Welcome to this new weekly round-up of the best in culture and the arts.
In addition to my own picks, your favourite TNE writers will chip in with their recommendations from time to time. And we’d love to hear what you’re enjoying: please send your tips to firstname.lastname@example.org
PICK OF THE WEEK
THE HILLS OF CALIFORNIA
Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until June 15
Borrowing its title from the classic 1948 Johnny Mercer track, Jez Butterworth’s new play reunites him with Sam Mendes, with whom he collaborated to formidable effect on The Ferryman (2017). In the hot summer of 1976, the Webb sisters, Jill (Helena Wilson), Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond) and Gloria (Leanne Best) gather in their family’s former guest house in Blackpool, Seaview – notable for not having a view of a sea. Upstairs, their mother Veronica is dying from stomach cancer. They await long-absent Joan, the fourth and most talented daughter who has been in the States for many years.
Cut to their childhood, when they were being coached by Veronica (Laura Donnelly) for stardom as a British version of the Andrews Sisters, taking to the kitchen table to sing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. A big-deal American manager is in town, which presents the Webb quartet with the break of which they have dreamed: or so it seems.
As in his masterpiece, Jerusalem, Butterworth is transfixed by Englishness; this time, its seaside heritage and, crucially, its postwar interactions with fizzing Americana. His new play is an elegy to a lost age, as well as a poignant exploration of family dynamics and festering pain – often refracted through music. “A song,” says Veronica, “is a place to be. Somewhere you can live”. And The Hills of California is a must-see.
Nominated for Best Picture in this year’s Oscars, Cord Jefferson’s first outing as a director is a triumphant exercise in cultural commentary – and also very funny. Jeffrey Wright, playing writer Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, has never been better.
Exasperated by the publishing industry’s fading interest in his serious work, he delivers a caricatured “ghetto” novel, My Pafology, under the pseudonym Stagg R Leigh – which has white editors and moviemakers swooning (they want to release it for Juneteenth because “white people will be feeling – let’s be honest – a little conscience-stricken”). Dismayed, Monk remarks to his agent that “the dumber I behave, the richer I get”. American Fiction brilliantly skewers the performative white guilt of the modern publishing and media world and its condescension to Black artists.
As a devotee of Jonathan Glazer’s debut movie – the 24-year-old gangster classic starring Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley and Ian McShane – I approached Michael Caleo’s eight-part prequel series with considerable scepticism. No need, as it turns out. Pacy, profane and action-packed, Sexy Beast traces the rise in London’s gangland of the characters from the movie, and its cast is uniformly excellent. James McArdle as the young Gal Dove (Winstone’s role in the movie) and Emun Elliott as Don Logan (one of Kingsley’s finest performances) are especially good, and Stephen Boyer delivers a youthful version of the psychotic stillness of McShane’s Teddy Bass. Also: Tamsin Greig as you’ve never seen her.
EMPIREWORLD: HOW BRITISH IMPERIALISM HAS SHAPED THE GLOBE
By Sathnam Sanghera (Viking)
How to follow a book as brilliant and consequential as Empireland (2021)? A more brittle writer than Sanghera would have been deterred by the appalling racism to which he was subjected after its publication. Instead, the Times journalist has chosen to persist and here delivers a magnificent account of the British empire’s impact upon the world. His travels take him to Lagos, Mauritius, Barbados, Kew Gardens and elsewhere.
The research is meticulous, the personal touch well-judged and the detail riveting. Foreswearing the conventional “balance sheet” approach to imperial history, Sanghera seeks out nuance, contradiction and unexpected influence. “It’s simply in our interests,” he writes, “to show up knowing what we were responsible for the last time we turned up”. An indispensable guide to the future of post-Brexit Britain which shows how right Faulkner was: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In November TNE founder Matt Kelly and I crossed political no man’s land to experience Jordan Peterson’s performance at the O2 Arena in Greenwich (you can listen to our traumatised response on the November 2 episode of our podcast The Two Matts). In the same spirit: check out the conservative rap song Facts by Tom MacDonald and right-wing Daily Wire pundit, Ben Shapiro, which has topped the iTunes charts. In the age of Trump’s return, it seems anything is possible.
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