Friday, 17 June 2011


I think I was always supposed to be a Jacques Villeneuve fan. Through no encouragement or reason whatsoever, one day I just sat down and watched a Grand Prix for the very first time. It was the 1996 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, and it was JV's first ever race win in Formula One. It took a couple of races, but once I was in I was in. Something made me watch the race that day, and somehow I was supposed to closely follow the career of this young French Canadian, who had come to the sport from Indycar, the American equivalent of prime two wheeled racing, to Williams - the best team on the grid. Being a JV fan, I had to be a Williams fan also - it goes hand in hand does it not? - and so in all my eager enthusiasm to soak up every single fact about my new obsession I read and watched everything Formula One related. Which was why, in that 1996 season, that I was doubly confused as to why my 'favourite team' was being tried for manslaughter. What on earth? How could a team - more of an outfit and a brand than a group of people - have killed somebody? And that is when I first encountered Ayrton Senna.

Back in the mid 90s you didn't have such things as You Tube and Wikipedia - I couldn't just simply look up who he was and bring myself up to date with the situation. Besides I was 10 years old. Much too young to understand the complexities and drama that surrounds the tragic death of one of the greatest ever racing car drivers. So I picked up bits and pieces along the way - in fact the first time I saw the fatal crash was on the 1994 F1 Review VHS I got a couple of Christmas' later. In a world where cars are literally bulldozed in wind tunnels before going to track, the world of F1 was invincible to me - every time I see Senna's car career off at Tamburello I think to myself, "how could he have died from that?"

What I know about Ayrton Senna has been gained through reading, watching and learning. But never experiencing. I was never a fan of Ayrton Senna, nor saw him race 'live' - he was part of another generation, to go along with all the other drivers who have long since raced, lived or died. So to watch Asif Kapadia's Senna it was a chance to finally get to know this legend, hero, myth, superstar the drivers, pundits and commentators I have grown up with so adored and idolised. It's an absolute must for any F1 fan, particularly if you are my age and you missed out on all of this history. It's a privilege to be able to watch what is, such a fantastically gripping, emotional, devout documentary - it's a movie in itself, and all the more exhausting to watch as it's all real.

The film is also completely accessible to non F1 fans - its pace and style easy to immerse yourself in as you start with Senna's first year in Formula One - 1984 - and then Kapadia tracks the highlights, lowlights, pivotal and damning moments along the way, as we finally reach 1994, the final year. You discover Senna along the way, with unprecedented amount of home video footage, a focus on Senna's faith in God, his obsession with racing and wanting to prove himself, his anguish at being upstaged and turned on, his pure passion to win. By the time you reach his final moments it is almost unthinkable that this person will soon no longer cease to exist.

But let's talk about the bright things. Cause of utmost anger and tension at the time, but his relationship and rivalry with Alain Prost is just marvellous to watch. You just don't get characters like this in Formula One nowadays. I looked on green in envy that older fans got to enjoy and live this as it actually happened. Imagine staying up late for Suzuka 1990 and seeing the collision at the first corner happen right before your eyes? Sometimes sport is just straight-out drama, a theatre, and this was one of those such moments. The film is told from the perspective of Senna, and does a lot to justify his emotions and actions - so it's hard not to see the intimate and closed conversations between Prost and the then FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre as anything other than scheming against Senna to shoot him down at every turn to make sure Prost drunk up all the champagne. Maybe it was like this - F1 has never been short of politics - but there was certainly no malice there. The connection between the two is heightened further, where the camera spans to Prost's face in the aftermath of the Tamburello accident, and also as he acts as a pall bearer, at Ayrton's funeral. This was simply the power of motorracing, and how it can throw up the most extreme pressure and the most extreme friendships.

It was also wonderful - if not slightly nerve-wracking - to follow Senna on the on-board camera, displaying all the proof that was ever needed of what a superb talent he was: so, so fast, but also dogged and relentless in his pursuit of triumph. All you ever hear about is Donnington 1993, so it was refreshing to see this glanced over in favour of races such as Monaco 1984 and Brazil 1991. He truly was a special breed, and all the more exciting to watch because of his spark - you can see why this infuriated and calm, methodical strategist 'Professor' Alain Prost. It was hard not to think, had I watched F1 then, would Ayrton have been my Jacques?

I'm glad he wasn't - because 1994 would have crushed me. As much fun as the film is romping through the altercations with Prost, the media, his fans - things suddenly get very sober, fast. It's 1994 and the film completely changes tone as we draw ever closer to Black Weekend. Unless you're an F1 fan it will come as a surprise to you that Ayrton was not the only driver to be killed that weekend - in fact, watching it documented as a whole on screen made me realise what an horrific weekend it was from start to finish (If any race weekend has ever been cursed, it must surely be this one). Until moments before, I had completely forgotten Rubens Barichello's crash in Friday practice, and also the horrendous start line shunt between JJ Lehto and Pedro Lamy in the race. But I hadn't forgotten the fate of Roland Ratzenberger - and so watching his car speed around the track was absolutely terrifying. In fact - I don't think I breathed much in the final half an hour of the film - it's just too much to take in.

Watching Senna's last moments was just eerie. As he paced around the garage in the morning, settling into the car on the grid, helmet off, face looking tense but also weighed with a sadness that comes after losing a colleague... It is actually unbearable to watch, extraordinarily uncomfortable - you won't want to do anything after seeing this film I can tell you that now. I'm not sure what to make of the account of Senna's actions on the morning of his death: opening the Bible to take courage to race he read that God would give him the greatest gift of all - God himself. It fits so neatly, doesn't it? Yet there's a strange supernatural undercurrent which sheds the events of that day into an otherworldly light - pronounced deeper by F1 doctor Syd Watkins as he treated the dying Senna on the side of the track: "he sighed, and although I am agnostic, I felt his soul depart at that moment". Hogwash or not, it's a beautiful part of the film.

Halloween 1999. Sleep patterns distorted by the Japanese Grand Prix, I'm up late listening to the radio when the sports report comes on to tell me that Juan Pablo Montoya has won the Indycar championship. How dare they spoiler that information for me! I wouldn't see the race until the following night and now the suspense was all ruined. I was livid. Then the radio said, "but the race was marred by the death of Greg Moore on Lap 10." And then I went into a cold trance. I had heard the words but not fully understood them. I stayed up for another hour to hear the same report again, just to make sure I had heard right. Greg Moore was one of my most favourite people in the world. After discovering Jacques had come from Indycar, I started watching it myself in 1997 and soon became a firm fan of Greg who drove for the same team Jacques had, and was also Canadian (I think I was a little obsessed with Canada back then). Back then, these people were my heroes. I lived and breathed my life through them, dictated my life around them, my moods were controlled by how well they were doing. To then lose one was just catastrophic. I was 13. I had to sit and watch my favourite driver flip over and slam upside down at 200mph into a concrete wall and the car disintegrate around him. It upset me for months (I haven't watched Indycar since).

This is all I have of death and motorracing. It's something that - though the safety is so powerful today - always lingers in the back of the mind when you watch on television. For someone as beloved as Ayrton Senna was, I cannot comprehend what millions of people went through that day as they saw a hero lying on the grass, surrounded my medical staff, not moving. Watching it 17 years later on the big screen, it brings every base emotion back and is one of the hardest things I have ever had to watch in cinema, on the screen, in my life. You have been warned.

Loved the music, loved the shot selection, the way everything was told a story. Asif Kapadia has created not only a homage to Senna, but one of the best documentaries and films you will see this year, and in the sports genre, one of the best ever. I urge you to go and see Senna as not only will it cut you to the core, it will also empower you with the thought that some people out there are just placed exactly where they should be in life, and thrive. If only he had just been at the halfway point of his life as he suggests in an interview, perhaps his legacy would not be so affecting - all the same, it is unforgettable to watch.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Celebrating 21 Years of the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Hello. A lot of you will just know me as the busy culturemouse I am, but I have other jobs, too. I also work here

 the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. And this month, the finest theatre in the North celebrates its 21st birthday, with a programme of events called "Transform". It runs for two weeks starting on Monday with a mixture of plays, workshops, spontaneous collaborations and free flowing imagination all across the building, with an aim to show just how transformative a theatre can be and just how amazingly versatile and special the Playhouse really is.

I thought I'd explore the programme a little bit, and highlight some of the top performances and shows we're showing for our birthday. If you're in the area do come along and support us - special wristbands are available at £15 each (£10 discounts) and will get you into all events on that day. The closing cabaret night is at a fixed £16. There's also plenty of opportunity for the audience to get involved as well, so if you're a budding thespian or writer come along and be inspired. It promises to be an intriguing and novel fortnight of fun!

The Ionian Enchantment: Theatre group Peepolykus (Spyski!) will be present throughout the two weeks, inviting people of all ages and experience to direct, write and act in new performances - a new one every day. The theme will be science, anything and everything from the Big Bang to virtual realities. There are lectures too - on the 6th, 8th and 14th at 7pm. This is the one of the biggest gateways to get involved in the Transform festival.
Performances every day of the festival, at the Box Office level

21 Writers: every year the WYP runs a writing course for the best young new writers to develop their talents. This year the 21 writers were set the task of creating their own three minute plays, and the fruits of their work will be on show on the 6th where they are all performed live for the first time.
Tues 6th June, 6.30pm, The Courtyard

Simple Girl: Melanie Wilson is a "mischievous flaneur, epic sentimentalist and grandiose fibber" and she brings her 2007 Edinburgh Fringe show to the WYP for two nights of adventure, mystery, humour, physical theatre and a vintage microphone
Weds 7th & Thurs 8th June, 8.15pm, The Courtyard

The Book of Politics: audiences and members of the public will be invited into The Red Room (no, not something out of Twin Peaks, although how awesome/traumatising for the rest of your life would that be?) to voice and pen their opinions on what kind of society they would like to live in - producing a book of the idyllic reality.
Fri 10th & Sat 11th June, all day, The Red Room

Story Map: What I Heard About The World: one of the most ambitious projects of Transform is the attempt by Third Angel to collect a story from every country of the world and place it correctly on a map, with the help of the audience, to create a living portrait of the world.
Sat 11th June, all day, Bar/Cafe area

Handbag: performer Geraldine Pilgrim will ensure the thought of dancing around your handbag will never seem the same - 15 minutes of carefree swishing your hair fun.
Sat 11th June, 3.30pm. 4pm, 4.30pm & 5pm, The Courtyard

Open House: a unique chance to follow a new performance from start to finish. Chris Goode & Co will be taking up residence in the Playhouse to put together, from scratch, a brand new play in a week. Throughout the process the doors to the rehearsal studio will be open to anyone wearing a Transform wristband to come in and observe, give feedback, suggestions and ideas to the cast to help them on their way. And don't forget to come back for the finished performance at the end to see how it all works out!
From Mon 13th June during the day every day, final performance Fri 17th June 7.45pm, Box Office Level

Tales of the Raun Tree Band: musician Dom Coyote (Kneehigh) presents his dark, folksy musical theatre piece about a lost boy who is trying to find his way back to the Summer. Told through music, but in his own words "the antithesis of a musical." Anything macabre and described as a bit like Efterklang and Punchdrunk Theatre (It Felt Like A Kiss) gets my attention (luckily I'm working this one!).
Thurs 9th & Fri 10th June @ 9.15pm, & Tues 14th June, 8.15pm, The Courtyard

6 Degrees Below The Horizon: Leeds based troupe imitating the dog perform their new piece for the WYP crowds who view the show through windows and moving picture frames. Anything with the words "playful", "twisted", and "vaudeville" and I'M THERE - could this be something like The Terrible Infants, but for a more adult clientele? 
Weds 15th & Thurs 16th, 8.15pm, The Courtyard

Shelley: come and see a preview of the WYP's new show about the life of Frankenstein writer Mary Shelley - months before its run in 2012!
Weds 15th, 6.15pm, The Quarry

Folk in a Box: imagine the most intimate gig you've ever been to and then laugh. Folk in a Box is the world's smallest music venue: a box comprising of you - and only you - and a musician who performs you one song. Then the door opens, and the next audience member files in for their own gig. It's exhilarating for every participant involved!
Fri 16th June, all day, at Box Office level

The Wau Wau Sisters: The Last Supper: and for something a little different a bit naughty, New York's finest burlesque dancers the Wau Wau Sisters present their uniquely hilarious, cheeky and over the top drunken version of the Last Supper. Be as thrilled as you are shocked, this ridiculous and bawd duo have won over the crowds at the Edinburgh Fringe and across the world. They will also be taking part in Transform's closing cabaret night - if you just need to see them again!
Fri 16th June, 9.15pm, The Courtyard

Smoke and Mirrors Cabaret Night, featuring: Bourgeois and Maurice, Horse, Hope and Social, Tim Sutton, The Wau Wau Sisters, design by Streamline 21, dress up in Steampunk Victoriana and get happily dizzy on canapes and cocktails!
Sat 18th June, from 7.30pm, various (over 18s only)

... it all sounds like a mini intense Edinburgh Fringe, doesn't it? Lovely. You can see the full programme here, or pick one up from the Playhouse when you come in.

And if that's whet your appetite, why not come along and see the next big show at the Playhouse: The Wiz, which runs from 24th June to the 16th July? It has that girl from The X Factor who can't spell her name in it, playing Dorothy. A fabulous musical about one of the greatest stories ever told.

Hope to see you there, folk and folkettes!

Thursday, 2 June 2011

FILM REVIEW: Julia's Eyes

And now a s delayed review of Julia’s Eyes – or more accurately – what was Guillermo Del Toro thinking! I think it’s wonderful that he helps pluck out burgeoning directors, to bring a gravitas and publicity to their films that immediately elevates them in the media (“Del Toro presents…”), but surely he must read the scripts for these projects first? I can only forgive a man of such a ridiculously hectic schedule for perhaps letting this one linger in the vaults of his mailbox. Because it really isn’t up to his standards.

Julia of the title is left devastated when her twin sister suddenly hangs herself. She was suffering from the same degenerative eye disease that Julia herself harbours, but hers progressed first and she was left blind, and – apparently – unable to continue with life without her sight. But Julia is suspicious. Why was her sister listening to her least favourite song when she died? Why did she not leave a note? Who is this boyfriend her friends speak of, and why did he not show up at the funeral? And who is the strange person watching her in the shadows… as she investigates the death, Julia has to fight not only her frustrated husband but also her flailing sight and increasing paranoia that comes when the darkness closes in.

Firstly, not a horror. Don’t care who billed it as one, it doesn’t even make you jump. Secondly, it’s not in anyway supernatural, nor does it ever portend to be in the various twists throughout the film. So other than sharing the same lead actress, don’t compare this in anyway to The Orphanage or you’ll just be heavily disappointed (unless The Orphanage wasn’t your thing in which case you’re nuts). It’s a full blown mystery thriller, and unlike anything Del Toro has really stamped his name on before. That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean - apart from those famous leading words at the beginning of the film - there is nothing Del Toro about Julia’s Eyes.

So let’s overlook that and get down to reviewing the film. For the most part it works well, and newish director Guillem Morales does an excellent job of playing on the scares and terror that would come from slowly losing your sight (there’s some horrible needle in eye moments as well I should warn you about) and not being fully aware of what else is in the room with you. Also really enjoyed the end scene where she takes away the only advantage The Killer has on her by putting them both in the pitch dark, and the way the Polaroid camera is the only form of light available – what then happens plays out like a comic book strip or a slow motion snapshot reel.

So yes, there is a Killer, and it’s pretty easy to call halfway through the film. What’s a relief though is the film is aware that the audience knows, so doesn’t leave it too much longer before they are revealed. Then there’s a brilliant sequence – my favourite of the film – where Julia, who is recovering from her eye transplant operation, can bear the stress no longer and takes off her bandages early, realising she can see and the operation is a success. But then when she finds her only source of help has been horribly murdered, she pretends to the Killer that she is still blind (and amazingly does not flinch or blink when Killer points a knife inches from her eyeball to test her). And it’s also very cleverly done when the Killer realises she’s been lying – every little detail counts.

From there it just becomes nonsensical and even cheesy at the end – guarantee the end scene will make you want to vomit (or laugh, as most people in the cinema did). One of the greatest bugbears is how we never find out the Killer’s motivation for any of their actions. There’s an angry spiel about “the fear of being ignored, the fear of nobody noticing you’re there” but there’s no origin to the pain, no backstory or insight into this crazy character that gives the climax of the film any resounding impact. And yet there is so much to decipher from it – something Morales (who co-wrote the script) cleared fails to capitalise on. I fear he was more interested in maintaining the relationships in the story, rather than actually focusing on individual characters.

Worth a gander on DVD if you’re looking for an entertaining romp, but don’t expect any new surprises – Julia’s Eyes reminded me of something Robin Williams would star in, if the Americans get their hands on a remake.