Review: Captivate Theatre’s Oliver!

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“Oliver, never before has a boy—“ no, sorry. I have come to review Captivate Theatre’s Edinburgh Fringe production of Oliver! at the Rose Theatre, not to launch into the big titular number. Hard to resist it, though.

Oliver! does such a good job of adapting Oliver Twist that it begins to seem strange that so many ‘period drama’ adaptations are joyless, homogenous, National Trust-branded awkward nonentities. Oliver!’s formula is, after all, rather simple. The musical understands that the titular character doesn’t need to be particularly compelling or the centre of attention. This is a parish boy’s progress, not a Hero’s Journey. Oliver is the youthful plot impetus rather than the psychological agent his successors David and Pip will be. Oliver! relishes the novel’s dialogue and lifts it where possible. It gets the book’s jokes and tells them well, it makes a meal of Dickens’ big, theatrical characters, and it’s more interested in the themes and mechanical tensions of the story than in re-enacting every element of the plot with slavish fidelity.

Read full article here at the Dickens Society blog.

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Review: Dickens for Dinner

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Shakespeare for Breakfast is a venerable Edinburgh Fringe Festival institution that has been selling out its house for twenty-six seasons and is still going strong. Every year they offer a quality Shakespeare parody, free coffee and a croissant. They don’t need their gimmick, but by God they stick to it. I never regret going, and a Fringe trip would feel incomplete without it.

This year, the team that performs the morning show also gives you the lunchtime Dickens for Dinner. The title introduces something of a controversy, as in the south of England, where many if not most Fringe visitors hail from, the mid-day meal is known as lunch. Calling it dinner, and the evening meal supper or even tea rather than dinner, are far more common in north England and Scotland. These distinctions have class connotations as well as regional ones.

“So it’s not really for dinner, is it?” said my vexed girlfriend, who is very from the Home Counties, of the matinee performance.

“A Northerner will come and eat you if you keep saying that,” I begged.

“But it’s NOT ‘dinner’!” she pressed on, heedless. I’ll miss her.

Read full piece here.

The Fifth Element (review)

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The Fifth Element (1997) is well-made. I don’t think you can deny that, and this sense of craft is one of my favourite things about it. Sure it has a somewhat hand-wavy space opera plot, featuring a giant ball of evil: why not? (Really I don’t think Fifth Element hangs together worse than Ghostbusters, which fanboys acclaim as a classic without qualification.) It’s not the story that does it for me so much as how it’s told. Element does tons of great, casual characterisation work. Its representation game is fairly strong. The script employs dozens of easy, unsmug, rhythmic lays-and-pick-ups, which are just satisfying to watch. A contest is advertised on television, and later someone wins it. There’s a garbage strike and a resultant big pile of refuse, which is discussed and then used in an escape. The protagonist’s bed wraps up in plastic after each use: someone inevitably gets trapped in there.

The film feels like it came from a team that was very aware of other media, and drawing from an eclectic multi-national and multi-media range of sources. The theme and aesthetic invoke Star Gate‘s (1994) cosmic Egyptology. The police uniforms and the particular intersection of sprawling public disorder and over-powerful (if itself disorderly) state authority pull from Judge Dredd comics. Blade Runner is also in the room. Bits of the cityscape (I’m thinking of a particular bridge we see in the back of the frame during the taxi sequence) and vehicle design are derived from the epic Franco-Belgian Les Cites Obscures comics. The design of the Floston Paradise cruise ship reflects not only this, but also the rash of Titanic films coming out around 1997. Æon Flux infuses its costuming, as does June Hudson’s iconic work for British sci-fi television and the not-unconnected project(s) of Alexander McQueen.

Fifth Element‘s determination to include labour in its plot and visuals also feels akin to what British scifi television was doing in the 80s and 90s in Blakes 7Red Dwarf and Doctor Who. The garbage strike, the taxi minutiae, the smoked-up spaceship parasite disposal team, and even Ruby Rob’s professional hustle make labour manifest in this world in a way that’s rare in contemporary filmic SF. But it’s a film as dedicated to the epic as the quotidian: the huge space-ships are pure Star Destroyer, and some of the costuming is from Star Wars‘ visual universe as well (the Star Wars prequels, which we must remember employed many excellent designers even if the overall project was a mess from conception to completion, return the favour by visually quoting Fifth Element‘s Brooklyn, among other elements, for their Coruscant). I really welcome both the space opera scope and the commitment to working-class detail. Too many SF films lack ambition in either category, preferring to occupy a vague and unsatisfying Everyman middle-ground: SF of the bourgeoisie.

Foes & Families: Love & Friendship, Lady Susan, and How Jane Austen’s Victorian Family Built a Squeaky-Clean Celebrity Brand

To talk about the 2016 film Love & Friendship we have to tell the story of Lady Susan, the Jane Austen novella it’s based off of. At the time of Austen’s death, this early work was both unpublished and untitled. Thus changing the name for the film seems fair enough, though exchanging Lady Susan for Love & Friendship, already the posthumously-assigned title of an entirely different piece of Austen’s juvenilia is really confusing. The marketing team probably did it to get that familiar ‘Noun & Noun’ Austen Title Formula on the posters. According to Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman’s excellent survey of the history of Austen reception, this was already a noted, copied characteristic of her work in 1821, only four years after her death.

The exact period of Lady Susan’s composition remains a matter of some debate. William Baker’s Critical Companion to Jane Austen: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work proposes drafting dates ranging from between 1795 to 1805, as well as providing an incredibly useful synopsis of major critical readings of the novella. What we can know definitively is that Lady Susan was first published in 1871, when it acquired its current title, by Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, “as an appendix to the second edition of his A Memoir of Jane Austen”. (p. 124)

Read full review here.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 2016 (film review)

I stared at the Facebook message in horror. Had a uni friend truly linked me to the trailer for the (inevitable) film of the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the assumption that I would be pumped about this? Had she, in her sweet innocence, failed to notice that I am a hideous snob put on this earth to roll my eyes at the ‘classic novel and SFnal creature’ book trend? WAS MY BRAND INVISIBLE? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was the last film on earth I would ever be willing to watch.

But as Austen teaches us, no plan survives contact with one’s sisters. Meghan was born ten years after me because god thought that up until then I’d had it too easy. Twenty years later she sat sulking through our low-key Halloween celebrations, and I felt guilty for dragging her prematurely into my fogeyish idea of a hot night (I had a roast dinner and a full-length black mourning veil to lunge out at trick-or-treating children in—what more could be wanting?). She suggested we watch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and apparently I am slightly more prone to guilt even than to pretentiousness, because I agreed to let that happen in my home.

Read full review here.

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Brighton Fringe 2017

The Brighton Fringe is smaller than the Edinburgh Fringe, and judging by what I’ve seen of them, Brighton’s offerings don’t have quite the production values some (though decidedly not all) Edinburgh shows manage. But if Scotland leaves the UK and becomes an EU member in its own right, the English people who flock north to perform and spectate in August like confused and misdirected migrating birds may have to learn to love Brighton. God only knows what the theatrical work visa situation will look like for small companies then.

This may seem small potatoes compared to the prospect of such an upheaval, but the Edinburgh Fringe is a huge economic event (£4 million in ticket sales in 2016, not counting the 600+ Free Fringe shows which rely on donations [source] or the £142 million the Fringe generated for Edinburgh in 2010 [source]). It’s also a major part of the UK’s theatre lifecycle, the whole shape of which may change if the EdFringe becomes even more expensive and inconvenient to participate in than it already is.  While the EdFringe is great for Scotland’s economy, at present it’s often a loss-leading operation for performers: a risky, sometimes disastrous venture that, if they’re lucky, enables them to establish reputations and set up gigs for the rest of the year off the back of it.

Read full review here.

 

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T.I.M.E. Stories (game review)

Eurogames, or German-style board games that emphasise strategy, are growing increasingly popular. Gaming cafés, or extensive game libraries that charge cover for several hours’ play and offer food as a convenience/sideline, now crop up regularly in urban centres. London is scheduled to get its third (The Ludoquist, in Croydon, joining Hackney’s Draughts and Richmond’s The Library Pot) later this autumn. As the Anglophone market expands, so too does the range of offerings. The board gaming community, which shares a big ol’ Venn diagram overlap with the SFF community, loves a recent release, and right now T.I.M.E. Stories is one of the hottest games going. It was nominated for a 2016 Spiel des Jahres (the Oscar of gaming, essentially) in the connoisseur/expert category. It combines the core replayability of a Eurogame with a series of stories in which you and between one and three friends are sent traveling through time to stop a disaster. You could re-experience these missions, but as T.I.M.E. Stories is a “puzzle” game; to an extent each story is single-use, somewhat like a pulp mystery novel. It may take you several “runs,” either consecutive or on different days, to complete a given story-mission. If you stop mid-run or mid-mission, T.I.M.E. Stories’ elegantly designed box, which has a place for everything, will allow you to “record” your stopping-point and all relevant details via a series of labeled recesses. T.I.M.E. Stories is also a legacy game, which means that your accomplishments follow you from session to session (to a degree).

Read full review here.

 

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