Tag Archives: Time Out

Wear and dare: inside V&A’s Alexander McQueen show

16 Mar
Alexander McQueen's It's Only A Game catwalk show, 2005

Alexander McQueen’s It’s Only A Game catwalk show, 2005

The V&A’s blockbuster show Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is like an art exhibition, a film, a theatrical performance and a fashion show all rolled into one. It’s even better than last year’s Bowie exhibition, and those who know what a rabid Bowie fan I am will know what high praise that is. Even just hanging on a fetish-masked mannequin or simple wire frame, the clothes have life, and conjure up fantastical visions of alternate worlds. To my surprise, I found myself close to weeping at one point.

My companion said “yes I know, it’s so sad he killed himself when he was so young,” but it wasn’t that. It was the way the clothes hung, how they were cut, the hard or jagged or geometric shapes made from soft fabrics, the transformations of dresses into birds, the weird juxtapositions like the dress inspired half by American football gear and half by a kimono, the sheer astonishing radiant beauty and riotous inventiveness of them that pricked forth tears. Does that make me weird?

I’m kicking myself for never going to one of McQueen’s shows, even while I was Editor of Time Out, even when we put him on the cover. [For the strange story of the Time Out golden-shower shoot, see my review of the Isabella Blow McQueen collection.] The V&A has the next best thing: video footage of the shows. There go his catwalk Glamazons stamping through water, standing in a ring of fire, spellbound in a blizzard, getting spray-painted by robots, trading places like chess pieces on a giant illuminated chequered board.

The V&A has pulled out all the stops in giving these powerful clothes a suitably dramatic setting. The Romantic Gothic room is hung with vast, ornate gilt frames; the black walls of the Romantic Primitivism room are made of bones and skulls, like the Paris Catacombs; the Romantic Nationalism room is all mahogany wood panels, befitting the Imperial grandeur of the bright red, military-inspired clothes.

Alien-Shoe

McQueen’s ‘Alien’ shoe from 2010

Any other clothes would be overpowered by these surroundings, but here are jackets of ponyskin with impala horns jutting from the shoulders, costumes made of gold-painted goose feathers or black duck feathers or synthetic bouffant black hair, fanciful shoes with platforms a foot tall or with designs inspired by the Alien movies (right). You couldn’t overpower them with a nuclear bomb.

There’s even a whole room devoted to an ethereal, floating Kate Moss, created for one of McQueen’s shows using the 19th-century theatrical illusion of Pepper’s Ghost. She appears from a wisp of smoke, coalesces into evanescent life, long hair waving and organza gown billowing like Ophelia sinking peacefully beneath the water, and is just as quickly returned to the spirit world whence she came.  All things must pass, as McQueen was keenly aware, and fashion is the most transitory of the arts: it shines brightly for a single season and then, like a butterfly, it is gone.

In a similar vein, March and April are already mostly booked out for this fabulous exhibition – whoever you need to bribe, threaten or screw to get a ticket, do it quick.

Click here for my interview with the curator, Claire Wilcox, which formed the cover feature of this month’s Where London magazine. You may find it useful, as if there is one criticism to be levelled at Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, it’s that it is not good at putting McQueen’s work into the wider context of his life and times. 

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Charlie’s Dark Angel: film noir meets theatre in James Christopher’s debut

9 Mar
The cast of Charlie's Dark Angel. Front: Ben Porter as Charlie and Joannah Tincey as Susan. Back: Phoebe Pryce as Ukrainian Ella,  Kieran Gough as un-reckless Eric

The cast of Charlie’s Dark Angel. Front:  Joannah Tincey as Susan and Kieran Gough as Eric. Back: Phoebe Pryce as Ukrainian Ella, Ben Porter as Charlie. Photo by Aimée Watts – HausOfLoud

One goes to see a play or film written by a friend with some trepidation. What do you say to them at the bar afterwards if you don’t like it? Thankfully there was no such problem with Charlie’s Dark Angel, a theatre noir written and directed by James Christopher, and playing at the Drayton Arms until March 28.

I’ve known and worked with James for 20-plus years: first when he was Deputy Theatre Editor on Time Out, then when he was Film Critic at The Times. He’s a terrific journalist, particularly known for his arresting metaphors. But although he has since taken an MA in theatre direction – an experience he describes as “humbling” – I had no idea if he could make that great escape under the barbed-wire fence separating critics from creators.

I needn’t have worried. The play is strong meat. When two old schoolfriends are reunited in a country house, each with a female partner in tow, a sinister, stalkerish obsession soon surfaces. The house is also built over a peculiar, disused well, perhaps haunted – the well is, as I said to James, his Chekhovian gun. (I knew he would know what I meant.) In other words, once it’s been introduced in Act One, you can be sure it will be used come Act Three. And how!

None of the plot devices and film noir tropes is startlingly original, something that has occasioned a couple of (to me) mysteriously negative reviews from online arts review sites. But it doesn’t matter; it’s not the point. As James said to me, “Film has borrowed from theatre for so long, I felt it was time for theatre to steal from film. The plot is just the McGuffin that keeps you along the linear narrative track, but really it’s about trust, and betrayal, and emotional crisis.”

James Christopher’s journalistic love of metaphor shines through in his stage writing. To take but one instance, the profession of the protagonist, Charlie, is picture framing. As he talks about the painstaking process of framing, with its multiple layers of varnish and gilding, he’s really talking about himself, about how his inner self has been varnished and gilded and eventually obscured, until he is all frame and no substance.

Ella the Enchanting (Phoebe Pryce)

Ella the Enchanting (Phoebe Pryce). Photo: Aimée Watts

But though Charlie’s Dark Angel is similarly multi-layered (James says it took five months of “agony” to write), it is also splendidly pacey, particularly in the shorter, post-interval final act, with ping-pong dialogue pricked by the odd flight of fancy. Plaudits also go to the four fine actors who bring the production to life. The one theatre neophyte, Phoebe Pryce, maintained such a consistent accent as a young Ukrainian artist/Manic Pixie Dream Girl that I asked James if she were actually foreign. He looked at me as if I was mad.

“That’s Jonathan Pryce’s daughter,” he said. “We were lucky to catch her just in time. After this she is acting with her father in The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe.”

To tell you more about the production would be to spoil it. I was on the edge of my seat for much of it. (And not just because the benches are rather small.) Two days later, I am still reliving and savouring moments. It’s sexy, and edgy, and there’s a lurking menace bubbling constantly under its characters’ urbane surface, as in the aforementioned well. I’ve been to a lot of West End theatre in the last couple of years, and this was one of my favourite nights out: quite a surprise from a first-time writer/director in a small pub theatre.

For info about Charlie’s Dark Angel and to book tickets, click here.

Revealed: the Ritzy’s roots

2 Mar
The original Electric Pavilion

The original Electric Pavilion

There’s a lovely piece in the Brixton Bugle about the origins of the Ritzy Cinema. I particularly like the details that it was saved by the 1981 Brixton riots, and scuppered by the 1995 ones; and also that it first came about through an ad in Time Out. (So many creative people I’ve spoken to over the years owe some sort of debt to Time Out; David Hare would always speak to us as he credited Time Out with helping to launch his career, back in fringe theatre days.)

I remember the “Little Bit Ritzy” well, as it was then: an art-house cinema showing the sorts of movies people now take for granted on DVD or streaming, but which back in the early ’80s we would have to scour listings and travel across town to see. It was so purist about film that it refused to serve popcorn, lest the munching disturb fellow film-goers (you’ll still get shushed for munching now), though in compensation the carrot-cake was superb.

The Ritzy is one of the main reasons I have chosen to live in and around Brixton for more than 20 years. Though it is now a six-screen multiplex, allowing more films to be shown, they achieved this without — as so many cinemas have — breaking up the wonderful main auditorium, instead building on an extension. Given the cinema’s egalitarian, right-on roots, I was incensed by the recent wage dispute, about which I wrote several blogs; they are now happily resolved, so it’s okay to love the Ritzy again.

If you love the Ritzy too, read the full article here.

The tears of a clown: RIP Robin Williams

12 Aug
Robin Williams' star-making turn in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Robin Williams’ star-making turn in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

 

I am shocked and devastated to read, just as I was going to bed, that Robin Williams has died, seemingly from suicide due to asphyxia. It’s common now for sit-com stars to move on to film –  Woody Harrelson, Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston – but Williams, along with John Travolta, paved the way.

Mork and Mindy was one of the sweetest programmes of my youth. Williams’s innocent alien, Mork from Ork, first appeared in Happy Days (Williams got the part before the audition even began, when the director asked him to take a chair and he sat on it on his head), and was so popular he got his own show, and catchphrase, “Nanu Nanu” (you had to have been there).

As a film actor he always risked overpowering his co-stars, being a barely contained tornado of irrepressible energy. He was a coke addict until 1982, though he claimed it was “a place to hide”, and that whereas it sped most people up, it slowed him down. He was at his best in roles which allowed his astonishing improvisational genius full rein, such as the army DJ in his breakthrough film, Good Morning, Vietnam, or the Genie in Aladdin, both of which we featured on the cover of Time Out. I put him on the cover again for his Golden Globe-winning turn as Mrs Doubtfire, headlined “How Hollywood’s funniest man became Hollywood’s funniest woman.”

As a dramatic actor, in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), Dead Poets Society (1993) or even Good Will Hunting (1997), he could seem schmaltzy to European sensibilities. But whenever he issued some Hallmark homily, he seemed at the same time utterly sincere: eyes narrowed and glistening, face creased, smiling in pain and sorrow and empathy. You sensed a real inner grief at and understanding of the follies of human nature.

In 2002 he was given a chance at darker fare, as the lonely photo technician in One Hour Photo, and a killer in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. He was excellent in both, but it wasn’t the Robin Williams the public wanted to pay to see. He hasn’t had a bona fide hit since, aside from supporting roles in the Night In the Museum series, and his return to sit-com last autumn, The Crazy Ones, was not given a second season. He had recently signed on for Mrs Doubtfire 2, which, two decades on, might have seemed like a last resort.

Williams’s agent said he had recently been battling depression. No one but those closest to him can really know why. But it’s a trope that comedians are often not themselves happy people: it is, after all, their job to point out the absurdity of the human condition. Not for nothing did Beckett, in his original stage directions, have the protagonists of Waiting for Godot as clowns rather than tramps.

There’s an old joke about a man who goes to see a psychiatrist, complaining of depression. “Laughter is the best medicine,” says the doctor, much as Robin Williams did as Patch Adams (1998). “The Great Gandini is performing in town tonight: I’ll prescribe you a ticket to see his show, he’s hilarious.” The man looks mournfully at the psychiatrist, and says, “But that doesn’t help me. I am the Great Gandini.”

Down the Tube with Eddie Izzard, would-be Mayor of London

31 Jul

IEddie Izzard Time Out covert’s not often you bump into movie stars on the Tube, dressed to kill in lipstick, earrings, black trouser-suit and high heels. Especially not the male ones.

But there, click-clacking just ahead of me in a tunnel underneath Oxford Circus, his broad shoulders the only clue to his real gender, is the inimitable Eddie Izzard. “Eddie,” I stop him. “Fabulous to bump into you again.” I’d met Britain’s greatest stand-up comic a few times when I was editing Time Out in the ‘90s. “I wouldn’t expect to find you down here.”

Eddie raises a quizzical eyebrow above his shades and smiles: “Well, you’ve got to be using public transport if you’re going to be running for Mayor.”

I shepherded Eddie through his first self-penned magazine piece on his transvestism, and later put him on the cover dressed in a bowler hat and single false eyelash like Alex from Clockwork Orange. But when he told me at a party that he was off to crack America, I was dismissive: they might not “get” his surreal, free-wheeling humour. Ha! He not only became a huge stand-up hit, but a Hollywood and US TV star. This year alone he’s been in several episodes of Hannibal, taken the lead in a Gilles McKinnon movie about the pioneer of Radar, acted alongside Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates in next year’s Boychoir, and joined in with his beloved Pythons on Terry Jones’s new film Absolutely Anything.

And let’s not forget that, in 2009, he completed 43 marathons in 51 days for Sport Relief. So when he assures me now, of his political ambitions, “I’m a fighter, and we need fighters,” it’s clear that you have to look beyond the red nail polish.

“People often want a simple yes or no answer in politics,” he talks as we walk, “when the answers aren’t simple. The extremists are popular because they give simple answers, like ‘Everything will be fine if we just get out of Europe.’ But things weren’t fine before that, so why should that suddenly solve everything?”

And if Boris bows out as expected in 2016 [Update: Boris has just announced he will run for MP in 2015, standing down as Mayor in 2016], might Izzard run for Mayor then? “I couldn’t. I’ve always said it would be in 2020. I’ve spent time building this career, and anyway, politics is a fiendishly complex business and I need to learn.”

After a slight wobble on the escalator – those killer heels can be murder – we stand talking for a while above ground at Oxford Circus. “I might fuck up, at first. But the way I see it, everyone fucks up. Boris does all the time and it doesn’t hurt him; even Obama does. It’s the way you deal with your fuck-ups, your approach to fucked-up-edness, that counts.”

It’s endearingly Izzard, to coin a word like “fucked-up-edness”. It’s not a concept many politicians would admit to, let alone a term they might use. He takes off his shades, and it appears they are neither a style statement nor a disguise: he has a touch of red-eye. “I expect I’ll get raked over by the press, though, about the dress thing,” he says thoughtfully.

Really? It’s not exactly a secret. And besides, it’s a great look. In the early days Eddie resembled a trucker in drag; now he’s more Hillary Clinton than Anne Widdecombe.

“No, but apart from me, and then [the artist] Grayson Perry, there aren’t exactly many transvestite role models. That said, I did some campaigning recently in bright red lipstick, and no one turned a hair, no one mentioned it. It had to be bright red, for Labour! That was the only joke I was allowed to put in the speech,” he adds, a little ruefully.

Boris has his trademark floppy hair. Would lipstick and heels really be such a stretch for voters?

I shake Eddie’s immaculately manicured, surprisingly delicate hand, and wish him well. “Enjoy the sunshine,” he says cheerily, and strides confidently into the churning crowds of London’s busiest intersection, thin black heels clacking.

Eddie Izzard for Mayor? I was wrong about his chances once. I won’t be betting against him again.

Pride and prejudice: the Oscar link between Dallas Buyers Club and Twelve Years A Slave

23 Feb

Okay, so having now seen Dallas Buyers Club, it’s going to be a closer Oscar race than I thought for Chiwetel Ejiofor in Twelve Years A Slave. The Academy has loved a physical transformation ever since De Niro piled on the pounds for Raging Bull. Here the famously pec-tastic Mathew McConaughey slims down alarmingly to play a straight rodeo roughrider afflicted with HIV.

The two films are intriguingly similar, in that each uses a Trojan Horse to smuggle a minority subject into the hearts of majority film-goers. If Solomon Northup had not been a free man illegally sold into slavery, but born into it instead, it might have been harder for the audience to identify with his plight. If Ron Woodruff had been a gay HIV sufferer, he might not tug on the heartstrings of Middle America.

But apart from McConaughey’s gutsy, livewire, enormously affecting performance, Dallas Buyers Club is not half the film that Twelve Years A Slave is. The supporting characters, though well acted, are little more than stereotypes: from the drag queen with a disapproving banker father to the good ol’ boys who turn against their former friend when they learn he has the disease. There’s a battle with the FDA, but it’s sketchily developed; and the closing caption pretty much undercuts Woodruff’s mission throughout the film rather than supporting it as intended.

It is powerfully affecting, though, especially if you lived through that terrible period. The HIV drugs war was starkly illustrated for me at Time Out, in the late ‘80s: the much-loved receptionist/Gay editor was HIV-positive (though few knew at the time why it was forbidden to throw him into the pool at the party in Porchester Baths, and did it anyway), and he died before effective drugs were developed. The features editor, Tim Clark, one of the liveliest, cleverest, funniest, warmest people I have ever known, was initially given months to live, but science caught up just in time, giving him well over a decade.

And it’s important to have this reminder, as with 12 Years A Slave, just how recent are our sins as a society. While everyone is sneering at Russia for their backward laws forbidding the “promotion” of homosexuality, we should recall with shame that they are a carbon copy of Britain’s own Section 28 legislation, passed by Thatcher’s government just when gay people needed the most support.

Meanwhile, as I was waiting in Chicago on Friday for my delayed flight back to London, the TV news was full of the new Arizona bill which allows Christian business owners to discriminate against gay people. Is the US heading for segregation all over again, with gays instead of blacks?

Never were two Oscar contenders more timely, more needed, and more closely matched.

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Journey into the art of darkness with David Lynch

24 Jan

Image

David Lynch’s exhibition of black and white photos at London’s Photographers’ Gallery is typically unsettling. Seen individually, each is a banal portrait of a post-industrial setting: a factory in Łódź, or a set of chimneys in Britain. But cumulatively, and particularly knowing Lynch’s films, they force you to start constructing a narrative in your head, to disturbing effect.

Smoke. Brick. Steel. Pylons. Peeling paint. Broken windows. Shadowy, inexplicable doorways, behind which you can’t help intuit a brooding presence. Snaking pipework – what gas or fluids do they carry? A wall of windows, some lit, some not, forming a geometric mosaic like a black-and-white Mondrian.

But the most striking picture of all, given all those that have gone before, is this one (below). We have had a succession of claustrophobic warehouse or factory interiors, all disused – abandoned after a radiation leak, perhaps; or one-time scenes of inexplicable workforce deaths; or currently used for the occasional kidnap, torture and murder. This is the only window on to the outside world in the whole exhibition, and it focuses directly on a single house.

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It’s hard not to feel like a deranged stalker looking out on a prospective victim. The perspective makes Father Dougals of us all — the house seems not so much far away, as very, very small. A dolls’ house whose inhabitants are of as little consequence, and there purely for the viewer’s sport.

Or is that just me?

I saw an exhibition of Lynch’s paintings in at the Galerie Piltzer in Paris in 1997. Again, they were individually unremarkable, until you realised that, cumulatively, they created a record of a crime scene.

Or was that just me?

Humans are meaning-creating creatures, the film guru Chris Jones has said. In other words, you don’t have to spell everything out for the audience when you make a film; the viewer will work hard to supply meaning to a scene in which little is said.

It works for David Lynch’s films, just as it works for his photography and paintings. Starting tomorrow, I will serialise my 1997 interview with Lynch, conducted for Time Out on the release of one of his most obscure and unsettling films, Lost Highway. Y’all come back now, y’hear?