Review: Longing at Hampstead theatre

THEATRE
LONGING
Hampstead Theatre
****

For his first foray into theatre, author William Boyd has taken two Chekhov short stories – My Life and A Visit To Friends – and stitched them together to conjure a world full of inaction, denial and betrayed destiny.

Kolia (Iain Glen) is a handsome and successful Moscow lawyer on a trip back to the remote village he has long since outgrown. His visit is keenly anticipated by his childhood friends.

Tania (Natasha Little) is on the brink of bankruptcy and is hoping that Kolia’s “lawyer’s brain” will get her out of the mire. Varia (Tamsin Greig) loved him and loves him still. Stepping off the train, Kolia’s watery-eyed nostalgia soon evaporates as he is drawn into the social and financial problems that have infected his hometown since his departure.

Boyd’s focus is the thwarted love between Varia and Kolia. Cursed with unfulfilled desire but not with false hope, Varia glides around the stage in wounded, sad amusement. On the surface there is sexual tension between her and Kolia, but they also share a profound and deeply rooted friendship that is movingly conveyed by Greig and Glen. Could it be anything more? The move is Kolia’s to make but, like a few of the characters in Longing, he is imprisoned by his own philosophy.

Lizzie Clachan’s set – a poignantly dilapidated old summerhouse – is rendered in breathtaking detail and the drama is masterfully choreographed by Nina Raine. There is one moment of directorial genius where a riotous stage stops and holds its breath with the audience.

Eve Ponsonby delivers an exquisite performance as Natasha, a beautiful but naïve young woman in thrall to the older, urbane Kolia. For her he is an irresistibly exotic ticket out of her rural no-man’s land. She wants him to teach her the ways of the world but ends up learning a more sobering lesson.

Light relief is provided by Alan Cox, who gives a hilariously rambunctious performance as Sergei, the “idealist.” Sergei has reduced his wife’s fortune to nothing, but with help of some fine brandy, refuses to accept the reality of the events unfolding around him.

Boyd’s slender adaptation may not carry the full weight of Chekhov, but Raine’s production gleams with quality.

ART
GEORGE BELLOWS (1882-1925): MODERN AMERICAN LIFE
The XXX | By Alex Dymoke
***

George Bellows’ most famous painting is Stag at Sharkey’s (pictured), an unflinching depiction of an illegal New York prize fight. He claimed to be painting “two men trying to kill each other.” However, he was careful to point out: “the atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves.”

Bellows fixed his gaze on the grime and grit of post-industrial city living. In this exhibition it is his photos of urban lving that work the best. The boxing photos, with their thick, violent brush strokes vividly capture the dirty exertion and sweatbox atmosphere.

Also striking is his documenting of Manhattan’s early twentieth century growth spurt. The eerie Excavation at Night depicts the cavernous building site of a future architectural masterpiece, Penn Station. Construction workers worked long hours in unsafe conditions (many died) on sites like this in order to create the gleaming New York sky-line that we know today.

Less successful are Bellows’ attempts at portraiture and pastoral scenes. His brush strokes seem crude in these contexts; strangely artificial.

Still, the view into the formative years of modern Manhattan make it worth a visit.

FILM
WELCOME TO THE PUNCH
Cert 15 | By Daniel O’Mahony
**

JAMES MCAVOY’S police detective Max Lewinsky is something of a maverick. Just look at his morning routine: cigarette in one hand, hypodermic needle plunged into his maimed knee in the other, flicking off the excess of both into the steel bedpan by his side.

British director Eran Creevy’s action thriller is pacey and visually striking. However, it fails when it tries to weave complex plots and politics into what’s essentially a glossy cops-and-robbers flick.

The London sky-line is the star of every cutaway. Beneath the lights, though, it’s a mixed bag. McAvoy’s portrayal of the troubled, revenge-obsessed cop feels contrived. He seems to be trying a little too hard to prove he’s unhinged.

Mark Strong is convincing as the brooding Sternwood, carrying off the role with an impressive level of humanity. Peter Mullan and Andrea Riseborough also give decent performances as the two leads’ respective partners in crime (and punishment).

The script is heavy on cliché, and although Harry Escott’s dramatic score suits the thrills of high-speed chases and skulking in the dark, it is overbearingly portentous when the characters are just quietly talking. Similarly laboured are the attempts to cram important issues like gun crime into a fast-moving 99 minutes. The film reaches for the complexity of a multi-part TV drama, but inevitably falls short.

FILM
THE PAPERBOY
Cert 15 | By Steve Dinneen
****

Lee Daniels’ latest movie is dark. Desperately, comically, ridiculously dark. It takes place in Florida, 1969, which is, apparently, the sweatiest place on earth. Two reporters try to fight their way through the clammy sheen to discover whether a cop-killing death row prisoner (John Cusack) has been wrongly accused. They hook up with a brassy femme fatale, who has a thing for incarcerated prisoners, who says she can help prove his innocence.

Daniels skillfully and habitually ignores the accepted boundaries of common decency; one scene involving a jellyfish and Nicole Kidman will stay with you to the grave. The vulgarity is kept in check (just) through some very adept directing. Daniels somehow combines the beauty of A Single Man, the tension of David Fincher’s Zodiac and the red-neck horror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, dousing the whole affair in a thick squadge of squalid black humour.

It is gripping, hilarious and impossibly depressing. Be warned: you will want to take a long shower when it’s finished.

FILM
MANIAC
Cert 18 | By Alex Dymoke
**

THE MAKERS of the much maligned 1994 Judge Dredd movie were faced with a dilemma. In the comic, Dredd never takes off his mask. However, the filmmakers had scored a coup by securing Sylvester Stallone for the lead role. Should they stay true to the comic and keep the mask on? Or should they try to bring in the punters by flaunting their star? Much to the ire of Dredd fans, they decided to cash in.

Maniac has a similar problem. They’ve bagged Elijah Wood for the serial killer, but the central gimmick is that the action is viewed through the killer’s eyes. This means that he needs to look in the mirror every five seconds to remind us that it’s actually Frodo Baggins chopping up all these women.

Apart from that, it’s a stylish slasher that lacks substance. Frank is a loner with a catastrophic oedipal complex. He can’t seem to distinguish between female people and female mannequins, and is obsessed with adorning the latter with hair from the former.

Maniac doesn’t hold back with gore or violence. We see scalps being ripped off, the slashing of Achilles tendons and women being chased down and repeatedly stabbed. It all feels very pornographic. There is a legitimate feminist point in there somewhere regarding the connection between objectification and violence, but with all the bloody sadism it comes at too high a price.