Friday, 19 July 2013

Cultural Catch Up: Menier & Monkeys, Chilling Out & Cockneys; Dating & Dresses

Here's a round-up of the last weeks' work:

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Play's The Thing (Within The Play)

Theatre about theatre is big in the West End at the moment.

You can see actors acting as actors in Kiss Me, Kate at the Old Vic, in Our Country's Good at the new St James Theatre, and as auditionees in A Chorus Line, the ultimate musical about wanting to be in a musical at the London Palladium.

Within the last few years, there have been revivals of similarly reflexive shows: Michael Frayn's highly successful Noises Off, the hugely enjoyable Crazy For You, and the, to my mind slightly dated, A Chorus of Disapproval at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

It's hardly a new phenomenon: to my knowledge plays within plays date back to at least Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream and, of course, Hamlet). I wonder if classical scholars could put me right on the theory that this technique has existed for as long as plays themselves. Art of most mediums is self-reflexive: painters produce self-portraits, writers pen autobiographies. Naturally, there's something very self-conscious about performing, so the fact that this bleeds into the shows' structures themselves shouldn't be too surprising.

Howard Sherman, in his brilliantly exhaustive piece on the topic, writes as follows:
I should say that the dictum of “write what you know” is not unique to literature, and we see countless self-portraits by artists, musical compositions reflecting the composer’s mood or experience, and so on.
And so it is no surprise that playwrights, book writers, composers and lyricists would be drawn to the world they inhabit, both in loathing and in love.
But, as usual, I'm still wondering: "Why this, why now?"

Both Our Country's Good and A Chorus Line seem to spring from a time of difficult funding. The former was written in 1988, perhaps in protest to Thatcherite arts cuts and philistinism. The show requires a sparse set and a small cast of 10 hard-working doubled-up actors to create 22 parts. (You can even produce it on a university theatre soc's tight budget, as I can attest.) The critics are suggesting today's London provides a time ripe for revival.

Similarly, A Chorus Line has got to be the "cheapest" musical I've ever seen staged. Sure, there's plenty of lighting and a gorgeous high-quality orchestra in the Palladium's current production, but if you compare the simple mirrored backdrop and stark "white line" set to the astonishingly complex pyrotechnics of Wicked or We Will Rock You, it must be fairly inexpensive to run. Back in 1975, wikipedia tells me "At the time, the Public [Theater] did not have enough money to finance the production. They borrowed $1.6 million in order to produce the show." Noises Off and A Chorus of Disapproval are also products of the 1980s. Perhaps there was something particular in that decade that drew playwrights into themselves, and prompted them to create more reflexive drama than at other times in history. Financial constraints? A lack of support? Changes in media with the growth of video and TV channels?

And in 2013, we can tick off that list again: financial constraints - check. A lack of government support - check. Changes in media with the growth of YouTube and online streaming - check, check.

Unfortunately, we can't know what prompted Shakespeare's plays within plays in 1595 and 1600ish, apart from the fact that they make damn good plot devices in each.

Yes, it's a bit self-indulgent. Yes, it rather reinforces luvvie stereotypes. But both OCG and ACL are really powerful pieces of drama about the power of theatre, and I'm happy both are playing to modern audiences in London at the moment.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Cultural Catch Up: Manet and Murder; Oscar Wilde and Olivier Awards; Silent Opera and Spring

It's been a great start to the year and my new part-time, part-freelance status.

Here are a few highlights:
More next time.

Back to Blogging

It's been nearly a year since I've shown CatC any love at all. London in 2012 was exciting, exasperating, fascinating and a lot of fun.

My highlights? Well: attending the Games, the Oliviers, everything around the Diamond Jubilee, everything at the Globe, a lot of brilliant plays and art shows and weddings and ooh, an all-round amazing year.

Now I'm back, aiming to blog a little more, if only to keep tabs on my altered career path. As well as working part time as Senior Editor at, I'm now freelancing too, so you'll find a few of those links highlighted here.

Welcome back.

Friday, 17 February 2012

London's Best Dates: Mixing It Up In Brixton

An edited version of this post first appeared on the

The best dates are a delicate balance of the familiar and the intriguing, so why not try a night out in Brixton where the conventional is in constant tension with the exceptional. Start with a film at the Brixton Ritzy, one of London's finest Picturehouse cinemas, which specialises in a mix of mainstream, documentary and art-house movies. Surprise your date with a film followed by a filmmaker Q&A, or something from the NT Live programme.

Post-film, head around the corner where you can reveal your more adventurous side. Seven at Brixton is a funky, low-lit pintxos-and-cocktail place in Brixton Market Row. Go for a table for two upstairs where you can snuggle away among the quirky art and the packing crate chairs, and share some delicious Basque country tapas. Fuel your date's relaxed banter with cocktails at just £5: try the Electric Avenue, a winning mix of apple vodka, pomegranate juice and marmalade.

I enjoyed something similar on a second date a few years ago; Reader, I married him.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Nostalgia for Film: Trend on Trial

This month, I've seen French film The Artist and new play Travelling Light at the National Theatre.

Both loving homages to the history of film.

It seems there's something of a cross-media trend for looking back to the golden age of cinema.

Other works adding to the movement include Tacita Dean's installation, FILM in the Turbine Hall (a celebration of analogue filmmaking); and Martin Scorsese's latest offering, Hugo, which, like Travelling Light, is about the birth of cinema.

Now, to an extent, nostalgia is always going to be popular among theatre / filmmakers. It's safe, reassuring and hugely evocative. Why else would costume dramas, biopics and recent-past-based sitcoms / dramas have such large audiences?

But I can't help wondering if you can simply explain away this current craze for chronicling early cinema with "nostaglia wins".

Travelling Light was heavy on what JC calls Life-On-Mars quips: knowing nods to the wisdom of the audience when an unsuspecting character says something like: "If only I could move to America. No-one there would be bullying me about budgets and who to cast in my film…" and those of us in the auditorium can chuckle knowingly, feeling clever that we know more than those "schmucks" on stage. It's a fun device used sparingly; but one I felt wore slightly thin in the production I saw on Thursday.
Damien Molony and Lauren O’Neil in Travelling Light at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson
As Pete Hammond points out, the tough economic climate does seem to have created an longing for watching rosier versions of ourselves.

Talking about the Oscar nominations, Hammond says,

"This year, at the top of most pundits lists... are... the kinds of movies that might have worked in the Great Depression of the 1930s, when pure entertainment ruled the roost and Shirley Temple and Astaire and Rogers were must-sees. It’s as if people are trying to use movies again for escape from the harsh realities of living in this modern, difficult world."

This is certainly true of Hugo and The Artist. But I think there's got to be more to it than simple nostalgia.

A second theory is that the movies and cinema are simply at the "right age." At more than 100 years old, have they suddenly reached a magical point where a medium simply stops being "new" or "now", and people are able to take a step back and analyse. Something like Dryden and Pepys being able to perform literary criticism on Shakespeare's plays 100 years after his those works were new. It might be a factor...

But aren't we usually told that today, fashions run in 30-year cycles? That when the kids grow up and finally get into position of power in fashion houses, film studios and design spaces, they create work that's a nod to the time when they were young and first inspired by fashion. Isn't that why they made Grease (set in the 1950s) in 1978? And The Sound of Music (set in the late 1930s) was made in 1965?! And of course, that 33 years Sam Tyler jumps in Life on Mars, conveniently both reassuring and strange for a modern audience. It's perhaps the reason Henry Holland's 80s-inspired clothes are hot right now, and hipsters are all wearing those too-short, baggy-at-the-hip and skinny-round-the-ankle trousers Mel and Kim wore on TOTP. (BTW, they're really unflattering.)

So this cross-genre nostalgia for early film doesn't quite fit this wait-30-years-and-repeat trend. There has to be other reasons for it.

Tacita Dean's Tate Modern Installation,
Photo by Eddie Mulholland
Now Tacita Dean's been quite explicit about the motivation behind her hugely popular Tate Modern work. She's concerned about the decline of film, as digital technology takes over and photochemical labs close down. She told the BBC:

"I suddenly realised we are just about to lose this really beautiful medium we created 125 years ago. Digital is also a fantastic medium. It's got massive potential. But I love film and I don't want to lose my ability to make film and it looks like I probably will."

It seems that in the dying moments of film's existence, writers, artists and directors are paying homage to the medium: Steven Spielberg has said, "its years are numbered, but I will remain loyal to this analogue art form until the last lab closes."

"No matter where the cinema goes, we cannot afford to lose sight of its beginnings", says Martin Scorsese in the same article.

But I can't help thinking that while the perilous future of analogue film is a motivating factor for the guys at the top of the industry, it's not really something the average cinema-goer thinks about.

The final reason I think there's this new interest in the origins of film, the tools involved, the quirks of its history (like the change from silent films to talkies) must be the current democratisation of filmmaking.

With the development of technology -- a camera on every phone, simple editing tools available for free online, a near-universal platform to get your masterpiece seen -- an interest in how your predecessors went about making their "moving pictures" must have more appeal.

Part of the mystery of filmmaking has gone. With plays, art and film about film, particularly analogue film, that magic can be protected. The recent cluster of plays and films about films retain their fascination by turning to bewitching characters (like My Week With Marilyn as well as The Artist and Travelling Light), using tried-and-tested techniques from yesteryear, holding up a mirror to a happier past, as well as pulling on our universal love for nostalgia.

Combine all those factors together, and I think we're getting to the bottom of this current trend. It's a winning formula, and I'm certainly not complaining; I, too, am fascinated by the history of "moving pictures", the industry, where it's going, and where it's been. And if it results in more thoughtful, creative filmmaking like The Artist; well, that's got to be a good thing.