• Lone star: TEXAS review

    Anyone booking online to see Texas on their current silver anniversary tour is invited to submit a question to be put to the band on the day. Mine asked how, given the remarkable change in their sound since 1988, they regard that early work when they look back on it. I was curious because I’ve remained a fan but was one of those saddened by the move away from the gritty urban guitar and voice combo that broke them. Although it wasn’t one of those read out by Sharleen Spiteri at the London Palladium last night, my question still got an answer: the entire event, billed as An Evening with Texas with Spiteri talking audiences through the group’s 15-year history, was firmly grounded in the music, the style and the edgy steel guitar sound that saw I Don’t Want a Lover explode onto the scene a quarter of a century ago.

    One of the first quips by Spiteri in what proved to be her very funny, supremely confident and occasionally moving hosting of the two-and-a-half-hour gig was to welcome the “older members of the audience,” although she immediately followed this by admitting that adjective could apply to her, too. It was the perfect start to what proved to be an superb evening, demonstrating that Spiteri is without doubt one of Britain’s foremost writers and performers, and not just when singing and playing.

    The first half saw Spiteri run through the band’s beginnings, after opening solo with the current single Start a Family. It took, she said, four attempts to make Southside, their debut album, after an initial try with her dream US producer, Chic's Bernard Edwards. As a result of those difficulties, she said, it was her 18-year-old self’s demo recording vocals that made it onto the single release of I Don’t Want a Lover. She was then joined by long-time band member Tony McGovern on a rockabilly, guitar-only version of that classic track, before bassist and Texas founder Johnny McElhone and the rest of the group completed the line-up for a rare outing of their very good but ill-advised (“it charted at 67”) follow-up Thrill has Gone and, of course, the massively successful third single (and the record company’s recommended second release), Everyday Now.

    For the rest of the night, Spiteri took us through highlights from almost every period of Texas’s history with the talents of McElhone, McGovern, drummer Ross McFarlane, veteran band member Eddie Campbell on one set of keyboards and newcomer Michael Bannister on another, plus two French brass players for the second half. There was of course plenty of banter with the audience and the band, covering weddings (not hers), kisses, jokes about Londoners being too staid and more (she opened my eyes to the connection between Serge Gainsbourg and Guitar Song, for example – it samples Je t'aime…) but it was the music that mattered, and the sheer variety of their back catalogue was once again made clear.

    After those early successes the band remained popular on the continent but not in Britain or the US, until the triple triumph of Summer Son, Black-Eyed Boy and Say What You Want did indeed changed their sound and thus their fortunes, catapulting – as Spiteri mentioned – the group to another level altogether. All three are outstanding pieces, and were hugely acclaimed. There was also time for quieter moments, though, including the terrific Sleep from the less-well-known Red Book album, here a duet with McGovern rather than Paul Buchanan, and Al Green’s Tired of Being Alone, which kept the home fires burning in that fallow period. Nicely, Spiteri’s debut solo album, the hugely underrated Melody, was not only not forgotten, it was fully embraced, with its genesis (in her break up with her partner) explained, its endorsement as a project by the rest of the band covered and a note-perfect rendering of the smashing, Sixties-inspired Stop. That selection was important, too, for its reminder of how completely Texas is founded in soul music, something that has influenced their music consistently from the very beginning and which occasionally surfaces even amongst the glossier, more mainstream pop that really made their name.

    And yet it must be admitted that one of the best aspects of the band’s work is their constant willingness to stretch their sound by collaborating with musicians and producers across a wide range of styles. Importantly they do this with new material, such as 1993’s Careful What You Wish For album which featured Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishul to great effect, and old. Indeed, many of their songs have received tweaks by New York-based Truth & Soul for the current album Texas 25, whilst previous modified versions have become – rightly – the new standards when done live. Thus Summer Son is always now performed with the extra pre-chorus bars that delay that fabulous life-affirming explosion of sound just enough to punch it into the heights of greatness, Say What You Want includes DJ Mark One’s scratching break (though more often simply an instrumental) before the final chorus whilst In Demand, originally (and still) one of the gentlest, warmest love songs of recent times, now comes with a fierce, fiery twist with an impassioned Spiteri stalking the stage.

    The band worked brilliantly together; the absence of fellow veteran Ally McErlaine and his distinctive slide guitar was felt a little too keenly in the early songs, though the backing vocals of McGovern and Bannister were hugely helpful in completing the sound. The intimacy of the venue – about two thirds the size of the Hammersmith Apollo, the last place I saw them, but feeling and sounding even smaller – allowed the focus to be on Spiteri’s incredible voice, which remains the foundation of the group. It really is outstanding, and without a note out of place or a high not reached, whether powering through the big hits with full instrumental and vocal support or alone playing piano or guitar, she has simply never sounded better live, having seen her half a dozen times now over the last ten years.

    A double encore began with Inner Smile, Texas’s Elvis tribute, the by-now ecstatic audience fully embracing its triumphant ‘Yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah, yeah’ chant. The final song, following the 2013 tour’s River Deep, Mountain High, was an even more appropriate cover given what came before – a truly storming performance of Suspicious Minds.

    This was a cracking evening. If you missed it try booking for their return to the capital in December, at the Roundhouse.

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  • 'Carmen Disruption'

    Simon Stephens’s new play-with-music, premiered last year in Germany and brought to the UK for the first time with last week’s opening at the Almeida, sets out to say something about our modern, inter/un-connected lives, using the four main characters of Bizet’s Carmen – five if you include an actress, tired by but obsessed with playing the title role – to do it. With Carmen, Don José, Escamillo and Michaëla recast as “a gorgeous prostitute, a tough-talking taxi driver, a global trader and a teenage dreamer” plus “a renowned singer”, we share the threads of their lives and see how they come together one evening in an un-named European city.

    Sharon Small is The Singer, endlessly trundling her two wheelie cases (“One for drugs and clothes, one for the things I really need”) from city to city to perform the role Bizet wrote in 1875. Dislocated from real life by airport- and hotel-induced soul delay, she has only that role to cling to, inhabiting it far more than she inhabits the endless rooms where she stays that she books online when she gets the call to the next staging. Small is fun in the early scenes, bustling and babbling about her foibles and habits, before gradually donning wig and corset and getting into character.

    Her character gets into her, of course, and into us, since Carmen (the character) is played by real-life opera star Viktoria Vizin. Singing Simon Slater’s compositions – part Bizet, part himself – in Gypsy costume, Vizin is energetic and acrobatic as she Greek-Choruses her way around, mirroring all the characters’ actions and supplementing their words with her own.

    Spunky, stroppy Michaëla, played by Katie West, is the student whose empty life involves Skype-sexing her 63-year-old lecturer and railing about life in general. Hers is the most obvious vehicle for Stephens’s principal concern, the actually by now quite dated idea that lives lived on screens seem more real than real these days. Some melancholic musings on her life and the lives of others – “I feel the world would be lighter – not better, or more exciting, but lighter – without me” and a reference to “walking over hundreds and hundreds of graves” of previous citizens – are affecting, but far more of her lines are ballsy and they get the laughs to prove it so it’s as difficult to connect to her emotionally as it is to Small’s mostly ditzy diva.

    Grounded Noma Dumezweni as the taxi driver seeks a re-connection to her daughter and, especially, her son. Hers is by far the most relatable character and she gives the most realistic performance, though as a result is also perhaps the actor least well served by the production.

    The arrogant über-yuppie Escamillo, on the other hand, as essayed by the brilliant John Light and first encountered sprawled in a chair punching out his prescription of the three things you must do on arrival in any city (‘Streetview’ your hotel so you know where you are, stock up on your favourite snack so you won’t starve and hit the gym/sauna/pool so you look good) is wonderfully OTT. Prancing and stalking across the stage in preparation for his big deal, Escamillo gets some of the best lines. Other traders are “Smoking cigars of certainty”; “He enjoys my shirt,” he says, of the rich Mr Mystery who bankrolls him; and he feels sad when returning to this, his hometown, because “There are people who still live here.”

    But terrific though Light is, even he is overshadowed by a stunning performance from Jack Farthing as the vain, preening, cool young gay prostitute Carl (’Carmen’). His opening line – “I got up, looked in the mirror – I looked fucking good’ – sets the tone, and he brings the house down with almost every subsequent reading, obsessing about his hair, his shirt and his big organ (“Sometimes I think the only fair thing to do is to warn people”). With some neat observations on the smell of new clothing, the usefulness of porn films in assessing a country’s animus and much more, he could have his own series. Again, though, the darkness of his character’s journey – here a nasty experience with a client – seems awkwardly, even jarringly at odds with what has gone before.

    Each goes about their business, then, through a city that, whilst not quite looming into view in the “opulent grandeur” described in the publicity, can indeed be pictured in the mind’s eye surprisingly well thanks to some nicely geographic descriptions. It’s business which eventually brings them together, but in truth the actual level of linkage between all five even at that point is minimal, beyond a fatal traffic accident that sees a young biker dead in the road.

    And that is the principal weakness of the piece, save from the lack of any genuine parallel with the original opera – if there was one apart from the names and the occasional snatch of aria, it eluded me. Because while their performances are all good – outstanding in the cases of Messrs Light and Farthing – each essentially takes place in a vacuum. All address the audience, direct their lines off-stage or on occasion look toward another actor but seldom interact other than some stylised movement. Indeed there isn’t a single conversation between them in the entire piece and although all of them do meet, it’s only in the sense that you might ‘meet’ a taxi driver, or ‘meet’ a pretty girl (or boy) the next time you get the Tube.

    That, I suspect, is the point, of course, but a more profound execution is needed to drive that particular point home and achieve the kind of “deeply emotional” meaning the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Gould professes he sees in the play in his programme introduction. Interestingly the work that comes to mind most strongly in terms of what Stephens might have been aiming for but also what he misses is Lawrence Kasdan’s underrated film Grand Canyon, which explored very similar themes (albeit in a pre-digital age) but did so far more powerfully.

    Stephens was inspired to write the play by conversations about and with another real-life Carmen performer, Israeli star Rinat Shaham, and many of her thoughts appear in Small’s dialogue almost verbatim judging by interviews Stephens has given. But this feels like another story altogether, unsuccessfully pushed together with the disconnect idea, and Small’s light-hearted interpretation for much of the play undermines any attempt to take the role into the rather darker aspects of Shaham’s concerns too.

    Make no mistake, this is effective theatre beyond the playing: Lizzie Clachan’s design harks back to Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III with its use of the Almeida’s bare brick apse, set-less stage and superb, dynamic lighting (by Jack Knowles), the on-stage cello duo of Jamie Cameron and Harry Napier is a pleasure to hear when they are not straining against a slightly too loud recorded soundtrack, and the use of a simple Tube-style digital display to show everything from incoming text alerts and airport arrivals to song lyrics is a nice touch.

    But overall, this feels like a new play that seeks to say something equally new about fractured relationships and disconnection on the streets, but which ultimately – and ironically – becomes a little lost in its own sense of self.

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  • 'Game'

    “You can’t switch it off, it’s real!”

    - Emma

    Another week, another new play exploring our apparent addiction to small-screen nastiness, and like The Nether, Mike Bartlett’s Game – in its final week at the Almeida – also asks questions about the nature of a simulated reality and our responsibilities within such a construct. The object of Jennifer Haley’s play was the internet, a virtual escape of relatively recent coinage; for Bartlett it’s that old saw, television. And in that contrast lies the problem.

    To be fair, it is the later sub-genre of observed reality television that is Bartlett’s target, and I use that word advisedly since – as the poster and programme cover make clear – gun sights are a crucial tool in the story. Ashley and Carla are a young Liverpudlian husband and wife struggling to get a place of their own, a job and start a family. They accept an offer that seems perfect, in one respect – they can stay in a posh new flat rent-free, and live their lives as they choose. The catch, which they are aware of, is that paying customers are stalking them with rifles for a screen-based entertainment show…

    To say more, even at this stage, would spoil things for those still going. Suffice it to say a running time of just an hour suggests things might end badly for at least one person. They do start very well, though, with a brilliantly absorbing opening that showcases Miriam Buether’s innovative design and Sacha Wares’s direction, whereby the audience is split into groups and seated in one of four large ‘hides’ with remote-controlled blinds that each give a different view of the two-level, in-the-round (technically, ‘in the square’) apartment set. We’re observing the couple ‘live’, you see, our view mediated only by fine mesh-like screens.

    Screens of another kind are mounted above the viewing windows, showing both close-ups and alternate angles of the action but also the rest of the cast, for periodically actors enter each of the hides in character as the ‘hunters’ and the ‘warden’. Their dialogue, and that spoken on stage, is captured by radio mics and fed to the audience via headsets. Since the entire play is essentially vision-mixed live like the great TV dramas of the 1970s, we are also its directors and well as its audience.

    And that is the point, of course, albeit one made rather simplistically, as we watch a succession of clichéd customers – the laddish stag do, the ladetteish teenage girlfriends, an engaged Sloane couple and their best man – occupy one of the hides and take their shots, the patient warden David the only constant apart from the couple. Seven years pass, rather unrealistically (given the frenetic pace if nothing else), and a son appears. There is a momentary frisson when it becomes clear he, too, is – in every sense – ‘game’, but any sympathy soon evaporates as things simply rattle along with no room for anyone to breathe.

    Whether the Game occurs on television or a videogame console is carefully never spelled out, but if a channel zapping/progress level metaphor is intended, it doesn’t really work. When the start of the final scene appears to suggest one way out that would give the previous sixty minutes real bite but eventually merely confirms that we are also asked to empathize with quiet ex-soldier David and his difficulties adjusting to civvie street, it becomes obvious there is simply too much going on, too fast.

    That is certainly Bartlett’s strength when it comes to the wholly contemporary dialogue, though, which is delivered to a rhythm as rapid and realistic as the sublime Shakespearean blank verse for his brilliant King Charles III was slow and stately. Both ring true, and both have plenty of knowing, blackly comic lines. There are jokes about loyalty cards and Orange Wednesdays-style deals. Explaining the increasingly desperate attempts by the owner, John (the excellent, wearily cynical Daniel Cerqueira) to keep hold of his customers and keep up with the competition, David mentions that “There’s a whole village somewhere, with a gun on a jeep”, whilst the bitter sniping (pun intended) of middle-aged, middle-class couple hunters Florence and Paul drew plenty of laughs.

    Wares also knows her stuff. As well as that opening, where the intermeshing lines of the on-stage and in-hide scenes (one seen and heard by all, remember, the other heard by three fourths of the audience ‘in their heads’) slip beautifully into the spaces left by each other like a smoothly oiled set of gears, there are some great multi-angle shots where the cast is seen looking into remote cameras, looking at the stage, looking at us.

    The trouble is that all this feels tired and unoriginal, and it lacks bite.

    The great Nigel Kneale already covered – indeed, predicted – this kind of thing no fewer than 47 years ago with The Live Life Show in his The Year of the Sex Olympics, whilst Doctor Who (yes) managed an effective satire on voyeuristic entertainment with Philip Martin’s Vengeance on Varos way back in 1985. Even novelists have done it better – see Stephen King’s The Long Walk (1979). The ‘real’ programme mostly obviously at the centre of Game's worldview – Big Brother – is itself almost 20 years old, and surely beyond satire.

    There might be something fresh to say about the such shows, such as whether an immersive audience is in actuality a captive one, but Charlie Brooker’s deeply disturbing Black Mirror episode White Bear said it far better than Game. Bartlett’s work thus feels like an after-dinner conversation brought hurriedly to life with some smart visual moves but not nearly enough time spent on building characters and the running time to allow that. That the programme contains a scrapbook-style layout of stories that apparently inspired him – a MailOnline piece about two-way mirrors installed in a nightclub loo, figures on armed forces suicide rates, even a Journal of American Medicine report on the link between extended videogaming and erectile dysfunction – bears this out. The cast do their best, but it’s a struggle, and with a nice touch of what I suspect is unintentional irony, they don’t even get a curtain call yet do have to do two performances a night.

    ‘Game over’ says the final on-screen graphic, predictably; ‘Reset’ might have been more appropriate.

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  • 'The Nether'

    “It’s okay to forget who you think you are, and find out what you would like to be”

    - Iris

    Would you like to live “a life outside of consequence”? What might that mean for you, me and everyone around us? And what if, to do so, you had to abandon reality and move into a virtual world forever? Would it provide the ultimate playground for the ultimate fantasy, a safeguard for the ultimate in transgressions? Or leave a barren world in which morality is meaningless? These are just some of the questions asked by Jennifer Haley in her startling play The Nether, achieving a deserved West End transfer from the Royal Court and a major upscaling in the process.

    Morris, a young female detective for the Nether, is questioning Sims, a middle aged businessman and self-confessed paedophile, over the activities of users in the Hideaway, a private “realm” or online space he has set up in this vastly advanced version of the Internet. Morris has an agent inside the Hideaway who reports a Victorian dream world in which appalling things take place – sex with children, the murder of children – repeatedly, all of it hidden under Sims’ unbreakable encryption. But none of what is now under discussion is happening “in-world”; the denizens of the Hideaway are after all avatars, controlled by users, and all of the ‘children’ are actually adults engaging in “consensual role-play” – Sims can prove it, and Morris believes him. So if none of it is real, why does it matter?

    It matters for Sims because he believes that he is keeping his desires under control and protecting real children by confining his activities to the Hideaway. It matters to Morris because she is terrified that Sims (the name an obvious but clever pun) has finally found the secret of making the Nether irresistible. She fears “mass migration into the Nether” – people deciding to become “Shades”, who “cross over”, switching reality off and existing purely online. She fears they will do this because of what Sims can do for them: “Your code is the closest we’ve ever come to sensation”, she says. And if all the senses – sight, touch, sound, taste, hearing – can be satisfied with a perfect representation of ‘real’, who is to say what is virtual and what is not?

    Thus Morris wants the location of Sims’ server; Sims want to know how she even found him, and whether any of this is legal. “We’re making our own laws,” Morris replies, firmly.

    As the story unfolds we jump between the interviews, where Morris repeatedly tries to break Sims whilst also cajoling Doyle, a weaker user, using the increasingly emotive sworn statements of her insider, and the Nether, where ‘Iris’, Sims’ favourite young girl, meets ‘Woodnut’, a novice entering the realm for the first time. Relationships form, and questions of identity and motivation abound. Who is Morris’s insider? What is she really afraid of? Who is Iris? Was there ever a REAL Iris, and what happened to her?

    Man’s desires are the heart of the story, which is about transgression and boundaries, about layers of reality. Nothing reflects this better than the staggering set and production design by Es Devlin, building on her astonishing work in the Almeida’s Chimerica.

    The action is set within a three-storey white frame – window/picture/television? – inserted into the stage. It is filled during the interrogations with a simple screen that displays a shifting, fretful mosaic of black and white surveillance imagery, drawn from the confrontation that takes place on the very front edge of the stage. Two chairs with a touchscreen table between them and plain, grey walls complete this bland but threatening environment.

    Transitions to the Nether are brilliantly achieved via a sudden darkening of the stage and a flurry of digitally-projected sequences that are effectively fast-forward histories of the development of computer graphics. Monochrome wire-frame animations rapidly ‘draw’ the world we are about to enter, drawings that are quickly rendered with billions of coloured pixels. These coalesce into photo-realistic images that shift from long shot to medium shot until, finally, the screen lifts in part or in full to reveal the Hideaway itself and the house that Sims has built there.

    More real than real, its rooms are formed from a bright, shimmering, infinite cube of mirrors and screens and real and projected trees. In the drawing room, wall lights and fireplace seeming to hang in mid-air. In the bedroom, a side table and a rocking horse are faintly disturbing. The house in which the rooms stand is itself replicated, fractal-like, as a doll’s house (more manipulation and puppetry) and a picture on the wall. It’s a room that isn’t a room, a space/place of boundless imagination achieved through the ultimate iteration of the theatrical illusion that is Pepper’s Ghost.

    That allure of the senses that Morris feared is subtly alluded to throughout the production, from the faint but persistent ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece to the repeated references to the touch and smell of Iris, to the taste of cognac that does indeed convince Woodnut of the verisimilitude of the Nether.

    Reviewing Blackhat, I listed some of the many filmic interpretations of alternative worlds that have parallels with the Nether. Two more that now come to mind as especially relevant are The Veldt, the most effective portion of the 1969 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s portmanteau novel The Illustrated Man and the infamous, extended ‘World War I’ sequences in Robert Holmes’s classic Doctor Who story The Deadly Assassin (1976).

    In literature two very specific situations from William Gibson’s Sprawl novels may also have been influential for Haley, who has worked as a web developer – the malignant billionaire recluse Josef Virek, whose body is on permanent life support in a Swiss industrial suburb whilst his mind and personality ‘enjoy any number of means of manifestation’ including the ability to appear and welcome others to a recreation of Gaudi’s Parc Guell, and his moral opposite Bobby, who has retreated into a world quite literally of his own inside a solid block of ‘biosoft’.

    But there is plenty more to ponder in The Nether. An early line from an exasperated Sims, challenging Morris’s attempts to identify him and other users (“Are you pissed you can’t target me for advertising?”), alludes to one matter of the moment. The suggestion of the Nether governing itself is as powerful and relevant as the more obvious central themes, as we query oversight of the web. From a purely genre point of view, Morris – “with an investigative unit of the Nether” – is perhaps the precursor to Gibson’s Turing Registry, formed to police AIs.

    The performances are all good, with 12-year-old Isabella Pappas as Iris and Anna Martine (understudying for Amanda Hale last night) as Morris especially impressive – Pappas handles a very challenging role with great conviction and maturity, whilst Martine’s breakdown, revealing Morris’s true motives, is remarkably affecting when it arrives. The direction, by Jeremy Herrin, exploits to the full the thriller quality inherent in Haley’s script as the hunt for the agent intensifies and revelations tumble out, particularly with the bargain that Morris strikes with Doyle toward the climax when they both log in to the Nether. Herrin also embraces the increasingly cinematic possibilities of multi-media theatrical staging – not always obviously, there are layers of time, with the questioning of Sims taking place in the present, that of Doyle a few hours before, and the activities in Nether recounted in flashback.

    My only criticism is that the very final scene seems unnecessary, and weakens Morris’s powerful last line, which would have ended the production on a blank screen that is also a blank page, for us to write our own history of where the Internet is going.

    But this is great, thought-provoking work, and it deserves to be seen.

    'The Nether', a Headlong/Royal Court Theatre production, continues until 25 April 2015 at the Duke of York’s theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2

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  • West End.

    The tug of nostalgia can be very strong. It’s personal, you see, as Don Draper knows. The latest twists in the related sagas of Centre Point, the Paolozzi mosaics for Tottenham Court Road tube station beneath it and Denmark Street next door as the bulldozer that is Crossrail continues to cut a swathe through one very small but meaningful corner of central London for me have started to disrupt and disperse a part of my memory that goes back 35 years. I was about ten when I first emerged into the light below the towering sliver that is Centre Point, on what was to become the start of decades of pilgrimage to Forbidden Planet at 23 Denmark Street. My best friend was with me, and dad chaperoned us.

    Over the years to come I walked the roads around that area so much that they and their buildings are as ingrained in my mind as the streets between my home and my school were. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the changes that are now underway tug a little. True, it was never a pretty area – the problem is, it’s becoming pretty vacant.

    At Centre Point Paramount, the excellent restaurant that inhabited the top floors, was forced to close last month after losing a battle against owner Almacantar’s desire to convert the space into penthouse flats, ensuring the 360 degree walk-around view once available to all for the price of a drink will now require north of £50m – yes, £50m – to acquire. Plans to infill below the glass bridge link over the road are fortunately still on hold, but the pub built as part of the original tower development will go, replaced by affordable housing.

    Underground, the sorry saga of TfL’s machinations and manipulations over the mosaics has reached absurd levels, with disingenuous statements over the actual state of the art (sorry), their intentions and what was and is possible as far as preservation and restoration is concerned.

    This is what TfL told me back in 2011, when I first started to be concerned:

    “I can assure you that we highly value the Paolozzi mosaics and […] we have been working closely with the Paolozzi Foundation as the Tottenham Court Road upgrade progresses. I can assure you that we are taking great care to protect and preserve these mosaics as we upgrade Tottenham Court Road station [which] will mean that some sections of existing mosaic tiles will have to be carefully removed whilst the tunnelling work is taking place. The tiles will then be restored and maintained in their current location, using an artist appointed in liaison with the Paolozzi Foundation. Where it is impossible to keep a section of mosaic in its current position, we will be liaising with the Paolozzi Foundation to determine whether it is possible to re-locate it elsewhere in the station or provide an alternative home for the work.”

    In fact TfL have never cared for Paolozzi’s energetic mosaics, intended to reflect the vibrancy of the Tin Pan Alley and electrical retail environment above ground. Well before Crossrail prompted the latest round of attritional intervention – including deliberately fixing a poster frame through one patch of mosaic despite there being a large patch of unpainted breeze block a foot away – workers were channelling cables, removing sections of mosaic and screwing things to it. They’ve never been cleaned.

    Today, four years after that letter to me, we finally find out that sections of the mosaic in the ticket hall have in fact been removed without anyone being told and are currently…. Well, no-one knows. Or they do, but aren’t telling. Careful removal was deemed impossible, despite one of the team responsible for making the mosaics in the first place offering to help and despite the preservation of acres of mosaic from ancient Rome being on display at museums around the world. Mosaics have thus been removed from vertical and horizontal surfaces successfully, and any extra time and costs would be lost within the 10 year, £15bn Crossrail programme. As for the what remains, well, who knows – the Central Line area of the station is out of bounds for the entire year (yes) to allow the work to grind on.

    Then we have Denmark Street. Its projected fate is hard to glean from the owner Consolidated Developments’ website given a complete lack of any imagery although the description sounds – grimly, if ironically – like it has escaped from the 1960s world of Centre Point and the infamous Piccadilly Circus scheme, with references to “gigantic advertising screens” and “a sky bar”. Online searches, though, show some rather shiny, rather empty glazed boxes hogging the top of Charing Cross Road which, in

    combination with the gentrifying of Centre Point, Renzo Piano’s hideous Fisher Price St Giles scheme in its lurid colours and the blandification of those chunks of the west end of Oxford Street that are also falling victim to Crossrail – including the new street entrance to the tube station – represent another loss of grain and grit in an area that actually benefits from it. And, don’t forget, an entire Georgian terrace was demolished at the foot of Centre point a few years ago merely as preparation. In a just a few years, this bustly and fun crossroads will be just another slice of dullness.

    Fings definitely ain’t what they used t’ be.

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  • Munich: Mass and moment

    Two January days in a chilly (indeed, snowy) Munich wasn’t enough to get a real feel of this richly historic city, but I did experience two very different but equally impressive examples of post-war architecture, both of which show a very specific response to their predecessors and the agonies of the 1939-45 conflict.

    Just off the busy Lenbachplatz, between the old botanic gardens and the Frauenkirche, is the mixed-use Justizgebaude complex, erected in 1954-57 to designs by Sep Ruf and Theo Pabst on the site of a historic 16th century ducal palace badly damaged in the war. A controversial scheme at the time due to its contemporary design, increased scale and re-use of the palace’s distinctive tower, today the result is widely and rightfully regarded as a model example of post-war urban architecture, a pretty precinct with – crucially – light and softness at its heart.

    A long, 9-storey block paralleling Pacellistrasse to the north protects from road noise a large, quiet grassed area at the centre of the development; a much lower, F-shaped building performs the same function on the other side of the lawn to the south. Both are stone-clad in shades of grey and white in

    memory of the palace. Fully glazed ground floors house retail units, most with doors to the street and courtyard and occupied by independents. Passageways allow short cuts at street level, whilst multi-level bridge links, also fully glazed, join the blocks above – one leads to the preserved tower, which now acts as a viewing point for each floor of the Pacellistrasse block. Underground car parking and apartment entrances are discreet, and the detailing is just as delicate throughout, including purpose-designed retractable awnings for the shops, champagne-coloured anodised window surrounds, typically period wavy steel balustrading for stairs and four major works of mosaic and sculptural decoration.

    Centrepiece of the scheme and facing west is a third, 7-storey block housing functions of the Justice Ministry, and it’s here that the architects showed how modernity, transparency and confidence can serve a place re-establishing itself after a catastrophic conflict. Set back behind a generous entrance lobby (marked by a deep, cantilevered canopy) is a remarkable rectangular atrium, capped with a plate glass

    roof. Mezzanine floors on all levels overlook this airy space, whilst at the east end of the plan is a wonderful elliptical stair, each flight – one per floor – of which twists sinuously through 180 degrees. Delightfully, it reads as an additional sculpture from the outside, as caught in the terrific night photograph shown below.

    A small exhibition pavilion completes the arrangement to the west, whilst the separate Archbishop's Ordinariate building further east in a similar but less open style is a nicely-judged complement. Hard landscaping connects all the blocks and makes a pleasant, car-free meander possible.

    It’s a lovely survivor of its time, virtually untouched, and is a reminder of the kind of gently positive scheme built across Europe in those tentative years before the often crushing boom of the 1960s and 70s but which is now largely gone, itself subject to the next round of relentless redevelopment.

    A few hundred metres north of the Justizgebaude stands the museum quarter, home of a range of antiquities and archaeological treasures and Munich’s three great galleries covering Old Masters, 18th to early 20th century paintings and contemporary art. The second of these, the Neue Pinakothek, was originally built in 1880 as a giant Classical brick box but was also effectively destroyed in the war. Its replacement was a very long time coming, not opening until 1981.

    Designed by Alexander von Branca, whose great, powerful Modernist churches are scattered throughout Germany and who also built the schloss-like German Embassy to the Holy See in Rome and the Modernist Regensburg University, the new gallery echoes those buildings in its volumes and tough but sophisticated use of a restricted material palette. It also forms a miniature city on its large island site thanks to intelligent use of topography both inside and out.

    The exterior is impressively austere, relieved only with occasional windows – articulated here as an oriel, there as a recess – and narrow, historicizing escape stairs covered by lead pents. Inside, a roomy double height lobby acts as orientation between visitor facilities on the ground and lower floors and the gallery spaces upstairs. Sheer walls of beige sandstone, detailed with thin projecting courses of roughly-tooled granite acting almost as dado and picture rails delineate the building’s layout.

    The gallery’s public circuit forms a rough figure of eight. Enjoyably, successive rooms are on the whole at a slightly higher level than the last so the visitor rises up gently as he progresses. A square spiral ramp takes its own parallel course for those less able to walk, in a separate but linked circulation path that, crucially, is no mere sop to disabled access – important sculptural works are carefully placed against the walls, favouring those using this route and requiring the rest to take a short detour each time to see them. That this is, though, a surprisingly pleasant experience, with pieces temptingly glimpsed at the end of framed vistas, confirms the effectiveness of the decision. Pocket courtyard gardens are found at the centre of each half of the figure eight, intriguing though firmly off limits in the winter.

    Most of the sequence is top-lit in an acclaimed fashion, though more robust items are placed in those oriel windows or at the end of blind turnings, allowing the interiosity of the museum to be broken for a moment with a brief weather check or contemplation of pedestrians below.

    A restaurant on the lower ground floor opens onto an outside terrace next to a hard-landscaped artificial lake – sadly, if understandably, dewatered out of season but shown here in its prime – that, along with various pathways, meanders through the museum’s grounds to the east.

    This twin taste of reconstruction architecture complemented my visits to Berlin and Dresden and left me keen to see more of Munich and Germany, not least more of von Branca’s religious commissions. But for now, they exemplified an approach to architecture that says something about its time and place in a highly intelligent and vivid way. We need more of this.

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  • A cuckoo in the nest: The Royal College of Physicians

    “Physican, heal thyself” may have been a suitable architectural admonition to the 500 year-old institution that was the Royal College of Physicians when, in the late 1950s, it sought to build a new home amongst the Nash terraces of Regent’s Park. The Crown Estate had agreed on the proviso that the College respect the existing buildings, though it is unclear to what extent the landlord was aware that the College had already decided on something radical. With new ideas on healthcare emerging and a new, post-war Britain in which to apply them, the move from a classic – not to say Classical – Victorian headquarters was to be accompanied by an equally up-to-date building by a contemporary designer; Denys Lasdun. The story of how that was achieved is told in The Anatomy of a Building, an exhibition at the College marking Lasdun’s centenary and 50 years since the new premises were opened.

    The exhibition cleverly interweaves letters, models, images and drawings covering the commissioning, execution and interpretation of the resulting building with the spaces themselves, through display panels situated on four levels of the building from basement to second floor. The visitor also has the chance to use a booklet and decent multimedia guide handset. Finally two good and very reasonably priced books, by Lasdun scholar Barnabus Calder and critic Rowan Moore, are available at reception.

    Several variations on the overall design were tried initially, as Lasdun sought to understand the College’s requirements for private and public spaces and the site itself. The former included a large lecture theatre, a library, a function room and the crucial censors’ room, where aspiring members are assessed. The latter once housed a Nash villa that had been badly damaged by bombing and was therefore deemed expendable, and gave directly onto the Park via the road called Outer Circle passing in front. Albany Street ran behind.

    Curiously Lasdun appeared in many respects to have ignored both prospects, placing the ‘back office’ areas of the College in a long slab of blue (that is, black) engineering brick inserted into the run of surviving terraces along Albany Street and penetrated only by the service entrance, and denying users of the white mosaic-clad ceremonial volumes found behind this and fronting the Park many views of it, apparently to avoid distracting them from College business. He did, however, conjure one of the capital’s best post-war buildings from these choices, once which dazzled me on my first visit some years ago and which a crisply sunny January morning reinforced.

    Low winter sun is especially conducive to appreciating one of Lasdun’s primary concerns at the College – making a building which drew the outside in. He did this by having a triple-height circulation space at the heart of the building, cladding it with very large glass panes and introducing a series of cuts, slices and interpenetrating solids that disrupt those p(l)anes.

    The white-clad box that is the censors’ room is thus seemingly pushed right through the side of the main hall, to rest partly inside and partly outside. Narrow but deep windows, filled with stained glass, flank the short stair to and from reception. The folds of the College’s small but landscaped garden appear constantly, as lawns or as golden leaves clinging to almost bare tree branches. Part of the mezzanine continues outside the glass as a balcony. In a single beam light rakes a wall of mosaic inside and out, making it read as riven stone and so something that connects present and past and Lasdun’s work to Nash’s.

    Indeed the use of materials generally also marks out the College as something special. A restricted palette is employed (marble, mosaic, concrete, brass, wood, brick), but each is treated with respect and even reverence, and deployed carefully and with skill.

    At the heart of the main hall is the beautiful main stair, a square spiral set which winds outward as it climbs and which the set-back of the upper floor’s mezzanine respects. The principal spaces opening off this gallery are rather conservative, but are still subject to Lasdun’s subtle Modernist twists. The library is lit only by narrow slit windows at the corners on its lower level; the function hall can be united with or separated from its ante-chamber by a hydraulically-operated dividing wall; the lecture theatre, enveloped in black brick outside, is reached by an elegant spiral stair in white marble and mosaic inside.

    From the park, the floating whiteness of the College seems remarkably unobtrusive. Certainly the eager squirrels and the strutting crows don’t seem perturbed. The College is one of a very select group of buildings in London – Lloyd’s of London, certainly, Rothschild’s New Court arguably – where a venerable organisation has engaged a modern architect to house it and its history, and where something magical has been born as a result. Do go and see it.

    The exhibition continues at the College, which is 5 minutes’ walk from Great Portland Street tube, until 13 February.

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  • The future face of London

    A clutch of recent announcements signalling new ‘quarters’ for London could see every corner of the capital genuinely and often utterly transformed over a generation. North, south, east and west are affected, as well of course as the centre, and if the schemes do indeed go well beyond the trivial rebranding that afflicts the city from time to time – ‘Northbank’, anyone? – it’s arguable that nothing like it will have been seen since the post-war period.

    In the east, the steady and actually quite remarkable repurposing of the London 2012 Olympic Park is to continue with a major new cultural and educational quarter housing a space for the Victoria & Albert Museum combining collections, research and curation, a new outpost for Sadler’s Wells, and extensions to the campuses for the University of the Arts London and UCL. In a conscious echo of the V&A’s genesis, the new quarter is being labelled ‘Olympicopolis’. It’s an intriguing idea, with some obvious potential synergies building on the tentative hold both types of institution have on the area already, such as the Laban dance centre and the University of East London’s existing campus running along the dockside further south.

    Not far away from there is the equally ambitious Silvertown Quays, a repurposing of 60 acres of the Royal Victoria Dock centred on its L-shaped pontoon dock immediately across the water from the ExCel centre. The Quay is being masterminded by veteran property developer Stuart Lipton, creator of Broadgate and Stockley Park, although the concept itself actually began life 15 years ago with another firm. Lipton envisages the area as attracting technology and engineering companies such as BMW and Microsoft; planning documents point out the area’s “superb urban and global connectivity, through rail, air and international display and exhibition spaces” and say the new scheme continues the area’s “incredible history as a place engaged with the world for trade and exchange.” Amongst the new buildings, welcome news is that the great concrete cliff that is Millennium Mills, built in 1933 but remodelled 20 years later and the last major derelict structure from the area’s Dockland past, will be retained and remodelled. At the O2 centre, meanwhile, Hong Kong-based Knight Dragon plans yet more homes plus – intriguingly – a new film studio complex. This type of facility is now a rarity in central London, given the need for large-scale operations, so this may be worth watching (as it were).

    In the west, Wood Lane is busy. The BBC’s television centre conversion promises much; on the Corporation’s former Woodlands site, Imperial College is developing Imperial West at White City. This “will provide multidisciplinary research space […], together with state-of-the-art space for translating research ideas into direct applications and spin-out companies. Plans for the site include a publicly accessible square, accommodation, leisure and retail facilities, a conference centre, and homes.” the giant Westfield shopping mall is expanding via more retail space, offices, new streets, public spaces, and a residential component. John Lewis will be the anchor tenant of the shopping centre extension, matching its presence at Westfield’s Stratford centre at the other end of the Central Line. Nearby, both Earls Court exhibition centres are to be demolished in favour of 7,500 residential flats distributed amongst four ‘urban villages’, retail, offices, hotels and possibly a new convention centre as part of Capital & Counties’ plan. Terry Farrell, masterplannner for the scheme, also envisages a ‘21st century high street’ linking these elements together and garden squares sitting between them. Inevitably, there will be more tall blocks; the promise – contained in the planning summary – that “no new building will be higher than the Empress State Building” (which will be converted to residential use) is hardly reassuring for those concerned over this continuing trend. Whether the design of the overall scheme really does show “a timeless beauty that delights and inspires,” as the document also states, may therefore be the least worrying aspect of the completed scheme.

    Farrell is also involved in arguments over the future of the vast Old Oak Common railway lands, also in the neighbourhood. He has been engaged by Queen’s Park Rangers football club chairman Tony Fernandez to plan a scheme for a staggering 25,000 homes and a new stadium, whilst rival

    businessman Geoff Warren is working on his own plans for 10,000 homes. A station for Crossrail and one for the HS2 high speed line are planned, and many an armchair expert has devised ways of interchanging with other rail routes on the site, one of the last of its size and type in central London. Interestingly, a letter in the Standard this week suggested a new exhibition centre there too, a “balance” to ExCel. Rows aside, the precedent of the Olympics show what could be achieved.

    In the north, the existing concentration of university and medical uses embedded around Bloomsbury and Euston is expanding rapidly. The Francis Crick Institute is a biomedical research centre set up by almost all the major players in the area to tackle cancer, heart disease and stroke, neurodegenerative conditions and infectious diseases. It is opening next year in its new red brick, steel and glass block by HOK and PLP Architecture sat across the land at the back of the British Library. It will be joined by the Alan Turing Institute for Data Science at the Library, promoted by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, giving rise to a new nickname for the area – the Knowledge Quarter. Google’s proposed UK headquarters in Kings Cross is on hold but Central Saint Martin’s recent opening at the old granary building is spurring ongoing development around the area, which provides years of growth potential.

    In the centre, sites and opportunities are of course more modest compared to the foregoing, but within the context of London’s heart are no less radical. At the cheaper end of Oxford Street, Frogmore and Land Securities’ Oriana redevelops a number of adjacent properties, in part behind retained facades, as flats plus more retail – Primark already occupy the initial phase, which in turn re-uses the former white faience-clad Lyons Corner House, latterly the Virgin Megastore and previously a cinema.

    Centre Point’s conversion into flats has begun. Along the way, Great Portland Estates’ Rathbone Place scheme is under way, replacing the Royal Mail’s vast sorting depot with a new residential square. Cleverly described in the elegant brochure as being ‘innermost London’, a rather charming conversation with its designer Ken Shuttleworth – a surprising choice – includes an insight into the planning idea: “We also introduced the idea of having arches to go through to enter the space to create wonder. An Alice in Wonderland effect, where one goes through a tunnel and pops up to discover

    somewhere new. Fitzrovia is all about small-scale streets and lots of character. I think the idea of having a ‘found’ space, where you can’t see all the way through, but instead you go in and discover your way round, is much more exciting. The idea came out of a chess move, not architecture. Forward and sideways, discovering your way round corners like a curious knight.” Over at Victoria, the twin redevelopments of New Scotland Yard (which will be demolished and replaced with two blocks) and TfL’s 55 Broadway (which will not) will move the area further away from its post-war governmental office hegemony.

    In the south, from Nine Elms to bankside development is almost in overdrive. The former clearly has the potential to make the biggest change to the capital with the new US embassy anchoring multiple schemes looking to exploit former industrial and backland areas.

    Crossrail, of course, is the thread that ties these plans together, though it remains to be seen whether a sub-fifteen minute journey time from the West End to the East End will be enough to close the vast psychological, sociological and financial gaps that exist between those two parts of the city today.

    Happy New Year?

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  • Out There, Part Four: Revisiting '2001: A Space Odyssey' with its cast

    As Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent, majestic 2001: A Space Odyssey receives a national re-release, its two leads – Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (Frank Poole) – appeared on stage at the BFI last night for a uniquely absorbing and thought-provoking discussion of their part in the making of the 1968 epic. They were joined by two men exceptionally well qualified to comment on the film’s impact then and now – veteran cultural historian Christopher Frayling and star physicist Brian Cox.

    Broadcaster and writer Matthew Sweet, chairing, introduced the actors as the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of the film, and as the evening went on that seemed an apt as well as amusing description of this mission commander and his deputy compared to those Moon men. New York-raised Dullea – looking dapper and efficient – was articulate, precise and calm. Californian former rodeo rider Lockwood, jacket thrown on over a T-shirt, was prone to tangential interruption and seemed more heartfelt in his opinions.

    Both had a clear recall of their time with Kubrick and co-creator Arthur C. Clarke, and both were clear as to the support give to them by the director. Dullea explained how both Bowman and Poole had prepared “backstories”, surely an early example of this now-common tool for actors. “We were both double doctorates,” he explained, “non-military, and with psychological profiles meaning what might disturb others wouldn’t bother us as much.” It was a useful reminder of the sheer depth of effort toward accuracy seen in the film; none of the Apollo astronauts were chosen for their fiery tempers. And, as Dullea added, “by the time [the audience] meets them, we’ve done everything and are into the mundane [part of the mission].” Lockwood, meanwhile, remembered Kubrick calling an immediate halt to filming after the actor demurred over a particular moment in the script, sending him away from the Hertfordshire studio via his personal chauffeur-driven car and the A5 to Golders Green to muse on the scene over bagels and cream cheese.

    Both men were clearly stimulated by the film’s many messages, and were keen to stress its positives. Dullea explained how he brought warmth to what could have been the most coolly technical scene of the film – Bowman’s painstaking ‘execution’ of HAL – by playing it in his mind as the poignant climax from Of Mice and Men. Lockwood stressed his own efforts at engaging the youth of the day as those most likely to respond to the material, telling how he cannily manipulated the make-up of the press corps assembled for the premiere so that the underground and alternative scene got first bite of the cherry.

    Frayling accurately described the film’s ground-breaking mix of concept, imagery and music as “a visual concert” that “dared to be slow.” Its painstakingly researched design grew organically out of real-world achievements, he said, whilst Dullea, for his part, noted the degree to which many of Kubrick and Clarke’s technical predictions came true – “BBC [channel expansion], iPads…Floyd talking to his daughter by video – that’s Skype.” Cox agreed, confirming its plausibility even today and its expression of the possible within man: “You’re invited to look at the ingenuity of the human mind across the screen.” Indeed Frayling noted how, in deciding ultimately to obscure the function of the spaceships featured in the famous ‘evolutionary jump cut’ (they were intended originally to be orbiting Cold War bomb platforms), Kubrick changes the sequence’s meaning from one depicting “three million years of weapons development” to one simply showing our triumphs.

    It’s a pleasingly optimistic view of a film often accused – along with much of Kubrick’s work – of being cold. But this is to miss its fundamental hopefulness, signalling as it does – no matter how obliquely – that there is always something better ‘out there’.

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  • Out There, Part Three: 'Interstellar'

    In his new film Interstellar, Christopher Nolan leaves behind the comic book fantasy of Batman and, indeed, Earth itself for an examination of mankind’s future. He consciously embraces a humanist view of that projection and a grounded method of production, shooting on photo-chemical film – in part in IMAX – and relying on miniatures and full-size, four-walled sets, and engaging a CalTech physicist to inform the science.

    The film’s beginning is deeply rooted in the history of the American mid-west, the country’s larder but also the scene of desperate times in the Depression. In this Nolan appears also to borrow from the similarly-themed first act of Superman: The Movie (1978), yet in omitting the misty-eyed, elegiac quality of Donner’s film Nolan makes a fatal error which is repeated throughout the remainder of Interstellar – it is realistic and convincing, but actually too realistic and too convincing, undercutting the mythic quality inherent in the basic concept and leaving little room for awe and wonder.

    Admittedly, the pivotal scene in which Cooper finally leaves the family farm for NASA strikes an emotional note. A simple crane shot of him driving away from his crying daughter – and thus from us – through the corn fields and into the distance, with Hans Zimmer’s score soaring and the rocket launch countdown from the next scene already bleeding into the soundtrack, is remarkably effective (and would perhaps have been so without the need to slip into IMAX, a harbinger of another false step). The moment also reinforces a wider point within the screenplay, which presents space exploration in general and the Lazarus mission in particular as the logical next step in America’s founding lore and connects NASA’s astronauts directly with the pioneering settlers that pushed west following Jefferson’s expansionist Louisiana Purchase. Curiously, though, despite this being a period so canonic in US history, the revelation that school children are now being taught that the Apollo missions were faked is passed over astonishingly casually.

    Once in space, Nolan asserts a rigorously – even relentlessly – credible and matter-of-fact aesthetic. The neat Ranger shuttles build on real-life lifting body design, and their tiled coating and array of deeply-set windows clearly reflect the Space Shuttle in their detail. Throughout these sequences, the colour palette is bleached down to black, grey and white, notwithstanding the publicity poster of the ship Endurance near a bright red nebula, continued with location shooting in Iceland representing one of the new planets discovered by the mission. Nolan eschews almost entirely traditional shots of the various space vehicles in flight or landing, in favour of tight close-ups, distance shots or, in the case of exteriors of the Rangers, a locked-off camera pointing down the fuselage and thus delivering the same angle every time.

    Both are effective approaches if you consider the space scenes as ‘found footage’, but again lack the epic quality that would have made Interstellar special. Equally disappointingly, they render the decision to shoot more than half of the film in native 70mm IMAX virtually redundant, with barely a single shot generating the particularly visceral thrill enabled by that format.

    Of course, no film featuring extended, meditative space sequences can escape the gravity of the triple star system that is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris and Silent Running (both 1972), and sensibly Nolan doesn’t even try, acknowledging rather than ignoring them. Kubrick’s landmark receives the most nods, from the circular Endurance and balletic docking sequences to the appearance of notes from Strauss’s ‘Sunrise’ on the soundtrack. In common with the more optimistic view of assistive technology that followed 2001 in fact and fiction, though, HAL is broken down into three talking robots, a la Douglas Trumbull’s Huey, Dewy and Louie, able to fold and unfold themselves in various ways helpful to the plot though at rest – and wittily – each a man-sized monolith, albeit in tactile bronze rather than impenetrable black.

    Revealing any more of the plot would be unfair, as would identifying other works with which this is shared. Suffice it to say the climax separates itself from 2001 in one fundamental respect, a move that is by no means unacceptable conceptually but whose execution is astonishingly awkward and over-extended. Combined with the uneven look of the film, awkward plotting and dialogue, unclear motivations and some points skipped over which could usefully have been dwelt on, this was a real disappointment for me – and a disappointing disappointment at that, just four years after the effortlessly effective Inception.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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The fourth and fifth of my Brand X pieces for The Big Picture, exploring fictional products and brands in films in an innovative way, are now online.

Take a snap shot of technology stocks which you might find familar with a Bloomberg intelligence report, and then read an exclusive interview with none other than Dr Eldon Tyrell...

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