I May Destroy You- The first in a new wave of writing.

Photograph:BBC Pictures.

I May Destroy You is an eye opening focus on sexual assault following a young writer called Arabella and her group of friends. The story begins with Arabella attempting to complete a writing submission by morning, but she is quickly tempted into attending a night out with a male friend nearby. Sat back in the office the next day feeling hazy, she becomes suspicious when she realises she can’t remember smashing her phone or how she got back, beginning her investigation into what happened that night. As she comes to terms with her assault, the script explores it through the characters which surround her and it starts to feel as though trauma is lurking in every corner of society. I May Destroy You is a great piece of writing, one of many ‘firsts’ for the BBC, however it isn’t the strongest piece the BBC have produced.

A Representative Portrayal of Black London 
One of the most notable aspects of the piece is that Coel provides a relatable young black Londoner’s experience, as she soundtracks the series with black content creators and musicians. I May Destroy You reveals the failures of other BBC dramas; all too often they present only one dimensional black characters, involved with gang crime or living in poverty. Coel presents black people in positions of power and wealth, in creative work as well as in the traditional first generation home.

The Creative’s Struggle
It is clear from the writing that Coel is young and newly established, as she spends much of her time focusing on the young creatives struggle and the pain that often comes with freelance work. We see it in Arabella’s battle to stay as a commissioned writer while dealing with trauma and missing a formal education, as well as with her best friend Terry’s attempts to get cast for low level acting jobs. One of my favourite aspects of the whole series was seeing them ecstatic for Terry for finally landing a paid TV commercial, even though it was brief and cheesy. It is this that made me realise how rarely the BBC has reflected the young creative battle that so many are familiar with.

Sexual Assault 
Finally and most significantly, Coel discusses the many guises of sexual assault, as she educates the viewer in consent, through some grim but truthful scenes. I May Destroy You strays from the usual heteronormative portrayal of rape on screen, which spends little emotional time with the victims and assumes all the victims to be female. It instead presents a vulnerable society, where anyone could fall victim in a wide variety of ways. Most importantly the series places more focus on subsequent trauma, than on the event itself. From the millennial need to turn your trauma into ‘social media inspiration’, to pathetic art therapies, it explores the long term effect of sexual assault. Good and evil are constantly trading places as the lines between victim and perpetrator blur continually, showing that it isn’t as black and white as the media would often have you believe. The best discussion of trauma however, came in the ending which speaks to both the reality of most conclusions of sexual assault, as well as what real recovery from trauma looks like. Often it is not vengeance or ‘justice’, but letting go which is considered to be the best possible ending.

However, while Coel undoubtedly presents a powerful script filled with originality, the delivery lacked subtlety and flow. I found the throwing around of timelines amateur and the obviousness of the content frustrating. Everything being said was great, it just felt too forced. I May Destroy You is said to be ‘revolutionary’ and while Coel was certainly the first to bring such an inclusive portrayal of sexual assault and young person experience to the screen, her content is simply a reflection of millennial and gen- Z Twitter and Instagram feeds, moved into mainstream media. Although this is certainly a feat, and it is great to finally see social media discourse and TV merging, I think we can expect to see better dramas coming forward from the new generation of writers who are also familiar with this same online narrative. I May Destroy You is a season of firsts, but it certainly won’t be the last or the best executed.

7/10

Little Fires Everywhere – A perfectly timed discussion on race.

Photograph:The Radio Times

Little Fires Everywhere focuses on two mothers: Elena Richardson, a white middle class writer and all round do gooder and Mia Warren, a black artist who moves from state to state in her car with her daughter, Pearl. The two meet when Elena Richardson takes pity on Warren and allows her and Pearl to rent her apartment for free. Elena prides herself on the action and sees it as an opportunity to do good in the world, soon sparking up a friendship with Pearl, who in turn becomes close friends with her own children. The story becomes, in the most part, a discussion about race and class, but also about motherhood. Ironically released during the biggest discussion of race the world has ever seen, following from George Floyd’s murder, it is a loud and glaring discussion of white privilege in America, from dolls only being made in white, to Elena’s trust in the police department versus Mia’s fear. However, the biggest and most thoroughgoing discussion of race and motherhood comes in with a third mother, Bebe Chow, who came to America from China to give her daughter a better life. The show sees her fight for custody of Mai Ling, in a world where white always wins.

What I loved…

The acting in the series incredible; Kerry Washington undeniably owns the show with her moving portrayal of Mia Warren. However, I found the shows young cast especially impressive, specifically Tiffany Boone, who plays the younger Mia Warren in the flash back episodes. Despite having a smaller part, her ability to mimic Kerry Washington’s mannerisms and facial expressions made for an uncanny likeness. She is one to watch.

The conversations the season has is undoubtedly its most interesting feature. It is the most mainstream discussion of racial bias and how it filtrates into the minds into even the most seemingly anti-racist people, I have ever seen. This comes through most clearly in the Richardson family, in particular through Elena’s character, who despite all her good intentions, still holds biases that she herself is blind to.
Alongside and tangled up in its conversation about racism is its discussion of motherhood, in particular mother daughter relationships, which forms a relatable and moving dialogue throughout the show. The season parallels Elena’s relationship with her youngest daughter Izzy (the one she didn’t plan for) with Mia’s relationship with Pearl. Both girls experience problems with their own mother and in turn seek solace in each others. Izzy, who can’t cope with her mothers need for control enjoys the company of free spirit Mia, while Pearl, sick of having no sense security or grounding, can see the value in a tightly organised home. The fact that both girls find qualities in each others mother’s more agreeable than their own shows that the concept of a ‘good mother’ is subjective, based more on preference than truth. This dialogue is played out with Bebe’s fight to keep her daughter, when the court gets to decide what constitutes a good mother. Through these three women the show discusses the inadequacy, survival and criticism of mothers.

Little Fires Everywhere is a powerful, political, feminist watch.

9/10

Normal People @ BBC Three

Photograph: Enda Bowe/BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

Adapted from Sally Rooney’s novel, I was anxious that the screen adaptation could not do justice to her honest and intimate style of writing. If you have read Sally Rooney’s novel you will know that this book is built solely on the bond between the two main characters; it’s unusual lack of plot has brought recognition in its ability to portray the complexities of modern relationships. It follows the ebbs and flows of their relationship with all its natural bumps containing no real climax. Naturally, then, as internal perspectives are an area which screen is so often lacking, I thought how could it possibly do it justice? Rooney’s novel would be just another click bait opportunity, capitalising on the popularity of the book but translating poorly on screen. A tamer Fifty Shades of Grey.

However, this piece is genius, regardless of whether you are watching afresh or as a fan of the book. It maintains all the intensity of the novel, mostly through silence, lighting and cinematography. I found myself holding my breath along with the characters in the scenes, an element rarely preserved when adapting from novels. In fact, the series makes apparent the void in teen/young adult screen, by contrasting the over-dramatised and belittled teen emotions often written by a detached fifty year old man behind a desk. The script unlike the far fetched land of Skins or Misfits, is placed in mundane ordinary experiences. It is a dramatisation of isolation, manifested in class structures, miscommunication and loss. Communication forms a heavy theme in the script as two elite communicators in the written form, struggle to put across their most basic desires verbally. When Jessa Crispin at The Guardian wrote ‘I was bored watching these very typical representations of college students doing very normal things ‘, I think she was forgetting the title of the book. This isn’t supposed to be a happening programme, it is revolutionary because it is an exact mirror of the young experience now but perhaps she has forgotten what it is like to be 20.

9/10

BlackAF

Photograph: Gabriel Delerme

Looking for an easy watch comedy during the lockdown? Look no further than Kenya Barris’ BlackAF, following on from his earlier series ‘black-ish’, ‘grown-ish’ and ‘mixed-ish’. Despite being criticised for being a rehashing of ‘Black Ish’, viewed in separation this is a funny and fresh watch, readily available at your Netflix fingertips. The series is a satirised depiction of Kenya Barris’ life, a wealthy comedy writer, presented as a documentary attempt by the protagonist’s daughter for her college application. Showing his black middle class family living in a white middle class world, the series confronts issues of prejudice, cultural identity, and ‘black art’ success in a way that (prior to Black Ish), I had never seen before. Kenya Barris may need to push himself to get away from the shadow of Black Ish, but here he has stuck to what he does best: expounding on his personal narrative in a satirical context.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Photograph: Cannes Film Festival

Set in France in the late 18th Century ‘Portrait On A Lady on Fire’, is a progressive period drama about a solo female artist named Marrianne, who is commissioned to complete a wedding portrait of Héloïse, against her knowledge. In this wonderfully feminist piece the four main parts are women, with the addition of Héloïse’s mother the countess and her maid Sophie. The film is ultimately a discussion of the female gaze, a woman being painted by a woman, who also gazes upon the painter, both constantly under scrutiny. The male absence in the film is glaring and yet the female oppression is loud; it is in Marianne’s need to paint in her father’s name as well as Héloïse’s arranged marriage. Throughout the film Héloïse, Marrianne and Sophie the maid, form a kind of sisterhood like that seen Mustang, coming together through difficulty.

It is a heartbreaking and beautiful LGBTQ film. 9/10.

Viewed on MUBI.

Mustang – film recommends.

Photograph: Allstar/Canal+

A tale of sisterhood.

This Turkish language film by Turkish-French film director Deniz Gamze Ergüven is set in a small village, near to Istanbul. The film depicts five orphaned sisters who live with their grandmother and presents their struggle growing up in a conservative society. The plot begins with typical childhood scenes of the girls on their way home from school, playing with a group of boys in the sea. When they reach home however, they are met with fury for bringing ‘shame’ on their family and are forbidden from leaving the house. The film is an aggressive discussion of female oppression in conservative countries, covering dark topics such as gender violence, assault and suicide. However, it is the friendship, rebellion and most importantly sisterhood, which makes this film so memorable.

A stunningly portrayed feminist work, 8/10.

The Dirty Thirty by Degenerate Fox

06.03.2020

Attending Degenerate Fox’s International women’s day piece at the Rosebranch Theatre, a member of the cast on the ticket booth chewing gum and shouting us in, set the tone for this less than usual production. Thirty, two minute pieces, the order of which is decided by the audience who are reading the plays off a ‘menu’. The pieces begin with the cast shouting ‘go’ and close with ‘curtain’. Asking the sound man if he is ready, shouting that they need certain props between pieces, there is no fourth wall in this chaotic piece. In this international women’s day special they focussed on a range of mini pieces, performed by it’s LGBTQ international cast. My favourite pieces were ones which focussed on trans issues such as the piece: ‘What we think of TERF’s’ where a TERF is represented by a glass of water which they treat as if it is infected before one of the cast member reluctantly edged towards the glass and chucked it through the door. Similarly, when discussing how it feels to be labelled something you are not, their cast member Jack held up a sign saying ‘woman’ and awkwardly tried to put it down a few times before reluctantly holding it and faking a smile. The piece was insightful and informative and the wide scope of the content reflected the diverse cast, covering broad topics such as sexual assault in Latin America, to listing inspirational women we might not have heard of. I’d love to see how their usual show compares to the factual nature of this piece. Admittedly, if you’re looking for high quality theatre, this isn’t it – the talent of the cast varies from what appears obviously trained actors to seemingly happy volunteers- but what it does provide is a fun show brimming with inclusivity. The cast could work on their conviction on delivery if they did wish to elevate this to a serious piece of theatre, however, I imagine as this was a special it may have been put together very quickly. I can see this company at festivals or as a fun, more boozy night out. If you are member of the LGBTQ community this company are ones to watch!

A Taste of Honey @Trafalgar Studios

29.02.2020

I caught the final performance of the National Theatre revived 1958 British classic A Taste of Honey at Trafalgar Studios, starring Jodie Prenger as Helen and Gemma Dobson as Jo. Walking in I was pleasantly surprised by the close nature of the auditorium, with only one tier you had to walk across the stage to reach the steps to your seat, as the cast were already on stage and the band played. This set the tone for the remainder of the play which felt very much like you were invading Helen and Jo’s flat in true kitchen-sink-drama style.

What I loved…

The comedy– It goes without saying that this piece is hilariously witty and real. Set in the North West of England it follows the relationship of two working class women, a mother and daughter, through the average to low times. Constant arguments and near bust ups, dating and parenthood the piece is a real discussion of the working class at that time.

Gemma Dobson’s performance– I find it unsurprising she won the Best Actress in a Play at The Stage Debut Awards in 2018, after having seen this performance. Originally from Leeds she had an easy transition to the Salford accent and her portrayal of sassy but compassionate Jo was both comedic and believable. Although I loved the dynamic between her and Jodie, her relationship with gay best friend Geof where she showed vulnerability and compassion, allowed her to show the depth of her abilities as an actress. Her talent matched the complexity of the script and stood out in an already talented cast.

The music – It seems as though integrating musicians within the set is a popular trend at the minute, changing the landscape of West-End theatre from the traditionally separate orchestra and cast dynamic. The instruments, much like in Girl From The North Country and Come From Away were present on stage at all times and both the piano and the drum kit were interacted with by the cast; it was an odd recognition of being a theatre piece. This time the music made the piece feel earthy, adding to the relaxed atmosphere of the living room it could have just been a record player.

If I had to moan – It seemed unusual to me that half the cast didn’t have Salford accents. It seemed this couldn’t have been a style choice to make Helen and Jo stand out, as Geof also had a Salford accent. Was this there way of making it more relatable, opening it up to the rest of the country? Or could they simply not hire enough northern actors? Either way I found that aspect of the piece confusing.

Incredible script, cast and staging. Hilarious throughout.

Drop Dead Gorgeous @ VAULT Festival by the SAME SAME Collective

01.02.2020

Drop Dead Gorgeous is a darkly comic exploration of femininity and appetite by four women from the UK, India and Taiwan. The performance lies somewhere between a dance and performance art, with no dialogue whatsoever, as a table bearing fruit forms the centre piece of the action. In that sense Drop Dead Gorgeous is a visual discussion of femininity and its conflict with appetite, presenting a form of hunger I can certainly relate to.

The piece as a satire...

The piece successfully presents a comedic criticism of the universal tropes of femininity through both action and staging. Beginning with just the spotlight lit table, in a brief moment where the lights go out, the women hidden underneath the table appeared seemingly from nowhere. This felt indicative of the idea of women being ‘seen but not heard’ as they appear noiselessly, a trope which was continued throughout the piece, broken only by the occasional graceful sigh performed in unison. The set design was mostly beautiful, a pure white table cloth laid with colourful fruit, stood on pure white flooring. This perfection was mirrored in the women both in costume design, as they stood in their neat matching floral dresses and in accuracy of movement as their dance was timed to perfection. They appeared serene, controlled and delicate to the point of being comedic. Gradually they incorporated the fruit, beginning by gracefully selecting a grape each and including it in the routine. However, as the interaction with the fruit increased the unison of their movement began to break, first by selecting differing fruits, before comedically stuffing their faces until finally the piece digressed into a kind of animalistic feeding ground. They hoarded fruit, stole from one another and devoured all in sight. In this sense food acts as a means through which women cannot appear delicate and faultless.

The Set and how it supported the critique

The piece was performed in-the-round with audiences on all sides amplifying the sense in which the women were on show. Even when they did enact their appetitive desires, the majority of this was done under the long dangling cloth served as a mask to their eating. By the time they divulged into pure animalistic behaviour the table had visually broken into quarters, providing a symbolism of their societal mask slipping, revealing expectations of female bodies as idealistic.

If I had to moan…
My only real complaint was that it was so short. I would’ve loved for them to have taken this further.

The Same Same Collective are ones to watch for multi-cultural political performance art. I found Drop Dead Gorgeous a laugh out loud piece; current and thought provoking it is in tune with works such as ‘Women Don’t Owe You Pretty’. To catch them again they will be back at the London Vault festival on the 15th of February.

Girl from the North Country @Gielgud Theatre

11.01.2020

The musical that doesn’t feel like one.

Accompanying my mum to Girl from the North Country on the basis that it ‘has Bob Dylan music in it’, I had no preconceptions as to what it would be like and even though I knew it had been well received, I was taken aback by the ingenuity of the piece. GFTNC is categorised as a musical so predictably music is a central component, however it felt more like a kitchen sink drama come concert in comparison to thoroughgoing musicals such as Come From Away. Set in an American guesthouse in 1934, the play concerns itself with family issues; infidelity, illness and finance consume the plot. Within this the music acts as a kind of melancholic soundtrack, distinct from yet descriptive of the scenes. The most thorough performance came from Katie Brayben who played Elizabeth Laine, the mentally ill wife of the house owner. She convincingly inhabited the illness both in its comedic and frightening moments. Gloria Obianyo who played Marianne stood out as the best vocalist, as her soulful voice was more like a blues artist than your typical west-end performer.

The Set Design reflected its genre.

The design of the set was both naturalistic and abstract. The band was present throughout the show positioned upstage right, always in view but separate from the scenes amplifying the intrusion of the music into what, in terms of writing, could have been an ordinary play. A piano, downstage right appeared naturalistic and was used throughout the scenes mostly by Elizabeth while a drum kit, downstage left was visually out of place and was used solely as an instrument throughout the songs. It too was played by the actors (rather than members of the band) but this only brought you further away from the action, as it was so unusual to see members of the cast featuring in the musicianship. Similarly, ordinary guest house furniture such as a table and chairs and a kitchen sink were in keeping with the naturalistic script, however the spacing gave it an abstract feel as elements of the set, such as the sink, were rarely interacted with and acted more as ornaments. The most unique thing about the set, however, was the large screen revealed a third of the way into the production, which displayed an image of the nearby lake. It is unclear if this was supposed to be a modernistic representation of a window but as it was only introduced later in the production and occasionally it would show a laneway rather than the lake, I assume not. I think the purpose was to enable you to grasp the setting in a way which was going to juxtapose the naturalism, to distance you further from the scenes but more than that its purpose was to provide a backlight so that during the vocal numbers, members of the cast could stand close to screen and be mere silhouettes. It was thrilling to watch.

A genius piece so much more than an ode to Bob Dylan.

9/10