Cats (London Palladium)

It’s been twenty-five years since I last saw this show live, at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool in 1988 or 1989, and I have very strong and happy memories of the musical.  I also have a soft spot for both the Original London Cast Recording and the film version which appeared in the late 1990s.

Some tweaks have been made to make the show more up-to-date – a new tap sequence for Jenny-Any-Dots’ beetle tattoo is fun, but the switch of Rum Tum Tugger from sexy Tom to annoying bling-laden rapper is a mis-step.

‘Cats’ is largely about the dancing, and it doesn’t really need star names to keep it going – there are some amazing young performers showcased here in the various solos (although with five or six understudies on this afternoon I can’t say for sure who was playing Jemima (I think Alice Jane), Rumpleteazer, Old Deuteronomy, Skimbleshanks (Dane Quixall?), Bombalurina (Cassie Clare) and others – if anyone knows for sure or needs to correct assumptions here please do).  I do want to give a nod to Paul F Monaghan who works hard as both Bustopher Jones and a very enjoyable Gus/Growltiger, Callum Train as Munkustrap and Joseph Poulton who is a dazzling Mr Mistoffelees.

The pre-opening buzz has all been about the Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger, who plays the supporting role of Grizabella, and who has the ‘big number’, Memory.  Although she can certainly hit that big note, I felt her voice was lacking in body in the rest of her role, and frankly, her vocal style doesn’t do it for me.  I’ve been brought to tears before by this cat and her song, but not here.

The rubbish dump set might not revolve as it did in the old days, but the cats climb, stretch and emote as they ever did, and the ensemble singing in the numbers ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’, ‘Old Deuteronomy’ and ‘The Ad-dressing of Cats’ is excellent.  The special effects might not look as spectacular as those in other shows – yes, Wicked, I am looking at you – but the hydraulics, trapeze work and lightning effects are fun.

I would recommend this show to new and old fans alike, and those of you who have feline friends at home will find yourself smiling in recognition at the antics portrayed within this show.


3 Winters (National Theatre), John Cleese – So Anyway (Cadogan Hall)

Last weekend was a double theatre visit, first to the new Croatian-set play ‘3 Winters’, which I admit I left at the interval, so perhaps cannot give a balanced review.  Suffice to say I thought the sets were excellent, moving between the three eras (1945, 1990, 2011) in the same house, although I would personally have dated the video projections.  The characterizations were spread too thinly for us to really care about them, although the actors did their best.  Just not my thing.

John Cleese has had a busy couple of years with his Alimony Tour, the Python reunion at the O2, and now the tour in support of his autobiography (up to 1969) called ‘So Anyway’.  The small and intimate Cadogan Hall was the perfect venue for his conversation with David Walliams, in which he came across as funny, personable, and surprisingly not as arrogant as he has sometimes come across in interviews.  OK, we have heard some of the anecdotes before (Graham Chapman going to a debate at the Oxford Union dressed as a carrot), but they remain amusing enough.  I now look forward to reading the book, which we got as part of the ticket price.  One side note on the Cadogan Hall show, in Cleese’s book he notes his good friend the actor Nicky Henson has a funny laugh which he likes to provoke, and as Mr Henson was in the row in front of us I can confirm that yes, he does indeed have a distinct barking cackle which appeared throughout the show.


Sherlock Holmes: ten favourite portrayals

Following yesterday’s look at my choice of Watsons, today I turn to the Great Detective himself, Sherlock Holmes.

It’s a much harder choice to restrict my list of Holmes interpreters to just ten, as probably thirty actors are worth careful consideration.  However, having reflected on my choices, and leaving out half a dozen honorable mentions who might have made a longlist on the topic (Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Stephens, Geoffrey Whitehead, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Barrymore), here’s the final ten.

10. Jonathan Pryce.  Television: Sherlock Holmes & The Baker Street Irregulars (2007).  His Watson was Bill Paterson.  Although only a one-shot appearance, Pryce was a very memorable detective.

pryce holmes

9. Ronald Howard.  Television: Sherlock Holmes (1954-55).  His Watson was Howard Marion-Crawford.  Across the 39 episodes of this low budget series, and helped by an extremely good doctor, Howard was an energetic, keen and young Holmes.

howard holmes

8. Nicol Williamson.  Film: The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976).  His Watson was Robert Duvall.  Nervy, eccentric, and tormented, this one-shot appearance was a keeper, although Duvall’s accent stopped his Watson from being top notch.

nicol

7. John Neville.  Film: A Study in Terror (1965). His Watson was Donald Houston.  Elegant, sardonic, and very tough, Neville’s stage presence comes through in this single appearance of the great Detective.

neville holmes

6. Eille Norwood.  A series of silent films for Stoll (1921-1923).  His Watson was Hubert Willis (and Arthur Cullin in The Sign of Four).  He’s pictured here with Conan Doyle himself.  Norwood was an excellent choice to portray this most complex of characters.

norwood holmes

5. Basil Rathbone.  A Baker’s dozen of films (1939-1946). His Watson was Nigel Bruce.  Although the films might sometimes fail to work, and Bruce’s Watson may be a little on the dozy and comical side, Rathbone was a superb, calm, and sometimes calculating Holmes.

rathbone holmes

4. Peter Cushing.  Film: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959).  Television: Sherlock Holmes (1968).  TV movie: The Masks of Death (1984).  His Watsons were (André Morell, Nigel Stock, and John Mills.  Three attempts at the character over a twenty-five year period cannot be ignored.

cushing holmes

3. Arthur Wontner. Five films between 1931 and 1937.  His Watson was Ian Fleming (and Ian Hunter in The Sign of Four).  Although often overlooked, and a little bit old for the part, Wontner was nevertheless excellent, especially in Murder at the Baskervilles aka Silver Blaze.

wontner holmes

2. Douglas Wilmer.  Television: Sherlock Holmes (1965).  His Watson was Nigel Stock.  Only in one series of this BBC classic, Wilmer (who is still living and very astute on the subject of his portrayal of Holmes) was very watchable, if a dour and sarcastic portrayer of the genius sleuth.

wilmer holmes

1. Jeremy Brett.  Four series on television and some TV movies (1984-1994).  His Watsons were David Burke and Edward Hardwick.  It is no exaggeration to say that Brett’s wildly variable performances as Holmes are as definitive as any actor can be.  Simply, he was Sherlock Holmes for a decade, and his films stand up to many rewatches.

brett holmes


Archive TV gems: The Power Game (1965-1969)

In the most recent ITV sale from those lovely people at Network Distributing I picked up three series, ‘The Four Just Men’, ‘Two’s Company’ (which I remember from when it first aired) and a blind buy, all three series over 12 DVDs of ‘The Power Game’.  Surviving from telerecordings and film elements since the videotapes containing this programme were wiped, the picture and sound quality is not of the best but this series is a surprising discovery for me, and after nearly fifty years, as gripping as it must have been to audiences back then.

Patrick Wymark (1926-1970) plays the leading role of industrialist John Wilder, who was previously seen in the factory-set drama ‘The Plane Makers’.  ‘The Power Game’ takes the drama into the boardroom and behind the scenes while Wilder takes on his rival Caswell Bligh (Clifford Evans), an engineering supremo and something of a Machiavellian.  Bligh has a son (Peter Barkworth) who share managing director duties with Wilder, while Wilder has an assistant (Jack Watling) who seems to lurk in the shadows, as well as a wife and mistress (Barbara Murray and Rosemary Leach).

Politics, business shenanigans, money, and more make this a heady brew and one I heartily recommend to fellow archive television enthusiasts, although you probably sailed on this particular boat long before I did.


Dr Watson: ten memorable portrayals

There have been many arguments about who is the ‘best’ Sherlock Holmes on film or television, and I have mentioned a few of my favourites on this blog.

What of Dr Watson?  Here’s my starter for ten, those gentlemen (and lady) who have most memorably played the good doctor.

10.  James Mason.  Film: Murder By Decree, 1979.  Holmes was played by Christopher Plummer. Continue reading


Remember Me (BBC1)

Those of you who can remember the tradition of the television Ghost Story for Christmas might well welcome this three-part chiller which represents Michael Palin’s first acting appearance since GBH back in 1991.

Tom Parfitt is leaving his home after a tumble down the stairs to live in a care home, and quickly events start to unravel around him when his friendly social worker, Alison, takes a tumble from his bedroom window.  He has brought no luggage but has an old photograph which over the first two episodes becomes pivotal in breaking through a mystery which cannot possibly be true.

In depicting a man who is ’80-odd’ on the surface but far older, it transpires, Palin does well throughout the two episodes in which he takes centre stage (the first and the last).  The other main parts are a policeman, Rob, who has recovered from a breakdown following the collapse of his marriage, and who starts to doubt his instincts (played by Mark Addy) and a young girl, Hannah, who finds some focus in the attention she can pay to the old man and his songs of Scarborough which intrigue her (played by Jodie Comer).

Hannah and her young brother Sean (Jamie Rooney-West) are neglected by their mother (an almost unrecognizable Julia Sawalha) and she only finds a weird purpose when she starts to be pulled into the mystery of what really happened in the past of the mysterious Mr Parfitt.

Remember Me is an atmospheric piece with superior cinematography and great sound balance with water drips, ghostly singing, and echoes of dialogue.  Ashley Pearce directs Gwyneth Hughes’ screenplay, and Noreen Kershaw, Rebekah Staton, Sheila Hancock, Mayuri Boonhamn and Eileen Davies are amongst a good cast.

You need a certain suspension of belief to swallow the twists in this tale, especially those which hark back to Imperial India, but that was the same in the days of the old MR James adaptations.  This doesn’t quite reach their heights, but I liked the watery ending, and the final singing of Scarborough Fair by Palin over the credits.  That is, I would have done, had the BBC announcer not jumped in straight away to tell us about the next programme.


Henry IV parts 1 and 2 (RSC at the Barbican)

Making its home for Christmas at the Barbican Centre (one-time London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company), these productions of the two Henry IV plays have been heavily trailed with Sir Antony Sher’s return to the Company in the role of Falstaff, collaborating professionally once more with his off-stage partner of twenty-seven years, the RSC’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran.

The two plays are very different in tone – Part 1 is a mix of battles and comedy, while Part 2 is more reflective on the passing of time and the onset of maturity on the part of Prince Hal (Alex Hassell, who is very good indeed and a potential rising star for the RSC).

henry iv i

The scene which opens Part 1 may be a trifle bewildering for those who were not present at Doran’s earlier production of Richard II, as the ghost of that deposed and murdered king appears to watch over the scene where Henry IV (Jasper Britton) puts on the crown you see center stage.

Britton portrays the anger and doubt of the King, but misses the depth of feeling required to portray such scenes as the character’s exchanges with his dissolute son in both parts, especially those which should be moving to watch in Part 2.  The son of veteran actor Tony Britton, he also resembles his father at times but does not achieve the majesty or power of an anointed monarch.  I found myself thinking back to David Troughton’s portrayal of Henry IV (also for the RSC) back in 2000, in which he was convincing as both dangerous warrior and sick man losing his grasp on power and life.

The scene which introduces both Hassell’s Hal and Sher’s Falstaff here involves a couple of good-time ladies frolicking with the Prince, and a comic reveal to find a Falstaff shaking with DT’s and asking ‘the time of day’ under the sheets at the bottom of the same bed in which the Prince and his ladies had just enjoyed themselves.   It makes clear at once the unhealthy closeness and influence the fat dissolute man has over the heir to the throne.

I felt the scenes in the Tavern were a little muted, perhaps because of the staging, which kept events confined in the middle of the stage.  The battle scenes, though, were excellent, with a backdrop of scenery torn asunder and illuminated in orange light.  But casting went awry with Trevor White’s Hotspur, who came across as part ranting child with ADHD and part tiresome nitwit, and it was a relief to see his demise at the close of part 1.

Strong scenes in part 1 included the memorable segment where Falstaff plays the king interrogating his son about his followers, and Hal then taking on the persona of his father to say he can, and will, ‘banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’.  There is also the amusing scene with Francis the waiter ‘anon, anon, sir’, and the majesty of Owen Glendower (played by Joshua Richards, who is also a rouge-faced Bardolph, and who played Richard Burton in a solo show not so long ago for stage and screen).

henry iv 2

On to the reflectiveness of part 2, in which Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper (trivia fans may note that he was the former long-term partner of Antony Sher, pre-Doran) are a joy to watch as Justices Shallow and Silence, the perfect essayists of vacant ageing and lost opportunity.  Their early scene together, lamenting their friends who are now dead and old, moves into an amusing scene where Falstaff searches for men to join him in battle, and finds a rag-bag of unsuitables similar to the ‘rude mechanicals’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The man called ‘Wart’ in particular causes amusement when he cannot even lift a rifle.

Meanwhile, Henry IV is ailing, and sad, and beginning to realise he will never make that promised pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Hal continues to frequent Eastcheap with Poins and to neglect his destiny as leader, until the turning point when he finds his father sleeping and thinks him dead, taking the Crown and reflecting on the grave responsibility which comes with becoming King.  Although this scene is not as powerful as it should be, the ending scene where Hal rejects his former life, and his former friend, with ‘I know thee not, old man’ does pack a punch (especially coming so soon after the amusing drinking scene with Falstaff and the Justices, in which even the reticent Silence finds liquor makes him sing).

This pair of plays is skewed towards Sher’s Falstaff, and he does show a gift for comedy we haven’t often seen before (although in Cyrano de Bergerac in the 1990s he did show signs of a range which included playing for laughs), as well as portraying the increased infirmity which comes of drinking too much sack and being too dissolute – whether wriggling on the ground like a beetle trying to get up at the end of the Shrewsbury battle in which he plays dead, exolting the virtues of drinking sack, or exchanging a rather tender moment with his whore Doll Tearsheet when he is about to leave for the wars.

Elsewhere in the cast memorable turns come from Robert Gilbert as Mortimer in part 1, Jennifer Kirby as Lady Percy, Nia Gwynne as the Welsh singing Lady Mortimer in part 1 and Doll Tearsheet in part 2, Antony Byrne as a wild-haired Pistol, Sam Marks as an excellent Poins, and Paola Dionisotti as a memorable Mistress Quickly.


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