Picture: Paddington 2
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Paddington 2 is a perfect tonic for the gloomy winter

There are wonderful little jokes hidden amid the slapstick.

As someone who never read the stories of Paddington Bear as a child, or even saw the 2014 film, I’m perhaps not the target audience for Paddington 2. But a miserable November week encouraged me to try both films as a tonic against the gloomy winter. They were the perfect choice.

Paddington 2 sees our friendly bear looking to buy a present for his Aunt Lucy back in Peru. He takes on a series of odd jobs to save up for the perfect antique pop-up book. But it’s suddenly stolen – and Paddington gets the blame. He and the Brown family must find the real culprit to clear his good name.

The world of Paddington 2 is full of irresistible tricks and treats to spark a child’s imagination: a book that’s also a treasure map, a hot-air balloon made out of tablecloths, pipes used for secret communications, a single red sock that dyes the uniforms of an entire prison pastel pink.

Like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Home Alone (also films aimed at the young but with a lasting adult appeal beyond simple nostalgia), it delights in MacGyvering, boobie traps, extended scenes of note-perfect physical comedy, and the fundamentally optimistic belief that a spirited kid (or bear) can stand up to tyranny. There are wonderful little jokes hidden amid the slapstick: a perfectly delivered take on the word “baguette”, and every line that leaves a delightfully camp Hugh Grant’s mouth.

It’s as if A Series of Unfortunate Events, Love, Actually and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox have been melted together to create an aesthetically pleasing film about a talking animal taking on a greedy, villainous actor wearing a variety of costumes – before returning home to his £3 million townhouse in Notting Hill just as the snow begins to fall. Oh, and with a closing musical number, of course. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia