Talking Movies

October 6, 2014

Our Few and Evil Days

Ciaran Hinds and Sinead Cusack, so successful in Juno and the Paycock back in 2011, reunite as a more contemporary but equally troubled married couple; whose headstrong daughter brings home an equally superficially attractive paramour.

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Michael (Hinds) and Margaret (Cusack) are a loving couple in a Dublin suburb who no longer share a bedroom. The wordless opening of both acts sees Michael come downstairs to wake her up, and then put away mattress and pillows and switch the pull-out bed back to a sofa while she dresses upstairs. Yet their obvious devotion to each other is noticed and commented on by unexpected visitor Dennis (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who has been placed in the awkward position of meeting the parents solo by Adele (Charlie Murphy) running off to help her friend Belinda thru yet another crisis. Dennis inevitably makes a faux pas, about Adele’s absent brother, Jonathan; something teased out, along with Belinda’s crises, when Adele arrives for a very late dinner. But when Adele leaves again Dennis is convinced to stay over by Michael, and so when Dennis gets up for a drink of water he falls over Margaret; and their conversation about Jonathan becomes… disturbing.

Our Few and Evil Days is hard to review without ruining the effect of Mark O’Rowe’s mischievous structure. My lead-in was mischievous in mentioning O’Casey, because this is clearly in the vein of two other playwrights. The interrupting and sharply back and forth dialogue owes a debt to David Mamet, and the stellar cast, once they’ve warmed up to it (almost), embrace its rhythms with gusto. Meanwhile Harold Pinter’s comedy of menace rumbles under the attempts of naively nice guy Dennis to make a good impression. As director O’Rowe is also mischievous, casting Ian-Lloyd Anderson against type as Belinda’s abusive boyfriend Gary, by muting the physical menace he displayed in Major Barbara and instead playing up epic self-pity. This is a solidly middle-class setting courtesy of Paul Wills’ fully functioning set; with stairs behind the glass doors from the sitting room to the hall, a laundry area behind the kitchen, and a working sink (the final pre-Irish Water set design?).

Unfortunately such an impressive deeply layered set necessitates the removal of the first four rows of seats, so row E gets pasted up against the stage; and during Dennis and Margaret’s pivotal scene sitting at the kitchen table you are listening to a table emote because you can’t see Margaret’s face at all… O’Rowe’s play comprises three scenes either side of the interval; but where uncomfortable comedy dominates the first act, Freudian nightmares, shouting matches, and pop-analysis dominate the second. This gives the impression by the end that some characters have merely acted as plot devices to push the most important characters into dramatic screaming matches, and that much of the comedy has been a red herring. This doesn’t really matter though when actors of the calibre of Hinds, Cusack, Murphy and Vaughan-Lawlor are giving it their all. Vaughan-Lawlor clearly relishes playing against ‘Nidge’, Cusack is endearingly earthy, Hinds is sympathetically conflicted, and Murphy impressively alternates between wounded and wounding.

O’Rowe’s script has a fearful symmetry, great comedy, and touches on true darkness, but is perhaps a bit too full of misdirection. It’s possible to see future productions simply fall apart with lesser actors.

4/5

Our Few and Evil Days continues its run at the Abbey until the 25th of October.

February 24, 2012

Margaret

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s second film was shot in 2005 and delayed ever since by squabbling over its running time, but it’s only intermittently worth the wait…

Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a deeply unpleasant privileged NYC teenager whose selfish actions cause Mark Ruffalo’s bus driver to run over a pedestrian. This leads to one of the most traumatic scenes you’ll ever see as Paquin comforts the dying Monica (Allison Janney), whose horrific injury remains just about off-screen. Lonergan wanders off on a Kieran Culkin-heavy tangent about drug-taking and teenage sex, before showcasing Matthew Broderick fighting a student over the correct interpretation of a couplet in King Lear (perilously similar to a scene in The Corrections), and multiple politics classes ending in shouting matches over Israel/Palestine and Iraq. Meanwhile Lisa’s actress mother Joan is nervous about her play transferring to Broadway, and is pursuing a bizarrely scripted romance with Jean Reno. Endless montages of NYC throughout perhaps cue this as a study of post-9/11 hysterical anger.

Lonergan’s celebrated play This Is Our Youth (staged at the Project in 2009 with Charlie Murphy) was an acute portrayal of emotionally abusive male friendships, while his directorial debut You Can Count On Me (2000) was a warm study of sibling camaraderie in the face of diverging lives. Margaret, by contrast, achieves his usual unpredictability only thru utter aimlessness. Focus belatedly arrives when Lisa decides to atone for her own guilt by starting a legal crusade to punish the bus driver for killing Monica. The film becomes draining as Lisa’s increasingly obnoxious/deranged behaviour leads to so many abrasive (and always needlessly escalating) shouting matches that you wish Olivia Thirlby would drop a heavy book on her classmate. If Kenneth Lonergan wanted to write for Curb Your Enthusiasm so bad back in 2005 why didn’t he just ring Larry David and ask?

There is much to admire in Margaret. Lonergan’s theatrical dialogue is as potently witty and expressive as ever and produces many crackling sequences, not least some stunningly astringent scenes between despairing mother and monstrous daughter. It’s great fun spotting pre-fame Rosemarie DeWitt as Ruffalo’s wife and pre-Juno Thirlby as the voice of reason in the strident politics class. Lonergan even gives himself a droll supporting role as Lisa’s absent father. The title comes from a Hopkins couplet, “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for”, but if Lonergan was attempting to make some Donnean point about how the senseless death of one person affects us all, he just leaves the audience as confused as cameoing Matt Damon’s consistently perplexed looking teacher.

Margaret runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes. I have no idea what point Lonergan is trying to make in that time. And I think the studio, which insisted Margaret be cut from 3 hours, didn’t believe he’d any idea either…

3/5

May 25, 2011

Pygmalion

The Abbey, almost a century belatedly, premieres Shaw’s popular masterpiece in a sparkling production.

Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady without the music as some people will insist on regarding it, sees arrogant Professor of Phonetics Henry Higgins take in hand a flower-girl who comes to him for elocution lessons after he’s alarmed her by transcribing her dialect in Covent Garden. He will do much more than change her screeching Cockerney accent into serviceable shop girl King’s English though, as, to win a bet with fellow phonetician Colonel Pickering, he undertakes to transform Eliza Doolittle into an imitation Duchess within six months and pass her off at a Royal Ball as such. Director Annabelle Comyn’s oddly revealing staging of the bathroom scene emphasises that Higgins really is stripping Eliza not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims.

Charlie Murphy, who impressed in Kenneth Lonergan’s three-hander This Is Our Youth at the Project in 2009, makes a wonderful Eliza Doolittle. Her physical transformation from filthy flower-girl to elegant faux-duchess is archetypal, while vocally her transition from East End to RP tones is impeccable and includes a coldness to Higgins in their final scenes that captures the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on. Nick Dunning, who Fassbendered his way across the Abbey stage in summer 2009 as Sir Anthony Absolute in The Rivals, enjoys himself greatly as the mild-mannered Colonel Pickering. He’s outdone though by Risteard Cooper who whoops it up as Henry Higgins, adopting an almost permanent squint and crouching impetuousness to convey a man intellectually so above his company as to be permanently impatient with their opinions and manners.

Shaw’s comedic highlights come before the interval, as after the ball Eliza and Henry go at each other in terrific arguments about class, identity, equality and manners, and what highlights they are. Lorcan Cranitch makes a hilarious appearance as Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle, self-proclaimed member of the undeserving poor wha’ can’t afford middle-class morali’y, and Hugh O’Connor (in a surprisingly small role after Valentine in last year’s Arcadia) is painfully funny as a Freddy so inept that he seems on the point of being overwhelmed by his own suit. Higgins’ many outrageous insults are delivered with gusto, while Eliza’s first appearance as a lady at Mrs Higgins’ ‘at-home’ is painfully funny; especially her wonderful dismissal of the idea of walking home as she exits, ‘Not bloody likely!’, and Clara’s declaration that she will use this ‘new small talk’ at her next ‘at-home’ – a prospect Higgins vigorously encourages, ‘Don’t be afraid to pitch it in strong!’

I’ve often complained that Shaw’s characters can sound less like human beings and more like power-point presentations of rival debating positions when they clash intellectually, but here, just as Paul O’Mahony’s realistic set slides apart on its top layer to reveal the bathroom of Higgins’ house and the sun-windows of his mother’s house, the play of ideas is never allowed to escape from its emotional origins in Eliza’s anguish and Higgins’ arrogance. Eliza’s reproaches sting, but Higgins’ closing creed of equality – ‘I treat a duchess as if she were a flower-girl’ – has oddly never sounded more meritocratic…

Comyn’s directorial resume is chock-full of contemporary plays, which is a testament to how incisive Shaw’s comic dissection of the intersections of class and speech was – people can still make other people despise them merely by opening their mouths…

4/5

Pygmalion continues its run at the Abbey until the 11th of June.

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