Waiting for Godot (Barbican Centre)

The International Beckett Season at the Barbican showcases a range of productions of the plays of Samuel Beckett, the centrepiece being this revival of the 2013 version by the Sydney Theatre Company.

In the roles of Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) are a pair of actors best known on these shores for their screen credits: Hugo Weaving, who was Elrond in the ‘Lord of the Rings Trilogy’ and Mitzi in ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert'; and Richard Roxburgh, who was The Duke in ‘Moulin Rouge’ and Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.  Not looking remotely film-starish here, both men effortlessly inhabit their roles and are clearly at ease with working together.

Playing broadly in the vaudevillian style, Weaving is clearly the posher of the two, with decayed dignity (note the way he puts on his new hat and tosses his greasy hair), while Roxburgh is lower class, with comic expressions, sleepy resignation, and more accepting of the plodding boredom of their daily lives as tramps, eating carrots and radishes, suffering from tight boots and urinary problems, and waiting for the ever-elusive Godot.

Each day in this bleak landscape with one stick-like tree and a derelict black building facing back-on to nothingness is clearly much the same, where the two friends pass the time in idle chit-chat, attempts to entertain each other, and thoughts of suicide which they can never follow through.  Into this limited world wander two men who impact on the story in different ways in each of the two halves – the blustering, charming and faintly ridiculous Pozzo, who is all bombast in his first appearance and vaguely pathetic in his second one; and witch-like Lucky, panting and slavering with the bags he can only briefly put down.

As Pozzo, Philip Quast impacts both as the cruel slavemaster and the blackly humorous bon viveur who clearly loves the fine things in life with his wine, pipe and fur-trimmed coat.  Starkly bullet-headed and neatly-bearded, he resembles a carnival barker who is slightly corrupt – and in the second half there is a fair amount of physical comedy which is well performed with Weaving in particular.  Lucky has wild white hair and a ghostly, sickly pallor, as if a gust of wind would finish him off – Luke Mullins catches the sense of the absurd in his demeanor and monologue, but he didn’t quite pack the emotional punch or the virtuosity of delivery I saw in a previous Lucky (Richard Dormer in 2006).

For the first UK production in the 1950s, director Peter Hall stated he did not understand the play and did not need to to make it a success: for the Sydney production, Andrew Upton explains in the programme that this version is a group collaboration using Beckett’s detailed stage directions as a starting point.  Certainly the cast work well together in a play which must be physically and mentally draining to perform, and there are several lovely moments between Weaving, Roxburgh and Quast in particular, causing some genuine audience laughter as well as a reflection of the emotional starkness of this prime example of Theatre of the Absurd.

Death of a Salesman (RSC at the Noël Coward Theatre)

It is Arthur Miller’s centenary year, and as one of the foremost 20th century playwrights it seems fitting that several productions of his plays have recently been staged within the UK – last year’s The Crucible at the Young Vic, All My Sons at Richmond, the recent West End visit of A View From The Bridge, and now this one, perhaps his best known work, a look at the flipside of the American Dream.


Willy Loman is a sixty-three year old salesman who works out in New England, driving hundreds of miles a week to flog goods to an increasingly tough crowd of buyers, who no longer know or respect him.  His boss, Howard, is a whizz-kid obsessed with technology and profits, and not swayed by the bonds of friendship which had been extended to his staff by his father, Frank.

At home, Willy’s wife Linda is increasingly desperate and sad to see his rambling shuffling at night, his frequent car accidents (passed off by tiredness, inattention (‘imagine all my life on the road and looking at scenery’), and poor eyesight), and his talking to himself while in dreams of a past that might not have existed.  Their sons, Biff and Happy, are thirty-something and still living at home, having made little of themselves.  Biff, as we see in flashbacks, had been an active sportsman during school, expected to succeed far beyond his puny and weedy swot friend Bernard.  Happy is always trying to get his parents’ attention (‘I’m losing weight, have you noticed?’), but their neglect of their second child has led him to become a shallow narcissist who uses woman and has no thoughts for anyone but himself.

Next-door, family friend Charley (and father of Bernard) is a success in business, and once Willy loses salary and is put on commission, gives him fifty dollars a week so he doesn’t lose face at home, despite Linda being clearly aware of what is going on.  We see Willy’s bluster and confidence over the years erode into a quiet depression which builds and eventually blows up in an intense second half when he finally sees that Biff is not the man he wants him to be, and that his own dream of success – represented by his ghostly brother Ben (‘when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, when I was twenty-one I walked out, and by God I was rich!’).

In the role of Willy Loman, Antony Sher puts in a huge and pitiful performance as everything continues to stack up against him, whether he is begging for money to pay his insurance from a boss who has past caring, flashing back to an affair with a greedy woman who takes the packs of stockings meant for Linda (who has to sit and home and mend and darn her own threadbare items), or motivating his boys to be materialistic and thoughtless while failing to recognise the true qualities of success and friendship.

Willy is a man who has lost his way.  At first, we might find his plight amusing, a man who mutters about progress and wonders about cheese in a can.  Soon, though, and thanks to an affecting performance from Harriet Walter as the ever-concerned Linda, we see the grip of mental illness taking its toll on this man who once had a dream to walk into every buyer’s office and be ‘liked’.  Alex Hassall, last seen as Prince Hal to Sher’s Falstaff (a different father-son dynamic) in the Barbican production of Henry IV, is excellent as the wild-eyed, increasingly unhinged Biff, whose dream of cattle ranches overshadows his limitations in business and as a man.  As Happy, Sam Marks (who had played Poins in that Henry IV), stands on the sidelines, almost a mute observer in this tragedy.  He is as much a sham as everything else around him.

A powerful play in a tower of strength from the whole cast, this is yet another production to showcase theatre’s top power couple, Sher and his spouse Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director and helmsman of tonight’s play.  We await their next collaboration on King Lear in 2016 with great interest.  Incidentally, another couple appear in the cast – Walter and her husband Guy Paul, who is rather excellent as the white-suited Ben, almost the voice of the devil in human form.  Willy always wished he had followed his brother to Alaska, but we have no idea whether or not this would have been wise.

Several scenes work well in a claustrophobic set of lighted tenement apartments surrounding the Loman house (paid for at the close of the play, described by Linda as their being ‘free and clear’).  The first flashback shows a carefree Willy playing ball with his sons, with Biff getting all the adultation.  Later, we switch to his advising his son back in the present on how to approach an old colleague for a loan (‘if something falls off his desk, don’t you pick it up, they have office boys for that’), mirrored by his own painful meeting with Howard where, when something does fall, Willy bends to retrieve it.  The discussions with Ben, whether in the past (where Linda dissuades him from leaving), or in the present, where the spectre of his brother interrupts a card game with Charley, are well-done, and the restaurant sequence where father and son rail at each other, culminating in Biff and Happy leaving with the girls they have just picked up (Happy to the waiter: ‘He’s not my dad, he’s just some guy’) is emotionally devastating.

The final coda, after the death of the title, sees no one coming to the funeral beyond family and Charley with his son.  Willy Loman, for all his dreams, has been forgotten, and life moves on.  Happy might declare his father has ‘not died in vain’, but we don’t see how he can make a difference, and Charley’s contempt of the sons who might have eased their father’s final troubled days speaks volumes.

With Joshua Richards as Charley, Tobias Beer as Howard, Brodie Ross as a sympathetic Bernard, who has grown to become a man of the law, Sarah Parks as The Woman, as Ross Green as the typically cheery waiter, Stanley.

The Merchant of Venice (Globe Theatre, Bankside)

A trip to the outdoors today and Shakespeare’s Globe for one of my favourites of the Bard’s plays, in Jonathan Munby’s production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’.  Jonathan Pryce, last seen on stage by me in King Lear, now plays Shylock, the Jewish usurer who plays Dominic Mafham’s Antonio for a ‘merry bond’ of a pound of the merchant’s flesh should he default on a loan of 3,000 ducats.  Antonio himself has sought this loan for his young friend Bassanio (Daniel Lapaine), who, despite being aware of, and repelling, the advances of the older man, still openly seeks his help to woo fair Portia (Rachel Pickup), who is herself trapped in the will of her late father where a successful suitor for her hand must choose a casket which contains her picture.


There are many ways a Merchant can be performed.  Here, the gay angle between Antonio and Bassanio is very much in evidence, while Pryce’s Shylock is a complex man who reveres his God and Testament (when Antonio dashes it to the ground, Shylock stoops to pick it up, brushes the dirt away, and kisses the volume) while nurturing a hate of Christians which seeks him to eventually sit in court, sharpening his knife, setting out his scales, and almost salivating at the thought that the merchant whose ships have failed might bleed to death at his hand.

A non-Shakespearian coda of Shylock’s forced baptism while his daughter Jessica (played by Pryce’s real-life child Phoebe) sings a Yiddish lament, is a moving close to a play which normally ends light with the farcical ring swap sequence between the two couples.  It almost swings the pendulum so we feel some sympathy for the Jew, despite his bloodthirsty and uncharitable conduct before the judge.  Not that Antonio appears noble and just in this play – in roughly grabbing Shylock by the beard, laughing at his religion, or spitting at his clothes, he appears racist and undeserving of the regard of Bassanio or his wife (disguised as a young doctor, whose eloquence and knowledge – although both founded in the chaos and panic of the judgement in court – save the day).

Jessica’s flight from home with jewels and ducats, and her easy conversion to Christianity, flaunting a cross around her neck through the second half of the play, is quickly accepted by the young Christians in this piece, although they still refer to her as ‘infidel’.  It contrasts sharply with the obvious distress of the Jew who, judgement given that he must convert, clings to an Antonio who himself was earlier grovelling and crying for his life, with pitiful sobs and moans.   For him the loss of his God is akin to the loss of life.

In the tradition of other Globe productions, the music gives a special atmosphere to the piece, as does Gobbo’s coercion of audience members to play his ‘fiend’ and ‘conscience’.  As Gobbo, Stefan Adegbola gives this play well-balanced comedy, as do the second set of lovers, Portia’s maid Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Bassanio’s wisecracking companion, Gratiano (David Sturzaker).  I also liked the unlucky Princes of Morocco (Scott Karim) and Arragon (Christopher Logan), who chose wrongly in their suit for Portia.  Morocco’s greed and Arragon’s foolish vanity are well-conveyed, and both men play their parts well.

Mafham is an excellent Antonio, a man who teeters on the pathetic at times, whose life will not be happiness as his idol, Bassanio, is aware of his interest and constantly pushes him away, literally in their embrace where Antonio leans in for a kiss and Bassanio recoils sharply.  He may be accepted as friend by Portia but it may break him to see her and the young man he craves being so content together.

This is probably Pryce’s show, though, and he is convincing as Shylock, whether isolated in the court, giving the ‘Hath a Jew eyes’ speech, or collapsing from his court bluster to the man who has lost all because of his hate for others.  It gives an interesting dynamic to see him act alongside his daughter, and I think he does succeed in portraying all the facets of this complex role.

Radio Stanshall (Bloomsbury Theatre)

As I posted earlier in the year, it is twenty years since the versatile singer-songwriter, wit, wordsmith and all-round oddball Vivian Stanshall passed away.  This show, although retitled, is rather similar to the one mounted for Vivian’s 70th birthday celebrations back in 2013 – so much so, in fact, that the programmes for that show were on sale last night albeit for half the cover price. (However, someone who went to both shows said the anniversary show was better).

The centrepiece of the evening was a performance by Michael Livesley of what is probably Vivian’s best and more enduring work, ‘Sir Henry at Rawlinson End’, English as tuppence and gloriously un-PC, with all characters from the beasht himself, Sir Henry and his wistful wife, Florrie, to his brother Hubert (‘in his late forties and still unusual’), their servants Old Scrotum (‘the wrinked retainer’) and Mrs Eeeeeee, and Florrie’s brother Lord Tarquin Portly and his wife Lady Phillipa.  As well as these you get the know-it-all Reg Smeeton (‘do you know there is no proper name for the back of the knees?’) and the mincing pair of painter-decorators Nice and Tidy.

The ‘Sir Henry’ piece is full of clever and nonsensical wordplay with a smattering of songs, close to the work of the Master, Noel Coward (whose patter song, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ was on the tape played before the show started), and comic singers like Frank Crumit (‘What Kind of Noise Annoys An Oyster’).  Livesley’s homage to Stanshall is quite staggeringly good: a Northerner by birth he captures the faux posh phrasing of the piece perfectly, as well as mimicking the East End bolsh of the song ‘Ginger Geezer’ at the end of the night.

He’s been performing ‘Sir Henry’ since 2010 and has honed it well, adding his own flourishes and inflections here and there to make it remain an interesting piece outside of the simple spoken word – having said this, I do enjoy the mental pictures that can be painted by listening to the original radio shows and album, with lines like “The body of Doris Hazard’s Pekinese, unwittingly asphyxiated beneath Sir Henry Rawlinson’s bottom” or “A pale sun poked impudent tiger fingers into the master bedroom and sent the shadows scurrying like convent girls menaced by a tramp” or “The Wrinkled Retainer took cover behind a leather armchair, peeping through his fingers and clutching a rosary.”

Aside from this performance, we had a handful of songs, with Neil Innes and Rodney Slater opening proceedings (a few renditions of ‘Happy Birthday’ aside) with Kevin Eldon on surprisingly good vocals for ‘Look Out, There’s A Monster Coming’, and later on, Eldon again on ‘Sport’ and with the first Rawlinson appearance on record, ‘Rhinocratic Oaths’.  Livesley joined Innes and Eldon with the rather topical ‘No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Get In (Heigh Ho)’ and shared Vivian’s favourite song (from ‘Teddy Bears Don’t Knit’) ‘The Cracks Are Showing’ with us.

I might have picked something to show Vivian’s softer and sentimental side (like one of his songs for Steve Winwood), but otherwise, a good mix of titles.  These last few benefited from the addition of drummer John Halsey (once Barry Wom in The Rutles) playing alongside Slater and the Brainwashing House Orchestra, with Innes and Rick Wakeman making the occasional foray on the piano.

Follies in Concert (Royal Albert Hall)

follies program

Not quite a ‘once in a lifetime’ show, but a ‘twice in a lifetime’ as this staging of Stephen Sondheim’s musical ‘Follies’ played at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday afternoon and evening.  It now has the distinction of being the most expensive ticket I ever bought for a show – I initially baulked at the £98 ticket price, and sales were sluggish for quite a while, but we duly booked once the cast was announced.  Good seats, in the stalls.  Nothing could go wrong, could it?

follies tix follies view

When we arrived, it was clear these were restricted view seats, although not sold as such.  I appreciate the RAH may not have known at the point of sale that this was the case, but in advance of the show they would have done.  This problem affected four seats on each side of the stage.  Note the speakers and the ugly black rail that gave one double vision when watching a cast member singing at the front (only affected three numbers, but still).  At a sporting event where we had a slight restriction on the view of a full price ticket at Wembley Arena we were given the option to be reseated: as ‘Follies’ was not entirely sold out, this would have been a nice gesture from the Hall.

I might have let this go had we not paid extortionate premium West End prices for our tickets.  For nearly £100 I don’t expect a rail in my way or speakers that stop me seeing people’s feet when dance numbers have been staged (as Craig Revel Horwood of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ was directing, it was no surprise to see some inspired pieces, of which more later).  So that’s my one negative of the night: on to the show.

(And do look for the 1985 concert version, too, which is available in part on DVD.  Revel Horwood rightfully flags it in the programme: Follies in Concert (1985).)

When the cast was announced, it was quite a mouthwatering confection – the four main roles of the couples Buddy and Sally, and Ben and Phyllis would be played by Peter Polycarpou and Ruthie Henshall, and Alexander Hanson and Christine Baranski.  A slight disparity in ages aside this was excellent casting, and Henshall’s emotive vibrato worked well on ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’, ‘Too Many Mornings’ and her big number, Act Two’s ‘Losing My Mind'; while Baranski’s acid vibrancy pepped up ‘Would I Leave You’ (circling Hanson’s Ben like a snake as he was symbolically caged between the set’s flexible arches, which also served as doors, mirrors, and showcases, and her sense of brassy fun fizzed through ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’.

Polycarpou’s Buddy was a jaded traveller who juggled the wife who was bored by him and the girlfriend who was wowed by his status with seedy charm, and ‘Buddy’s Blues’ was fun, while his acting in the background while the story of his wife’s former love affair with the young Ben unfolded was well thought out.  As Ben, Hanson was in very good voice and he was well matched by Alistair Brammer as his younger self (we’d missed Brammer in ‘Miss Saigon’ as he was ill when we attended the show, I can see he would have been an excellent Chris).

‘Follies’ in many ways is about the girls, and they were all introduced in a chorus line by Russell Watson’s ‘Beautiful Girls’.  We had Stefanie Powers as Solange, Betty Buckley as Carlotta, Anita Dobson as Stella, Anita Harris as Emilie, Lorna Luft as Hattie, and Charlotte Page as Heidi.  I’d seen Page a couple of weeks ago as the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, so she is definitely versatile with pure opera coming to the fore here, but she seems far too young to play alongside such a veteran cast – although of a similar vintage to Henshall.  What I didn’t realise until I just looked it up was that Page is married to Alistair McGowan, who was tonight’s Dimitri (wasn’t this originally announced for Christopher Biggins?).

The other ladies do well in their roles.  The Whitmans’ ‘Rain on the Roof’ always strikes me as a curious inclusion to the score alongside the big numbers, but Harris, still glamorous, played well alongside comic great Roy Hudd in this piece; while Powers was a cheeky minx in ‘Ah! Paris’ with better singing than I expected.  Lorna Luft (otherwise known as Judy Garland’s second daughter) exuded star quality and big voice in ‘Broadway Baby’, the first palm-tingling showstopper of the night – I’d seen her on stage once before, in a show in Leeds alongside Wayne Sleep, and she hasn’t lost any of her energy: this song was a belter.

After Ben and Sally’s quieter, reflective pieces it was time for a bit of fun where Dobson took centre stage for ‘Who’s That Woman’ aided and abetted by her colleagues – nicely portraying Stella’s hesitation at going back to her singing and dancing past, and also perhaps the fact that this artist does not have the same musical range as the other ladies.  Whichever, the staging was superb, with a rotation of ensemble girls mirroring their mature counterparts, and Dobson clearly having a lot of fun, and deserving of her prolonged applause.

Betty Buckley – last seen here in Dear World – was, as expected, a superb Carlotta.  ‘I’m Still Here’ has been much performed: if you go to YouTube you can watched Dolores Gray, Ann Miller, Elaine Stritch, Elaine Paige, Shirley MacLaine, Carol Burnett, tonight’s own Christine Baranski, Yvonne DeCarlo, Polly Bergen, Eartha Kitt and more perform the number.  It was perhaps the highlight of the night, although I still find Buckley a cold performer in some ways while others might engage more with their audience.  Regardless, she is a huge Broadway star and was a good choice for this show’s Carlotta.

The richness of the Sondheim music is often lost in a show which is hard to revive, but the central quartet and their regrets and futures were portrayed well, and the quieter songs were not lost in the mix.  ‘Too Many Mornings’ is perhaps one of his finest lost relationship songs, and this was done well – as was Henshall’s Sally reacting with clear grief when she realised her suspicions about her husband Buddy’s infidelity were true.  Baranski’s Phyllis also showed a soft centre under the hardness she had developed over the years in a marriage where she felt taken for granted.

A word, too, for the ensemble, who worked hard, from the glamorous girls to the suited boys (young Sally – Amy Ellen Richardson, young Buddy – Jos Slovick and young Phyllis – Laura Pitt-Pulford), to Carol Ball’s veteran chorus member – and of course the City of London Philharmonic under the baton of Gareth Valentine.  This was a show I was pleased to attend (no sign of cameras or recording equipment so I assume it has not been recorded for posterity), despite the disappointment of feeling cheated by the venue in their description of the seats we purchased.

Some decent curtain call photos were afforded by our view though (once we stood up), and I present a couple for you – Miss Luft and Miss Powers:

follies curtain call 1

… and the best I could get of tonight’s core couples:

follies curtain call 2

Annie Laurie, 1927 – ★★★★

Lillian Gish (1893-1993) spent seventy-five years in motion pictures, starting with DW Griffith in 1912. She was quite possibly the greatest actress in the history of film, and was known as ‘The First Lady of American Cinema’.

At the point of her career that she made ‘Annie Laurie’ she was in something of a decline at MGM, but she has star quality that reaches down through the years and continues to engage and move audiences.

She can achieve more in a smile, a wistful glance, or eyes full of tears, than any of her peers, and does it effortlessly. And in this film she was not even firing on all cylinders, due to personal troubles with her mother’s illness during production, yet she is still mesmerising.

At the Barbican Centre after showing at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Falkirk earlier this year, this BFI print was accompanied by live music composed by Shona Mooney and performed by her with Alasdair Paul and Amy Thatcher.

The score, which was fiddle-led and included the title melody itself along with ‘The Campbells Are Coming’ and other traditional snippets, fitted the film very well and made this epic (not 90 minutes as billed, but in fact nearer 120 minutes) a perfect Sunday afternoon wallow.

‘Annie Laurie’ is basically the story of the feud between the Campbell and MacDonald clans with a large amount of artistic licence, as the centerpiece of the Glencoe massacre is presented within the framework of a romantic triangle in which Annie (Gish) is courted by Donald Campbell (Creighton Hale) – who despite playing the lute and singing her praises doesn’t shrink from committing mass murder on behalf of his monarch – and desired with rather more wildness by Ian MacDonald (Norman Kerry), who wears a kilt and not much else with some panache.

Incidentally while Gish remained in feature roles for several years, Kerry’s career came to an end shortly after the arrival of sound, and although Hale remained in pictures, it was largely in uncredited roles until the end of the 1950s.

Both actors are rather broad players to modern eyes, but you can see what female audiences might have seen in Kerry, who appeared to good effect in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ earlier in the decade.

It’s Gish who holds the interest here, though, flirting, worrying, grieving, and finally making her final run to save her man from certain death (leading to a charming two-strip Technicolor finish where all ends well – this film would have looked wonderful with colour throughout).

The only other female role goes to the rather insipid Patricia Avery, in her first of only four films, as the Campbell girl who is taken off in the arms of the virile Alastair MacDonald (Joseph Striker, who is guilty of a bit of over-acting) and then declines to go home.

Although Scotland may be portrayed with a Hollywood tinge, where everyone wears kilts, sword-dances, caber-tosses, and in the case of the MacDonalds, just stop short of ripping animals apart for food with their bare hands, the very basic plot does convince, and the bits of comedy from John Ford alumnus Russell Simpson as Sandy fit well against the more melodramatic passages, the rather sweet interplay between Gish and Kerry as they reluctantly fall in love, and the drama of the final battle.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Incidentally, let’s consider fact from fiction here.  ‘Annie Laurie’ uses the real Glencoe massacre as a major plot point on which to hang its fictional characters.

  • In the film, Annie Laurie is courted by both Donald Campbell, son of the Campbell Chieftain, and Ian MacDonald, son of the MacDonald Chieftain.  False.  Although Anna Laurie was a real person, she was not involved directly with either clan and in fact married Alexander Fergusson, 14th Laird of Craigdarroch.  She was however courted by William Douglas, a Jacobite, at one time.  Both Donald and Ian are fictional characters.
  • In the film, Enid Campbell is abducted by Alastair MacDonald, and falls in love with him, bearing him a child on the eve of the massacre, and dying in childbirth. False. Enid did not exist.  Eileen MacGregor (sister of Rob Roy) and relative of the Campbells, was married to Alexander MacDonald, youngest son of the chieftain – he escaped with his life, whereas in the film he dies.
  • In the film, the MacDonalds win the day, and kill Donald Campbell and some of his men. False. No Campbells were slain in the massacre, and the MacDonalds were practically wiped out.  This is alluded to in the film when we see the slaughter of the young child who has stamped him foot earlier when prevented from fighting with the Clan, but there was no happy ending.
  • In the film, the MacDonalds do sign the peace treaty with King William III, but arrive late due to a storm.  True.
  • In the film, the Campbells follow the direction of their King in heading to the MacDonald castle, taking shelter, and then killing their hosts, because they had not signed by 1st January.  Partly true. The issue of the MacDonalds being Jacobite followers of King James II while the Campbells took the new King’s shilling is not made clear.

Staatkapelle Berlin/Barenboim (Royal Festival Hall)

A very special concert this week at the Royal Festival Hall, with Daniel Barenboim leading his Staatkapelle Berlin orchestra through a couple of intense pieces from Tchaikovsky (Violin Concerto, with Lisa Batiashvili as soloist), and Elgar (2nd Symphony).

The violin piece is a chance for the soloist to show off her virtuosity, and such was the case here – and a joy to watch, from our seats above the orchestra, the interaction between Batiashvili and Barenboim as he watched her play.  Just wonderful.  This is a joyous and uplifting piece in which the Staatkapelle excelled themselves.

The Elgar, though, was the highlight of the evening – and across the whole orchestra, there was outstanding work from strings, woodwind, percussion, and brass.  Barenboim was awarded the Elgar Medal at the end of the night for his five decades of work championing this great modern composer, and in mentioning his former wife and ‘great Elgarian’ in his speech (not by name, but everyone in the house knew who he meant) he awakened memories of that superb Cello Concerto performance of days gone by.

The General, 1926 – ★★★★½

While this Buster Keaton film is not total perfection, it remains a feat of stunts, humour, and high energy which is still very entertaining.

Keaton plays a railway engineer who is not allowed to enlist in the American Civil War due to his value in his day job (but not being told this, he simply feels rejection in his own heart and from the family of his intended). However when his locomotive, the ‘General’ of the title, is stolen by the Northern enemy, he has his chance to prove his heroics in that accident-prone way we have come to recognise from his faster-paced shorts.

Doing all his own stunts, as well as being blessed with one of the least (i.e. most) expressive faces in silent cinema, Keaton makes an excellent lead as well taking on co-writing, directing and producing duties. The stunts and set pieces are a miracle of timing, the message is slightly sending up the military, and love prevails.

Watched in the Thames Silents presentation with music by Carl Davis, using stirring themes from both sides of the Civil War as well as pastiche classical tunes which fit the time and the action.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Her, 2013 – ★★★★½ (contains spoilers)

This review reportedly contains spoilers.

This was a huge surprise: I wasn’t sure if I would like it, having been aware of the subject matter and thinking it was quite weird. But in the hands of director Spike Jonze and star Joaquin Phoenix this turns into something rather special.

Phoenix plays a writer who works for a company creating handwritten personalised letters for clients who presumably do not have the time or the nous to write for themselves. He lives at a time where techology is a step ahead from where we are now, with interactive games, and ultimately computers who really have personalities.

So Theodore meets ‘Samantha’, the only relationship he has had which has been meaningful since splitting from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). His friend Amy (Amy Adams) is accepting of his OS relationship, but Catherine clearly thinks it is freaky and weird.

What follows is extremely touching and strangely believable, as Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is intelligent, funny, caring and quite the perfect partner. The slight mis-step is around their trying to find a sex surrogate, Isabella (Portia Doubleday), and the eventual discovery by Theodore that Samantha is in fact involved with many lonely men just like him.

Ultimately sad, but perceptive and challenging, ‘Her’ is a superior piece of cinema, just like Jonze’s ‘Being John Malkovich’ (but that was a film I found more satisfying, which explains why ‘Her’ rates half a star less from me).

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Sweeney Todd (English National Opera, London Coliseum)

We were lucky enough to see the final performance (of a short run of 14) of the ENO’s ‘Sweeney Todd’, a production first performed at the Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic.  Ported over for this show were Bryn Terfel (Sweeney Todd), Emma Thompson (Mrs Lovett) and Philip Quast (Judge Turpin), with the addition of Matthew Seadon-Young as Anthony, Katie Hall as Johanna, John Owen-Jones as Pirelli, Jack North as Tobias, Rosalie Craig as the Beggar Woman, and Alex Gaumond as the Beadle.


At the start it seems as if we are going to see a straight concert performance, but this seems a waste of a good cast and a vibrant, beautiful venue, so as Terfel and co throw down their scores, destroy items on the stage, and hand out props from an ENO trunk, we pitch into Sondheim’s powerful score with some style, and stuffy concert formality is pushed aside for banners, graffiti, and bloody handprints (the conductor even sports one on the back of his shirt, visible through his ripped black jacket).


Whether the production is a success or not generally depends on whether the balance of darkness and comedy is depicted correctly – and in Thompson there is a saucy playfulness around a hard interior which is quite happy to condone and encourage mass murder to encourage the pie trade.  In Terfel’s magnificent Sweeney we see an icy resolve for revenge, not just on the men who violated his wife and stole his daughter, but on everyone who needs a shave.  Truly there are no closer shaves to be found on Fleet Street.

Sondheim’s score, too, is towering, walking the line between musical and opera without effort – so that one of opera’s greatest bass-baritones fits well in the role alongside a musical comedy actress and a baritone who has played most of the major roles in musicals without having formal voice training.  Owen-Jones may be slightly wasted in the role of Pirelli, but he is fun, while Philip Quast is hissably repellent as the judge who finds himself lusting after his adopted daughter, who ‘looks lovely in her white muslin dress’.  Absent from London stages since La Cage Aux Folles six years ago, he’s welcome back in the UK after a run of successes in his native Australia, and it is a privilege to hear him sing the duet ‘Pretty Women’ with Terfel.

Thompson has two comedy high points in ‘The Worst Pies in London’ and ‘By The Sea’ (with a handy spray bottle to evoke the briny), while her duet with Terfel, ‘A Little Priest’ sizzles with menace against audience, orchestra and unsuspecting pie eaters alike.  In a red outfit with slashed collar and headscarf, she totters between industrious baker and lovestruck widow, and she has great chemistry with her Sweeney.

Thumbs up for this production’s Anthony and Johanna too, with their ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ song of young love, and their eventual look of horror at the mouth of hell in the bakehouse’s final carnage.  And Tobias, the young lad who we first see as Pirelli’s assistant, a cheeky chap with a fast mouth, becomes a broken bird, and perhaps his story is the saddest of all.

Gypsy (Savoy Theatre)

Moving swiftly into the West End following a successful run at the Chichester Festival, this quintessential Broadway musical camps up at the Savoy in lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday year, with just one cast change (Peter Davison replaces Kevin Whately as Herbie).

Written in 1959 to a book by Arthur Laurents, with music by the late Jule Styne (1905-1994), this musical takes the real life memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee (born Louise Hovick) as its source, choosing to present the story of this most famous of strippers and her little sister June (who made it big in Hollywood as June Havoc) by focusing on their most monstrous of stage mothers, Momma Rose.

As Rose, Imelda Staunton must be aware she has some big shoes to fill.  Although singers such as Betty Buckley, Bernadette Peters, Patti Lu Pone, Tyne Daly and Angela Lansbury have appeared in well-received productions, each and every portrayal arguably has the ghost of the greatest of them all, Miss Ethel Merman, hanging over them.  And although the tiny Staunton proves to be an engaging and convincing powerhouse, you can’t help thinking that her Rose is channelling those big voices of the past (and doing it very well).

If Staunton is harking back to Merman and others, then Davison seems to be taking inspiration from Jimmy Durante with slightly off-key and often gravelly vocals, which give his characterisation a curious and sinister quality.  He does get into the spirit of the role, though, throwing himself into the ‘that’s showbiz’ vibe of ‘Together Wherever We Go’ and slumping visibly when he realises that Rose will never be the calming wife he seeks to spend his declining days with – this man gives years to Rose and her daughters and their increasingly awful vaudeville act, and yet proves dispensible at the end.

Lara Pulver, previously seen on television as the confident dominatrix Irene Adler in ‘Sherlock’, is a quite wonderful Louise, moving effortlessly from the quiet innocence of ‘Little Lamb’ (“I wonder how old I am”) to the brassy confidence of the strip-woman (“My mother says ask them what they want and then don’t give it to them … but I am not my mother.”).  She comes out of her shell wonderfully in the second half of the show when she finally emerges from the shadow of her squeaky voiced sister (Gemma Sutton).

The best number though, which rightly brought the house down, is ‘You Gotta Get a Gimmick’, in which three old burlesque performers give advice to the newcomer.  Louise Gold is quite superb and hilarious as Mazeppa (“bump it with a trumpet”), while Anita Louise Combe is a gracefully ageing Tessie Tura and Julie Legrand a cheeky Electra.  This routine boasts the original Jerome Robbins choreography, a good decision as why try to improve on perfection?

Stand-out songs to look out for are the spunky ‘Some People’ in act one, where Rose vows to strike out and make her girls stars, and ‘If Momma Was Married’ where June and Louise wish for a normal existence, off the road.  But it is Staunton’s ‘Rose’s Turn’ which gets the emotions stirring, and which give her the standing ovation she rightly deserves.  On the debit side I felt ‘Mr Goldstone’ could have had more zip, but it is a small quibble.

The staging is simple – a fake proscenium arch with variety boards title each scene, the sparsed of sets indicate living and performance spaces.  This allows the lush orchestrations and the clever lyrics from a writer just beginning to flourish to come through.  I wouldn’t have used the area beyond the thrust stage, though: it isn’t fair to those in cheaper seats and adds little to the proceedings.  Better to let the orchestra (who are brilliant) stay seperate and do their thing.

Jonathan Kent’s sparkling revival (the first in London for forty years) is worth a look, and if you like the traditional, old musicals it will not disappoint.  If you’re used to the brash and modern pieces then you might find it slow (especially the lengthy overture), but be patient, and this ‘Gypsy’ will reward you.

For more on the real-life Hovick sisters, see here for Gypsy herself (in 1943):

and here for June (also 1943):

while Rose Hovick’s story is told in the book ‘Mama Rose’s Turn‘.

My Acorn DVD collection

Another popular archive TV label is Acorn, who publish titles both in the UK and the USA.

Titles owned:

  • Anna Karenina (Nicola Pagett)
  • Aristocrats
  • Berkeley Square
  • Broadway’s Lost Treasures I and II
  • Carrie’s War
  • The Complete Father Brown (Kenneth More)
  • Country Matters
  • Cousin Bette
  • Cribb volume 1 and 2
  • Dandelion Dead
  • Dear Ladies series 1
  • Dixon of Dock Green: set 2
  • East of Eden
  • The First Churchills
  • A Foreign Field
  • Foyle’s War: The German Woman/The White Feather
  • A Horseman Riding By
  • The House of Elliott: Series 1
  • I Remember Nelson
  • Jack Rosenthal at the BBC
  • Karaoke and Cold Lazarus
  • The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
  • Lipstick on Your Collar
  • Lonesome Dove
  • Lord Peter Wimsey Complete (Ian Carmichael)
  • Lorna Doone
  • Lost Empires
  • Love on a Branch Line
  • Melissa
  • Midsomer Murders: Death of a Stranger
  • Murder Most English
  • North and South
  • Our Mutual Friend
  • Painted Lady
  • The Pallisers
  • Paul Temple Collection: colour episodes
  • Penmarric: Complete
  • Playing Shakespeare
  • The Politician’s Wife
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • The Rector’s Wife
  • Shakespeare Retold
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars
  • Smiley’s People
  • The Strauss Family
  • Strumpet City
  • Testament of Youth
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • To Serve Them All My Days
  • Traffik
  • Wessex Tales

Stevie (Hampstead Theatre)

To Swiss Cottage this weekend for a revival of the 1977 play by Hugh Whitemore, about the writer Stevie Smith, which has now landed in London via the Chichester Festival.  It was filmed in 1978 with the original ‘Stevie’, Glenda Jackson.

This time around the role of the spinster poet who lives with her maiden aunt in Palmers Green is played by Zoë Wanamaker, with Lynda Baron as the ‘Lion Aunt’ and Chris Larkin as ‘The Man’.


The set design by Simon Higlett is a perfect balance to Christopher Morahan’s direction, and the intimacy of the piece sits well in the Hampstead Theatre’s space – where the Smith living room is invaded by trees from the garden and is filled with photographs, books, and religious icons.  This ‘house of female habitation’, to quote one of Smith’s plays, is where both Stevie and her aunt pass the years, and during that time we see hints of both past and present through the last few years of her life.

Those of you who remember the film might notice one slight change it made from the stage production – it did not have the same actor playing both ‘The Man’ and Smith’s old beau, Freddy.  Here, Chris Larkin (who is so like his mother, Maggie Smith, especially when he plays the slightly camp friend who is used as a pseudo-taxi service by Stevie) plays both roles, and observes many scenes in quiet contemplation.

I liked Lynda Baron’s aunt a lot – she is both funny and vulnerable, and it is a great portrayal of a strong women growing frail and forgetful with age.  Wanamaker’s Stevie is also funny and fragile, although throughout I was reminded how good Glenda Jackson had been in the role, and how she could bring a sense of dangerous imbalance to the role which I didn’t see in Wanamaker – I also felt the play took a little time to warm up and get going, although the second half, on balance, is much better,

The strength of this play, though, is not in Whitemore’s ‘creation’ of Smith as a person, but in the reciting of her poems, which can stand on their own without embellishment.  Smith was a rhymer, and on the face of it a writer of fey simplicity, but that would be a great disservice to her.  In pieces like ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’, ‘The Jungle Husband’, ‘Infelice’ (not included here) and others there is a lot more going on that would originally appear.

Harvey (Richmond Theatre – now in the West End)

The 1950 film of ‘Harvey’, starring James Stewart, and directed by Henry Koster, is certainly a hard act to follow.  I’d seen the play (by Mary Chase) done by an amateur theatre group before, and found it entertaining.  This is the first professional production I had seen, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Yes, it takes a while to warm up and get going.  Maureen Lipman’s Veta has an American accent which wanders all over the place but then settles into something far less painful, but she is excellent as the fussy woman with aspirations to have a house-full of guests who are not scared away by her odd brother and his friend.

That friend being the Harvey of the title, a large white rabbit, six feet three inches tall, who appeared to our hero, Elwood P Dowd, one evening, just leaning against a lamp-post.  He spoke to Elwood by name and commented on the intoxication of his friend, who had just been shepherded away by taxi.  And as Elwood tells us, later, he thought nothing of it because ‘when you’ve lived in a town as long as I’ve lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.’

James Dreyfus, who was so good on television in ‘The Thin Blue Line’ and ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’, is a fine Elwood, a little camp, a little fey, and nothing like Stewart.  That’s all to the good.  He makes the insane normal and the psychotic likeable, while all the normal people around him seem to be strange.

The thing about ‘Harvey’ as a play is that it has some great lines, whether it is the one about the ‘stranger in the bathtub’, or ‘For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me’.  The characters are well-drawn, if a little ridiculous, and if Elwood and his friend bring the doctor and nurse together, or the burly orderly and the niece, then that’s to the good.

In Lindsay Posner’s new production, there is superb and clever set design by Peter McKintosh, working largely on a revolve, while most of the lines and passages we know so well remain.  My particular favourites are the little speech by the taxi driver (here played by Linal Haft, who I recognised immediately from those 1980s BT ads where he played the son of ‘Beattie’, played by … Maureen Lipman), and the description by Elwood of how he gains friends in drinking places.

In fact I will repeat that lovely passage right here:  ‘Harvey and I sit in the bars… have a drink or two… play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, “We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.” Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers – soon we have friends. And they come over… and they sit with us… and they drink with us… and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey… and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that’s envy, my dear’.

There’s an hilarious bit from David Bamber as Dr Chumley, who starts the day hiding in his room and ends it pub-crawling with a brand-new friend who makes him yen for cold beer and a girl who never speaks.  And, curiously, this comedy, which started so gingerly, becomes something rather more than fun.  It becomes rather moving in its finale.  And that is its gift, and Harvey’s.

‘Harvey’ is now on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.  I strongly recommend it.

Remembering England’s great eccentric, Vivian Stanshall

On 5th March 2015 it will be twenty years since the wonderfully weird singer, musician, wit, poet, artist, mystic, songwriter and all-round ‘definitely not normal’ Vivian Stanshall (1943-1995) left our world for somewhere far more colourful, wild and magnificent.


He may well be best known yet for his time as the frontman of the Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band, a ragbag of art students who started by apeing the sounds of jazz and silly big band tunes by way of Spike Jones and Flanders and Swann.  They recorded ‘My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies’, ‘Button Up Your Overcoat’, and made a memorable, and early, television appearance performing ‘Bill Bailey’ on Blue Peter, before taking up residency on one of the shows which pre-dated Monty Python, ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’.

Neil Innes provided the melodic music and the happy Beatly-type face of the Bonzos, but Vivian provided a sense of danger and fascination, which came to the fore during the band’s first album, ‘Gorilla’, in 1967, which featured such cuts as ‘Jollity Farm’. ‘Look Out There’s A Monster Coming’, ‘Mickey’s Son and Daughter’ and the delightfully subversive ‘I’m Bored’.  Vivian’s posh vowels and droll delivery livened up the songs and made them different to the mop-top popular music or the dreary psychedelic epics of the time.


It was with their 1968 album,  ‘The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse’, however, that the odd side of the Bonzos really took hold: ‘Can Blue Men Sing The Whites’, ‘My Pink Half of the Drainpipe’ and ‘Postcard’ all seemed to be railing against what the rest of the world accepted as dreary, everyday, and normal.  During this year their single ‘Canyons of Your Mind’ was played out on the German show ‘Beat Club’ – it was in repeats of that show that I first spotted Vivian Stanshall, thought he was a fascinating and unique creature, and became hooked for life.

Following the break-up of the Bonzos, what can only be described as the ‘Sir Henry Rawlinson’ phenomenon took flight – first with a run of radio extracts on the John Peel show, an album (strictly speaking two albums, but the second was released, unfinished, after being taken without consent from Stanshall), then a feature film in 1980 (with associated book, published by Eel Pie and full of wonders and snapshots from the film),   Sir Henry might well be his greatest achievement – and yet, and yet …

Watching ‘Vivian Stanshall’s Week’ from 1975, one might take time to adjust to the absurdity and surrealism of what passes as one man’s everyday life (as well as being quite shocked at his appearance at this time), but it is a slice of television quite unlike anything else that was around at the time.  During the 1970s he was also involved in the seminal ‘Tubular Bells’ project from Mike Oldfield, introducing the instruments, and in writing for Steve Winwood’s solo albums (notably the songs ‘Vacant Chair’ and ‘Arc of a Diver’).  These songs alone showcase a perceptive and sensitive lyricist rather at odds with the public image of a difficult and crude eccentric given to scatalogical humour and slightly offensive offbeat observations.

1974’s album ‘Man Opening Umbrellas Ahead’ achieved almost-legendary status during its long period of unavailability between release date and 2010.  I remember obtaining a bootleg in the 1990s and being shocked and enthralled by the music I was hearing – dangerous, yes, but also sensual, troubling, wildly funny, and in places, rather beautiful.  It is a modern classic in many ways (particularly the epic ‘Strange Tongues’ and the troublingly weird ‘Yelp, Bellow, Rasp, Et Cetera’).  His follow up solo album (of songs) from 1981, was ‘Teddy Boys Don’t Knit’, a far more personal affair with tracks dedicated to his wife and young daughter, and reflections on his childhood and life as a ‘rock musician’.

Stanshall’s life continued to be troubled by addictions and mental breakdowns throughout the remainder of his life, but now and again there were peaks of brilliance – artwork, voice work on adverts (the 1980s Tennants Pilsner ones were superb, as were the two Creme Egg ones based on older Bonzo songs ‘Mr Slater’s Parrot’ and ‘The Intro and the Outro’), and a more recent discovery for me, the return of ‘Tubular Bells’, from 1993.  His last major television appearance was in ‘Crank’ (made for ‘The Late Show’) in 1991, while on radio he spoke about his parents, in 1994, for a special programme, and discussed losing his virginity at a surprisingly early age in the Pulp promotional film ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’


It seemed that despite his frailty Vivian Stanshall would always endure, and so it was a great shock, and a great sadness, when he passed away in a house fire on that fateful night in 1995.  Since then his star has continued to shine bright and his influence on performers such as Stephen Fry and Adrian Edmondson has endured.  We might celebrate the Young Ones, Little Britain, or the League of Gentlemen, but I submit that someone else got there first – the man in the sharp suit and the lounge voice who appears in the cabaret spot in the Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, the man who contributed a couple of rock pastiche songs to the soundtrack of ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and parodied the King himself on ‘The Last Temptation of Elvis’, the man who crooned about being a ‘Big Shot’ and frightened passers-by dressed as a giant rabbit.

We will not see his like again, and we miss him like crazy.  However, his widow Ki Longfellow-Stanshall is currently planning to bring a showcase of Vivian’s work back to the fore through an exhibition of his work which will hopefully engage and excite a new generation.  I have a feeling the old boy might have been very pleased about all the attention.


First Encounter: King Lear, 2012 – ★★★½

The Royal Shakespeare Company developed this truncated version of King Lear for young audiences through their education programme, and this version was taped in New York.

Running just seventy-eight minutes and starring Paul Copley as the King, this is set over a week at Christmas, with Lear opening his presents at court on Christmas Day and dividing his kingdom between his cruel daughters while banishing the one most true to him, and reaching the end of the play on New Year’s Eve.

Although the running time is short, the main elements of the play are there, although an audience may struggle to find emotional engagement.

There are some interesting parallels in costume – when we first see Edmund he is dressed as the red-nosed reindeer, the same as the Fool will be later – however, both Kent and the Fool have their parts much reduced, and although the blinding of Gloucester survives along with Edgar’s masquerade as ‘poor Tom’ (wearing clothes retrieved from the drains), it doesn’t have the same power as it might in a full-length version.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Remembering AC/DC’s first frontman


I have to give Radio 1’s ‘Friday Rock Show’ the credit, in the person of Tommy Vance, who, during the late 1980s, introduced a whole range of rock artists to the airwaves ranging from death metal outfits, 60s folk rock, to early tracks from big names like Quo, Purple, Sabbath and Zeppelin.

It must have been 1985 (shortly after a whole show had been devoted to a live gig by Motley Crue) that Vance played a track which made the twelve-year old me sit up and take notice.  The track was ‘Ride On’, and the band was AC/DC – a band which I had previously only associated with ‘Hells Bells’ and ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, with a singer whose voice sounded as if he was scraping fingernails against a blackboard, a good rock voice, sure, but not this one that I was listening to on the FRS.

I was of course listening to the band’s previous singer, Ronald Belford Scott (known as ‘Bon’) who had passed away in 1980.  The 35th anniversary of his death has just been and gone, on the 19th February, and although their most enduring singer, Brian Johnson, has now been in the band longer than Bon Scott was alive, he is still one of my favourite frontmen, an attractive and vibrant personality with a huge sense of fun (Vance would play other songs from the era which played on this, from ‘She’s Got Balls’ and ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ to ‘I’m a Rocker’ and ‘Up To My Neck’), but it was ‘Ride On’ which made me place him in that rare group of superb vocalists who stand head and shoulders above everyone else.

I love ‘Ride On’.  It not only has fantastic vocals but also great lyrics and perhaps Angus Young’s best guitar work – until I heard this track I hadn’t really rated him as a musician but here, he was the real deal.  It’s hard to find the song in the usual places – all the YouTube videos which feature it have been muted through copyright claims – but if you look on Dailymotion, you’ll find it.  I don’t want to deprive people of the pleasure so I’m not linking it here.

I will however link a little bit of fun, which was how Bon started off, in the 1960s, in ‘The Valentines’.  He isn’t the lead singer here, and he does look just a little embarrassed, but this is fun.

When Bon Scott died he was at the peak of his success and, so it seems from a Top of the Pops appearance less than two weeks’ before (‘Touch Too Much’), of his fitness too.  There have been all sorts of rumours around the events of that fateful night when he drank a little more than he should and died in a freezing car in the middle of the night that February – but whatever the truth, it still feels a terrible waste of an admittedly difficult but talented individual to pass away at the age of just thirty-three, but perhaps it was inevitable given his alcohol and drug addictions, and at least he did not become a member of the 27-club along with others of his contemporaries.

Anyway, if it hadn’t been for Tommy Vance’s inclusion of these songs in his broadcasts I probably wouldn’t have known about the first few years of AC/DC’s existence, and what might have been.  He’s gone now, too, and although Radio 1 still rocks it isn’t quite the same.  On 6th March it will be ten years since we lost Vance, so I raise a glass to both him and Scott, and say we miss both of you, very much.

Horror of Darkness, 1965 – ★★★½

A visit to the BFI Mediatheque is always well worth it, and this time I had a particular Wednesday Play in mind, ‘Horror of Darkness’.

This play by John Hopkins was filmed in 1964 but held back for a year before its television transmission as one of the ‘Wednesday Plays’, perhaps due to worry from the BBC about its subject matter, which touches on homosexuality at a time when this was still a matter for the criminal courts.

Peter (a dour Alfred Lynch) and Cathy (Glenda Jackson in sparkling form) are a couple, not married, but rubbing along together. He’s an artist, illustrating biology books. She appears to be a homemaker. Into their world comes Robin (Nicol Williamson, playing in his native Scots accent), a fey and unpredictable friend of Peter’s from the past, who brings a sense of unease into the happy home.

Early on, we see Robin’s playful but disruptive side when he ruins Peter’s commissioned drawing, but we don’t know why he is like this. We also don’t know why Peter is so shaken to find Robin in the flat with a woman, listening to stereo instrumentals on the gramophone.

As Robin weaves a web in which he claims to be a successful writer, first of a short story in the magazine ‘Impetus’ and then of a produced play, his hosts seem to remain shaken by his presence.

There’s a great scene where Peter and Cathy are shut out from a party going on in their own house, a party we don’t see, and they share wine on the stairs before arguing, again, about their unpaying guest. “Where can he go?” “I don’t know.” “Sad, isn’t it?”.

Robin singing snatches of ‘Over The Rainbow’ probably gives us a large clue these days as to what’s going on – not sure that fifty years ago this would have been as obvious. But then there’s a lovely moment where Peter offers to light his cigarette, and Robin grasps his wrist and holds it just a fraction too long, and then we know, even as they continue to dance around the subject and goad and needle each other.

Then the moment. “I love you!” And an eyebrow raised, beautifully done by Lynch, rejecting his friend with a carefully phrased retort: “Cathy’s right. You can be something of a liability.” Cathy, for her part, is goading too, with a clumsy kiss filled with contempt and a warning to Robin that she knows he aims to take Peter away from her.

There’s music all the way through this play, whether from the LPs which play filling the room (a glorious scene with a classical chorus), or Robin, alone in his lonely bed, whistling. Everyone seems to be heading for breaking point throughout – this is a darker, more dangerous turn away from the niceties of Coward’s ‘Design for Living’ which balances a similar triangle. Peter even makes boiling a kettle full of menace. Robin is as desperate as coiled springs. Cathy is manically miserable.

I didn’t see the twist coming, and that probably makes it effective even now. Robin’s last line in the play is “I can be nice only so long. You know?”, and after that he proves it with his actions and the way they finally tear the couple apart. There’s also a mysterious visitor, who sheds light on what has gone before.

And Peter? Well, Robin said he was ‘just like him’ but ‘safe as houses’, and we understand that, and so does Cathy. The two ‘nicest people in the world’ have destroyed themselves, and there’s a chilling scene where Peter in an act of verbal and physical violence lets out his feelings on the girl Robin had to visit back in the early part of the play.

The three leads are extremely effective together, and there is a real sense throughout that something is going to explode, but we don’t know what – and it never quite does. The gay angle is handled well, and we completely understand what has been going on, and it is quite pathetic to watch this sad trio approach their own private darkness.

My visit to the Mediatheque was completed by watching the final episode of 1957’s television serial for children, the adaptation of ‘The Silver Sword’ by Ian Serraillier, which had been published the previous year.  A tale of four Polish children around the time of the Second World War (including familar names Melvyn Hayes (aged 21) and Frazer Hines (aged 12)) this does look as if it would be well worth watching were the whole series to become available.

Royal Opera Live: Der fliegende Holländer, 2015 – ★★★★½

Without having the ready money to spend on seeing a live production at the Royal Opera House, I decided instead to do the next-best thing, and watch the relay to cinemas for the final performance of Wagner’s popular opera of ‘The Flying Dutchman’.

Tim Albery’s production is now on its third revival, and the role of the Dutchman was played by Wales’ finest bass-baritone, the marvellous Bryn Terfel, who has really grown into this part over the years: one might say it is one of his signature roles.

Here his dour and dark captain, doomed to sail his ghostly ship through inhospitable waters for eternity, was complemented by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka. She is in her fifties, but managed to convey through her acting and singing a portrait of Senta, a young girl in obsessive love with a legend, with her toy ship and the stories she tells her co-workers about the pale seafarer and his need for redemption.

Some of Albery’s choices might be suspect to Wagnerian purists – the ending has lost the sense of the dramatic (instead of Senta plunging into the icy waves she instead collapses holding her ship while her friends look on), and there is a lot of water (using what resembles a shower curtain to throw water against before curtain up to convey the storm, and having various characters paddling in the stream where the toy ship is anchored).

No sound problems at the Westfield London’s Vue, though, although some were reported at other screenings. The staging and presentation was quite cinematic – I like to see close-ups and be in the thick of the action. Interestingly, the most melodic and memorable pieces of the score are not those sung by the Dutchman, but rather those by Senta, and by the Steersman and the crew.

The crew’s party was jarringly modern, with a feel of Newcastle on a Saturday night with short-skirted ladies and hard drinking men, but the appearance of the ghostly crew of the Dutchman’s ship was effective. I also liked the line of sewing machines at which Senta and her friends dreamed and sang.

Peter Rose as Daland might have been a little below par (we were warned before the start that he had a heavy cold) but the pro came out in decent voice and did well to make it through to the end. No harm done there.

Great production, and I’d heartily recommend these live relays for anyone not sure about opera, as well as those, like me, who have seen these pieces before and just go along to enjoy them in a different setting.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

My Network DVD collection

TV Comedy

  • The Complete Adrian Mole
  • Agony: The Complete Series
  • Catweazle: Series 1 and Series 2
  • Cilla’s Comedy Six: The Complete Series
  • Classic ITV Christmas Comedy
  • End of Part One: The Complete Series
  • Frost on Sunday
  • The Galton and Simpson Playhouse
  • The Goodies … At Last, A Second Helping
  • If There Weren’t Any Blacks You’d Have To Invent Them
  • The New Incomplete Complete and Utter History of Britain
  • Outside Edge: The Complete Series
  • Pipkins: Volumes 1-3
  • Ripping Yarns: The Complete Series
  • Romany Jones: Complete Series 1 and 2
  • Sadie, It’s Cold Outside: The Complete Series
  • Six Dates With Barker
  • Spitting Image: The Complete Series 1-7
  • The Strange World of Gurney Slade: The Complete Series
  • Sunday Night at the London Palladium: Volumes 1 and 2
  • Victoria Wood: Screenplays

TV Drama

  • The Adventures of Black Beauty: Best of
  • Adventures of Robin Hood: Complete
  • Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel: Complete
  • Alan Plater at ITV
  • Anglo Saxon Attitudes: Complete
  • The Arcata Promise
  • Armchair Cinema: The Collection
  • Armchair Theatre: Volumes 1-4
  • Armchair Thriller: Complete
  • Band of Gold/Gold: Complete
  • The Bass Player and the Blonde
  • Beasts: The Complete Series
  • The Beiderbecke Trilogy/Get Lost: Complete
  • The Blackheath Poisonings: Complete
  • The Brontes of Haworth: Complete
  • The Buccaneers: The Complete Series
  • The Caesars: Complete
  • Casting the Runes
  • Cause Celebre
  • Children’s Ward: Complete Series 1
  • Chiller: Complete Series
  • A Choice of Coward: Complete
  • Clayhanger: Complete
  • Codename Kyril
  • Coronation Street: 1972
  • Crown Court: Volumes 1-7
  • Danger UXB: Complete Series Special Edition
  • The Dark Angel: Complete
  • Dennis Potter at LWT: Volumes 1 and 2
  • Dick Turpin: Series 1
  • Disraeli: Complete
  • Dramarama: Spooky
  • Dramarama: Volume 1
  • Edward and Mrs Simpson: Complete
  • Enemy at the Door: Complete
  • Espionage: Michael Powell
  • Fireball XL5: Complete
  • Flickers: The Complete Series
  • Floodtide: The Complete Series
  • The Four Just Men: The Complete Series
  • Framed
  • The Gold Robbers: Complete
  • The Good Companions: Complete
  • The Hanged Man: Complete
  • The Invisible Man: Complete
  • ITC 50
  • Jack Rosenthal at ITV
  • Jamaica Inn: Complete
  • Jemima Shore Investigates: Complete
  • Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill: Complete
  • Justice: Complete Series 1-3
  • A Kind of Loving: Complete
  • The Knock: Complete Series 1
  • Ladies in Charge: Complete
  • Lady Killers: Complete Series 1-2
  • The Last Place on Earth: Complete
  • Laurence Olivier Presents
  • Lillie: The Complete Series
  • Look-Back on 70s Telly: Issues 1-4
  • The Main Chance: Complete Series 1-4
  • The Male of the Species: Three Plays by Alun Owen
  • Mr Axelford’s Angel
  • Mr Palfrey of Westminster: Complete
  • Mystery and Imagination
  • Philby, Burgess and Maclean
  • Piece of Cake: Complete
  • The Plane Makers: Volumes 1 and 3
  • Plays for Britain: Complete
  • The Power Game: The Complete Series
  • The Protectors: Complete Series
  • Red Letter Day: The Complete Series
  • Redcap: Series 1
  • The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Complete Series 1-2
  • Robin of Sherwood: Complete
  • The Sandbaggers: Complete
  • Scoop
  • Scorpion Tales: Complete
  • Sergeant Cork: Complete Series 1-6
  • Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance
  • Shadows of Fear: Complete
  • Six Days of Justice: Complete Series 1-2
  • Smuggler: The Complete Series
  • Soap Box: Volume 1
  • South Riding: The Complete Series
  • Storyboard: The Complete Series
  • Strangers: The Complete Series
  • Tales of the Unexpected: Complete
  • Tales Out of School: Four Films by David Leland
  • Thomas and Sarah: Complete
  • Thriller: The Complete Series
  • Travelling Man: Complete
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Tyrant King: Complete
  • Upstairs Downstairs: Complete
  • Van Der Valk: Complete
  • A Very Peculiar Practice: Complete
  • Village Hall: Complete Series 1 and 2
  • Warrior Queen: Complete
  • The Widowmaker
  • Will Shakespeare: Complete
  • William Tell: Complete
  • Wish Me Luck: Complete
  • Yesterday’s Dreams: Complete
  • The Zoo Gang: Complete

TV Other

  • 56 Up
  • Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow
  • Charley Says: Limited Edition
  • Frost on Coward
  • Frost on Friday
  • Frost on Saturday
  • Six Centuries of Verse: Complete
  • The Story of Film: An Odyssey
  • Tempo: Volume 1
  • Unknown Chaplin
  • World in Action: Volumes 1-4


  • British Musicals of the 1930s Volume 1-3
  • The Ealing Rarities Volumes 1-14

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The Actor's Advocate

In defence of acting

Ritchie Blackmores Rainbow

Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow - the ultimate resource

So much content, so little time...

Just another review blog

Hollywood Essays ♛

by Alicia Mayer

Spectacular Attractions

film in all its forms

Mingled Yarns

Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book

The Play's The Thing

Thoughts on theatre, scribblings on the stage, commentaries on culture. / All feedback welcome! Please comment here or tweet me @LauraKPeatman


Being a web log for the observations of actor, author, cartoonist, comedian, critic, director, humorist, journalist, master of ceremonies, performance artist, playwright, producer, publicist, public speaker, songwriter, and variety booker Trav S.D.

Jordan and Eddie (The Movie Guys)

Australia based film fans - Like Margaret and David, only so much younger

Something Like a Storybook

This is where Morgan Bradham shares.


A Trawl through my VHS library

How do you eat an elephant?

Beating depression bite by bite


libraries & librarianship today

Libraries, Information Literacy and E-learning

reflections from the digital age

Ink Drops Reviews

My thoughts on TV shows, books and movies. Not spoiler-free. @syrupysweeet_


You Don't Mess Around With Jane

The Elbow Patch

Where higher education and sociology meet


Where Suspense Lives!


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