Monthly Archives: April 2015

American Buffalo – Wyndhams Theatre

It’s not exactly James McAvoy unicycling in his underwear, but watching Damien Lewis sporting a 70s handlebar moustache and wearing a giant paper hat that he’s just made out of newspaper, ranks pretty highly on the list of things I was not expecting to see this year.  American Buffalo has just opened at the Wyndhams and is a sure sign that 2015 is disappearing fast as this marks the fourth of the ‘big five’ performances I earmarked in my Christmas review post. That means we’ve already had 3 months of a serenely comic McAvoy in The Ruling Class; a second stint for much deserved Olivier award winner Mark Strong in the epic A View from the Bridge; Ralph Fiennes is already two months into his brilliant philosophising bachelor in Man and Superman and that brings us up to date with Damien Lewis. The only one left is Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, which although booked long before any of the above, is still several months away. Thank God Kenneth Branagh’s Garrick season is in the bag or the autumn would be looking very grim.

Anyway back to Lewis, who is joined in David Mamet’s American Buffalo by John Goodman and Tom Sturridge in this comedy-drama about three very different men planning a heist. Don (Goodman) owns a junk shop and he’s just undersold a rare coin – the American Buffalo – to a collector, except it wasn’t until afterwards that he realised his mistake. Feeling cheated, he enlisted the help of his young friend Bob (Sturridge) to find the customer’s address and steal his coin collection. As the play opens Bob has found the man and the job is on for tonight. At this point Walter or ‘Teach’ (Lewis), Don’s poker buddy and apparent local gangster, arrives and convinces Don to letting him do the job instead as Bob isn’t the brightest lad. As the three men wait for night to fall they discuss the ways of the world while their greed starts to get the better of them.

Mamet’s play is about the engagement of three very different forms of masculinity, and its central characters could not be more different. Each separated by age, but drawn together under the umbrella of ‘business’, they depict a very particular kind of male friendship – one that isn’t necessarily based on personal interactions or shared experiences, but on a level of trustworthiness. They all live and work in the same area and like colleagues have developed a reliance on one another that on the surface seems quite superficial. They play cards together, eat breakfast in the shop and complain about their friends, but never openly discuss their families, feelings or aspirations. Yet without necessarily realising it they need each other, drawn together by the limitations of their lives, metaphorically trapped in Don’s junk shop with no way out.

John Goodman makes his very welcome West End debut as Don, the pseudo father figure who runs the shop and plans the job. He’s friendly and extremely tolerant of Bob’s inability to grapple with more complex thoughts, caring for him. Initially he doesn’t seem that strong or much of a criminal mastermind, but Goodman brings a quiet authority that somehow makes the others do what he says, even though Teach in particular could overpower him.  Don is the centre of the play, it’s his shop and his heist, card games take place in his place and the others come to him. But Goodman also brings out the anxiety of a man seemingly unused to criminal endeavour to great comic and dramatic effect.

Tom Sturridge has quite a small role as Bob but one he makes the most out of. There is farm-boy quality to Bob, lost in the big city and not quite an adult. Even in the course of this one day, he frequently comes to Don for money and Sturridge cleverly implies that the others have underestimated his ability to grasp what’s going on and act on it. His performance ranges from wide-eyed innocence to a slightly hard-edged need to be recognised / rewarded for what he’s done, and he makes for an interesting contrast to the two more worldly characters.

Teach completes the trio and this is Damien Lewis as you probably haven’t seen him before – the sharp aubergine suit, flares, moustache, and sideburns indicate a man who has a lot of outward confidence, as well as a love of style. A softly spoken American gangster accent pits him somewhere between John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Christian Bale in American Hustle and a Tarantino character. His arrival onstage alone heralded a peel of laughter from the audience, but Lewis instils Teach with a dangerous quality – he may be calm and compliant among his friends, but you get the feeling that one wrong word and he would brutally lash out. And later in the play you begin to see more of his frustration about being respected come to the fore. Still, it’s interesting that Teach obeys Don and tells you something about the hierarchy operating here which comes across nicely in Lewis’s layered performance, as well as that slightly deluded sense that this man thinks he’s more important or tougher than he really is.

The set and costume designer Paul Willis has had great fun, and once you get used to Lewis’s suit you can marvel at his brilliant version of Don’s junk shop. This feels like a deeply masculine environment, echoing the themes of the play really well. It’s full of bits and pieces all over the floor and stacked around the room, with a feeling of grease and age, so imagine a garage full of old stuff but turned into a shop. Above is a dense canopy of old chairs and bikes suspended from the ceiling to emphasise how confined these men are in their little world – the can never go up because above them there’s even more junk.

American Buffalo is sure to be another hit and will have crowds flocking to see its three lead actors. We may hear about other characters, some of which are even women, but Don, Teach and Bob are drawn together by need disguised as ‘business’. Despite their differences in age, character and attitude, there is also a timeless feel to this production and you know if you came back to them in 10 or 20 years, they’d all still be here, dreaming big but always losing. They may never exactly say what’s on their minds, but they have each other so by the close of Act II you know that whatever words pass between them, however vilely they act to one another, they will always be friends.

American Buffalo is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 27 June. Tickets start at £22.25 for a seat and standing tickets are available from £17.25. For a cheap ticket if you’re going alone or don’t want to sit with your friends, I recommend Seat A1 or A26 in the Balcony – a sideways seat separated from the main block which has a perfect view and a small but private space with no one nearby. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime – Wellcome Collection

We all love a good murder mystery, and there’s something about the committing and investigation of horrific crime that fascinates us. Whether your taste is for the gentle mystery of an Agatha Christie Poirot or Marple puzzle which is light on the gruesome details, or for the more graphic depiction of criminal activity in gritty dramas, chances are forensic investigation will have played a role somewhere. From fingerprint evidence to DNA samples the forensic elements in the process of identification and conviction of criminals fills countless books and TV shows every year.

This new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection examines the use of forensic evidence and its place in the process of detecting the perpetrators or crime. It takes you from the original crime scene, through the morgue, laboratory and ultimately to the courtroom, whilst giving an excellent overview of how practices and techniques have developed in the last century. Interweaved among the sometimes gruesome exhibits are some artistic works created by those inspired by the nature of death and decomposition, as well as insightful video interviews from those who collect, use and analyse forensic material as part of their work.

Investigators stat at the scene, so is a natural place for the exhibition to begin. The first thing you see is unexpected- what looks like a doll’s house with an open front but is actually a detail reconstruction of a house where a violent crime took place. Around the walls nearby are large scale colour photographs of reconstructed deaths in a bathroom and kitchen using dolls as proxy for the victim. It’s rather unsettling but an immediate insight into the way investigators need to understand the space in which the act took place. Now digital scanning is used to create a computerised image of the scene and a video explains how this works.

But things are about to get a lot more gruesome with photographs from real murder scenes, a piece of ‘art’ made from the floor on which the artist’s friend was murdered and some photographs that use luminol to show the remnants of blood spatterings many years after the crime took place. This really isn’t going to be an exhibition for the faint-hearted, but I found I became most squeamish about the behaviour of blowflies and maggots, attracted to the body, which are used to determine the time of death. Now I’ve seen a lot of Poirots and not once does the medical examiner ever mention maggots, even though this is their key method! Although, in this case I’m rather glad TV has lied to me.

Moving swiftly on, you enter the morgue and the techniques used to determine the cause of mysterious death – the autopsy. We learn that in France identifying dead bodies used to be a spectator sport and many a respectable Frenchman would pop down to the morgue for a bit of light entertainment – presumably on days when the opera or theatre was closed. There are some recreations and some real examples of injured body parts including a replica shattered skull, a pierced liver (as well as the knife that pierced it) and a brain showing the passage of a bullet. Alongside this are digitised index cards which tell the human story behind the work of the forensic pathologist including a woman who was hit by a motorbus, detailing her age, lifestyle and the condition of her organs, as well as the circumstantial details of the accident.

Once the relevant samples are collected, everything is then sent off to the laboratory for analysis, and in this section of the exhibition we learn about the development of finger printing techniques, charts with eye shapes and colouration, mug shots and more recently DNA sampling. It also includes some fascinating experiments with blood types and how the size and shape it leaves behind can indicate the nature of the death. So as well as seeing how different types of investigation have changed over time, this room shows that crime-solving techniques and scientific specialisms like toxicology and pathology were also developing along the way.

In the next room, the process returns to changes in search and identification techniques, where more human stories are emphasised. One interesting example is the use of head x-rays of a recovered body overlaid onto a photograph of a missing woman to prove it was her, and a touching video from the survivors of mass genocide in Chile who have spent more than two decades searching the desert for the remains of their relatives, becoming experts in identifying fragments of bone among the sand. It’s a sad reminder that while much of this exhibition has focused on individual crime, the expertise it unveils is also being used on a larger scale in the search for those lost in war and mass political crimes.

At the end of this detail process comes the moment in court and this final section gives examples of where forensic evidence has been used in trials, including the now contentious sentencing of the infamous Dr Crippen who was found guilty of murdering his wife, although recent DNA testing has cast doubt on this. So finally you get to hear from lawyers and those who have used forensics to actually prove their innocence, and questioning the role of the media in implying guilt before a trial has concluded.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is one of the best exhibitions running at the moment and completely free – although you will need to judge how much is suitable for children (after the first room it’s less gory). I liked the way it balanced the scientific knowledge with engaging human stories, while subtly mixing in examples of medical art and important historical texts. It cleverly, and rightly, avoids getting caught up in fictional portrayals of detectives, and maintains its proper scientific focus throughout. It will certainly open your eyes to the vast array of specialisms that modern forensic scientists and the police can use, which is some comfort in knowing that however anonymous the person may be, all of this knowledge is called upon to solve the crime. I may prefer my murder mysteries light and lacking in carnage, but I probably won’t look at Poirot the same way again.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is at the Wellcome Collection until 21 June and entrance is free, although timed entry by ticket may be in operation at busy times. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1.


Man and Superman – National Theatre

Happiness is something we’re all looking for, and whatever that means to you, it can be a lifelong pursuit. Whether it be a certain type of luxury, a happy family or just freedom to be yourself, almost everyone will have a dream or goal to work towards. But what if we’ve got this all wrong and the years or decades spent hoping for more are wasted? According to Shaw’s controversial hero Jack Tanner, while we’re all dreaming our lives away, life – the very excitement of just existing and experiencing the here and now – is passing us by.

Despite being more than a century old, this revival of Man and Superman feels extremely pertinent – tapping into questions that are still troubling us now. Many of these are concerned with society’s expectations of the life we should lead and of the characteristics of men and women. As the play opens Jack Tanner is a celebrity, famed for writing a radical book which has set him politically at odds with acquaintance Roebuck Ramsden. Part of his philosophy is that marriage is pointless, a façade for indignity and something women force on men to preserve the biological need to repopulate. Yet when his good friend dies, Jack is appointed co-guardian of Ann who had manipulated her father into the appointment with her own designs to marry Jack. Learning of this plan Jack runs off to Spain with Ann in pursuit and attempts to retain his freedom.

At around 3.5 hours this is a monster of a show and includes the often excluded third Act concerning Jack’s philosophical dream set in hell. Yet this fascinating production zips along and when the interval arrives at around an hour and 45 minutes, I could easily have stayed there and watched it to the end without a break – crazy but true! Admittedly, at times, it’s not an easy thing to watch and with our twenty-first century eyes some of the attitudes about and of the women will certainly jar. Having a central character whose only wish is to be married and conducts a campaign of lies, deceits and manipulation to get what she wants isn’t going to win over modern female audience members.

Yet, beneath the surface, there are also many aspects of Man and Superman that positively reinforce the role of strong and independent-minded women. First, this play is over a hundred years old so at that time to have a character like Ann appear on stage at all was a radical move – yes she is driven by marriage, but one of her choosing to a man who will be her sparring equal, instead of the weak young man Octavius who follows her about. She controls the action of this play, outsmarting and outwitting all the men and can be seen as the basis of many of the strong female characters that followed her. Second, this is a comedy and much like Oscar Wilde’s characters, this production encourages the audience to view everyone, and particularly Jack as rather ludicrous, thus his views can also be seen in this light. Here is a silly man and the scrapes he gets into with a set of silly people presented entirely for our amusement.

By giving this a modern setting, director Simon Godwin and designer Christopher Oram are asking the audience to think about some of the points Shaw raises and how far we have really come in the last century. Jack may applaud the idea of babies being born outside of marriage or not being born at all, but today how often are women in their 30s asked when they plan to marry and have children – it is a pressure society and the media still exerts on unmarried women who have chosen a path other than having families. Rather than seeming old fashioned, watching this production of Man and Superman showed me that Shaw was actually imagining a society that is still some years away from really existing.

Absolutely central to this production is Ralph Fiennes’s performance as Jack which balances a wonderful comic timing with the world-weary philosophising Tanner indulges in during his long speeches. Fiennes is an actor I would happily watch read the phonebook so his almost permanent appearance on stage for 3.5 hours is joy from start to finish. It is only since the Grand Budapest Hotel that the actor has been lauded for this comedic skill, but this comes as no surprise to anyone who had seen In Bruges or his stage work including God of Carnage a few years ago. Many will only know him from Harry Potter and Bond which Fiennes recently explained has given him the financial freedom to do more theatre and will head to the Old Vic next year for The Master Builder. But his performance here is at its best during the longer speeches where he is able to build momentum and tension to create a climactic moment – and this is a skill you see in his earlier films such as The English Patient and The End of the Affair – where he conveys complex and deeply felt emotion or opinion. Jack may hold some ludicrous views but he is convincing and sympathetic.

Supporting Fiennes is the brilliant Indira Varma as Ann, who is every bit his match and although we see her behave in a way modern women may find uncomfortable, she is also someone to root for – even though you know both she and Jack can’t ultimately have their way. Varma ensures Ann never becomes annoying and it’s fascinating to see her turn arguments and discussions around to suit herself, easily controlling everyone around her. Ann is an interesting collection of contrasts, wanting both so much and so little, and Varma’s verbal duelling with Fiennes will keep you gripped throughout.

There is a fine supporting cast too with Tim McMullen almost stealing the show as the bandit Mendoza that Tanner meets in Spain who by coincidence is in love with the chauffeur’s sister. Nicholas Le Prevost is always a welcome addition to any cast, and here plays Ann’s other disapproving guardian. Christopher Oram’s design is beautiful using digital panels across the back wall to project blurred images of flowers, gardens and organic patterns which look stunning against some of the more traditional sets, and adds emphasis to the way this production cleverly navigates old and new.

Much has been said about the inclusion of the dream sequence set in hell where Tanner in the guise of Don Juan debates the philosophy of life and existence with the devil and companions. Admittedly this is the first time I’ve ever seen Man and Superman so can’t comment on what it would be like without it, but it was fascinating to listen to the debates rage between the characters, and a rare opportunity to sit back and think about what life means. Excluding this from the play would seem to me like cutting out its heart.

Man and Superman is then an absolute triumph for the National Theatre; it is a play that espouses views we may not always agree with but this production offers both plenty to think about as well as much to entertain. It’s never a chore to see Ralph Fiennes on stage and he shines here as Shaw’s radical anti-hero destined to be bumped back to earth. If you’re still searching for happiness, then 3 and half hours in this theatre is an absolute treat and as Jack himself would hope, will make you think about the purpose of life itself.

Man and Superman is at the National Theatre until 17 May with an NT Live broadcast to local cinemas on 14 May at 7pm. Most tickets are sold out, but keep checking the website for returns or book for an NT Live screening. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1.


Rules for Living – National Theatre

Christmas (or indeed Easter) with the family is always something that raises as many concerns as smiles, so no wonder it is well-trodden ground for comedy writers. When there are no young children around to hide behind, a group of adults trapped in a house together for days on end inevitably leads to frayed tempers, nervy exchanges and plenty of tension. Used to behaving however you want, returning to the parental home brings out the sulky teenager in a lot of people, and, far from the cosy American family festivities, by the time Boxing Day arrives everyone’s thankful that it’s 364 days until we have to do this all again.

Rules for Living by Sam Holcroft taps into this rich seam of comedic situations, presenting one Christmas at a family home, where adult children Matthew and Adam have returned home with their partners for the day, and their invalid father has been allowed to visit from his nursing home. The conceit here is that each protagonist is given a rule, shown on a scoreboard at each end of the stage, giving the audience some insight into their behaviour which is unknown to the other characters. For example, Matthew must always sit down to tell a lie, let’s the viewer know that anything he says while sitting down is untrue. And the root of much of the comedy comes from this additional knowledge.

It is an interesting concept which works well at times but, in what is a surprisingly long play, eventually becomes a little tiresome. I liked the notion that family politics is like a game, with individuals scoring points off one another, usually to make themselves look better, and the concept is realised here as well as it probably could be, but it does become a little repetitive towards the end. There’s also an announcer at the beginning and in the interval announcing the beginning and resumption of ‘play’.

Chloe Lamford’s design is excellent and the play takes place in a kitchen / living room surrounded on four sides by the audience, exactly like a tennis court. As well as the usual furniture there are basketball court markings on the floor and 2 large scoreboards on either end so the audience can keep track of each character’s rules and how they change, all building up to a final point-scoring section. It uses the new and flexible Dorfman space well – which is very modern and has a more Young Vic feel – so the view appears to be good from most seats.

The play itself does have some genuinely hilarious moments and a great cast of accomplished comedians and comic actors who relish their roles. Miles Jupp and Stephen Mangan lead the way as warring brothers Matthew and Adam, belittling each other to make their own choices seem better which gets increasingly out of control. Deborah Findley is initially an intimidating and controlling presence as their mother Edith but she too succumbs to hysteria as events unfold. Claudia Blakely is also excellent as Adam’s secretly estranged and neurotic wife Sheena, while Maggie Service plays the obligatory outsider as the bouncy Carrie, Matthew’s actress girlfriend unused to the rules of a strange family Christmas.

It’s a fun evening, but does feel like you’ve seen it all before and other than the design and nominal structure, there’s nothing particular new here or hasn’t already been satirised by Alan Ayckbourne. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, there is a welcome cosiness and familiarity to the type of humour and it is an interesting and well told story with plenty of laughs, but it’s not perhaps as radical as it likes to think. It’s a tad over-complicated with so many backstories to keep track of and I’m not sure we need to see the father or Adam’s daughter, having them as off-stage influences would have been much stronger. Still there is a food fight, so can’t complain.

It’s been a while since the National Theatre and I were friends; a series of underwhelming productions in the last 18 months, overpriced tickets and a tendency to sell even their cheap Travelex seats to Members who can afford to pay more than £15, has narrowed their audience demographic. I liked King Lear although the central performance was somewhat feeble; Medea was great, as was the revival of A Taste of Honey, but The Silver Tassie is just an awful play while their production of A Small Family Business was disappointing, so having to pay at least £40 for substandard shows was becoming a joke.  Nothing in the most recent winter programme  appealed and there has been a tendency to be a little too reverential to established playwrights whose more recent work has certainly needed some editing. And even the remotest implication that audiences are too stupid for a certain play isn’t exactly a winning marketing strategy.

But with a new Director in place, the NT may be turning a corner or at least manoeuvring into a corner-turning position. Perhaps it’s too early to get the flags out but there is a new version of Carol Churchill’s A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire to come and Ralph Fiennes is already well into his run of Man and Superman which will be reviewed here shortly. The NT and I are not quite friends yet but we’re in the same room again and there are appreciative nods and smiles. The signs look good and this production of Rules for Living feels like its heralding a fresh start of interesting new writing and innovative revivals. Well, here’s hoping anyway!

Rules for Living is at the National Theatre until 8th July. Tickets are £15-40 with concessions available for under 18s. Follow this blog on Twitter – @cutluralcap1


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