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Friday 27 May 2011

The Holy Rosenbergs, Drama by Ryan Craig, National Theatre London, Cottesloe, 1* out of 5

The Rosenbergs are a London based Jewish family with big troubles. Mother Lesley and father David Rosenberg's kosher catering business which the family has run for generations is in terminal decline because of a food poisoning scandal. Danny Rosenberg, their son, the Israeli Aircraft pilot has just been killed over Gaza. His funeral is tomorrow (but seeing the behaviour of the family on the eve of the funeral, that aspect seems like a sort of side-plot). The younger Rosenberg-son, Johnny, who does not want to join his dad's catering business, is in trouble, too. He likes to pick bar-fights in pubs in order to get himself beaten up. On the eve of his brother's funeral he is off to set up a gambling website on the internet and to meet friends in the pub and get himself beaten up again. Life for him, the ex-art student is hard: his brother was an Israeli war-hero and he himself is just a shmuck. Admittedly, one with a lot more understanding of himself and the other family members than the rest of his family. The confluence of all this would already yield enough brain numbing implausibility for several episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful.

But it is only the start: because what the author thought was missing at this stage was a Bridget Jones without the weight problem and only a hint of a love interest or two. This character is Ruth, a lawyer and the sister of the dead pilot. And there is the White Knight from the UN Human Rights Council, the half Scottish half English International Lawyer Mr. Crossley (not D'Arcy but close) fighting the forces of evil: Israeli war crimes in Gaza.

The Jewish community of the Rosenberg's synagogue is outraged by Ruth being involved in the war crime investigation. So they send the Rabbi and the head of the Community to put pressure on her father to persuade her not be present at her brother's funeral. Otherwise there might be protests at the funeral.

Surely, Danny the fighter pilot and dead scion of the Edgware Rosenbergs, deluded kosher caterers to the Jewish multitude, will not turn out to be an Israeli war criminal? I know, you can't wait to find out!

The messages of the drama, as I could discern them are: understand the poor Jews in our midst, they do not own dogs because they think they have to quickly escape the next holocaust; and they are thinking: “if we had to leave the dog behind that would be terrible for the dog; better not have one in the first place”. That concern may seem burden enough, but there's more. Jews are represented in the world by a state that is supposed to be civilized like the United Kingdom. But this state doesn't have a concept of the need for justice and the rule of International Law (that state is Israel and it has a prison camp called Gaza, which it bombs regularly, as Mr Crossley explains). But hey, thank God there's Britain with its Crossleys and d'Arcys and the odd confused Jewish daughter of a caterer from Edgware to show Israel the light.

I imagine Ryan Craig wanted to write an outraged piece against Israeli actions in Gaza for the Guardian's “Comment is Free” website when he had the unfortunate brainwave to write a didactic play in stead: “Goldstone-Report” meets “Bridget Jones” and caters “Barmitzwah Boy”. How any theatre, let alone the National, would agree to put on the resulting inane play is another question I would rather not contemplate. I suggest the responsible parties be sent regularly to the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, which knows a thing or two about creating high quality productions of political plays.

The Holy Rosenbergs is the worst play I have seen in nearly forty years of visits to the National Theatre – and I have seen some pretty poor ones, although only rarely. One must feel sorry for the excellent actors for having to perform in it night after night.

Thursday 26 May 2011

Win Win, Film Drama, Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, 4* out of 5

Mike Flaherty is a struggling small-town lawyer trying to make a living in a small New Jersey town suffering from the after-effects of the 2008 Financial Crisis. Outside his job he is a husband and a father and occasionally engages in home repairs as he cannot afford plumbers or tree surgeons. And he volunteers as a coach to the unsuccessful high school wrestling team. As his financial situation gets tighter, he suffers from anxiety attacks and decides for a small but important financial gain to unethically obtain the guardianship of a client heading toward dementia. Things start getting complicated when the client's 16 year old grandson shows up.

In a recent article for the anniversary issue of the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead, a scholar and expert on the novels of the 19th century female author George Eliot highlights the author's “quiet celebration of the unremarkable.” To illustrate, Mead quotes the final sentence from the novel “Middlemarch” “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs”.  Had she lived in the 21st century, George Elliot would have liked Thomas McCarthy, author and director of the film Win Win. 

Win Win is a film about the capacity of ordinary people to make a big difference for the good, when despite all their shortcomings and ethical ambiguities they strive to do the right thing. Without being gushy, it also shows the paramount importance that family can have as a  locus of enduring meaning, safety and support.

The low key acting performances in this film are all of high quality. Paul Giamatti (as Mike Flaherty) is as good as ever. Amy Ryan, as his wife, is outstanding. For the role of the 16 year old Flaherty picked a young school-wrestler without acting experience; the talented Alex Shaffer gives a very competent and credible performance.

This is an intelligent, enjoyable and entertaining film. Go and see it soon.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Archipelago, Film/Drama, written and directed by Joanna Hogg, 3.75* out of 5

This film is a subtle, tense and at times, comic portrait of an upper middle class family holiday on the Isles of Scilly. Patricia (Kate Fahy) is joined by her grown up children, Edward (Tom Hiddleston) and Cynthia (Lydia Leonard). The holiday appears to have been prompted by Edward's announcement that he is about to quit his recently embarked upon job in the City (London's Financial District) in order to teach children in Africa how to avoid infection with HIV aids.

Edward is quite uncertain about his own decision. He gives the impression to be generally unsure about everything he does, possibly hoping to solicit the care and attention of attractive women. Patricia professes half-hearted support to Edward's plan, while Cynthia who has organised her life in line with the implied demands of her parents, finds Edward is acting irresponsibly. Moreover she is none to pleased that his self-indulgent behaviour gives him more tender family care and attention than she gets for a successful career and the ability to look after herself financially.

The grand absent, is Edward's and Cynthia's dad. He phones his wife regularly to be brought up to date and promise that he will join the rest of the family soon. One suspects that he has sent his wife into battle on his behalf to persuade Edward to give up his silly idea. Edward, Cynthia and Patricia remember him from time to time through side remarks and through Edward's imitations.

The family takes painting lessons from a local artist and a young student cooks for them. Edward finds her interesting and attractive and tries to disrespect the customary class borders between the family and their staff and service providers.

Archipelago is a subtle and successful portrait of English upper middle-class family relations. Pregnant silences, avoidance of embarrassment and upset, occasional outbursts are very truthfully put together in a kind of documentary style. Strong acting performances contribute to a high quality film experience. Amy Lloyd, the cook, is actually a cook who once studied acting for a few months. So amateur and professional acting and professional cooking blend into a quiet, subtle and enjoyable English family portrait.

Monday 9 May 2011

Lakeboat – Prairie du Chien, two plays by David Mamet, Arcola Theatre London, 4* out of 5

In a recent BBC documentary Mark Knopfler, formerly of the band Dire Straits, talks about how he wrote the lyrics to the hit song “Money for Nothing”. In an electrical goods store in New York a delivery man who was bringing in refrigerators looked at a bank of television screens showing the MTV channel, when it had just started out. Knopfler followed the fellow around and claims that he took down more or less verbatim what he said. (For those of you who have forgotten the resulting lyrics or most unlikely never heard them, they are reproduced below.)

Judging by the feel of authenticity with which the dialogues capture the voices of the boatmen, David Mamet seems to have done something similar when he wrote his short play “Lakeboat”.

Dale Katzman, an 18 year all English Literature student begins his summer job working in the galley on a lakeboat for a Chicago based steel concern. In Katzman's conversations with the members of the crew, Mamet gives us brilliant portraits of the people making their living from working on these boats. In turn funny, moving and far beyond the politically correct, Mamet artistically shows us the different boatmen-types and their relationships. One can well imagine David Mamet being the young student working on that Lakeboat and being accepted into these men's lives. It is the dialogues that make this play; but there is a “red-thread” in form of a mystery story that holds it together. The set, direction and above all the sheer energy that emanates from the excellent actors keeps the audience's attention from the beginning to end.

The second play, Prairie du Chien,  is about people who meet for a short journey on an inland passenger boat. Strangers to each other they try to while away the time by telling stories or playing poker. Again it is the snippets of conversation and the authenticity of the voices that Mamet masters brilliantly. And yes, there is some excitement, too. Again excellent acting performances.

Of the two plays, Lakeboat is the stronger one, but Prairie du Chien is not far behind.

Despite the Labour Government's profligacy, and the Conservative-Liberal Governments cuts to Art's budgets, the Arcola Theatre is alive and vibrant and in an improved new building. For sheer quality, it is a glittering diamond within the London theatre scene and never disappoints. Visit it often and join the Arcola Appeal.

12th April - 7th May 2011 
Starting time: 8.00pm

Lakeboat - It is ship worker Dale’s first day on board the Lakeboat. The tall tale of his predecessor’s disappearance whips through the crew, as Dale discovers their mundane lives and fantastic dreams.
Prairie du Chien – In a claustrophobic railroad car rolling through the night, violent tales of obsession, jealousy and death unfold as passengers while away their long journey across Prairie du Chien.
An intriguing double-bill of rarely performed plays from acclaimed American writer David Mamet, winner of a Pulitzer price and Tony Award nomination for Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, and Academy Award nominations forThe Verdict and Wag the Dog.

Play Productions Ltd presents
Directed by Abbey WrightDesigner Helen GoddardLighting Designer Emma ChapmanAssistant Lighting Josh CarrComposer and Musician Tristan Parkes
Casting Director Vicky Richardson
Cast: Nigel Cooke, Ed Hughes, Chris Jarman, William Jeffs, Rory Keenan, Mark Lewis, Roy Sampson, Steven Webb, Nigel Whitmey

Mark Knopfler: Money for Nothing

I want my, I want my M.T.V.

Now look at them yo-yo's, that's the way you do it
You play the guitar on the M.T.V.
That ain't working, that's the way you do it
Money for nothing and your chicks for free

Now that ain't working, that's the way you do it
Let me tell you them guys ain't dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb

We got to install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We got to move these refrigerators
We got to move these colour T.V.'s

The little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy, that's his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he's a millionaire

We got to install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We got to move these refrigerators
We got to move these colour T.V.'s

We got to install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We got to move these refrigerators
We got to move these colour T.V.'s

Look at that, look at that
I should have learned to play the guitar
I should have learned to play them drums
Look at that mama, she got it sticking in the camera
Man we can have some
And he's up there, what's that? Hawaiian noises?
Banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee
Oh, that ain't working, that's the way you do it
Get your money for nothing get your chicks for free

We got to install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We got to move these refrigerators
We got to move these colour T.V.'s

Listen here
Now that ain't working, that's the way you do it
You play the guitar on the M.T.V.
That ain't working, that's the way you do it
Money for nothing and your chicks for free
Money for nothing and chicks for free

Get your money for nothing, get your chicks for free
Money for nothing, chicks for free
Look at that, look at that
Get your money for nothing, get your chicks for free (I
want my, I want my, I want my M.T.V.)
Money for nothing and chicks for free
Easy, easy

That ain't working