Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Wild Bill and the importance of fatherhood

The East End of London is a familiar backdrop to the gangster, hard man film genre. But in Dexter Fletcher’s gritty and accomplished first movie, Wild Bill, the sink estates and building sites around the Olympic stadium provide his action with an emotional content and resonance. Fletcher introduces us to a part of London that is under reconstruction and this mirrors the moral project of the film’s central character, “Wild” Bill Hayward (Charlie Creed-Miles).

Bill is attempting to reconstruct his life after being banged up for eight years in Parkhurst prison for robbery and GBH. He is out on licence and planning to go straight. The question is will he be allowed to break with old-style East End omertà or will he be sucked back into the underworld of drug dealing and casual violence?

The ex-con returns to his family but finds that it is also in need of some radical reconstruction. His wife has run off to Spain with a fancy man, leaving behind her two sons, 15 year old Dean (Will Poulter) and 11 year old Jimmy (Sammy Williams). Dean has been acting as both father and mother to his younger brother while living a covert existence beneath the radar of social services in order to avoid being taken into care. Bill’s return releases in Dean all the repressed anger at his father’s desertion.

Yet, without Bill’s presence, Dean and Jimmy will be at the mercy of social services. Bill must learn from scratch how to be a father and his sons must learn to love and respect him as such. This is not a cosmetic makeover, but something that goes to the heart of how they understand themselves. The relationship between Bill and his sons develops a tensile strength like no other and gives a unique order to their relationship.

Wild Bill is set in a macho environment where threat and force have become flaccid expressions of manhood. The flexing of tattooed East End muscle and menacing attitudes look Neanderthal. But, in the fatherhood of Bill and the response of his sons, we glimpse the inherent dignity of the masculine, where true strength is manifested in care, protection, tenderness and playfulness. Without sermonising, Wild Bill reminds us that young lads do well to have real dads. They benefit and so does society.

Dialogue as sharp as a Stanley knife and raw performances make Wild Bill all that and a bag of chips. It’s not scared to take on the Lock, Stock and Two Barrels clichés and credits its audience with intelligence and wit. This film can more than handle itself and deserves to be widely seen. Imagine The Wire set in Newham. Yes, it is that good. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dexter Fletcher and Creed-Miles replace their hoodies and trackie bottoms for something a little sharper as they pick up shiny gongs at awards ceremonies in the coming year.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Sweeney Todd

I saw the original 1980 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. At the time, the critics damned his new musical with faint praise. They admired its cleverness but questioned its emotional detachment. A musical about revenge, serial killing and cannibalism was too much for a West End audience to stomach and it soon closed.

I have never been a great fan of musical theatre (too camp, too trite and too obvious for my tastes) but as a fourteen year old I was mesmerised by the musical ambition and lyrical wit of Sweeney Todd. Sitting in the gods at Drury Lane, watching Hal Prince's spectacular production, has become one of the defining moments of my theatre going life. I fell in love with the musical and, over time, I have become a devoted fan of the work of Stephen Sondheim.

Over the years I have seen countless productions of Sweeney Todd – including the famous 1993 National Theatre production, an Opera North production and a promenade performance with the opera singer, Bryn Terfel, singing the part of Sweeney. Tim Burton’s film version – though visually exciting – was, to my mind, a disappointment. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter had neither the musical or emotional range to make the relationship between Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett convincing.

Why has this musical (unlike any other) captured my imagination? I think it is the completeness of Sondheim’s musical venture and the lyrical perversities that continue to excite and startle. For example, what other musical would use a love song (“Pretty Women”) as throats are being slashed by a sociopath? Sondheim allows beauty and horror to cohabit in the same melodious, orchestrated line. Dissonant key-changes create an atmosphere of menace and even the lyrical sensuality of some of his orchestration acquires an erotic ambivalence. At every point, the audience is musically wrong footed and kept in a state of permanent suspense.

Sondheim’s lyrics straddle grand guignol melodrama and farce with a contortionist’s ease: “For what’s the sound of the world out there?/Those crunching noises pervading the air?/ it’s man devouring man, my dear,/ and who are we to deny it in here? ” Though set in Victorian England, Sondheim’s musical feels as contemporary and disturbing as American Psycho or We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Jonathan Kent’s new production of Sweeney Todd has just transferred to London and stars Michael Ball and Imelda Stauton. It is one of the darkest and most theatrically convincing productions of Sweeney Todd I have seen. The gothic visuals of Hammer House of Horror movies viewed through the lens of the Communist Manifesto. It's scary and thought provoking.

Michael Ball, every housewife’s Radio 2 crumpet, is unrecognisable. He has transformed himself into an obsessive, vengeful force who satiates his hatred by murdering the innocent. Imelda Staunton’s Mrs Lovett is a master class in comic timing while conveying the unique pain of unrequited love.

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street raises his razor again at the Adelphi Theatre. Kill for a ticket.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Travelling Light

Last week’s Oscar winner, The Artist, is about that liminal moment in cinema history when the silent movie became the talkie. It was also a salient reminder of the continuing influence of the Jewish community in Hollywood. The producer of The Artist is the indomitable, Harvey Weinstein.

Nicholas Wright’s new play, Travelling Light, is concerned with another liminal moment in cinema history – the moment when the still photograph became a moving picture and motion pictures were born. The play also highlights the fact that the birth of modern film took place within the Jewish community. These cinematic pioneers became the pilgrim fathers and mothers who took their new invention to America and laid the foundations for the Hollywood factory of dreams of Louis B Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn.

Travelling Light sees in the bustling life of the shtetl, the small town, the embryonic beginnings of cinema. A scene in the play, where the would be director, Maurice Montgomery, and his female assistant, realise that a length of continuous film can be spliced and glued together to form a new narrative is presented as significant as the invention of the combustion engine. It’s a wonderful Eureka moment. Man using his intellect, creativity and ingenuity to produce something that would provide another light with which we might interpret the world around us.

But why did the community of the shtetl become the focus for such inventiveness and creativity? In a programme note, the writer, Eva Hoffman, points to the moral centre at the heart of the shtetl:

Everyone within the shtetl’s small compass knew each other; and although there was clear social hierarchy, based on the values of wealth and religious learning, the importance of charity meant that not even the poorest or the most improvident were entirely rejected from the communal net. On the Sabbath, those who could not afford a proper meal were taken in by their more prosperous neighbours; and on those evening, the shtetl really did become a united organism, with Sabbath candles visible through each home’s windows....

What accounted for this outburst of inventiveness and creativity? Perhaps it was precisely the encounter between traditionalism and modernity; the disciplines of piety and religious reasoning colliding with new, turbulent social realities...such confrontations can liberate surprising forces of imagination and thought...

Travelling Light is a sentimental reimagining of the early days of cinema. All those eureka moments – editing, casting, continuity, cinematography, finance, etc – are celebrated with real warmth and humour in Wright’s play. When I next walk into the local cinema multiplex, I’ll remember with a new clarity the huge contribution that small Jewish communities made in providing pleasure, entertainment and stimulation to those millions of us who simply love the movies.

Travelling Light by Nicholas Wright is currently on at the National Theatre, London.