Kevin Johnson

Review Yesterday by Kevin Johnson

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The latest film Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Richard Curtis is an interesting and very amusing ‘what if?’ idea about everyone in the world forgetting about the songs written by The Beatles, apart from one man.

That man is Jack Malik, aspiring musician, who’s tried to make it big for over ten years and failed. Now the key to success is in his hands, the ‘poison chalice’ of fame and money is offered to him, but is he ready to pay the price for it when the price is his integrity, his self-respect and his true love?

Of course he is! 

What follows is a funny, charming and well-made film, which makes some good points about how art becomes ‘product’, and how success changes people. There’s also some touching moments that avoid overt sentimentality (just), while still being very moving. Including one scene towards the end that’ll make you misty-eyed, but more on that I cannot say. You’ll know it when you see it.

There’s also a nice running joke about other things that have disappeared along with Lennon & McCartney’s music, and a decent cameo from Ed Sheeran. You can’t say fairer than that.

Boyle shows a visual flair, enhancing a script that is polished Curtis, giving it a more universal feel than the usual middle-class London scene, and it’s all the better for it. But it does have flaws.

Hamesh Patel is endearing as Jack, even though his motivation seems muddled at times. While Lily James as his longtime friend/love interest doesn’t really have a lot to do. And her surprise visit to Jack in Liverpool is so confusing to him (and us) that it makes you sympathetic as to why Jack never realised her true feelings.

There’s a good supporting cast, such as Sanjeev Baskhar as Jack’s dad, but Kate McKinnon is wasted as the stereotypical greedy agent, whose sole aim seems to be to buy up all of Malibu. I’ve yet to see her in a role that does justice to her talent.

The ending is also a little odd, and a good cameo from Sarah Lancashire hints at an interesting plot line that is never developed.

However, despite promising more than it delivers, there’s plenty to enjoy here. The film has an innovative idea at its heart, and the real star of the show is the music of the Beatles. Seen in one go, so to speak, you realise just how wonderful the songs are. Who can blame Jack when he decides to ‘re-discover’ them?

Review Lose Yourself, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff by Kevin Johnson

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The latest play by Welsh Playwright Katherine Chandler has three separate intertwining monologues, from three characters, that is far more than the sum of its parts.

Nate is an aging footballer who knows his career is ending but can’t, or won’t, mature. Even with a wife and child at home, he’s still got an eye for the good life, the champagne and the girls. 

Josh is a teenage footballer with an injury that could end his career before it starts, denying him an exit from a life he’s desperate to leave. All he wants is a way out, and Meg, the girl he loves.

Yaz doesn’t want a career, just a job at the cosmetics counter, but the competition includes girls with degrees, and she’s only got an NVQ and some street smarts.

The three come together on a Saturday, all have one thing in common, a desire, a need, to forget all their troubles and lose themselves in the night out to end all nights out. But this one might not end well for everyone.

There is so much to enjoy in this play, such a feast of words that it’s almost a poem. A Labour slogan here, a Jean Paul Sartre quote there, all the while pulsating with rhythm and rhymes: “Her and she and me. We.”, “Giggling and wiggling, and I’m grinding and winding…grounding and pounding”, “Tequila! No more. One more. No more now”.

It’s earthy, bawdy, visceral, and vital, all of these and more. Chandler brings the characters to life and lets their words flow into each other, as they try to escape the fate that, deep down, they suspect they’re doomed to.

The recent conviction of cricketer Alex Hepburn gives the piece a timeliness, especially with the rise of the #MeToo movement and the Weinstein scandal. An accounting of such behaviour is long overdue, and here she explores why men feel so entitled.

The cast take the script and, realising what a gift it is, run with it. Aaron Anthony as Nate gives us an elder that is more immature than the others, a balancing act that he carries off with a swaggering aplomb.

Tim Preston makes us hope for a Josh who is strangely insightful for his youth, even as he betrays himself with an uncharacteristic act of madness.

Gabrielle Creevy, in her first professional stage role, creates a Yaz that is both street-smart and innocent. A girl who goes into a situation with her eyes open, yet never at any point is guilty of being an accomplice. There are three great performances here, but I would say she just edges ahead with a sensitive portrayal.

Director Patricia Logue keeps the play pacy and rhythmic, using Carla Goodman’s set to great effect. It’s a simple but atmospheric one that brings the play to life, especially with the aid of Andy Pike’s lighting and Sam Jones sound.

This is not an easy play, but it takes an ugly situation and imbues it with such beauty that even the expletives are poetic. Chandler has a reputation for going to dark places, but light needs to be shined on these most of all. 

When we ask why so many feel this is the only way to be, Josh explains how the choices for most are ‘dole, drugs or die young’.

There needs to be another option.

Lose Yourself plays at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff until the 25th May.

Review Bump/Bully by Kevin Johnson

BUMP BY KELLY JONES
18/4/2019

Raw, unfinished and incredibly gripping.

Joanne, a journalist, auntie and ‘lioness’, tells us about her nephew, Bump, and how she was prepared to take on the whole world to protect him from everything, except for the one thing she never saw coming…


Kelly Jones is a young playwright from Dagenham, who writes with a gritty fondness for her birthplace, and does it well. Her prose is sometimes a little too much, both in a less-is-more style, and also by telling stories we might not want to listen to but really need to hear.

The effects of Fundamentalism, Iraq, Credit Crunch, Austerity and Brexit on the 21st century generation are examined,
dissected and displayed. The murder of MP Jo Cox in 2016 by a right-wing Brexiter gives an unfortunate authenticity to this
drama. Joanne is fleshed out beautifully by Hannah McPake and deftly directed by Jennifer Lunn. Together they give us a
window into a new, fairly unknown world.

Like Shaun Edwards with the WRU, Kelly is an English talent Wales needs to hang onto, because if Bump is anything to go by,this is the start of a talented career.

Her prose is, like nature, ‘red in tooth and claw’, and its rhythms almost touch on the poetic. I look forward to seeing
her future work.

BULLY BY TOM WENTWORTH

The companion play to Bump, written by Tom Wentworth and
performed by Ben Owen-Jones, this is hard, harsh and unapologetically truthful.

Eddie is a lad, a keen rugby-player, and no stranger to the club scene. Then a tragic accident changes everything. He has to reassess his life, and how that impacts those around him…
Bitter, vile and uncompromising, this is not pretty, but it gives us a realistic view of what it is to be disabled, and how that
doesn’t confer automatic sainthood on anyone. 

Eddie is no hero, and his resentment grows at being expected to be one. In fact one of his few saving graces is his stubbornness and refusal to conform to such a stereotype. As he says ‘survival is being selfish’. He isn’t just physically disabled, Eddie is also emotionally disabled, but he never comes to terms with it, and that leads to further tragedy. Like Bump, this isn’t sugar-coated, and all the better for being so. The direction of Abigail Pickard Price and the performance of Ben Owen-Jones give us a person who we pity but we’d cross the street to avoid. As Eddie says “if I’d had my legs blown off in Iraq, you’d all want to shake my hand”.
Instead, we just shake our heads.

The weakness here is the almost relentless scatalogical language, and the bleakness. Eddie is not a likeable person, andthis tests the audiences patience. But like Bump, these are things that need to be said, and they are said well.

Review The Mirror Crack’d, New Theatre, Cardiff by Kevin Johnson

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Walking into the theatre, I was greeted by the curtain up on a bare stage, with Miss Marple (Susie Blake) asleep in an armchair. My first hint that this was not the usual Agatha Christie production, with dark deeds in a charming English village. 

The quiet stillness of St Mary Mead is disturbed by the arrival of retired American film star Marina Gregg (Suzanna Hamilton) and her producer husband Jason Rudd (Joe Dixon), who have bought Grossington Hall from Miss Marple’s friend, Dolly Bantry (Julia Hills) to live in, and are also making a historical film there, which will be Marina’s comeback. At a reception to meet the villagers, local resident Heather Leigh (Katherine Manners) is murdered, poisoned after drinking Marina’s daquiri, who is now considered to be the intended target by Chief Inspector Craddock (Simon Shepherd) of Scotland Yard.   

Using the idea of a film that is viewed, rewound and then viewed from other ‘cameras’ (witnesses), the writer Rachel Wagstaff and director Melly Still, have created an intriguing production where the cast act out witness statements, first one way, then the other, twirling from A to B then back to A again, an incredibly difficult thing to do live. Lighting, sound and set design all help with this, and at first I found it a little distracting, but as it went on I changed my opinion, drawn in by the artistry on show.  I was completely won over when the murdered victims helped trace each other’s outlines – a staple of crime fiction – using pink sand.       

This is a rare thing, an old story given a new interpretation that really works. Wagstaff opens it up and develops the characters, such as Dolly Bantry lamenting her lonely widowhood, from the stereotypical to the human, exploring the racism, sexism and ageism of the time. At one point Craddock, infuriated by what he sees as her interference, yells at Marple “you’re not a detective, you’re a spinster!” which provoked a completely involved audience, privy to the sad secret of her fiancé being executed in WW1, to hiss and almost boo him. An incredible reaction outside of panto.

Susie Blake is brilliant as Marple, smart, determined and quietly lonely, while also demonstrating the comedy skill she’s famous for. Simon Shepherd is a prickly detective, still dealing with losing his mother as a child, while Joe Dixon brings a caring gruffness to the husband. For me the stand outs were Suzanne Hamilton’s fading film star, vascillating from fragile, fading movie star to demanding diva, and Julia Hills, whose snobbish former lady of the manor reveals her true feelings of uselessness and isolation, now that she’s no longer a wife or mother. The rest of the cast do well with what they have, but contribute mightily to what is an original and stunning ensemble piece.

This production runs at New Theatre, Cardiff until the 6th of April.


Review Macbeth, National Theatre, Wales Millennium Centre by Kevin Johnson

⭐️⭐️⭐️

I’ve always liked the anticipation of seeing a Shakespeare play, especially the tragedies, but what always fills me with foreboding is when they are ‘modernised’. This, to me, often means taking liberties with text and staging, and to a large extent this was true at the Millennium Centre. In a way, the story was downsized, which is a shame given such a large stage. I always try to keep an open mind, which is not easy given some of the versions I’ve seen (Romeo & Juliet where the Montagues and Capulets were humans and aliens) and some work really well, such as Andrew Scott’s Hamlet set in a Sky News, Denmark. Here the witches appeared, covered in what looked like see-through rain ponchos, talked with electronic enhancement, and then climbed poles like a Cirque du Soleil show. I was impressed by the climbing, not so much by the sound effects obscuring their words. Then there’s the weapons problem: set it in modern times and give them guns is fine, set it in historical times and give them swords and axes, fine too, but here the weapons were short machetes and what looked like switchblades, which tends to ‘shrink’ the fighting, especially when, in the hands of the burly Michael Nardone, they look like toys. Macbeth is about power,  it’s seductive and destructive nature, and the violence is often the physical embodiment of such power, so when you diminish the threat, you diminish the effect.

There’s a question that always bothers me when seeing this play: why doesn’t the whole cast have Scottish accents? I’ve never seen a version that does, outside Scotland obviously, which puzzles me. Productions always hedge their bets by having some (here I counted four) but not all. Why? I found that the mix of accents unbalances things, this is 11th century Scotland after all, not 21st century Soho, and yet here we have Scots, Geordie, RP, Yorkshire, etc. When you throw in the gender swapping of some characters, the flip-flopping personalities of others, changes in the lines and a cast which has mixed success dealing with iambic pentameter, it all adds up to a jarring distraction.

On the plus side Nardone is a good Macbeth, gruff, tender and loving, especially in the scene where he cradles his dead wife, although his intent to kill the king seems to have come more from her calling him a wimp than his own will. The conflict within him seen in the line “I dare do all that may become a man;Who dares do more is none”, yet still Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth wins him over, with a fierce charm. Patrick Robinson as Banquo provides a sweet sadness to their friendship, Lisa Zahra (Lady MacDuff) speaks with great pathos for women everywhere when she says “why then, alas, do I put up that womanly defence, to say I have done no harm?” while facing her death. As her husband, Ross Walton brings a righteousness and guilt to the role, and Deke Walmsley’s Porter adds comedy to lighten the mood. 

Many in the theatre obviously enjoyed the show, I was more ambivalent. The boundaries in Shakespeare must always be pushed, and Rufus Norris the director deserves respect for trying to make it relevant to today’s generation, but not at the expense of losing the things that make it great. This is not a bad production then, more of a worthy failure.        

Review Blue, Chippy Lane Productions, Chapter Arts Centre By Kevin Johnson

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ – Tolstoy 

Elin, visiting her Carmarthen family from her new life in London, meets Thomas, her old teacher, and there’s a spark between them. Bringing him back to the family home, her intent more carnal than romantic, she expects an empty house. Instead they are almost caught by her mother, Lisa.

(Nia Roberts as Lisa)

Surprised, Thomas blurts out that he was invited back for a meal, much to the daughter’s dismay and her mother’s delight, because Lisa has been looking for a boyfriend for her gay son Huw, and, mistaking Elin’s intentions, she thinks she’s found one.

(Huw, Lisa and Elin)

So begins an evening of misunderstandings, comedy and revelations. The shy Huw blooms, as does the play, from what seems like an Ayckbourn farce into something progressively darker, as old wounds are re-opened and the absent, oft mentioned father casts a pall over everything like the ghost in Hamlet.

(Sophie Melville as Elin and Jordan Bernarde as Thomas) 

What could have been stereotypes – slutty daughter, gay son, lecherous teacher and dragon mother – are, in the hands of these actors, fleshed out into real people. Helped by impressive writing and the subtle direction of Chelsey Gilard. My favourite moment being during the dinner scene, when Huw talks to Thomas, while under the table Elin caresses the teachers thigh possessively.

Writer Rhys Warrington trained as an actor, and perhaps this is why he knows to leave room for the cast to breathe life into their roles. His script is funny, engaging and sad.

Maybe it was first night nerves, the script, or the directors intent, but there was a rawness, echoing the characters on show, a feeling of slightly rough edges that need filing. Whatever the reason, I found that it enhanced the play. 

Sophie Melville gives the lippy Elin the right mix of being grown up yet still lacking maturity, and relishes her lines. In response to her mother’s “Know what we need now?” she replies waspisly “Another drink?”.

Jordan Bernarde gives the fought-over Thomas a steadiness, but hints at unshed grief over his own father’s recent death.

Playing the shy, withdrawn Huw is not easy, and it’s to Gwydion Rhys’ credit that he makes him so human, moving from boring to vulnerable and evoking our sympathy.

Nia Roberts is an actor that loves getting her teeth into a part, and here she takes the role and runs with it. Switching from monster to Mam in a second, she gives us a Lisa that is heartbroken and angry, living in past memories because the present is too painful.

There is a lot to admire in Blue, much of it familiar, especially to Welsh audiences. Rebecca Hammond founded Chippy Lane Productions to promote Welsh theatre and talent beyond Wales, and this is a prime example of it. There’s even a faint trace here of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, possibly due to the presence of Matthew Bulgo as dramaturg, a cast member in the celebrated Sherman Theatre production.

Blue isn’t completely perfect and I’m glad for that, because It means that this is a writer with  space to grow, to improve. That is a very pleasing prospect for the future of Welsh drama.

JERSEY BOYS – A REVIEW BY KEVIN JOHNSON

Wales Millennium Centre until 26th Jan.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

image1.png

A Jukebox Musical is one that takes the songs of famous singers or groups and turns them into a show, the most famous example being Mamma Mia. They’ve been around since 1962, but took off in the 2000’s, this one being written In 2005. 

They normally fall into two types, the first where they tie the songs together using an original story, like Mamma Mia. The second is where the songs are used as signposts in the life story of the artist, and this is what we have here.

Four guys grow up in New Jersey in the 50’s, where the only way out was through the army, crime or music. They got together, took the name of a bowling alley called The Four Seasons and had a string of hits (Walk Like A Man, Bye Bye Baby, Let’s Hang On, Big Girls Don’t Cry) powered by their group harmonies and Frankie Valli’s unique voice. 

The show is divided into four parts (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter) each told separately by one of the four members, symbolising the group’s rise and fall, and also how the truth has more than one side to it. 

Beginning in 1954, we follow Frankie Valliand Tommy DeVito through their ups and downs, time in prison, and the many different bands they go through, before they are joined by guitarist Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio, a singer & songwriter introduced to the others by fellow Jersey Boy and Oscar-winning actorJoe Pesci, which, amazingly, is true.

Produced by Bob Crewe, they were the first white group signed by Vee-Jay Records, and had their first No.1 with Sherry in 1962, and their last with December 1963 thirteen years later. 

Written in 2005, this show gets full marks from me for several reasons: The songs are memorable, the staging is great, the performers are highly talented, and the story is incredible. What’s also impressive is that the band are portrayed realistically, they were no angels and paid the price for it. We see the cost of fame, divorces, debts both financial and spiritual, and personal tragedy, but also that what kept them going through it all was a love of music. 

With a running time of 2 hours 40, the time flies by, my own highlight being “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, which has a special meaning for Welsh football fans reflected by the Cardiff audience, which gave the show a standing ovation, which it utterly deserved.

https://www.wmc.org.uk/en/whats-on/2019/jersey-boys/

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

12/7/2018

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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.