Human League (Kew the Music)

My first ‘festival-ish’ experience of the veteran electronica act whose high point remains the run of chart buzzers from 1981’s Dare, and the rain – a couple of spits aside – stayed away to prove the weather warnings wrong.

The core of the band remains Philip, Joanne and Susan, a little older but with their energy undiminished as the girls dance (Susan is the confident one keeping the crowd ‘up’) and the main man doesn’t keep still for much time, with several costume changes and racing around from side to side of the stage.

A 75 minute set was high on those hits from their most successful year, plus the opener Sky from their last studio album to date, Credo (2010), several ‘middle period’ crowd-pleasers (Heart Like A Wheel, Soundtrack to a Generation, Tell Me When), and minor hits The Lebanon (with the notable line about the shops) and Louise.

There’s a cover, too, of Eric Clapton’s Behind The Mask and – a seeming fixture in this 40th year since the band’s formation – Being Boiled, from the days the League was quite a different trio with their own manifesto.

Support from Blancmange and Luna started the evening in style, and a few thousand people mainly above the age of forty enjoyed a fun and nostalgic night of dancing and singing along with a trio who remain tireless and undiminished.


Fashioned From Nature (V & A, Kensington)

If you have ever wondered about the relationship between raw materials, animal products and fashion, and how this evolved into a sustainable and ethical mindset, this current exhibition at the V&A is for you.

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Set over two floors, production from material such as silkworms, raw cotton, wool and fleece, glass, rubber, fruit, and animal fur, feathers, and leather are explored. You can explore areas such as ‘murderous millinery’, mother of pearl, spun glass, and lace, as well as looking at some more ethical alternatives from the mid-20th century.

The V&A describe this exhibition as “the first to explore the complex relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to the present day”.  Have you ever stopped to think about how your clothes have been made, coloured, or decorated, or are you content to just purchase mass-produced items without reflecting on their origins?

Whether you want to look at how raw silk or cotton evolved into stylish and functional pieces, or consider the utilisation of beetle cases and wings or mother of pearl for embellishment, you will see items on display which make you stop and think.  You will also see clothing made from a combination of materials, including real fur and feathers, discarded yarn, and even a German parachute.

You will be able to consider the workmanship that goes into spun glass or lace items, see the influence of fashion from around the world, and (briefly) reflect on the influence of outside movements such as punk or the industrial revolution.

Tickets for this exhibition are £12 and there is no need to book in advance.  There is also a fascinating book which accompanies the show, with additional text and photographs, which costs £18, and several items in the shop which compliment the items on show.

Fashioned from Nature runs until the 27th January 2019.

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Knights of the Rose (Arts Theatre)

“It’s impossible to imagine how a musical could be more epic” is one of the taglines of this new hybrid of rock musical and serious literary references which has charged into the Arts Theatre until 26 August.

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The House of Rose (not York or Lancaster, you’ll notice, this is some kind of medieval house where another kingdom is just around the corner) is ruled by a King and Queen in their dotage, with their heir, Prince Gawain, and daughter, Princess Hannah.

They also have a ‘Lady’ Isobel who seems to have joined their family somehow, and one Horatio who I swear said at one point he was an illegitimate son of the House, but he is the devoted servant of Gawain even though they love the same woman.

In the meanwhile the other Knights include the wet but decent Lord Hugo and the fiery Lord Palamon, and both want the Princess, although the battle and tension between them that should arise from this psychological conflict is not really explored, and is weakly resolved in Act Two.

Then there’s John the messenger boy, who acts as narrator/chorus at various points, and a couple of servant girls who have potential in their characters but remain undeveloped.

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This show tries to shoehorn in some classic rock songs as the plot progresses, but they are forced in with such ineptitude that the audience doesn’t know whether they should be laughing or not (one example of a character saying “would you dance, if I asked you to dance” to lead into the song “Hero”), and by Act Two there is a whole run of questionable creative choices starting with “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” over the body of one of the fallen Knights and ending with a bizarre staging of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

The singers are very impressive though, with Andy Moss as Gawain, Oliver Savile as Hugo, Chris Cowley as Palamon, Matt Thorpe (excellent rock vocals) as Horatio and Ruben Van Keer as John as the brave and testosterone-heavy Knights, while the ladies (Katie Birtill, Rebekah Lowings and Bleu Woodward) do a spirited version of “Holding Out For a Hero” in Act One.

Adam Pearce as the King also surprises with the heart-rending lament from the opera “King Arthur” in Act Two, but this whole sequence sticks out like a sore thumb and simply confuses, as did the reprise of “Bed of Roses” from the royal couple in their garden.

I would have liked more numbers which treated the plot with folk material (“Turn Turn Turn” did well), and with more tightly choreographed pieces – there’s one in each Act, which do have the sense of epic fire we were promised.

Also follow through on those relationships and tangled loyalties which would put meat on the show’s bare bones and give these characters much needed emotional investment for an audience – it is to the credit of the actors that we can engage now and then with their dilemmas, but it is frustrating to have to fill in the blanks ourselves.

Ultimately this feels like a show still in workshop mode which doesn’t know whether it wants to include rock songs ironically (like “Rock of Ages”), or whether to present the plot as musical comedy (like “Spamalot”). Quoting – or rather misquoting – Shakespeare and a whole host of other luminaries to make up for a weak book is not enough, and this needs a lot more thought to really succeed.

My thanks to Premier PR for arranging the tickets to Knights of the Rose.


Hanwell Zoo: an appreciation

There’s a quiet corner of the Brent Lodge Park in Hanwell which has some very special residents.

If you have a long memory, you might recall this as the Bunny Park, due to the population of rabbits, and later as the Brent Lodge Animal Centre, which thrived as a small collection of animals, reptiles and birds.

Since April 2017, the Animal Centre has re-branded itself as Hanwell Zoo, and currently boasts residents including rabbits, budgies, wood rails, pygmy goats, kune kune pigs, mara, capybara, lemurs, alpacas, tamarins, porcupines, agoutas, domestic chickens, java sparrows, tortoises, flamingos, ibis, cranes, peacocks, ducks, dwarf mongooses, turkeys, poison frogs, butterflies, a rarely spotted dormouse, and the most recent addition, a small aquarium.

There is a small charge for entry – currently £3.50 for a standard adult ticket – and for repeat visitors, the best value is for an annual pass, at £15.00 for an adult or £10.00 for a child, a senior, or registered disabled.

For those who wish to have more financial involvement with the Zoo, a sponsorship scheme is available to support your favourite resident(s), and the chance to experience the life of a Zookeeper for a Day.

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Regular opportunities to “Meet the Meerkats” are available, and occasional opportunities to “Meet the Lemurs” – both are highly recommended for a chance to get closer to the fascinating animals who have made Ealing their home.

There is also a thriving education programme available to schools, especially relating to Key Stages 1 and 2 of the National Curriculum, and a birthday experience can be booked for groups of children.

Let’s take a look at some of the current residents:

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Mara. The oldest residents of the Zoo, who arrived around ten years ago.  These three rodents (Lily, Grace and Lati) have shared their space over the years with wallabies, guinea fowl, and have now settled with …

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Capybara. These two large rodents (Hydro and Tupi) may be found swimming in the pond on hot days; they arrived in the new South American enclosure in May 2017.

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Flamingos. The flock of twelve birds arrived from Chester Zoo in May 2017, and live happily in the Caribbean area alongside a group of ducks.

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Meerkats. In August 2014, Chico and Kali, two female meerkats arrived from Tilgate Nature Centre in Sussex.  This later grew to a group of six with the addition of Arthur, Stephen, Rex and Titch, although Kali has since passed away.  They are fascinating to watch and interact with from the public viewing area, and share their space with …

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Porcupines. Hatari came to the Zoo in Animal Centre days after being rescued from poor conditions with a broken leg.  He has thrived over the years and with the arrival of Kuchimba, found his perfect mate and has now fathered two sets of porcupettes.  They generally sleep during the day, being nocturnal animals, but you may spot them at opening time or later in the evening.

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Lemurs. These three ring-tailed lemurs are mother and daughters (Tia, Vana and Fi), and are best spotted at feeding time, when they may oblige visitors with a rare appearance!

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Alpaca. The two are members of the camel family, and have very different personalities; you will find that one loves the shade while the other loves to sunbathe.

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Tamarin monkeys.  These three little primates (all females) replaced the long-standing and much-loved resident marmosets in 2017, and are a joy to watch whether feeding, grooming, or exploring their own adventure park.

Hanwell Zoo is a member of BIAZA and participates in a number of international breeding programmes and conservation initiatives.  It remains both friendly and professional, with a real community focus, and a clean, safe and caring environment.

Between April and mid-September the Zoo opens each day from 10am-5pm, and between mid-September to the end of March from 10am-4pm.  There is a playground to keep little visitors happy, and toilets and a small shop on site.  Just outside the perimeter of the Zoo you will find a cafe and picnic area.

Hanwell Zoo can be easily accessed by foot, by bus (10 minutes walk from Drayton Bridge Road), by bicycle, or by car (there is a small, free car park associated with the park, or pay by phone bays).  For more information, visit the website or follow on Facebook or Twitter.

All photos by Louise Penn or Colin Penn, 2017-2018

 


Suzanne Vega (Meltdown, Queen Elizabeth Hall)

A slice of New York came to the Southbank Centre last weekend as the Meltdown Festival drew to a close; this year, Robert Smith from The Cure has curated an interesting mix of musicians, and it was good to share the first date of Vega’s international tour – taking in Dubai, Australia, New Zealand, and back to the UK – with an appreciative audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

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Image credit: Virginie Viche, The Upcoming

Vega made her first impact on folk music in 1985, with her first self-titled album, containing the single Marlene on the Wall, which she obligingly performed with the Dietrich hat firmly in place.  Now a woman in late middle age, Vega is immaculate, with a black trouser suit, glittery boots, and a lot of attitude, sparring with her guitarist, Gerry Leonard, who knows a lot about accompanying legends, having worked for years alongside the late David Bowie.  He’s also known for creating clever waves of sound which make the stage feel far more full than it is.

In a varied and interesting set, Vega shared both hits and pet songs with us, including her other big hit, Luka, her story song The Queen and the Soldier, the rockers Blood Makes Noise and I Never Wear White, the sweet ballads Small Blue Thing and Gypsy, and much more. She engages with her audience, too: many artists do not really talk, but she conspires, teases, and exudes a warmth I didn’t expect.

A very accomplished night was started by her support act, James Walsh of Starsailor, who impressed with Empire and If I Had The Words.  He made me think of Layne Staley at times with his vocals, and of Uriah Heep with the sheer sweep of his melodies.  Neither a bad thing.

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Famous Names from Ealing Studios – new local project

Ealing, West London, is the home of the iconic Ealing Studios, and during the stewardship of Will Barker, Basil Dean, and Michael Balcon, produced some of the most iconic and well-loved films to come out of British cinema, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.

In more recent years the studios have become a place where both films and television have been created, and you can still see the ‘White House’ adminstration building as you walk from High Street towards St Mary’s Road.

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For the last ten years Ealing town centre has not had a permanent cinema; there is the local Film Club, which meets in the Town Hall, and there has been a travelling van showing up-to-date titles, first on Haven Green, and later within the perimeter of the demolished Empire/ABC.

There have been plans afoot for some time to develop a lifestyle quarter within Ealing, emcompassing retail, residential, and cultural spaces (including that long-awaited replacement cinema). This is where the Famous Names from Ealing Studios comes in.

The brainchild of Tony Moore, this project now has a dedicated public Facebook group and has attracted interest from Ealing Council, Ealing Regeneration, Ealing Highways, Rupa Huq M.P., Ealing Today, the Ealing History group, Ealing Department of Works, Talking Pictures TV, with other potential supporters already approached.

Ealing, with its importance not just to the history of cinema, but also to television (Monty Python filmed many sketches within the borough, Downton Abbey’s ‘downstairs’ scenes were all filmed at the Studios), and to music (‘The Ealing Club’ was instrumental to the careers of The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Cream), should be a popular stop on the tourist trail, and a Walk of Fame would attract interest, investment, and a financial boost for the area between Ealing Broadway, Bond Street, and Mattock Lane.

Many performers have been linked with Ealing or been in residence here: Sid James, Tony Hancock, George Formby, Gracie Fields, Dick Emery, Earl Cameron, Freddie Mercury, Dusty Springfield, Julian Clary, Arthur Haynes, Googie Withers, Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sam Kydd, director Steve McQueen, Matt Monro, Liz Sladen, John Gregson, Stewart Granger, Maurice Chevalier, Gloria Swanson, Tommy Trinder, Will Hay, Ivor Novello, Harry Fowler, Jack Hawkins, Joan Greenwood, Gordon Jackson, and Mervyn Johns, to mention just a few.

What better way to remember them, and put Ealing firmly on the destination map?

The Famous Names from Ealing project needs publicity, awareness, and the backing of the local community and business owners to make this work. Please consider joining the project – for more information follow the link above to the Facebook group, or contact Tony Moore directly by email.


DVD audit 2018 – part 2

More titles from the collection. Film, TV, documentaries, music. There’s more to come!

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The Meerkats of Hanwell Zoo

Meet the fabulous meerkat residents of Hanwell Zoo – these little guys are my favourites of all the animals there, and here are some photos I captured of them out in their enclosure today.

I would also recommend meeting them at close quarters in the “Meet the Meerkats” feeding opportunity which is offered regularly on Sunday lunchtimes.

Stay tuned to this blog for a more in-depth look at Hanwell Zoo later in the week.


Macbeth (Olivier, National Theatre)

Life is too short for a bad Shakespeare. Rufus Norris, artistic director at the National, returns to the Bard after a long sabbatical, and unwisely places this tight drama of power and ambition on an Olivier stage which drowns it.

Rory Kinnear as Macbeth, and Anne-Marie Duff as Lady M, are both actors who have excelled in previous stage productions here, but here both seem lost in the way Norris has chosen to direct them, even to the point of mangling the rhythm of the verse.

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There’s a lot of plastic in this production. Severed heads in supermarket bags. Cheap and dilapidated sets. Even the witches don’t gain a sense of horror or magic.

Good things – I like Stephen Boxer as Duncan, in his blood red suit. It’s always a difficult role to pull off as it is so small, but we had the measure of him, quickly.

Making Ross and the 2nd Murderer female was interesting – although the latter was dreadful – but making Fleance a girl was pointless, as she would not succeed to the throne and so was no threat to Macbeth, even with the prophecy of Banquo “fathering a line of kings”.

Removing Duncan’s younger son Donalbain removed the constant problem of what to do with him. He contributes very little – a previous production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse gave him learning difficulties, which at least allowed the character to be memorable. Here we just have Malcolm, but in Norris’s cuts and changes to the text, his big speech with Macduff disappears.

The royal palace of the Macbeths when they reign was as decayed as they were, with signs of a front-line military occupation, with the billycans of the banquet giving it the sense of a greasy spoon affair. The ghost’s appearance though was poorly thought out, and didn’t work.

Having dual casting with Seyton and the Porter gave a new dimension with the Porter’s comedy routine consisting of snatches of plot he has overheard, about the murder of the King – this gives him some power over his employers, but as this character isn’t well-developed enough, this isn’t as developed as it could have been.

I really didn’t like the mangled verse I have already mentioned – blank verse has its own music, so use it! And the drunken dancing on Duncan’s last night didn’t work for me.

This could have been so much better, but was yet another disappointing production from this particular director’s tenure. I would have liked to have seen an intimate production based in the Dorfman, perhaps, which got to the core of the characters.


TV series still without a DVD release

These titles are still missing in action, surviving but with no video release. They are also, with one or two exceptions, completely absent from the bootleg circuit.

Is any company out there interested in securing the rights to get these out in the world for archive TV lovers to enjoy?  Would lovers of comedy, drama, or period adaptations buy?

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Phyllis Calvert and Penelope Keith in Kate.  Photo via Nostalgia Central.

Kate – starring Phyllis Calvert.  38 episodes across three series, 1970-1972.  Made for Yorkshire Television.  Kate is an agony aunt who has a knack for getting into trouble.  Also features Penelope Keith and Jack Hedley.

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Helen: a Woman of Today – starring Alison Fiske and Martin Shaw.  13 episodes in a single series, 1973.  Made for London Weekend Television.  Helen is approaching middle-age and decides to end her marriage.  Also features Sharon Duce and Sheila Gish.

Bel Ami – starring Robin Ellis.  5 episodes, 1971.  Made for the BBC.  Adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel about the amoral Georges Duroy.  Also features Elvi Hale, Garfield Morgan, Arthur Pentelow and Peter Sallis.

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Stanley Baker and Daphne Slater in Jane Eyre.  Photo via Bronte Blog.

Jane Eyre – starring Daphne Slater and Stanley Baker.  6 episodes, 1956.  Made for the BBC – my thoughts on seeing it at a BFI screening here.  Rich adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel, in fact one of the best I have seen.

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Liza Goddard and Dinsdale Landen in Pig in the Middle.

Pig in the Middle – starring Liza Goddard, Joanna Van Gyseghem, Dinsdale Landen (and later Terence Brady).  20 episodes across three series, 1980-1983.  Made for London Weekend Television.  Comedy about the middle-aged Barty who is torn between two glamorous women.

Foxy Lady – starring Diane Keen and Geoffrey Burridge.  12 episodes across two series, 1982-1984.  Made for Granada Television.  Daisy joins a Northern newspaper in this breezy comedy.  Also features Gregor Fisher, Milton Johns and Patrick Troughton.

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The Informer – starring Ian Hendry.  21 episodes made across two series, but only 2 survive, 1966-1967.  Made for Associated-Rediffusion.  Alex is a former lawyer now released from prison, making a living on both sides of the law.  Also features Jean Marsh.

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Neil Innes as the Wizard with Toby Spelldragon in Puddle Lane.

Puddle Lane – children’s series with Neil Innes.  75 episodes, 1985-1989.  Made for Yorkshire Television.  A magician tells stories with the help of his cauldron and dragon. Also features Kate Lee.

Great Expectations – starring Dinsdale Landen.  13 episodes, of which 12 survive, 1959.  Made for the BBC.  The first television adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel.  Also features Colin Jeavons, Michael Gwynn, and Helen Lindsay.   The atmospheric opening episode is accessible at the BFI Mediatheque.

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Article from the Radio Times.  Janet Munro in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Scan via Britmovie.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – starring Janet Munro and Corin Redgrave.  4 episodes, of which 3 survive, 1968.  Made for the BBC.  Adaptation of the Anne Brontë novel, clips were shown on ‘The Brontës at the BBC’.  Also features Bryan Marshall, Megs Jenkins, and Felicity Kendal.

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Nicol Williamson, George Segal and Will Geer in Of Mice and Men.  Photo via eBay.

Of Mice and Men – starring George Segal and Nicol Williamson.  A two-hour drama, 1968.  Made for the American Broadcasting Company.  Adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel.  Also features Will Geer, Don Gordon and Joey Heatherton.

The Coral Island – with Nicholas Bond-Owen and Richard Gibson (I know of the German release without English soundtrack).  9 episodes, 1983.  Made for Thames Television.  Ralph, Jack and Peterkin find themselves shipwrecked.

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Ian Hendry and Nyree Dawn Porter in For Maddie With Love.

For Maddie With Love – starring Ian Hendry and Nyree Dawn Porter.  48 episodes over 2 series, 1980-1981.  Made for ATV.  Maddie is terminally ill and her husband and children have to come to terms with change.  An excellent and overlooked series, only one episode has been officially released on Network’s Soap Box set. Also features Colin Baker, Robert Lang and Bruce Montague.

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Dinsdale Landen in Devenish. Photo via Memorable TV.

Devenish – starring Dinsdale Landen.  14 episodes across 2 series, 1977-1978.  Made for Granada Television.  Prufrock Devenish is an amoral social climber in this nutty comedy.  Also features Doran Godwin, Terence Alexander, Geoffrey Bayldon and Michael Robbins.

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Clive Dunn and Michael Bentine in It’s a Square World.  

It’s a Square World – with Michael Bentine.  56 episodes, of which 45 survive, 1960-1964.  Made for the BBC.  Zany and influential sketch show .  Also features Frank Thornton and Clive Dunn.

Thirty Minute Theatre – just under 50 episodes survive from 285 (many never filmed), but only a handful have been released.  Includes key work from a variety of writers and directors.  Made for the BBC.

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Benedict Taylor and Paul Rogers in Barriers.

Barriers – starring Benedict Taylor.  20 episodes, 1981.  Billy seeks his adopted parents.  Made for Tyne Tees Television.  This has turned up on YouTube so I rewatched it in a poor quality copy, but it has stood up well.

Hamlet – starring Ian McKellen.  One-off film, 1970.  A co-production between the BBC and Prospect Theatre Company.  Also features John Woodvine, Faith Brook, and Susan Fleetwood.  One of the few colour Shakespeares that remains resolutely in the archives.

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David Swift and Richard Beckinsale in Bloomers.  Photo via Nostalgia Central.

Bloomers – starring Richard Beckinsale and Anna Calder Marshall.  5 episodes recorded of the planned six, 1979, this series was curtailed with Beckinsale’s death.  Made for the BBC.  A comedy in which a resting actor starts work in a flower shop.  I have seen the episodes in poor-quality copies, with thoughts here.

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William Windom in My World and Welcome to It.

My World and Welcome to It – starring William Windom.  26 episodes, 1969-1970.  Made for Sheldon Leonard Productions.  John Monroe observes and comments on his wife and family in this comedy based on artist/writer James Thurber.  I first saw this in the 1980s on Channel 4, and have seen the whole series on poor quality copies.

That’s my twenty most wanted at the moment – what’s yours?


DVD audit 2018 – part 1

By no means my entire collection, here is a peek at some of the films and TV series which make up my DVD collection.

Check back for more and for some book shelfies during the next few weeks.


Red (Wyndham’s Theatre)

A revival of John Logan’s play about the artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), this play brings back its star, Alfred Molina, and director Michael Grandage, for its West End debut, following a 2009 run at the Donmar Warehouse, and later on Broadway.

Alongside Molina’s bald, brash and bullish Rothko, Alfred Enoch plays Ken – a young artist who assists Rothko in the creation of his sequence of abstract canvases of reds, blacks, and browns, destined for the walls of a high-class restaurant for the nouveau riche.

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We first meet both men in the claustrophobic studio, lit by low lighting and dominated by the huge and bloated canvasses, cavernous blood reds (or variants on red, enumerated in one amusing back and forth exchange) and harsh blocked shapes.  Rothko is self-absorbed, uncompromising, creative, with each painting a child with its umbilical cord ripped from the heart.

As this short piece – just 90 minutes – progresses we see the men achieve an unspoken understanding about art, which culminates with Ken, enthusing about the pop art revolution of Warhol and Lichtenstein, just as Rothko and his contemporaries shook up the establishment in their day, emerging from the chrysalis as a fully formed butterfly, ready to go it alone with his own work (which we never see).

There are moments of pathos in this play, which reminded me at times of the closing moments of Yasmina Reza’s clever three-hander, Art.  Molina displays both the passion of the veteran painter – in the vibrant and almost balletic sequence where he and Enoch prime an entire canvas in maroon tones, leaving them exhausted, paint-speckled, and fully engaged with the joy of creation – and the tragedy of a painter finding himself almost out of time, reduced to ‘selling out’ for the masses.

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This play is a treat, which made me start to read around about the abstract painters and their descendants.  Both leading roles are judged perfectly, and a nod needs to be made to Christopher Oram’s richly dressed sets, Neil Austin’s lighting design, and Adam Cork’s sound design, which mixes gramophone records of opera, classical and jazz.

Red continues at the Wyndham’s until the 28th July 2018.

 


Black Sheep by Gabriel Hershman (book review)

Gabriel Hershman now has three biographies to his name, all of actors who achieved prominence in the 1960s. The first, on Ian Hendry, and the second, on Albert Finney, were well-written and researched, and now with a step up to an ‘authorised’ biography, this book profiles Nicol Williamson (1936-2011).

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Williamson was a firebrand of an actor both on- and off-screen, coming to prominence in a dual screen and stage career which took off in the late 1960s. Yet by the end of the 1990s ennui had set in, with a retreat from performing, and this great actor just fell off the radar. By the time of his death – which was not announced until some weeks later – he was almost forgotten by all but his most devoted fans and admirers.

This book, authorised and supported by son Luke and former wife Jill Townsend-Sorel, sets out to redress that balance. In the acknowledgements Hershman describes his book as aiming to be a “truthful, balanced portrait of a complex man, neither coffee-table saccharine nor a hatchet job”. Luke Williamson describes his father as “the front seat of an exhilarating, terrifying rollercoaster”. Those who met Nicol Williamson, however fleetingly, would agree that he was infuriating, mystifying, and an incredible creative force.

As with the other biographies, Hershman dissects the best of Williamson’s performances as well as touching, where appropriate, on the man behind the actor. On Inadmissible Evidence, a film adaptation of the John Osborne play, where Williamson had created the role of Maitland, far older than his own age, he showed signs of dissatisfaction and vulnerability with his performance, asking the cameraman for his view on whether he “was as good as Spencer Tracy”.

By the 1970s this coiled spring would burst into violence during the Broadway run of Rex, the Richard Rodgers musical in which he played Henry VIII, a show in which his dominance of the role must have been something of a strain. By the time he completed his last notable screen role in The Hour of the Pig, he was idly teasing his colleagues and appearing bored, cast only after “the usual suspects” of his generation (Harris, O’Toole) were found to be unavailable. Pig was not treated well in terms of distribution, and is rarely revived now, but the balance of farce and straight-faced interpretation was handled well by Williamson, and rightly treated as a career highlight by this book.

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Personal issues – alcoholism, two divorces, arrogance, self-obsession, misogyny – continued to blight what can only be described as a troubled life. Hershman addresses these concerns with tact and diplomacy, with perceptive comments from Townsend-Sorel and others who knew him best.

This may well be a tale of a life which didn’t reach its potential in many ways, because the subject was his own worst enemy, and the final chapters inevitably have the sheen of sadness across them, but there are also pockets of celebration. He may have never been good enough for his own standards (by them, better than anyone else!) but the body of work left behind speaks for itself.

This is a very entertaining book, which casts the net widely to locate the man, the ‘black sheep’, which was Thomas Nicol Williamson, a Scot, a grammar-school boy, a boy who loved his parents but resented his sister, a young man who sang Al Bowlly songs but struggled with real love (an odd relationship with Sarah Miles, who seemed to relish his working-class roughness; the hook-up with his stage daughter from Inadmissible, Townsend-Sorel, which turned into marriage and high living), the performer who could essay tormented characters from his jaded older man in Laughter in the Dark to his tense gay lodger in the fantastic TV play Horror of Darkness (which visitors to the London’s National Film Theatre can view in the on-site Mediatheque).

On a personal note I found the Nicol I came to know and admire springing from every page, and it was an emotional read. The occasional glimpses of softness in screen and stage performances (Robin and Marian) were close to how he could be when introspective, caring, and kind. The novel Ming’s Kingdom, conversely, in its pornographic sex scenes and confused situations, showed the bile, the sharpness, and the loathing of women which was a troubling facet of his life (whether the novel is about his second wife Andrea, or a composite of characters affecting his equilibrium).

Hershman’s book is essential reading for biographic connoisseurs, for fans of 60s screen culture, and for those specifically interested in underrated and neglected British performers. It is an open question whether the subject would have approved of the final work, or collaborated with it had he still been alive (Finney did not contribute to Strolling Player). I’d like to think yes on both counts.


Mental Health Awareness Week

Twitter will be sympathetic this week, even empathetic.

Tips will be shared, there will be discussions about ‘stigma’ and how in these more enlightened days, mental health issues are treated in the same way as physical ones.

Except that’s still not the case.  Why is that?  Are people frightened that their own minds might be as fragile as those around them?  Are people embarrassed, irritated, inconvenienced?  Do they see it as yet another modern ‘trend’?

I wrote about my own engagement with the black dog recently.  The more of us who do this, who say, ‘this is me’, in just the same way one discusses a broken arm, a dicky heart, or a chest infection, the more we will break through the awkward silence, the suspicion, the blatant disregard of situations which need our help.

This is me.  Get over it.

Follow the #mentalhealthawarenessweek tags on Twitter.  Read around the links and articles which will be shared.  Take a look at the cartoons and photographs.

Don’t say people ‘confess’ to a mental health condition.  Don’t treat them as something shameful – if a colleague of yours is ill, then treat them the same way you would with a physical ailment.  Send them a get well card.  Say you hope they’ll feel better soon.  You know, ‘normal’ stuff.

Because these are ‘normal’ people.  I hope this week makes that clear, and gets the dialogue moving, continuing, and progressing.

mental-health-facts

Lou’s Top Tips:

  • Put yourself first.  Not anyone else.
  • Fight for what is right for you, whether that is in work or personal life.
  • Engage where you feel up to doing so, disengage where you need to.
  • Don’t feel guilty is you can’t do something.  It doesn’t matter.
  • Find something you enjoy, as that will lift you up.
  • Forgive ignorance, however well meant.
  • Be honest.
  • Value yourself.  If you don’t why should anyone else?
  • Go out and listen to the birds sing.
  • Look back to those you loved, and situations which made you happy.
  • Be mindful.  Meditate.
  • If you believe in something, don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong.
  • Be that inner child again.
  • And finally … life is short.  Don’t waste it.

Chess (again), Coliseum Theatre

Now, you may recall that last week we took a visit to see one of my all-time favourite musicals, Chess, and that it was not an entirely enjoyable experience as our upper circle seats were most definitely ‘restricted’ although not sold as such.  The show was fantastic, as I expected, so I took a very rare decision to pay for a more expensive ticket, and revisit the show to see what I was missing.

I’ll talk a bit about pricing at the end of this piece.

The difference between viewing the show from a seat in the upper circle, row J, in the central block, and a seat in the dress circle, row E, at the side, is like night and day.  In the case of this production of Chess, the effect is like watching a completely different show from a design point of view.

Just look at the difference here; last week’s view first, then last night’s view.

chess uc

chess dc

The ENO’s annual musical has become a big event of limited runs: we have had Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard, Carousel, and now Chess.  These are generally big productions with star names, and for the last two years, they have been fully staged.  None of these were ‘new’ musicals to me, and in fact all have been long-time favourites, and Chess is no exception.

I talked a bit about the casting for Chess last week.  Musical theatre veteran Michael Ball has been cast as the Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky.   Rock singer and musical star from Canada, Tim Howar, is the American champion, Freddie Trumper (an unfortunate surname right now with the current President).  Actress/singer Cassidy Janson, who has led in small musicals and covered in larger ones, is Florence Vassy, Freddie’s second and girlfriend of seven years.  X Factor winner turned musical belter Alexandra Burke is Svetlana Sergievska, the wife of Anatoly and mother of their son Ivan.  Phillip Browne is the Russian second, Molokov, a KGB operative and a sinister bass. Cedric Neal comes from Broadway and a leading role in Motown the Musical to portray The Arbiter, the judge and referee of the Chess Federation tournaments we see.

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In the last post I referred to the casting drama during rehearsals which saw Neal brought in at short notice to take over the role (hard on the voice, but underwritten).  There was an additional event which affected the first preview, when Tim Howar’s wife gave birth to their son Hamish during Act One, which meant the understudy had to take on Act Two (including the big solo number, Pity The Child, and some tricky moments of recitative).  There have also been reports of Michael Ball missing some lines in the Endgame number which has all the principals together for the last time, but no such problem was present last night (although his “Frederick, thank you” in the close of The Deal/No Deal number has now switched to “Freddie”).

So what’s ‘new’ if you are in the lower levels?

First off, there is a platform which comes up during key scenes, and this is located in the pit, where the orchestra is usually based.  Honestly, from the upper circle last week I had no clue this was even there, nor did I realise that some of the chess board set design was made up of steps which allowed some characters to exit quickly or for technicians to nip under the stage to set up the next scene or the video projections.

Second, without a clear view of the front of the stage you miss around half of the choreography of The Soviet Machine, roughly a third of One Night in Bangkok, and you are unable to see the chorus behind the screen in The Story of Chess, or the chorus based under the platform during the chess games.  This does a great disservice to the hard working singers and dancers who deliver the layered melodies and high energy movement the ensemble numbers require.

This time I hardly glanced at the video projections (which are sometimes mirror images of the same scene in close-up, but sometimes seem to be there just so you can see what is going on – for example, in Burke’s two solo numbers, in Janson’s two solo numbers, and -with some synch problems last night – for Howar’s big Act Two number).  I found them distracting in the major duets I Know Him So Well and Mountain Duet, as that by definition requires two people to be shown, and the screens seemed superfluous.

In other places they are used well – the plane arrival in Merano, the fire-breathing dragons in One Night in Bangkok in front of which acrobats and aerial contortionists perform, the chess games (although, rather than 1960s headlines about the space race, it might be fun to show us the actual moves, assuming they are not just random!), and the explanatory pictures about the history of the game and former champions.

Last night I could watch close-up, on the stage itself, what was going on.

I still can’t find any emotional engagement with Svetlana – she appears briefly early on in the show, and then we don’t see her again until the end of Act One, in which we are supposed to empathise with her delivery of Someone Else’s Story.  This song was written for the character of Florence (in the original Broadway production), and still makes more sense, as she finds one relationship collapsing as another begins.

Neither female character is fully drawn, but I find Florence an interesting one.  She is Hungarian-born and living in the US, with a self-centred lover who treats her as an accessory, although she’s fiery in support for him when we first see them.  Why she’s stayed so long, and why she suddenly bails to join with a refugee from a country she hates, is not explored sufficiently, nor the reasons this Russian leaves his family for a new life in the West.   Janson seems to make Florence fluffy in love by the time we get to Heaven Help My Heart, which makes the You and I duet between her and Anatoly bittersweet by its conclusion.  Perhaps the implication is that Freddie’s drinking and coke sniffing had made him less exciting between the sheets than the focused Russian!

Svetlana has another song which opens Act Two, a translation of the Swedish production’s song He Is A Man, He Is A Child, which is a towering ballad for a character we don’t really know.  But without those two songs, it isn’t much of a part, regardless of the engagement the audience would have with her.  Burke does well enough and is very good indeed in Endgame, and she’s a hard woman to return to, for sure.

Michael Ball probably wouldn’t have been my first choice for Anatoly, but with his spectacles and air of concentrated ennui, he does convince – and the songs, Where I Want To Be, Anthem, and the duets previously mentioned, are delivered well, without too much of the vibrato that has characterised his recent collaborations with Alfie Boe.  Hopefully we will see him in some more mature musical roles as time progresses.  Anatoly, though, is a difficult proposition for any actor – he appears emotionless, he hates the West and everything Freddie Trumper represents, then beats him in the championship and steals his girl.  It’s to the credit of the writers and the actor that we still feel some connection with him, and don’t dismiss him as a selfish sot.

Freddie is another conundrum – clearly focused on the game of chess, but highly-strung and feted (and behaving) like a rock star, from the moment he touches down in Merano.  His songs range from massive power force fields like Pity The Child to cynical rap in One Night in Bangkok.  He throws things around and hurts people who get close to him; he is by no means the confident front he puts on.  It’s a tough part because it isn’t the one which gets the natural audience sympathy, but he’s always been my favourite character in Chess, and he’s pitched just right in this, with a redemption arc in The Deal/No Deal which might, despite Florence’s pointed look during the TV interview which opens Endgame, lead to some form of reconciliation for them.

The ensemble numbers are absolutely fine, and well done, and from close-up they were very enjoyable.  The orchestra from the ENO is conducted by John Rigby, and musical director is Anders Eljas, who has been involved with the musical since square one, doing the original orchestrations, and what a glorious sound they make.  As for the ensemble, let’s have a shout out for the pop choir trio Jordan Lee Davies, Sinead Lang and Alexandra Waite-Roberts, and associate choreographer Jo Morris, although all are excellent.

I mentioned the pricing.  The upper circle pricing is £65-80, and the dress circle will cost you over £100 for a ticket.  I hear that there are rush tickets for £25 through TodayTix for weekday performances, so this would seem to be the future of such shows – eye-watering prices for committed fans, and cheap tickets for casual ones.  I find this a worrying trend as a theatre obsessive, and one who nearly always puts hand in pocket for pre-discount prices.  If I visited a show on a cheap ticket or a comp, I would tell you.  It’s a rare occurrence, but if you are in the happy position to not have to plan your visits to a show until the day itself, it’s an option to play the discount lotteries.

Chess continues for another three weeks.

 

 

 

 

 


Chess (Coliseum Theatre)

I love Chess. It’s the concept album I’ve played the most, and I think it has one of the strongest scores in musical theatre.

With music by Bjorn and Benny from ABBA, and lyrics from Tim Rice, it started life in 1984 as a recording, before progressing to the West End stage in 1986.  It ran for four years before going on tour within the UK, and there was also a Broadway production and others, including one in Sweden, which is available on DVD.  A concert version played at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008, also recorded for DVD, and a high camp tour ran in 2010.

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Now the musical returns to London for the first time in nearly thirty years, and in this staging relies heavily on the structure of the original concept album, with the addition of Someone Else’s Story from the Broadway production, The Soviet Machine from the London production, and He is a Man, He is a Child from the Swedish production.

Chess-cast-creatives.-Credit-Frederic-ArandaCast as originally announced: Murray Head, Cassidy Janson, Alexandra Burke, Phillip Browne (Molotov), Michael Ball; with Tim Rice, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and director Laurence Connor. Photo credit: Frederic Aranda.

There was a bit of off-stage drama before rehearsals got going for the new production, with original London cast member Murray Head, cast as The Arbiter at the age of 72, having to leave for personal reasons.  I admit he was a major draw for me when booking, so I was a little sad to hear of his withdrawal, but if you want to see him at the height of his powers, you can find the promo videos of Pity the Child and One Night in Bangkok and the Swedish TV broadcast of the truncated Chess in Concert online.

The story of Chess is both simple (a game of chess between an American and a Russian, West vs East, freedom vs oppression) and complex (the American’s partner and second, Florence, a Hungarian by birth, has a father who disappeared during Soviet occupation; the Russian has a wife, Svetlana, and child back home but walks away from them for the love of the game and asylum in England).

Tim-Howar-Michael-Ball-and-Cedric-Neal-Photography-BrinkhoffMogenburg-700x455Tim Howar and Michael Ball. Photo credit: Brinkoff-Moegenburg.

At the time of the concept and first production, the Iron Curtain was still a reality, and the ‘Red menace’ was still a very real threat to the freedoms of the West.  The West, represented by the brash USA, was seen as materialistic and superficial, while the East was viewed as repressive, inflexible, and unemotional.  When Chess was first conceived, it was a reflection of its times, mixing camp and overblown numbers with political commentary.  It was also a hit album, with at least two huge chart hits (I Know Him So Well and One Night in Bangkok).

This production casts widely – the Russian (Anatoly) is played by musical veteran Michael Ball, a tad too old for the part but on good form in both acting and singing terms, sporting glasses and an unruffled expression, even when falling in love with Florence.  She is played by Cassidy Janson – we saw her in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical where she impressed with her high octane energy and vulnerablity, qualities which serve her well as Florence, who moves from one chess-playing lover to another and ends up believing “stories like ours / have happy endings”.

The American (Freddie) is Mike and the Mechanics lead singer Tim Howar. I wasn’t familiar with him but he puts across the obnoxious front of the man who is a hurt little child inside, and he has a powerful set of pipes which stop the show with Pity the Child (I understand that earlier performances had issues with pacing due to extended applause for this number, but on the performance last Saturday afternoon the lights cut to black directly afterwards, curtailing any audience appreciation.

Svetlana, not usually a major role, is played by pop singer Alexandra Burke, who has a belt of a voice but limited acting skills.  At the age of 29 she is far too young for her 55-year-old Anatoly, and her drab – but accurate – Soviet costumes have attracted comment from those who probably seek to see her in sparkles.  Aside from one brief scene at the beginning, she does not appear until the end of Act One, when her character is given the song of Someone Else’s Story, which makes much more sense for Florence.

There are several chorus numbers – the opener is The Story of Chess, led by The Arbiter (now played by Cedric Neal, who gives yet another dimension to the complex yet underused role), followed by the tongue in cheek cavorting of Merano.  There are video projections throughout the production, but aside from showing a plane arrival during this number, and a sequence of slick merchandising product during the American cheerleading number, they are mainly utilised to show blow-up film of what is going on before us on stage.

I enjoyed the British Embassy number, which is hopelessly dated, but very funny, and the acrobats, strippers, and pole dancers of Bangkok, with fire, masks, and that cheesy rap.  The orchestra and ensemble singers and dancers do a fabulous job throughout, required to change focus, nationality, and style as the musical progresses.  Everything about this show is huge in scale – everything, that is, except the chess board, which those with long memories may recall was much larger in those early productions.

This is a big, loud, dynamic show which is about as 80s as you can get.  For those of us who grew up with it, it is a little corner of musical theatre heaven.  For those of you not sure, go if you can. It’s like Marmite, so you may hate it – or you may not.  In any case, I would be surprised if a big production is put on in the West End again.

Chess is on a limited engagement at the ENO Coliseum, and closes on the 2nd June 2018.  I am visiting again this weekend, and will update this review after that – I felt that despite the greatness of the show, it cannot be fully appreciated from the poor sightlines of the upper levels, and I look forward to reporting back from a more premium seat at my next visit.


ABBA: Super Troupers (exhibition review)

A few weeks ago, we visited the new installation at the Southbank Centre, which is a ten-room look at the life and work of the Swedish pop group ABBA, promoted as “an immersive, one-of-a-kind exhibition”.

abba 1

Tours must be pre-booked and are led by a guide – although I felt this simply lengthened the time required to experience this exhibition in total.  Each room is named after an ABBA song, beginning with Super Trouper, which is a cheesy collection of excerpts from their hits, in a small dark space, with a Super Trouper spotlight pride of place.

Other rooms showcase a typical living room of the 1970s, with accompanying television broadcast about the Common Market and a couple of display cases with real ABBA memorabilia – tip, make sure you walk around all the rooms and look at the exhibits as the time allowed to do this is limited, a fake forest representing an outdoor festival, a recording studio which demonstrated the complicated mix of music which made us a particular track – plus a chance to sing along to Dancing Queen, a club bathroom complete with graffiti, a flat with items packed up ready for a new life, and a luxury jet cabin.

01-Installation-vie_-ABBA-Super-Troupers-on-display-at-Southbank-Centre-CREDIT-Victor-FrankowskiPhoto by Victor Frankowski.

There are costumes, video footage, records, some personal items, and a final look at the legacy of the group (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and French and Saunders), but if you compare this with the recent exhibitions on Elvis Presley at the O2, and the Rolling Stones at the Saatchi Gallery, this is something of a disappointment, and would perhaps benefit from a more thoughtful curation of the available space, focusing on what is really rare and interesting so they are not missed.

However, if you are a fan of the group – and of course they have recently announced a reform of sorts with a new song and a holographic tour – this has now been extended until 29th July 2018.  Cheaper entry prices are available mid-week than at weekends.

 

 


SeatPlan (London theatre tickets and seat reviews)

SeatPlan has been online since 2011, and its original aim was to advise theatre patrons which seats are good or bad for particular theatres or productions.

As a member of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (STAR) it also operates as an agency to purchase tickets for London-based productions.

Let’s take a tour of the site:

seatplan first page

Here is the homepage. You will note that although SeatPlan started as London-based, it has now branched out to include shows and venues in a number of other cities, and these can be reached by clicking on the city name below the search box.

There is no need to create an account to browse the features on the site. However, if you wish to become a contributor, you can log in via two methods – either by email and password, or by linking your SeatPlan account with Facebook. I found the latter the easiest as I can then operate my SeatPlan account without having to remember seperate login credentials.

Searching for a venue

I searched for the National Theatre, which has three auditoriums, but only two are represented on here (presumably because the Dorfman has flexible staging and seating which can change for each production).

Assessing the seat quality

Once you click on the venue in which you are interested, the first thing you see is a seating plan, with colour-coded seats depending on how they have been reviewed on a five-point scale from poor to good.  This is of course a subjective analysis, but a useful one.  For the National Theatre’s Olivier, the majority of seats are marked as good, and some have photos to reflect this.

Reviews and photos

Reviews are provided by patrons who have a SeatPlan account, and require the venue, production, date (but not time, which would be useful), area of the theatre (stalls, dress circle, balcony etc), row and number, comment about the seat (legroom, view) and an optional review of the show if you wish.

I utilised this function to add a negative review of the seat I was in to see ‘Chess’ at the ENO Coliseum, but to ensure a positive review of the show itself, so I like the ability to add this; however, capsule reviews displayed on the production page only show the review of the seat itself.

Simply click on ‘add review’ to start this process. If you are not logged in, you will be prompted to do so.  All reviews go into a moderation buffer before they are published.

Each photo added to your review – not taken during the show, or without the safety curtain being down – will add 40p to your account.  I believe the reviews alone do not add any credit other to assist other patrons.

Searching for a production

You can search for a particular production in the main search box – the results will tell you at which theatre the production is showing, plus how many performances are currently scheduled for booking.

I searched for ‘Tina: The Musical’, which is currently running at the Aldwych Theatre.

tina

You will note that the easiest thing to do from this page is to book for the production.  To access reviews of the seats, click on either the name of the theatre, or the details of seat photos and reviews (the links all go to the same place).

The booking process

Let’s explore the ticket booking process. Click on the ‘book now’ button and this takes you into a list of performances, and the familiar promise of tickets available at the lowest price for that performance. From here it is easy to progress into a seat plan to choose the tickets you want to book – but there is no link between this page and the one which details reviews of each seat.

I would recommend having two windows open to best utilise the dual functionality of this site, or, start with the seat plan reviews and utilise the buttons on the side to book your show.

tina 2

Other useful features

For each venue, there are details of the various sections with general comments (e.g. “the first row could cause neck-ache due to a high stage”), a map and directions to the venue, and some details on accessible seating for patrons with disabilities.

You can also ‘track’ a venue by ticking a box to get email updates about that theatre. You can do the same for a specific show to access the best price deals.

Clicking on the name of a city takes you to a page which lists productions for the next 12 months, and a list of venues.

Final thoughts

SeatPlan is a good site with a lot of useful information, but it is worth taking the time to figure out the navigation and shortcuts.  There are similar sites out there (for example, TheatreMonkey) but they rely more on the subjective opinion of one person, rather than a collection of viewpoints.  Both are equally valid.

SeatPlan is located at https://seatplan.com/.


Tina: The Musical (Aldwych Theatre)

You’re probably very familiar with the story of Tina Turner – born Anna Mae Bulloch. She was spotted by Ike Turner when she was a teenager and her distinctive and powerful voice livened up his Revue Band for sixteen years of music success and violent domesticity.

The first act of this musical starts in church, when young Anna Mae already seeks attention. Abandoned by her parents she becomes a cotton picker and grows under the care of her grandmother.

On rejoining her mother and elder sister she runs wild and is practically pushed towards the much more worldly Ike, who grooms her into marriage while resenting her superior talent.

Of course we only have Tina’s word about these early years, and by the end of Act One she’s taken her two boys and made a run for it. There are some musical bits in this half, but the show didn’t come to life for me until Proud Mary.

Act Two sees Tina, ‘knocking forty’ and without a record deal. She’s taken on by a Aussie producer and finds herself on the other side of the world, with a new image, a new partner in marketing whizz Erwin Bach, and eventual super-stardom.

Adrienne Warren is note-perfect as Tina, from teenage years to mature rocker. She has her first chance to show off her pipes on River Deep, Mountain High and comes into her own with vibrant energy in the Simply The Best finale.

Produced by Turner and Bach, this show is close to hagiography, with the story clearly slanted to the infatigable determination of Anna Mae. Young Anna Mae is played by a rotating trio of girls (I think we saw Reya-Nyomi Brown) with their own infectious spirit.

Lorna Gayle is in great voice as GG, Tina’s gran, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith convinces in a tough role as Ike – he gets booed as the villain but he’s a good singer in his own right.

Interestingly, Tina’s solo success comes with a step away from the black community and with the help of whites like Phil Spector, Rhonda Graham, Terry Britten and Roger Davies. Even from David Bowie, who reportedly told the record label they would be mad not to sign her – there’s a moment where I thought he would be introduced but thankfully, no.

A decent show but it could do with a bit of a snip and be warned, it takes a while to warm up. Go for Warren’s performance though – she really is that good.


Last Laugh in Vegas (ITV)

Back in the 1970s and 1980s we had regular variety shows as television entertainment, attracting large audiences and affection. This was the era of sitcoms like Hi de Hi, comedy duos like Cannon and Ball (a couple of lads from my own home town of Oldham), stand-up shows like The Comedians, and a gentler, easier style of music.

vegas

Last Laugh in Vegas carries on where The First Marigold Hotel left off, with nine entertainers between the ages of 64 and 82 taking a chance on appearing live on stage in Las Vegas. Over four shows on ITV, and a final episode on ITV3 which gives us the full 90 minute show, we meet the seven men and two women whose names may have been familiar back then, but which have become less well-known in recent years.

Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball have performed together as a double act for more than half a century (even if a couple of decades of that time was spent ignoring each other off the stage), and their natural chemistry and ability still shines through, although Bobby can be a bit of a stirrer and Tommy a bit of a grumpy old man. I even found myself remembering the words to their theme song, and it’s a long time since their series was on the box.

Bobby Crush won Opportunity Knocks as a teenager, and has spent most of his career impersonating the larger-than-life Liberace. He’s an emotional old boy, easily pleased or upset, but his story is perhaps the most touching, as we see in the episode where he watches his younger self tinkling the ivories, reflecting on his need to stay closeted while dealing with the pressures of sudden fame – those large TV audiences I mentioned earlier were huge for talent shows in the 1970s.

Anita Harris was a pop star for a while, but she appears delicate now (although looking fantastic for 75); I last saw her in the Royal Albert Hall one-off concert performance of Follies where she performed a duet with Roy Hudd. During Last Laugh in Vegas we see her vulnerability and learn about her husband’s memory problems, and if she can no longer sing she can still put across a song, which shows professionalism.

Kenny Lynch may have been Jimmy Tarbuck’s stooge in ITV’s Live at Her Majesty’s for years, but he’s a reasonable crooner on stage, and an hilarious foul-mouthed grouch in private. Now in his 80s, he has the feel of an old, well-worn overcoat which has a classy past. His close friend (so close he calls him “Kipper”) is another former pop singer (self-obsessed, and described by himself as an ‘icon’), the heavily Botoxed Jess Conrad, the elder of the group. I saw Conrad in the 1980s in a 60s show alongside such luminaries as Tommy Bruce, Terry Dene, Mike Berry, Cissy Stone, and Screaming Lord Sutch, and he came across then as he does now, a deluded lounge lizard. Is it an act? The jury is still out.

Su Pollard may always be Peggy from Hi de Hi, but she has a past in musicals, and I was impressed by her in the musical Shout at the Arts Theatre some time ago. She’s larger than life and the only one of the group who looks as if she would just slot in perfectly in Vegas, and it is no surprise in the final episode to see her get a video message from a drag queen friend.

Bernie Clifton was a fixture on variety shows way back when with his ostrich act – which, if you’re not familiar with it, is hard to describe – and he reprises that here, while showing a softer side with a decent singing voice, and a sense of fun when rescuing Anita’s errant knickers. His obvious joy on receiving a standing Vegas ovation for his singing was touching indeed, and on the evidence seen in this series he seems a genuinely nice chap.

Finally, Mick Miller, the comic with the bald head and straggly hair. You may remember his drunken entertainer act from the past, or his laconically delivered funny lines. Disappointment as a boy when he wanted to be a professional footballer led him to the stage, and it was good to see his act go down a storm.

The reason this show worked – and sadly, it didn’t get the ratings it should have, hardly reaching 3 million – was the blend of ‘reality’ and careful scripting which set up conflicts, introduced the sentimentality of the past and connection with families, and made us laugh at the sight of goat yoga or Jess Conrad attempting to make a cup of tea.

And if that doesn’t float your boat, there’s always Frank Marino, one of the richest drag queens in the world, who acts as the Vegas show’s producer, and who looks like a bizarre hybrid of Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor.

More, please.

Last Laugh in Vegas episode one expires from catch-up TV next week.


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