Monthly Archives: March 2013

Theatre: Truth’s Vision

Some performers meet at drama school, but double act Lily Lowe-Myers and Robyn Cooper have been friends since they were three and benefit from the easy, amiable chemistry that comes from 25 years of working together. Their first collaboration was over a dressing up box, so it’s no coincidence that this musical production is based around innovative uses of props and clothing.

Donning a yellow dress, the two performers take it in turns to play stationery company worker Grace, who is trying to find love and a life less ordinary. With similarly broad brush strokes they also play dopey office workers, an angry boss and noir-inspired love interest, Ted. Intermittently, they morph into Brechtian narrators Truth and Vision in what appears to be an attempt to demonstrate the cynical and optimistic sides of Grace’s psyche. “What is the purpose of life?” asks the programme. I’m not sure the Bridewell’s 45-minute lunchtime slot is long enough to answer this.

Song and dance numbers, to reworked versions of classics such as My Way, are a lively juxtaposition but it’s difficult for the duo to create real razzmatazz with pre-recorded music and sparse production values. In the end, Grace is never more than everywoman in a yellow dress and Ted is just a hat stand. It’s a little show with big ideas – so many that the characters often feel like they are drowning in them.

Bridewell Theatre, London. Until 12 April

Written for The Stage

Film: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

There is nothing I find funnier than watching someone who thinks they’re great doing something really badly. The more delusional they are the better. David Brent dancing in The Office, Basil Fawlty trying to impress posh hotel guests, Del Boy telling Trigger to “Play it nice and cool son” before falling through a pub bar.

From ancient Greece to Shakespeare to Laurel and Hardy to Alan Partridge, lots of great comic characters – many from British TV – rely upon the combined personality traits of arrogance and stupidity. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a Hollywood film about rival magicians, is the latest. It’s a light and playful satire with lots of nostalgia for the 1980s – a decade that was full of self-obsessed, stupid people (not all of them this loveable and funny).

Steve Carell’s Burt Wonderstone is a self-important old-school magician stuck in the era of gold catsuits and strings of ‘lovely assistants’. Fighting him for a slot performing to tourists in a swankpots Vegas hotel is Jim Carrey’s ‘Brain Rapist,’ Steve Gray. Rather than dazzling crowds with white rabbits and hats, he prefers to stick a knife in his face and pull out dollar bills from under his flesh. David Blaine, eat your heart out (no, not literally…).

It’s unusual to have lots of these larger-than-life buffoon-like characters in one piece. Normally there’s only enough space for one. But here, they’re everywhere. Even Steve Buscemi’s initially mild-mannered Anton Marvelton – the other half of Burt’s doomed double act – morphs into a hapless clown, stumbling around Cambodia bringing magic to the poor.

The only person who doesn’t get to behave like a clueless megalomaniac at some point is assistant-turned-magician Jane, played by Olivia Wilde. She is pretty much the sole serious character in the piece – the familiar straight woman trying to rein in the behaviour of ridiculous, maverick men. She gets to do a few magic tricks, but she certainly doesn’t get to be funny – just snog Burt at the end when she realises he isn’t the arrogant loser he appears, but an ideal boyfriend. Wasn’t he being a sexist cad two minutes ago? “That was another era!” he quips. That’s the kind of irreverent romp this is.

Gregarious, hilarious know-it-alls in comedy are often men. And comedians often parody magicians – whether it’s Monty Python, Tommy Cooper or stand-ups like Jason Byrne. David Mitchell and Robert Webb played a mismatched duo similar to Burt and Anton in the imaginatively named British film, Magicians. Only here, both of them ended up having unlikely relationships with their female assistants.

While The Incredible Burt Wonderstone won’t change your life or show women being loud and defiantly outlandish (you need Absolutely Fabulous for that), it has a good heart and it will make you laugh. Like a proper 80s film, it even has an uplifting message about the true value of friendship and just how magical life can be. You half expect things to end with a freeze frame of everyone laughing to camera. A pompous comedy character’s spirit can, after all, never be permanently crushed. Maybe that’s why we like them so much.

Battersea: The Last House Standing

Landlord: “I’m putting your rent up. Reply within 3 days”.
Me: “The walls are crumbling. Reply within 3 days”.
Landlord: “Your rent is now overdue. We will be starting legal proceedings”.
Me: “OK, here it is. What about the walls?”
Landlord: (no answer).
Me: “The walls have collapsed”.
Landlord: (no answer).
Me: I’m trapped under the rubble”.
Landlord: (no answer).
Me: “Help!”
Landlord: “Wanted: new tenant for beautiful Battersea home.”

This is what happens. Instead of paying £1000 a month for a flat where the living room doubles up as the kitchen and you can’t open the bathroom door without hitting the bedroom wall opposite, The Other One and I are now paying £1100. Are you shocked? I doubt it. If you rent in London you’re probably used to such things. You anticipate and accept them. You may even be thinking “£1100 a month? In Battersea? That’s really cheap!” If so, congratulations – Foxtons owns your soul.

In the old days, the wealthy people in Chelsea used to joke that Battersea was far enough away that you didn’t have to deal with the peasants living there, but near enough that you could throw sticks at them. Now-a-days, the river running between the two isn’t so much a divide between rich and poor, but rich and even richer.

Tiny terrace houses, like the one I live in – with eight other tenants, crammed into three flats – now sell for millions of pounds. These used to be owned by the people who worked in nearby factories, for the railway or Battersea Power Station. What was an average two-up, two-down little place is now a premium ‘period’ property.

Despite rising costs, I love living in Battersea. It’s friendly in the way people tend to think London isn’t. With council estates next to glassy penthouses along the river, it’s one of the few places in the city that feels neither edgy nor pretentious. It’s full of bizarre little shops that only manage to exist because someone bought them for three pounds four decades ago. They sell things like desk lamps, rat poison and different sized nails in cellophane bags. Best of all, there is Battersea Park. It’s a magical place that it’s impossible to tire of, no matter how many times you walk around it. But I grew up with grass, trees and flowers on the doorstep and it didn’t cost an extra hundred thousand every time you moved a street closer to them.

While rent is going up, landlords are enjoying some of the best mortgage rates ever. Many of them are people who bought property when it was cheap and then lucked out due to rocketing inflation and interest levels being kept artificially low. Well done them! Only now they’ve made some money, they want some more. They aren’t increasing the rent because they have to; they’re increasing it because they can. They are leaches sucking the blood from those less fortunate themselves and justifying it by spewing out phrases such “in line with market value.”

“Why don’t you just buy a house?” homeowners often say, unable to appreciate that if they already own three, they are not creating an environment where this is ever likely to happen. The Other One and I went to look around the block of Barrett flats being built on Battersea Park Road. They were nice. They also cost half a million. Ones with a ‘view’ of one of road even more. “Is there any ‘affordable’ housing?” I asked the pleasant lady who was showing us round. “This is the affordable housing,” she smiled. “Will any be available to rent?” I asked. “Oh yes,” she replied. “Lots of the people snapping them up would love a tenant like you.”

All along the river, from Nine Elms Road to the Power Station and beyond, new houses are being built in Battersea. They are tall, glass monsters covered in billboards of affluent looking city workers slipping wine, using gyms and laughing with friends at how they’ve managed to get one, two or ten rungs on the property ladder.

Even if I could afford to buy one of these fish tanks in the sky I wouldn’t. I want to own a real house with real people in a real street. And one day I will. Things can’t continue like this. At some point the property market will crash – and when it does I will cheer. What home owners and politicians dread, I am desperate for, waiting for, willing on. The fact our economy will then be fucked, none of us will have jobs and a black cloud of despair will engulf the country is insignificant to me. It will all be worth it if I can have the satisfaction of watching all of my landlord’s sixty properties repossessed, as I hand him a cheque for three pounds fifty to buy just one. This one.