Monthly Archives: November 2013

Theatre: Mucky Kid

Mae is a difficult person to like – she has a laugh that’s just a bit too loud and an uneasy, flitting energy. It feels as though she’s a rubber band poised to snap. Who knows what will happen when she does? Maybe she’ll kill a child. After all, she has before.

Sam Potter’s debut play is a skilfully constructed psychological thriller in which we’re asked to unpick the mixed-up memories of Mae’s past and decide whether children who kill children can, as adults, be rehabilitated and even forgiven. Is the grown-up we become ever truly free of the child we once were? Through ever-changing versions of a few scenes – charting Mae’s escape from prison and subsequent recapture – we find out.

It’s rare to see a piece of theatre that has such a tight and original structure; one that is ideally suited to a one-act play. Sharply directed by James Farrell and with strong support from the rest of the cast, it’s refreshingly even-handed in its approach. With a compelling performance from Sonya Cassidy as Mae – who shifts from naive teenager to sinister hate figure with disconcerting ease – it builds the tension in a way that is really quite thrilling but, as with real life, offers no easy answers.

Written for The Stage

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Film: Gravity

There are only two words to describe George Clooney’s performance in this or, indeed, any film: chaise longue. Wearing a space suit and jetpack, it feels like his character, Matt Kowalski, might swoosh over and offer co-star Sandra Bullock a Nespresso Volluto at any moment. Kowalski is a man so capable that, as he faces a slow and painful death by suffocation, floating into the dark void of space, he is gushing about watching the sun rising over the Ganges. What a guy! He sounds just like my sister whenever she’s been to Glastonbury. How on earth would Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, cope without him? For the rest of the film, we find out.

Dr. Stone is a more developed character and so needs a three word description: mom in space. Despite being hastily established as a brainiac mission specialist she mostly comes across as a hapless everywoman who has inadvertently ended up thousands of feet above the ground as part of her job. She spends a lot of time literally being towed along on a string by Clooney. Later, we learn she is more at home floating around a ship in a utilitarian vest and pants – the uniform of women in space – than flying one.

As with Captain Phillips, the inherently dramatic situation – basically, what would you do if you were trapped alone in space and your ship had been spliced in half – is more interesting than either of the two characters. As Dr. Stone hurtles towards earth in an escape shuttle, it’s only by thinking of her (dead) child that she can pull herself together. It’s not being cleverer or more determined or simply good that makes her succeed, it’s being a mom.

The sound and visuals are the real stars. Barely audible dialogue at the start curtails any popcorn crunching, while cuts between explosions and eerie silence create tension where there might have otherwise been boredom. It’s a very well directed film that captures the feeling of orbiting, weightless, in space, like never before – perhaps so much so that this has overshadowed everything else.

As Sandra Bullock jumps from burning ship to escape pod to flying pieces of debris, you get the feeling she’s in a time loop, perhaps hallucinating, but definitely leading up to a twist. Maybe she’s really dead? However, when it comes it’s not as good as it needs to be, more incidental than anything else. Like a virtual reality ride, a lot of the time it’s not about George Clooney or Sandra Bullock, however wonderful you may think they are, it’s simply about enjoying the experience of plummeting through space.

Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in the Alien films is a far better character. Like Dr. Stone, she starts off as a bit vulnerable – a woman in a male-dominated universe – but goes on a real journey before kicking a load of aliens’ arses and eventually becoming one, Metamorphosis-style, herself. Yes, she also, at times, only wore pants and a vest but, unlike here, it didn’t look like she was a mermaid floating around in a Galaxy advert. If George Clooney had popped up, batted aside a facehugger and offered her a Nespresso, I’m pretty sure she would have told him she’d make her own.

Film: Captain Phillips

“If you enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean you’re going to love this,” is how I would like to start the blog. It would be funny if it was in any way true – but it isn’t. This is a film about modern-day pirating that takes itself much more seriously than that (it’s based upon a real-life story, after all, don’t you know?). However, the plot is hammered home with all the subtlety of swashbuckling sensation Jack Sparrow flying through the air and smashing into the ship’s steel hull. A particularly lumbering sequence at the start establishes that the hero, Captain Phillips, is married (close-up of a wedding ring), a family man (close-up of the children’s portrait) and about to take his massive cargo ship along the pirate-infested Somali coast (close-up of a map, zoom in on the word ‘Somalia’).

Thankfully there’s also Tom Hanks, as Phillips, who gives a compellingly understated performance that far outshines the rest of the cardboard cut-out crew. They chat about the coffee machine and their union in a way that takes realism to new levels of banality. In going for his trademark naturalistic style, it sometimes feels like director Paul Greengrass has bypassed one vital ingredient: characterisation. It’s a relief when the film gives up trying to be Mike Leigh at sea and turns into a taut hostage thriller that gets most of its drama – and it is, at times, very dramatic – from an inherently tense situation.

From the horrible inevitability of the pirates closing in on the ship, to Phillips’ attempts to save his crew and then himself it’s a gripping story that constantly asks you to question what you would do if you were in the same nightmare situation. But whenever there’s a pause in the action it’s difficult to take the chiselled navy seals, lacklustre crew members and inept Somali pirates, with their oddly Americanised sub-titled dialogue, seriously. They just don’t feel real.

One of the most interesting things about the film is that it attempts to show the pirate’s perspective, setting them up as victims of globalisation and poverty in the same way Phillips and his crew are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Barkhad Abdi is hypnotic as their leader Muse, who refers to himself as “Captain” in the same way Phillips does. We are clearly supposed to see them as two sides of the same coin. But if you strip away each gang member’s few defining personality traits (‘the young one,’ ‘the conflicted one,’ ‘the unstable meathead one’) there’s little left underneath.

Maybe Tom Hanks doesn’t really need co-stars. All he had in Castaway was a football, after all (I kept hoping Wilson might float past the lifeboat window, but sadly, no). This time, his Oscar scene comes towards the end when Phillips is finally hit by the shock of what he has been through and caves in. It’s a moving sequence and a great conclusion to an increasingly absorbing film but one that, with more developed supporting characters, could have been even better.

How to get an agent: Advice for writers

“They’ve probably given my script to the receptionist to read,” I once heard a writer say after sending his work to an agent. He was right. I was that receptionist, and his script, along with many others, was on my desk. “Lucky him,” you’re almost certainly not thinking. But you’d be wrong. It was good, so I passed it on to the agent I was working for at the time. In doing so, I presumably increased its chances of getting somewhere – or, at the very least, saved it from a “standard rejection” letter.

Having posted many such letters in the past, I know how difficult it is for new writers to get an agent. It can seem like a vicious circle: agents tend to want you to have had something produced; producers tend to want you to have an agent. However, there are ways of getting your work noticed, as I found out when I spoke to a group of agents – Georgina Ruffhead from David Higham Associates, Matt Connell and Julia Wyatt from Berlin Associates, and Jean Kitson from MBA – about what makes them take on a new client.

“There is a lot of luck in this business,” says Jean. “But there is plenty you can do to increase the possibilities of your luck, which is being in the right place at the right time, getting involved in competitions or putting on a theatre play.”

Even if you’ve written a brilliant script, almost all agents want to see a CV with some writing experience on it as well. Often this is the first thing they read. Georgina explains why: “It’s good for writers to have initiative and to have taken some steps themselves, whether this is through a course, the Writersroom, the theatre or involvement in well-regarded shadow schemes or initiatives.”

Julia agrees: “Even as an agent, if you’re sending scripts out by writers who haven’t done anything, some people will look at them and think, ‘Well, they haven’t got any experience. Why haven’t they? What have they been doing?’”

Getting some professional writing experience on your CV might be difficult but it’s not impossible. “There is a lot of support out there for brand new writers,” says Jean, “Usually I would have expected writers to have availed themselves of that as much as possible.” Winning competitions, putting on a theatre production or getting your first radio play are all things the agents suggest are possible without their help. “For writers, all of those entry level points are accessible without an agent,” says Matt.

So, once an agent likes your CV and decides to take a look at your script, what are they hoping to find? Something that’s easy to sell and will get you onto Doctors? Or so earth shatteringly original it’s unlikely to be appreciated in your lifetime, let alone get made?

Matt says: “The bolder and more risky the idea, the less likely that anything [production-wise] is going to happen with it but the more likely it is that you’ll get an agent or it will attract attention.” Georgina agrees. “I think a ‘calling card’ script that takes some calculated risks and grabs our attention without being too avant-garde can be very effective.” However, “don’t be tricksy for the sake of it,” says Jean. “Tell the story you want to tell. What producers and script editors are interested in, and what I’m interested in, is what a writer has got to say.” The rest of the group agrees.

“For me it’s usually about dialogue,” says Matt. “It’s about there being a truth to the dialogue and the characters from the very first moment.” Georgina already has quite a full client list, so needs “to feel very convinced not just that the script is good but that I’m the right agent for it.” She continues: “Agencies and agents all differ hugely. Some writers will prefer a big or small agency but ultimately the individual agent they work with is probably the most crucial thing.”

So what should writers look for in an agent? “A good agent should have lots of good contacts and be a gateway into the industry – whichever part of the industry you’re aiming for,” says Jean. “But it should be a two-way conversation. My writers who are working best are real go-getters.” The others share similar thoughts. “You can’t just get an agent and that’s it,” says Julia. “You are working together. It’s a partnership.”

What none of the agents are looking for is writing that’s trying to second guess what they want or what’s commercial. “One reoccurring problem I see is that some writers replicate what they think they see on mainstream film or TV rather than create something they are truly passionate about,” says Georgina. Julia agrees: “We get a lot of submissions that are similar and try and copy things that have been successful.”

All of the agents get dozens of enquiries a week and, since their first priority is looking after the writers they already represent, they take on very few new clients. “A good three quarters of the submissions that come in can be pretty easily dismissed as people who haven’t done their homework,” says Matt. These include writers who haven’t checked the agency’s submission guidelines (see below). “Anyone who is aware of the Writersroom blog and is already linked in, you’re already ahead,” adds Julia.

However, the sheer amount of competition for limited space means you may well end up getting at least one thanks-but-no-thanks letter. So, what then?

“If the agent asks you to stay in touch or to send something else, then it’s fine to check back in – but do it when you have something genuinely new to say or show,” says Georgina. “Otherwise I would try another agent – you want someone who likes your work.” The others agree. “If there are blanket responses that aren’t positive definitely go and write something new, do some courses or read scripts,” says Matt. “Think about your approach and what you could do to make it better,” Jean adds.

None of the agents I talk to think there is one specific path for writers to follow. If you want to write for BBC Continuing Drama that’s great, but theatre, radio and other kinds of television are also options if you don’t. “Television, specifically television in the UK, feels very exciting at the moment,” says Jean. “There are a lot more channels, there’s a lot more opportunity and there’s a lot more call for content.” Georgina agrees: “Many people now feel that the best TV can really compete with film in terms of quality and that’s a very positive thing.”

While an agent can clearly help you build your writing career, there are successful writers who don’t have one. Indeed, one writer I talk to, who has worked a lot in radio and television, says: “When I first started out I didn’t realise that people had agents, and it took me a couple of years to get one.” He and others prove that it’s possible to find and make the most of opportunities whether you have an agent or not. “Everyone would love to discover the next big thing,” says Jean. “You’ve just got to make them believe that you are it.”

Before getting in touch with the above (or any!) agents please read and follow their submission guidelines:

Berlin Associates: http://www.berlinassociates.com/submissions.php

David Higham: http://www.davidhigham.co.uk/submissions.htm

MBA: http://www.mbalit.co.uk/content/submissions

Written for BBC Writersroom

Battersea Park Fireworks (Comin’ at ya. Bang!)

“Big up for Wandsworth Council” shouted the DJ/ compere at Battersea Park Fireworks on Saturday night. The 30-somethings who made up most of the crowd, wearing Hunter wellies and referring to Clapham Junction as “Clapham J,” did their best to ignore him, but it wasn’t easy. His amp was almost as loud as it was distorted and their earmuffs were only so thick. “Give me a scream if you’re at the hot dog stand,” he cried only to be met with shuffling apathy. A woman muttered that he was “shattering the ambiance.”

This year you had to buy tickets via Ticketmaster. In the past it was the council website or one of the various huts within the park. It also used to cost £5; now it’s £6-£10 and booking fees for the privilege of using a site that counts down how many minutes you have to enter your card details (2.31, 2.30. 2.29, oh my god, what’s my ‘verified by visa’ security code???) The American Embassy is coming, the Boris Bike stations are in place and you’re no longer allowed to bring your own sparklers. Battersea is changing. But you just need to look at house prices to know that.

In some ways, the Battersea fireworks display is morphing into a corporate machine where anyone coming to watch simply exists to keep the ferris wheel of fortune turning. Whether you’re queuing up to have your ticket stamped or to exchange pound notes for doughnuts, someone is shaking a charity bucket in your face (“it’s only a few pence. Don’t you have a few pence?”) or flyering you to join a £50 a month gym. But there’s still something magical about staring into the sky with a crowd of people doing the same and waiting for the lights rain down – even if it’s to the sound of a DJ shouting, “In a few minutes fireworks will be coming in ya face. Bang!”

This year’s theme for the display, which is always accompanied by music, was “Shrieks and Skulls,” which is pretty avant-garde compared to what we normally have. Indeed, I’m not even sure if there normally is a ‘theme.’ Last year, it might have been something to do with the Olympics and mainly involved a lot of R&B, perhaps in an effort to appeal to the audience the organisers would like to bring to the event rather than the one that actually comes.

However, whoever designed this year’s display achieved a remarkable feat: they made a mainstream council-organised piece of entertainment their own. I have an image of them in my head: a middle-aged man in a Metallica t-shirt and black jeans with a CD collection dating back to a former life as a suburban teenage goth in the early 1990s. “How can I get away with a soundtrack that solely consists of the likes of Meatloaf, The Specials and lesser-known tracks from The Rocky Horror Picture Show?” he may have pondered. “I know. I’ll fuse two distinct and, until now, entirely separate events together and tell them it’s ‘Halloween themed.’” And it worked! Good for him.

With skulls formed from flames – made all the more sinister by the fact one’s eyes didn’t properly light – some asymmetrical rockets and offbeat chrysanthemum bursts, at times it even felt a little bit punk; a stark contrast to orderly queues to buy overpriced produce going on elsewhere. Maybe they’ll let this mysterious maverick behind it all back again next year and ‘punk’ will be the theme. Catherine wheels will spin to the sound of “Anarchy in the UK.” It would, after all, fit in well with what Guy Fawkes, a man who tried to blow up parliament, was all about. Or perhaps they’ll just revert to the classic ‘Bonfire Night’ and bring back a proper sized fire? I’m not sure why the usual mountain of blazing wooden pallets had been replaced with something that had less heat that a single hob gas cooker, but suspect it had something to do with whoever decided to ban the sparklers.