Tim and I have just got back from four days in London. We saw lots of art, mostly photography, hence the new purchases below. I highly recommend the Malick Sidibé exhibition at Somerset House. And I have loved Philippe Halsman’s work ever since being prompted to seek him out after reading a novelisation of his life, called The Jump Artist, five years ago.
But the eagle-eyed will spot that not all the below books are photography-related. We also bought the script of Lazarus, the musical written by David Bowie and Enda Walsh in 2015. The main reason for our trip to London was that my Christmas present to Tim was tickets to the production of Lazarus in London. It’s the Broadway transfer, so we got to see its original star Michael C Hall, AKA TV’s Dexter. That was pretty exciting.
On Friday night, Tim and I wanted to see something light at the cinema, which for us usually means superhero action, but we decided to brave the description “rom com musical” and try Begin Again. We weren’t entirely out of our minds – writer director John Carney was behind one of our favourite films, Once, which we have watched together almost as many times as Scott Pilgrim. Almost.
It was a good decision. Begin Again is a beautiful film that charmed our socks off. “Rom com” it isn’t; I’d venture “indie musical” as an alternative description. If you’ve seen Once then you know just what to expect – in fact, the films are very similar, but this time Carney clearly had more money, though I’m willing to bet it was still small potatoes on the sliding scale of film budgets.
The story follows two people: Greta (Keira Knightley), a songwriter who moved to New York City with her musician boyfriend only to find herself single when he hit the big time; and Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a New York record producer who hasn’t produced a record in years and is estranged from his wife and daughter thanks to a drinking problem. They meet at an open mike night and decide to make a record together.
If you’re familiar with Once you’ll immediately see the similarity. There’s a great moment in this film when the characters discuss making an album in each of the world’s great cities and I immediately wondered if that is actually Carney’s plan (apparently it is). After all, Once is about making an album on a shoestring in Dublin. I think Begin Again acknowledges this similarity with a few overt references to Once, not least the scenes of James Corden busking.
Begin Again is a film about people who love music. Knightley’s voice isn’t the strongest but that wasn’t a problem for me, because it wasn’t about trying to sell her as a singing star. The key is people listening to music, creating music, really enjoying music. The human drama is relatively simple: will Dan reconnect with his daughter? will Greta be okay on her own (or rather single, as she has a good friend she lives with)? The film asks questions about record companies and music production (it is of course unashamedly on the side of the indie musician). But simplicity is the key. If you love music, New York, Keira Knightley (not so much for me, usually) and/or Mark Ruffalo (oh, yes) then I heartily recommend you check this film out.
Describing this production too briefly would probably put off most people. It’s a musical based on the real-life murders of five prostitutes in the London Road area of Ipswich in 2006 – that’s fine, if a bit dark. But it’s also verbatim theatre – all the words are taken from interviews that writer Alecky Blythe conducted with residents of London Road and are performed as precise copies of the original voices – the intonation, pauses, repetitions, accents, ums and ahs are all learned by the actors. And then a level of stylisation is added in the form of songs and song-like sections that perhaps most closely resemble poetry.
All of which could have added up to something unwatchable in the wrong hands. But this is more than just watchable, it’s actually pretty good, though the verbatim dialogue does take some getting used to. Key to this is the excellent script. Blythe took what were presumably many many hours of many interviews and cut together a story of a community both haunted and hopeful, with plenty of those small humorous moments that real life serves up. But a good script is nothing without a good cast, and here Bristol Old Vic Theatre School really delivers.
Once again the Studio Theatre was used to good effect, with the stage area and audience chairs arranged at the start as if for something like a town hall meeting. The cast milled about a tea trolley making cups of instant coffee and settled around a cheap folding table and a noticeboard covered with flyers. As the live orchestra on the balcony started up and hush fell over the small but eclectic audience, we learned that this was a Neighbourhood Watch meeting, that the London Road residents want to wrestle something good out of the horror they have lived through.
The cast all play multiple roles, fleshing out the story to include visiting journalists, police, prostitutes and other townsfolk, but they have clear principal characters who make up the Neighbourhood Watch committee – concerned citizens who obviously had plenty to say to Blythe and were trying to be positive for the future. This positive spin shines through the story, though it’s hard not to wonder what the tone might have been if a different set of people had opened up to Blythe.
With so many changes in character with just a subtle adjustment of costume or props, it’s perhaps little wonder that there was an occasional slip into comic overacting. And I couldn’t help but be irritated to spot that the first photographer depicted carried both a Canon camera and a Nikon, which is really not realistic. But that’s a pernickity detail that my being a bit of a photography geek taught me! More importantly, the “real words” added a certain something to the show – it felt more realistic than the average scripted drama despite all the repetition and singing.
Though it is very much an ensemble cast, I’d like to give special mention to Bethan Nash who was excellent both in her main role as Julie, organiser of the local “In bloom” gardening competition, but even more excellent in the short scene of an interview with three prostitutes, which ended with Nash appearing near tears despite having said very little. That scene was exceptional and I don’t wonder that it is the one section of Blythe’s original recording that was selected to be played toward the end of the show.
For all my praise, this is an odd show that probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re willing or even eager to experience something a bit different, I would encourage you to try it.
Disclaimer: Tickets were kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for an honest review.
I’m still getting back into the swing of reading after a bad couple of weeks so in the meantime here is a lovely chilled song for a summer’s day: “When your mind’s made up” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend the film this comes from, Once.