Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Big Thief on tour



BIG THIEF at
Hammersmith Apollo, London (27 Feb)
Rock City, Nottingham (29 Feb)
Albert Hall, Manchester (1 Mar)
Ancienne Belgique, Brussels (5 Mar)
Paradiso, Amsterdam (6 Mar)


Every time you see Adrianne Lenker, she’s three different people. This month I’ve seen her five times.

It started like this. Last year I watched her enchant Union Chapel, picking at an outsized acoustic guitar, tooth missing, hiding behind a thatched fringe, whispering whimsical self-penned songs that seemed to be about potatoes but were suddenly about the cosmos. Four months later (two of which I’d spent in hospital), she played the Roundhouse with her band Big Thief, four disparate, perfectly and weirdly simpatico Brooklyn alt-folk scenesters.

She’d shaved her head and she was just screaming. Swaggering and screaming, guitar like a machine gun.

Later in 2019, her band played Bush Hall in one of those small miracles that London serves up now and again: announcement on Thursday, on sale Friday, gig on Monday, previewing their second album of the year, Two Hands, doing it in full for the-first-and-only-time, figuring out how to play these songs live, before our eyes, something between a workshop and a front seat to history. Since then they’ve been lauded by Pitchfork, the Guardian, and Barack Obama(‘s PR consultants), but it was how the shows made me feel. After Suede and the Manics gave way to The Strokes and The White Stripes, I thought I was through with bands – that really bands were the kind of thing you grow out of, like Ricicles or the Socialist Workers’ Party. Then The National came along and asked if that was in any way a tenable position. Big Thief set fire to it.

I had tickets to the London show, had the flyer magnet-pinned to my fringe for close to a year, but Big Thief aren’t a one-evening proposition. They’re mercurial and explosive, allergic to convention and setlists – to having a set list for more than one night in a row, even to sticking to the one drummer James Krivchenia has written – and seeing them just once suddenly seemed perverse. Like listening to Mahler’s Ninth once, enjoying it and then smashing the vinyl on the sideboard. Instead I could spend all my money going to Nottingham. And Manchester. And Brussels. And Amsterdam. Anywhere there were sympathetic Burins with fold-out sofas and an accepting attitude to turning up two hours early for gigs.

OK, I missed Glasgow and Paris somewhere in there, but the five shows were like a suite, or a Gus Van Sant film from back when he was great, and I’m left with this: a series of impressions, a juggling of snapshots, a succession of reinventions: the same but different, different but the same.



Hammersmith is first and it’s your erratic epic – their biggest gig ever, perhaps their longest. Big Thief are the only band whose singer’s hair is a continuing psychodrama of its own, and she turns up looking like Henry V. “He that outlives this day, and comes safe home/Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named/And rouse him at the name of Crispian,” says the grown Hal, and Lenker is a soul obsessed with home: the “good home” of ‘Parallels’, the home that everyone deserves in ‘Forgotten Eyes’, the home confused for a refuge in ‘Rock and Sing’. And this few, this happy few, this band of brothers so fierce in their gentle, sporadic, lolloping way: three men and this androgynous tour-de-force, Lenker unshaven and muscular and suited, spinning tortured love songs that are, upon inspection, not love songs at all but explorations of the male selves that at times flicker to her forefront. “Oh, the last time I saw Paul,” she breathes in one of their debut album’s heartstopping moments, “I was horrible and almost let him in.”



There are concessions to commercialism, or at least pragmatism, in London, but Big Thief are still just so irregular and counter-intuitive, and weird, and heavy, and fey. Which other band would kick off a landmark show with a new song called ‘Zombie Girl’, played acoustic and solo? Which band would meet every ovation with a wistfully abstruse deep cut? Or consent to an encore (by no means a given) from a pissed-up crowd of 5,000, do only a subdued ‘Rock and Sing’ and then leave. They quietly reinvent the Spotify Top Songs stuff – angular guitars, drum-and-vocal bridges, rolling rhythms – but at that stage I’m just getting attuned to it. I leave muttering something about Lenker being the only New Dylan since Dylan. You know in ‘Love Minus Zero’ when he sings, “My love, she speaks like silence”, or ‘Visions of Johanna – “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face” – well no-one writes like that. But Lenker does. Not like Dylan, exactly –because what’s special about that? – but prolifically singular, with his perfect abstract specificity. “Your eyes were like machinery,” she sings in ‘Mary’. “Your hands were making artefacts in the corner of my mind.”



At Nottingham’s Rock City, bathed in blue, they manufacture atmosphere, then feed off it, swelling to twice their size (I’m on the front row now), pressing inexorably forward. “I love you, Adriana,” yells a male voice from the back of the room. Lenker scowls, says nothing. He says it once, twice, half-a-dozen times. She looks at her feet. It’s when two teenage girls begin to speak, freaking out at being in the same room with her that she engages. “I just love these songs so much,” says one, pushing her way forward, beginning to cry. Lenker, who’s crouching down over her guitar to fiddle with the amps, smiles, contorts her fingers into a thin and sturdy heart.

The show is intense, and in its intensity the tour’s themes start to reveal and congeal. You realise what a political record Two Hands is, with a directness that can only be communicated in person. ‘Not’ is an explosion of cathartic anguish, with something of Sleep Well Beast’s state-of-the-nation remit, a list song that exalts through endless negation, like Cole Porter just went fucking mental. Seen through the squall are Bible-old traumas and rampaging ills: climate emergency, consumerism, mortality, listlessness, loneliness. And at some point words are no longer enough, no matter how perfect the words, like when the harmonica comes in at the end of Dylan’s Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, and then ‘Not’ spirals into horror, madness, purposeful fury, and finally release; a howl, a blast of noise, a guitar solo that’s half-rehearsed, half-improvised, and by Amsterdam will be refined, Lenker no longer on her haunches, twiddling amp dials, but trading sonic perfection for picturesque rage, because the display, the physicality is part of the thing, if not the whole thing.



‘Forgotten Eyes’ is empathetic: a big hug, a socialist manifesto viewed through a hippy aesthetic. But ‘Shoulders’? That’s merely harrowing: domestic violence in primary colours, the sins of the father as anthem; at one point I turn half-around to see the whole crowd chanting in unison; it’s a definite moment, but it isn’t comfortable. In Manchester, Lenker will turn ‘The Toy’ into a stylised pantomime, her right hand a gun firing skywards as childhood play turns into misadventure, love transmogrifies into murder, and the horror of sudden, eyes-wide realisation twists America into an apocalyptic hellscape. But that’s not yet: here it’s just fraught and ugly. As these new songs flex their muscles, others are dragged into the present: the political present; the musical now – dragged upwards as the band degenerate into grunge. And then when it’s over, there’s just ‘Magic Dealer’, gentle as a sparrow in the dawn.

Manchester, though, is about those gestures. Lenker stretches out a hand towards the child by her side, before ‘Capacity’ turns introspective. She tracks a tear down her cheek. She fires the finger-gun. Birds fly away. And in ‘Masterpiece’s new, stompy segue, she clomps across the stage in black boots, facing away, the song as funky as it can ever get and still stab you in the heart. Because when she’s stopped playing at being the rockabilly George Clinton, she’s still got to go back to the mic, got to tell us that there’s only so much letting go you can ask someone to do.



She is avian. High cheekbones and a hooked nose. The wild, ethereal twitter of her head voice. And when she nods to a fast, burgeoning riff, ‘Shark Smile’ coming to life, her heads bobs and juts like a pigeon’s. Yes, she’s birdlike. Almost brittle. But her middle-range is powerful and her lower-range is brutal, and there’s such strength in this band. They’re pastoral and sensitive, but if you pollute that lake, they are going to fucking kill you. She handles her guitar like a feminist manifesto, and though it’s hard to find a new way of playing guitar live, rock clichés sit lightly on you when you’re a genius. Lenker moshes with a Beatle cut, backpedals as she thrashes out chords, delicately stamps her feet and shakes her head as ‘Forgotten Eyes’ takes shape, and screams as ‘Contact’ is made: the long, slow prelude, then skin touches skin, or metal touches brain, or a mind lurches awake, or somewhere in that vast empty blackness, something responds.



So often, her eyes are closed, and they flicker open to gaze into yours or just into the middle distance. She breaks sparingly but completely into a smile, into nervous laughter. There are thank yous, at times that feeling of being quietly overwhelmed that a band get when they’re suddenly big, but that comes only when they speak, and the spell of impetus slackens. In Brussels there’s a soliloquy about Europe. The cobbled streets… the beauty… wanting to go there, but feeling afraid. It’s not scary, though, it’s people, says Lenker – and stone. In Minnesota, everything was thin, but… no… there’s beauty there too, and she’s into ‘Cattails’, which rocks, but like a hand on a cradle, a part-cryptic bucolic lullaby, a deceptive 12-string dance track about the natural world, full-to-choking with beauty, in its imagery, its sounds, its meter. “And the clusters fell, like an empty bell,” sings Lenker, the rhythm so infectious that she’s proto-rapping. “Meteor shower at the motel.” It makes my throat swell.



She plays around with those rhythms, always. In ‘Mary’, her hypnotic, lulling fast-talking can either speed or drag, make the song lost and dreamlike, or else relentless and pretty; she injects urgency, uncertainty, certainty into ‘Not’. The freakout jams are different every night.

The setlist changes every night too, but there are runs of songs, and you get to know them. ‘Masterpiece’ into ‘Capacity’ – sad and sensual, spinning the heartbroken lover trope into bisexual erotica – then ‘Shark Smile’ and sometimes ‘Real Love’, that exquisitely painful smash-and-grab that takes one look at songs that glorify abusive relationships and decides that actually I’ll probably be alright, thanks – and suddenly you’re the kid watching his alcoholic mum get the shit beaten out of her by its dad. In Brussels, the poignancy almost drowns you, the “hummingbird” passage offbeat, strange and haunting, like it’s broken out of The Innocents: a quiet, haunting new song, the child’s song, suddenly growing out of this old one. In Amsterdam that’s gone forever, but the song is a monster, stretched out and violent. That show is the heaviest of the lot, ‘Shark Smile’ sped up, aggressive but still insouciant, its lust barely dampened by its auto-wreck tragedy.



Then there’s the acoustic stretch: for some of it the band take a back seat and, in bassist Max Oleartchik’s case, a literal one. ‘Orange’ is one of the loveliest, most straightforward songs Lenker has ever written – that’s played in London, then comes back for the Benelux gigs. There are new tracks: the conventionally attractive ‘Zombie Girl’; ‘Dried Roses’, premiered in Nottingham, which takes Lenker’s whimsical-metaphysical thing near to the point of parody but damn-near breaks you anyway; and ‘Time Escaping’, which eludes me still; I don’t remember it, nor how it goes. Maybe one day. She’s backed by the band for ‘Happiness’ – another list song, Lenker-style – for the rocky ‘Bruiser’, for the gorgeous ‘Two Rivers’, which meanders through familiar territory with an iridescent beauty. She picks a repetitive pattern over Krivchenia’s brushwork, voice scaling mountains of arpeggios, checking out the scenery, until finally she gets to the crux of it, words trembling: “Is it a crime to do what you ask me to?”

Krivchenia is a superb drummer, and his languorous expression – leaning forward, mouth lolling open – sets some sort of tone. He cracks one smile in five nights. Oleartchik – feet bare, clad in a pink onesie or a dress, often-times perched on a stack of amps – is unaffected, unobtrusive and unfussy, as if he’s scarcely realised he’s playing bass. And Buck Meek, extreme left of the stage, as Lenker is centre-right, has his knee eternally bent, slim shoes that feel like they should be winkle pickers, leaning towards her, towards Krivchenia, looming almost, lurching with those thin legs as he issues spare notes and shimmering soundscapes, but his talent sublimated to his group, with just the odd lead guitar part. And sometimes he’s scarcely playing at all, but fuck me those vocal harmonies, lifting ‘Mary’ and ‘Masterpiece’ still higher – and it’s only when he comes in, adding to Lenker’s voice, to Krivchenia’s, to Oleartchik’s, that you realise those sharply uptilted Texan vowels were what was missing. High forehead, hair like corn drifting back in a stack at the back of his head; guileless, polite, deceptively brilliant; when Lenker goes off, and yes she goes off, he instinctively complements her crackling invention, their chemistry absolute, and you think of that photo of them in front of the camper van on the front of ‘A Sides’, when they were a couple, perhaps halfway to getting married. In Amsterdam there’s even a rare concession to practicality, as he gets a solo spot, because he’s back later in the month as a solo supporting act, and he has tickets to sell.



So yes it’s a band, and if they ever split up, I will cry, but for all that it’s Lenker’s band. Walking on stage with wet hair, in high-waisted trousers, stripping off her suit jacket to unmask a sleeveless top – white or blue or khaki – after a frenetic guitar solo, an illegible tattoo snaking down her arm, she holds you for 90, 100 minutes in her thrall. She comes face-on to the audience just once, as ‘Masterpiece’ reaches its zenith; otherwise she’s off to one side, one of four points, but the driving force, content in her endless capacity. With three people, and three people herself.

***

Setlists:



Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Review of 2019: Part 3 – Movies

Part 1 was about books, Part 2 was live stuff. This one's about films. I only saw 95 this year, which by my previous standards is pathetic, but is also probably Healthy and A Good Thing.

Fourteen premieres of the year...

... being old films I saw for the first time in 2019, and really liked.



1-3. Three Colours Red (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1994), The Double Life of Véronique (Kieślowski, 1991) and No End (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1985) – The climax to Kieslowski’s tricolore trilogy is a sort of twisted Amèlie: a wilfully dark slow-burner that dares you to love it. Part-time model Irène Jacob has a sexist boyfriend, a junkie brother, and has just run over a dog. That dog belongs to reclusive retired judge Jean-Louis Trintignant, who hates everyone and is spying crustily on his neighbours. After that charming meet cute they begin a tentative friendship, but this is no simple Hollywood heartwarmer and Trintignant no thawing grandpa: he remains a complex character, and their relationship is as much about honesty as redemption. If it speaks to you, though – and it does to me – you’ll never forget it. This is Kieslowski’s most stylish film: playful at times, almost hallucinatory at others, with Felliniesque tendencies and an inspired use of music. Those flourishes augment a story that feels minor and even disjointed for quite a while – but stick with it. The final 20 is astonishing.

When I was watching movies, this was the year of Kieslowski. Véronique is an understated, hypnotic Kieslowski film that runs the gamut from eerie to joyous, but thrums with quiet pain, while radiating artistry in the imagery, music (by Zbigniew Preisner) and performance. Jacob is chokingly effective as Véronique and Weronika, sensitive, identical women who never meet, but feel an intangible connection. It’s often plotless – and its bits of plot can feel like contrived whimsy – but it’s mesmerising too, and when it hits, it hits hard. You may know it’s coming, when Véronique takes a closer look at those transparencies... oof. I’d like to watch this again soon, as I’m not quite sure how to judge it: the moments of profound visual and emotional beauty (Jacob walking in the light between shadows) vs some apparent shortcomings that are more prosaic. It could end up being a favourite.

And then there was No End, which began the whole thing. That's a mesmerising Kieslowski film about a ghost, a grieving widow and a political trial. It's a sad, wise, wintry work, profound about loss and revealing about communist Poland. Every scene is brilliant.

I'm going to watch Dekalog for the first time in 2020. I can't wait.



4. Heat Lightning (Mervyn LeRoy, 1934) – Like The Petrified Forest but fun: a tough, crackling, slangy piece of Pre-Code magic about mannish mechanic Aline MacMahon, her frustrated kid sister (Ann Dvorak) and the fugitives, floozies and other lost souls who stumble into their desert gas station. It’s a little masterpiece: a film that juggles irreverence, suspense and drama, working hard for its emotional moments, which are understated and all the more effective for it. And it has pretty much my dream cast, dominated by MacMahon – who’s in terrific form – but with a decent part for Dvorak (largely sidelined by Warner’s after taking an eight-month honeymoon and briefing against the studio from the boat), as well as perfect supporting bits for Willard Robertson as McMahon’s quietly-spoken admirer, Glenda Farrell as a flirtatious divorcee, and Frank McHugh as her put-upon chauffeur. Plus Lyle Talbot as a nervy bank robber on the lam. It is 1933 after all.

5. The Twilight Samurai (Yōji Yamada, 2002) – A wonderful film about widowed, low-ranking samurai Hiroyuki Sanada trying to care for two daughters – and a mum with dementia – as honour and clan loyalties threaten to draw him into conflict. It’s a mixture of the conventional and the markedly not: there’s a little spoonfeeding and a mawkish coda, but also a hero who’s told off for being smelly, and a bit where the long-promised face-off is delayed by the villain wanting a chat and eating his own cremated daughter. In either mode, the film has a lovely feel to it: touching, melancholic but good-humoured, ultimately elegiac, and while the accent is rarely on action, it can do that too. Sanada is perfect as the taciturn hero: reluctant retainer and doting father, spurning the love of his life through a sense of duty.



6. Tales of Manhattan (Julien Duvivier, 1942) – The best pormanteau film I’ve seen from Hollywood’s Golden Age, beginning with Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth and Thomas Mitchell trapped in a warped, noirish love triangle, and ending with Paul Robeson arms outstretched, in full voice – the stories all linked by the same increasingly bedraggled tailcoat. There’s a phenomenal collection of talent assembled here by Fox, both behind and in front of the camera, including director Julien Duvivier (Pépé Le Moko), writers Ben Hecht and Lamar Trotti, and one of the best casts brought together in this or any other era. And though the film juggles genres, it brings the same heightened sensibility to each, as well as ruminating gamely on the nature of luck. With the exception of a tiresome chapter starring W. C. Fields – excised from the original release, restored on home video – every single one of these stories is good (the African-American one is compassionate and treats its younger characters quite well, though it’s also patronising and stereotypical to the point of racism), and two of them are exceptional.

The pick of the bunch is a screwball masterpiece in miniature, utilising Ginger Rogers’ gift for instant emotional connection and Henry Fonda’s ever underrated comic timing in a funny, lushly romantic story about a bride falling in love with her best man. And in the other stand-out, which features a lovely part for veteran character actor Harry Davenport, homeless alcoholic Edward G. Robinson gets cleaned up, in more ways than one, to attend a university reunion, which – naturally thanks to George Sanders – turns into a referendum on his character. Right from the ingenious play-within-a-film near its commencement, you know this movie’s going to be something special, and it is. There’s wit and wisdom to spare. There’s also Charles Laughton as a frustrated composer, J. Carrol Naish as an armed robber and Robeson in dungarees, married to Ethel Waters, spouting socialist agitprop – so something for everyone, really. Also, did I mention how good Thomas Mitchell is here? He is. And he’s fantastically directed.



7. The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979) – Eight gang members in lovely leather waistcoats try to fight their way home to Coney Island from The Bronx, pursued by the cops and every ridiculously-attired badass in town. A richly visual cult action film from Walter Hall, with echoes of early John Carpenter, tons of suspense and a gloriously grimy NY milieu. On one level it’s completely preposterous (one rival gang appear to be Kiss wearing baseball gear, another are in dungarees and on rollerskates), but luckily it’s also amazing: one of the great all-in-one-night movies (see also: After Hours, Die Hard, American Graffiti, Attack the Block). And, apparently oblivious to it, and in other ways rather unreconstructed, it’s also really quite gay. It can add something curious and intangible to a B-movie when you get wooden actors speaking stylised dialogue, but when those bad actors go big, it falls down. That’s the case here: keeping it simple, the Warriors work – even if a few could be written more fully – while hamming baddie David Patrick Kelly is notably A Bit Much. Cracking film, though.



8. They Came to a City (Basil Dearden, 1945) – A genuinely inspiring socialist allegory, based on a J. B. Priestley play, with a heady atmosphere of victory-scented utopianism that places it unmistakably in 1944. A bit heavy-handed in places, but thoroughly striking, with rich rhetoric, a notably fine Googie Withers performance, and modernist, abstract sets that are almost as fascinating as her face.

9. Nine Queens (Fabián Bielinsky, 2000) – A terrific, endlessly surprising Argentine film about two con men walking the streets of Buenos Aires, trying to close the deal of a lifetime. Affecting and amusing, with a cast of memorable characters – particularly Ricardo Darin’s goateed, merciless Marcos.



10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman, 2018) – When a film has a cartoon Peter Porker pig known as Spider-Ham and that cartoon Peter Porker pig says something so unexpectedly moving that it nearly makes you cry – that’s when you know you’re watching a good film. It’s that heart that sets it apart, though it is also very funny and well-animated, and Lord and Miller’s post-modernism freshens the formula without overwhelming the story. Even the action climax doesn’t overstay its welcome (much). Film noir isn’t from the 1930s, though. Sort it out.

11. Lenny (Bob Fosse, 1974) – An exceptional, intelligent Lenny Bruce biopic, with Dustin Hoffman’s acerbic, neurotic, obsessive, impulsive Bruce – an insecure adulterer and hopeless morphine addict, as well as trailblazer and mirror to America’s rampant hypocrisy – a little more recognisable than the Manic Pixie Dream Lenny of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. It’s directed in incomparable New Hollywood style by Fosse, a clear influence on films from Raging Bull to Jackie, with credible performances led by Hoffman’s pyrotechnics, though Bruce’s professional life is rather more interesting to watch than his personal one, meaning that the decision to angle the story on his relationship with his wife (Valerie Perrine) isn’t necessarily right.



12. Harper (Jack Smight, 1966) – A genuinely special PI film that bridges the gap between The Big Sleep (with Bacall in the General Sternwood role) and Altman’s Long Goodbye, as Paul Newman’s tough-talking, hungover Lew Harper scoops old coffee grains out of the bin for re-use – and gets outsmarted a half-dozen times, while rarely losing his smirk. At times the plot plods and the story feels secondhand, the film touched too by those naff ‘60s elements that never feel authentic, but it’s packed full of scintillating William Goldman dialogue, with a first-rate cast – including Shelley Winters as an alcoholic former starlet, Julie Harris a smack addict chanteuse, and Arthur Hill as Newman’s best bud – and imaginative imagery from Conrad Hall. The final scene in particular is an absolute classic: Goldman at his zenith, and Newman close to his; a shame then that the writer’s conspicuous contempt for women, fat people and “faggots” serves elsewhere to detract from the sardonic lyricism of his lines.

13. Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1995) – A revealing, difficult documentary about counter-culture cartoonist Robert Crumb, mental illness and America. The sequence in which you see his brother's comic books degenerate from charming pastiches of popular art into endlessly and impossibly dense word-heavy blue scrawls is as harrowing a depiction of insanity as I've seen. I've found it hard to get it out of my head.



14. The Adventures of Mark Twain (Irving Rapper, 1944) – Wonderful episodic Americana about steamboat captain, gold prospector and comedy roaster Sam Clemens (Fredric March) – better known by his nom de plume. March is excellent, sidestepping his penchant to play too big, and there are lovely moments throughout – particularly the love scene in the rain, and the characters tumbling from the Huck Finn manuscript – though the second half is sometimes too conventional, and Alexis Smith (as Mrs Clemens) is increasingly asked to eulogise Twain’s greatness for the benefit of the viewer, rather than enjoy a character of her own. Still, the writers’ knowledge of Twain is clearly first-rate (I’m talking the works, not the events), and they do a good job of knitting his observations and witticisms into the script without it ever feeling mannered or laborious. Plenty of his gags still hold up, though the ones in his climactic speaking tour are admittedly absolutely terrible bantz. Max Steiner’s score has his usual virtues and vices: lovely themes alongside clichéd jingles and hysterical cues.

***

Old favourites

The ten best films I rewatched:



1. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942) – Fragments of genius. Amidst the wreckage are five or six of the most stunning passages in American cinema. I wrote at length about the film here.

2. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001) – You can take your Juno, your Scott Pilgrim, even your Heathers, and chuck them in a skip, because Ghost World just does it all so much better. Well, all of it that's worth doing. I'm beginning to think this melancholy, bitingly hilarious crystallisation of teen ennui might be the only film I'll ever really need.



3. Holiday (George Cukor, 1938) – Unfortunately I am in love with Katharine Hepburn in this film. And in love with the Potters. Lew Ayres starts as a cartoon, then adds layer upon layer. Inspired, inspiring, intoxicating. It’s pretty much perfection. Here's a full-length piece about it. The film is out on Criterion Blu-ray, including the original 1930 version as an extra, next month.



4. On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) – Along with Star Wars and Les 400 Coups, this was the movie that got me into movies. I had that amazing Italian poster on my wall as a teenager. I’ve been to a concert because they were performing a bit of the score. I still know the (incomparable) taxicab scene off by heart. The film, enduringly problematically, is an apologia for informing, in which director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg shamefully equate the parlour communists they ratted out to the HUAC with murderous mobsters. Context and subtext aside, though, it remains an absolutely exhilarating piece of cinema: powerful, rousing, moving – even sexy.

Brando, in the greatest of all his performances, is Terry Malloy, the uneducated ‘bum’ who threw his one shot at a title fight and is now the mascot of a corrupt waterfront labour union run by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). After setting up a talkative neighbour to get shoved off a building, Terry falls for the victim’s sister, convent girl Edie (Eva Marie Saint), and feels the first painful stirrings of conscience. There’s such an intensity and a depth to Brando’s performance here, which conjures beauty and nobility and even innocence from a character who is thick and crude and inarticulate and sometimes ugly. Something is always happening beneath the surface of his skin, and the details too are dynamic: the way he picks up Saint’s glove, cleans it off, then puts it on, as he sits on a swing and continues his guileless, pained, teasing courtship.

Schulberg’s dialogue is lyrical but real, the location photography groundbreakingly good, and Leonard Bernstein’s sole movie score a revelation, while Kazan dips into horror iconography and avant garde camera swishes – the latter simulating Terry’s punchdrunk climactic stagger – to augment the action. It comes too with career-best turns from Saint (her debut), Cobb and Karl Malden, as well as the finest thing Steiger did outside of The Pawnbroker. I still find it a troubling, difficult and mendacious film, but it also gave me the gift of cinema and I will always love it.



5. Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935) – Not the most groundbreaking, challenging, interesting, avant garde or seamless musical, but hands-down my favourite. The five numbers are transformative, transcendent, even transfiguring, and around them is a slick, funny Wodehousian comedy of mistaken identity, only occasionally made mystifying by time, and played to the hilt by a perfect supporting cast: bask in Helen Broderick’s one-liners, Edward Everett Horton’s double-takes and that weird, slightly saucy pouty thing that Eric Blore keeps doing.

I really love Ginger’s facial acting in this, especially the two greatest of the dance sequences: ‘Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)’ and ‘Cheek to Cheek’ – the latter a heightened, aching, impossibly beautiful five minutes of cinema, and irresistible shorthand for the intoxicating nature of Depression-era escapism, utilised in films like The Purple Rose of Cairo and The English Patient.

There are some wonderful flashes of instant mythmaking too, particularly Sandrich’s exuberant shot of Fred and Ginger’s feet travelling to the dancefloor at the start of ‘The Piccolino’, and the delirious, ecstatic way they twirl out of frame at the close, love conquering all, including the elaborately drawn-out plot whose very superficiality enhances those peaks of exotic American romanticism.



6. A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954) – An utterly devastating musical melodrama, with Judy’s best performance, some brilliantly perverse numbers, those delicate, beautifully balanced CinemaScope visuals from Cukor, Leavitt and Hoyningen-Heuse, and Moss Hart’s rich, economical dialogue. It can feel jumpy at times – and not just because of the two lost passages (now partially reconstructed) – with long scenes, sudden epiphanies and then leaps forward, but the classic sequences are legion. Three favourites are the early passage in Norman’s bedroom – which brilliantly foreshadows and elucidates in a handful of images and lines – Esther’s emotionally complex monologue in her dressing room (followed by a ‘show must goes on’ musical reprise), and Maine putting on one last great performance prior to his fateful dip.

The last hits very close to home for me and as such is virtually unwatchable. That Esther-Norman relationship is one of the most effective and believable I’ve seen on screen: so tactile and true, with a rhapsodic tenderness, an easy, playful chemistry and a shared pain that you engage with almost physically. Mason’s acting in the night court, and later in his bed, is mesmerising. And then there’s ‘The Man That Got Away’ – arguably the outstanding musical sequence in all of cinema, though the journey there was tortuous. Cukor and co were on at least their fourth vastly different conception of the scene by the time they cracked it. It’s absolute magic: the only thing more extraordinary than what Judy is doing with her body – contorting in communion with her muse in that dim, smoke-filled dive – is what she’s doing with her voice.

If you love the film as I do, and enjoy reading, I’d really recommend Ronald Haver’s book about A Star Is Born and its 1983 reconstruction, a mixture of making-of (and unmaking-of, and remaking-of), Hollywood history, detective story and love story.



7. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992) – A shortsighted gunfighter, a hero who can’t get on his horse, and a bloke being shot on the shitter. Yes, it’s the last great Western: Eastwood’s ambivalent masterpiece about the cost of killing, and a lot else besides. It’s classic in style but offbeat in nature, chock-full of stylised, lyrical language (which extends even to the opening crawl) and powered by an astonishing ensemble. English Bob’s unmasking, Clint’s heart-to-heart with the damaged damsel, and the Schofield Kid’s tear-flecked confession are all extraordinary highlights. Saul Rubinek? Saul Rubbernecking, more like. *high five* There's a long(-ish) read here.

8. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013) – The Coen brothers film that I really love: yearning, folk music, wintry sadness, counter-intuitive plotting and cats. Call me conventional but I could live without the John Goodman passage. The musical scenes are utterly perfect.



9. I Love You Again (W. S. Van Dyke II, 1940) – An immaculate, unheralded comic masterpiece, with Bill Powell’s effortless tour-de-force as teetotal pillar of the community Larry “Grape Juice” Wilson, who gets a whack on the head and reverts to his old self – charming conman, George Carey. He heads home to raid the savings, only to fall in love with his own wife (Myrna Loy, naturally), who’s busy divorcing him. Frank McHugh is hilarious as the phony medic along for the ride. Ingenious script by Charles Lederer, Harry Kurnitz and George Oppenheimer, whose hand seems most apparent. There’s the odd rough edge from Woody Van Dyke’s obsessive, breakneck one-take approach, but he certainly knew how to film comedy, especially with a script and cast as good as this one.

10. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) – “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?” A near-perfect noir, with poetic insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) suckered into a murder plot by housewife, anklet wearer and angel of death, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). It’s cleverly plotted, intensely suspenseful and full of the most extraordinary dialogue and voiceover, written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

Stanwyck is good and MacMurray terrific – cast brilliantly against type for the first time – though no-one can touch Edward G. Robinson as the gruff, adoring, fast-talking investigator from up the corridor, who smells a rat but can’t ever quite believe that it’s his friend. Their doomed bromance gives the film its heart and its deeply moving final exchange – another of Wilder’s impeccable pay-offs, though only because the gas chamber finale that he shot was rejected by censors. I’m even coming around to Stanwyck’s wig.

***

And here's a top 25 of the decade...

... boiled down from a long list of 70 to a shortlist of 68, then a final 25. It's favourites, really, not best, though that distinction is always a little muddy. The top two are right, anyway; the rest of it is up for grabs.



25. Bad Lucky Goat (Samir Oliveros, 2017)
24. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)
23. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
22. Paperman (John Kahrs, 2011)
21. Skeletons (Nick Whitfield, 2010)
20. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)
19. The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010)
18. The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011)
17. The Intouchables (Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, 2011)
16. Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (Susanna White, 2010)
15. A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017)
14. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)
13. Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011)
12. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)
11. Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, 2015)



10. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016) – Kelly Reichardt has such a unique way of looking at the world, at humanity, and this triptych of short stories is an instant classic: a rich, tactile, beautifully-edited film that's brilliantly low key in its performances, its humour and its sumptuous, washed-out, finely-grained cinematography. First-watch review here.

9. Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015) is a tough watch, but it feels essential, not just for its vivid picture of a fascinating, deeply troubled young woman, but also for its wider significance: as a plea for people to stop being so horribly selfish, to stop seeing excess and illness as ‘rock and roll’ and drug abuse as a joke, and for the media to realise that if it wants to paint itself as a crusading Fifth Estate, then some basic humanity wouldn’t go amiss. First-watch review.



8. The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2011) has elements of fatalism without being pessimistic, tells a simple story that never looks for an easy way out, and eschews sentimentality while radiating a bold and uncompromising sense of humanity. It moved me very deeply. Full review.

7. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) – A breathtaking, one-of-a-kind character study about a high-school student (Anna Paquin) wrestling harrowingly with life's vicissitudes after causing a fatal accident. It's profound, rounded, literate, poetic and intimate, full of completely surprising and real characters and developments, and climaxing with a scene of remarkable catharsis in lieu of any easy answers. More here.



6. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) – An intensely beautiful, compassionate film in three parts about a quiet, 'soft' African-American boy being battered by the inner-city experience as he tries to deal with his tortured sexual awakening. First-watch review here.

5. Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014) takes a premise that seems merely like a liberal wet dream and fashions an astonishingly erudite, funny and intensely moving movie, which works as an examination of our shared humanity, a startling recreation of the last stand of our country's working class, and a much-needed rallying cry at a time when the left has never seemed weaker or more irrelevant. Full review here.



4. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) – An exhilarating feminist actioner that unleashes torrents of water on the risible '80s Mad Max films from an improbably great height. More here.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013) – This sad, whimsical and purposefully baggy story of missed opportunities and shambling urban alienation is an extraordinarily special piece of work, and one which avoids cliché not because it thinks it’s clever to do so, but because this is how things would be, how the characters would behave. Full first-watch review here.



2. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) is remarkable in every way: stunning to look at, full of jaw-droppingly lyrical dialogue and blessed with a triumphant, eminently hummable Cajun soundtrack. Lit by a multitude of brilliant sequences that seem to come out of nowhere, but don't, and dominated by Wallis's heroics (including some excellent screaming), it packs an emotional punch like nothing else I've seen in years. More here.



1. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2011) – Debra Granik's feminist masterwork is the key film of the decade so far: an unorthodox, spine-tingling thriller, a humanist fable, and a staggering study of a good person under almost intolerable pressure. In her breakout role, Jennifer Lawrence is Ree Dolly, a strong, selfless, smart-mouthed 17-year-old living with her vacant mother and two young siblings in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. Once it ran with bootleg moonshine, now this here's Meth Country, and if her crystal-cooking father doesn't turn up for his court hearing, they're going to lose the house, the woods and the whole family unit. So Ree sets out in search of him, facing threats, silence and regular beatings from pinch-faced people who share a lot of the same blood that runs in her veins, and down her face. There's brutality and violence to spare, but it's the humanity you remember. Full review.

***

Thanks for reading, and thanks in particular to those who've shared these pieces.

Review of 2019: Part 2 – Live

Part 1 was about books. Part 2 is about events and tbh it never gets as many hits, as you can famously read a book that someone read last year, but you cannot attend a gig in the past.



Gigs of the year:

When I wasn't reading, writing, working or being stabbed in the kidney by that surgeon I mentioned, I've mostly been at gigs. I've seen Knopfler, Clapton, Mariah Carey, the Lake Poets, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Michael Giacchino and three nights of film scores at the Royal Albert Hall, old favourites David Ford, June Tabor (with Oyster Band), Bjӧrk and Kate Rusby, thrilled to Topic Records' 80th Anniversary show – which introduced me to Emily Portman and Lisa Knapp – and celebrated the long-awaited return of folk hero Ruth Notman, who's been busy in the interim training to become a nurse. And then there was that weird event where I went to an 'immersive screening' of Ghost World, and found myself watching more than an hour of ragtime jazz performed by director Terry Zwigoff and mad sexist Robert Crumb, punctuated by rants about political correctness. Yay!

But here are the 10 gigs that meant the most to me in 2019:



10. The Milk Carton Kids (Barbican) – I’ve got a bit of a thing about Inside Llewyn Davis, the wintry film in which the Coens brothers shrug off their arch, aloof smugness, and burrow into the psyche of their sullen anti-hero, a titular traditional singer wandering freezing Greenwich Village as the folk revival approaches. I can only play four songs on the guitar and three of them are from this film. So when I heard there was a spin-off concert film, Another Day, Another Time, I thought I better see it. And that's how I discovered The Milk Carton Kids, and a lot more besides. The duo's deceptively complex songs at first seemed frozen in time and genre – almost a pastiche of early Simon and Garfunkel – but over time they've diversified and gone deeper, pain and fear bringing not weariness but grace. Their biggest show so far, at London's Barbican, was a fast-paced treat mixing frenetic flatpicking, heartbreaking close harmony and the best between-songs badinage since the Manics stopped saying awful things for attention.


Yes she was, and yes I did.

9. Ariana Grande (The O2) – I liked Ariana Grande, the gay-friendly feminist who became a hero to my home city of Manchester, but I can’t say I liked her music. Then a friend played me ‘Into You’, that intoxicating blast of dance-y horniness, followed by ‘thank u, next’, the sad, wise title-track of her fifth album, and I stopped being a stupid dick who doesn’t know anything. A lot of rubbish gets talked about middle-aged men who spend more than a hundred pounds to go and see Ariana Grande live by themselves, but to me I am a legend. While the O2 isn’t the best place to see any kind of show – it’s essentially a warehouse in which the atmosphere simply evaporates, and everything is just too far away – Grande is a great performer, and when she isn’t also dancing (which takes the edge off the majesty), she has an insane set of pipes. Some songs I loved already (‘Into You’ was spectacular, ‘Fake Smile’ exuberantly misanthropic), and others came to life in concert: the knockabout ‘Be Alright’, the desperate ‘Breathin’’, though the numbers utilising the walkway that looped towards our section of the arena both raised the spirits and underlined just how good it would be to see Grande in a smaller and less antiseptic space. As she ripped through ‘thank u, next’ for the climax, she and the dancers skipped around it, waving Pride flags.



Lily! Martha! Certainly-one-of-the-Thompsons,-not-sure-which-one!

8. Rufus and Martha Wainwright: A Not So Silent Night (Southbank Centre) – The siblings in London together at Christmas for the first time in a decade. The older generation may no longer want to travel, but their own was out in force, including half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche and their cousin (and personal favourite), the marvellously-monikered Lily Lanken. This all used to be about roots music and family, but Rufus is now the artistic brains behind these jamborees, and he’s made the whole thing so incredibly gay. It’s delightful. Among the guests were Dan Gillespie Sells, Neil Tennant and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, alongside various members of the inter-connected Thompson clan, Guy Garvey and Jenni Muldaur. The show was intended to celebrate the festive season but also the work of Kate McGarrigle, the matriarch who made her last public appearance at the previous London show in 2009. Being in a packed house watching Ellis-Bextor act her way through Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s ‘First Born’, a deep cut from their second record and a song that’s very personal to me, was a surreal experience – as was hearing a second live version of ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ this year; that’s the signature song of my musical idol, Sandy Denny. Lucy Wainwright Roche’s vocal here was better than Olivia Chaney’s, but she didn’t have half of Fairport behind her. Chrissie Hynde’s contributions may have been tuneless, but the rest of the show was scintillating, especially Martha’s Janis Joplin-esque ‘Mary Had a Baby’, her duet with Lanken on Jackson Browne’s left-wing atheist carol, ‘Rebel Jesus’, and Rufus’s ‘O Holy Night’, sung a capella and in French. I went in as a Rufus agnostic, but left as a fan. My affection for Martha Wainwright, you can take as a given. This was just about the perfect Christmas evening.



7. Rhiannon Giddens (Southbank Centre) – An extravagantly gifted performer, whose vocal texture, range, expression and timing is of the sort that most people can only dream about. This show saw her collaborating with Sicilian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, his self-deprecating patter and exceptional tambourine solos providing the perfect counterpoint to her spiky lectures on African-American experience and full-lunged outpourings of empathy and collective grief. The shade is balanced by the light. When you know what it’s about, ‘At the Purchaser’s Option’ is as gruelling as beautiful music can ever get, but her uproarious cover of Ethel Waters’ ‘Underneath Our Harlem Moon’, which reinstates the author’s original, unsanitised lyrics, is an uproarious, swinging showstopper, and the Celtic folk of ‘Molly Brannigan’ showcases the facility with a quickening vocal line that made me fall in love with her in the first place.



6. Johnny Marr (Southbank Centre) – I grew up as a huge Smiths fan (thanks Dad), but it had never really occurred to me that I might go to see Johnny Marr live. Then I heard him on the Adam Buxton podcast, asked for his book for Christmas, and ended up buying a ticket to his Meltdown show on the night itself. An encore of ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ and ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ will do me, though I was surprised how much I liked his solo stuff – especially the obscenely catchy ‘Easy Money’. I think this show gave me more simple pleasure than any other this year. And Marr himself is so easy to like, which isn’t something one can necessarily say about all the members of the Morrissey-Marr songwriting partnership.



5. 33 Revolutions Per Minute (JW3) – This was such a magical night: an event inspired by Dorian Lynskey’s history of protest songs (which I wrote about here), featuring a gallery of gargantuan contemporary talents. Ayanna Witter-Johnson got the biggest ovation of the evening for her captivating ‘Redemption Song’ – accompanying herself on stand-up cello – but it was one of a string of highlights, from Kathryn Williams’ clear-throated cover of ‘American Tune’, to David Ford’s explosive takes on ‘John Walker’s Blues’ and the ‘Fixin’-to-Die Rag’, and a climactic, unexpected and thoroughly incongruous ‘Up the Junction’ from a very late Chris Difford. It was that kind of night. A few months later, I saw Williams hosting a Daylight Music show at Union Chapel, she and Ford doing a few numbers of their own, and spotlighting various protégés, including Phil Langran, whose ‘Time’s Dark Wing’ is simply one of the finest songs I’ve ever heard.



4. Richard Thompson: 70th birthday party (Royal Albert Hall) – A once-in-a-lifetime show, for those who incline towards folk, with virtually every existing luminary of the British scene coming to pay homage. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and an eclectic one, with guests typically doing one song of theirs and then one song of his. Surprises include Bob Mould’s chugging, punkish ‘Turning of the Tide’ (above), Thompson, his son Teddy and Maddy Prior duetting on a heightened ‘Grey Funnel Line’, and Loudon Wainwright’s ebullient ‘Swimming Song’, alongside more expected treats, like the birthday boy’s own ‘Beeswing’, delivered with a delicacy befitting its title. There’s also Kate Rusby returning to ‘Withered and Died’, half of Fairport Convention’s classic Liege & Lief line-up backing Olivia Chaney on ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, and Harry Shearer alienating the half of the audience who clearly haven’t seen Spinal Tap with an in-character (and interminable), ‘She Puts the Bitch in Obituary’.



3. Bob Dylan; support: Neil Young, Laura Marling and Cat Power (Hyde Park) – At a time when seeing Bob had begun to feel more like a duty than a treat, he came roaring back. Full review here.



2. Big Thief (The Roundhouse) – In January, I saw Adrianne Lenker on-stage in a church (London’s Union Chapel), performing wistful acoustic folk ballads behind a thatch of fringe, murmuring awkwardly through the void in her teeth. Three months later, she’s had a buzzcut, got a replacement tooth and is just screaming, amid a maelstrom of noise in a beer-soaked Roundhouse. This has been a big year for Big Thief, the most exciting band on the planet, ending with two albums in most ‘best of’ lists, and this was their biggest show to date. They can do it all, and at the Roundhouse they did: the hush and whimsy of ‘Spud Infinity’, the apocalyptic squall of ‘Not’ (the year’s best song?), the pure release of ‘Masterpiece’. No-one is writing more interesting material than Lenker’s tortured, introspective, pastoral alt-folk, nor delivering it with such exquisite abandon. The band, though, are not merely a vehicle for one woman’s genius, there’s a chemistry there: the fleet-fingered flat-picking of crooked-grinned Buck Meek, James Krivchenia’s lolloping, long-armed beats, Max Oleartchik... playing the bass (look, I don’t know much about music). I saw them again at Bush Hall in October, premiering new record Two Hands, and it was another experience entirely: every bit as vital, the band still figuring out the songs, groping towards greatness and frequently finding it. Next year I’m going to follow them on tour.



1. Robyn (Alexandra Palace) – Total catharsis, Robyn-style: the sexiest, saddest songs in the pop canon, battered across with the ultimate in quicksilver charisma, clad in white knee-length boots. I’ve never seen a performer with greater stage presence, a firmer grasp of a show’s necessary theatricality, or better dance moves. During ‘Dancing on My Own’, a celebration of jealous, heartbroken melancholia that represents some kind of peak, 10,000 voices join hers, and Robyn bursts into tears. Then it’s a wall of noise – an outpouring of love, and gratitude, for the returning queen of chilly Swedish electro-pop, doing her first UK shows in nine years – that goes on and on and on.

***

Theatre of the year...

... is probably a stretch, as I only saw 10 plays, and there were definitely more than 10 plays out there. Because I'm extremely clever, I didn't end up seeing anything I didn't broadly enjoy, though my tolerance for the annoying affectations of musical theatre (as opposed to the most naturalistic and intimate musical film) seems to be shrinking. While Come From Away (Phoenix Theatre) built to a rather lovely climax, fashioning something largely feelgood out of 9/11, Dear Evan Hansen (Noel Coward Theatre) dealt with its own subject – teen suicide – in a less than humane, intelligent way, though it had some fine moments. Hansard (National Theatre) broke no new ground, and largely recycled its audience's own liberal prejudices, though it was highly entertaining and extremely well-acted by Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan. The Lehman Trilogy (Piccadilly Theatre) went the other way, struggling to get ahold of its themes across three theatrically inventive but rather exhausting hours.

These were my favourites:



6. Anna (National Theatre) – Ella Hickson, who wrote the best play of 2018, returned with this gimmicky thriller, which was about itself and not much else. The audience was complicit in the surveillance state of East Germany, strapping on headphones and hearing only what the heroine heard, as she tried to survive in an atmosphere of spiralling paranoia (and, if we're being very literal about it, in a soundproof box with the rest of the cast). After The Writer, it felt like a slight comedown, but it was neatly conceived and made the most of its quirk, with some neat twists and a couple of great jump scares.



5. Present Laughter (The Old Vic) – Simply Noel Coward done well, with Andrew Scott having the time of his life as a vain, selfish, philandering actor who's making his entourage's life hell in '30s London. It wasn't deep, but it was riotously funny.



4. All My Sons (The Old Vic) – Classy adaptation of the early Arthur Miller play, with – and please excuse the banality – one of the handsomest sets I've ever seen: a quietly idyllic back garden in a small American town. Jenna Coleman couldn't hold her own among a heavy-hitting cast, and Bill Pullman couldn't project to the cheap seats, but he, Sally Field and Colin Morgan captured Miller's anger and anguish – tragedy on an intimate but epic scale.



3. The Starry Messenger (Wyndham's Theatre) – Space, adultery and adult education: this was none-more-Lonergan, with an exceptional performance from Matthew Broderick as a frustrated science lecturer trapped by the quietly festering American Dream. How it can be that, and make me laugh as hard as it did, is some achievement. Elizabeth McGovern, also billed above the title, had little to do until the final act.



2. A Very Expensive Poison (The Old Vic) – Lucy Prebble returned with this freewheeling, meta-textual romp through the Litvinenko tragedy – where, as with Dylan's 'Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll', perhaps the greatest tragedy happened after the killing. The material positively swaggers, throwing everything into the mix, but the right everything, at the right time, and no-one I can think of, in any medium, writes better off-kilter one-liners. Reece Shearsmith is perfect as a supercilious, bombastic and seductive Putin, at one point hanging out of a box to tell everyone to go home, as the story is clearly over.



1. Rosmersholm (Duke of York's Theatre) – Ibsen at his bleakest and most pointed, as influential former cleric Rosmer (Tom Burke) strives to understand his relationship with free-spirited Rebecca (Hayley Atwell) – and reconcile his friendship with smooth-talking hatemonger Kroll (Giles Terera) – as an election approaches, and the vultures of the press circle. This electrifying, overpowering adaptation saw writer Duncan Macmillan tease out the parallels with our current national binfire, played out by a note-perfect cast amid the light shafts and dust motes of an ancestral home that boxes in its characters as vividly as their political and personal dilemmas.

***

Other live stuff/exhibitions:



My favourite comedy set of the year was Stewart Lee's new show: Snowflake/Tornado, a succession of inspired, airtight routines about liberalism, Alan Bennett, Netflix, Fleabag, anti-PC campaigners and 'saying the unsayable', the last of which consists of him gurning, spitting, sputtering and striving to make noises for literally ten minutes. This show might be the best thing he's ever done. It's certainly the hardest I've laughed this year. He is simply on a different level to almost any other political comic working today, and probably the second funniest person in his house.

James Acaster's Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999 was often brilliant, but genuinely required a better working knowledge of shit TV than I've got to hand. It was also great to see Bassem Youssef doing his first English-language show, and to watch Daniel Kitson confounding a good portion of his audience by pretending for quite some time that his set would consist of him reading out a cabinet's worth of index cards listing his possessions. It didn't. Discovery of the year was Sarah Keyworth, who somehow emerged triumphant from a showcase at Union Chapel also featuring Sara Pascoe, Rose Matafeo and Phil Wang (and Arthur Smith).



And at work I got to be involved with Letters Live, one of the best nights of the year (even when Rory Stewart resigned from the Tory Party on stage and I had to work until 1am). Louise Brealey, pictured, – who can pack so much emotion, so subtly, into any material – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and (much to my surprise) Alan Carr were the stand-out stars.

Across the road, Dr Matthew Sweet, Pamela Hutchinson and David Benedict probed the Warner Bros canon in a lovely Proms Plus talk, and at the BFI Malcolm McDowell provided some insights and lols that turned out to be rather well-rehearsed when I decided to venture onto YouTube in search of further #content.



My favourite exhibition of the year was also the smallest, and it was, of course, your penis, a tiny addendum to the Design Museum's gargantuan (and impressive) Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition, which collected some of his stunning news photography for Look Magazine. Visual art-themed jaunts spotlighted work by Matisse, William Blake, Abram Games and Eva Hesse – while the IWM's oddly disjointed Making a New World delved into WWI from a few odd and interesting angles – but Olafur Eliasson: In real life at the Tate Modern (above) was so great because it was so unlike anything else I'd been to, with a rainbow in one room and a world of coloured fog in another.

***

Thanks for reading. I'll chat about films a bit in the next (and final) part.