The Complete Adrian Mole (Network)

adrian-mole-the-complete-seriesNetwork catalogue no: 7953736.  2 disc set.  Released 2/7/12.

I have fond memories of both the Adrian Mole series from their first transmission in the 1980s.  However until this DVD was released in 2012 I had not seen either series for over twenty-five years.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4  was shown from September 1985, with The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole following in May 1987.  Although Gian Sammarco appeared in both series, there was a casting change relating to Mole’s mother Pauline: in the original series, she was played by Julie Walters, but was portrayed by Lulu in the later series.  Surprisingly this change did not hurt the show in any way.

The theme song ‘Profoundly in Love With Pandora’ by Ian Dury was indicative of the time, and Sue Townsend’s books were done proud by these adaptations which pull out the quiet comedy and pathos of growing up as an 80s teenager.


The Trouble with Harry, 1955 – ★★★½

#12 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

Expect the ‘unexpected’ from Hitchcock, goes the tagline, and this gentle comedy-mystery certainly takes a step away from the thrillers, crime stories, and psychodramas Hitchcock had been working on up to now, and in moving backwards through his work this is the first light-hearted film I have encountered.

It’s Shirley MacLaine’s debut, and she is delightful, while Edmund ‘Kris Kringle’ Gwenn is a hoot as the man who thinks he has killed the eponymous Harry, who lies dead while no one seems to care.

This is a film with a vibe of weirdness, a departure in style for its director, with packed sets, rich peripheral characters, and little moments that have nothing to do with Harry, but which keep us entertained.

This film is an example of one which would probably never be made now – there’s no violence to speak of, even though a man is dead, and no gratuitous sex, just a good and witty script (by John Michael Hayes), a glorious VistaVision palette, and a score which is at odds with what we see (for example, when an artist is making a sketch, and even draws Harry’s stockinged feet, without realising at first there is a body there).

If Hitch had directed Twin Peaks, it might have turned out something like this.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Rope, 1948 – ★★★½

#20 in Reverse Hitchcock project.

Patrick Hamilton’s play is here brought to the screen with limited takes and locations in one of Hitchcock’s experiments, this time with long takes and no mystery: we see the murder done in the first minute, and we know exactly where the body is hidden.

Farley Granger and John Dall are the students who kill their classmate for being inferior to them: their big idea is then to hold a party in the apartment with the dead man’s friends and family, and their old tutor (James Stewart).

Granger is more nervy and worried, Dall more steely but clearly aroused by his work, their victim ‘merely occupied space’. And so he occupies space in an unlocked trunk while guests socialise around him, and until Stewart rumbles the ruse and discovers the corpse.

Simulating one long take (but instead three or four edited together), ‘Rope’ is necessarily slowed by the need to ensure the camera can follow the action without cross-cutting – using lots of open doors and large rooms, but the tension is still there.

It’s the same kind of plot as an episode of Columbo, where we as viewers know the villain from the start, but done rather well.with an ending which would be echoed in part in ‘Dial M For Murder’ a few years later, with the ending depending on something being left and found.

In terms of the real-life story which inspired this, you might wish to watch ‘Compulsion’ (1959) which gives the murder a different slant – the real story, though, was of gay lovers who kill a child for kicks, which was perhaps too strong meat even for Hitchcock in the censorious 1940s.

A clever film which might work best on a first viewing, and this rewatch in the context of other Hitch films loses this one half a star. Much to enjoy, but there are finer works in the canon.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


The Importance of Being Earnest (Vaudeville Theatre)

This is the version of Wilde’s play which is being publicised heavily because of the casting of David Suchet as Lady Bracknell, and if this feels like stunt casting (it isn’t really, he isn’t the first man to put on the dress and give the immortal handbag line), I’m pleased to say it has paid off.

A sparking comedy of manners, this production by Adrian Noble, former RSC artistic director, sizzles with energy and benefits from an excellent pair of performances from newcomer Emily Barber as Gwendolyn and the hilarious mugger Imogen Doel as Cecily.

Playing as broadly as the script allows, their garden scene is a hoot and Barber’s reaction to the marriage proposal in Act One is hugely entertaining.  Doel’s Cecily is a fiery child not to be trifled with, and her clumsy flirting is seriously scary!

As the two gentlemen who use deceit to enable themselves to have good times, Michael Benz as Jack and Philip Cumbus (last seen in the Trafalgar Studio Richard III as Richmond) as Algy are thoroughly modern chaps who fight over muffins and become lovelorn at the slightest opportunity.

Michele Dotrice and Richard O’Callagan are a fine Prism and Chasuble, a veritable comedy team fairly quivering with unsuppressed attraction.  In their hands the final reconciliation ‘at last’ is believeable, and her twittering delight at the prospect of a stroll is hilarious.

This leaves us with Suchet’s Lady B.  His is a frightful caricature, with exaggerated expressions and reactions which liven up her first interrogation of Jack in particular, with the slow opening of the black book, the shudder of distate about railway stations, and the look of distain she gives her daughter’s intended suitor.  It’s a performance which is just a step back from the pantomime dame, but it richly mines the comic potential of this greatest of female characterisations.

In Act Three his return bodes a change from the ‘gorgon’ to something softer, as this Aunt Augusta has a past of poverty and a marriage based on money, not love, and there may be just a little bit of regret when all ends happily without a thought for her, an essentially nouveau riche vulgar harridan whose exaggeration comes out of insecurity.

It’s an interesting take on the story in a production which is not perfect, but which is effortlessly entertaining, from David Killick’s snipey Lane through to Brendan Hooper’s Merriman (which an air of resignation whether ordering a dog cart or serving cake at tea).


Ealing Comedy Festival opening night

A mixed bag of acts to open the Walpole Park’s festival, but overall a decent night out.

Julian Clary headlining the first night was bound to pull in the crowds and so this first night was a sellout, and definitely from the older end of the spectrum.

Delivering a typically smutty set as expected, Clary shared a long shaggy dog story about how he saved Joan Collins’ life, by way of noting his ageing ailments (policeman’s heel, housemaid’s knee, and male prostitute’s rectum: ‘gentlemen callers have been temporarily blinded’) and talking about his domestic arrangements in Kent with boyfriend Rolf – who has a boring office job and understands how to work an enema kit.

Looking great under the eyeliner and red lipstick it is impossible to believe Julian has hit fifty-six, but age hasn’t tempered his sweetly – delivered guy puns, and it was a delight to see him and his final song of ‘Frankie and Johnny’, of civil partners where one couldn’t help but stray.

Supporting acts Justin Moorhouse – a funny fat lad from Blackpool who started well but wandered into slightly weird territory – and irritatingly middle – class Shabbi Khorsandi  (who overstayed her welcome) were complimented by Geordie  exile Mickey Hutton,  who hasn’t been living up north for twenty – five years but still has an act which pokes fun at the London he calls home.


The Trial (Young Vic)

I am familiar with Kafka’s novel about the mysterious Josef K and his unexplained arrest, with a claustrophobic series of locations and larger than life characters populating this piece of absurdist fiction.  Theatrical adaptations have been problematic, notably the production by Steven Berkoff back in the 1970s (which did get a sense of both the absurd and the ever diminishing sets).

Fast-forward to 2015 and this new adaptation by Nick Gill, directed by Richard Jones, and I really don’t know what to make of it.  Once you are admitted into the Young Vic’s auditorium, as an audience member you sit in the reconfigured stalls in a jury bench setting on either side of the stage, which is initially presented as a large red box with a keyhole in the top, lifting once the show starts to display a travelator on which cast members walk, kneel, thrash around, etc.

Locations do not feel small or cramped in any way, and are restricted to K’s flat (and his neighbour Rosa’s), K’s place of work at the bank, lawyer Miss Grace’s house, and various areas of the court.  There are doubling up on characters (with Kate O’Flynn convincing across six roles), but really the stand-out performance is that of Rory Kinnear as Josef K who must be absolutely exhausted by a two-hour piece where he is never off-stage and has to work both physically and mentally hard throughout, due to Gill’s decision to put K’s interior monologues in a weird broken Pigdin kind of English, largely fixated on matters of sexual problems and (false?) memories from the past.

This aside, and some good supporting performances (Sian Thomas as Mrs Grace/Doctor, Richard Cant as Male Guard/Assistant/Tudor), I wasn’t sold on the changes that had been made to the original text – why change the portrait painter to a disco dancing tattooist?  That set, too, although intriguing at the start, wasn’t fully utilised, although having a moving walkway helping characters along (and holding them back) is fun.


Rear Window, 1954 – ★★★★

#14 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

This one is often classed as one of Hitch’s greatest films, being the first collaboration of four with John Michael Hayes as writer, and boasting a jaunty theme tune over the credits by Franz Waxman.

It opens on a set of interlinked apartments, where, in one window, we find a feverish James Stewart, and in another, a man listening to that Charles Atlas ‘men, are you over forty? do you have that listness feeling?’ ad. It’s an interlinked group of lives where voyeurs and voyeured co-exist.

Jeffries (Stewart) has a broken leg and so is stuck in the space with his memorabilia and his boredom. Small wonder that soon, very soon, he was start to see something in the window across, when he’s emerged from his ‘plaster cocoon’ and his ability to watch the pretty girl across the way doing her exercises. What a mucky old man our Jimmy is.

This film catches the interest within the first five minutes, which is quite a feat. Within the first ten, we meet so many different people with their own little pockets of existence, and eventually, we meet the glorious Thelma Ritter, and any film which has here as a character player has my interest (‘we’ve become a nation of peeping toms’). Her squeaky voice and her plain yet interesting face made her a recognisable figure in numerous showy roles.

It’s hot and sticky in this suite of apartments, and everyone has their windows open so snatches of music and conversation can be heard by our bored invalid, who seems disappointed when a newlywed couple pull down the shades!

Fifteen minutes in, and the luminous Grace Kelly as Lisa leans in to kiss Jimmy Stewart in slow-mo, and we know he’s not quite as lonely as we thought. Kelly looks fantastic in costumes by Edith Head, a stunning actress playing a stunning model. No surprise she quickly became a princess in real life.

‘Rear Window’ cleverly builds the audience interest and tension by having not that much happen to start with, but Jeffries’ eyes become our eyes and we start to see what he sees and react as he reacts – that’s clever film-making. The lonely lady who makes a place for two while her wireless crooner keeps her company is particularly poignant – we smile with her, we raise our glass, we feel her despondency at her empty table.

We keep being drawn back to Raymond Burr, though, just over the way, and the sense that not all is well in his apartment. After a scream, a lot of night departures, and other suspicious circumstances, our hero Jeffries starts to believe he has witnessed something close to murder. But will anyone believe him?

The sinister scene where Thorwald sits in the dark, quiet, when all hell breaks loose in the apartment block, tells us he might be a bad egg after all, far worse than Jeffries, who spies on his neighbours with cameras and binoculars, neighbours who are just trying to get on with their lives.

Just like cameras had a focal point in ‘Peeping Tom;, here they start to become central to the story of ‘Rear Window’. But the final sequences, where Jeffries nearly comes a cropper, and then the picture of domesticity with him and Lisa at the end, are classic Hitch.

I don’t think this is his best film, but it is clever, and contains a couple of strong performances from his close collaborators Stewart and Kelly, both of which probably did their best work for this director – he certainly got a couple of career best turns out of Stewart with this and with ‘Rope’.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Dial M for Murder, 1954 – ★★★½

#15 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

Frederick Knott’s stage play is very old-fashioned and faintly ridiculous, so the fact that this film, of which Knott wrote the screenplay, has a bit more flair and energy must be down to the director.

Tony (Ray Milland), a rather unconvincing former professional tennis player, has an unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly), who thinks he doesn’t know about her infidelity with an American writer (Robert Cummings). He’s icily polite to her as befits an English gentleman living in Maida Vale (the ‘M’ of the title), but he really wants to plan the perfect murder.

This mystery runs on latch-keys, a feckless fraudster turned assassin, and an incorrect telephone number. Kelly is not as coolly beautiful as she was in her other Hitchcock collaborations – she looks the part of a ’50s suburban housewife – but she has a moment to shine when the title’s murder does not quite work out as expected.

Cummings had worked for Hitch before, as the leading man of ‘Saboteur’ , but he’s better here, as a supporting player. Milland has a lovely scene where he blackmails the would-be killer just as if he is discussing the weather, while Anthony Dawson makes a fine desperado down on his luck who has been driven from stealing money to defrauding old ladies, to something far more sinister.

The would-be murder scene is scored with soaring music by Dimitri Tiomkin, and Kelly’s performance is quite excellent in this scene and the one immediately afterwards. Milland is also rather good, so whether Hitch brought out the best in his actors, or whether the editing process created the performances, they remain effective.

Filmed originally in 3-D, this has several ‘props in the foreground’ sequences but seeing it ‘flat’ doesn’t really detract from what is an entertaining, if light, entry in the director’s Canon. I’ve demoted it by half a star on this rewatch, but it is still a very good picture, and better than most of the time.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


I Confess, 1953 – ★★★½

#16 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

A minor Hitchcock to many, this murder thriller has the complication of the accused being a man of the cloth, the suitably angst-ridden Method actor Montgomery Clift, whose opulent church is the scene for a confession which may cause him problems later on.

No mystery in this one as the murderer is revealed within the first ten minutes, what follows is a psychological struggle of conscience on behalf of the priest who, even when under suspicion himself, cannot break the seal of the confessional. The shadowy opening where someone in priestly robes leaves the dead man leaves us in some doubt as to the solution.

This has a similar downbeat feel to ‘The Wrong Man’, in which Henry Fonda had been accused for robberies he had not done, but in this case the stakes are much higher. Clift’s Father Logan is on the side of God, but is God on his side?

It is possible that Hitch may have been irritated by his star’s insistence on the Method and his character’s motivation, but he gets a good performance out of his whether that was in the editing suite or in Clif’s devotion to his craft. Anne Baxter is second billed as Ruth (the former girlfriend of Logan’s before he took his vows) and his advocate when he is accused of the crime.

Karl Malden is the friendly but suspicious cop who initially falls for the real killer’s lies, but who eventually makes everything right – interesting that he subscribes to the fear of the priest, but not the fear of the foreign unknown.

I still like this film, but it loses half a star on this rewatch. There are cleverer and flashier titles in Hitch’s filmography, although this remains eminently watchable.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Strangers on a Train, 1951 – ★★★★½

#17 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

One of Hitchcock’s most realised classics, this ‘murder swap’ tale has been much parodied and mimicked since release, notably in the loose comedy remake ‘Throw Momma From The Train’ and in TV shows like ‘Columbo’.

Robert Walker, as psychopathic Bruno Anthony, gives his best performance here. A troubled soul in real life he was hard to cast effectively and aside from the Judy Garland romance ‘The Clock’ he has never really clicked with me on screen. Here he is the perfect example of chilling menace.

Farley Granger, as tennis star Guy Haines, wishing to be free of his nasty wife Miriam, is weaker and less decisive, not taking the proposed plot that seriously until Anthony takes their conversation further from a discussion to completion. Granger was not a great actor (although Hitch had used him before, in a similarly weak role, in ‘Rope’), but he does well enough here.

‘Strangers on a Train’ is full of sharp dialogue and show-off shots (the reflection in Miriam’s glasses, the nonchalant pop of a child’s balloon, the merry-go-round, the tennis match where just one head isn’t following the ball), and has a building sense of horror throughout.

I still class it as one of the director’s masterpieces and find it stands up well today.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Stage Fright, 1950 – ★★★

#18 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

A very British cast (Richard Todd, Joyce Grenfell, Michael Wilding, the wonderful, wonderful Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, Kay Walsh) join Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman in this mystery thriller which starts strongly with a flashback concerning Todd and Dietrich and the death of her husband.

With a bloodstain on her skirt like a flower (that dress will reappear later, more prominently) the divine Miss D (who was around fifty at the time) exudes glamour under adversity; and when we realise she is an actress we realise she is naturally stagey and able to give a performance.

Sending Todd to go back to the house of death seems to be putting him in the frame, and that’s our first hint of unease. But he goes, and doesn’t just find her a new dress, he tries to hide evidence of the crime. There are stunning wardrobes fit for a queen. Then a scream, a maid, and a need to run.

I’m not convinced that Richard Todd cuts it as a Hitchcock leading man, much as I admire him in other roles. He doesn’t have the sense of urgency or debonair ease that characterises a Grant. As Dietrich’s lover he is frankly absurd while he never quite feels like a desperate man in danger. Compare this with The Wrong Man and you can see a difference, but these were small steps in the direction of the misaccused, which would resurface again in North by Northwest and Frenzy.

This, of all the Hitchcock canon, is the title which would work the best as a rather heightened melodrama, performed with a knowing slant by modern performers. It teeters on the edge of the ridiculous, even if it gets there by the idiocy of a man who puts love before common sense, and then compunds the error by going on the run.

If you view this film simply as hokum and fun, as it is, you will enjoy this. The first Mrs Reagan, Jane Wyman, is the faithful friend (the Midge of Vertigo, for example) who helps Todd evade the police by becoming Dietrich’s maid and exposing the truth, and she fits in well with her British co-stars and their eccentricity.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Under Capricorn, 1949 – ★★★★

#19 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

I’ve seen many lukewarm or downright negative reviews of this costume drama, but I think if it hadn’t been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it would be better regarded.

Michael Wilding is Charles Adare, an Irish gentleman who has little in the way of money who meets former convict Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), a man with a secret, who married above his station to the now-alcoholic Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), a Lady who has known Wilding back in Ireland when he was a boy.

Margaret Leighton as house servant Millie manages to be even more vicious than Mrs Danvers, a poisonous little bitch who chides Cotten just as Iago did Othello. And so as Bergman tries to pull herself back into the society which shuns her husband, he in turn is consumed by jealousy.

Two sequences I particularly liked: one where Wilding whips off his coat as if it is Walter Raleigh’s cloak and drapes it over a window so Henrietta can see how beautiful she is in her reflection; the other where Flusky holds a necklace of rubies behind his back as a surprise for his wife at a critical point in the plot.

Only some of the musical flourishes and long takes betray the Master’s touch, but this is a strange exercise for him to undertake: still, in a decent print the colours and composition of cinematography shine through (Jack Cardiff’s touch, reminiscent of his work a couple of years earlier on ‘Black Narcissus’ for The Archers).

Joseph Cotten (miscast as Flusky, to see this character brought to life watch John Hallam’s portrayal in the later TV movie) dismissed this film as ‘Corny Crap’, while Ingrid Bergman’s personal scandal when she ran away with Roberto Rossellini hurt both critical and commercial reactions to this film.

Wilding, at this point not yet ensnared by Hollywood or Elizabeth Taylor, is fine as the impoverished gentleman, while Leighton’s viper of a maid (Leighton would eventually wed Wilding, in 1964, after unsuccessul marriages to Max Reinhardt and Laurence Harvey) is excellent.

Hitch himself disowned it in later life, but I can’t help feeling he was wrong, as what shows on the screen is a vibrant drama with a strong performance from Bergman.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


The Beaux’ Stratagem (National Theatre)

This farcical Restoration comedy by George Farquhar is given new breath and life in Simon Godwin’s production from the Olivier Theatre at the National, with vibrant music by Michael Bruce and stomping yet laconic dances from principal cast members.

Mr Aimwell and Mr Archer are dissolute beaux seeking to meet ladies of fortune with intentions of marriage for money; with this plan in mind they alight at Boniface’s inn where they plot for Aimwell (under the borrowed guise of his brother’s title and fortune) to court the unmarried daughter of Lady Bountiful.

In the meantime Archer flirts with the innkeeper’s daughter, Cherry, and also the unhappily married Mrs Sullen, whose husband is a miserable drunk and libertine.  In this second endeavour he is assisted by the wonderfully emotionless and dry servant to the Bountiful household, Scrub, who welcomes him as a brother in bondage.

No big names clog this ensemble cast, but Samuel Barnett and Geoffrey Streatfeild are good as the beaux (especially Streatfeild, who is cajoled to sing and dance), Pearce Quigley is quite marvellous as Scrub (a wet rag with the last drop wrung from him), and Susannah Fielding effortlessly engages the interest and sympathy of the audience in the injustice of her miserable marriage.  Pippa Bennett-Warner is a dreamer as Dorinda, still expecting true love (with a title, place and position), and Jane Booker is amusing enough as the Lady Dowager who fancies herself a healer.


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.

salesman

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.

pryceandmafhammerchant

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.


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