What to see and do this weekend: From Zac Efron’s career-defining performance in The Iron Claw to Sam Mendes’s fabulous new play The Hills Of California, the Mail’s critics pick the best cultural events
All-singing and dancing stage performances, the best new films to wrestle with – they are all featured in our critics’ picks of the best of film, music, theatre, comedy and art. Read on to find out what to see and do this weekend…
SHOW OF THE WEEK
The Hills Of California
The playwright Jez Butterworth wrote Jerusalem – perhaps the best play of the century. It was set in the rural badlands of Wiltshire. This new one, The Hills Of California, also directed by Sam Mendes, is located in a sweltering Blackpool boarding house during the heatwave of 1976. The place is called Sea View, though it doesn’t have one. Rob Howell’s fabulous, vertical set is a gloomy jungle of mahogany banisters.
Upstairs, unseen, an old woman is dying of cancer. She is groaning like ‘a bayoneted German’ (Butterworth’s fabulous dialogue takes no prisoners). Downstairs, her grown-up daughters (a fractious bunch brilliantly played by Helena Wilson, Ophelia Lovibond and Leanne Best) are arriving to say farewell, all waiting for their long-lost sister Joan to turn up from California before the GP can release their mum from her agony with a benign morphine overdose (those were the days).
Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell and Sophia Ally as the young sisters in Jez Butterworth’s new play The Hills Of California
In flashbacks the sisters become schoolgirls and we see their super-strict mother, Veronica, in her prime – bracingly played by Laura Donnelly – and determined that her girls will become the next Andrews Sisters. It’s work, work, work. The close-harmony singing is a joy from this troupe of well-drilled youngsters, making the show almost a musical.
When a visiting hot-shot American agent (a sinister Corey Johnson) comes to see the girls sing, their mother makes a choice so brutal you freeze in horror.
Shakespeare’s line ‘Thou met’st with things dying, I with things new-born’ seems to have inspired the final plot twist when Joan, now a hippy chick, turns up from California with a secret.
It’s a play of beauty, heat and pain, all built on a shattered dream. Mendes coaxes top work from a fine, largely female cast. A long play, for sure, but the time whooshes by.
FOUR OTHER GREAT SHOWS
FILM OF THE WEEK
The Iron Claw
Cert: 15, 2hrs 12mins
Of all the American families whose fame crossed the Atlantic — those Kennedys, Kardashians, Osmonds, Partridges — not many of us would think to include the Von Erichs, a wrestling dynasty from Texas.
But don’t let that put you off seeing The Iron Claw, a compelling biographical film which presents their story as an intoxicating cocktail of one part triumph to four parts tragedy.
Set mostly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it focuses on Kevin Von Erich, in which role Zac Efron gives the performance of his career. The pretty boy of the High School Musical trilogy and other frothy comedies has become a really substantial dramatic actor.
Set mostly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, The Iron Claw focuses on Kevin Von Erich, in which role Zac Efron gives the performance of his career, above
Lily James keeps getting better, too. As Kevin’s sweetheart Pam, later his wife, she is excellent, and as convincingly Texan as mesquite-smoked brisket. I mustn’t say as tasty, although they would in the film. These are unreconstructed times. ‘You put that down, someone else’ll pick it up,’ Kevin’s father tells him approvingly, after meeting Pam.
Kevin is the oldest surviving son of Fritz (Holt McCallany) and Doris (Maura Tierney), whose firstborn died in boyhood. He has three younger brothers: David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) and Mike (Stanley Simons). All of them have been raised in Fritz’s long shadow. Fritz is a former champion wrestler whose signature move was the eponymous ‘iron claw’, a kind of one-handed head vice. And his dearest wish, unambiguously expressed, is for all his boys to follow him into the ring.
One of them, Mike, isn’t as strong and sporty as the others. He prefers his guitar to wrestling, which is why Fritz proclaims him his least favourite. He doesn’t mind his sons knowing how he orders his favourites, indeed considers it an incentive to make him proud. ‘The rankings can always change,’ he tells them.
In the autocratic father department, Fritz makes his fellow cinematic ‘Von’, Christopher Plummer’s Captain Von Trapp, look like a bag of mush. And at least the Captain melted in The Sound Of Music. Fritz never does, even when his uncompromising demands on his sons lead, inexorably, to domestic calamity on an almost operatic scale.
There are plenty of very good wrestling scenes in The Iron Claw, although writer-director Sean Durkin never quite reveals the extent to which the bouts are choreographed in advance, as those of us who grew up watching the likes of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy on ITV on Saturday afternoons always knew they were.
In any case, like all the best sporting biopics such as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), which in its early black-and-white scenes The Iron Claw rather evokes, this film is not so much about sport as character, drive, frailties and relationships — those things that make all of us tick.
In this particular instance it’s about the bonds of brotherhood, too, as well as toxic fatherhood. Kevin must stand aside as Fritz anoints first Dave as the likeliest world champion, then Kerry, who came late to wrestling after being forced to give up the discus, following the US boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
It’s hard for him to suppress his own dreams while watching his brothers realise theirs, but Kevin is a pretty simple soul, in whom fraternal love burns even more strongly than personal ambition. All of which makes it truly heart-rending when, in ways that I shouldn’t disclose, tragedy strikes each of his siblings, giving substance to what Kevin understandably believes is a family curse.
Wonderfully acted across the board, The Iron Claw is a tremendous drama about one benighted family, but it also makes us think about our own clan dynamics. It did me, anyway. I wouldn’t even metaphorically pin you to the canvas before you agree to go and see it, but it’s as fine and worthwhile a film, in its way, as Foxcatcher (2014), another captivating story ostensibly about wrestling.
FOUR OTHER GREAT FILMS STILL IN CINEMAS
ALBUM OF THE WEEK
Zara Larsson Venus Out now
She seemed a superstar in the making when she broke through with the teenage pop hit Lush Life in 2015. She followed that by topping the singles chart alongside Clean Bandit on Symphony. But Zara Larsson’s fortunes have fluctuated since then, her progress stalled by the strains of adolescent fame and derailed by a lockdown that coincided with her 2021 release Poster Girl.
Her new album, Venus, is a bid to get back on track, and the 26-year-old has made a few changes to cement her position behind Abba, Robyn and double Eurovision winner Loreen as Sweden’s next big cultural export.
Swedish singer Zara Larsson is clearly hungry to fulfil her early promise. On her new album, Venus, which is packed with bangers and ballads, she’s getting closer
She’s set to make her acting debut in upcoming Netflix drama A Part Of You, and this album is the first on her own label, a move designed to give her greater artistic control.
She’s also moved from Stockholm to L.A., where she made Venus with producer Rick Nowels, a West Coast veteran and the co-writer of Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven Is A Place On Earth. ‘Rick made me back my own ideas,’ she says. ‘Part of me wants to be this glossy girl. The other part wants to sit in bed and chain-smoke all day.’
The upshot is a set of bangers and ballads, with the onus firmly on Zara the dazzling diva rather than the nicotine-craving couch potato — though a reliance on machine-tooled effects sometimes makes this a frustrating listen.
She opens with a banger. ‘You can’t tame the girl ‘cause she runs her own world,’ she sings on Can’t Tame Her, a feminist anthem built around glimmering 1980s keyboards in the style of The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights. It’s a strong start, but also one of several songs drenched in studio trickery. I’d prefer her husky, tremulous voice without the digital enhancement.
The top songs add emotional heft to her mix of pop and dance. Best of all, Soundtrack looks back on an affair by referencing the songs — from Radiohead and Lana Del Rey — by which she remembers it. ‘You kissed me during Karma Police,’ she sings. ‘And every time I hear Born To Die, it’s like I’m in a time machine.’
Larsson’s clearly hungry to fulfil her early promise. On Venus, she’s getting closer.
THREE OTHER NEW RELEASES
AND THE BEST OF THE REST