-hand is drawn both to her innocence and her willingness to criticise his sales technique. Yet at every turn, Arnold throws obstacles in the way to subvert expectation, never letting Star or us know whether Jake genuinely wants her, or is casually taking advantage. We hear repeatedly from Krystal that he’s also sleeping with her, but Arnold never visually confirms this either way, allowing us to understand Star’s confusion. LaBeouf keeps us guessing and his famous presence never overwhelms or detracts from the freshness of the remaining cast which is a valuable achievement.

The wider group are also a mix of newcomers and famous grandchildren (including Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) but their numerous scenes in the van have the comradely and frustrating feel of endless journeys, as they sing along to music the cast selected themselves, drink, smoke, take drugs and generally have a good time. And while none of them are drawn distinctly, in many ways this is a group of strays, like the random pets they acquire along the way, unwanted and unloved, clinging together for solidarity. Their leader Krystal is superbly played by Riley Keough who ruthlessly recruits and uses lost kids to make money for her scheme, much of which she appears to spend on clothes and beauty products while her exploited team sleep in one room and are forced to fight each other if they generate the least sales. Keough, a little older than her charges, is a brutal presence, happy to sell an idea of their flesh if it will make money and intent on keeping them down, while, as a warped mother-figure, ensuring they look to her for sustenance.

While much of the film takes us through cities and towns, the contrast of these urban environments with nature is ever-present. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan lingers on shots of butterflies on flowers, or vast open fields swaying in the breeze, while the way he captures light gives everything a vibrancy that is beautiful and engaging. Throughout the soundtrack is a mix of thumping rap beats with more introspective sounds that add poignancy, joy and sensitivity at crucial points.

As I said at the start, no one makes films like Andrea Arnold, and American Honey is a phenomenal piece of work that leaves an impact long after the credits role. It will remind you of the pain of growing up and how difficult that transition to adulthood was, while emphasising that everyone feels that way regardless of their backgrounds and experiences. Some may grumble at the length, but despite momentary lapses it is a compelling and beautifully told account of lives we still so rarely see on screen.

American Honey was previewed at the BFI London Film Festival and opens nationwide on 14 October in the UK. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

La La Land – BFI London Film Festival


The London Film Festival is now well underway, and La La Land is one of the most anticipated films being previewed here, having already won huge acclaim and prizes at the Venice and Toronto Festivals, as well as plenty of Oscar buzz. And all of that praise is absolutely spot on, because it is a film that beautifully combines the dazzle and flair of 1950s musicals that you watch with a smile on your face, with the moving intimate drama of a relationship that cannot work in which its central couple, an aspiring jazz pianist and an wannabe actress fall in love and then fall apart.

Director Damien Chazelle’s film is a constant conversation between past and future, where styles, themes and visual effects don’t just merge seamlessly but violently collide together to create a vibrant and engaging spectacle of a film that is at the same time full of heart; in short a love letter to a different kind of LA. As Chazelle explained during the Q&A which accompanied the UK Premiere of this film, he actively wanted to showcase less shiny areas of LA, which burst onto the screen immediately with an opening song that takes place in a huge motorway traffic jam as shiny-faced hopefuls queue not just to get into town but for their shot at fame. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the contrasting hyper-real style and mundane locations but it’s soon utterly absorbing.

But it is a film of two halves, the first the pure Hollywood romance of dreams and aspiration, and the second half the melancholy decline of love as careers takes precedence. Having encountered each other briefly on the motorway, we initially follow Mia’s story (Emma Stone), working in a coffee shop on a Studio lot serving the famous people she hopes to become, while running off to auditions, or attending parties with her 3 female flatmates. Everything in her world is full of hope, and in homage to the classic musicals, it is a Technicolor dream of jewel colours and blurred parties. Suddenly a piano refrain cuts through this extraneous noise and everything slows as she hears Sebastian playing in a restaurant.

Meanwhile Sebastian’s world is somewhere much darker, a rundown flat, jobs he hates and dreams to open his own pure jazz club that he cannot fulfill. A surly young man in the model of James Dean – a Rebel Without a Cause is one of the films repeatedly referenced – he is disconnected from the world and having encountered the more enthusiastic Mia a few times, he’s sure they wouldn’t fit together. But in one of the film’s more enchanting scenes, one magical night after a party they tap dance their way into each other’s hearts as they contemplate the sunset over LA.

A series of fairy-tale dates follow including a trip to the Griffith Observatory where they find themselves on cloud nine, dreamily dancing among the stars. One of the joys of Chazelle’s work here is how seamlessly these set-piece moments are integrated into the main story, and unlike the 50s musical, characters don’t just burst randomly into song, these sequences either explain the emotions of the protagonists or represent the fantasy world of their relationship.

But that’s only half the story and while Sebastian and Mia may be perfect for one another, they both have dreams that begin to drive a wedge between them. Again Chazelle manages the tone change perfectly and it is in this section that as an audience you begin to realise quite how much you’ve invested in these characters, and watching them moving in different directions becomes quite affecting. By the end of the film as you discover what happens to them and their dreams of ‘making-it’, the whole thing you realise is both an elegy to the people they were, and, in a magnificent alternative reality sequence – right out of the fantasy moment in Singing in the Rain and others – to the people they didn’t become.

These are first rate performances from Stone and Gosling, who have probably never been better, and have a particular fizz on screen. Stone’s Mia in some ways is her usual loveable slightly goofy heroine, but here she adds a considerable understanding of the old Hollywood style. In particular there are two key places where she uses a single look to convey a great deal of information; first when she hears Sebastian’s tune in the restaurant, Stone shows not just the weariness of her current life and appreciation of this new music, but also you see her enchantment with him. This is beautifully mirrored later in the film when she’s in the crowd at Sebastian’s concert, hearing his new band for the first time, and realising he has sold-out, her face falls as she tries to contain her disappointment both for him and herself, which signals the shift in their relationship.

Gosling too is excellent as the perhaps less idealistic Sebastian, who, in his relationship with Mia, finds both encouragement to pursue his own dreams and a pressure to reroute them to be the man she deserves. One of the more engaging aspects of the film is seeing the compromises he is forced to make to achieve a form of stardom far from who he wanted to be, and what this has to say about the Hollywood machine. It questions what the price of fame is worth, and for Sebastian it may cost him both his integrity and his relationship. Yet, it is clear how much he loves Mia and while his choices may stifle him and take him away, he makes them for her which means their pain is all the more poignant for the audience.

Chazelle’s film is an extraordinary clash of past and future explored in several ways throughout the film. Not just the merging of 50s musical styles and imagination with grittier visuals from modern LA where beautiful old cinemas and clubs are left to rot, but of the purity of Sebastian’s love of jazz ‘infected’ by new styles of music, and how the personal past and future of the characters plays out. I referred to it earlier as a violent collision of styles and Chazelle keeps control of these elements very nicely often allowing a fairly hum drum moment to erupt into a beautiful fantasy sequence, or conversely punctuating too much dreaminess with intrusive blasts of car horns or fire alarms, forcing reality to come between Mia and Sebastian once more.

Linus Sandgren’s cinematography gloriously emphasises this clash of styles and he’s given each of the leading characters their own visual tone – a simpler, washed out look for Sebastian, to emphasise the life he’s living in his small and plain apartment, while Mia gets vibrant jewel colours and plenty of soft Hollywood glow around the leading lady. Some of the best work is of course in the stunning musical sequences, whether imagining the life they could have had or an emotional Sebastian walking along the pier at sunset still forming that tune that would become his signature, Sandgren has painted incredible pictures that will make you smile.

La La Land is then a film about fate and destiny, bringing people together for a time and then understanding that love is not always enough; they may only be able to really fulfil their dreams apart. We learn later in the film, that destiny would always bring the two of them to certain places at certain times, but the sadness lies in what happened in between. Justin Hurwitz’s music manages to be a whole extra character adding just the right balance of romance and melancholy while being a celebration of the soundstage musical. Sublime, moving, delightful, exquisite and joyous, if la la land is a fantasy place for dreamers and fools, then in Chazelle’s magical film it is a place you long to be.

La La Land was premiered at the BFI London Film Festival on 7 October after screenings at Venice and Toronto. It will be released in the US on 16 December and in UK on 13 January 2017. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

Autumn Ambles 2016 – Walk London


One of the great things about Walk London is the connections their tours make between entirely random things that demonstrate the evolution of London in the last few centuries. Now running for many years, a tour I have long wanted to try out is the riverside stroll from City Hall to Canary Wharf, a two and a half hour industrial voyage beyond the edges of Zone 1 that links Captain Kidd and Ian McKellen with painters Turner and Whistler. Only the eclectic and fascinating Walk London tours could tell one coherent story that takes in hundreds of years of history and covers topics as diverse as the rise of fall of neighbourhoods in East London, secret underground waterways, historic pubs and West End theatre safety curtains.

Usually when you think of East London it’s probably all Hackney hipsters and Kray family violence, but the area from Tower Hill, through Shadwell and Wapping to Limehouse is a beautiful part of the city and one I was completely unfamiliar with. On the clipper to Greenwich, you see wharfs, now converted into luxury flats and hotels, which were once the site of one of the busiest docks in the world, but Walk London takes you through the beautiful backstreets where former warehouses sit next to charming Georgian Squares that could almost have come from Bloomsbury. We learn that these were formerly home to naval officers and their families in what was once a fashionable and prosperous area, close to the bustling industry of the river – which for a weekend and heavily residential area was strangely deserted and entirely lacking in tourists.

The river of course runs right through this story and is the heart of the tour as you make you way along the Thames Path towards the shiny fronted skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, as tour guide Peter expertly points out the various docks and buildings that kept the British Empire afloat. St Katherine Dock was apparently a failure because it was too small, while in many places the walking route disappears to allow boats to get as close to their depositories as possible. So much seems to have changed in the 1960s and 1970s which throughout the walk we hear was the time much of the dockland area fell into disrepair before it was reinvigorated as a residential and financial district much later – and even now it’s hard to picture the bustling and vital place it must once have been.

The Thames has also been a source of considerable artistic inspiration with Jacobs Island being the place that Dickens set the world of Bill Sykes and his dramatic chase through the slums of South London. Similarly two buildings nearby housed artists Turner and Whistler who, while facing the north bank, produced some of their paintings while close to London’s main artery. A more obviously industrial influence is pointed out by Peter at the hydraulic works which he informs us was necessary for opening locks and bridges, as well as operating the safety curtains in the theatres of the West End.

Of course the river had a huge influence on the businesses that grew up around it, so you pass an area full of former workshops where crews could buy rope, sails and other shipping material, including Ropemaker’s Field, a park whose metal pillars have a rope pattern carved into them. Pubs too are major landmarks with many dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth century, claiming to be the place of execution for pirates like Captain Kidd. One notable pub near the end of the tour is The Grapes owned by Sir Ian McKellen which is over 500 years old and close to the place the transport ships for Australia set sail.

City Hall to Canary Wharf is one of the medium length walks which will give you a sense of achievement as your reach the end, but has filled your head with fascinating insights into a less well-known area of the city. Walk London is designed to introduce you to new places, and this tour does exactly that – an interesting and engaging amble through a deserted, historic and beautiful part of town, that was once the lifeblood of the capital.

By contrast, Mayfair and Soho are considerably busier areas and were the focus of the tube walk from Victoria to Oxford Circus. These tours have become a bit of a feature of the Walk London programme, which began with an anniversary walk for the Piccadilly Line last year and one for the Bakerloo Line in the spring (also guided by Mark). The Victoria Line, however, is one of the newest, opened we’re informed by the Queen in 1969 when she took the new line one stop from Victoria Station to Green Park, cutting right though the centre of London  and now diagonally connecting Walthamstow with Brixton.

But Victoria was not the only name proffered for this line, as guide and tube walk expert Mark informs us, Viking was on alternative option as was Walvic. Like the Bakerloo line which takes its name from a contraction of Baker Street and Waterloo, the Viking line would have spliced Victoria and King’s Cross together, while Walvic, unites Walthamstow and Victoria. And while we’re now more used to seeing this this type of word play used to create tag names for celebrity couples, clearly it’s far from new.

From the train station, this walk takes you past Buckingham Palace where several food based anecdotes are on offer including Prince Philip complaining about cold food because the kitchens are so far away, and a visiting dignitary offering a prayer in his native language which was actually an instruction for his former-servant wife on how to tackle the extensive cutlery. Next to Green Park and some tales about double agents staying at the Ritz while Mark displayed his extensive knowledge of city trivia with tales about recent Bond novels being delivered around the world, the drinking habits of Michael Caine’s restaurant partner and how Michael Portillo escaped the paparazzi by running through Browns hotel.

There is a little overlap with the Piccadilly Line walk, so you can hear again about Paul McCartney whistling in Burlington Arcade, but in the backstreets of Mayfair you learn about the Beatles impromptu rooftop gig one lunchtime, in what was once Apple Music in Savile Row, shut down by the police after 42 minutes due to noise complaints, or the likely apocryphal tale of Alexander McQueen sewing a rude message into the Prince of Wales’s suit. The final leg of the tour takes you past St George’s Church near Hanover Square where American President Theodore Roosevelt was married and finally on to Liberty’s close to where Michael Caine spent a night in the cells and we learn the Queen has curtain weights sewn into her hems to prevent any embarrassment from unexpected gusts of wind.

One of the joys of Walk London is you never know what you’re going to find out, and by picking two completely contrasting guided tours, you end up with a huge sweep of history and insights into topics as wide ranging as engineering, spying and pop culture. Thankfully this year’s Autumn Ambles were a couple of weeks earlier so they don’t clash with the Film Festival, and the guides, as ever, are not just knowledgeable and able to field a huge range of questions, but friendly and engaging, making the experience more than just a sightseeing mission. The next Walk London weekend will be in January and I’m already beginning to wonder what I’ll find out about this infinitely amazing city.

Walk London, sponsored by TFL, provides of 40 guided tours of London, three times a year. Walks vary from 1.5 hour city strolls to 4-6 hour hikes along the Thames Path and all are completely free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

No Man’s Land – Wyndhams Theatre


Previously published by The Reviews Hub

‘I have never been loved, from this I draw my strength’; Pinter’s version of no man’s land exists in a strange purgatorial world, somewhere between love and complete solitude, between past and future, between reality and dreams. The four men, in what is probably his least straightforwardly comprehensible play, speak of the outside world, of experiences they’ve had or the life they currently live, but they are trapped in a room together which they will never escape, they are in a limbo state, they are in no man’s land.

Hirst, a man of letters, meets the chancer Spooner in a pub in north London and invites him back to his lonely home on Hampstead Heath to continue drinking where they are eventually joined by Hirst’s younger companions and employees. Over the course of that night and the following morning the men exchange numerous anecdotes in a cat-and-mouse game as memories and fiction blurs their conversation.

Pinter is not the easiest playwright to get to grips with and the absurdist nature of No Man’s Land is probably the least accessible. Yet, Sean Mathias’s production brings a deep understanding of Pinter’s rhythm, so while much of the dialogue is exchanges of nonsense, Pinter’s themes of varying sources of control, disconcerting connections to the past and the effect of an interloper on an established environment come across particularly strongly. Watching the power shift around the room as different groups of characters come together and are exposed is one of the high points of this interpretation.

It is a production that is never less than compelling which is entirely due to its four performers whose interaction gives flight to Pinter’s bizarre tale. It is demanding for an audience because the dialogue is deliberately unnatural with long unbroken monologues that demand an interruption from another character that never comes. These are not Shakespearean soliloquies that deliberately unburden the speaker’s emotions or troubles, but odd rambling stories that may not even be true, giving little insight or empathy. Yet the fascination lays in watching them unfold and the momentary belief that Spooner or Hirst invests in them before they flitter away as easily as memories. In the hands of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart they become a form of theatre gold.

McKellen, sartorially channelling David Tennant’s Dr Who in pinstriped suit and plimsolls, perfectly suits the verbosity and poetic tone of Spooner, a man who creeps gently around the room, refilling his glass and inveigling his way into the household. As you would expected, McKellen enjoys playing with the language and wringing every ounce of meaning from the lines, yet there is an obvious shrinking and wariness when confronted by the more masculine Foster and Briggs, as if afraid of being seen through or found out. In McKellen’s performance, Spooner’s version of no man’s land is being an outsider, never loved, wanted or welcomed, which leads him to a desperation that McKellen exploits well.

Patrick Stewart’s Hirst is the perfect contrast and for a long-time hardly speaks as his companion waffles on. This Hirst is initially more reserved and made morose by the copious amounts of drink, yet as the night wears on he slowly opens. For the audience, Stewart’s initial restraint is then rewarded with a couple of beautifully haunting scenes reflecting on the past and his obsession with the people in his album, saying “you find me in the last lap of a race I’ve forgotten to run”. Stewart’s Hirst is stuck in his own no man’s land, a past that will never return.

The leads receive very fine support from a whiskered Owen Teale as cook-cum-butler Briggs whose gravelly voice and hard-man image belie a genuinely caring and tender side. His first appearance in full 70s garb is deliberately gangster-like but he gets several of his own monologues in which Teale brilliantly reveals the affection for Foster while, despite his physical presence, easily accepting Stewart’s authority. Briggs’s ambiguously homoerotic relationship with Damian Molony’s younger Foster is nicely pitched, but Molony’s press night nerves meant the youthful freshness this character brings to the play was a little lost in rushed delivery. However, I did see a preview performance as well where Molony was considerably more relaxed and extremely good as the cocky young caretaker.

This production has thought carefully about its design, with Stephen Brimson Lewis’s semi-circular set creating a masculine panelled world that keeps the characters locked in, while the edges of exposed and broken beams reflect its essential rottenness. A large circular mat is slightly out of sync with the concentric circles of the floor which add to the disconcerting feel and reflect the circuity of the dialogue. And while the younger men sport obviously 70s outfits, the elder and the room itself have a timeless quality – itself a reflection of a no man’s land of sorts.

Arguably Mathias’ interpretation is perhaps a little too safe, opting for a very straight, traditional production that while extremely well executed, may not attract such a diverse audience. As someone who has always struggled with Pinter – and being unable to get to grips with a previous version of No Man’s Land with Michael Gambon and David Bradley – it wasn’t until Jamie Lloyd’s vibrant production of The Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios last January, that I really began to see why Pinter’s work has lasted so well. The sheer aggression of it and the bold design didn’t make me love Pinter but I did begin to understand his themes and style.

Now, No Man’s Land is a far more sedate and reflective play than The Homecoming, looking at a different part of life, but it could be a hard sell to a younger audience despite the brilliance of its leads. Ticket prices too may well be a problem and in the queue to collect a £10 preview ticket booked back in March on my first viewing of this, the box office only had premium day seats for £150, which as much as l love the theatre is an insane amount of money to spend, especially on what really is a very difficult work. Delfont Mackintosh do still have much cheaper tickets available, including some standing spaces for £10 but do book in advance rather than risk having to pay so much at the last minute.

So as a number of our leading men take to the stage, Branagh’s The Entertainer and now, Mckellen and Stewart’s No Man’s Land have proven to be unmissable. It may be one of Pinter’s hardest plays but for many it will be the performances they come for which are as fine as you will see this autumn season. And while the meaning of No Man’s Land may remain as obscure as ever, this production gives clarity to Pinter’s reflections on reality, fiction and the places in between.

No Man’s Land is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 17 December. Tickets start at £10 in the balcony or standing, and there will an NT Live cinema screening on 15 December.


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