Saturday, 27 November 2021

REVIEW: Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of)


On Friday night, the missus and I were at the end of a nice day out in the Smoke and decided to stop by one of those ticket kiosks that dot the West End to see if we could grab a last-minute theatre ticket. It was Black Friday, after all, so there was bound to be some fantastic bargain out there.

It turned out a lot of people had the same idea, so there weren't very many affordable seats left – at least, not together, and we didn't really want to sit at opposite ends of the theatre. There were plenty of shows on we'd heard of, but they were mostly very pricey, and anyway, the whole point of a last-minute ticket is to try something unexpected.

So, we ended up getting tickets to Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly. We'd not heard of this one; I mean, we'd heard of Pride and Prejudice. Suzanne has even read it. An all-female, OTT-comedy take on the 1813 novel, it sounded like our sort of thing. We thought it would be a laugh, but didn't expect anything, well, special. What we got was an absolutely brilliant show, one of the best evenings we've had at the theatre in years.

The fact that I'm not particularly into the works of Austen probably accounts for this play completely passing me by since it premiered at the Tron in Glasgow in 2018. It started its UK tour in late 2019, before getting stalled by the pandemic in 2020 just like everything else. Restarting in October this year, it deserves to be a monster hit. Written by, co-directed by and co-starring Isobel McArthur, it updates the satire of the original novel into a raucous, foul-mouthed and flamboyant modern take. It's a hotch-potch of anachronisms – the characters can't quite seem to decide if its the 18th century or the 21st – but this only adds to the air of chaotic fun.

The five members of the cast each play one of the serving staff who work uncelebrated in Austen's world, themselves reenacting the story by taking on various roles. McArthur herself portrays both Mrs Bennett (who sounds exactly like Blackadder the Third's Mrs Miggins) and a very dashing Mr Darcy. Meghan Tyler is a boisterously Irish Elizabeth, dominating her scenes. Christina Gordon spends most of the play as Jane, but also gives us hilarious performances as Lady Catherine and Mr Wickham. Hannah Jarrett-Scott is both the Bingley siblings, Charlotte and the main servant character, Tilly. Tori Burgess rounds out the cast as two of the remaining Bennett sisters. With whip-fast costume changes and a variety of accents, the actors jump between roles with aplomb.

The direction and choreography are spot-on, with perfect timing and positioning making for precise physical comedy, complementing a tight and fantastically funny script. Anacronistic props add comedy to a minimalist but cleverly constructed set, with the biggest laugh of the night going to the filthy skip wheeled in, emblazoned with the legend “JANE AUST-BIN.” Most of the jokes are smarter than that, but who doesn't love a shocking pun?

There are songs, but it's not a musical – more of a karaoke theatre experience. The multi-talented cast sing and perform all manner of instruments, giving us songs from everyone from Elvis Costello and Pulp to Bonnie Tyler, and even some Divine Comedy. It's practically my playlist, with the notable exception of the works of Master Christopher de Bourgh. The second half tones down the comedy a little, bringing in the feels for a beautiful finale.

With an incredibly talented cast and fantastic comic writing, Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is a brilliant, touching and absurd take on one of the greats of literary fiction. It might even get me to read the book.

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

TREK REVIEW: DIS 4.1 - Kobayashi Maru


Before cracking on with the review, let's take a moment to rail against Paramount's latest dubious marketing decision. While I understand the company's desire to monetise their product effectively, their decision to make Discovery available only through their own streaming service is questionable, and their approach to doing so utterly baffling. It's not that Paramount hasn't got a large slate of films and programmes, but it's hardly Disney, and not so many people are going to want to sign up to another expensive subscription service to watch their shows. Choosing Star Trek as their tentpole production shows that they're pinning their new service on Trek fans, so then doing their very best to piss worldwide fans off seems like a very stupid thing to do.

Pulling Discovery from Netflix after a backroom deal, two days before the latest season is due to start, is a kick in the teeth to anyone who hasn't decided to shell out for Paramount Plus, and to anyone outside of the US and Canada. With days to go after much trailing, the rest of the world is told to stuff it and will have to wait months to see it legally. It's not exactly hard to pirate things these days, and Paramount are going to make considerably less money in the long run as people either torrent their programmes or leave it altogether. That's even without looking at the concerns of the cast and crew, who were suddenly told days before their big premiere that 90% of the world won't see their work as promised.

Onto the actual episode... and yes, that was really rather good. Taking up some months after the end of season three's climactic finale, with Burnham fully ensconsed as captain of the Discovery, on a mission to reunite the disparate worlds of the Federation and spread a little goodwill. The opening act sees Burnham and Book (there for his special empathic skills) visit the planet Alshain Four, where the native population are struggling for dilithium but are very hostile towards the Federation due to previous bad experiences pre- and post-Burn. It's a very fun, over-the-top and visually spectacular opening, ending with Burnham and crew making things good with the Alshain and gifting them some dilithium. “We're the Federation,” says Captain B. “It's what we do.”

Moving on to Starfleet HQ, where Starfleet Academy is re-opening for the first time in over a century, and the brand new Federation President is on-hand to speechify about the importance of it all. Twenty-one worlds have rejoined the Federation in the last five months, a new experimental Pathfinder Drive is being worked on, and missions of exploration are starting again. A new spacedock named Archer is commissioned, and to hammer home the symbolism, we get a refrain from Archer's Theme from Enterprise. It's all rather moving. There are little, subtle asides to other historic Trek series as well – mention of the new USS Voyager and a line about “what was left behind,” plus a paraphrase of the classic “strange new worlds” opening, just to bring everything full circle.

It's rather more feelgood than the immediate crises the show has previously dropped us in. This doesn't last long, of course, and before the episode is done a new, unforeseen and unprecedented catastrophe is heading for the galaxy. Discovery is called out to help space station Deep Space Beta 6 when it's hit by a gravitational anomaly, and just so happens to be in the general vicinity of Kwejian, where Book is enjoying a space coming-of-age ceremony with his brother and nephew. Without going into massive spoilers for the whole episode, it's leads to a thrilling rescue mission at the space station, where Adira and now Lieutenant Tilly face a panicky and proprietory commander alongside a catastrophic collision with some Oort cloud debris. Burnham, none-too-happy to have the President along for the ride, takes matters into her own hands and goes on a breakneck, death-defying one-woman mission to fix the station from the outside. Meanwhile, similarly catastrophic gravitational effects begin around Kwejian.

I had thought that the icy debris heading for the station was evidence of the whole of Kwejian's system shifting across space due to the gravitational anomaly, but this doesn't seem to be the case. Nonetheless, planets were left dislocated and it's clear the galaxy is in for some serious trouble in the near future.

In a side-plot, Saru remains on Kaminar, doing his best to lead the Ba'ul-Kelpien alliance back into the wider galaxy while also looking after his young protege Su'Kal. There are some lovely moments here, with a genuinely touching scene in which Su'Kal reassures Saru that he now has new friends and family on Kaminar, even as some people still fear him, and that the Kelpien captain should return to Starfleet where he clearly belongs. Another little sideline is Adira's relationship with Gray, who's still hanging around as a ghost in want of a physical body. There's not much time spent on it, but it gets its moment so we know this storyline hasn't been forgotten. Stamets and Culber remain devoted space dads to Adira, who is struggling with being both the youngest crewmember on her first away mission, and having centuries of experience no one expects.

The main thread of the story, though, is Burnham's messiah complex, seemingly even worse than ever now she's captain. As the President points out, her inflexible commitment to ensuring everyone lives could one day mean that everyone dies, and her inability to delegate during major crises risks missions failing. In Burnham's defence, it did, as she says, work, and she can probably be forgiven for acting like the universe revolves around her when events so far in Discovery suggest it does. Martin-Green (now also listed as producer) gives a great performance, fun when she needs to be and stubbornly rigid otherwise. She has a great foil in David Ajala's Book, and their chemistry hasn't lessened in the time between seasons. More interesting though is her interplay with Chelah Horsdal as President Laira Rillak, who muscles her way onto the bridge and questions the captain's decisions at every turn. Clearly a charming and resourceful leader, Rillak is also canny enough to research the people she's dealing with, memorising key details she can use to get them on side.

It looks to me that the writers are trying to set Burnham up as a new Kirk. The opening is very much the sort of adventure we might see Kirk on, with Book providing the common sense of Bones while Burnham wings it on guts and charm and ends up with a precarious situation that eventually comes good. Watching here we were reminded very much of the Teenaxi at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, physically very different but equally paranoid and aggressive aliens who went for Kirk the same way the Alshain went for Burnham. Her fractious relationship with the President also recalls any number of arrogant and officious VIPs that Kirk had to put up with on his bridge on TOS, questioning his sometimes impulsive command decisions.

The rest of the cast remain strong, with Mary Wiseman giving us a more assured Tilly, Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander remain adorable and Oded Fehr is a solid presence as Admiral Vance. Perhaps the most impressive remain Doug Jones and Bill Irwin as Saru and Su'Kal, providing extraordinarily nuanced performances under layers of make-up. With some fascinatingly strange new worlds and some gripping action, this is an excellent season opener.

What a shame we couldn't watch it.

Alien life forms:

President Rillak appears to be a mixture of human, Bajoran and Cardassian heritage.

Nalas, the commander on DS Beta 6, is one of Kima's species, now named the Akoszonam.

Starfleet officers seen include Lurians and Ferengi.

The Alshain (who reminded me visually of the Engineers from Prometheus) have some kind of symbiotic relationship with their planets butterflies, and can fly using their planet's magnetic field.

Stellar Cartography: Alshain, or Beta Aquilae, is a real star system, a mere 45 light years from Earth.

Personnel roster: Rhys has been promoted to Lt. Commander, and seems to be acting as first officer for this mission.

Future history: Rillak talks to Burnham about the Kobayashi Maru, but it's a little hard to credit they're using the same test all these centuries later. Even naming a space station after Jonathan Archer is a bit of a stretch – his era was a thousand years earlier.

Monday, 22 November 2021

WHO REVIEW: FLUX Chapter Four - Village of the Angels

Doctor Who: Flux is improving week on week, with the twisty and interesting “Once, Upon Time” followed by a gripping episode that combines the best of time-hopping weirdness with good, old-fashioned spookiness. The Weeping Angels are, of course, one of the most popular and inventive monsters ever featured in Doctor Who, and there's still little enough of them that their inclusion here is exciting in the way that the return of the Daleks and Cybermen aren't. Even the Sontarans, while it was a treat to have them feature properly for the first time in ages, aren't as clever or unique a concept as the Angels. Interviews with the cast suggest a palpable excitement in having them appear. There hasn't been a full-on Angels episode since “The Angels Take Manhattan” in 2012, and since then their more minor appearances in “The Time of the Doctor” and Class have been throwaway. Big Finish have been using them plenty, of course, because Big Finish don't get the rights to the concept and not do it to death, and there's been a positive response to the mobile game The Lonely Assassins. Still, “Village of the Angels” feels special, not only because the Weeping Angels are such a brilliant monster but also because the episode is straightforwardly high quality in a way we haven't really seen lately.

Given that the Angels are the quintessential Moffat era monster, it's unsurprising that the episode has a very Moffat-y feel, more so even than last week's, with an almost storybook vibe to the creepy village with its old-fashioned inhabitants. After from the exemplary “Blink,” though, the Angels never quite worked as well even with Moffat writing, their simple but ingenious central concept being added to until it became diluted and overcomplicated. Here, though, everything builds more naturally. It's assumed that, if you're watching this, you've probably at least seen “Blink” on iPlayer and probably know the basics from the previous years, with a few reminders that you mustn't blink and that “the image of an Angel becomes an Angel” dropped in for good measure. Now that the excessive abilities introduced in “The Time of Angels” are fully established it's easier to just get one with it and have them come for the Doctor as a truly relentless threat.

Without wanting to be too harsh, this episode feels like a first draft than a lot of this era's stories. Maxine Alderton's clearly a real talent and while we don't know how much of this is hers and how much is Chibnall's they clearly make for a good team. I loved “Once, Upon Time” but there were still persistent issues such as the clumsy exposition and the sometimes weak characterisation of the Doctor. These are cleaned up here, with Dan's role as exposition engine lampshaded and the Doctor being a proactive force while also allowing her to be terrified and wrong-footed by the Angel's attack. Last week I felt that Whittaker was better when playing the Fugitive Doctor than her normal incarnation, as it was simply stronger material, but here she gets to be a verison of her Doctor that really works.

Yaz gets to actually be a police officer, bringing skills and an approach that other characters simply wouldn't try, in her attempt to track down the missing girl Peggy. It's a bit obvious that, when a mysterious old lady starts wandering around muttering about these things happening again, they're going to be revealed as the same person after a time jump, but it's still effectively told and played. The guest cast are uniformly good, but plaudits especially to Annabel Scholey as Claire. I'm still not going to be surprised if she's revealed to be an iteration of Clara, but right now she's plenty interesting enough as a forthright and capable woman who happens to be a powerful psychic and is stuck living more than fifty years in her own past. There's enough promise in that for a whole series in itself. Kevin McNally is almost as good as Professor Jericho, a delightfully old-fashioned sort of character who absolutely fits with the haunted village vibe.

There are still logical flaws in the Angels concept, such as no one taking the obvious route of at least trying to take turns blinking. The visual of people being crumbled to dust if they contact an Angel a second time is chilling, although I suspect it contradicts what we've seen in previous stories (I'll have to go back and rewatch to be certain). I love the concept of a premonition of an Angel constituting an image, thereby rooting itself in Claire's mind, although by this logic anyone who's ever seen an Angel woould have one living in their head as a memory. It's easy enough to voerlook this though when there are so many striking concepts so well put across, including the uplifted village plucked out of space and the idea of a rogue Angel. The Doctor actually comes off rather badly, refusing to listen to such “a creature,” but the Doctor's more interesting when they're morally dubious and a bit of an arsehole.

The Division is becoming a far more interesting idea than it first appeared, where it was basically the Time Lords' CIA under a different name. Now it seems to be a much bigger, multi-species concern that employs a whole phalanx of Weeping Angels to maintain time. The Doctor's (apparently) accidental crossing of her own time stream in “Fugitive of the Judoon” seems to have linked her present to her past working for them, even before she went actively looking for information on them. It's always a bit tricky to apply logic to a time travel narrative like this, since past and future mean nothing to someone travelling across the whole of history on a whim, but there's generally been a impression that time active beings usually meet each other in the the correct relative order. Obviously this isn't always the case, but here it looks like the Doctor's interacting with her forgotten past has upset the chronology rather badly. The Judoon came for her and now the Division have come for her, and who knows, maybe even the Flux is a result of this.

We end with one of the best cliffhangers in recent memory, and whether it makes sense or not it's a fantastic image (as well as hinting towards the idea from The End of Time that Angels began as cursed Time Lords). We even get a mid-credits scene, MCU-style, following up on Bel's subplot. Thaddea Graham remains one of the best things in this series and is more than capable of maintaining her own storyline, but I am looking forward to Vinder catching up with her and their reconnecting with the main narrative.

Next week looks to be throwing even more elements in but hopefuully will begin to tie this all together. We've only two weeks left for this serial to be, if not resolved, at least satisfactorily climaxed.

REVIEW - Ghostbusters: Afterlife

SPOILERS after the break! 

Well then, it's finally here. Ghostbusters: Afterlife (or Ghostbusters: Legacy in some regions). I saw it on opening night (three evenings ago) but have taken a little while to collect my thoughts. As some of you might have noticed over the years, I'm rather into Ghostbusters, the film and the whole franchise. Ghostbusters II is great, sorely underrated, I thoroughly enjoyed the 2016 reboot (these days referred to as Answer the Call) and am still a bit annoyed the fan backlash damaged its performance so much that it didn't get a sequel. A third movie of any kind seemed unlikely for years, and at least the reboot made it clear there was still an appetite for the film. Finally we get a third instalment of the original continuity and... I liked it. I didn't love it. But I liked it.

For the bulk of the movie, this is a solid adventure with some nice comic touches. Taking the route of a coming-of-age/kids fight the supernatural story is a different direction to what we might have expected, which is a straight-up remake, but still very evocative of eighties classics. Focusing on a new generation allows the story to continue while updating and refreshing it, and while this is very much the same world as the original Ghostbusters, there's a distinctly different feel to most of it. Taking the action away from New York and out into the country makes a huge difference. There's a distinct tone to the majority of the film which is very unlike the previous ones. While the original wasn't the laugh-a-minute gag fest some fans make it out to be, it was very much a comedy. The reboot went hard into the comedy route, whereas this is the least comedic of the four, focusing a lot more on character drama. This isn't to say it's not funny, but it's a more sparing type of comedy. 

Monday, 15 November 2021

REVIEW: Last Night in Soho

There are few directors who combine such a wit and visual invention as Edgar Wright, and his latest film takes him in a new direction, tackling a horror-thriller without the backing of comedy. The Cornetto Trilogy went further with violence and gore, but the jokes took off much of the edge. Last Night in Soho, although not without laughs, is a serious film tackling serious themes of abuse and exploitation.

In interviews, Wright talks about listening to his parents' record collection, listening to their stories of their youth in the sixties. Whereas this period is now fondly recalled in most popular media, Wright's recollections of his parents' stories paint a different picture, of harsher experiences. Films actually made in Britain in the sixties often show a darker, more dangerous side of the London experience. Last Night in Soho revives this genre, a look at the cruel and dirty side of the sixties acting as an antidote to the rose-tinted nostalgia of theme park history.

A contemporary setting puts the experience at a further remove, with heroine Ellie a generation-and-a-half further from the lived experience of the sixties than Wright himself. Thomasin McKenzie, a Kiwi doing a decent South Western accent (although the missus informs me she sounds far more Somerset than Cornish), is a hell of a find as Ellie. Embodying a real vulnerability but never weakness, Ellie's experience among the snobs and bullies of the London College of Fashion could break a less strong person even before the bizarre psychic experiences start.

One thing I love about this story is the complete lack of explanation given for Ellie's abilities. She's briefly mentioned as having “a gift,” and we share her visions of her late mother, but that's all. We're thrown into her unprompted memories and dreams of Sandie, building from the glamour and excitement of the sixties nostalgia to the abject horror of Soho's seedy underbelly. Anya Taylor-Joy is, as usual, absolutely captivating, combining real movie star beauty with powerful acting. Early plans had Taylor-Joy as Ellie, and while I don't doubt she could have played it beautifully, that just seems entirely the wrong aesthetic. She's the very picture of sixties glamour and optimism, and that makes her fall all the more powerful.

In the film surprisingly little is Matt Smith, but god, does he make an impact in his scenes. Dominating, sexy and frankly terrifying, as Sandie's lover-turned-pimp he is incredible. Rounding off the big-name cast are Terrence Stamp as one creepy old bastard and the late, great Diana Rigg in her last ever role, the harsh and damaged landlady of Ellie's bedsit. A striking newcomer is Michael Ajao as John, the gentle and caring fashion student who becomes Ellie's love interest. Definitely one to watch. Classy old hand Rita Tushingham makes the most of her scenes as Ellie's grandmother, while there are further clasy turns by Pauline McLynn and genuine sixties icon Margaret Nolan (also filming her last role). Another one to watch is Synnove Karlsen as the queen bitch Jocasta.

Events turn disturbing in both past and present, twisting into a murder mystery/ghost story. There's a decent twist, with the story leading us down the wrong path, but it's hardly the most difficult one to guess and most people will get there before the big reveal. We're teased into thinking that Smith's Jack is still at large in the present day, but by casting him and Taylor-Joy Wright has two actors with such distinctive looks it's impossible to have anyone convince as their older selves. This, oddly, works in the story's favour, better hiding the contemporary characters' identities. Still, the film isn't going to win any awards for shocking heel-turns.

What it deserves awards for is atmosphere, combining the look, feel and sound of the sixties with a genuinely unsettling dreamscape. As the more stylised world of Ellie's dreams encroaches on her waking life, McKenzie's naturalistic performance becoming more heightened as her link to Sandie becomes more powerful. Spectacular style combines with some exceptional performances to make this one of the most potent films I've seen in a long while.