Scenes For Survival Launch – National Theatre Scotland

At this moment, Theatre is fighting tooth & nail for our right to express a freedom of creativity, and engage an appreciation of what we, as a community, can produce. What finer way to demonstrate the capabilities of exceptionally talented individuals coming together, than with a composite of forty-plus digital artworks produced in isolation. Isolated adaptations of previous works, new creations from aspiring creators and national treasures, speaking to all generations, cultures and yet harkening back to that individualistic ability to take you, however briefly, out of this world and into another.

Following the release of this short film collection, The National Theatre Scotland will begin broadcasting another segment of Scenes for Survival every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9 pm, starting with a brief extract from Frances Poet’s Fibres, titled A Mug’s Game.

If you had been lucky enough to catch Poet’s production during its recent tour, you’ll be familiar with the blood-roaring fury etched into its script, a revulsion communicated in a way only morose Scottish humour can capture. Returning to perform an extract is one of the country’s most beloved performers, Jonathan Watson, who stars as a Clyde shipbuilder, who like many lives with the effects of Asbestos exposure, and the absence of acknowledgement or care from those who created these dangerous environments.

Watson is the voice of a generation of men. A humble man, his rage isn’t blazing, but subdued in a quiet reserve of warped gratitude for work, tying into the dying relevance of Glasgow’s dockyards, and value of the Scottish working class. Dauntingly accurate, stepping beyond the ideas of masks and safety, the drive for bosses, gaffers, and board members to march their ‘human capital’ into dangerous environments is, frankly, disturbingly relevant. Seth Hardwick’s editing, including the splicing of stock dockworkers shift-work, offers a weight to tie back into the rusted veins of Scotland’s labour intense history.

The harsh reality is that with every choice, every breath we take right now, we have no idea of the potential consequences. Fagan’s writing is the catalyst for Kate Dickie’s intense performance, honing itself not solely around the biological impacts of COVID-19, but the debilitating aura is exudes – the crippling solitude, reinforcing a growing concern of the fragility of mental health, on top of our obvious concerns of physical well-being. Wonderfully imaginative, Fagan’s writing enables Dickie to convey an ethereal, almost detached view of the world and its recovery in our absence. Dickie transcends her prison and establishes an understanding with the audience’s frustrations, concerns and questions to the future.

Isolation’s sound design neatly ties deeper into Fagan’s descriptive troubles of mental deterioration, the almost hallucinogenic properties where isolation forces us to confront ourselves, in the absence of being able to see this alien entity, this virus, our minds tie even the clatters of Thursday night Claps for Carers into a malevolence. Within the intermediary transitions, the sound score leans heavily on the dramatic foreboding, attempting to add more to an already clear intent.

For some, the time in lockdown has enabled us to have a clearing of sorts, enabling them to remove the gunk from their minds, freeing space for other thoughts to fester. Morna Pearson’s Clearing toes as a comedy, tearing itself between the uncomfortable reality of death/disease and discomfort children face going between two homes.

Ashleigh More provides a wide range of facial emotions, remarkably animated and energetic, something missing from the other performances which focus on the wearying effect of lockdown. The brilliance of Clearing is Pearson’s toying with layers of narrative, and a revelation which subverts the built-up sentiment remarkably so. Short, effective, and worth it for the levels of Pearson’s writing.

You might be expecting some humour from Godley, and you’d be correct. Alone is so much more though, it’s an authentic experience of a woman’s life. You see Jim, Jim likes his rules. Fastidious, controlling, but carried with an air of buffoonery, Godley illustrates a familiar situation, perhaps one we recognise in our parents. The underlying commentary, however, the subversion of the obvious, while jabbing at the ignorant attitudes some share regarding which rules they will and will not follow, leads to a short which feels undoubtedly the most ‘Scottish’.

Grim, earthy, with a twang and wink of charm, Godley lets down her hair in this lockdown short which will speak to many women sitting at home, experiencing the same routines and Jim’s of their own. With some exceptionally tight writing, with an unashamedly gorgeous appearance from Honey, this is a must-see for those newfound Twitter fans of Godley’s to experience the brilliance of her creative capabilities.

It’s a tough year so far, right? You’d be forgiven if you lapsed into the nostalgic times – hell, you’d be forgiven if you just wanted to relive last Christmas. Stef Smith’s The Present has a definite flow and the plainest story evolution of this evenings shorts.

Moyo Akande brings everything to Smith’s lyrical structure, which in the hands of another could have robbed The Present of its gradual evolution into sentimentality. The pacing of this short is paramount, too soon and the character feels hollow, too late and there’s no connection. Akande’s performance has a progressive build, Katherine Nesbitt’s direction knowing how to utilise the production’s strengths, allowing for Smith’s words to feel entirely natural, unrehearsed and shifts into an accessible language which retains its intention.

Well Scotland, we’ve been waiting for this one. He’s back, not for a case, not even for the pub(s). No, this time Rebus is finally leaving his stubbornness at the door, to an extent, and isolating. Refusing to modernise, choosing to seek comfort in his vinyl’s, a paper and a few cans, Rebus returns to the realisation of how important the one point of contact he has with longsuffering, friend, and colleague Siobhan. Like welcoming an old friend into the home, Rebus reflects on his life as he faces his own ‘sentence’.

An unstoppable trio of engaging writing, performance and led with Cora Bissett’s exceptional direction sees the nation’s curmudgeon return for a special which retains all of the Rebus humour, call-backs and characters, but Rankin’s original story also proffers a connection with a generation who connects with these stories like no other. This is a role which fans have been casting Brian Cox in for decades, and this feels right. From the first line, this just feels right.

Despite its roots in storytelling, Scotland looks forward, these weavers of narrative use their craft to utilise our reflection not to think of the ‘normality’ we will return to, but what the next step is. Not how quickly people will fall back into their routines post-lockdown, but how we come together to learn, to celebrate the magnificence of Scottish artists, and seek solace in hope. A prevalent concept in the peripherals of many creators is to the world we shall emerge into. A theme throughout Scenes for Survival, for good reason. That in this grand scheme, this infinitesimal amount of time demonstrates how the incompetence, arrogance and crimson soaked talons of the elite have pried open the eyes of the future, revealing that in truth – we can never go back to the way things were.

Theatre will return. Tyrants fall, but stories rule forever. And art will outlive commerce, but the way forward is unclear, and these Scenes of Survival will charter a dawning era for Scotland, for expression and community.

The entire launch collection can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hybVBdI2SXI

Further information, donations and other projects can be sourced from The National Theatre Scotland’s website: https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/

We Summon the Darkness – Review

Directed by Marc Meyers

USA/ 2019/ 91 mins

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Satanists get a bit of a bad reputation, don’t they? Whether it’s John Carpenter’s hideously underappreciated Prince of Darkness, or the more recent The Blackcoat’s Daughter, the blurring of humanity and its association with the Devil is as ancient a narrative tool as possible. Then there were the slasher films of the late seventies through to the early nineties, a genre which gluttoned itself with zealous-religious killers. Marrying the two together made just about as much sense as it does now, as We Summon the Darkness begins with news reports of satanic cultists slaughtering innocents across eighties America, just as three young women embark on their road trip to the biggest ’80s metalhead gig around.

Unfortunately for our lead, Alexandra Daddario once more showcases her inscrutable taste in film choices. It’s by far the most cohesive performance in the film, principally for how out-there Daddario pushes the character, plunging headfirst into the eighties schlockfest of video nasties and cultist slasher flicks. Continuing this, Daddario’s co-stars Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth are giving tremendous energy to the film – Forsyth as a young runaway, who turns to the girls for support, brings an unexpected dynamic to the film. The imbalance between performances occurs with the men, where attempts are made at gender reversal and a comment on the ‘lamb to slaughter’ nature of women in preceding slasher films. The execution fails to convey this naturally, stemming from the meek direction, flimsy writing, and vacant performances. While the women can capitalise on their antagonism, the guys just aren’t bringing anything memorable to the table.

This gender reversal is almost well-constructed, exhibiting an otherwise unexpected depth. Placing the men as powerless, now-stripped pieces of gaze material to be massacred is a clever aspect to take, but the film doesn’t run with the concept for long. The revelation that a patriarchal cultist is manipulating these young women removes the agency they have, going against what has been set up.  While the notion of a female killer is far from original, the trio had potential as a unique force, particularly in the droning era of post-modern slashers where remakes from the golden ’80s era are cycling the motions. There’s a small, niche territory of genuine pieces which distort the conventions such as The Guest orIt Follows, and We Summon the Darkness had the promise to join these and reclaim the genre from television, which seems to have taken up the mantle. 

Giving Marc Meyers credit, We Summon the Darkness superficially achieves what it sets out to in capturing a distinctly cult/slasher flair. Ridiculous, and borrowing heavily from more engaging films, We Summon the Darkness drapes itself in attempted pastiche but fails to cover itself in much bloodshed. For a script that has glints of wickedness, it plays it remarkably safe. The threat posed to the trio is almost immediately doused by the inadequacies of the cultists, whose ineptitude and inexperience, while a plot point, serves little in the way of horror. An inexperienced killer should be terrifying, their motivations clouded, but instead, it strips any power from the points the film is attempting to make.

Beneath the slasher homages and incessant borrowing from the horror library, We Summon the Darkness wastes rich potential as it falls victim to its execution. Leaning on the angle of nostalgia, suffering from tedious performances, and a substantial lack of terror means any attempts at a neo-slasher going for the throat of misogyny is all but put to rest by Meyers’ inability to brandish these weapons effectively.

We Summon the Darkness is available on Video-On-Demand Now

Review originally published for The Wee Review:https://theweereview.com/review/we-summon-the-darkness/

The Willoughbys – Netflix

Based on the book by Lois Lowry

Written by Kris Pearn & Mark Stanleigh

Directed by Kris Pearn, Cory Evans & Rob Lodermeier

Rating: 4 out of 5.

At one point or another, we’ve all fallen out with our folks, maybe to the extent we wish we had been adopted but hopefully not to the extreme where we send them on a deadly holiday. The Willoughbys, however, are perhaps as dysfunctional as it is possible to be. As twisted as they are colourful, this update on A Series of Unfortunate Events focuses on the titular Willoughbys and their pursuit of a loving family. From the mind of author Lois Lowry, directors Kris Pearn and Mark Stanleigh have adapted the original book for Netflix in a bid to increase the platform’s original children’s content. 

Tim, Jane and the twins Barnaby A and B are frequently starved, left to sleep in the coal bin and generally made to feel like they are burdens on their mother and father. Their parents are neglectful, callous and, worst of all, can’t even grow a proper moustache. After encountering an orphan and sending it to live with Commander Melanoff, an eccentric candy factory owner, the children forge a relationship with their nanny, the cheapest one their parents could find. Animated with weaving motions, where the illustrations offer weight to the characters, much of the story focuses on physical humour and offers levity to the often macabre narrative.

Detaching themselves from the story (for the most part), The Willoughby’s narrator is a blue tabby cat, an otherwise unassuming character who provides off-the-cuff remarks with a voice courtesy of Ricky Gervais. While that may put some viewers off, it should be known that Gervais’ performance is limited and also one of the film’s better casting choices. His narcissistic tones suit the animation of the feline prowler, while his performance, as expected, is certainly the most recognisable and little is done to distinguish the fact it’s Gervais. Love him or loathe him, there’s an element of comedy brought to the performance, and a genuine sense of romanticism for traditional storytelling.

Of the four children, Tim and Jane are voiced by Will Forte and Alessia Cara respectively, and the twins by noted voice artist Seán Cullen. With this Cara’s first foray into the animation genre, the singer effortlessly captures an authentic sense of childlike innocence and thirst for adventure and contributes the film’s sole musical number – a touching song, with haunting edges contrasting against the bouncy nature of the score. Really, though, as one would naturally expect, Jane Krakowski and Martin Short catapult the film well above the heads of the kids and directly into the notorious realms of adult humour as Mother and Father. The pair are despicable and have a dimension of sliminess that just cannot be resisted.

The intention to maintain this bright, almost patchwork style of animation works marvels with the deceptive nature of characters. Craig Kellman’s character creations, recognisable from his work on Hotel Transylvania, avoid the pitfalls of visual bluntness. While animated films are notorious for drawing attention to antagonists with obvious designs, The Willoughbys staves off this idea for the most part. Our antagonists are evident from their actions, not their aspects, and our misunderstood supporting cast members are redeemed too with words and deed. It enables a more precise lesson for children, where a character’s motivation speaks louder than their image.

Across the board, fragmentation occurs when The Willoughbys is considered as a whole as opposed to scene-by-scene. Segments of the story are undeveloped, emphasising mundane details or characters, but these loose threads in an otherwise fantastical and inventive tapestry cannot detract from the overall aesthetic, which rivals any major feature churned out from juggernauts of the children’s media empire.

Marrying whimsy with the brutality of a classic Dahl tale, The Willoughbys may conjure perceptions of a flimsy (and perhaps cheap) children’s amusement tool, but Netflix stands toe-to-toe with the Mouse and the Moon and far outshines Illuminations with their recent addition to the animated library.

The Willoughbys is available to stream now on Netflix

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/the-willoughbys/