Saturday 19 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016) - David Yates

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016) - David Yates

This is not a Harry Potter film.

That might seem obvious from the title, but it bears repeating. Since the release of the first book way back in 1997, the fans have grown up. Now there's a more serious, adult film that caters to them.

Yes, there are plenty of magical creatures to please little ones (even though it's a 12A film). There are cuddly critters, majestic beasts and some very strange looking insect-things, all produced with sensational CGI and effects. And the film is littered with amusing touches that add some much needed light-hearted humour.

But there's a dark underbelly here. This isn't a film about a children's school, with loveable teachers and lessons (both literal and philosophical) to be learnt. This is a film about child abuse. About racism. And very dark magic.

Set in America in the 1920s, we follow Newt Scamander (a jittery, awkward Eddie Redmayne with an irritating pout), a wizard with a very special briefcase full of magical creatures. A mix up leads to these creatures being released into the city and what follows is a Ghostbusters style rescue mission.

Yet this America, much like today, is rife with hate. Wizards live undercover and fear revealing their world to the No-Majs (the American equivalent to Muggles); the No-Majs hunt the wizards (not unlike the Salem witch trials); the wizards have banned magical creatures through lack of understanding; and they even hate themselves. The plot hinges on an obvious parallel to gay conversion therapy - when wizards attempt to suppress their powers instead of being true to themselves, it festers into powerful dark magic that wrecks havoc. Freud would have a field day.

And that's on top of the obvious ecological message of caring for the environment and endangered species. Like Newt's briefcase, the film is stuffed to bursting point with layered meaning and sociological themes - it's just not very subtle about it.

Thankfully, Fantastic Beasts remains a throughly enjoyable watch that allows us to view Rowling's universe from a very different perspective. There's wizards, magic, wands, creatures and a Magical Congress, but its real world setting of New York is a long way from the beloved fantasy school. The sets and costumes are stunningly created, but the cinematography has a washed out feel as if we're watching history - fitting considering the film is based on a school text book. With its seedy underground, corrupt governments, stark lighting and heavy air of mystery, it has the air of a noir thriller, but filled with colourful characters - Rowling's Robert Galbraith books meets Potter. The creatures have far more personality than the mostly likeable leads, though Colin Farrell makes a gruff Auror as Percival Graves and Ezra Miller is disturbing as Credence Barebone. Dan Fogler's No-Maj Jacob Kowalski steals the film though, not only as our portal into this magical world, but providing most of the film's laughs.

Somehow Rowling and director David Yates have achieved the impossible, by making a film for everyone: fans and newcomers, young and old. The plot may be predictable and ultimately a little cheesy whilst setting up the inevitable sequels, but its irresistible concoction of warm storytelling and delectable darkness make this film's magic undeniable.


Watch: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is out now.

Saturday 12 November 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ The Palace Theatre

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ The Palace Theatre

Anyone who follows JK Rowling on Twitter will be aware of her political views. She is a champion of the outsider, a notion that threads its way through her Harry Potter novels. Her unlikely heroes may be magical, but they're not only outsiders to our real world, they're considered freaks in their own: from Hermione's "mudblood" roots, to the working class Weasleys, the triumph of the meek Neville Longbottom, and of course Harry and his miraculous scar.

That notion is as true as ever in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play that is considered the eighth story in the series. Here, outsiders are literally known as "spares", periphery characters who unexpectedly have the power to change their fate. Without spoiling anything, the narrative revolves around time travel, which allows Rowling and co-writer Jack Thorne to retrace key plot points from the series seen from a new angle. It's incredibly clever and works in multiple ways: as a reminder of the past, as a nostalgic device, and a way to add new layers to an existing story. It feels like a credible story within Rowling's world and a part of the main canon, not just a tacked on story for financial gain.

Yet the spell doesn't quite last. Much has already been said about the decision to split the play into two parts and, really, it's unnecessary. Whilst it allows fans to revel in the world for that bit longer, the narrative's plausibility feels stretched. There are plot holes in abundance, characters are either dropped or mentioned but never seen, and the twist in Part Two on which it all rests upon is predictable and (for this fan at least) unrealistic. At this point it starts to feel a little forced. Perhaps Rowling should learn from these characters and know that playing with time gets very, very messy.

It's not all about time travel though. There's a continuation here of the series' main theme of conquering death: here it's about accepting death as part of fate and that tampering with the past has dire consequences. The real story, though, is between Harry (Jamie Parker) and his second son Albus (Sam Clemmett). There's a disconnect between them, Harry struggling to deal with fatherhood and Albus unable to live up to both his father's legacy and his expectations. The plot therefore encapsulates teenage angst better than the books did and however much it loses its way, this father-son story is told with warmth and sincerity and is the real heart of the show.

The plot of Cursed Child, then, is true to the books in the best and the worst way. It's clever and imaginative, it's a little flawed, and it's not always brilliantly written. There are cheesy one-liners and cheap laughs for the audience that crucially break the magic, but these moments are forgivable in the grand scheme of things.

Really, the magic of Cursed Child comes from the production and John Tiffany's direction. What's so special here is the restraint. The show is undoubtedly a spectacle, but it's often done through minimal staging that leaves much to the imagination. In that sense, it's truer to the books than the films could ever be - there's no CGI effects here, just the magic of live theatre. From the genius use of moving staircases and old suitcases to represent sets, to the subtle changes of lighting, and the authentic costumes, this is literally the world of Potter in your mind come to life.

Special mention must go to Steven Hoggett's movement direction. Each scene change is carefully choreographed with swooshes of capes as new scenes materialise before our eyes. And the dance sequences, whilst perhaps a little eccentric, add sparkle and flair. The magical effects are at times astounding, even though regular theatre-goers are sure to see the mechanics. Ignore the use of shadows and people, and a little suspension of disbelief goes a long way.

It's all soundtracked by a score from popstar Imogen Heap, arranged by Martin Lowe. Whilst the music itself is beautiful - full of lush chorales and glittering electronics - it sometimes feels too anachronistic to the look and feel of the play, a modern touch in a world otherwise steeped in tradition. The music is also mostly reworkings of Heap's existing songs, which is a disappointment, even if it mirrors the narrative's retelling of familiar ideas.

As for the cast, their performances certainly reflect the personalities of the books. Noma Dumezweni is a brilliantly bossy Hermione, Paul Thornley is an amusing (if underused) Ron, and Jamie Parker leads the cast as a slightly temperamental Harry. It really is the old gang back in action, just now a little older and wiser. Plus, the time-travelling story allows for some fun changes - a rebellious Hermione was particularly enjoyable. Other characters (no spoilers) make a return, whilst the new characters slot nicely into the story - the pairing of Anthony Boyle's Scorpius Malfoy and Sam Clemmett's Albus Potter have obvious character traits, but they have great chemistry on-stage.

Through the story of Cursed Child, Albus learns that your heroes aren't invincible - especially when it's your dad. Likewise, fans will learn that Rowling too isn't invincible. In the words of Dumbledore himself, "Perfection is beyond the reach of humankind, beyond the reach of magic". From a theatrical point of view, Cursed Child is a wonderful spectacle with some narrative flaws that remains one of the most exciting experiences on London's West End. But from a fan point of view, this is literally Harry Potter on stage. That, in itself, is an almost perfect dream.


Watch: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child runs at the Palace Theatre until December 2017.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ The Palace Theatre

Henry I @ St James Church, Reading

I visited the St James Church, Reading, to interview Hal Chambers, director of Henry I, a new play from theatre company Reading Between The Lines.

Here's a video, created solely on mobile, of the interview...

Monday 7 November 2016

The Last Five Years @ St James Theatre

The Last Five Years @ St James Theatre

Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years remains relatively unknown to mainstream theatregoers in the UK, so this production at the St James Theatre in Victoria, featuring a well known cast and directed by the man himself no less, is simply a theatrical treat.

This is the definitive production of the musical, with its clever narrative that depicts the relationship between an author and an actress in opposite directions through time. The direction is full of clever touches that reflect the subtle mirror imagery littered throughout as the show's beginning and end connect in circular fashion.

Really, it's a production of simplicity. The minimal set and clear staging allow the actors and the music to take the fore through lucid storytelling - as cliché as that sounds.

And what storytelling! The temporal structure may be abstract, but the raw emotion and intelligent writing are beautiful. There's ambiguity in the characterisation that allows the audience to consider the opposing views of each, even if the climax leans a little too heavily on victim and villain roles. Jamie and Cathy are two flawed humans whose relationship is unbearably tragic and loaded with dramatic irony.

Equally, it's a show about the pressures of career - specifically those in the arts - and how personal gains must be balanced with love. Does struggling in your career mean you lean too heavily on a loved one? Does success make you neglect your partner and take them for granted?

The score, with its delicate string arrangements and amusing Jewish inflections, utterly encapsulates the harmony, discord and rhythms of human relationships. Together with the fluctuating narrative, we feel every moment of pain and joy, the show not only an insular mirror but reflecting our own experiences and insecurities.

That also comes through the outstanding cast. Jonathan Bailey's Jamie offers rich storytelling in each number, whether literally, in diffusing an argument, or grappling with guilt and shame. He is full of such charm and warmth that we can't help but fall for him, tragically, just as Cathy does.

Samantha Banks is the more vocally capable of the two as Cathy, making it all seem so effortless. It's a well-rounded performance that begins gently mournful and broken but soon finds power, with comedy audition songs and flirtation, and ends with wide-eyed innocence that, in hindsight, cuts deep.

This production isn't quite perfect. There are vocal cracks, a lack of polish between the singers and the band, and the sliding set feels clunky. But none of that detracts from the arresting relationship that's laid bare on stage and will consume you for 90 minutes. This is theatre that's moving to the very core.


Watch: The Last Five Years runs at the St James Theatre until 26th November.

The Last Five Years @ St James Theatre

The Last Five Years @ St James Theatre
Photos: Scott Rylander