Film review – Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

In September 2003, I had reached my goal. Or so I thought. I spent 18 years building towards reaching university. I studied hard, behaved sensibly, stayed away from alcohol, achieved good grades, applied to a reputable university and chose a subject I knew would hold me in good stead for the future. I put the effort in and the hard work paid off. I was there, wherever “there” was.

I should have felt a distinct sense of achievement, but instead I stood there as my parents drove away, face in hands, sobbing my eyes out. Suddenly I was alone with nobody to turn to. Everything I’d done before, all the friends I’d made, all the information I’d been taught, right in that moment, meant nothing.

My university years were ahead of me, or a romanticised version of them. A chapter in my life was firmly shutting behind me as the next chapter started. It was, it must be said, one of the fearful moments of my life.

It was my memory of that moment, strangely seen through my parents’ eyes rather than my own – a trick of the mind I often play on myself when remembering my own memories – that flashed through me at some point near the start of the film ‘Lady Bird’, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. It’s a powerful piece of cinema that awakens such stark memories, but that is exactly what it did.

‘Lady Bird’ a small story about a girl in Sacramento, California. That person is Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) , a girl we are introduced to in an emotional rollercoaster of an opening sequence in a car journey with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), which spirals down from a joyous reflection of an audiobook cassette of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Before long the pair are engaged in a wholesome argument unique to parents with teenage children, before Lady Bird finds a novel way to end the discussion with shocking and hilarious consequences.

The film serves as an exploration of a girl coming of age, fitting in, not fitting in, hoping to go to college in New York and dealing with the relationships and life surrounding her. It is, simply, a snapshot of a girl at a critical point in her life.

There is are many secondary relationships that help further explore the character of Lady Bird at a critical time of her life. Her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) encourages her to join a theatre group, where she meets her first teenage love obsession Danny (Lucas Hedges). The scenes set in this plot strand provide some fantastic early laughs, though Danny’s story arc is one that allows Hedges to deliver a really beautiful characterisation when the story could have settled for a much lesser throwaway love interest. Indeed, the relationship between Ronan and Hedges shares a certain understated chemistry that is brought to fruition in one of the film’s most powerful scenes during an encounter behind a coffee shop. It’s a real showstopper.

The plot is brought to life with some extremely snappy dialogue that provides genuine laughs throughout. Greta Gerwig has had a mixed bag of output throughout her career, beginning with a strong association with the mumble core movement and an early success with ‘Frances Ha’. Whilst both Mistress AmericaandWiener-Dog’ had some drawbacks, her role in 20th Century Women in 2016 was a real high point in a career that had been under close scrutiny since her early success. She has grown into an actor, writer and director of real credentials, and ‘Lady Bird’ feels like the ultimate realisation of her talents.

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It is a love letter to the city of Sacramento, with Gerwig inevitably drawing on her own experiences and relationship to the city to create plot points. She herself grew up in the city and moved to New York to study at university. One can’t help but feel that Lady Bird’s quick switch of home city from Sacramento to San Francisco was a line Gerwig has used many times herself, partly to enhance her exoticism and partly to make explaining it much easier.

Stylistically, the costumes, sounds and stylisation of the film managed to achieve a sense of nostalgia for 2003, which can’t have been easy given that it feels so recent. As a house party scene begins and we hear Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River over the sound system there is a real feeling that they were getting it right.

‘Lady Bird’ is, simply, a joy to watch. From start to finish the balance between humorous dialogue and well-paced plot progression is very fine indeed. The result puts it as a frontrunner for awards season next year.

‘Lady Bird’ will reach UK cinemas on 29th December 2017.

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Theatre Review – Hello, Dolly! (Jerry Zaks, Sam S. Shubert Theater, 17th March 2017)

Note: This is a review of a preview of Hello, Dolly! Out of respect for the performance I only published it after the opening night. 

The first time I saw Hello, Dolly! was when I was 27 and preparing for an amateur production of the great musical in England. I had been cast in the role of Cornelius Hackl, the employee of Horace Vandergelder who has just been promoted from impertinent fool to chief clerk. Popping out of the store room box in the opening scene is exciting for all Cornelius-portrayers the world over – for two reasons. Firstly, you get to deliver your hotly-anticipated opening line in the show and finally get a glimpse of the audience. Secondly, it means you can breathe properly for the first time since lights down – you’ve been trapped with your assistant Barnaby in a tiny box for the last 15 minutes as the rest of the characters are introduced to the audience at a seemingly excruciatingly slow pace.

I was relaying this information to the perfectly lovely gentleman who was stood next to me at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on Friday night when I asked him “So are you involved in this production at all?”. “Why yes,” he responded, “I’m the director.”

That would be four-time Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks. [1]

Outside the theatre

His production of Hello, Dolly!, set to run at the Sam S. Shubert Theater from 20th April, is exactly what you would hope to see from a Broadway version of a musical that has been around for the last 50 years. It simply oozes quality and class.

The opening number “Call On Dolly” is full of bright and wonderful costumes with perfectly-precise movement from the ensemble. Warren Carlyle’s choreography at this point is nothing too complicated, but there’s a certain beauty in its simplicity – a matter counterbalanced with “The Waiters’ Gallop” in the second half.

The real star of the show, inevitably, is Bette Midler. As the titular character she is able to sweep from playful to heartbroken in the space of a song. Done correctly, it is a surprisingly nuanced character. She is larger than life when she’s entertaining guests, putting on a show for the cast and the audience in equal measures. However, when she is alone she reveals what drives her throughout the story – her lost love and former husband Ephram Levi. Midler may have the audience in stitches when she’s slowly eating a delicious chicken dinner, but they’re eating the palm of her hand when she’s speaking from her heart.

David Hyde Pierce is a great counterpoint for Midler as the angry shop owner and “half-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder. He is a seasoned Broadway star, winning a Tony Award in 2008 for his role in Curtains. It was great to finally see “Penny in my Pocket” restored and performed in front of the curtain at the start of the second act. It’s a song that’s great for someone like Pierce – full of characterisation and expression. It was cut from previous Broadway runs to shorten the second half.

Gavin Creel (Cornelius Hackl), Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy), Taylor Trensch (Barnaby Tucker) and Beanie Feldstein (Minnie Fay) are all brilliant in their Horace-avoiding storyline, with “Elegance” a particular highlight in the second half. Creel’s rendition of “It Only Takes A Moment” with Baldwin was simply beautiful; a clear sign that musical director Andy Einhorn can get the best out of his performers.

The tickets for this production may well sell because Bette Midler is such a huge star and is massively popular on Broadway, with David Hyde Pierce also offering added interest. However, what audiences will find is a musical that is excellent across the board, from the back row of the ensemble to the lead star, with not a thread on a costume out of place.

To think that what I saw was supposed to be a preview, I only wish I could see it when it hits the full run.

It will be a smash.

[1] It was to my shame that I didn’t recognise Jerry Zaks. He was the perfect gentleman. By the time we had started chatting he had already noticed that we hadn’t got a Playbill and found an usher to retrieve a couple for us. What kind of director does that?! He seemed genuinely interested in whether we were enjoying the show, seeking us out at the end to garner our opinion before signing our programme. Great job sir and thank you for finding the time to talk to us.