Archive for May, 2013

Review – Chimerica – Almeida Theater (transferring to Harold Pinter Theater)

May 31, 2013

It was a bit intimidating to walk into the Almeida Theater’s blogger’s evening for Chimerica not two days after going to see Strange Interlude and discover that I had signed myself up for a second three hour play in one week. Arrgh! My sleep schedule!

But I was very interested by the subject material – a view of modern China as seen by a man who’s looking for the person in the infamous “Man confronts tank at Tian An Men Square” photo. It seems that “changes in China” is quite the topic, since both the Ai Wei Wei play and Consumed were newly produced and written just this year. And for me, well, Tien An Men is at the heart of my political consciousness – it was an event that changed the course of my professional life, putting a stop to my plans to go to Beijing and ride the surging tide of what would soon be the world’s largest economy. I watched the protests day after day on TV, and had been following the rapid changes in the newspapers … and twenty-five years later it seems to have been completely disappeared by the monster nation, swallowed up by stories about pollution, worker abuses, political corruption, and the excesses of the nouveaux riches.

The tale was spun in the very movie-like Headlong way that pretty much guaranteed that you could never get bored as the central cube of the set whirled around, opened screens to show little sets inside, was covered by animated images as it spun to another setting, then carried on WHOOPS HOW ABOUT A GHOST? Lucy Kirkwood wrote the scenes in a short, television-esque style that kept us moving from Beijing to New York to an editor’s office to a strip bar to Beijing circa 1987 and so on, barely a moment to think. Most of the cast played multiple roles, except of course for leads Stephen Campell Moore (as photographer Joe Schofield), Benedict Wong (a radicalizing professor Zhang Lin) and Claudie Blakeley (marketing executive Tessa Kendrick). All of them did solid jobs with their characters, although it was odd seeing Wong back on stage so shortly after his star turn in Ai Wei Wei – a particular accent that he has really marked it as “his” performance. And there was just a tiny bit of spoken Mandarin in many of the scenes just to keep it all real (in small enough drabs that I was able to follow along but felt sure nobody was really missing all that much).

Despite the loveliness of seeing a play with so much in the now in its dialogue, with so much of very modern politics and a genuine humanity at its core, I felt that Chimerica was both too long (several scenes seemed rather pointless) and too skewed toward a white, English-speaking audience. Who really could care about someone looking to “get a story” by finding someone in a twenty-five year old photograph? Joe wants to exploit “tank man,” and in the same way Chimerica exploits its subject(s) to produce what is ultimately a fairly empty entertainment at the expense of creating a deeper understanding …something which could only have happened if the people of China were its core rather than its window dressing. Whether as immigrants, dissidents, cheerful patriotic consumers or cog in the machine of the state, there’s a lot more to China and the modern Chinese condition than this play can be bothered to discuss (perhaps because it would be too “boring” or, God forbid, “foreign” to its intended audience). Maybe the author just didn’t want to do any more research. Who knows. I’m glad, in retrospect, that this play does so much to raise the profile of the Tian An Men square massacre; but ultimately it’s a bit like a fortune cookie: sweet and digestible but only with a Westerner’s ideas of Chinese culture at its heart.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 30th, 2013. My ticket was generously provided by the Almeida.)

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Review – Strange Interlude – National Theater

May 29, 2013

After one out of the ballpark hit and one in the gutter miss with O’Neill, I found myself both eager and afraid of seeing Strange Interlude, his Pulitzer-prize winning 1928 play. Would it be a work of glorious insight into the human condition, or a self-indulgent piece of tripe that left me squirming anxiously for a chance to run out of the theater?

Well … kind of yes to both, but more on the side of “squirming,” Strange Interlude was an unintentional comedy that had me wanting to reach into the grave and wrap my hands around Eugene’s dessicated neck. Most of this was due to one stylistic choice: the speaking of thoughts, as asides, by ALL of the characters, nearly constantly. Imagine a man saying to us (the audience), “Oh, no, it’s her dad, the hearthearted bastard!” then turning to “her dad” and saying, “Phil! Wonderful to see you!” It’s hard not to find this funny, and while, perhaps, the audience of the 1920s found the psychological insights allowed by this non-realistic narrative to be deeply revealing, we, the audience at the National last night, couldn’t help but chuckle, guffaw, snicker, giggle, titter, and laugh uproariously at what seemed to be genuinely meant monologueing. It all began to feel like a parody, very much in the style of The Thirty-nine Steps, an effect not helped by the non-monologuing characters needing to pause and pretend that it was natural for people to take three minutes to think to themselves, “silently,” in the middle of a paragraph of dialogue.

And, well, then there were the characters, and the situations they were in. Consider Nina Leeds (Anne-Marie Duff), one of the most unattractive heroines ever to grace the American stage: completely self-absorbed, more than slightly crazy, and indifferent to such approaches to life as “treating people like they matter.” Her dilemma about how to handle the likelihood of inheritable illness from her husband’s family was one that I found potentially touching in the light of the story of fatal familial insomnia a.k.a. inheritable Mad Cow Disease – but her decision to abort so quickly seemed to have a bit more of eugenics to it than common sense. And the stiff, semi-hysterical way her mother-in-law (Geraldine Alexander) addressed her – it was hard to believe either of these women were supposed to be real people.

In fact, the entire lot of side-speaking, self-questioning, irritating people that made up this show seemed to be all cut out of cardboard, and for as realistic as they were, I could have been watching dancing paper dolls. I understand this was a first preview, and there were a couple of slips with dialogue, but, really, this wasn’t a case of poor or unrehearsed acting: these people were all despicable because they were written that way. How audiences could have stood this when it was new I have no idea; but when the character who’s meant to be a moron is the most believable (and sympathetic), you know something has gone terribly wrong. I mean, seriously: we were reduced to applauding the scenery because it was something nice (I didn’t clap; I’d been laughing to heartily to endure any more physical effort). I stuck it through to the end out of a perverse desire to say I’d made it through all three hours and twenty-five minutes of it; but if you aren’t in the position of feeling like you need to do something to compensate yourself for the money you’d wasted on tickets, save yourself the trouble and just buy a copy of the script. This turkey should have got the chop long ago.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, May 28th, 2013. The play continues at the National through August 12th.)

Review – The Hothouse – Simon Russell Beale et al at Trafalgar Studios

May 22, 2013

It’s been nearly six years since I saw The Hothouse, and my notes on the last viewing were quite short: as I liked it, that meant I thought it would be even better as performed by Simon Russell Beale at the conveniently located Trafalgar Studios.

Well, hmm. I think I may have been wrong about this. The marriage of the top male comedic performer on stage today and Pinter is not, shall we say, made in heaven. I found much joy in a play set in an insane asylum in which everyone is working to their own advantage; you get to wonder what each character’s real goals are. But in this version … every thing seems muddy. Miss Cutts, is she really a nymphomaniac looking to seduce every male member of staff, or is it just how Indira Varma plays her? (Jessica Rabbit, of course, was just written that way.) Gibbs, is he really there to help Roote (Beale), and, if so, what is he doing with a knife in his shirt?

The conflict between the characterizations and how the play is written becomes most glaring when Roote suddenly attacks Lush, with whom he had been drinking just a moment before. It seems completely out of keeping with his character, which is that of a bumbling official not much in charge of his subordinates. Where did the anger come from? Why would Lush submit to such horrible treatment? The more I thought about it, the more it all seemed a clash; Pinter has written the man to be violent and capable, not to be a doddering fool. The characters need to all seem murderous; instead, it’s the play that gets it in the neck.

I watched this play from the cheapie “on stage” seats, and the overall experience was very odd: not just a backstage feel, but the exposed “three hundred people are watching me” thing combined with not very good angles for about half of the show (not a lot of backs but too many). I liked how cheap the seats were, but given that many of them weren’t even padded, by the interval I found my bum had gone completely numb. In a way, I was glad the show was played for laughs, because it kept my attention; overall, though, I was disappointed by this show and by my seats, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought it worth paying £45 or up to sit in the stalls. This Hothouse is merely tepid: give it a pass.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, May 21st, 2013. It continues through August 3rd, at which time the cast will go on a well-deserved holiday.)

Mini-review – The Play That Goes Wrong – Trafalgar Studios

May 14, 2013

With the one week of spring sunshine gone like cherry blossoms in a storm, I was in the mood for some cheering up, and what should appear but Nick’s review of The Play That Goes Wrong and I thought, now, that’s the show for me – one hour long, like all of the best bits of Noises Off (or so Nick claimed), and cheap to boot. Its popularity was spoken for by the endless series of “sold out” flags for the 7:45 showings (there are two a night), but on a whim I went by the box office hat in hand – or, rather, twenty pound note in hand, which I exchanged for a single seat for the earlier show. Hurray! Let there be laughter.

And … well … is there really any need for plot? And yet there was one, a horrible murder mystery, feeling very familiar after The Mousetrap and Deathtrap: a bunch of rich people (one of them dead) are trapped in a manor while a detective tries to work out whoddunit. Did we really care? No, we were too busy listening to the light board operator complain about his missing Duran Duran cd, watching the techie girl stick her arm through the curtains to provide missing props, and awaiting the painful results of people barrelling around the set oblivious to the body parts of the “dead” character. And let’s not omit the horrible anticipation built by a bottle labelled “Toxic” being sat on the tray with the whiskey glasses: not since Drowsy Chaperone had I seen so much liquid sprayed across a stage.

On one hand you’re waiting to see how the actors can overcome the obstacles in front of them; on the other hand, you’re looking forward to seeing them fail. In fact, as the evening snowballs way past the point of believability, any time an actor actually manages to get a bit to end on approximately the right note seems like a triumph, with cheers and applause from the audience. But most of all, we were laughing our heads off – me not so much as some, but still loudly enough to get stares from some uptight woman in the front row. Whatever: you’re the one who went home covered in, um, “whiskey,” and I can’t help but feel you had it coming.

(This review is for a GIRLS ON FILM performance that took place at 7:45 PM on Monday, May 13th, 2013. It continues through TWO MINUTES LATER June 1st. Note that the 21:15 performances are £5 cheaper and GOT YOUR PICTURE may be available on the day at the TKTS booth for £10.)

Review – The Ghost Hunter – Theater of the Damned at Old Red Lion Pub

May 12, 2013

Stewart Pringle distinguished himself as author of the horror short “As Ye Sow,” which stood out amongst its B-movie brethren at a night of short Guignol/esque plays like a real corpse mixed in with the waxworks. So I was excited to get an invite to see his latest work, The Ghost Hunter, at the conveniently located Old Red Lion pub theater, and said yes without really bothering to read any of the publicity materials. I’d guess it might be spooky, and who would want to ruin the fun with an ill timed spoiler?

I really didn’t know a thing, even about the venue, which is tiny (it seats about 50). Feel free to bring your drinks in: while there’s no place to put them, the show only runs an hour, and as you watch ghost hunter Richard Barraclough (Tom Richards) put away a pint of Abbot, you’ll feel drawn to join in. Me, after an incredibly stressful week at work, well, I thought a double vodka cran was the way to go; it could only heighten the effect, right?

So now it’s time to get down to the review, and I find myself torn about how much to reveal. I loved the feeling of walking into a darkened room with a man in Victorian costume waiting quietly for us, eyes downturned, only to become animated as the lights dimmed; it seemed like a very good start to the evening. But … his pint glass has a label on it: how anachronistic! And yet … well, not, because as it turns out, Barraclough is actually the leader of ghost tours in modern York. I was a bit disappointed, as I liked the idea of a Victorian fright drama: you know, The Lady in Black is back!

But what we have to think about is what is really frightening, and, to me, a tale separated by 150 years is very easy to put out of mind when you walk away. Our Ghost Hunter spends a lot of his time talking about his work and where the tales that he tells originate, and much of it is quite … well, not banal, but rooted in normalcy. He’s clearly a good tale spinner, and you can see him working his magic as he ma)es the fluff he spins into cobwebs for his punters come to life.

However … at some point the barrier between our comfortable existence and a more uncomfortable possibility starts to come down, and by the end of the show, I can guarantee your hair will be standing on end and your heart will be aching for Barraclough’s terror. Much as in The Weir, Pringle takes the campfire ritual of the ghost story and turns it into a glimpse of a parallel, paranormal reality. Mmmm and brrr. In many ways, it was a thrill to walk out of this dark room, chilled to the bone, and into the late spring sunlight and Islington’s high street, and back into the comfortable assurance that “none of that is real, is it?” Because for a certain period of time, you, as a playgoer, will be convinced that it was.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 10, 2013. It continues through May 25th.)

Mini-review – Ten Plagues – Marc Almond at Wilton’s Music Hall

May 10, 2013

More ambitious in concept that execution, Ten Plagues held high promise: gay cultural icon and passionate vocalist Marc Almond, the disintegrating elegance of Wilton’s Music Hall, and an original libretto and score by by Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell (respectively). The theme of the plague coming to London is one that is extremely resonant today with the AIDS crisis; this was alluded to nicely in some animations of a ripple-ab’ed man that Almond at one point addresses as someone who has brought disease to him (and whom Almond sends away).

It all felt so good and so promising and yet …

Looking at it, I can’t help but think the horrible, dissonant, modernistic music was just too agonizing to make for a pleasant evening even at the trim time of sixty minutes (and about one couple evaculating per row). And then there was the thick banality of Mark Ravenhill’s lyrics: I thought of what a difference W. H. Auden would have made and wanted to cry at the wasted opportunity. Almond was dramatic and a pleasure to listen to, looking alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) debauched, decadent, and decayed (especially with his gold teeth and tattoos) – the perfect performer for the space. But he just wasn’t given enough to work with. A few wigs, the pianos, and a bit of lighting – aw, hell, but it all would have been different with better music and lyrics, wouldn’t it?

I’m not sorry I went even for £25, but it all just made me sad and gave me this incredible nostalgia for Susan Philipz’s Surround Me, because her nod to the plague history of London (at Tokenhouse Yard) did so much more and with so very little. She brought tears of nostalgia, grief, and loss to my eyes; Ten Plagues made me want to cry with frustration. Ah well.

(This review is for an event that took place on Thursday, May 9th, 2013 at 8 PM. It continues through May 18th.)

Review – Public Enemy – Young Vic

May 9, 2013

As an Ibsen completist, I was excited by the opportunity to see a production of Enemy of the People (charmingly retitled as Public Enemy but no rapping), so much the better that seats at this Young Vic production were available for £10. Be warned, though, cheap seats fans, of the danger of the front row, far left seats: for a good section of the first scene, of two actors I could only see a hat; and for the second act, a long section in which the actors were actually in front of the curtain required me to crane my neck so far (and so long) to the right I thought I was going to get the theatrical equivalent of deep vein thrombosis. Balcony seats will likely save you from cramping.

Plotwise, Public Enemy is just as on topic now as it would have been when written – well, mostly. The lead character is a doctor who is going to save a spa town from the pollution that’s making spa-goers sick; however, when it turns out the consequences of fixing this problem will cause the ruination of the town, suddenly even his wife is asking him to reconsider letting the cat out of the bag. The situation, of a small town with a small economy and a whistleblower who’s going to upset things, has all sorts of easy-to-see parallels with our society; but the political environment is quite different. The local government in the play is far more prone to cronyism than today (not so many people appointing family members to public office); there’s a real fear of communism and yet the local publisher is proud to be a socialist; and, shockingly, the doctor himself posits anti-democratic beliefs that are right out of the Ayn Rand handbook. “The majority makes the rules, but you’re willing to admit that most people are stupid! You should all be shot!” (Oh my.)

This leads to some interesting tension as a play viewer. You want the doctor to stand up for what is right (not having people die from the poisoned water at the spa), you want him to do it more than he worries about his career (or even his family), but suddenly when he starts talking about his own superiority to the people of the town he lives in, your sympathy for him evaporates. Yeah, he is probably better educated than most of the townspeople; sure, a lot of people “vote with their wallets” (private interest over public interest); but … if he really believes that everyone is ignorant and the ignorant should be “put out of their misery” rather than be allowed to participate in government, well, all I can say is Nietzsche did it better and the consequences were pretty horrible, and maybe the good doctor should be looking at a better investment in education for his fellow citizens.

But there is no way to not feel the pull of individual greed in influencing bad decisions: you can see it today in the factory collapses in Bangladesh and the recent fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. Both individuals and governments influenced by the self-interest of the rich work to try to do things on the cheap; and the result is that people die in entirely preventable incidents. It’s amazing to watch both the newspaper editor and the publisher collapse in the face of their own loss were the doctor’s report to be published: suddenly their concern for “the public good” and “the people” are revealed to be easily punctured in the face of reduced revenue. And it’s hard not to value someone who’s willing to stand up to public pressure to save people’s lives. I’ll agree with the doctor: the minority is the one from which ideas and change generate, and minority interests need to be protected. But at the end, when he says that the strongest man is the one who stands by himself, well, in this version at least, he’s shown to be a madman. Frankly, I prefer him as a slightly misguided hero, but … well, it’s lovely that Ibsen has created a show so vibrant that there’s this much to talk about, and I was very happy to have the whole thing race along in less than 1:45 (a possible interval was replaced by a set change). If you like your theater served with a heavy side dish of politics, this play is highly recommended.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. It continues through June 8th.)

Review – American Utopias – Mike Daisey at the Seattle Repertory Theater

May 3, 2013

After just having seen Daisey’s Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in London, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to see his fresh, new stuff performed by Mr Daisey himself. Agony wasn’t really hitting my sweet spot as performed by a gorgeous English actor; even with the right props, he couldn’t capture the nerdish enthusiasm Daisey radiated. I longed to see the man in person, and when I got to Seattle on Tuesday I discovered my ship had come in. Sadly my travel schedule means I won’t be around for Fucking Fucking Ayn Rand, but I was able to catch American Utopias on its opening night at the Seattle Rep.

On the face of it, American Utopias seems to be about three places/events: Burning Man, Occupy (Wall Street), and Disney World. But it’s not about how these places are utopias: they are tied together by being intentional communities. Daisey, however, links them together as a monologuist will, by talking about dreams, oboes, family, “mise-en-scene,” and the other seemingly random shit that bubbles through his brain, assisted by cue sheets, a glass of water, and a clearly soaked hanky to wipe off the perennial Daisey sheen. He clued us in to his style, which is apparently to riff off of the notes; this allows him to get expansive, which unfortunately worked against the evening as it went to 2 1/2 hours (instead of the promised two) and left all three of us agreeing it was in dire need of a trim.

Best of the three was the Burning Man stuff. Daisey didn’t much bother with creating a narrative around his experience there, but managed to explain a lot of what being there is like (and why it is so hard for people to talk about it) in a way that brought a little magic to the evening. Giant pink cubes rolling across the desert? A metal giraffe that breaths jelly beans into your hand? Daisey propounded that Burning Man’s takeaway is that life is evanescent and will all “go up in smoke” at some point. This seemed belabored (the Japanese do it much better) but I’ll buy that Burning Man is an environment where people are forced to live in the moment, to their joy. This does not necessarily lead to people being able to talk about it very well afterwards, but while you’re doing it (like being in a dream), the effect is quite wonderful. I still have no desire to spend a week sweating in a dry and filthy dust bowl, but I did feel like the flavor had been captured remarkably well.

But floppy as a middle aged man’s erection (he mentions this phenomenon rather a lot during the show, so don’t go thinking this is family friendly) were the slices about the Occupy movement. Daisey’s connection is that he went to a fundraiser for Occupy – where he met an actual person who was participating in the protest – and, a year later, Daisey actually visited the site. He also had a rant on the radio the day after the evacuation where he rambled on about Bloomberg. But the connection was tenuous, and, even as I write about it, I’m having a hard time figuring out why he included it, unless it was because three is a magic number and Occupy would make his performance more politically topical. The tie-in to grabbing opportunities when they presented themselves was pretty unconvincing, as I’m not sure what Daisey would have actually done if he’d gone to the park where Occupy was happening. He didn’t go, it’s not his bag, so what?

Overall, though, this was a good show, comedy for the left, with lots of pop-culture and geek-culture references to make us feel “in.” Trim about 45 minutes out of it, tell the bozos to not sit in the balcony and distract him, and you’d have a really excellent evening. And Mike: PLEASE STOP SNIFFING YOUR SWEAT SOAKED HANKY it was freaking me out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 2nd, 2013.)

Review – Walk Cheerfully (1930 silent movie by Yasujiro Ozu) with Benshi-style narration – British Film Institute

May 1, 2013

I have now seen three different Japanese film directors (Ozu, Naruse, and … ?) who have had careers that have spanned at least forty years forward from the silent movie era, all primarily known for their black and white talkies, but for each of whom a substantial opus exists in the silent genre that very much informs both their future, more famous works and style but also my understanding of the styles and devices of Japanese silent cinema.

Japanese silent movies go into a further range than American silents (although if they have a Keystone Cops era I haven’t seen any proof), due to their creation so far into the 30s. Why, you might wonder, would the Japanese cling to an outmoded cinematic style for so long? It’s due, in fact, to the way they were presented: with narrators (called “Benshi”) to speak the dialogue. I’m not sure if this started because Japanese audiences were illiterate, or if it were some other reason – perhaps a story-telling tradition (maybe for theater?) that made using a narrator a natural thing. At any rate, it’s the use of Benshi that delayed the onset of talkies – not because they were so well loved that people wouldn’t give them up, but because they were unionized and fought hard against the loss of their jobs. There are probably several theses to be written on the subject – and I haven’t done any additional research – but, hearing about the Benshi, my question was: what was it like to see a silent movie with a narrator? I was told at some point they did more than speak the dialogue, that they also provided some kind of commentary; and as a silent movie and Japanese cinema fan, I burned to have the Benshi experience!

And, as if in answer to my hopes, an email arrived from the Silent London association, telling me that the BFI was going to be holding a special, members-only screening of one of the Ozu “gangster” films … with Benshi! I immediately started ticket-acquisition contortions (I wasn’t a member and it was sold out, so there was work to be done), and a few days beforehand some tickets became available and a member agreed to go with me … and we were on!

I can’t say entirely if the experience was authentic (did Benshi also have musical accompaniment? – we did, in fact, we had two musicians!), but it was extremely enjoyable. Our Benshi was a young Japanese woman dressed in a charming white gangster-style outfit, complete with white fedora. She was utterly charming and bouncy and made the whole experience mcuh more fun than it had ever been reading the intertitles alone. She told us about people’s relationships, she noted changes in time, she added laughter and sniffs, she ad-libbed (quite likely she was able to read lips to get extra words, as I noticed her additional dialogue seemed perfectly paced to what was being done on the screen – she must have practiced it many times!), she talked about emotions, and she read the lines with feeling.

The primary feeling I picked up was one of comic irony, something I never would have added myself, but looking at people’s faces when she was speaking their lines, it seemed entirely appropriate. Walk Cheerfully is Ozu’s version of an imaginary Japanese gangster-land, complete with the clothes, cars, and guns that actual organized criminals of the era in no way employed (or so the film’s notes declared). The whole thing, in fact, came off as a love letter to the Hollywood gangster genre, complete with American movie posters on the walls (I loved the one of Joan Crawford as a female boxer) and American song lyrics sung by the protagonists. The movie had a very Japanese sensibility underneath it, though – violence is clearly rejected (and not glamorized) by decent folks, the heroine herself is as traditional a good girl as you get (working hard to take care of her mother and sister, and turning down the boss’ offer of jewelry for “favors”), the sex is very much missing, and the hero actually takes a job as a window washer to get the girl. And he serves a ridiculously short jail sentence, which is seen as genuinely atoning for his past misdeeds! Perhaps there was an American gangster movie that ended so sappily at one point in time, but I’ve never seen it. And the Benshi seemed caught up in how unreal all of it was, and that it was okay for us to laugh at it, because even the characters on the screen were finding everything they were doing comic.

Overall, I have to say that I found the Benshi experience utterly superior to the “read it yourself” version, and I can’t help but wish that someone would put the effort into reviving the Japanese silents with the energetic, illustrative accompaniment of Benshi that I’ve seen people put into reviving American silents with their original scores. But these days, I guess we have to be grateful that people are trying just to save these movies before they disappear forever, Might I hope, however, that the next wave might be one of further authenticity? If so, I’m quite willing to offer myself up to be trained appropriately, because I’ve rarely had more fun at the movies. Thank you to the BFI for making this evening possible – it was great!

(This review is for a showing that took place on April 22, 2013. For another take on this evening, please see Ewan at the Cinema’s review.)