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What to see and do this weekend: from Rod Stewart and Jools Holland’s magnificent new swing album to Felicity Huffman making her UK stage debut in Hir, the Mail’s critics pick the best cultural events


Swinging new music, terrific stage performances, wicked new films – they are all featured in our critics’ picks of the best of music, theatre, film and comedy. Read on to find out what to see and do this weekend… 

MUSIC 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK 

Rod Stewart With Jools Holland 

Swing Fever                                                                                       Out now

Rating:

Rod Stewart is always good value on stage, but the studio hasn’t been his strong point for decades. His last album, The Tears Of Hercules (2021), was a stinker. I’m still recovering from a track called Kookooaramabama, which contained the lines: ‘Sex is cool, and sex is nice/Sex will leave you in paradise.’

One way to avoid lyrics like that is by concentrating on covers, a ploy that served Rod well in the early 2000s. And here he is, at 79, joining forces with Jools Holland, 66, to record a whole album of songs from the age of swing. The minute you put it on, you know it’s a winner.

Rod Stewart and Jools Holland are both model-railway nuts and the tracks on their new album, Swing Fever, are like trains, rattling along with an irresistible rhythm

Rod Stewart and Jools Holland are both model-railway nuts and the tracks on their new album, Swing Fever, are like trains, rattling along with an irresistible rhythm

The opening track, Lullaby Of Broadway, is even older than Rod: it won the Oscar for best original song in 1935. But there’s a spring in its step that feels forever young. It’s not so much a lullaby as a wake-up call. In no time, somebody is tap-dancing, and it may even be Sir Rod.

Jools’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra are not given a credit on the cover, but they make these old tunes their own with their pinpoint gusto. ‘Come on, boys,’ Rod yells, ‘swing it now!’ He is banging on a wide-open door. The boys keep swinging from the first beat to the last.

Rod and Jools are both model-railway nuts and these tracks are like trains, rattling along with an irresistible rhythm. At times Rod is a passenger, which is fine. The musicianship is magnificent and his voice still has its velvet rasp.

He has always been good at covers because he loves most kinds of music. He tried to make a swing album once before, only to find that it was ‘more Frank Sinatra than Louis Prima, let’s say’.

Prima’s name may not ring a bell, but you probably know his sound: he was the voice of Louie, King of the Swingers, in The Jungle Book film of 1967.

Jools, as BBC2 viewers know, is apt to go bananas with the boogie-woogie piano, but not here. He preaches the gospel of simplicity, and practises it too.

The only let-down is the last track, Tennessee Waltz. Jools turns it into the Tennessee jive and lets its magic slip through his fingers. But on Pennies From Heaven, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Almost Like Being In Love, he and his orchestra come close to perfection.

Tim de Lisle 

TWO OTHER NEW RELEASES 

MGMT: Loss Of Life 

Rating:

Loss Of Life is MGMT’s first independent release after four LPs on major label Columbia and the good news is it sees a return to the tuneful warmth of their 2008 debut.

Singer-guitarist Andrew VanWyngarden and keyboardist Ben Goldwasser, both 41, have revamped their sound, with guitar and piano now to the fore, electronics less prominent and lyrics of a mid-life persuasion. 

Mother Nature is a wry paean to domesticity; there are hints of Cyndi Lauper and Hall & Oates on Dancing In Babylon, and theatrical nods to Queen on Bubblegum Dog.

Loss Of Life gets better the more you play it, too; suggesting that any reports of MGMT’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Adrian Thrills 

STEVE HACKETT: The Circus And The Nightwhale 

Rating:

Having been a key member of Genesis in their 1970s heyday, Steve Hackett knows his way around a prog-rock album, and that pedigree shines through on a concept LP that’s ambitious but never indulgent. 

The record’s central character (Travla) is based on Hackett himself, and there’s one track about the guitarist joining Genesis (Enter The Ring) and another inspired by his 1977 departure (Get Me Out!). 

The songs are short and sharp, with Hackett’s musicianship energetic and tenacious. The brilliantly played classical instrumental White Dove adds a beautiful finale. 

Adrian Thrills 

 AND TWO GREAT GIGS

Raye  

Rating:

The Brits, which take place on Saturday, have already sprung a surprise. Rachel Keen, the soul singer better known as Raye, has collected a record seven nominations.

Brit-nominated Raye has a star quality that is unmistakable

Brit-nominated Raye has a star quality that is unmistakable 

For the industry, Raye is a prodigal daughter. She went to the Brit School – and dropped out. She landed a singing contract with Polydor, who refused to release her album. So she released it herself and it went to No2.

She is now big enough to have sold out the vast O2 Arena in London, while still small enough to play the cosy O2 Academy in Bristol.

A free spirit with roots in Tooting, Yorkshire, Switzerland and Ghana, Raye is so fond of chatting to the crowd that she often ends up paying a fine for over-running.

Her material is hit-and-miss, but her star quality is unmistakable. She has an infectious warmth and a sensational set of pipes. She can start a song like Amy Winehouse and finish it like Whitney Houston.

Tim de Lisle 

Touring until March 15. Although most tickets are sold out, there are waitlists available 

LAST CHANCE: Rick Astley 

Rating:

Rick Astley is having a ball. The lad from Newton-le-Willows has shown the ability, given to few celebrities, to walk away from it all. After retiring at 27 to be a fulltime father, he made a comeback at 50 that is still going strong seven years later.

Rick Astley's material is middling, but he gets away with it because of three strengths

Rick Astley’s material is middling, but he gets away with it because of three strengths

Strolling on stage he launches into Together Forever, which prompts an instant singalong. ‘Thank you and goodnight,’ he quips as it finishes. ‘It doesn’t get better than that, everybody singing the first number.’

His material is middling, but he gets away with it because of three great strengths. 

The first is his voice, big and warm, like a quilted coat. The second strength is his professionalism. No matter the circumstances, he always gets the job done. The third strength is his personality. He’s charming and genuine.

If the Brit awards had a prize for Most Likeable Pop Star, he’d be on the shortlist.

Tim de Lisle 

Touring until March 7

 

 

THEATRE 

SHOW OF THE WEEK 

Hir 

Rating:

The pulling power of this strong revival of Taylor Mac’s play is the presence of Hollywood actress Felicity Huffman, making her UK stage debut as Paige, matriarch of a dysfunctional family. The Desperate Housewives star had her own family woes in 2019 when she served a 14-day prison sentence after pleading guilty to a charge of fraud concerning her daughter’s college entrance exam.

Mac’s dark comedy is a cross between a domestic drama and a state-of-the-nation allegory, with a large helping of queer theatre thrown in.

Felicity Huffman, making her UK stage debut, is terrific as Paige, the brittle matriarch of a dysfunctional family, in Taylor Mac's dark comedy

Felicity Huffman, making her UK stage debut, is terrific as Paige, the brittle matriarch of a dysfunctional family, in Taylor Mac’s dark comedy 

Paige’s son Isaac (Steffan Cennydd) is a US Marine returning from battle, only to find his family home looking like a war zone. Clothes and magazines litter the filthy floor, and his father Arnold (Simon Startin), who’s had a stroke, is dressed as a clown.

Arnold’s condition has liberated Paige from a violent marriage and domestic chores, and now she humiliates her husband.

Her ally is her other child, Maxine, transitioning into Max (Thalia Dudek). The hir of the title (pronounced ‘here’) is Max’s preferred pronoun.

But as a battle of wills ensues between Paige and Isaac, his PTSD surfaces. Max’s conflicted loyalties also threaten Paige’s new world order, and the family enters freefall.

Huffman is terrific as the brittle Paige, who has some of the best lines ‘Max!’ she yells at one point. ‘Get in here to explain your gender ambiguity to your brother!’

Mac delves into identity, family politics and the power of belonging to a tribe under Steven Kunis’s direction — but the evening really sparkles when Ms Huffman is on stage.

Veronica Lee 

Park Theatre London. Until March 16, 2hrs 20mins 

FOUR OTHER SPARKLING SHOWS  

Dear Octopus

Rating:

Dear Octopus is a total treat. Written by Dodie Smith, it was a hit in 1938, and here stars Lindsay Duncan, never better as the bossy but kind Dora who, with her husband Charles (Malcolm Sinclair, a tweedy twinkler), are celebrating their golden wedding anniversary.

Lindsay Duncan is never better than as the bossy but kind Dora in Dear Octopus

Lindsay Duncan is never better than as the bossy but kind Dora in Dear Octopus

The household includes several generations – grandparents, willowy grown-up daughters with crimped hair, small children – all laughing, bickering and making up.

The presence of servants and words like ‘bally’ and ‘lawks’ date it. But the characters all seem so real. Particularly Fenny (Bessie Carter), whose unspoken love for buffoonish master Nicholas (Billy Howle) is an open family secret.

Written in the receding grief of one world war and on the cusp of another, this English family saga feels terribly reassuring. Nico Muhly’s music is haunting, while Frankie Bradshaw’s rotating set and costumes are pitch perfect.

A rediscovered gem.

Robert Gore-Langton 

Lyttelton Theatre, London Until March 27, 2hrs 45mins 

Just For One Day 

Rating:

The Live Aid musical Just For One Day at London’s Old Vic is no ordinary commemoration of an event 40 years ago. It is a borderline Pentecostal church service, based on testimonies of those who ‘were there’, and singing hymns to ‘Saint’ Bob Geldof himself.

The Live Aid musical Just For One Day is no ordinary commemoration

The Live Aid musical Just For One Day is no ordinary commemoration

Unlike the Wembley gig of July 1985 this is a star-free homage. Its most remarkable quality is Matthew Brind’s musical arrangements, which ensure over-familiar chart hits are reborn.

The miracle of what Sir Bob achieved, though, in raising millions for famine-stricken Ethiopia is not to be underestimated. 

As Geldof, Craige Els is a pleasingly irritable uncle with the rings of Saturn around his eyes.

My favourite character is nonetheless Julie Atherton’s Mrs Thatcher. She’s exactly the grinch this show needs — withholding the 15 per cent VAT levied on Live Aid’s fundraising, and bossily performing The Pretenders’ song Stop Your Sobbing with a hip-hop shuffle in her tweed skirt.

Yes, there are times when they’re overcome by missionary zeal but that doesn’t stop Just For One Day absolutely nuking, erasing and laying waste to all cynicism — to ensure Saint Bob and crew rise again.

Patrick Marmion

The Old Vic, London. Until Mar 30, 2hrs 35mins 

King Lear

Rating:

Danny Sapani could well be the best Lear I’ve ever seen — even if Yael Farber’s production doesn’t match his titanic majesty.

Volcanic, dangerous and devastating, Sapani is also childlike, lost and frightened in a colossal performance that rides Shakespeare’s poetry with grace and gravitas. And what a voice — his whisper makes goosebumps, his boom alerts shipping.

Danny Sapani and Clarke Peters as King Lear and the Fool

Danny Sapani and Clarke Peters as King Lear and the Fool 

Audiences may wonder why Clarke Peters’ Fool drifts around like the ghost of Lear’s father. A psychotic hallucination, perhaps? And Fra Fee’s Edmund signifies his wickedness by puffing a joint rather than exploring Shakespeare’s mischievous verse.

Gloria Obianyo, as the devoted daughter Cordelia, breaks the goody-two-shoes mould: giving back-chat to her father, and a single finger to both her sisters.

Alec Newman and Michael Gould are refreshingly clear, simple and direct, too, as Lear’s loyal friends Kent and Gloucester.

Why Farber has Gloucester push a piano to Dover on his suicide mission, I cannot tell. 

But whatever the mysteries of her production, she gets one thing spot on: Sapani’s mighty, moving monarch. Go for him alone.

Patrick Marmion

Almeida Theatre, London. Until March 30, 3hrs 30mins 

The Picture Of Dorian Gray 

Rating:

Sarah Snook – famous as Shiv Roy in TV’s Succession – is the star of this one-woman version of Oscar Wilde’s novel. I feared the worst, not least because Snook is a woman and Dorian Gray isn’t. But how much better she turns out to be than some fashionable male twerp starlet with cheekbones.

Sarah Snook's beaming personality makes this one-woman production work

Sarah Snook’s beaming personality makes this one-woman production work

Snook is far from snookered by Wilde’s twisted, camp, gothic horror novel. In fact she’s funny, quick and amusing, playing 26 characters – and it’s her beaming personality that makes the play work.

It’s the story of Dorian, who has his portrait painted. He gets his dearest wish, that his looks will never fade, only his portrait. As Dorian abandons himself to vice and murder, his face remains pretty but the painting ages and corrupts, like a putrefying selfie.

It’s almost a movie. You get multiple screens and live feeds with Snook’s face so close up you can see the glue on her sideburns. The camera crew even follow her backstage.

My one complaint is the final 30 minutes, when the pace gets exhausting. It needs trimming. Either that or give us an interval. But as an evening it’s an astonishing feat, and Snook magics Wilde’s lurid yarn into high-definition life.

Robert Gore-Langton 

Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. Until May 11, 1hr 50mins 

 

FILM 

FILM OF THE WEEK  

Wicked Little Letters                                          Cert: 15, 1hr 40mins

Rating:

Internet ‘trolling’, whereby unpleasant people hide behind online anonymity to heap foul-mouthed abuse on unsuspecting users of social media accounts, is one of the great horrors of modern life. But there’s nothing new about anonymous insults, as a thoroughly entertaining new British film makes fruitily clear.

Yes, Wicked Little Letters, set in Littlehampton in the 1920s, takes us back to the days of the poison- pen letter, where a freshly franked stamp and an elegantly handwritten address gave no clue of the unsigned nastiness within.

Clockwise from top left: Timothy Spall, Anjana Vasan, Malachi Kirby, Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman in the thoroughly entertaining Wicked Little Letters

Clockwise from top left: Timothy Spall, Anjana Vasan, Malachi Kirby, Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman in the thoroughly entertaining Wicked Little Letters

Here, the letters are addressed to Miss Edith Swan (Olivia Colman), a God-fearing yet somewhat reluctant spinster, but their ripe contents are read out with angry relish by her elderly but still domineering father (Timothy Spall).

Her appalled mother Victoria (Gemma Jones) looks on in shock as language still not acceptable in a family newspaper, but all too common in a 15 certificate film, pours forth. Ah, but who sent them?

The Swans are in no doubt – it has to be Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), the wild Irish war widow who lives next door and with whom Edith has fallen out. The police seem convinced, too. Only WPC Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) has her doubts, but no one will listen to her. She’s a woman, after all…

This is lightweight commercial fare with much of the fun coming from hearing four-letter words being tossed around in a drama that could otherwise pass muster as a Miss Marple episode. But it’s a good and largely true story, it does deepen (a little) as it goes on, and director Thea Sharrock draws well-judged performances from what is, after all, a top-notch British and Irish cast.

Matthew Bond 

 FOUR OTHER FAB FILMS STILL IN CINEMAS

Shoshana 

Rating:

Cert: 15, 2hrs 1min 

Shoshana arrives in cinemas with tragically apposite timing. 

For while Gaza burns in 2024, Michael Winterbottom’s hugely moving period drama not only does an excellent job of explaining the historic role of the British in creating the mess that is Israel/Palestine but also shows how little has changed in almost 90 years.

Irina Starshenbaum is terrific as the Shoshana, well supported by Douglas Booth

Irina Starshenbaum is terrific as the Shoshana, well supported by Douglas Booth

The Russian actress Irina Starshenbaum is terrific as the passionate young Zionist of the title and gets strong support from Douglas Booth as her British intelligence-officer lover and Harry Melling as a sadistic police officer.

Matthew Bond 

 

American Star 

Rating:

Cert: 15, 1hr 47mins 

At 81, Ian McShane, once best known for playing the roguish antiques dealer in TV’s Lovejoy but now far more famous as the owner of the hitman’s hotel in the John Wick franchise, really ought not to be able to carry an entire feature film. 

Thanks to Ian McShane as an ageing assassin, American Star is worth catching

Thanks to Ian McShane as an ageing assassin, American Star is worth catching

But he does so effortlessly in American Star, which sees him playing an ageing assassin who travels to the Canary Islands for his latest job. 

But as he waits for his target to arrive, he gets happily distracted, first by an attractive young woman (Nora Arnezeder), then by her equally attractive and more age-appropriate mother (Fanny Ardant) and by the rusting hulk of an old wrecked liner. Ah, that’ll be the American Star, which has washed up on a Fuerteventura beach… a bit like him.

It’s very nicely shot and perhaps a little too thoughtful for thriller purists but, thanks to McShane, it’s definitely worth catching.

Matthew Bond 

The Promised Land 

Rating:

Cert: 15, 2hrs 7mins

In The Promised Land, Mads Mikkelsen plays a retired army captain who hopes to win fortune and favour by bringing the barren heaths of 18th Century Jutland into agricultural use, a project long favoured by the Danish king.

Mads Mikkelsen plays a newly retired army captain in The Promised Land

Mads Mikkelsen plays a newly retired army captain in The Promised Land

What ensues is tense, gritty and really well acted by a cast that also includes Amanda Collin as the captain’s housekeeper and Simon Bennebjerg as the sadistic nobleman.

Worth tracking down.

Matthew Bond

 

The Taste Of Things 

Rating:

Cert: 12A, 2hrs 15mins 

Let’s begin with some serious advice. Please have something to eat before you go and see The Taste Of Things. If you don’t, I can guarantee you’ll be gnawing hungrily at your knuckles within 15 minutes of Tran Anh Hung’s sumptuous, drool-inducing feast of a film getting under way.

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magime in the hunger-inducing The Taste Of Things

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magime in the hunger-inducing The Taste Of Things

It’s a love letter to classic French cuisine, to French cinema and, it has to be said, to beautiful French women of a certain age. Yes, the only thing chef and gourmand Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) loves more than sharing an eight- course lunch with friends is the beautiful Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), his right-hand woman in his kitchen. Eugénie has worked for him for 20 years and the pair occasionally share a bed but, hard as he tries, he cannot persuade her to marry him. Until…

While it slightly outstays its welcome, the final, remarkable, shot will have you drooling once again. Exquisite.

Matthew Bond

 

COMEDY

Bill Bailey: Thoughtifier 

Rating:

Thoughtifier is the perfect title for Bill Bailey’s deep-think, highly original brand of comedy. Thoughtifier (noun): purveyor of thoughts (aka stand-up comedian). Previous tour titles – Larks In Transit, Limboland, Dandelion Mind – have been more whimsical, but this one really nails it.

An evening with Bailey is like no other. Where most comics’ idea of audience banter takes a ‘What’s your name and where you from?’ approach, Bailey is more likely to ask ‘Any physicists in the house?’ and conduct an amusing dialogue about nuclear fusion.

An evening with Bill Bailey is like no other and Strictly fans would have been agog at this ¿Tesco-value Voldemort¿ and his collection of extraordinary instruments

An evening with Bill Bailey is like no other and Strictly fans would have been agog at this ‘Tesco-value Voldemort’ and his collection of extraordinary instruments

Any Strictly fans who turned up expecting anecdotal hilarity from his shock glitterball triumph in 2020 were disappointed. Thank goodness. It was a surprise he bothered to mention it at all. But they would have been agog at this ‘Tesco-value Voldemort’ and his collection of extraordinary instruments, and gone home Googling the ancient philosophy of the Stoics and the works of German composer Johann Pachelbel. Not something you get at a Peter Kay gig.

Opening with some token political dissing, he was at least prepared to credit the Government for its ‘major achievement of the past 14 years’ – an animal welfare bill recognising crustaceans as sentient beings – which naturally sparked a song about a crab with feelings, lamenting how his life had gone sideways.

Loose themes of Englishness and his West Country back story kept the show on the road, but when your thirst for invention is as off the scale as Bailey’s you have no need for narrative. An evening sprinkled with eccentric marvels included a madrigal about a first date from hell between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves and a hymn entitled I Punched A Grey Squirrel For Jesus.

Topping even this musical madness were some classic Bailey strokes of instrumental inspiration. Bluetooth ‘rock balls’ were handed to the audience for an attempt at the drum fill from Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight, while the dramatic appearance of a laser harp saw him don white gloves and sunglasses to pluck his way to ever crazier heights. Wheels On The Bus in German, Kraftwerk-style, anyone?

Freewheeling between musical genius and avuncular wizardry, Bailey bounced Brighton into submission on a wet Wednesday night. Bravo!

Mark Wareham 

The Brighton Centre. Touring until March 11  

 

 



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