Monthly Archives: September 2015

Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom – Museum of London Docklands

You’re going to be hearing a lot about Suffragettes in the next few weeks as we build up to the release of a new film about them staring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter and Anne Marie Duff, which premières at the London Film Festival in October (review to follow). In anticipation the Docklands Museum is hosting a brilliant exhibition about photographer Christina Broom whose dynamic photography captured not just the diverse and vibrant celebrations of women’s contribution to society in the early 20th century, but also the contrasting male world of military discipline, routine and service in the First World War. Broom is credited as being one of the first press photographers and her images laid the groundwork for later photojournalism.

It seems strange (albeit welcome) now to think that a female photographer could be permitted access to the British establishment and Royal Family, as well as the more anti-establishment Suffragette marches and events, but the images here speak for themselves, showing the incredible rapport Broom must have had with her subjects. As you arrive, a number of avenues are open to you, allowing you to enter a number of thematically curated rooms. One way will take you to the Suffragettes, another to soldiers and others to royalty and London. As Suffragettes are the flavour of the month I decided to head right.

Broom’s pictures celebrate the both the various achievements of women at the time and their organisation by photographing demonstrations and a number of fairs and events designed to showcase their work. The Women’s Exhibition of 1909 features heavily in this section with posed clusters of workers such as nurses and midwives, the female caterers of the event and leading lights in the world of Suffragette agitation such as Christable Pankhurst. Yet some of the best images, although clearly staged, capture some of the bustle of the day at the stalls, depict the promotion of the event or show a 1908 Suffrage demonstration where around 13000 women marched with banners, one of which is also on display.  There’s also a fascinating selection of portraits of Suffragettes wearing historical costume celebrating the women of the past and belief that the medieval period was the last time women had any proper sense of equality or freedom.

Just when you’re thinking that Broom must have been entirely in sympathy with these women in order to photograph them, the next room suggests that her pragmatism as a working photographer over-rode her political affiliations. Her images of soldiers are among the most interesting I’ve ever-seen, many of them pre-dating her Suffragette shots and continuing into the First World War, and capturing both the idea of military order and the more human notions of comradeship. Fascinatingly, the men being photographed seem entirely relaxed in Broom’s company, and having a woman with a camera involved in what are entirely masculine moments unexpectedly creates a sense of ease. The relaxed poses of the men as they glare happily into the camera are boosted by humorous shots such as a very tall soldier standing to attention next to a young and much shorter recruit, and also by considerably poignant ones as men say goodbye to their loved ones at railway stations before going off to war. The warmth of these pictures is such that it’s impossible not to feel a pang that many of these happy, smiling men would never return or if they did would be forever affected by what was about to happen to them.

In the next room, again Broom’s proximity to royalty is astonishing as she photographs them at the Royal Mews or driving in carriages. She similarly had access to some of the leading sporting events of the day, capturing atmospheric moments from the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race which are beautifully shot or horses at leading race events. It’s not hard to see why Broom has been attributed with the title of Britain’s first press photographer with work that so diversely captures major news stories, the emotional moments of protest and war, as well as the bedrocks of English life in this period. More than anything, her work can clearly be seen as capturing the look of her age in what are some incredibly skilled technical images. She liked to shoot out of doors to ensure real light (how very reminiscent of English master like Constable and Turner) which gives her work a naturalness that even in the most posed shots brings out the humanity in the sitters and the reality of what they were engaged in – be it an energetic rowing race or campaigning for the rights of women.

This new exhibition at the Docklands Museum is a timely and welcome insight into the early Twentieth-century, speaking to both the upcoming interest in the Suffragette movement as the eponymously titled film receives its premier at the London Film Festival, and a part of the ongoing commemoration of the First World War. More than anything, this exhibition introduces you to a fascinating woman, Christina Broom, who was trusted and welcomed by people from across that very class-ridden society. From the Royal Family to leading sportsmen, from Society ladies looking for equality to working-class boys off to war, Broom’s work is filled with warmth and affection for her subjects, and clearly theirs for her. Soldiers and Suffragettes is one of those rare exhibitions that doesn’t just shed new light on the time in which Broom lived, but also celebrates the fascinatingly diverse life of Britain’s first female press photographer.

Soldiers and Suffragettes is at the Museum of London Docklands until 1 November and entrance is free.

Future Conditional – Old Vic

Education, education, education; many believe it’s the foundation of your life, the greatest time you’ll ever have and a key determinate of the subsequent opportunities offered to you. Selective, free, academy, public, grammar, comprehensive, religious, state – there are many different types of school to choose from but for parents, teachers, pupils and policy-makers navigating the various pros and pitfalls is a minefield. What is the best education system for our nation and who should parents make choices for – the benefit of wider society or just focus on their individual child?

Future Conditional, Tamsin Oglesby’s new play at the Old Vic attempts to discuss some of these issues by looking at education from the perspectives of three different groups of people; the first is a group of largely middle-class mums at the school gate trying to get their child into the best school for next term – it’s a discussion that takes them from a social campaign to support the local school and help increase its academic performance, to catchment area moves to get into the best school,  to applying for local fee-paying alternatives. A second story is that of a hardworking teacher managing the banter of his teenage pupils offering them some form of education with a social conscience, while the final group is a think tank tasked with developing a new manifesto for schools.

It’s a nice idea but somehow this play just doesn’t quite work. Each of these perspectives is potentially interesting and well performed but as a whole it’s just not quite coming together enough – it has lots of points to make but no clear overall argument or solution. Part of the problem is the dialogue doesn’t always feel natural, there’s too much of a polemic in the debates that occasionally irritates rather than informs, with characters all to obviously acting as the mouthpiece of the author rather than properly developed and rounded people. Another problem is the absence of children from any of the scenes, even though cast members and ensemble sit in school uniform around the edge of the stage, the writer hasn’t included any dialogue for them, so often actors playing parents and teachers are talking to thin air and having extras dressed as children onstage is a completely redundant design decision. Annoyingly instead they use that 70s sitcom one-sided phone call technique of repeating back what the other person said before they answer – it’s lazy writing and surely comedy has moved on a bit since then.

Two of the stories are drawn together by the experience of a young Asian student Alia (Nikki Patel) who we first see applying to an Oxbridge College where the two interviewees debate her suitability in terms of fulfilling their quota rather than her intellect. She also appears in individual scenes alongside Rob Brydon’s put-upon teacher, when she gets into trouble for hitting another pupil, and is the ‘student-view’ in the think-tank. For some reason Oglesby couldn’t come up with a way to include her among the mums which actually makes no sense if Alia is the meant to be the common factor, or child’s-view here. Having her exist and no other children is also quite a strange choice, unless Ogelsby is trying to make a point about the anonymity of individuals in our education system, in which case this is far from clear.

As I say the performances are all extremely good; Rob Brydon makes good use of his comedy and pathos skills, and despite almost never having anyone to act with delivers a touching performance as the teacher doing his best and worried that he’s letting his pupils down. Lucy Briggs-Owen has become one of London’s most reliable stage performers  and follows up on her excellent role here in Fortune’s Fool and the more recent Ayckbourne revival, Communicating Doors at the Menier, with a nicely pitched performance as a middle-class mother willing to pay for the best school even at the expense of her friend’s principles. She’s given good support from the other mums including Natalie Klamar as campaigning mum Suzy who refuses to play the game, jeopardising her child’s future.

Across at the think-tank more clichéd debates are had about the way opportunities are created for students which leads to plenty of Oxbridge bashing and a proposal that the esteemed universities take 3 pupils from every school regardless of attainment which, if there is one, is probably the key message of this piece. Again nice performances particularly from Joshua McGuire as Oliver and Brian Vernel as Bill who have a particularly juicy stand-off on this issue that results in a food fight – whenever you lose your way as a writer always include a food fight to distract the audience. The trouble with this think tank is that like the play it is a talking shop, at the end of which everyone acknowledges that tearing our education system down and starting again isn’t an option. Perhaps our entire education debate hinges on one catch-22 problem – do you change everything, even the stuff that’s good, to make it fairer, or do you find some way to raise the standard of everything else so it reaches the good stuff?

Although Future Conditional is a noble attempt to debate the perceived failings in our education system, its too simplistic approach fails to either satisfyingly bring together its multi-narrative approach or take a particularly clear view on what to do about it. All the stories are enjoyable but don’t fully engage with the complexities of the system we have and the bias of everyone’s perspective. Schooling is something we’ve all gone through and whether our experience of it was positive or negative will influence how we feel about certain types of schools. As no one is able to experience all types of education first-hand it becomes impossible to fully comprehend how effective this comprehensive is or how rigorous that grammar school may be. What is true is that there is no one winning combination for churning out perfect members of society –many decent people leave a comprehensive as they do a public school, and many terrible ones do too, so while our whole education systems focuses on the many rather than the individual these debates will rumble on. As for Future Conditional it’s a pleasant enough evening and funny at times, but in terms of what to do about our schools, it doesn’t solve anything.

Future Conditional is at the Old Vic until 3 October. Tickets start at £10.

Hangmen – Royal Court

Hands down this is the best new play of 2015. The end of hanging may not be an obvious source of humour but when has that ever stopped Martin McDonagh? Capital punishment remains an emotive topic and although the practice had long since been abandoned in Britain, it remains on the political agenda with some seeing it as the best deterrent against serious crime while others a gross violation of human rights. McDonagh’s wonderful new plan examines this debate by framing it around two interlinked crimes, one for which a man was hanged, and one two years after that punishment has ended, asking us whether we can ever be sure enough of someone’s guilt to kill them for it.

Harry (David Morrissey) and Syd (Reece Shearsmith) are hangmen and as the play opens we see them perform their grisly duty. A couple of years later Harry is now running a pub in Oldham with his wife Alice and has a number of regulars propping up the bar, including a police Inspector, all of whom are attracted to the pub by Harry’s former profession and tales of his rivalry with leading hangman Pierrepoint. On the second anniversary of a famous hanging, not only does a reporter appear to interview Harry, but a mysterious and menacing stranger from London comes into the pub. Suddenly Harry’s past begins to catch-up with him and threatens the new life he has built.

Dignity is a major theme in this play and it is fascinating then to open with a very undignified death. Often in TV and films where someone is to be executed, we see them nobly accepting what must be done and quietly acquiescing. Not here, Hangmen opens with prisoner Hennessy going to his death kicking and screaming – he protests his innocence over and over again, clings to the bedstead and fights off his restrainers. It’s a full on opener and although laced with dark humour serves as a useful frame for the production, reminding us that ultimately life is all there is and we should be pretty sure before we take it away.

Anna Fleischle’s set design is magnificent, first the brick prison cell with strip lighting looks suitable grim and imposing, and the incorporation of the hangman’s noose into that room is clever way to keep the action moving. Later in the play Pierrepoint talks about maintaining the dignity of their work by keeping it behind the prison walls, so this nicely reinforces that sentiment. Rather spectacularly, the whole room then lifts into the air revealing the brilliant recreation of a smoky Oldham pub in the late 1960s, complete with functioning beer taps, wall lights and dubious wallpaper that all looks well lived in. Later still a large section of the top wall slides down to reveal the interior of a greasy builder’s café by the seaside. It’s this inventiveness in staging that makes you love the Royal Court and ensures that all levels of the theatre have an excellent view.

This was only the third preview and press night is on Friday but this is already absolutely brilliant so people seeing it later in the too short run are in for a treat as it matures. David Morrissey perfectly captures the essence of man who likes to be in charge, the small sense of power that being a hangman granted him has transferred to dominion over his pub and the eager band of followers who ‘hang’ on his every word. Morrissey brings a really interesting mix of conviction, small-mindedness and arrogance to Harry – very much a man of his time – who took more pleasure in his former occupation than he’d like to admit. Later in the play as things start to unravel we see these tensions violently bubble over and in an interesting scene Harry is humbled by his rival.

It’s a stellar cast but one of the best performances comes from the more unknown Johnny Flynn as the menacing stranger Mooney, whose connection to events twists and turns before the audience. Flynn is incredibly charismatic, charming even with a consistent hint not just of latent danger but also of derangement. Mooney becomes the cypher for McDonagh’s argument on capital punishment so Flynn’s performance takes on added value in intriguing the audience while keeping us guessing about his true nature. Reece Shearsmith as hangman’s assistant Syd gives another fantastic dramatic comedy performance mixing Syd’s bumbling incompetence with a darker element that gives the impression that he’s always in over his head. Shearsmith also nails some fantastic one-liners and reaction shots that have the audience in stitches.

Harry’s world also includes a connected sub-plot with his beleaguered no-nonsense wife, played magnificently by Sally Rogers, as the strong landlady in a world of men, and their ‘mopey’ daughter Shirley played by Bronwyn James giving a fabulous stage debut as the lonely teenager dealing with her seemingly uncaring parents. Ralph Ineson is the gruff Inspector Fry who has his ‘spot’ at the bar but never seems to be at work, supporting Harry to intimidate the customers and suggesting a backstory of corruption. Pub regulars Bill (Graeme Hawley), Arthur (Simon Rouse) and Charlie (Ryan Pope) provide a lot of the humour as they become embroiled in events but still imply they’ll be back in the pub tomorrow because that’s just what they do.

McDonagh’s new play is an absolutely treat from start to finish, and there’s not a word wasted. It’s packed with his typically ‘gallows’ humour and fantastic lines which are drawn from neat observation of northern working class life and from the ridiculous situation in which these people find themselves. Not only will you be laughing all the way through but McDonagh has created a set of characters that, despite the ludicrousness of the situation, you entirely believe in, making the dramatic moments wholly credible. Amazing also that this fabulous cast had only two performances under its belt and was still completely brilliant – no doubt the critics will agree come Friday and with such a short run let’s hope for a West End transfer. It’s so rare to find a play that can keep you giggling while having you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen, and the skill of McDonagh’s writing is to get you thinking about capital punishment without even realising it. The message is provoking but clear, if you want to have a criminal justice system that ends in death, can you ever really be sure enough of someone’s guilt to hang them?

Hangmen is at the Royal Court until 10 October. Tickets are sold out but check the website for day seats and returns.

Film Review: Legend

Something has shifted in the making of biopics in the last few years, and while most of them still ascribe to the ‘great men of history’ approach whereby the individual (almost certainly male) creates significant change almost single-handedly, more often film-makers are looking to the women in their lives as a new way ‘in’ to the story. Last year the incredible success of The Theory of Everything did just that, showing us the achievements of Stephen Hawking through the eyes of his first wife Jane, casting fresh light on the personal and family struggles that have been obscured by his scientific achievement and fame.

In Legend writer and director Brian Helgeland gives the Krays the same treatment, examining their motivation using Reggie’s relationship with wife Frances to explain not just the apparent glamour of their empire but also how her suicide signalled its downfall. The central conceit of course is that Tom Hardy plays both Reggie and Ronnie Kray, twins both alike and simultaneously demarcated by their different personalities and approaches. It’s an interesting film but perhaps not the one many people would expect to see on hearing the name Kray; the violence is there but without the Tarantino-esque brutality it’s not particularly graphic, instead you get lots and lots of style as Helgeland portrays the clubs, the music and the mixture of people from all classes – it’s like Mad Men with guns.

The humanity of it is perhaps the most interesting aspect. Last week’s preview screening at the BFI was followed by a Q&A with the director who explained his research process, discussions with some of the people who knew them from gang members to their mother’s hairdresser by way of Barbara Windsor (who gets a name check in the film). Often with characters that loom so large on the historic and cultural landscape the stories about them become the truth making it far harder to wade through the myths and nonsense to get a sense of who they were. Belying the title then, Helgeland attempts to do this and he’s partially successful in delivering some insight into the community around them and into Reggie in particular.

Tom Hardy’s performance is a mixed one and I have to agree with most of the reviewers, enjoying his very nuanced and appealing Reggie but disconcerted by the almost entirely comic depiction of the less featured Ron that somehow felt as though it sat outside the rest of the film. As Helgeland revealed during the Q&A, Hardy had to play both roles on the same day and constantly switching between the two is a considerable achievement, so understandably one characterisation feels much cruder. And, in playing both roles, Hardy has no counterpoint to act with, having to decide in advance and teach a stunt double the relevant ‘Ron’ mannerisms even before he’d filmed that side of the conversation, giving him much less freedom to ‘play’ with the character in the scene. And sadly that does come across – it is very funny at times but a cartoonish gangster character that feels rather stilted.

Reggie by contrast is Hardy at his best, filling the character with contradictions and charisma. He starts off quite tenderly pursuing Frances, against the wishes of her mother, and wowing her with the glamour of his lifestyle. There is an edge of danger but one which he seems to be in control of, meting out punishments only when necessary and keeping elements of his club business ‘legit’ to avoid investigation. As the film progresses Hardy is very good at showing the conflict of having to protect his increasingly unstable brother from his own delusions while keeping the businesses ticking over. Later in the film too there’s a chance to question how alike they really are as Reggie’s violence explodes in one of the film’s climactic moments.

The film is two thirds narrated by Frances, played by Emily Browning, so you get both her perspective from within the story and from the outside summing it up. Yet she’s a character that never properly unfolds which Helgeland excused by saying he didn’t want to invent things about her that he couldn’t find out from the research – and it seems there was little proper recollection of her among the people he spoke to. Browning makes Frances sweet and fragile but the lack of character on the page never really explains why her marriage declines and within moments Frances has gone from blissfully happy wife to deep depression and heavy dependency on pills. Her existence in the film and the angle onto the Krays that she provides is an interesting one though, and again Helgeland made the point that after her death, all the things Reggie used to do to protect the community (bribes, checking in on police visits etc) just stopped and that’s when the empire fell apart. That change comes across well in the film and we see Frances’s suicide as a pivotal moment in Reggie’s own decline – just a shame that the only major female character feels so fleeting.

In true Helgeland-style the police are also portrayed as a mixed bag of decent crusaders looking for justice like Detective Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read played here by an under-used Christopher Ecclestone, very much in LA Confidential’s Ed Exley mode, and the pockets of corruption where we hear of policeman taking bribes and see a thuggish guard mercilessly beat Reggie on his first day in prison (again like Stensland from LA Confidential). This again isn’t explored in much depth but does give a hint at why and how the Krays were able to survive for so long. Although the violence is somewhat muted, it does still punctuate the film, used as milestones on their road to destruction. First the character of Jack McVitie is seen repeatedly stepping out of line for which he receives punishment from Reggie and only later do we realise the common thread binding those two together. We are also given increasing tension between the brothers induced by Frances’s push for Reggie to ‘go straight’, which finally erupts in a punch-up between them at the Esmeralda Club, signalling the beginning of the end. And finally there is a beautifully shot scene after Reggie’s climatic outburst as he walks through the darkened streets of the East End, emerging into the lamplight from under a shadowy railway arch, covered in blood – a public declaration that he’s gone too far.

It’s no coincidence that I began this review with a comparison to The Theory of Everything because it actually has a lot in common with Legend (besides the shared producers). Both use a marital relationship as a way to see well known men in a new light and to unpick the surrounding layers of fame and folklore, but more than that, the style of both films, their sparkly look and feel are similar. Maybe the violence is held back, maybe the story is too sanitised and maybe it glorifies their regime too much, but you do get a sense of the rest of that world and why so many people, from working class gang members to peers, Ministers and celebrities of the day were drawn to their flame. Legend may not be the film you expect but it reinforces our continued fascination with one of Britain’s most famous criminal families, the Krays.

Legend is on general release from Wednesday 9 September in the UK and 2 October in the US. This preview screening took place at the BFI Southbank so visit their website for similar events.

%d bloggers like this: