Kevin Johnson

Review First Man by Kevin Johnson


This is not what I thought it would be.

A film about the first man to walk on the moon, I expected a sort of ‘successful’ Apollo 13, but what we get instead is a psychological study of Neil Armstrong – test pilot, astronaut, engineer, father and husband- that makes Apollo 13 look ordinary by comparison.

It looks at the kind of man he was, what drove him, the sacrifices that he and others made, how he coped and what it all cost him in the end.

This is a slow-burn film, and at 141 minutes, quite a long one. At one point in the middle I must confess, I almost fell asleep, but I’m so glad I didn’t.

Damian Chazzelle has directed a masterpiece, using all the tricks of the trade, old and new. Handheld cameras, tight close ups, mixed in NASA footage, all give a cinema verite feel, making you experience the claustrophobia of the astronauts.

Right at the start you are taken into the cockpit of an X-15 rocket plane. Flown by Armstrong, it reaches the upper atmosphere and gives him a tantalising glimpse of space. All the flying scenes are done incredibly well, placing you right at the heart of the action.

Ryan Gosling as Neil, and Claire Foy as his wife Jane, make a great couple, and perhaps one of the reasons they were cast is that they act so well with just their eyes. Invaluable when so much is shot in close up.

We start to follow their lives as they go through the death of their two-year old daughter, Karen. Unable to express his grief, Neil applies for the Space Programme and is accepted. Moving to Houston and a fresh start, they befriend other astronauts and their wives, and we are taken through their rigorous training.

Tragedy strikes more than once, and with each friend Neil loses, he becomes more and more withdrawn from Jane and his two sons, and more focused on his work. Eventually he is given command of Apollo 11, the mission to the moon.

The landing itself gave me shivers. Starting slowly, Neil and Buzz Aldrin drift towards the target site only to find it covered in boulders. Taking manual control, the surface drifts closer and closer, the tension mounting with each moment, all aided by the superb musical score, leading to a crescendo as the craft touches down with only thirty seconds of fuel left.

It’s one of the best pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen.

After broadcasting to Earth the historic message “Houston…the Eagle has landed” the two embark on a moon walk, where Chazzelle, possibly using artistic licence, possibly not, creates such a simple, unexpected and emotional ending that it almost made me cry.

Chazelle shows what an incredible talent he is, someone who can subvert conventions with ease. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins a second Oscar.

This film is an amazing, slow, quiet, shattering experience. The best film of the year so far.

Kevin Johnson


Review The Stick Maker Tales, National Theatre Wales by Kevin Johnson

The Stick Maker Tales by Peter Cox

Pavilion, Llandrindod Wells



You wait ages for a good play, and then two come along at once. Another of National Theatre Wales’ NHS70 plays, this time performed in the Mid-Wales town of Llandrindod Wells, a Victorian spa and market town.

The Stick Maker is Geth Roberts, an old sheep farmer working up the Elan valley, high above the market town of Rhayader. Famous for his hand-made shepherds crooks, and feeling the advances of time, he recounts stories of his family, and the part the NHS played in their lives.

From his grandfather’s death from tetanus, to his nephew’s work accident, and his own failing body, he speaks of his life working the hills and valleys with fondness, honesty, and humour. But now his eyesight is fading, and what good is a shepherd who can’t look after his sheep?

Peter Cox has created a wonderful character in Geth, and written a play full of humour, old-fashioned warmth, and truths. From Geth’s proud declaration that ‘I’ve alway paid my stamp’, to the harshness of losing his stillborn twin, this is no rose-tinted vision of the past, just a simple reminder of the lives of ordinary people before and after the health service was created.

The accent and dialect used are a tribute to the research put in by both actor and writer, and have had a very favourable response from the community portrayed. Sheep are ‘yowes’, a large flock is a ‘hep of sheep’, a shout of pain is a ‘bellock’. A clumsy new shepherd is ‘a young lumper’, while Geth himself is old but can still ‘nettle to it’.

Director Kully Thiarai skilfully marries the script with Llion Williams superb performance. Making the most of the jokes, he soon makes us warm to the gruff, plain-spoken farmer, whose belief that ‘a good shepherd looks after the whole flock, not one or a few’ parallels the underlying principles of the NHS itself.

That may seem like a simple observation, but with the constant attempts at privatisation, it’s one that needs making again and again.

National Theatre Wales have maintained a high standard over the last ten years, and if this play is anything to go by, those standards are actually getting higher.

Kevin B Johnson

Review For All I Care, National Theatre Wales by Kevin Johnson


Last night I saw For All I Care, part of National Theatre Wales’ NHS70 Festival. Written by Alan Harris, it’s a one-woman show about Clara, a girl on the fringes of society, suffering from mental illness, and Nyri, a nurse struggling to keep her life, the NHS and Clara together.

Yet again I was amazed by the talent we have in Wales. Harris has that rare ability as a writer, making a serious point one moment & making you laugh the next. In Clara we have a girl who is slipping through the cracks of the system, in Nyri we have a woman desperate to save her. Both characters are fully fleshed out, but they are brought to life by Alexandra Riley, a young actor who seems to get better with every role. She gives Clara a streetwise innocence, making you warm to her. She then switches to show Nyri, a nurse & Mam, made of steel and love. I’ve seen Alexandra Riley in four different roles now, and she was good in all of them, but always as part of a cast. In this play it was just her going solo, and what a marvellous thing it was to see her stretch her wings and take flight.

Go see for yourself, thank me later.

Venue 1, Georgetown, Tredegar NP22 4LD. Details on NTW website. There is a minibus from Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, to the venue & back. The final two shows are today 5pm & 8pm.

The venue itself is owned by the community and they’ve done an excellent job with it. One woman told me how the kids go there after school for dancing and singing lessons, often doing their homework upstairs.

We are told by the ‘Powers That Be’ that the arts are not essential, and we can’t afford them. Looking at that place last night, the hard work that’s gone into it, and the pride that woman showed me in front of her grandson, you can see what a lie that is.

The arts are essential.

Review Love, Simon by Kevin Johnson


I’ve seen plenty of teen High School movies, and plenty of rom-coms, but this is a first, a GAY teen High School rom-com!

The times they are a-changing.

Before anyone says there have been other films covering the subject, this is the first major studio backed film that has, and it deserves praise for doing so. The fact that it’s actually quite good is a bonus.

Simon is a popular, handsome 17-year-old, with loving, liberal parents, a younger sister he actually likes, and three friends who are always there for him. There’s only one  problem: he’s gay.

Then another boy at school posts anonymously on the web that he’s gay too. ‘Blue’, as he calls himself, strikes a chord with Simon, who, replying as ‘Jacques’, befriends him.

Friendship turns to something deeper, until another student, Martin, discovers their emails and blackmails Simon into helping him win the heart of Abbey, one of his closest friends…

Despite the dark premise, this is a sparkling gem of a film. There are good performances all round, and the writing captures the pain and selfishness of being a teenager. There are some good lines and scenes, such as Simon imagining himself coming out at college as a musical number, or when his John Lennon fancy dress costume is mistaken as ‘Cool Jesus’.

Tony Hale from Veep is also funny as the Principal who is ‘down with the kids’, while still confiscating their mobile phones for texting in the halls.

It’s not without faults though. Simon’s life is just TOO perfect, his family too nice. No gay-bashing or hate-crime here, but to be fair, rom-coms aren’t about reality.

Some of the characters could be developed more, such as his parents, Martin the nerdy blackmailer, and also the Principal, who becomes a little wearing towards the end.

It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t flinch from making Simon’s actions selfish. He manipulates his friends own blossoming romance so as not to be outed.

The ending is, well, it IS a romantic comedy, so I’m sure you’ll work it out long beforehand. Another plus is the awesome soundtrack, with songs old and new, which totally won my heart with its sublime use of Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks. This film is definitely worth a look in my opinion.

‘As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise….’

Review The 15:17 To Paris by Kevin Johnson

In 2015 a lone terrorist boarded the train from Paris to Amsterdam carrying an AK-47, a pistol, 300 rounds of ammunition and a knife. Before he could do much damage he was tackled by several passengers, including three American friends on a European tour. This is the film based on that event.

First let me say that the incident itself was an amazing demonstration of the bravery of these passengers in attacking, unarmed, a Jihadist gunman. I am in awe of their courage.

Having said that, this film is incredibly bad.

There are pointers to a bad film: they open in January or early February, they’re usually about 90 mins long due to being edited down, and there are no press reviews before they open.

I knew all that beforehand, but I went in anyway. I’d now add a fourth pointer, if the film is based on a real incident and the characters are played by the ACTUAL people themselves and not actors.

The script is truly terrible, the mother of one of the heroes, upon being told by his teacher he may have ADD, replies ‘My God is bigger than your statistics!’, and that’s not even the worst line.

The narrative is all over the place, the three heroes lives are told in flashbacks that don’t advance the story, and the acting is really bad, apart from Veep’s Tony Hale as a gym teacher who seems to have wandered in from another film. A much better film.

The editing is all over the place, and the direction poor, except in the scenes showing the attack itself. What’s shocking is that the director is Clint Eastwood, who is much better than this.

I have never walked out of a film in my life (except for a Stallone film, but that was just to vomit) but I wanted to walk out of this after 10 minutes.

It’s bad, really bad, worst film not just of this year, but the last decade. I’m posting this review so that you won’t suffer, save yourselves, wait for it to come out on TV or Netflix and then don’t watch it. Trust me. Run away!!!”

Kevin Johnson

Review Incognito, Theatre Through The Telescope, USW by Kevin Johnson

Inspired by the true story of the ‘theft’ of Einstein’s brain by an American pathologist, Incognito weaves together three stories, set in the past and present, involving the workings of the brain it’s effects on people, and the connections it makes, both internally and externally.

Written by Nick Payne, directed by Paul Conway and performed by a cast of ten BA students from the University of South Wales, we veer from the pathologist to a modern neuropsychologist, and a patient with memory problems.

Set in an enclosed space, the actors manage to create an impressive show, with fully fleshed out characters, taking us from London to New Jersey to Kansas. The scenes range from a medical exam of a man with brain damage, to a first date, to a diner, leading us to questions of memory, identity and what makes us who we are.

Henry, the patient, suffers short-term memory loss, yet always remembers his love for Margaret through the years. Evelyn wonders if she’s Einstein’s daughter. Thomas wants to make a scientific breakthrough. Martha wants to start afresh with Patricia. All of them, one way or the other, defined by the workings of the human brain.

All the actors get their chance to shine in a fine ensemble piece. Laura Maggs gives us a sympathetic Margaret who sabotages her own efforts to connect with Patricia, a charming Gabrielle Dunn.

James Lawrence’s Henry is heartbreaking, managing to keep the repetition of ‘Hello my love’ constantly fresh. Kieran McCutcheon keeps Thomas from becoming a cliche mad scientist while clearly showing his desperation, and Charlotte Dolan as his wife Elouise is a fine foil to him.

Hannah Moreno makes Evelyn layered and complex, Lucy Gooding’s Margaret evokes love’s gain and loss, and Shaunie Williams Welsh waitress is earthy and warm. Liam Edmunds is delightfully seedy as the reporter.

Tom Dyer, playing five roles, goes from drama to comedy with ease, and finds the humour in the simplest of lines.

If this young cast is typical of students coming through, then I look forward with great keenness to seeing such quality in the future.

To find out more about BA Theatre and Drama at USW, click here.

Kevin Johnson

Review Mnemonic, Complicité: Theatre Through The Telescope by Kevin Johnson

Part of the Theatre Through The Telescope season, a collection of plays sharing the theme of science, this is a work created by the Complicité theatre company.

It’s central premise is memory, it’s fallibility, how we shape it, how it shapes us, and how it connects us to past generations.

Moving from separated lovers in London to a mummified 5,000 year old corpse in Austria, via travellers, tourists and workers, making observations along the way. How today’s citizen was yesterday’s immigrant, and possibly tomorrow’s refugee?

One line resonated most with me, that ‘the biggest discovery of our present is the immensity of our past’. Using a simple leaf and a blindfold, the cast shows us how all our pasts are irretrievably connected, that it’s a mathematical certainty that we are family, not a theory. Yet violence is also our legacy.

In the end, all we have, like the mummy, are scraps and fragments

The cast of ten excitingly bring to life a vast selection of eclectic characters, some recurring, some not, but all moving the narrative along at a fast pace. That they do all this while at the same time acting as stagehands, setting up props for scenes and re-setting them, is pretty damned impressive.

These are the theatre makers of tomorrow, and based on this example, tomorrow is in good hands.

Kevin Johnson

Review The Cherry Orchard, Sherman Theatre by Kevin Johnson

This is not a new version of the Chekhov classic, but a ‘re-imagining’ by Welsh writer Gary Owen, of Killology & Iphigenia In Splott fame. Owen relocates it from 1890’s Russia to the Pembroke coast in 1982, just prior to the Falklands War, which makes for a very interesting choice.

It feels like every dysfunctional family drama you’ve ever seen, until you realise Chekhov originated the idea of real characters, with real problems, talking like real people.

Family matriarch Rainey, who has crawled into a bottle after the death of her son over a decade ago, followed soon after by the suicide of her husband, is virtually dragged back to the family home from London by Anya, her youngest daughter. Her self-destructive lifestyle has lead to the family home on the Pembroke coast being auctioned off to pay the debts.

Val, her eldest daughter, has held things together, but they need Raynie’s permission (and signature) to save it. All agree that the only viable option is to sell off the ancestral cherry orchard for redevelopment, but will she see it that way?

This play is incredibly funny and well-worth seeing, if only for the way Owen makes it so accessible to Welsh eyes. The ‘Russian peasants’ now come from housing estates, the decaying aristocracy are English interlopers, and the Communist revolutionaries are now Thatcherites, sweeping the past away without a thought or concern.

At the heart of the play is the idea that the future is farther away than we hope, while the past is always closer than we’d like. The characters here are continually haunted, not by spirits, but by the ghosts of memories, taunting them with remembrance.

Rainey tries to forget through excess, her guilt at losing her son gnawing away at her, like a rat sown inside her skin. In the end it causes her to take drastic action, and Denise Black brings all this out in a masterful performance that makes you feel sorry for her, even while she’s being a monster to all and sundry.

The entire cast take their moments when offered, yet still make this a true ensemble piece. Morfydd Clark is sweetly sensual as the young Anya, while Hedydd Dylan as her elder sister Val, shows us a woman who tries to run other people’s lives, but fails at her own.

Simon Armstrong as Gabe, Rainey’s brother, is amusingly ineffectual, yet quietly sharp. When Val talks about Rainey not telling him about her plans to leave he replies “We’ve been brother & sister half a century. Through awful things. Do you think saying ‘goodbye’ makes any difference?”

Alexandria Riley gives us a Dottie that is down to earth yet shows the love/hate relationship she has with the family, while Richard Mylan is funny, while also imparting a wise naïveté to Ceri.

Mathew Bulgo, given the task of Lewis, the ‘poor boy made good’, effects a performance of subtlety that defies the historical villain the role has been seen as. With the insults he endures from the others, and denied the role of ‘family saviour’ by Rainey, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him.

Writer Gary Owen conveys a situation full of layers, and also offers some nice ironies. Ceri’s expectations of Margaret Thatcher getting the blame for the Falklands War being one, Gabe’s job offer as an investment banker another.

When you add all this to Rachel O’Riordan’s deft direction, Kenny Miller’s intriguingly skewed set, and Kevin Tracey’s ingenious lighting, the Sherman Theatre demonstrates yet again that it is punching well above its weight in the theatre world.

There is so much going on here that I actually re-read the script in one go afterwards, and was still as gripped as I was by seeing it. The play is funny, ironic, witty, sarcastic and quietly heartbreaking. It is a story of loss, of people, places and things, and how memories both haunt and define us.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed: ‘We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past‘.

Kevin Johnson

Review The Mountain Between Us by Kevin Johnson

An interesting but flawed idea, two strangers survive a plane crash in the mountains, get to know each other as they try to walk out of the frozen wilderness, and begin to fall in love.

Idris Elba shows his star quality by holding his own against Kate Winslett. They have chemistry, and full marks for casting an interracial couple, but it doesn’t quite work.

Films like this drive me mad, because they’re so close to being brilliant, but fall short. The scenery, mostly snowy mountains, is amazing, the music is good, as is the direction, with some innovative touches. The script, however, lets everyone down.

Elba is an emotionally constipated neurosurgeon, Winslett a maverick photojournalist, both are strong-willed yet it’s she who drives them on while he wants to play it safe. So far, so good.

What could then have been developed into an interesting character piece, starts to unravel. Winslett keeps moaning about her poor fiancé, whilst the plight of the ten year old patient Elba was supposed to operate on is ignored.

It doesn’t help that the film is divided into ‘before and after’ section, which means the ending gets bogged down in romantic cliches that dilute the emotional momentum from before. There’s even a sex scene which, although beautifully filmed, jars with the story.

The film falls between two stools, neither a romance nor a survival thriller, although it tries to be both. Not a bad film though, just not a great one.

Oh and there’s a cute dog.

Review Forget-Me-Not Chorus, Wales Millennium Centre Foyer by Kevin Johnson

 All  Photographs Brian Tarr

Consisting of people living with dementia and their carers, the Chorus held a free concert in the Centre prior to Welsh National Opera’s production of Khovanschina. I’ve no idea what the opera was like, but they could have learned a thing or two from this group.

It was brief, less than half a dozen numbers, interspersed with poems, but if the quantity was low, the quality was high. Showing a repertoire that went from ‘You Are My Sunshine’ to ‘Under The Boardwalk’ via Elvis, they were not technically brilliant, but brought a ‘joie de vivre’ to things that many professionals can’t manage.

I must confess that there was a tear in my eye watching them, especially one member wearing African dress & cap, who danced his heart out in every number.

There was a smile on my face too, and the crowd – quite a sizeable one – loved it. My favourite moment was watching a young mother dancing with her baby to Under The Boardwalk. Simply wonderful.

This event was the launch of the new #MySongMyStory project.

You could find out more about the work of The Foget me Not Chorus at the link