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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

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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… 

THEATRE

SHOW OF THE WEEK 

The Hills Of California

Rating:

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

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.

Robert Gore-Langton

Harold Pinter Theatre, London. Until June 15, 3hrs

    FOUR OTHER GREAT SHOWS 

The Boy At The Back Of The Class

Rating:

There’s nothing off-puttingly prim about Alexa, the curious nine-year-old narrator of The Boy At The Back Of The Class.

Sasha Desouza-Willock, centre, as Alexa in The Boy At The Back Of The Class

Sasha Desouza-Willock, centre, as Alexa in The Boy At The Back Of The Class

Alexa doesn’t know what a refugee is, but baulks when someone calls the new boy at school a ‘filthy refugee kid’. His name is Ahmet, and surely only something terrible can have brought him from Syria, alone, to seek refuge here.

Just as the rounded characters bounce off the pages of Onjali Q. Rauf’s award-winning book, so Nick Ahad’s buoyant adaptation and director Monique Touko’s production has them bouncing around the stage.

There’s a subtle lesson in the play’s use of language. As Sasha Desouza-Willock’s Alexa says, different can mean weird, but it’s not quite the same; usual is another word for boring, but not always.

An excellent cast of school-uniformed adults play the children, slipping into a hat or coat to become a grown-up. Only the Queen — for it is to the humanity of a 92-year-old Queen Elizabeth that Alex ultimately appeals — remains a distant silhouette with a wise, warm voice. And real power.

A clear, compassionate children’s play for today.

Georgina Brown

Rose Theatre, Kingston. Until February 22, 2hrs 10mins 

Pride & Prejudice

Rating:

Jane Austen’s best-known work has proved fertile ground for the screen and stage. Here, Abigail Pickard Price’s feelgood adaptation for Guildford Shakespeare Company is pleasingly faithful to the original, with only the occasional infelicity.

Luke Barton and April Hughes in Guildford Shakespeare Company's Pride & Prejudice

Luke Barton and April Hughes in Guildford Shakespeare Company’s Pride & Prejudice

Pickard Price (who also directs) doesn’t burden the Regency comedy of manners with a jarring modern framework, but deftly allows the audience to recognise its 21st-century parallels.

She has condensed the novel for three actors while retaining much of Austen’s sparkling dialogue. She gives Lizzy Bennet (April Hughes) the famous opening line but the trio — Sarah Gobran and Luke Barton complete the cast — share the aphorisms and witty words.

The actors are terrific; Hughes also plays Mr Bingley, Gobran is Mrs Bennet, Caroline Bingley and others, while Barton plays Darcy, Mr Bennet and, most amusingly, the silly youngest Bennet girls. They delineate their characters with just a quick change of coat, dress or hair ribbon.

Neil Irish’s clever design on the small stage raised above the church’s nave also guides us; if you momentarily forget where a scene takes place, there’s a painting of its location placed about the set by one of the cast to guide you.

Veronica Lee

Holy Trinity Church, Guildford. Until February 24, 2hrs 20mins 

The King And I 

Rating:

One of the joys of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King And I is that it’s a sort of multi-cultural mega-mix.

The King And I starring Helen George and Darren Lee is still winning hearts

The King And I starring Helen George and Darren Lee is still winning hearts 

Happily, this production starring Helen George from Call The Midwife is still winning hearts in the West End as it stops off for a last hurrah.

George plays the intrepid Victorian traveller Anna Leonowens, who became a governess and teacher at the court of the King of Siam in the 1860s. 

But the remarkable thing about this production is that Darren Lee turns the absolute monarch into an excitable reformer with a great sense of fun. 

George’s Anna is a simpler fusion of Julie Andrews and Margaret Thatcher. She sings fruitily and forcefully, but reminds the king that her huge, upside-down cupcake of a dress is a symbolic defence against men.

Elsewhere, Cezarah Bonner’s Lady Thiang, the king’s principal wife, is an amusingly retro advocate for female subordination.

Marienella Philips’s Tuptim, on the other hand, strikes a blow for sexual liberation in her duet with her hunky lover Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson).

Bartlett Sher’s production, featuring legions of kids and lashings of costumes, purrs like a Rolls-Royce.

Patrick Marmion

Dominion Theatre, London, until March 2 

Till The Stars Come Down 

Rating:

Beth Steel’s new play is a piece of working-class Chekhov. A Nottinghamshire Three Sisters, to be precise; only instead of all that Russian hand wringing, it’s set around a raucous family wedding.

Marc Wootton and Sinéad Matthews in the bittersweet Till The Stars Come Down

Marc Wootton and Sinéad Matthews in the bittersweet Till The Stars Come Down

The sisters in question are peacemaking Sylvia (Sinead Matthews), who’s marrying a Polish immigrant; Maggie (Lisa McGrillis), whose checkered love life has seen her move out of town; and Hazel (Lucy Black), clinging to a marriage adrift in the mid-life doldrums.

The joy of Steel’s writing is that it fizzes with four-letter vitality and pings with wit. 

And yet, although it’s seldom less than gleefully bawdy it’s also deeply rooted in memories of the miners’ strike and post-industrial decline.

Steel’s only problem is how to end it while giving everyone in the cast of ten a turn.

Nor would you want her to thwart a fabulously disreputable Aunty Carol (Lorraine Ashbourne), or whiskery Williams, who brings down the house with a Tarzan impersonation.

So even if Steel leaves it all hanging, it’s still one helluva bittersweet ride.

Patrick Marmion

Dorfman, National Theatre, London, until March 16

Film 

FILM OF THE WEEK 

The Iron Claw 

Cert: 15, 2hrs 12mins 

Rating:

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

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. 

Brian Viner 

     FOUR OTHER GREAT FILMS STILL IN CINEMAS

 

The Zone Of Interest

Rating:

Cert: 12A, 1hr 45mins

Jonathan Glazer’s latest is set in the meticulously run house of Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Höss.

Sandra Hüller impresses as Rudolf Höss's wickedly deluded wife

Sandra Hüller impresses as Rudolf Höss’s wickedly deluded wife 

The gas chambers and crematoria are literally next door. Inside – which Glazer never shows us – we know is the embodiment of hell. But outside it is very much suburban life as normal.

For Höss, beautifully under-played by Christian Friedel, putting people to death has simply become an industrial process. Even better is Sandra Hüller as Höss’s wickedly deluded wife.

Nominated for five Oscars and nine Baftas, this powerful, brilliant and terrifyingly timely film is unmissable. 

Matthew Bond 

 

Turning Red  

Rating:

Cert: PG, 1hr 40mins

Turning Red was initially released on Disney+ two years ago but now the Pixar animation, which became famous for being one of the first children’s cartoons to mention periods, is getting a cinema release, and it’s well worth a look. 

Initially released on Disney+, Turning Red is now in cinemas and well worth a look

Initially released on Disney+, Turning Red is now in cinemas and well worth a look

The fact that 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian Mei Lee suddenly starts turning into a giant red panda at moments of high emotion turns out to have little to do with menstruation (‘Did the red peony bloom?’ asks her concerned mother), but rather more to do with growing up and embracing your loud, messy inner beast. 

Good, if biologically slightly confusing. 

Matthew Bond 

American Fiction 

Rating:

Cert: 15, 1hr 57mins

The absorbing American Fiction contains a mighty performance from Jeffrey Wright, who is up for an Oscar.

Jeffrey Wright is also in the running for an Oscar for his role as 'Monk' Ellison

Jeffrey Wright is also in the running for an Oscar for his role as ‘Monk’ Ellison 

He plays world-weary Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, an African-American professor who can’t find anyone willing to publish his cerebral new book.

Meanwhile, to his disgust, another black author is having huge success with what he considers a cheap novel stuffed with racial stereotypes

So he dashes off a wild parody, intended to send up everything he hates about white perceptions of black people. But guess what? It becomes a huge hit.

Skewers the shallowness of the publishing industry, while being a keenly observed race satire too.

Brian Viner

Migration 

Rating:

Cert: U, 1hr 23mins 

Migration is a delightful animated comedy about a family of mallards who head south for the winter from New England, and are guided to Jamaica by a homesick scarlet macaw given a fruity Caribbean accent by Keegan-Michael Key.

Migration is a delightful animated comedy about a family of mallards heading south

Migration is a delightful animated comedy about a family of mallards heading south 

The excellent voice cast also includes Elizabeth Banks, Danny DeVito and David Mitchell (as a New Agey Pekin). 

It’s all extremely jaunty and colourful, with some great flights of fancy and smart one-liners to keep adult chaperones happy.

My own chaperones were 11-year-old Aharon and his sister Adi, aged nine, and they both loved it, pronouncing it worthy of four stars. I agree. It’s a charmer.

Brian Viner

 

 

MUSIC 

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

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.

Zara Larsson is touring the UK from Friday until February 22 

THREE OTHER NEW RELEASES 

The Reytons: Ballad Of A Bystander

Rating:

Like Wigan band The Lathums, Rotherham quartet The Reytons have stepped into the breach following the Arctic Monkeys’ decision to abandon raucous guitar music in favour of lush ballads and lounge jazz. 

The group’s third album is dominated by brusque, punky singalongs that should go down a storm at indie discos. Frontman Jonny Yerrell sings of whiling away hours in shopping arcades and hopping on the 116 bus with his girlfriend. Seven In Search Of Ten, about a Tinder addict with unrealistic expectations, hints at greater nuance.

Adrian Thrills 

The Last Dinner Party: Prelude To Ecstasy 

Rating:

No new album of 2024 comes with greater expectations than Prelude To Ecstasy. And it’s made by The Last Dinner Party, a band who were unknown this time last year. 

At first I wasn’t sure about the album: the band’s signature tune, Nothing Matters, is so luminous that the other 11 tracks are like little sisters struggling to be heard at the table. 

But then the best albums tend to be the ones that grow on you. Side one of the LP will soon be an old friend, making you laugh and think and empathise. 

And if side two is a touch heavy-handed – more like Queen before they discovered pop – that’s forgivable on a first album. It doesn’t have to be consistent if it’s thrilling in parts.

Tim de Lisle 

Madi Diaz: Weird Faith

Rating:

Harry Styles was so impressed with Madi Diaz when the Pennsylvanian artist supported him in North America that he asked her to join his touring band as a backing singer and guitarist. 

This album of well-crafted but distinctly unsentimental love songs shows why he was so keen. Diaz sets her candid words to pretty folk-pop melodies, but there’s bite here, too. 

Same Risk begins acoustically before building through strings, while Texan star Kacey Musgraves, who has also toured with Styles, duets with Diaz on powerful country ballad Don’t Do Me Good.

Adrian Thrills 

AND A GREAT GIG: ABC 

Rating:

Gifted wordsmith Martin Fry of ABC is back on the road. Fry sang and co-wrote the classic debut album The Lexicon Of Love (1982), still revered today for its glossy intelligence.

The first word Martin Fry utters is ¿debonair¿, and at 65 he lives up to it

The first word Martin Fry utters is ‘debonair’, and at 65 he lives up to it

Periodically he performs it in full, alongside ABC’s other hits, with an orchestra conducted by the great Anne Dudley. 

The first word Fry utters is ‘debonair’, from When Smokey Sings, and at 65 he lives up to it. Wearing a purple suit, then a pale pink one, he still has his lanky presence and laconic wit.

The highlight of a heart-warming evening is The Look Of Love, so good he plays it twice.

He will be touring again in the autumn to promote his forthcoming autobiography, A Lexicon Of Life.

Tim de Lisle 

ABC are touring until February 22 

 

AND THE BEST OF THE REST

COMEDY: Frank Skinner: 30 Years Of Dirt

Rating:

There’s a career trajectory with comedians that runs something like this: early stand-up career (five to ten years), commercial TV success at height of fame (15-25 years), return to live comedy in declining years (ten to 20 years, depending on life expectancy).

At 67, Frank Skinner is very much in that final stage. TV has long since passed him by, and so he has returned to the stage to do what he does best – telling gags.

At 67, Frank Skinner is very much in that final stage of his career. TV has long since passed him by, so he has returned to the stage to do what he does best ¿ telling gags

At 67, Frank Skinner is very much in that final stage of his career. TV has long since passed him by, so he has returned to the stage to do what he does best – telling gags

It’s hard to think of another comic more at ease with his audience. Pacing the stage in a professorial manner, he’s clearly loving this late resurgence, taking in a two-week West End run followed by three months on the road.

With Skinner there are no surprises. You know what you’re going to get, and that is actual jokes from an old-school club comic, the likes of whom are dying out. He’s a consummate comedy craftsman – one man and his mic, no frills but plenty of thrills. As the show’s title references, Skinner was once a dispenser of eye-watering filth. These days he attempts to keep it relatively clean, acknowledging that ‘you can’t say anything now… I miss racism!’ But try as he might, he’s unable to resist the lure of the knob gag… and the show is all the better for it. He describes his love of a dirty joke as ‘like an illness’ and, true to form, he throws in a Phillip Schofield gag here, some of his finest filthy fillers there.

The gag-packed 90-minute set is loosely a career retrospective, taking in his Catholicism (‘Deal with it!’), his love of football and a smattering of celebrity anecdotes, including a cringing encounter with lyricist Sir Tim Rice. He refers to himself as ‘a once great comedian’ but he’s fooling no one with that double bluff.

You know you’re knocking on a bit when your routine includes a joke about the Red Arrows, but on this evidence, Skinner’s not reaching for the pipe and slippers just yet.

Mark Wareham 

Gielgud Theatre, London Until Feb 17, touring until June 9

ART: Holbein At The Tudor Court

Rating:

Henry VIII and Hans Holbein made a decent match. The former was seeking a first-rate artist to glorify his rule, while the latter was seeking a potent patron to give him work.

Born in Bavaria at the end of the 15th Century, Holbein made his name in the Swiss city of Basel before heading to England in 1526, where he was welcomed by Sir Thomas More (who would soon become Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor).

A rare contemporary portrait of Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein is one of the highlights in this exhibition at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace

A rare contemporary portrait of Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein is one of the highlights in this exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

It was through More that Holbein met the elite of the Tudor court and, most importantly, the king. Up until his death in 1543, the artist depicted pretty much all the big players of the day, from Thomas Cromwell to Jane Seymour, as is made clear in this exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery in London.

This was a time of deadly intrigue, when the likes of More, Cromwell and many others lost their heads. One reason that Holbein kept his – despite what might have seemed split loyalties between different court members – was his greatness as a portraitist.

This show focuses on the preparatory drawings he did for his paintings, rather than the paintings themselves. However, it’s no lesser experience for that. Holbein brought a naturalism to British art that it had never had before.

In a rare contemporary portrait of Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated queen wears an informal gown and a linen cap, into which her hair is unglamorously tucked. Seen in profile, she has a double chin and is lost in thought – not exactly the power-hungry temptress of popular imagination. (The finished painting no longer exists.)

This is a fine show, allowing us to get up close and personal with famous figures from the most infamous reign in British history.

 Alastair Smart

The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London. Until April 14

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