Opera North’s Ring Cycle (Royal Festival Hall)

Many opera companies would balk at giving a full Wagnerian Ring Cycle, but Opera North have been spending the time since April giving six Cycles as part of a tour, in an innovative concert format.

We caught up with this tour on its London stop at the Royal Festival Hall last week; and from tonight it makes its final stop at the Sage Gateshead and on Radio 3.

ring cycle

This was the first live Ring Cycle I had seen: and without props, sets or costumes to speak of, it really had to stand or fall on how well the acting and singing puts across the story.  In this the production is helped by textual matter projected on screens and taken from Michael Birkett’s ‘The Story of the Ring’, explaining what we are about to see.  This may be irritating to Wagner purists, but makes the four operas extremely accessible.

The ‘preliminary evening’ and the first, and shortest opera in the cycle, is Das Rheingold, which tells the story of how the gold in the Rhine was stolen by the evil dwarf Alberich, forged into a ring, and used to make an attempt to achieve world domination, and how he was tricked by the gods Wotan and Loge into giving up this power, only giving it up with a curse on whoever owns the ring.  Wotan’s greed almost causes the goddess Freia to be given up to a duo of giants, Fafner and Fasolt, but the eventual passing of the ring causes them to turn on each other and to cause the cycle’s first shedding of blood (in this version, by the dropping of a red necktie to the floor).

wotanalberichMichael Druiett and Jo Pohlheim, photo copyright Clive Barda.

This evening’s entertainment presented the first of three Wotans throughout the cycle, in Michael Druiett a rather dry old stick (no match for Jo Pohlheim’s superb Alberich, who is quite the star of this production with a glorious bass baritone voice).  Yvonne Howard was a decent Fricka, and Giselle Allen making the first of three different characterisations as Freia, bewildered by her misfortune in being exiled from the fruit gardens of Valhalla.  As Loge, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was all flickering fingers and devious looks.

walkure

The second evening presented Die Walküre, which introduces not just the nine Valkyries, led by the vibrant Brünnhilde (played here in the first of three appearances by Kelly Cae Hogan, an excellent soprano and actress), but also the ill-fated twins and other children of Wotan (in his human guise as Walse), Siegmund and Sieglinde. 

Lee Bisset’s Sieglinde is beautifully sung, and her act one interaction with Michael Weinius’ Siegmund is one of the highlights of the piece, with their incestuous love so incensing Fricka (Howard again), goddess of marriage, that she sets in motion the tragic events which cause Wotan (Robert Hayward here, whose vocal deficiency at times can be forgiven when set against his moving final act) to cause his favourite child, Brünnhilde, to be cast out of the sight of the gods forever, and imprisoned in a wall of fire only a man without fear can penetrate.

haywardRobert Hayward, photograph copyright Clive Barda.

Hogan is again superb in both acts two (where she decides to defy her father and save Siegmund from his decreed death) and three (where she visibly reduces in stature as she is removed from her Valkyrie sisters – eight ladies with large voices and personalities – to face a life of eternal sleep until woken to live in mortality).  Meanwhile, Hayward’s Wotan causes the destruction of his beloved Walsung son, and affects disinterest in the offspring of the twins.

The third opera in the cycle centres on this child when he is fully grown – Siegfried, who has been brought up by the dwarf Mime, brother of Alberich.  We had first met Mime (sung by Richard Roberts) in Das Rheingold, but he has more to do here and successfully merges the evil with the comic (I loved the scene where Siegfried gains the power to read Mime’s thoughts, while the latter desperately tries to hide his true feelings), although some of his singing was lost in his early scenes, overpowered by the orchestra.

siegfriedLars Cleveman, photograph copyright Clive Barda.

As the ‘boy’ Siegfried, Lars Cleveman looked far too old but certainly had the lung power to carry the role after a shaky start, and his scenes when forging the sword Nothung from fragments, and combating the scary dragon Fafner (last seen as a giant, and sung powerfully by bass Mats Almgren), were excellent, as was his final act with Hogan’s still-stunning Brünnhilde.

In this segment of the Cycle, Wotan is disguised as the Wanderer, and in long coat and hat, Bela Perencz resembles a stylish lounge lizard.  He is the best singer of the three to take on the role in this cycle, and his scenes with Cleveman’s Siegfried and Pohlheim’s Alberich are well done.

There is no family feeling here, though, and by the end Wotan’s power is spent, his spear shattered in a mirror image of the destruction of Siegmund’s sword in Die Walküre.  (There are no swords or spears on stage, though, nor eye patches, armour, or anvils.  The audience has to imagine them all, although we do see the woodbird hovering around in the choir seats before her few lines of song).

gotterdamerung

Finally, we returned to the cycle for Sunday’s Götterdämmerung, in which the gods face destruction, and the happy lovers Siegfried and Brünnhilde, left within the fiery rock in the throes of passion, find their union threatened by spells, portions, and intrigue, all in the name of taking control of the ring and the Nibelungen treasure. 

There is a delightful scene at the beginning of act two which chills the blood as the sleeping Hagen (Mats Almgren, again, and exceptional) is visited by the slimy Alberich (Polheim again, outstanding) and goaded into hating anyone who is happy.

A change of casting as Siegfried brings the jovial Mati Turi to the part, and although I enjoyed his characterization, I felt his voice was more lyrical and less powerful than Cleveman’s.  I see that Tuti has played the lead in Siegfried in earlier performances, and would have been interested to see his interpretation, but here he is simply the easily-led fool, not the great hero his prior mastery of the sword and despatch of the dragon might suggest.

tutihogan

Kelly Cae Hogan and Mati Turi, photograph copyright Clive Barda.

His scene with the Rhinemaidens who warn him of the future is very good, though, and well-sung, and the trio (Jeni Bern, Madeleine Shaw, Sarah Castle) are just as cunning in trying to get the ring back as they were when teasing Alberich back in Das Rhinegold before he snatched their gold.

The orchestra have been superb throughout this cycle, led by outgoing Opera North conductor Richard Farnes.  He has led his company (including the Chorus in Götterdämmerung) through sixteen hours of drama, music and mythology, and rightly gained a standing ovation for both Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung.

ovation

The Opera North Ring Cycle broadcasts tonight, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evenings on Radio 3.


Disney’s Aladdin (Prince Edward Theatre)

 

aladdin

On entering the auditorium of the Prince Edward Theatre, the curtain is flying carpet themed, and during the overture you realise this is going to be a show of many, vibrant colours, an Arabian splendour.

‘Aladdin’ was a Disney film from 1992, which notably had Robin Williams firing on all cylinders as the Genie, and here the huge frame and personality of Trevor Dion Nicholas brings this pivotal role to life, as he introduces the setting and the story at the top of the show.

genie

Aladdin himself, played by Dean John-Wilson, is  a little bland for my taste, although he has the physique and now and then his singing hits the spot (more so in ‘Proud Of Your Boy, a Menken-Ashman song which didn’t get included in the film, than in some of the wilder and more vibrant numbers).  As Princess Jasmine, Jade Ewen (a former Eurovision entrant and Sugababe, although neither are mentioned in her resume) , is good and feisty, but I didn’t sense any real chemistry between her and John-Wilson, while their big duet ‘A Whole New World’ was rather upstaged by the magic carpet they are flying on during the number.

The big spectacle closes Act One, in the catchy and fun ‘Friend Like Me’, in which Nicholas leads a whole troop of dancers doing ballroom, acrobatics, and eventually tap in a cheeky 42nd Street pastiche, all set in a cave lined with gold leaf.  Modest and understated, this isn’t.  As this is a Broadway show brought to the UK, we get lots of references which are uniquely British: in the Genie’s first scene, he pulls out an umbrella with the Union Flag when he is looking for the lamp, there is a call and response routine which uses Bruce Forsyth’s catchphrase, and there is a brief nod to ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, as well as a Tommy Cooper joke at the expense of Aladdin’s fez before his transformation into ‘Prince Ali’.

This is a fairytale writ large, with lots of costume changes, magic special effects, and an amusing trio of pals for Aladdin replacing the monkey of the original film.  There are hissable bad guys too, in the shape of the vizier Jafar and his sidekick Iago (who was a bird in the film, I think).  They resemble Paul Daniels and Teller which added to the amusement for me, and they are both absolutely fine within the context of this admittedly thin plot.


The Go-Between (Apollo Theatre)

This new musical by Richard Taylor and David Wood takes its inspiration from the novel by LP Hartley (although many of the audience may be more familiar with the Joseph Losey film which starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and the young Dominic Guard).

This is a story of growing up, of first love, of grown-up ‘games’, of memories, of regrets, and about the stuffiness of the world in which young Leo Colston (‘my real name is Lionel, but don’t tell anyone’) finds himself when he goes to stay with his wealthy schoolmate Marcus and his family (mother, father, brother Dennis, and sister Marian).

We first meet Leo as an old man, fifty years on from his idyllic summer vacation, finding an old chest of memories and treasures in a dusty attic, and the moment of opening brings back the ghosts of the past of the Maudsley family, their servants, their friends, and the farmer Ted Burgess.  The young Leo is from poor stock and is overwhelmed by the convention of his surroundings, standing buttoned up and sweltering in his winter clothes until Marian plans to buy him a more fitting summer garb.

The only full song in the score, ‘Butterfly’, is sung by Crawford as older Leo while young Leo (last night, a marvellous Luka Green) parades his new suit of Lincoln Green, and it is an emotionally soaring moment – the singing might not be in as peak form as in Phantom days, but it fits with the character, and in fact Crawford, always on stage, always seeing when he saw when he was thirteen, and sometimes even interacting directly with his younger self, more and more urgently as act two strides towards the tragic conclusion, carries the show’s heart.

Leo becomes a ‘Mercury’, a messenger boy, a ‘postman’, first innocently taking a verbal message between the injured war veteran Trimingham and the object of his affections, Marian (Gemma Sutton, who previously appeared in ‘Gypsy’), and then, more dangerously, taking letters and messages between Marian at the great Hall and Ted, the tenant farmer who had been previously dismissed as ‘someone we don’t know socially’ by Mrs Maudsley.

The social gulf between Marian and Ted is accentuated even in the early scenes, where the dreadfully snobbish Marcus tells Leo not to leave clothes on the chair, but to throw them on the floor, ‘because that’s what Henry [the servant] is for’.  By the time the honour of the Hall is tested in the ‘gentlemen v tenants’ cricket match we know exactly where both sides stand, and why Leo, bored alone while Marcus is isolated by illness and keen to please the girl he is besotted by, gets embroiled in the forbidden love affair.

The Go-Between

Picture credit: Helen Maybanks.  Samuel Menhinick as Marcus, Luka Green as Leo.

The acting throughout this show is top-notch: Crawford is superb and your eyes might often drift to him, while you wonder what you would say to your own small self where you able to do so.  Sutton is good as the conventional miss who wants to break out from her restrictive dresses and the family tradition which means she cannot marry Ted, but has to marry Hugh Trimingham.

As Trimingham (‘nothing is ever a lady’s fault’), Stephen Carlile is excellent, keeping the stiff upper lip even when it becomes fairly clear he knows what is going on between the furtive lovers, tapping out a cigarette in a servant’s ashtray, and calmly answering Leo’s questions about the fickleness of women. Issy van Randwyck is the frighteningly icy Mrs Maudsley, although she may veer towards the pantomime at times.

The musical accompaniment is from one sole piano, played by Nigel Lilley.  This is supplemented at various points by the cast’s singing voices, which are beautifully arranged and performed, at times with their ‘Remember’ refrain a little reminiscent of ‘A Little Night Music’.   The voices are in Leo’s head but they are also living and breathing the moment he picks out a prop from the chest – his diary, a cricket bat, a ball, a branch of belladonna.

As farmer Ted, Stuart Ward is rough at the edges, but attractive enough to tempt the young Marian who has been surrounded all her life by stuffed shirts and the traditions where the men retreat to their port after dinner, and where she is expected to marry well and without complaint.  Ted offers her an escape from that, but it is an escape that can only be furtive and physical, which Leo starts to realise while remaining confused about the ways grown-ups believe (his discussion with Ted about the meaning of ‘spooning’ is as funny as it is toe-curling).

The Go-Between

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.  Stuart Ward as Ted Burgess.

I liked the lighting in this production, and the way that a limited set became something different – a tailor’s shop, a statue, a farm, a cricket field, a church – often by a resetting of chairs or the use of the cast to provide details such as the straw stack Leo slides down prior to his first meeting with Ted.   This only misfires slightly in the climactic scene where Marian’s secret is discovered, which is ‘revealed’ by the cast pacing around with umbrellas.  The show does take a while to get going, and the pace throughout is probably slower than most other musicals running in the West End, both young and old, but it is definitely worth seeing.

Direction is by Roger Haines, and design by Michael Pavelka, Tim Lutkin, and Matt McKenzie.

Thanks to Theatre Bloggers and Stage Door for providing the tickets.

 

 


Jane Eyre (Northern Ballet at Richmond Theatre)

I have been following Northern Ballet since the 1980s, especially through the years in which Christopher Gable, and then David Nixon, have been at the helm, and through the change from Northern Ballet Theatre rebranded as Northern Ballet.  It still has the dramatic focus very much at its heart, but with the ballet on an equal level, too.

Back in 2002 I saw NBT’s production of Wuthering Heights, with Charlotte Talbot as Cathy and the late Jonathan Olliver as Heathcliff.  It had all the power and the passion of the source Brontë novel.  Will Charlotte’s classic novel fare as well as her sister Emily’s?

The ballet of Jane Eyre (sumptuously scored by Philip Feeney) starts with Jane being discovered on the moors by the Rev St John Rivers, and taken to recover with his sisters.  She starts to recount her story, and we go back to the graveside where the young Jane passes to the care of her cruel Aunt Reed and her bullying cousins, their dancing portraying her anger and their indifference.

Passing through Lowood Institution and on to Thornfield, the adult Jane (Dreda Blow) is a fiery, passionate creature and her dancing focuses on both the drama and the technical needs of the story.  Rochester (Javier Torres) was initially not working for me, but his scenes with Jane from the fire scene onwards were well judged, tender, and vibrantly portrayed, making me think of both Macmillan’s choreography of Romeo and Juliet and the original NBT production of Dracula, which also used Feeney’s music.

Bertha Mason’s wild harpy with fire red hair, the twittery and fussy Mrs Fairfax, and the graceful Adele, were all highlights in a production which may have stumped those unfamiliar with the novel (and this version excised Mason, instead having Grace Poole appearing injured at the ball), while the additional of a male chorus of ‘D men’ didn’t quite work – Jane is a character who seeks and thrives in solitude, and she is never alone on stage – but this production is an emotional powerhouse with some excellent staging choices (especially around the scenes of fire) and some wonderful pieces of choreography from Cathy Marston.


A Double Life, 1947 – ★★½

“You wanna put out the light?”

I haven’t seen this for a long time, but it was sitting on my Sky+, and I have been watching a lot of Shakespeare related material lately, so I thought it was time to revisit.

This was the role for which Ronald Colman won a leading man Oscar as the actor who is such a method player he lets the role of Othello drive him to murder.

It’s a noirish concept which is directed well by George Cukor, but it is such a nonsense in its construction that despite a fine scene half way through, as Tony (Colman) wanders through shadowed streets with Iago’s voice in his head and staccato violins on the soundtrack, it loses its way.

Shelley Winters has an early role as the actor’s unfortunate mistress, a slinky blonde in a silky nightgown. Colman’s jealousy and insanity drives him to do a terrible thing, but it doesn’t ring true, and I am sorry to say that what passed as award-winning material back then looks suspiciously like overacting now.

In all conscience, I can’t raise this one’s rating.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Show Boat (New London Theatre)

Captain Andy’s Show Boat, the Cotton Blossom, has come to town in Daniel Evans’ fabulous production (fresh from Sheffield), and the classic socre by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II sounds as a sharp and as tuneful as ever.  There’s plenty of wit and life in this production, which has a small but hard-working cast, with some notably outstanding work from Sandra Marvin (Queenie), Rebecca Trehearn (Julie), Emmanuel Kojo (Joe) and Alex Young (Ellie May Chipley).

Young Magnolia Hawks (Gina Beck) lives on the Cotton Blossom with her parents, and while the Captain (Malcolm Sinclair) lives for showbusiness, mother Parthy (Lucy Briers) sees herself a cut above the river rats and players she has been living alongside for years, and wants something better for her daughter.  Magnolia wants nothing more than to be a leading lady, and to fall in love, and when Gaylord Ravenal (Chris Peluso) turns up, all charm in his sharp suit, she finds the latter, and in a powerful sequence where Julie has to leave the show boat, finds she suddenly has the chance to become the star.

This musical premiered in the USA in 1927, and was the first modern musical to move away from the conventions of vaudeville and operetta; it also dealt with racial issues with a vibrant mixed cast.  If you’ve seen the 1936 film with the feted bass singer Paul Robeson as Joe you will know that any singer has big shoes to fill with ‘Old Man River’, but Kojo is excellent here in both that huge number and (a delight to see) the fun duet with Queenie which was written for the film, ‘Ah Still Suits Me’.

Go on, have a look at that number as it appeared in the film, here:

Julie La Verne is a tragic figure, which Trehearn catches very well.  Her exuberance leading the kitchen staff in the negro song ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine’ gives way in the second half to her touching delivery of ‘Bill’ (not an original song for the show, it was written by Kern with PG Wodehouse back in 1917 for another production, but never used).

Here’s Trehearn performing the number:

Julie gives two big chances to Magnolia, making her the kindest heart on the river.  Magnolia and Gay fall in love as they play opposite each other (they have first felt attraction through ‘Make Believe’ at their first meeting), and although they have a child and settle in Chicago, his gambling and drinking is his downfall, and she is left to make her own way in the world.

The Trocadero scene loses something here by having no sense of a packed New Year’s Eve: instead, actors playing waiters and punters are scattered through the auditorium, giving us a sense of being the exclusive audience there as 1899 gives way to 1900.  Beck’s singing of ‘After the Ball’ is eventually gutsy and triumphant, and the song remains sentimental enough to bring a tear to the eye, but it doesn’t touch the sequence )one of my favourites) in the 1952 film.

Beck reminded me very much of Irene Dunne (the 1936 Magnolia) in her acting, she is a mischievous little flirt in her innocence and a regal miss in her poverty.  It’s a strong performance; while Peluso is excellent as Gay and in fine voice.  Leo Roberts plays Steven Baker and Jim Greene (in the later role resembling the early talkie singer, John Boles, which was interesting, if a little distracting!).  As the Hawks’ senior, Sinclair is an excellent Andy, winking connivingly at the audience as he gets one over on his wife, while Briers is a marvellous Parthy, steering the part away from the comic shrew she is so often reduced to.

The second half, following the chimes for the new century, fast-forwards through nearly thirty years before we meet the aged Joe and Queenie, and she leads the chorus in a blistering version of the feel-good ‘Hey Feller!’.  It’s a problematic ending, but there is no true reconciliation between the returning Gay and the strong Magnolia, who has raised their daughter alone.  The hurt and the distance was well conveyed, and if the adult Kim runs to forgive her father, the mother might find it much harder.

Here’s Gay and Magnolia in happier times, courtesy of the 1951 film, and that first duet of ‘Make Believe’:

Go and see this show if at all possible.  It is closing in August, and it is probably one of the best shows in town right now.  It will make you smile, tap your feet, and maybe even cry just a little.  Not bad for a musical which is approaching its ninetieth birthday.


Some Like It Hot, 1959 – ★★★★★

Nobody’s perfect! quips Joe E Brown’s randy millionaire at the end of this comedy classic.

It has it all – a superb pair of comedy performances from Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as the men who witness a massacre on St Valentine’s Day and have to go on the run as part of a girl dance band. Lemmon in particular shines throughout.

It has Marilyn Monroe at her most vulnerable as Sugar Kane, not very bright and addicted to bourbon and saxophone players.

It has George Raft as Spats the gangster, sending up his earlier films and coin tossing: ‘where did you learn that cheap trick?’.

It even has an Eve Arden clone as Sweet Sue the bandleader, always a bit suspicious of the new bass fiddle and sax players.

It’s basically an absolute joy, from Curtis and his Cary Grant impersonation to the joy of the tango to that glorious Monroe wiggle.

And there are songs too, notably ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ and ‘I’m Through With Love’.

A five star, gold plated, goodie.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Network DVD anthology releases #2

The second anthology set I’ll be taking a look at from Network is the twelve disc set released last year to celebrate 60 years of ITV.

Each disc is programmed to represent a typical evening’s viewing, although the earliest title dates from 1955, an episode of ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, with the latest programme being an episode of ‘Soldier, Soldier’ from 1994.

The audience for this set is unclear: there are many episodes of series which have been seperately released, with only ten items unique to this collection.  Having said that, the variety here is excellent, and the handful of items from the days of Associated-Rediffussion are well-chosen.

Here’s what is included in this voyage though the first thirty-nine years of ITV:

Disc 1

  • ITV Opening Night Preview (Associated-Rediffusion and ABC), 1955
  • Thunderbirds: Trapped in the Sky, 1965.  A fairly routine example of Gerry Anderson’s puppet series
  • The Army Game: April Fool, 1960.  Painfully dated barracks comedy
  • Man About The House: While the Cat’s Away, 1974.  Fun and games with Robin and his co-lodgers and the Ropers
  • Robin of Sherwood: The Greatest Enemy, 1985.  Michael Praed’s farewell to the role
  • The Prisoner: Checkmate, 1967.  Impenetrable tale already included on the previous ITC50 collection

Disc 2

  • Pathfinders in Space: Convoy to the Moon, 1960.  Sci-fi drama for children
  • The Larkins: Frightful Nightful, 1960.  Things go bump in the night for our comic couple
  • Sunday Night at the London Palladium, 1965.  In which Sid James sings!
  • The World at War: It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow, 1974.  Focusing on Burma, this is a typical episode of the groundbreaking documentary series
  • Callan: Let’s Kill Everybody, 1969.  Tensions rise as a spy sets to eliminate the enem

Disc 3

  • Catweazle: The Sun in a Bottle, 1970.  Series opener
  • The Arthur Haynes Show, 1962.  Included for a short appearance from Michael Caine, this has some good sketches and items
  • The Avengers: The Winged Avenger, 1967.  Emma Peel in comic-book land
  • Public Eye: My Life’s My Own, 1969.  Downbeat episode featuring a young Stephanie Beecham
  • An Audience with Dame Edna Everage, 1980.  Fun with a starry audience, many long since gone

Disc 4

  • Crossroads, October 1983.  Absolutely terrible but previously unreleased
  • On the Buses: The Strain, 1971.  Amusement as Stan has to wear a surgical corset
  • The Saint: The Contract, 1965.  A typical episode
  • The Tommy Cooper Hour, 1974.  Featuring the Sally the Sailor sketch
  • Auf Wiedershen Pet: The Alien, 1984.  Michael Elphick causes trouble for the gang

Disc 5

  • Rainbow, December 1975.  Ali Bongo joins the regulars at Christmas.  Previously unreleased
  • Pipkins: Cowboys, 1977.  Pip goes bad!
  • Doctor in the House: What Seems to be the Trouble?, 1970.  Early episode showcasing the student doctors
  • The Power Game: The New Boy, 1965.  The opening episode of the boardroom drama
  • 21, 1977.  Otherwise known as 21 Up, the third entry in the Michael Apted series following a group of children from the age of seven onwards

Disc 6

  • Magpie, November 1976.  A mixed bag from the children’s series which was ITV’s answer to Blue Peter
  • Shut That Door!, 1972.  The sole surviving example of Larry Grayson’s variety show
  • Space:1999: Breakaway, 1975.  Nuclear problems hit Moonbase Alpha
  • No Hiding Place: A Bird to Watch the Marbles, 1963.  One of just over twenty surviving episodes from the long-running police series, previously unreleased
  • The Sweeney: Tomorrow Man, 1976.  An episode of the fondly-regarded series about Special Branch

Disc 7

  • Tiswas, August 1975.  Edited version without all the inserts, this features Jon Asher as presenter and is very different to the later episodes we all remember.  Previously unreleased
  • Four Feather Falls: Horse Thieves, 1960.  Nicholas Parsons voices the cowboy in this early Gerry Anderson series
  • The Stanley Baxter Moving Picture Show, 1974.  Comic sketches and music in this dated showcase from the Scots variety performance
  • Gideon’s Way: The Wall, 1965.  A rather dark episode from the detective show with John Gregson
  • Tales of the Unexpected: Royal Jelly, 1980.  Buzzzzzzz

Disc 8

  • The Adventures of Robin Hood: The Coming of Robin Hood, 1955.  Series opener
  • Nearest and Dearest: What Seems to be the Trouble?, 1969.  Dated fun with Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewel
  • Rising Damp: Black Magic, 1974.  Philip charms the birds
  • Mystery Bag: Lockhart Finds a Note, 1959.  A second look at Chief Inspector Lockhart, previously unreleased
  • Upstairs Downstairs: Miss Forrest, 1973.  A key episode from the period drama series
  • Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, 1979.  Hard-hitting expose of the Khmer Rouge from John Pilger

Disc 9

  • Ace of Wands: Peacock Pie – Episode One, 1972.  This already appeared on a Look Back volume.  Frustrating not be able to complete the story of Brian Wilde’s creepy hypnotist
  • Coronation Street, May 1964.  Excellent episode following the death of Martha Longhurst
  • Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased): Could You Recognise the Man Again?, 1970.  Mrs Hopkirk is in trouble, and Marty has to try to help her
  • Crane: A Cargo of Cornflower, 1965.  Smugglers ahoy in one of the two surviving episodes from this series.  Extremely poor sound by the way, and previously unreleased
  • Soldier Soldier: Stormy Weather, 1994.  Problems for Robson Green and his wife

Disc 10

  • A Fine Romance: Series 2, Episode 6, 1982.  Nice but rather lame comedy with Judi Dench and Michael Williams
  • World in Action: The Chart Busters, 1980.  Record pluggers who influence the Top 40.  Previously unreleased
  • The Professionals: Blind Run, 1978.  Bodie and Doyle turn bodyguard in an entertaining episode
  • Inspector Morse: Driven to Distraction, 1990.  An episode which has been made available many times before, but doesn’t quite suffer from over-exposure

Disc 11

  • George and Mildred: Moving On, 1976.  The Ropers go house-hunting
  • Jason King: To Russia With … Panache, 1971.  Repeated from the ITC50 set
  • The Main Chance: The Best Legal System in the World, 1970.  Series opener
  • Justice: A Nice Straight-forward Treason, 1971.  Margaret Lockwood as the glamorous Harriet in Chambers
  • The Strange World of Gurney Slade: Episode One, 1960.  Anthony Newley’s inventive comedy series

Disc 12

  • Our Man at St Mark’s: The Facts of Life, 1963.  Leslie Phillips plays a sympathetic vicar in one of a handful of surviving episodes – previously unreleased
  • The Bill: The Short Straw, 1993.  Viv regrets being late for work in this previously unreleased episode
  • Man at the Top: I’ll Do the Dirty Work, 1971.  Joe Lampton gets his hands dirty in this TV series sequel to the classic film, Room at the Top
  • Whicker’s World Aboard The Orient Express, 1983.  Practically a commercial for the train service, and previously unreleased
  • Armchair Theatre: Afternoon of a Nymph, 1962.  There are so few of these officially released, I would have swapped for one which isn’t already on one of Network’s sets, although this is a very good example of the play strand

In summary, and especially now prices have dropped considerably from the initial RRP, this is worth your time if you wish to see a range of ITV product in one place, or want to sample some wider releases like The Power Game, Justice and The Main Chance without investing in the full series.  However the selection could have included more single plays, more period drama, and some more unfamiliar titles.

 


Network DVD anthology releases #1

I’ve been dipping into the anthology releases from Network recently, which collate a number of related programmes together in what might be described as ‘samples’ of full series.

This series of posts will look at seven such releases:

  • Soap Box Volume 1
  • ITV60
  • ITC50
  • Look-Back on 70s Telly (4 volumes)

Soap Box (2011)

Despite being badged ‘volume 1’ it seems unlikely that there will be a further set after five years has elapsed; still, this is a reasonable collection of both daytime and evening soaps produced across ITV.

Over four discs we move from the sole surviving episode of hospital drama ‘Call Oxbridge 2000’ from 1961, through to a 2006 ‘disaster’ episode of ‘Emmerdale’, which, when compared to an episode from thirty years before – when the series was still ‘Emmerdale Farm’ – shows clearly the decline of both focus and writing of one of Yorkshire TV’s most enduring soaps; although it is good to see both Ken Farringdon and Jenny Tomasin in the cast.

From the 1960s we have episodes of ‘Parkin’s Patch’, a police drama; ‘Weaver’s Green’, about a vet; an atypical episode of ‘Emergency: Ward 10’; and ‘Market in Honey Lane’, which makes an interesting comparison to ‘Albion Market’ which also appears here.

Although ‘Coronation Street’ started in the 1960s, the two episodes featured here are both from 1977 – one where Tracy is in peril, and the famous one about Annie Walker and the new carpet.  Well-written, these are an interesting contrast to episodes which can be found on the ‘ITV60’ and ‘Jack Rosenthal at ITV’ sets.  ‘Rooms’, about lodgers and bedsitters, is a bit disappointing; but both ‘The Cedar Tree’ and ‘Marked Personal’ are well worth watching.  The aforementioned episode of ‘Emmerdale Farm’ is something of an odd choice, dealing with a family tragedy right at the end; while from 1972 ‘General Hospital’ and ‘Harriet’s Back in Town’ were worth revisiting.

Into the 1980s there is an episode of ‘Crossroads’, which hasn’t aged well; the opener of ‘From Maddie With Love’, which is well overdue a full release; ‘The Practice’, yet another medical drama, has good production values but is largely forgettable; ‘Gems’ has a bit of sparkle; and the short-lived ‘Albion Market’ shows it might have had legs if allowed to grow.

The 1990s episodes are from ‘Families’, ‘London Bridge’, and ‘Revelations’, all now largely forgotten, and the set is rounded off by the 25th anniversary edition of ‘The Bill’, a live episode which I last saw at the BFI Southbank with cast members including the late Bernie Nolan sitting behind us.  It’s bordering on the hysterical and compares weakly to earlier episodes which can be found elsewhere.

If you like the genre of ‘soap opera’ in its loosest sense you will find much to enjoy here, and it is a varied collection of titles from the various ITV companies, with six examples from Granada, seven from ATV; five from Thames; three from Yorkshire; and one each from Anglia and Carlton.

Network have released ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Emmerdale Farm’ and ‘Crossroads’ extensively, and there are also some releases of available of ‘Emergency: Ward 10’, ‘General Hospital’, ‘Parkin’s Patch’, ‘Market in Honey Lane’, ‘The Cedar Tree’, ‘London Bridge’, ‘The Bill’ and ‘Revelations’.

 

 


The Magic Flute (Budapest Festival Orchestra/Fischer)

The Royal Festival Hall hosted a one-night stop on the current international tour of ‘The Magic Flute’, performed in German with dialogue in English.  Ivan Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra with flair, and it was good to see them all obviously enjoying making the most of Mozart’s dazzling score.

In a company of mostly young principals, the soprano Mandy Fredrich navigated the Queen of the Night’s fiendish arias and bursts of coloratura with ease, while Krisztián Cser‘s young and vital bass Sarastro gives a different frisson to his interaction with the imprisoned Pamina (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller).  As Papageno, Hanno Müller-Brachmann‘s bass-baritone fits perfectly with his ridiculous yet lonely bird characterisation, and the scene near the close with his Papagena (Norma Nahoun), leaves a smile on the face.

This is a semi-staged performance, but the use of a video storybook to display the characters as well as the translation.  Actors perform the dialogue for all the major roles and Bart van der Schaff was particularly amusing as Papageno.  The switch between languages worked well and made the opera rather more accessible than a fully German version would be.

Ultimately this is a glorious piece of work, even if the text is rather misogynous in tone, referring to the subjection and inferiority of women – although, as Pamina joins her true love, Tamino (Bernard Richter) in the trials of fire and ice, she would seem to be as strong as any man.

 

 


Book review: The Wacky Man

wacky man

From the Legend Press website:

“Lyn G. Farrell is the winner of the 2015 Luke Bitmead Bursary and The Wacky Man is her debut novel.  Lyn grew up in Lancashire where she would have gone to school if life had been different. She spent most of her teenage years reading anything she could get her hands on. She studied Psychology at the University of Leeds and now works in the School of Education at Leeds Beckett University.”

“The Wacky Man” is by no means a comfortable read.  Its story of Amanda (part drawn from the author’s real life) is one of a disturbed and damaged young woman who rages against her mother, her situation, and sad of all, herself (she smashes mirrors which reflect her ‘pig’ face, she hides her face under her hair so people do not look at her, she classes herself as ugly even when we hear in other parts of the book about what a beautiful child she was).

Amanda’s father, Seamus, is brutal, unfeeling and systematically tyrannical around his wife and children.  His abrasive manner and distorted way of showing a connection or affection for his children through violence (a social worker asks a young Amanda ‘do you love your daddy?’ and she replies ‘yes, but I don’t think he loves me’) is hard to stomach, but he is in no way presented as a monster.  This is a book which gives its characters a fully-rounded approach, and in doing so, makes them believable.

Aside from the chapters which have Amanda’s account of her life in the 1st person, we also have chapters which look in from the outside, including her mother Barbara, who was trapped into marriage with Seamus after a drunken sexual romp which led to him wanting to ‘do the right thing’.  These give a different perspective on the woman who, we might feel when reading the daughter’s account, has failed her child and become a bad mother: conversely, we may feel some sympathy for both Barbara and Seamus, no matter how they have conspired unwittingly to create a daughter who relies on shrinks and self-harm to survive day by day in the world.

I did approach this book with some trepidation given the subject matter, also because I know the author personally having worked with her some years ago and when you know someone, sometimes it feels a little odd spooking into their private memories, even if they are publicly shared in this manner.  Of course Lyn G Farrell is not Amanda, but in reading around her biography I see there was physical abuse in her childhood at the hands of her father, and those issues and those of mental illness and collapse, are portrayed extremely well, while still presenting stories of a growing and evolving family life with some moments of humour.

This book will reward any reader willing to give this the time and attention it deserves.  I found it a very emotional experience in places, a disturbing one in others, but somehow I developed a liking for Amanda in particular, as despite her troubles she shows a deep self-awareness and strength which keeps her going.  She’s a fighter, a survivor, she is plucky and when she rages, she bubbles with life.

The title, incidentally, refers to Seamus as both a violent man and, perhaps, one with some mental issues himself, so ‘wacky’ as in the walking stick he uses to beat his young son across the back, and in the definition of a person as ‘wacky’ in terms of their peculiarity or eccentricity.  This is a book which plays with names, with definitions, and ultimately with memories, which is where the mix of voices is so relevant and poignant in a way.

I felt hints of JD Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and Holden Caulfield in the anger of the narrator, but that is very much a teenage-focused book for angry young things, just like the contemporary films featuring James Dean.  The strongest links I got from ‘The Wacky Man’, and they are just hints of the books I have loved on topics relating to mental disintegration in particular, are Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood in ‘The Bell Jar’ (who could be a close cousin of Barbara, or her sister), or Susanna Kaysen’s autobiographical ‘Girl, Interrupted’.

Having said this, Farrell has very much developed her own style and tone and I am very pleased to hear that a future novel is in development.  I recommend this title to you wholeheartedly, and thank Lucy Chamberlain at Legend Press for the gratis copy in return for an honest review on this book’s launch blog tour.

 


Ducks and Drakes, 1921 – ★★★½

I contributed to a Kickstarter to get this film out of the Library of Congress archives and out into the world. It’s a Bebe Daniels comedy, and she plays Teddy, who likes to flirt on the telephone with random men while keeping her fiancé Rob (Jack Holt) at arm’s length.

When Rob discovers that all his friends have been dallying with Teddy, he arranges a surprise for her that should put her off being with strange men, while throwing her back at him. What transpires is funny, flirty, and naughty.

Bebe, at twenty years old, is full of mischief and innocence, and whether she’s in the bathtub, speeding along in her car, or coquettishly saving her virtue, she’s beautiful to watch, and a talented comedienne with large eyes, pouty mouth, and a range of 20s costumes which are terrific, stylish and stunning.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Richard III, 1995 – ★★★★½

Back from a cinema screening of this at BFI Southbank with a live Q&A with McKellen and Loncraine.

This film is quick and modern Shakespeare with a multifaceted study of pure evil from Ian McKellen in the lead.

His malevolence as he takes the viewer into his confidence, his duplicity as he blithely waves his brother Clarence (a superb Nigel Hawthorne) off to the Tower while plotting his death, the ice cold ambition which makes him reach out to Anne over her husband’s corpse and just as coldly dispatch her, his manipulation of friends, foes and family (sister in law Queen Elizabeth, whose young daughter he covets even after he has arranged the murder of her two young brothers), his disregard for anyone but himself.

All this is beautifully and expertly conveyed in a film which cuts 75% of Shakespeare’s text, but which is purely cinematic and almost blackly comic, ending as it does with Al Jolson singing ‘I’m Sitting on Top of the World’.

This film has grown in stature over the years and is well worth watching for Bard buffs and those unsure alike.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Six books which shaped my life

The #9albums meme on Twitter made me think about how this might impact on the books which mean the most to me (and which have followed me for a long time, so no recent titles will appear here).  Dates are for the edition I have to hand, not necessarily original date of publication.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams.  Puffin, 1973.

watershipdown

This story, of a group of rabbits finding a new home, is a bona fide classic, which was later made into a rather scary animated film.  Fiver has psychic powers and can sense bad vibes in the warren in which he and his brother Hazel live, but as he is the runt of the litter and not that powerful in the pecking order, the Chief Rabbit doesn’t listen to him with, as we see later, horrendous consequences.   I try to re-read this book each year and never get bored with it.  The rabbits are given distinct personalities and even their own religion, as the Black Rabbit is their demon of death, and El-ahrairah is almost their Christ figure, or at least comparable to that of Aslan in …

The Chronicles of Narnia, by CS Lewis.  Fontana Lion, c.1980.

narnia

Across seven books (The Magician’s Nephew, in which a young boy and girl find themselves witnessing the birth of Narnia; The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, in which four children become kings and queens and see the death and resurrection of Aslan the Lion; The Horse and His Boy, set within the reign of the Pevensie children with a Prince and Pauper theme; Prince Caspian, which deals with a usurper and a rightful king; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which a valiant mouse joins a crew to find a number of lost Lords; The Silver Chair, in which a prince is enchanted; and The Last Battle, which deals with the end of Narnia as a world), CS Lewis’ fantasy series is an endlessly fascinating piece of fiction with prose which generally vivid visually stunning images, and a strong storyline in which talking animals and mythical creatures live alongside swordsmen, warm-hearted dwarfs, and a London cabbie who becomes the equivalent of the Biblical Adam.

The Houses-in-Between, by Howard Spring.  Reprint Society, 1954.

housesinbetween

This sprawling saga follows Sarah Undridge, who tells the story in first person, and her family, friends and acquaintances through many years.  It starts in the Victorian age and ends with the Second World War, and the characters and situations crackle with life, across time, class, and legitimacy.  This book has been comfort food for me for many years, and remains my favourite of Spring’s novels.

Flush, by Virginia Woolf.  Penguin, 1977.

flash

Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a little dog.  A cocker spaniel, to be exact.  And Virginia Woolf was his biographer.  This is slight on first glance, but absolutely delightful, and very perceptive on all manner of external forces which impacted on the poet and her pet.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.  Faber and Faber, 1989.

belljar

Plath’s fictionalised account of her own teenage years is a tour de force of confessional writing, and in her character of ‘Esther’ we can follow her dreams, ideals, depressions, sexual awakening, suicide attempts, shock therapy, and more.  This book may have influenced Susanna Kaysen’s own work drawing on her own life and experiences, ‘Girl, Interrupted’, which is in itself an excellent book.  But Plath, being essentially a poet with a great eye for detail and sense of the power of the written word, wrote the stronger of the two novels, and even though it was published more than fifty years ago, it remains a gut-punching read today, while also retaining flashes of black humour which are very refreshing.

Silences, by Tillie Olsen.  Virago, 1994.

silences

From a time when I myself was a writer, and discovering a wide variety of female voices, from the Brontës and Austen through to Ruth Fainlight, Jackie Kay, and my historical fiction writer of choice, Jean Plaidy.  Olsen’s book focuses on the invisibility of the woman writer in the context of wider politic views such as race, class, and ultimately gender.  It is a highly feminist book which is very readable and even now, very perceptive and relevant.

 


Shakespeare 400: Film and TV

There have been many, many screen versions of Shakespeare’s plays – please follow the links below to my lists on Letterboxd to find a range of straight adaptations and versions inspired by the Bard’s work.

Such a rich store of films, television and recordings from the RSC, the National Theatre, the Globe, and Digital Theatre exist to prove the Bard remains relevant 400 years after his passing.

tragedieshamlet

Shakespeare – The Tragedies (http://boxd.it/8yDy), covering 11 of the 37 plays: Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida.

Five to try:

  • Antony and Cleopatra (1974, dir Jon Scoffield, with Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman).  This will be released by Network Distributing later this year.
  • The Bad Sleep Well (1960, dir Akira Kurosawa).  A Japanese loose version of Hamlet.
  • Macbeth on the Estate (1997, dir Penny Woolcock, with James Frain).
  • Othello (1990, dir Trevor Nunn, with Willard White and Ian McKellen).
  • Romeo and Juliet (1984, from the Royal Ballet, with Wayne Eagling and Alessandra Ferri, to Kenneth Macmillan’s choreography).

comediescomedydench

Shakespeare – The Comedies (http://boxd.it/8yDS), covering 12 of the 37 plays: All’s Well That Ends Well, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Measure for Measure, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing.

Five to try:

  • The Comedy of Errors (1976, dir Trevor Nunn, with Judi Dench, with music by Guy Woolfenden).
  • McLintock! (1963, dir Andrew V. McLaglen, with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara).  A Western inspired by The Taming of the Shrew.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, dir Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle).  A Hollywood fantasy with Mickey Rooney as Puck.
  • Much Ado About Nothing (2012, dir Joss Whedon).
  • The Merchant of Venice (1972, dir Cedric Messina, with Frank Finlay as Shylock and Maggie Smith as Portia).

historiesrichardshaw

Shakespeare – The Histories (http://boxd.it/8yEc), covering 10 of the 37 plays: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, Richard III, Henry VIII, King John.

Five to try:

  • Richard III (1995, dir Richard Loncraine, with Ian McKellen).  Set in the Nazi era with a modern feel.
  • Henry V (1944, dir by and starring Laurence Olivier).  A stirring version made during the Second World War.
  • King John (1984, dir David Giles, with Leonard Rossiter, for the BBC Shakespeare).
  • Henry VIII (2010, dir Mark Rosenblatt, for Globe on Screen, with Dominic Rowan).
  • Richard II (1978, dir David Giles, with Derek Jacobi, for the BBC Shakespeare).

romancestempestglobe

Shakespeare – The Romances (http://boxd.it/8yEw), covering 4 of the 37 plays: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest.

Five to try:

  • Prospero’s Books (1991, dir Peter Greenaway, with John Gielgud).  Inspired by The Tempest.
  • The Winter’s Tale (1999, dir Gregory Doran, with Antony Sher, for the RSC).
  • The Tempest (1908, dir Percy Stow).
  • Cymbeline (2013, dir Michael Almereyda, with Ethan Hawke).  With an urban gang setting.
  • The Winter’s Tale (1910, dir Thanhouser).

 

 


Shakespeare 400 in images

  • Marlon Brando plays Mark Antony in the 1953 film of ‘Julius Caesar’;
  • Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the 1968 film of ‘Romeo and Juliet’;
  • Kenneth Branagh in his 1996 film of ‘Hamlet’;
  • Laurence Olivier in his 1944 film of ‘Henry V’;
  • Wendy Hiller, Cyril Cusack, Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltrey in the 1983 BBC Shakespeare TV version of ‘The Comedy of Errors’;
  • Simon Russell Beale in the National Theatre’s 2012 production of ‘Timon of Athens’;
  • Dumaine (Adrian Lester), Berowne (Kenneth Branagh), Longaville (Matthew Lillard), and Ferdinand (Alessandro Nivola) in the 2000 film of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’;
  • Philip Quast as Achilles and Jeremy Sheffield as Patroclus in the RSC’s 1996 production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’;
  • Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce in the Globe Theatre’s 2015 production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’;
  • Judi Dench as Titania in the 1968 film of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’;
  • Antony Sher as Falstaff in the RSC’s 2014 production of ‘Henry IV Part 1’;
  • Ian McKellen in the 1979 TV version of the RSC’s production of ‘Macbeth’;
  • Guy Henry in the RSC’s 2001 production of ‘King John’;
  • Robert Shaw (Leontes), Rosalie Crutchley (Hermoine) and Patrick McNee (Polixines) in the 1962 TV production of ‘A Winter’s Tale’;
  • Paul Robeson in a 1942 stage production of ‘Othello’;
  • Christopher Benjamin as Falstaff in the Globe’s 2010 production of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’;
  • Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore in the 1953 film of ‘Kiss Me Kate’ (based on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’);
  • Gary Bond and Irena Mayeska as Benedick and Beatrice in the 1970 Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’;
  • Anthony Hopkins in the 1999 film of ‘Titus’;
  • Heathcote Williams as Prospero and Toyah as Miranda in the 1979 film of ‘The Tempest’;
  • Romola Garai as Celia in the 2006 film of ‘As You Like It’;
  • Ben Miles as the Duke and Anna Maxwell-Martin as Isabella in the 2010 Almeida Theatre production of ‘Measure for Measure’;
  • Derek Jacobi in the BBC Shakespeare TV adaptation of ‘Richard II’ (1978);
  • Ian Charleson and cast of the BBC Shakespeare TV adaptation of ‘All’s Well That End’s Well’ (1980);
  • The National Theatre of Greece at the Globe in their 2012 production of ‘Pericles’;
  • Tom Courtenay in the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1999 production of ‘King Lear’;
  • Alan Howard in the RSC’s 1978 production of ‘Coriolanus’;
  • Alan Bates and Frances de La Tour in the RSC’s 2000 production of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’;
  • William Houston as Prince Hal and David Troughton as Henry IV in the RSC’s 2000 production of ‘Henry IV Part 2’;
  • Mark Rylance in the Globe’s 2012 production of ‘Richard III’;
  • Richard Johnson in the BBC Shakespeare TV adaptation of ‘Cymbeline’ (1983);
  • Tommy Steele as Feste in the 1969 TV adaptation of ‘Twelfth Night’;
  • Dominic Rowan as Henry with Amanda Lawrence as his fool in the Globe’s 2010 production of ‘Henry VIII’.

Shakespeare 400: The Complete Walk and Shakespeare Live! (RSC)

The 23rd April is both St George’s Day and the anniversary of both the birth and death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and as we have now reached 400 years since the poet/playwright’s death, both the Globe Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have created projects which happened this weekend.

completewalk

The Complete Walk presents all 37 plays in chronological order in a route starting at St Thomas’ Hospital with The Two Gentlemen of Verona and finishing at Potters Fields Park with The Tempest.

We saw eleven of the plays between Hungerford Bridge (Titus Andronicus, with Peter Capaldi, rather battling against the noise of the trains above), to the back of the Oxo Tower (The Merry Wives of Windsor, with Mel Giedroyc).  Three screens (The Comedy of Errors, Henry IV Part 2, and Much Ado About Nothing) were not working as we passed, and I understand technical issues have plagued this project a bit on a windy, cold and showery day yesterday – hopefully today will have more of a hit rate.

  1. Titus Andronicus (under Hungerford Bridge).  Filmed in Rome, this shows a different side of Capaldi than is familiar to most these days from Doctor Who.
  2. Henry VI Part 2 (under Golden Jubilee Bridge).  Filmed at Spitalsfield Market, this was a very modern take of a little-known history play.
  3. Romeo and Juliet (opposite Royal Festival Hall).  Filmed at Verona with Jessie Buckley and Luke Thompson in glorious blue tints in the closing tomb scene, this was well acted and also featured scenes from the Globe’s production with Ellie Kendrick and Adetomiwa Edun.
  4. Richard III (next to Waterloo Bridge).  Filmed in the Tower of London, with a glorious monologue from Claire Higgins, Queen Margaret’s speech from Act 4.
  5. Love’s Labour’s Lost (in front of the National Theatre).  Filmed in Navarre, with Gemma Arterton and David Dawson.  Beautifully shot but the volume made it hard to follow.
  6. King John (in front of the National Theatre).  The Hubert and Arthur scene, filmed a the Holy Sepulchre, with the right amount of murderous intent and tension.
  7. Richard II (Observation Point).  Filmed in Westminster Hall, with James Norton in the abdication and ‘I have wasted time’ scenes.  An actor I don’t care for, but I wanted to see more of this.
  8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Gabriel’s Wharf Bandstand).  Filmed at Wilton House, with the Theseus and Hippolyta scenes, and the wall scene with ‘the rude mechanicals’.  Funny but lacking the play’s magic.
  9. The Merchant of Venice (Riverside Slice).  Filmed in the Jewish Ghetto, Venice, with Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce reprising their roles as Shylock and Jessica alongside scenes from the Globe production.  Looks great but the sound was drowned out by an adjacent screen.
  10. Henry IV Part 1 (Bernie Spain Gardens).  Filmed at the George Inn, Southwark, with Toby Jones as a drunken Falstaff we first meet passed out in a cubicle in the Gents.  Very funny but far too loud.
  11. The Merry Wives of Windsor (behind the Oxo Tower).  The scene between the Mistresses discussing Falstaff and the basket, with one of them in drag.  Plays like a comedy sketch.

It’s a varied project, and an accomplished one.  The YouTube channel for Shakespeare’s Globe includes trailers for Timon of Athens (with Simon Russell Beale) and King Lear (with Kenneth Cranham).  I hope this project – which also ran in Liverpool this weekend, but mainly in interior locations – has an additional life beyond the opportunity to see the films in situ.

shakespearelive

In the evening, there was a television broadcast live from Stratford-upon-Avon which mixed music (excerpts from West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate, opera and ballet, jazz and hip hop, and appearances from Rufus Wainwright and tenor Ian Bostridge), comedy (a delightful ‘nine Hamlet’ sketch which includes Cumberbatch, McKellen, Dench and others, including Prince Charles, advising on how to speak the classic ‘To Be or Not To Be’ soliloquy), speeches (Ian McKellen as Thomas More, Roger Allam as Lear, Judi Dench as Titania with Al Murray as Bottom, Rory Kinnear and Ann-Marie Duff as the Macbeths) and filmed inserts (Joseph Fiennes within the Shakespeare Trust properties at Stratford, and Simon Russell Beale doing part of the John of Gaunt speech from Richard II).

Uneven at the start, this settled into a classy piece of live theatre, although it was not quite as good as the earlier ‘National Theatre at 50’.  Appearances from the likes of Helen Mirren, David Suchet, and the aforementioned Dame Judi and Sir Ian interested me more than a group of students performing Bernstein or a poorly spoken Juliet in the balcony scene.  Still, there was a good range of plays represented, and a strong sense of how Shakespeare has moved into many areas of popular culture.

olivierhamet

To close this post, I will share the costume from the 1948 film of Hamlet, starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, which can be found in the BFI Southbank’s small Shakespeare on Film exhibition in their Mezzanine (above the box office), which accompanies their rather populist season of screenings.


Hamlet, 1964 – ★★★½

Richard Burton’s Hamlet is uneven and in places given to declaiming, but it is certainly interesting to see him tackle the role, under the direction of John Gielgud.

This is purely filmed theatre, complete with scene entrance and closing applause, and because it was not intended to be kept or released it has limited cinematic value. Burton kept a copy and it was made available from his estate after his death, so was hidden from view for many years.

Interestingly, Gertrude is played by Eileen Herlie, who had played the same role opposite Laurence Olivier in 1948. Here she is more age appropriate. Polonius is played by Hume Cronyn, who is marvellous (and not totally played for laughs, which is refreshing). Alfred Drake is a curious choice for Claudius, but he does well enough, while Linda Marsh is a pretty Ophelia, lacking the delicacy and vulnerability of others who have played the role.

Gielgud is the voice of the Ghost, giving the production gravitas, but Burton’s leading performance at times threatens to overbalance proceedings. Having said this, now and again he is very good indeed, and one wishes he had been coaxed into a quieter, more reflective interpretation of the Dane that is finally on show. His verse speaking is excellent. It may be that it is simply the fact that his ‘star quality’ and associated baggage influence an audience’s reading of his performance here.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


The Taming of the Shrew (Above the Arts Theatre)

Custom/Practice’s flagship production at the heart of the Verve Festival (a month-long exploration of shifting relations between minority groups and the theatre) is ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, which is in itself an interesting addition to the wide variety of productions being staged for Shakespeare 400.

The difference in this production is that all the male characters are played by women, and all the female characters by men.  This allows some interesting ideas to be explored – as the Shrew Katharina, Kazeem Tosin Amore may cause some amusement in his bride’s veil, but also a moment of shock when he strikes the boisterous Petruchio (Martina Laird) during their first explosive meeting.

It isn’t just gender-swap casting which is being portrayed here: Petruchio, Baptista, Tranio, Hortensio, Gremio and Biondello become women, and so the balance of power shifts in that they inherit fortunes from their mothers and take the lead in romantic relationships, engaging in physical and cultural behaviours quite unthinkable in a usual 16th century society.

In contrast, Katharina and Bianca become men, in high heels, corsets, and in Bianca’s case, with a mouth smudged in lipstick.  They are made submissive and powerless while the strong and powerful female characters roister, make plans for their future, and wager on their obedience, while they stand quietly by.

Where the switch from male to female worked well in the other characters, I felt that the weakness of this production was in the depiction of the sons who were sought out as husbands.  It was an interesting idea on the surface but in Bianca’s case in particular, the characteristics which made the young girl endearing in Shakespeare’s original simply made ‘him’ tiresome here, and unworthy of so many suitors.

The staging is interesting – this is a very small theatre space, using the most perfunctory of set dressing, but a sense of place, time and travel was very well done.  The programme mentions help from a number of well-known names to bring this production to fruition, and it is clearly money well-spent.

This is a clever and in some way subversive show which turns some ideas of what is one of the Bard’s most problematic plays on its head, especially in the famous speech of Kate’s near the end, in which ‘he’ speaks of offering his hand under his wife’s foot to give her ease.  I found this touching, where usually the speech can cause a modern audience to cringe because of the very gender politics this festival seeks in part to address.

The diversity in terms of ethnicity is also on display here, with Trinidadian Laird in the pivotal leading role, surrounded by Nigerian Karlina Grace-Paseda (Baptista, whose reactions in the ‘Kate is sweet’ scene were delightful), and other actors of colour, including the vibrant Kayla Meikle as Tranio.

Director Rae McKen has created an excellent production of an enduring classic in which the company’s stated belief that ‘anybody, whatever their class, background or education can create, access and enjoy theatre of the highest quality’ is definitely vindicated.

Other standouts in the cast include a Gremio from Brigid Lohrey who goes from the waspish old man of the original to a rather bitchy and scene-stealing mature lady, and Lorenzo Martelli’s grumbling Gromio (we will forgive him for showering us with water at one point, which gives a whole new meaning to integration of stage and audience).

Laird’s Petruchio is a delight and worth admission in itself, while Tosin Amore is an excellent Kate, whether shaking in rage at the audacity of a mother seeking to rule his future life, to his eventual placidity as part of a loving couple.

A solid company, a literate reimagining of a source product, and a good fringe venue make this a highly recommended outing.  Book until 1 May at https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/whats-on/the-taming-of-the-shrew/.


The Father (Richmond Theatre)

Florian Zeller’s emotional and difficult play, translated into English by Christopher Hampton, had its UK premiere in October 2014 at the Theatre Royal Bath.

father

Since then it has been to London on three occasions, and in all its versions Kenneth Cranham has been the cornerstone of the cast as André, the eighty-year old whose life starts to fracture because of the Alzheimer’s which causes his memory to fail.  As he states himself at the devastating close of this 85 minute play, he is losing all his leaves.  His is a towering masterclass in acting, destructive, playful, irritable, confused, and ultimately vulnerable and locked in his own collapsing universe.

Amanda Drew plays his daughter Anne, who may or may not be divorced, moving to London, living in her father’s flat, taking him into her own flat, or finding carers to help her cope with an increasingly difficult existence. It’s a nuanced performance

Rebecca Charles, who has been with the play since the start as well, appears as Anne, as a carer, as a nurse, as a face André clearly remembers, but from where?  And Jade Williams remains as a sympathetic Laura, a young lady who jokes with a mischevious André in a moment of lucidity (although claiming he was once a tap dancer), but who also has a second where she cracks at a revelation about the unseen daughter, Elise (‘the one I love’, says André, in the presence of the long-suffering Anne).

Daniel Flynn and Brian Doherty round out the cast as men who may or may not be Anne’s husband Pierre or her boyfriend Antoine, or is it Pierre?   They present an unsympathetic side of observers outside the immediate space, although whether simply frustrated or openly hostile is not clear.

I went to this with my husband, who was himself a carer for a parent with dementia.  This play stirred some deep-seated memories, and he found it a disturbing and upsetting experience and said afterwards he would have walked out of the play had he felt able to do so.  This is not a reflection on the quality of the production, just on how it made him feel on a personal level.

For myself, with experience of a grandparent who was eventually put in a home when she could no longer look after herself or process her short-term memories, and with a parent who is increasingly frail and elderly, I found that many aspects of the play rang true and that the ultimate and inevitable conculsion was heartbreaking.  It upset me for quite a while afterwards, which is a reflection on the quality of the cast and the writing, and the ability of both to reach across to engage and move an audience.

The sound and staging design uses the repetition and sticking of a musical coda to represent the mind of the central character, as indeed does the play itself, with scenes repeating with different focus, sometimes different actors playing the roles, and other interesting flourishes.  Furniture disappears between scenes – indicating the loss of areas of the brain which happens during Alzheimer’s, perhaps, as well as highlighting the sense of confusion.

One of the reviews of this play called The Father ‘immersive theatre’, and I see what they mean.  It should – and in our experience did – make an audience think and reflect, and to linger for longer than the short running time.  I think it achieves both the aim and the definition.

 


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