Sunny Afternoon (Harold Pinter Theatre)

The Kinks were arguably the first band to play hard rock, and this show, loosely based on the true story of their rise to fame as told by lead singer Ray Davies, certainly delivers on the sound – at times it is ear-shatteringly loud, especially once the few teasing chords of ‘You Really Got Me’ turn into a full performance of the song.

sunny

Songs shoehorned into a story are only ever partially successful, which is probably why the big and loud numbers like ‘All Day And All Of The Night’, ‘Till The End of the Day’, and ‘Lola’ are presented in concert settings.  ‘Dead End Street’ is wittily repurposed to be sung by Ray and Dave’s dad, in their dingy flat, while ‘That Strange Effect’ (a favourite of the songs written by Ray Davies but best known for the version by Dave Berry) is used for an awkward love scene between ‘Ray’ and eventual first wife and Kinks back-up singer Rasa.  The two also have a trans-Atlantic duet over the ‘phone to ‘I Go To Sleep’ (best known these days for the version by a later girlfriend of Ray’s, Chrissie Hynde, with the Pretenders).

Performances are broadly good, with the central quartet of Danny Horn (Ray), Oliver Hoare (Dave), Tom Whitelock (Pete Quaife) and Damien Walsh (Mick Avory) evolving from gawky working-class louts to assured ‘followers of fashion’.  (Actually on the night we saw this, Walsh was replaced after the interval, by I think Alex Tosh, which was interesting in itself and proved that the cast was at least versatile in the face of change).  In supporting roles we have Jason Baughan as grasping publisher Eddie Kassner, Megan Leigh Mason (excellent) as Rasa, Charlie Tigh and Gabriel Vick as silly twit managers Grenville and Bobby, and Stephen Pallister in dual roles as Mr Davies and Allen Klein, their powerful late promoter.

It might be churlish to say that having closed the show, plot-wise, with ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and a curtain-call, we then switch to Madison Square Gardens for a performance of ‘Lola’ in which the audience is chivvied to its feet for a sneaky standing ovation, but there’s enough here to recommend this, if not at full-price, at least for any discount you can get during promotions.  We were in the front row of the dress circle, which was close up and high enough to give a good view of the moments which took place on the extended stage into the front stalls.

Amusing moment: ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, where the band start to develop their sartorial style.  Moving moment: Ray and Dave’s duet ‘A Long Way From Home’ (the show closes in 1970 and so does not address the breakdown of the sibling relationship, or the decline of Ray and Rasa’s marriage).  The programme may be rather flowery about the Kinks’ back catalogue, but there is certainly enough here to give a flavour of their varied output.  Curiously, Edward Hall directs, and I still think of him as primarily a Shakespeare specialist.  On this evidence, he’s not bad with a musical hook either.


The Maiden Heist, 2009 – ★★★

Shown on UK TV as ‘The Heist’, this promised a lot with a great trio of ageing lead actors in Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman and William H Macy as security guards trying to steal the exhibits they love so much from the museum in which they work, not for profit, but just for the love of the art.

The first half hour is probably the high point of the film as we have scene-setting and the planning of the heist using a model museum (and a squeakily funny performance from Marcia Gay Harden as Walken’s wife, in his boring suburban home) – after that it is OK, and fairly entertaining, but these guys have the potential to do so much more, and I just felt a little bit let-down that there wasn’t more to this.

Macy’s character, for example, who cavorts in a manner unbecoming to a security guard with his beloved statue when the museum is closed – this is alluded to, but not expanded on. Walken’s character is clearly a frustrated intellectual, but this is put aside for a bit of farcical fun. Freeman’s character loves his cats, showing a sensitive side, but there is little development beyond that. They are all obsessive about the art they see around them every day at work – but we as the viewers don’t feel that obsession.

I wanted to like this, and I did think the idea where they plan to get the real pieces before they get sold to Denmark and replace them with perfect fakes (‘Operation Urgent Fury’), but it just doesn’t quite have the right level of, I don’t know, humour? perception? art appreciation?

Peter Hewitt directs, so this has a British feel despite its American stars, but there’s something missing.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


The Shout, 1978 – ★★★★

Another re-watch after quite some time, and this is an odd rural tale about a creepy man called Crossley (the magnetic Alan Bates, who rarely disappointed even in lesser fare, and is in one of his best roles here, all in black like a malevolent bat or predatory rook) who arrives in town, befriends mousy composer John Hurt and his winsome wife Susannah York, and uses the magical powers he has formed in foreign parts to unsettle and dominate his surroundings.

With a music score which is weirdly modern and strange, and the most mundane of pastimes (a cricket match on the village green, a bike ride round the quiet streets), this builds tension throughout its 80-odd minutes, and boasts some fine supporting bits from a youthful post-Rocky Horror Tim Curry, a fruity Robert Stephens, and others.

A film which defies categorization, ‘The Shout’ is an intriguing piece of British cinema, adapted from a short story by Robert Graves, and directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. The premise, that a man may be able to kill simply by the power of his voice, is nonsense when taken at face value, but this is played for deadly seriousness, and is all the better for it.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Oliviers in Concert (Royal Festival Hall)

One of the plus sides of living in London is access to a wide variety of music, theatre, cinema and other experiences.  So the last time we were at the Royal Festival Hall it was for a special concert to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Daniel Barenboim’s first appearance playing at the venue, with a wonderful pair of Brahms concertos played by the maestro, accompanied by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

oliviers

I mention this to contrast with last night’s musical theatre extravaganza which was put together by Maria Friedman and Tim Jackson in order to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards (formerly called the Society of West End Theatre awards).

The programme balanced standards from the musical repertoire (overtures from ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Candide’, the snappy “You’re The Top” from ‘Anything Goes’, Clive Rowe’s show-stopping piece from ‘Guys and Dolls’: “Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat”) with items from the jukebox musicals ‘Beautiful’ (the title track), ‘Sunny Afternoon’ (“Waterloo Sunset”), and ‘Jersey Boys’ (a medley including “Sherry” and “Walk Like A Man”), by way of familiar modern pieces from ‘Phantom of the Opera’ (a lovely duet between former Raoul Michael Ball and sparky young Scarlett Strallen of “All I Ask Of You”), the title track of ‘Me and My Girl’, ‘Stars’ from ‘Les Miz’ (a decent if emotionless rendition by Ball) and five different pieces of Sondheim including two songs from perhaps his least accessible musical, ‘Sunday In the Park With George’, the fabulous “Our Time” from ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, which showcased the talents of the young Guildford School of Acting choir, and the highlight of the night for me, Maria Friedman’s “Losing My Mind” from ‘Follies’.

In a varied programme we also enjoyed Strallen’s perky “Ice Cream” from ‘She Loves Me’ (which is ripe for another revival), Friedman’s title song from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (not, as she told the listening radio audience, dressed as a teapot), and, showcasing the youngest of talents, “Quiet”, from ‘Matilda’, in which Lara McDonnell commanded the stage with effortless poise.  The ‘Me and My Girl’ duet gave Katie Brayben and John Dagleish a chance to show they could sing when they were not impersonating Carole King and Ray Davies respectively.   And I was happy to see Daniel Evans again performing the works of both wordsmiths, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.

Lesley Manville performed the role of MC with charm and warmth, linking the numbers for both the audience in the Hall and the one at home.  And bringing back Petra Siniawski from the original cast of ‘A Chorus Line’ was a touching and effective opener.

I should also mention Elaine Paige, who came on in gold and glitter to try and bring back memories of her ‘Evita’.  It didn’t work for me, remembering when her voice was glorious when she was Eva and when she was Norma Desmond, but it seemed to be a crowd-pleaser.

A night of considerable polish, sparkle, and just a sprinkling of stardust.


Husbands and Sons (National Theatre)

Following last year’s curiosity when ‘A Month in the Country’ was rewritten as ‘Three Days in the Country’, the National Theatre has now turned to DH Lawrence, and in Ben Power’s adaptation, has joined together three of his plays into one interconnected whole, lasting three hours.

The original plays are ‘A Collier’s Friday Night’, ‘The Daughter-In-Law’, and ‘The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd’.  In this combination of the trilogy of plays, the Lamberts, the Gascoignes, and the Holroyds live side by side, with the men working in the same pit and the women passing pleasantries with each other.

In a quirky bit of design, these three households are set out across the Dorfman stage, in the round, and if you are in the front seating, you will find yourself moving seats after the interval so as to observe the families from a different viewpoint.  Gimmicky, but interesting.  I started behind the Gascoigne house, which was a bonus as Louise Brearley as Minnie could be heard more effectively close-up than at a distance (although one sequence where she listens to a ballad on a scratchy gramophone is touching), and then sat behind the Holroyd home in the second act, where I greatly enjoyed Anne-Marie Duff’s downtrodden colliery wife/widow who takes strength from death.

As separate entities, these are minor works, and taken as a whole they do not quite gel together – still, there are nice moments from the mother at the Gascoigne house (Susan Brown), a neighbour with a secret shared with a married son (Josie Walker and Joe Armstrong), and a miner at the Lambert house pushed out by the wife who despises him but adores their cultured and educated son (Lloyd Hutchinson, Julia Ford and Johnny Gibbon) – despite this story being rather reminiscent of the 1969 Monty Python sketch where the working class father despites his posh miner son.  At the Holroyds, Martin Marquez overdoes the drunkenness of the husband slightly but still manages to evoke sympathy.

Lawrence’s world of pit smoke, bread making, plate clearing, and strong women trapped by circumstance is dated now, but this treatment gives it some freshness.  I would question some of the directorial and stylistic choices – why real plates but pretend food, real chairs but pretend doors, real dresses but pretends caps and shawls, and why the need for elaborate mime in order to ‘connect’ the houses?


Kinky Boots (Adelphi)

One of the best new musicals in years is currently playing at the Adelphi Theatre, where Killian Donnelly’s shoe baron reboots his failing family business with the help of the outrageous Lola (Matt  Henry), a raucous drag queen with a thing for red and sexy boots (‘The Sex is in the Heel’ being one of the showstopping songs).

Charlie (Donnelly) and Lola/Simon are both introduced in a powerhouse opening number (‘The Most Beautiful Thing in the World’), first as children, then as the young adults they have become – this works well, and Cyndi Lauper’s driving pop score sets the scene for a totally feel-good production.

Based on the popular film, itself loosely based on the real Northampton factory which sold fetish footwear successfully for some years, Harvey Fierstein’s book fleshes out the role of Lola, whose solo Act 2 number ‘Hold Me In Your Heart’ and duet with Charlie (‘I’m Not My Father’s Son’) are emotionally engaging.

The numbers with Lola and her Angels are dragtastic which secondary characters like Lauren and Don have their own chances to shine.  You’ll know from the start that Charlie’s engagement to materialistic Nicola is doomed, and that there will be an Act 2 showdown, but the ending is life-affirming and touching.

Matt Henry in particular is a revelation – but I liked Amy Lennox as man-mad Lauren, Jamie Baughan as macho Don, and Michael Dobbs as sensible factory man George.  Donnelly’s character arc is not that believable but that doesn’t matter too much.

A gloriously fun night in the theatre which I would love to see again.


Guys and Dolls (Savoy Theatre)

Another musical comes into the West End via the Chichester Festival, following the phenomenally successful ‘Gypsy’: this time Frank Loesser’s saga of New York gamblers and mission dolls, ‘Guys and Dolls’ which was first presented on the stage in 1950, with its inspiration from the stories of Damon Runyon, and characters like Harry the Horse, Society Max, and Liver Lips Louie.

Those of you familiar with the film version of 1955 might be confused at some score changes here – Miss Adelaide’s original first act number ‘A Bushel and a Peck’; Sky’s solo ‘My Time of Day’ which leads into his duet with Sarah, ‘I’ve Never Been In Love Before’ (replacing ‘A Woman in Love’, which is briefly heard as a background tune); Arveit’s solo ‘More I Cannot Wish You’ (with more than a hint of Harry Lauder in this version); and towards the end of act two, Adelaide and Sarah’s duet ‘Marry The Man Today’ (a fun song, but one I have always felt never belonged with the rest of the show).  You may also miss the song ‘Adelaide’ which was created to give Nathan Detroit a solo number in the film.

However, the score is sound and well-performed throughout – by the four leads (Jamie Parker as Sky Masterson, a real find who gives the gambler a real soft heart beyond the bravado – he’s no Brando, but he is different, and very good; Sophie Thompson as a terrific Miss Adelaide, all faded pizazz at the Hot Box and distraught love with the man who still hasn’t married her after fourteen years; David Haig as Nathan Detroit, who dispels memories of Sinatra with his genuinely seedy violet-suited crap game; and Siubhan Harrison as Sarah Brown, the Mission sergeant who gets tipsy and finds herself and her true love) and supporting players alike.

This is a bright, brash and fun show, which highlights some of the rough edges (what do the Hot Box girls really do for their male clientele?) as well as showcasing some seriously talented performances from people who may otherwise not find musical leads – Ian Hughes as Benny Southstreet, for example, or Gavin Spokes who rightly brought the house down with act two’s knockout ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ (which included some scat singing for General Cartwright, played at the show we saw by understudy Genevieve Nicole).

I must also mention Peter McKintosh’s set design, Tim Mitchell’s clever lighting, and Carlos Acosta’s choreography.  Catch this in its brief London stop or on the continuation of its tour if you can.


Review of 2015

This is the point where, now 2016 has started with the traditional fireworks and hangovers, we have a look back to the good (and bad) of 2015.

Theatre

In January I saw two productions, the frankly disappointing ‘Potted Sherlock’, and the excellent ‘Taken at Midnight’, in which Penelope Wilton excelled as a woman whose son was in the hands of the Nazis.

February brought a new Tom Stoppard at the National, ‘The Hard Problem’, which tried to mix academia with personal relationships, but didn’t really do either justice.

In March I enjoyed the revival of ‘Harvey’, starring James Dreyfuss, which stopped off at Richmond before a run in the West End, and I travelled to Hampstead for my first visit to the theatre there to see Zoe Wanamaker in the revival of ‘Stevie’ (a piece I know well from the Glenda Jackson film).

April brought three top-class musicals associated with Stephen Sondheim: first, the show on which he wrote lyrics, ‘Gypsy’, at the Savoy, which some of you will have seen and enjoyed when it was on television over the Christmas break, and second, the transfer of ‘Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ at the ENO, with Bryn Terfel, Emma Thompson, and the welcome return to these shores of Philip Quast.  Finally, the concert version of ‘Follies’, at the Royal Albert Hall, which was ridiculously overpriced but certainly star-studded.

In May, a silly but perfectly-pitched tribute to the Bonzo Dog frontman, Vivian Stanshall, who died twenty years ago, was on for one night only at the Bloomsbury.  ‘Radio Stanshall’ teamed old hands with a fun reboot of the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End tales.   Meanwhile, over at the Globe Theatre Jonathan Pryce impressed as Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, and on transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon, Antony Sher and Harriet Walter reteamed for the first time since the late 90s Macbeth for ‘Death of a Salesman’, which was a definite highlight of the year.

June at the Barbican heralded the Beckett International Festival, of which I chose to see the starry ‘Waiting for Godot’ with Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, and Philip Quast (again!).  I love the play, and this production seemed to polarise audiences, but I found it very good indeed.

In July, there was comedy at the National in ‘The Beaux’ Strategem’, and a major misfire at the Young Vic with a head-scratching version of ‘The Trial’, in which a conveyer belt set and Rory Kinnear were excellent but the translation was not.  Closer to home, Julian Clary headlined the Ealing Comedy Festival, while in town, David Suchet donned a dress for a hilarious take on Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

August brought us one of the year’s total turkeys, at the Charing Cross Theatre, where the dreadful ‘Dusty’ had cast changes, delayed press nights and worse.  Back at the National, ‘Three Days in the Country’ was a new and truncated version of the Turgenev play, which had a bit of overacting from John Simm but a finely judged comic bit from Mark Gatiss.

In September, the delightful Rattigan play ‘Flare Path’ stopped by at Richmond, while ‘Mr Foote’s Other Leg’ did well at Hampstead before a West End transfer – I especially liked Dervla Kirwan’s delicate actress-whore.    And the month ended with the new version of the Bristol production of ‘Jane Eyre’, a high-energy adaptation which was a total joy to watch.

October saw a trip to the Bridewell Theatre for an excellent version of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ by the amateur Geoids Musical Theatre, an ensemble I would happily watch again.

In November the final piece of the RSCs King and Country puzzle fell into play with the showing of ‘Henry V’, which I liked a lot, and which, coming so soon after the Paris attacks, felt oddly relevant and very moving.

Meanwhile, December brought the undoubted un-highlight of the year, with the National’s jaw-droppingly terrible ‘wonder.land’.   I would recommend a trip to the National’s Shed instead to see the fun ‘I Want My Hat Back’, and New Year’s Eve brought the year to a sentimental close with ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’.

Concerts and live cinema relays

The Southbank Centre hosted a special ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ in February which I really enjoyed: with the Light Programme being represented with everything from Max Miller and Roy Hudd to Flanders & Swann and Gilbert & Sullivan.  The concert a week later in the same series, looking at post-1959 music, was fun, but not quite in the same league.

On Valentine’s Day the Berlin Philharmonic with their conductor Sir Simon Rattle was in residence at the Royal Festival Hall, with a programme showcasing their splendid rendition of Mahler No 2.   And on the big screen there was a live relay from the Royal Opera House of ‘The Flying Dutchman’, with Bryn Terfel, which was another of the year’s highlights: he really had made this role his own.

In April Daniel Barenboim was at the Royal Festival Hall with the Staatkapelle Berlin, playing Elgar, and it was an honour to be there, especially to see him awarded the Elgar Medal which he dedicated to his late wife, Jacqueline du Pre.   This month also saw a live musical accompaniment to a little-seen Lillian Gish film, ‘Annie Laurie’, at the Barbican.

In October, the London Literature Festival gave us both Terry Gilliam (with a video retrospective of some of his films), and Tom Jones (who sang, and by heck, is he still good).  The end of the month had a return visit to the Royal Festival Hall from Randy Newman, who with just a piano, was rather marvellous.

December was the month of NT Live screenings, with the Broadway production of ‘Of Mice and Men’ and the Barbican ‘Hamlet’ (which I didn’t add here for some reason, but which can be seen in my review over on Letterboxd).  We ended the year in concert mode with the professional gloss of Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra at Wembley Arena.

Film

Letterboxd (where I post as loureviews) tells me I watched 451 films – including shorts and miniseries, in 2015.  Eight of those merited a full, five-star score, and all were rewatches: Mary Poppins, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Lifeboat, I Know Where I’m Going, Guys and Dolls, Witchfinder General, Rebecca, and The Snowman.

There were, however, some four and a half star films I had seen for the first time, so these are my picks of the year: Night Will Fall (2014), Laughter in the Dark (1969), Her (2013), Maxine Peake in Hamlet (2015), Mr Axelford’s Angel (1974), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Contempt/Le Mepris (1963), Shylock’s Ghost (2015), Night and Day (2015), and Tony Benn: Will and Testament (2014).

The turkeys of the year, the true stinkers, number ten: Carry on England (1976), Happy Hooligan (1903), Ride Along (2014), Sherlock Holmes (2011 – and it isn’t the Asylum one), The Other Woman (2014), Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), The Nut Job (2014), Annie (2014), Bed and Breakfast (1938), and The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978).

Tributes

I marked a trio of anniversaries this year.  Twenty years since the death of Vivian Stanshall, thirty-five years since the death of AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, and twenty-six years since the death of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.  You can find links to all these in the ‘Index to tribute profiles’ at the top of the page.

Exhibitions

In January, the London Transport Museum was the venue for ‘Goodbye, Piccadilly’, which I loved.  Later in the year, the Hayward Gallery hosted the thoughtful ‘History is Now’, which was odd but engaging.

 


Goodnight Mr Tom (Duke of York’s Theatre)

Michelle Margorian’s 1981 novel about evacuees in Dorset and one in particular, William Beech, has become a classic, and there was a television adaptation with John Thaw as Tom which screened in 1998 which was well-received.

In this small-scale but affecting production, we have David Troughton as the grouchy reclusive widower who takes in the nervous and abused William and both of them transform as their friendship grows along with those around them (including a kindly doctor, a newly-married teacher, and a spirited Jewish boy called Zach whose parents are in the theatre).

This is an old-fashioned tale with a simple message, but is well-told, and manages to be quite chilling in places (William’s insane Bible-bashing mother has had an illegitimate child and leaves her to die, causing the boy considerable mental distress).

David Wood’s play, directed by Angus Jackson, has been revived a few times, but still works.  As the boys, Joe Reynolds as Will (we think), and Sonny Kirby as Zach, were excellent, in quite difficult roles.  And I have to mention the marvellous puppet work which not only evokes squirrels and hedge-sparrows, but also Mr Tom’s dog Sammy, who came to life in the expert hands of Elisa de Grey.

I also loved the sets with train posters and wartime rationing tips dominating, and this even transferred into the programme, which has period advertising throughout.


I Want My Hat Back (National Theatre Shed)

A short but fun children’s show is currently in residence at the National Theatre’s temporary performance space, The Shed.

‘I Want My Hat Back’ is a musical play about a bear who has a nice red pointy hat, falls asleep, and has it stolen by a passing rabbit.  He asks passing animals, birds and insects if they have seen it, before figuring out the culprit, taking revenge, and then, in penance, giving his special possession away to a friendly caterpillar who blossoms into a beautiful golden butterfly.

Based on the book written and illustrated by Jon Klassen, this is both funny and dark (perhaps some of the plot might upset sensitive children, both those in the audience in the performance we saw were having a great time).  There is even the panto element of a ‘he’s behind you’ moment which is hilarious.

Joel Horwood and Arthur Darvill have contributed fun songs, and the small ensemble – Marek Larwood as Bear, Steven Webb as Rabbit, with Natalie Klamar, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Oliver Birch, Pieter Lawman, Richie Hart and Adam Pleeth – have the humour and energy required for a show billed as ‘for children aged 3 to 300’.


Andre Rieu (Wembley Arena)

Just before Christmas we went along to see the most wealthy and successful classical musician currently working, Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra.  Rieu does not come cheap – our tickets came to £91 each once you factored in booking fee – but he does put on a spectacle.

His USP is his digital backdrops, his sopranos dressed as Disney princesses, and his own slightly cheesy Master of Ceremonies schtick.  The musical programme is made of crowd-pleasers: not simply the Strauss waltzes he is known for (the Blue Danube, for which we were handed tiny keyring lights to wave), but also such well-known pieces as the Hallelujah Chorus, the Pearl Fishers duet (for tenor trio and choir here, a bit odd), that aria from Madame Butterfly, 76 Trombones, the theme song from Exodus, and some Christmas pieces – The Holy City, O Holy Night, White Christmas …

There was a guest bell ringer, who had a speed playing contest with the xylophonist.  There was a trilling soprano who sang Christine’s Think of Me from The Phantom of the Opera.  There was a lot of mock drinking.  There was fake snow dumped on to the floor-sitting audience.  There were balloons.  There was Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, ending proceedings.

Rieu has energy, and, in a trio for Amazing Grace with his violin, and flute and bagpipes, he proves he can actually play a decent solo.  He also has friendly patter with which he engages his adoring audience.  Those waltzes get people up dancing, whether they are ageing couples, mums and daughters, or grannies and tots.

He puts on a good show, but like all good things, especially sugary or cheesy ones, he is best enjoyed in moderation.  This was a tightly programmed and shrewdly scripted piece of entertainment of which Rieu is the mullet-haired ringmaster.  And the audience went away humming the tunes with smiles on their faces.


wonder.land (National Theatre)

There’s something in the water on the Southbank.  It’s been 150 years since Charles Dodgson took up the name of Lewis Carroll and wrote ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, vibrant, inventive and frankly mad novels which have puzzled and charmed children ever since.

Damon Albarn (formerly of Blur) has written the music for this new musical set squarely in the dot.com generation.  Lyrics, such as they are, for the songs are written by Moira Buffini, and direction is from Rufus Norris, the new incumbent as Artistic Director at the National Theatre.

A good pedigree, you might say, and with such a book as a springboard, could it really miss?  The trouble is, I don’t think it is mad enough – our heroine, Aly (Lois Chimimba) is a moody, mixed-race teenager with separated parents (her father is sort of the Mad Hatter as he has mental problems and, well, wears hats) and a baby brother who vomits over the stage.

Said baby brother is called Charlie which leads to a laboured act two song called, yes, ‘Everyone Loves Charlie’.  It’s about as far away from Jefferson Airplane’s druggily Alice inspired anthem ‘White Rabbit’ as you can get.

The other songs channel the Laughing Policeman, Chim Chim Cheree, and Knees Up Mother Brown, and where we have a bit of melody, such as avatar Alice singing about herself or the trippy and glittery green caterpillar asking ‘Who Are You’ in true Disney style, we are pulled up short and feel as if we have wandered into another show.

What plot there is centres on Aly entering the world of http://www.wonder.land, coaxed by the Cheshire Cat (Hal Fowler, who also plays the Caterpillar) in stunning digital graphics, of which I would have loved to have seen more.

She creates a Tenniel-perfect Alice as her alter ego (Carly Bawden) who starts off all fluffy and cute and then becomes an evil troll when turned into the Red Queen by the nasty and vicious headmistress Ms Manxome (see what they did there?  Manx.  Cat.  Ho.), played by Anna Francolini.  She’s fun, but too one-dimensional, and really, is someone evil because they want to stop a child playing on their phone during lessons?

In lip service to Carroll’s original, Dinah, Mary-Ann and Kitty are here transformed into bullies who torment Aly in the girls’ loos, while the Mock Turtle, Humpty, Dum and Dee and others are avatars her Alice encounters online.  They could be any characters, really, and the creators don’t seem to know what to do with them.

With special effects which seem set to disappoint – an early screen full of messages goes nowhere, and other opportunities are missed – poor songs, and a plot which tries to shoehorn in everything possible (including a gay guy and a zombie apocalypse), this show tries to dazzle but instead irritates.

It doesn’t fall into the ‘so bad it’s good’ camp.  It has no hummable tunes (but that’s sometimes OK, if the show is good enough).  It has some good costumes, and that Cheshire Cat animation is excellent, but it isn’t enough to save this from being a true Christmas turkey, despite the best efforts of its cast.

All glitter on the outside with nothing inside, I’m afraid.


Requiem for a Heavyweight, 1956 – ★★★★

A marvellous version of the play which became a better-known movie starring Anthony Quinn a few years later.

This story of a washed-up boxer (Jack Palance), his promoter (Keenan Wynn), and his medical man (Ed Wynn, in a rare straight role) is a beautifully played live drama, written by Rod Serling and directed by Ralph Nelson.

One of the greatest pleasures of this version of the play is watching the Wynns, father and son, work together, and especially Keenan, who has rarely been better than he is here as the manager who takes a bribe.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Mr. Holmes, 2015 – ★★★½

I am a Sherlock Holmes nut. And this promised something different, a portrait of Holmes in his retirement, aged ninety-three and beekeeping, losing his faculties (he writes people’s names on his cuff).

This isn’t the full story, though. We see him in middle-age in his last case, without Watson, and without the pipe and deerstalker he has been saddled with in penny dreadfuls.

So we see a man with deductive qualities, a quick mind, a cunning turn of phrase – and we see him elderly, frail, slipping towards dementia at the end of his life.

Ian McKellen joins the list of great Holmeses, and he brings something new and fresh to the role. We believe in him, and although he may not quite be Conan Doyle’s detective, he makes us believe in his methods and his interactions with others.

I liked the in-jokes (Ambrose Chappell from ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’; Nicholas Rowe playing the Sherlock Holmes our real Holmes sees at the cinema, this Holmes being no fiction …, Phil Davis who was in Sherlock’s Study in Pink appearing as a policeman).

But I didn’t like the housekeeper’s distrust of her son’s friendship with the old man – and in fact, although the boy was very good, I can’t see Holmes getting close to anyone. He didn’t form human relationships, other than the brotherly friendship with Watson.

The ‘cases’ are also frustratingly disjointed – the case of Ann Kelmot being misunderstood – and our glimpse of Watson is restricted to just hands and feet, we have no concrete figure to make flesh. ‘After all these years, John didn’t know me at all,’ muses Holmes, and tells us of their estrangement followed close upon by the death of the Doctor, leaving a lonely Holmes with his bees and his failing mind.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


National Theater Live: Of Mice and Men, 2014 – ★★★★½

A book I know well from school I’d lovingly presented here in a Broadway production brought to our cinema screens courtesy of NT Live.

I’m not a big fan of James Franco generally but he is excellent here as George, and Chris O’Dowd was a pleasant surprise as Lennie.

In fact the casting is good thoughout, but special mention for Jim Norton, who was heartbreakingly believable as Candy, an old disabled swamper whose only friend is his smelly old dog.

Anna Shapiro’s production is small scale (just three simple sets) which uses music and lighting to present this classic tale.

As a film, it doesn’t give many nods to ‘cinema’ look, but the use of occasional close – ups was very effective, especially in the key – and still shocking – final scene.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Cabaret, 1993 – ★★★★

Very good record of the Sam Mendes stage production from the Donmar, which is much closer to the story than the Liza Minnelli film. Jane Horrocks is rough at the edges as Sally, Adam Godley is sweet as Clifford, Alan Cummings is in fine camp feckle as the MC, Sara Kestelman is stunning as Frauline Schneider.

I saw a stage production (not this one) a few years ago and was taken by the darkness of the plot and the ending, and the version is no exception; although it does not yet have the final bleak coda.

Sally Bowles may be Liza to most people, but this is how she is meant to be. This is a tragic story of Berlin at the brink of war, and it is powerful piece of theatre.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Catch My Soul, 1974 – ★★★½

This curio has quietly made it to DVD release after being pretty much unavailable for years. Patrick McGoohan might not be your first choice to direct a hippie rock opera, but here’s the proof it happened.

Richie Havens is the pastor Othello who has taken a new white (and rather geeky) wife Desdemona (Season Hubley). On the sidelines is the malevolent Iago (Lance LeGault), who identifies himself as Satan and plans to spoil things in the cause of white supremacy.

Cassio is a wastrel, a drinker, a trampy mumbler, played here by the fantastic soul singer Tony Joe White (his song Polk Salad Annie, later covered by Elvis, is seriously hot), and although he’s wasted a bit and not given full reign, it is fantastic to see him in his prime on film.

The songs are more gospel than rock in places, making this more akin to Godspell than Jesus Christ Superstar, and the score varies from a few memorable numbers to some cringeworthy pieces. However, as a musical, it just about succeeds on a sense of cheek and the forgiveness of the period in which it was made.

Where the storyline tries to shoehorn in Shakespeare’s verse (the bit about paddling the palm, Cassio’s reputation speech, etc) it does actually work well, but Iago is just too cartoon a villain, and without the conceit of Othello being a military general, I can’t really see Iago’s motivation for humiliating a fellow white man and women in the context of what’s causing him so much hate against the black pastor.

The DVD sleeve has all sorts of hyperbole about this being ‘exquisite’, ‘legendary’ and ‘a missing piece of cinema history’. If you go in expecting that, you’ll be disappointed. If you go in expecting anything like McGoohan’s other screen work, you might be a little bit confused. But if you are open minded about musicals, Shakespeare, and hippy culture, then give this a go.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Henry V (RSC at the Barbican)

The final play in the Shakespeare Tetralogy which has now evolved into ‘King and Country’, so from next month, if you missed the first three plays, ‘Richard II’ and ‘Henry IV parts 1 and 2’, go forth to the Barbican and make good that omission.

This is, surprisingly, the very first ‘Henry V’ I have seen on stage.  Of course I have seen the Olivier and Branagh films, with their rousing St Crispin’s Day speeches, and the BBC Shakespeare and Hollow Crown versions, but have missed out on real life versions.  So even if I hadn’t seen the preceding plays, I would have hot-footed it to this one.

Alex Hassell returns as the king he became at the end of ‘Henry IV part 2’, and he is still not quite the regal or commanding monarch: he had doubts, he shows some emotion at the losses of battle and the tough decisions he has to make to maintain army discipline.  It is an excellent performance, and I believed in him completely.

Also good in this cast are Oliver Ford Davies as a beautifully enunciated Chorus in a cardigan, the ever-reliable Jim Hooper in two roles and two beards (an early scene as the Polonius-like Archbishop of Canterbury pulls the humour out of an Act One scene), a delicate Jane Lapotaire as the Queen of France, and Joshua Richards in a brace of roles as boozy Bardolph and fiery Welshman Fluellen.  The set is rather good, too, with golden beads hanging in chains at each side of the stage, clouds, rain, and, as the Chorus asks us, a set of imaginary horses.

Gregory Doran’s productions often put humour ahead of the more serious aspects of the play, and here there was a bit of what can only be called ‘audience participation’ in Henry’s wooing scene with Katherine (Jennifer Kirby, who runs with both her scenes, playing broken English for fun) which didn’t quite work.  However, post-battle, there was a moment when the balconies and stage filled with mournful singing for the dead which was very moving.

I should also mention Sarah Parks’ Mistress Quickly, and her account of the last moments of the life of the (unseen) Sir John Falstaff, who died ‘babbling o’ green fields’, and Simon Yadoo’s impenetrable Scottish soldier, who offered comic relief in the calm before the storm of Agincourt.


Play for Today: The Slab Boys, 1979

Play for Today: The Slab Boys, directed by Bob Hird.  Starring Gerard Kelly, Billy McColl, Joseph McKenna and Tom Watson.  75 minutes.  1979.

An excellent ‘Play for Today’, this stage to screen adaptation by John Byrne, the first of an eventual trilogy, shows life in a Scottish carpet factory from the floor where the ‘slab boys’ mix the colours for the designers: three lads work there from the dim clown to the sparky fireball and the sarcastic quiff wearer.

When a posh lad comes into the firm straight from ‘uni’ and starts earning more in a week than all three slab boys together they get a glimpse of what could be, and what might be, for one of them. With realistic regional dialogue and some sense of urban working class life, there are watchable and strong performances from Billy McColl (d. 2014), Gerard Kelly (d. 2010), and Joseph McKenna (not seen on screen since Absolute Beginners).

The boss is one Willie Curry, sardonic and nostalgic for his desert war service. Tom Watson reprised the role nearly two decades later for the glossy feature film, but I find his performance here is more spot on.

Finally, the new lad Alan, still in his blazer and polite to a fault, is played by Mark Windsor, who has also disappeared from the screen after a brief flourish in the late 70s/early 80s. I didn’t find him that convincing but you need this kind of character for contrast and conflict, I suppose.

Very watchable and although it betrays its stage origins now and then, it translates well to the screen.


Play for Today: The Muscle Market, 1981

Play for Today: The Muscle Market, directed by Jim Goddard.  Starring Pete Postlethwaite, Alison Steadman, Paul Jesson and Barry McCarthy.  75 minutes.  1981.

A very good Play for Today from the pen of Alan Bleasdale, this provides the missing link between the play ‘The Black Stuff’ which introduced Yosser and the gang, and the subsequent TV serial, ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’. It’s a mystery why this particular play is missing from the DVD release.

This is the story of contractor Danny Duggan (Pete Postlethwaite), who is involved in bad company with some violent and dodgy characters, and the dark situation he finds himself in with books which don’t add up and numerous debts.

It might sound bleak, but there is a lot of black comedy here and a real sense of realism from a master writer. When he has to go serious, he certainly does, that’s the cleverness of the writing.

Strong support from Alison Steadman as Duggan’s secretary, and Terence Rigby as the amiable yet menacing Mr Big owed a lot of cash.


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The Phantom Frame

Information about the creative works of Gareth Preston

WestEnd_blog

Reviewing the quality of the stagey experience. What makes a theatre experience? People, show and music.

Archive Television Musings

"To waste one second of one's life is a betrayal of one's self! I wonder what's on television?"

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.

Travalanche

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

VHiStory

A Trawl through my VHS library

How do you eat an elephant?

Beating depression bite by bite

Constructivist

reflections on my training offering

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.

AustenBlog

You Don't Mess Around With Jane

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