Rich Pickings on Little Women

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Writer-director Greta Gerwig puts her auteur stamp on this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century coming-of-age novel. It benefits from a superb ensemble performance. The four March sisters and their parents are depicted with verve and veracity and we are rooting for their freedom and happiness throughout. The feisty sisters are a breath of fresh air when some period dramas make their heroines out to be helpless and frail.

So we have Saoirse Ronan as the tomboy Jo who we see initially as a writer in New York getting her first big break from a pig-headed editor (played cynically by Tracy Letts). While Florence Pugh’s Amy is introduced to us as a painter in gay Paris. Their sister Meg (Emma Watson at her best) is a theatrical type; while Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is a fine musician, if too modest to admit it.

Their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away in the Civil War so it is up to mother (Laura Dern) to run the household. Meryl Streep puts in a charming performance as the wealthy Aunt March who tries to instill the notion of marriage as a financial transaction to all four sisters. Love interest comes in the form of Laurie (or Teddy as he is affectionately known) in a key role played by Timothée Chalamet.

As you can imagine this adaptation demands brilliant production design and Jess Gonchor fits the bill exactly. While Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are simply to die for and add to the authenticity of the piece. Gluing all this together is a gorgeous soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat that combines classical and more ambient sounds.

Also the Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is second to none with some beautiful set pieces and lots to please the eye. Gerwig prefers a non-linear structure with flashbacks and forwards, testing the talents of Tracy Letts’ editing.

This is a fabulous film that combines feminist themes with a great narrative that is both faithful to the novel whilst being inventive too.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons. Runs at The Vue cinema in The Light Leeds until 27 February.

Rich Pickings on Mr Jones

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With masterful direction by Agnieszka Holland and a brilliant script by Andrea Chalupa this historical biopic is a very fine work of art. It features a bravado performance by James Norton as Gareth Jones, a Welsh wannabe journalist who seeks to find out the truth about Stalin’s Soviet Union.

As Jones’ sometime boss Kenneth Cranham puts in a convincing act as PM Lloyd George who is being duped by his advisers. While Joseph Mawle is seen as George Orwell writing Animal Farm, a satire on Stalinism with its own Mr Jones too.

Once in Moscow he is taken under the wing of Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), the Pulitzer prize-winning journo known as New York Times’ ‘man in Moscow’. His is a world of decadence and depravity which the movie shows with verve and veracity.

But rather than Duranty’s junkie whores Jones’ love interest is Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), a reporter in Moscow. She has witnessed first-hand the oppression of the Soviet state with the government’s murder of lover and fellow writer Paul Kleb.

Some of the most powerful scenes of the film are when Jones visits Ukraine, having shaken off his Communist Party companion. In the snow-covered barren landscapes there are millions starving or already dead and the film treats this in an unflinching manner.

What makes Holland’s work even more incredible is that this is largely a true life story but no spoilers here as to Jones’ fate having filed his anti-Stalinist report. A magnificent piece of period drama that carries a powerful message: to tell the truth as a journalist comes before any other considerations and whatever the consequences.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons. Playing at Pictureville, Bradford from 17 to 19 February.

Rich Pickings on Parasite

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Director and co-writer Bong Joon Ho’s Korean comedy sees the unemployed Kim family fleecing the wealthy Park family for all they can get. It starts off with son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) getting a gig as an English teacher to the Park’s daughter Da-hye (the cute Jung Ziso). Then in turn he recommends his sister (although their relationship is unknown to the Parks) as an art therapist, seeing Park So-dam as the crafty Ki-jung. She has to take on the Park’s spoiled brat of a son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) who has an American Indian obsession.

As if that were not enough of a con they then get mum and dad ( Chang Hyae-jin as Chung-sook and Song Kang-ho as Kitaek) as housekeeper and chauffeur. So Mr and Mrs Park (Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yo-jeong) are duped into having the entire family on the payroll. The deception seems to have worked until the former housekeeper returns. Then below the post-modern architecture of the Parks’ lovely house it turns out there is a hidden basement. In there is a secret as dark and dank as the space itself.

So while the first half of the film develops characters we care about (rooting for the underdog Kims) the second really turns up the pace. It develops the narrative into a daring denouement which escalates wildly. No spoilers here but suffice to say there is some ultra-violence at the Parks’ garden fete. This is a carefully constructed and very satisfying film which mixes wit and humour with an examination of class division.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons. Showing at Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds until 20 February 2020 and Pictureville Cinema, Bradford 21 to 27 February. See imdb.com for showtimes near you.

Rich Pickings on Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Black Waters

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Two stories inform this world premiere of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Black Waters: namely the Zong ship massacre in the late 18th century and 100 years later the incarceration of Indian freedom fighters in the Kala Pani prison. But as choreographer and Artistic Director Sharon Watson explains: “Black Waters is not about recreating these two events through contemporary dance, but is an exploration of place, worth and belonging, which can often be conflicting for people of colour.”

Watson works with Shambik Ghose and Dr Mitul Sengupta to create a compelling and immersive piece. Alongside this trio of choreographers is a creative team par excellence. So Dishari Chakraborty composes the soundtrack that ranges from slow elegiac strings and piano to traditional Indian music and more rhythmic industrial sounds. Emma Louise James designs simple but effective costumes that serve to highlight the oppression and indignity acted out by the dancers. While Kieron Johnson’s lighting is at one time a flood of light, then square boxes indicative of cells, or shafts of light that catch the cast in chiaroscuro.

Initially the entire group sit cross legged only using their arms and upper torso. But this is followed by a pas de deux with frantic and frenetic movement. Their response to the music is incredibly intricate and well-observed and there are many trust exercises which sees the interchange of partners and the raising up of an inert dancer (much harder than it appears). When the soundtrack becomes harsher we see the dancers in a whipping motion, then recumbent.

There is some fascinating rope work, not aerial as is more common, but horizontal and indicating slaves in chains. We see them walk in unison and then chaotically tumbling over one another. Finally, we return to the beginning of the cross-legged posture – perhaps a Buddhistic cycle. This is a thrilling and intense piece of dance theatre which is at once accessible as well as secretive and obscure. Phoenix Dance Theatre are in fine form living up to their reputation as risk-taking producers of cutting edge new work.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 13 February 2020 at Leeds Playhouse. Runs until 15 February.  Tours until 20 June.

Rich Pickings on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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Terry Gilliam’s project based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote has been in the offing since 1989. The final product stars Adam Driver as director Toby Grisoni who had earlier himself made a student film that used the Don Quixote tale. It is the star of that student effort Javier (Jonathan Pryce) and a young woman Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) that start off a narrative that blend fact with fiction, something Gilliam does so well.

Driver and Pryce put in fabulous performances which give the film wit, irony and style that blended with Gilliam’s magic touch makes for great viewing. The somewhat crazy and off-the-wall plot eventually leads to a castle where past and present meet and the characters come into their own.

The knight errant’s adventures before this are simply magical and amusing but the denouement adds a more profound and serious tone. While Angelica is very seductive early on she reveals she has a tough side too. The resulting melange is often hilarious and always intriguing with Gilliam creating a being that would have suited being a part of the infamous Monty Python movies. A superb slab of po-mo surrealism.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons. Showing at Pictureville Cinema, Bradford on 27 February.

Rich Pickings on Kneehigh’s Ubu

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Photo: Steve Tanner

Kneehigh’s Ubu is billed as a ‘Singalong Satire’ and indeed the entire show includes well-known songs for the audience to join in. These range from Bowie’s Heroes to the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK; The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun to Lennon’s Imagine; Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger to Elvis’ Suspicious Minds.

The congenial host sees Niall Ashdown as Jeremy Wardle, part MC part supply teacher (most of the audience for this matinee being school kids and their drama teachers). After a brief spate as President Nick Dallas Dom Coyote is resigned to being a singing ghost after his assaination by Mr and Mrs Ubu (Katy Owen and Mile Shepherd).

Owen is small is stature (not quite the huge Ubu I was expecting) while Shepherd really camps it up. One of the many innuendos is the name of security agent Captain Shittabrique (Robi Luckay) who adds some athletic dynamism to the cast. While Nandi Bhebhe and the Sweaty Bureaucrats as backing band give the show plenty of swing.

Writer Carl Grose has corrupt and megalomaniac politicians quite firmly in his sights and this amuses the teenage audience no end (anarchy is this year’s thing for them). While his direction with Shepherd maintains a keen humour and irony throughout, both in the interpretation of the script (which is pretty loose) and its physicality (lots of slapstick and extreme gestures).

Michael Vale’s design is dominated by a huge toilet into which all things deemed bad are discarded (again to the delight of the kids – good old toilet humour). And Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography is fun and frolics throughout. My only reservation is that the sense of surrealism is a bit lost in all the ad libbing and improv in a way I’m not sure Ubu’s original Alfred Jarry would quite approve. But then Kneehigh are simply too irreverent to care!

An exciting and entertaining show that allows us to take out our frustrations on the Ubus to relieve our pent-up anger at the wrongs in society.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 6 February 2020 at Leeds Playhouse until 8 February.

Rich Pickings on The Lighthouse

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Director Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is a psychological horror par excellence the likes of which we have not seen since Polanski’s Repulsion or Kubrick’s The Shining. It is a two-handed set on a small island with lighthouse alone amongst the bleak rocky scenery. Eggers brings out remarkable performances from William Dafoe as the overbearingly bossy Tom Wake and Robert Pattinson as his much-abused lackey Winslow.

It benefits from a haunting soundtrack by Damian Volpe and Mark Corven who use location sounds (like the eerie fog horn) and compositions that are seriously scary and surreal. The dark and brooding cinematography of Jarin Blaschke in stark monochrome also contributes greatly to the atmosphere of the piece.

But it is the script and the two performances that really bring the horror home. Also our heads are played with when we see flashes of sea monsters, sirens, corpses and other things that go bump in the night. And Winslow is gradually pushed further and further into the depths of madness and psychosis which Wake does much to worsen.

They drink when it seems their time together is nearly done but any relief is foiled by a wicked storm. Even in the midst of the tempest Winslow is forced to do demeaning and pointless tasks that push him to the brink.

No spoilers here but suffice to say the denouement is violent and apocalyptic with life as we know it on the island come to a horrific end.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons. Runs at Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds and Pictureville Cinema, Bradford from 7 to 13 February.

Rich Pickings on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

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Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Rice & Webber’s feel-good Biblical classic is a musical given the magic Kenwright touch to be the brilliant blockbuster it is so famous for. The show benefits from an outstanding performance by Mark McMullan who is a revelation as Joseph. McMullan may be known to you as a recent finalist on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent and succeeds both as an actor and vocalist.

Also the ensemble give their all in support with such rousing numbers as Poor, Poor, Joseph and One More Angel in Heaven. The choreography is based on Henry Metcalfe’s original but given a new style by Gary Lloyd. And Sean Cavanagh’s design is simply to die for. His costumes include a Caribbean and French flavour which give an ironic twist to the proceedings.

MD Mike Steel keeps the hit songs coming and provides excellent backing to the scenes too. You will be certain to have earworms galore after some of these catchy tunes, some of the best musical songs in Webber’s catalogue. Rice’s lyrics, of course, progress the narrative with many cheeky rhyming couplets and innuendoes.

The Alhambra Theatre is always a pleasure to attend and when the finale comes has almost the entire audience on its feet and clapping along. The dreamcoat becomes a huge parachute which floods the stage with colour. McMullan is really in his element here obviously overjoyed by the Bradford reception to this fabulous show.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 4 February 2020 at Alhambra Theatre, Bradford where it runs until 8 February.

Rich Pickings on Opera North’s The Marriage of Figaro

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Mozart’s classic comedy is a hysterical farce with Count Almaviva (Quirijn de Lang) attempting to get his wicked way with maid Susanna (Fflur Wyn) on her wedding night according to a local tradition. Her husband-to-be Figaro (Phillip Rhodes) is rightly incensed but has a cunning plan to foil his designs.

This involves quite a complex plot which has page Cherubino (Heather Lowe) cross-dressing and the Countess (Máire Flavin) impersonating Susanna but things don’t quite go as planned. This is partly due to the the fact that Figaro is indebted to housekeeper Marcellina (Gaynor Keeble) and has agreed to marry her if the debt is not honoured. Even more incredibly she turns out to be his mother!

Director Jo Davies really plays this for laughs and successfully has us chuckling throughout the totally ridiculous scenes. And although this is a four-act three-hour show it fairly flies by. Leslie Travers’ set is both functional with its multiple doors and to be adored with its floral wallpaper. It is moved from act to act so it can be the wedding couple’s bedroom, the Countess’ boudoir or the Count’s study at will.

While Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes are to die for and add greatly to the appeal of the piece. Orchestra of Opera North are on fine form as ever under the baton of Antony Hermus. And Chorus of Opera North add brilliantly to the interpretation of the score especially on the double wedding scene. The ensemble are simply fantastic with Flavin particularly outstanding making every note count with her sweet vocals.

So Opera North continue their season (following Street Scene) with great skill and aplomb.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 1 February 2020 at Leeds Grand Theatre. Tours till 21 March. See Opera North website for dates, times and venues.

Rich Pickings on Dr Korczak’s Example

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Photo: Zoe Martin

Dr Korczak’s Example is a three hander with masterful direction by Leeds Playhouse’s Artistic Director James Brining and impeccably written by David Grieg. It takes place in the new theatre space Bramall Rock Void and indeed Rose Resitt’s set is mainly made of rock with red brick walls adding to the sense of austerity and alienation.

This depicts the Jewish ghetto in 1940s Warsaw where Dr Korczak runs a 200-strong orphanage under the most unbelievably inhuman treatment by the Nazis. Rob Pickavance as Korczak warns us from the very beginning that “This did happen”. Pickavance is the perfect casting for his character getting across his belief that good will triumph and that children should have certain rights.

We first meet Adzio (a revelation in Danny Sykes) when he is caught stealing in the market but Korczak intervenes and takes him to join the orphanage. This street urchin straight away gets up to mischief and is tried for stealing another boy’s bread by a child court. But as time goes on his relationship with Steph (Gemma Barnett) seems to calm his almost feral nature.

However, he still wants to fight back against the Nazis while Korkzak prefers to lead by example. The show could be accused of minimalism but sometimes less means more. It leads us to question what we would have done if in the Jewish ghetto: as Crass put it – ‘would you just watch as the cattle trucks roll by / pretend it isn’t happening turn a blind eye’. This is a moving and vital piece of theatre that tackles the difficult subject of the Holocaust with care and understanding. Most importantly it is a message of hope.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 30 January 2020 at Leeds Playhouse where it runs until 15 February.