Archive | March 2020

Rich Pickings on Long Day’s Journey Into Night

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Chinese director Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a masterpiece in magic realism. It benefits from a sensational performance by Huang Jue as loner outsider Luo Hangun. Bi creates a dreamscape and we are never quite sure what is simply poetic license or an action in the real world.

The narrative quest sees Luo in search of lost friends but he finds others on the way, some helpers, some barriers. Bi prefers to infer things rather than state them plainly and even the actors switch characters and places shape-shift, adding to the surreal reverie of the piece.

In a very fine performance Tang Wei as Wan Qiwen is stunning if rather masochistic. But dreams and reality are so blurred maybe the pain is unreal too. There is a great amount of symbology which is treated by Bi masterfully. Even the rainstorms are very beautiful though there is much suspension of disbelief such as when rain drops down on a light fitting (water and electrics do not mix do they?!)

The long 3D take in the second half will go down as a huge event in cinema history (it had to be shot seven times). And it is not just for show – it adds to the feeling that we are inhabiting Luo’s unconscious or even a collective unconscious with the other characters. Despite being occasionally bewildering this is a mind-blowing film that compels you to take in the wash of colours and candid camera movements with great joy.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 19 March 2020.

Available on Prime Video and BFI Player

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Rich Pickings on Sorry We Missed You

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This film is a mighty blow from master of social realism Ken Loach which benefits from an acerbic script by Paul Laverty. It focuses on the woeful life of Ricky (an explosive Kris Hitchen) desperately seeking to stay off the dole and forced into a zero hours contract as a delivery driver. Loach does not labour the point but we are bound to conclude that this is grossly unfair and putting terrible pressure on him and his family.

Also his wife Abbie (in a cracking performance by Debbie Honeywood) feels the pinch as a drastically overstretched care worker. The atmosphere in the household also affects their awkward adolescent son Seb (a talented Rhys Stone) who is led into truancy and eventually suspended from school. Then there is Liza (a revelation in Katie Proctor) who due to her more naïve and innocent nature starts to wet the bed at night.

So the gig economy is examined and found wanting but without being preachy. Loach uses his familiar technique of having the actors improvise in key scenes to add to the naturalism. ‘Nasty bastard’ boss Maloney (Ross Brewster) exemplifies all that is wrong with his ‘franchise’ without demonising.

We really feel for Ricky throughout, but in particular when he is attacked and his van robbed. This leads to a fine from the company and we are left seeing the protagonist battling on despite all odds. The performances are candid and convincing and Loach is never didactic. He just allows the characters to voice out loud their fears and frustrations. Despite all the couple’s hard work it seems they will never be free from the yoke of debt and an uncertain future due to this travesty of an economy.

Loach leaves us with no easy answers, just a seething rage at our society’s injustices.

Available on BFI Player and Prime Video.

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Rich Pickings on Astronaut

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Director and screenwriter Shelagh McLeod’s feature film debut is an emotional rollercoaster ride ranging from deflation to elation. It benefits from a highly emotive score by Virginia Kilbertus and astounding and agile cinematography by Scott McLellan. Richard Dreyfuss puts in a once-in-a-lifetime performance as Angus, an 80-year-old with dreams of space travel.

So when Angus discovers he has been short-listed to take part in a TV competition to win a place on the world’s first commercial space voyage it seems his long-held dreams have come true at last. But this is no sentimental or soppy look at his situation. He has had to sell off his home after his late wife turns out to have bought a donkey farm. So he enters a retirement home where he is really the life and soul of the party.

Though that is not all: his family are in dire straits with his son-in-law caught out for illegal banking and his daughter knows nothing of his intended trip into space. He does, however, have the support of his grandson Barney, a revelation in Richie Lawrence. When Angus flunks his chance on the TV show where the lucky astronaut is chosen he instead begins a mission to ensure the mission’s safety.

As a civil engineer he has direct knowledge of the runway’s flaws and brings this to the attention of the powers-that-be. No spoilers here but suffice to say that the film has an upbeat ending that is tremendously touching. And at times like this don’t we all need to follow our dreams a little more?!

Reviewed on 18 March 2020 by Rich Jevons. On general release in the UK on 20 March.

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Rich Pickings on Escape from Pretoria

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Director and co-writer Francis Annan recreates the real-life prison breakout by ANC’s Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee. Jenkin and Lee are played by Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel Webber with verve and veracity facing sentences of 12 and 8 years respectively.

But right from the start the pair are intent on making a spectacular escape from Pretoria to the incredulity of their fellow inmates but not without raising the suspicion of the prison regime rulers. They do however manage to obtain the help of Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter) who makes sure their plans are water-tight.

No spoilers here as to how the trio actually get out but suffice to say that this is a thriller par excellence. It will have you at the end of your seat throughout, gripped with suspense. The film painstakingly builds up the daily drudgery of prison life and the brutality of the guards is depicted unflinchingly.

But as well as the physical fists and blows there is a war of attrition that would send the hardest of men over the brink. There is not a dry eye in the house when the trio get through the prison gate after a host of locks. And we are pleased to discover the eventual outcome of their brave lives. Prepare for the highest tension imaginable followed by intense relief in this gripping thriller.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 17 March 2020. See imdb.com for a showing near you. Or you can watch on Prime Video.

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Rich Pickings on Northern Ballet’s Geisha

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Let’s cut to the chase: if Rich Pickings did give star ratings Northern Ballet’s Geisha would be bursting the seams of five stars! Choreographer and director Kenneth Tindall has created something quite incredible; ineffable even! While this was always the highlight of this dance season the show exceeds all our expectations with its inventiveness and sheer beauty. It benefits greatly from Alexandra Harwood’s sumptuous score which is equally at home with Oriental mysticism as it is with Western romanticism.

The ensemble are also outstanding: Minju Kang as Okichi is beauteous and bewitching in the first act, ghostly and full of revenge in her death mask in the second. And her trainee geisha Aika is also coquettish and cute but finds it hard to forgive her friend. Hannah Bateman really dominates the stage as the Geisha Mother; while Daniel de Andrade and Joseph Taylor are simply masterful as the two Americans Townsend Harris and Henry Heusken.

But a massive big-up must go to Christopher Oram for an amazingly attractive yet functional set and costume design to die for. The second act’s ghosts are especially eerie and the geisha outfits are sublime. Alastair’s West’s atmospheric lighting really come into its own in the second act with haunting scenes and picaresque lanterns.

In their 50th anniversary year Northern Ballet once again remind us of why they are known as a jewel in Leeds’ cultural crown.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 14 February 2020 at Leeds Grand Theatre. Touring till 16 May, see Northern Ballet website.

Rich Pickings on Onward

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Director and co-writer Dan Scanlon has himself experienced the death of his father and this is the theme of Pixar’s road trip/buddy movie. It features two elves: Ian (Tom Holland) a skinny shy 16-year-old; and Barley (Chris Pratt) his big brother obsessed with role-playing games. They live with their widowed mother Laurel and as it is Ian’s birthday she presents him an heirloom from his father.

This is a wand and gem with a spell to bring their dad back for a day. Unfortunately, however, Ian only musters up enough magic to recreate him from the waist down. Hence begins a narrative quest to finish the transmutation. So this is a coming-of-age saga with the real purpose of putting an end to the two elves’ sibling rivalry.

The animation is up to Pixar’s high standards and has melancholy moments as well as magical fun and frolics. It sees medieval magic pitted against today’s technology. The climax depicts some awesome sword and sorcery as their mum joins in the adventure. No spoilers here but it ends on a quite profound and purposeful high note. And it gave Rich Pickings a break from some very deep and disturbing recent theatrical events!

Reviewed on 10 March 2020. Runs at Vue Kirkstall Road on IMAX until 19 March and on general release near you see imdb.com.

Rich Pickings on Smile Club

Smile Club Production Photo 002 Andrea Heaton Credit Robling Photography

Pic: Robling Photography

Red Ladder’s one-woman show premiered at Leeds Playhouse before touring including community venues. It benefits from a simply outstanding performance by actor and co-writer Andrea Heaton. She manages to shift from character to character quite seamlessly.

We totally identify with her main long-suffering character Lisa Goodwin and are chilled to the bone by the treatment she receives from those in power. This comes after she is pushed too far by a sexist railway station worker and lashes out. But instead of detainment in prison for her crime she finds herself in Smile Club, a clinic that enforces ‘happiness’ or at least surface ‘normality’.

Adam Foley’s lighting and video design gives the set a dystopian feel in its harshest most extreme sense. While Ed Heaton’s dramatic sound is intense and visceral, especially when Lisa sets off the fire alarm in the clinic. This is intensified by the cold form of communication used by the controllers: namely screens and intercom.

The abuse of a fellow inmate is glossed over by the regime but shows what can happen if you misbehave in the slightest way. So feminist thought is drastically suppressed, with Lisa just doing her best to fake it. There is more than a sideways nod to Orwell’s 1984, especially with the amount of secret observation going on.

But more than just being futuristic Smile Club has a lot to say about modern society. This is a must-see show and timed diligently to tie in with International Women’s Day.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Leeds Playhouse on 7 March 2020. Touring until 5 April, see Red Ladder website.

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Rich Pickings on Oliver Twist

oliver Brooklyn Melvin (Oliver) in Oliver Twist. Photography by Anthony Robling

Photo: Anthony Robling

Ramps on the Moon are a consortium of theatres committed to putting D/deaf and disabled artists on stage and being more accessible to all audiences. They return to the Leeds Playhouse after their amazingly successful The Government Inspector and The Who’s Tommy which set a very high benchmark to reach. And it is my pleasure to inform you that their take on the Dickens classic Oliver Twist lives up to these very high expectations.

The first thing to strike you is Hayley Grindle’s bleak, stark and dark set. Slap bang middle of it is the screen for surtitles and occasional animation that only adds to the accessibility enabled by the cast’s signing and the audio description available. Basically this is a fantastic ensemble performance that benefits from Brooklyn Melvin’s ‘hero’ Oliver and, in an exciting gender change, Caroline Parker as Fagin.

The show comes with a warning that it displays high levels of violence (physical and verbal) towards the D/deaf and people with disabilities. This is due to subtle changes to the original in Bryony Lavery’s innovative adaptation that add extra hate rage to the usual class divide. The way director Amy Leach deals with this antagonism is worthy: for example, when Bill Sykes (an irrepressible Stephen Collins) is attacking Nancy (a much-abused Clare-Louise English) the actress moves to the back of the stage while Sykes pummels the ground fiercely. Far more effective than actually having seem to have seen her take the blows.

Right from the start it is clear that women are as much to be abused as the poor and disabled with Oliver’s mother dealt brutally during a childbirth that leaves her dead. While when we are introduced to Fagin’s gang Nancy and Luna (the latter a compulsive Rebekah Hill) get the worst of it. Oliver’s luck seems to have changed when he is taken in by the Brownlows but his good fortune does not last for long with the evil villains reclaiming their spoil.

After having been forced once more into a life of crime it comes as a great relief that Sikes goes to a grisly end and Fagin is incarcerated leaving Oliver free at last. But despite this fact, this is no feel-good show; it deals with the blood and guts of an oppressive society and carries on Dickens’ anger at the underdog’s mistreatment.

Rachael Canning’s puppetry for the baby Oliver and Sikes’ vicious dog add to the charm of the piece while Joseff Fletcher’s lighting gives a sombre and saddening atmosphere. And John Biddle’s sound really adds to the hyper-realism alongside Oliver Vibrans’ effective and plaintive compositions.

This a show that succeeds in so many ways to deserve a five-star review: accessibility, compassion, innovation, clarity and not without humour, albeit it pitch black. Prepare to be transformed!

Reviewed on 4 March 2020 at Leeds Playhouse by Rich Jevons. Runs until 21 March and touring.

Rich Pickings on True History of Kelly’s Gang

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Based on the Peter Carey novel screenwriter Shaun Grant’s adaptation of the tale of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is split into three sections: boyhood, early adulthood and time as a wanted man. The young Ned is played by Orlando Schwerdt who is quite a revelation in the role. His upbringing is harsh with his mother (Essie Davis) giving out to all and sundry and the death of his wastrel of a father. He is then sold to Harry Power (a mean Russell Crowe) who teaches him a host of criminal tricks.

Then, as an adult Kelly, George MacCay paints a hideous picture of his development into a practically feral existence. Like his father Kelly’s gang cross-dress to appear seriously mad and instill fear in the Anglo-establishment. His nemesis Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) is a lecherous coward and comes into Kelly’s sights more than once, we do not know what prevents him from pulling the trigger.

This is an exploration of masculinity as well as criminology with unflinching and gutsy cinematography by Ari Wegner. Justin Kurzel’s direction is very much with no holds barred, especially in the horrific climax. We see Kelly in a cell with his mother preparing to go to the hangman’s noose without fear.

We do empathise with Kelly despite his flaws and it is easy to see how the legend has become part of Australian folklore. This is a visceral and shocking film that is both compelling and compulsive.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 3 March 2020. Showing at Vue The Light, Leeds until 8 March and Pictureville Cinema, Bradford until 12 March. See imdb.com for showtimes near you.

Rich Pickings on Porgy & Bess

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This delightful and entertaining concert at Leeds Town Hall begins with Kern’s lively Overture for Showboat. It skillfully takes the themes of the show (largely romantic) and threads them in an alluring medley. Already the Airedale Symphony Orchestra are proving their high status. This is followed by another Showboat excerpt, namely Ol’ Man River featuring baritone Neil Balfour and the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus. While this is a splendid start, Balfour’s vocals do not manage to shine out above the orchestra as they clearly should.

The full chorus and orchestra really pull all their weight for Aaron Copeland’s The Promise of Living from the 1954 opera The Tender Land. For this the chorus really shine brightly and carry the uplifting themes exquisitely. But for me the highlight of the show has to be Agnus Dei, the choral adaptation of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Rarely performed in this form Leeds Phil really prove their worth with exquisite and exacting tone and pitch.

Then just when you think that the mood cannot get any higher on comes soprano Sarah Power. She is simply gorgeous with the soaring notes of Korngold’s Marietta’s Aria (from Die tote Stadt) held perfectly. The Chorus continue the beatific mood with Randall Thompson’s Choose something like a Star which is a poetic masterpiece.

A more sustained piece comes in the form of Gershwin’s wonderful An American in Paris. It comes replete with three saxophonists, solo trumpet and, yes, four car horns! It has a metropolitan feel throughout and can be tempestuous with pounding percussion, or softer with sublime strings. The multiple false endings really keeps the audience on their toes. And the end of the first half is Bernstein’s witty Make our Garden grow from Candide.

After the interval we have another Broadway smash, the Suite from South Pacific which the orchestra perform with great confidence and aplomb. But the real meat of the evening comes in the form of Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess in an arrangement by Robert Russell. Power belts out a sonorous Summertime with exquisite beauty, we are really hanging in her every word and blends perfectly with the orchestra.

Despite my earlier reservations about Balfour one has to admit his voice is a treasure, just not suited to the role. Leeds Phil really excel themselves in the second half with the ability to be both boldly brash and subtly subdued. There are just so many fabulous numbers we are really spoiled for choice to name the concert version’s peak. But I will plump for It ain’t necessarily so for the highlight, as much for it’s irreverent lyrics as the catchy tune.

A final note must go to the mastery of conductor John Anderson with a match made in heaven between Airedale Symphony Orchestra and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus that is simply a very fine feast for the ears.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Leeds Town Hall on 29 February 2020.