Monthly Archives: February 2014

National Theatre Live: War Horse – ★★★★★

There doesn’t seem to be much love for the Spielberg movie of this play (which uses real horses) but in the case of this theatre production I have to say that Handspring and their horse puppets deserve all the plaudits that have been given to them.

In rural Devon, 1912, young Albert acquires Joey the foal thanks to his drunken dad’s attempt to outshine his brother. During the process of caring for the horse a bond develops between boy and animal that even their parting by the Great War can’t break.

The use of minimal sets and staging (a torn piece of paper for projections, lights, music and of course the puppets – including a comic goose for light relief) all contribute to the sense that we are seeing the world through the eyes of a real animal in real locations.

The battle scenes are superb in their depth, Albert grows from a naive farm boy to a lance corporal who has seen the horrors of war, and if the good German is a little shaky in accent, then it just adds to the balance given here between friend and foe, as experienced by the horse.

This play feels cinematic even though it is sparsely staged, and some moments are emotionally draining, especially the scene in No Man’s Land. Most of this is due to the skill of the puppeteers who make the objects real.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Happy Days (Young Vic)

Samuel Beckett’s play is often said to contain one of the greatest roles for an actress in Winnie, who delivers practically a monologue while buried up to her waist in Act 1 and to her neck in Act 2.   Indeed, the role has sometimes been described as the actress’s King Lear.  And so we have a new production at the Young Vic, directed by Natalie Abrahami.

Winnie on this occasion is Juliet Stevenson, who has always been one of my favourite screen actresses but until today I had not had the pleasure to see her on stage other than one of the multiple readers in the Sylvia Plath’s Ariel reading at the Royal Festival Hall last year.  She gives the eternally optimistic Winnie a heart and soul and makes her as funny as she is eventually heartbreaking, especially in her constant chatter and bawdy interactions with her husband Willie (rarely seen, and rarely audible – and we hardly ever see his face, just the back of his head – but nevertheless well played by David Beames who gives this thankless part life).

‘Happy Days’ can be read in many ways.  Why Winnie has found herself buried in the earth (in this production, rocks and grit, rather than the usual sand) is never disclosed, although she does remember a time when she had the use of her legs.  The time and place is unclear, and we do not know why Willie lives in his cave and why, as he appears to be able-bodied, he doesn’t leave or help free his wife from her predicament.  Is the play a meditation on the uselessness of life, about the breakdown of companionate marriage, or simply a post-Apocalyptic fable?

Winnie chatters on about the minutiae of life as she searches through her bag for small items which bring her pleasure or small nuggets of memory (a brush, a comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, lipstick, glasses,  tonic, a music box, a gun).   Her life is regimented by a harsh bell which rings for waking and sleeping, although the light (daylight or sunlight, one presumes, but here a harsh artificial light, in keeping with Beckett’s original stage directions for everything to be as unrealistic as possible) is constant.

Stevenson makes this woman almost beautiful, although it is unclear how she is sustained without food or drink, and how she retains her energy.  Her one piece of protection, her parasol, burns up in act 1.  In the second half she looks haggard and pale and her chatter becomes more desperate and her refrain about everything being ‘wonderful’ sounds more and more hollow.  When Willie finally appears (in the stage text he is ‘dressed to kill’) in top hat and tails, crawling across the rocks, we don’t know whether he is heading for his wife or for the gun which will bring release to both of them.  It’s enough that he is on the move and within her sight again, and as she sings lines, brokenly, from ‘The Merry Widow’, this play of contradictions comes to a close.

‘Happy Days’ has sometimes been performed with regional accents or a bit of humour even in the second act, but here, Stevenson’s genteel lady in the printed dress puts across the desperation of her situation in a way which makes the play much more disturbing than, for example, the version which was filmed for the ‘Beckett on Film’ project.   It may be something about the harsh sound of the bell (which doesn’t allow Winnie to close her eyes at all in act 2), or the wild eyes of the woman in pain, unable to move her head, or the weird empty silence as she cries out for her husband, or the disturbing story of the mouse and the doll, but this version of the play really packs a punch.

Reverse Hitchcock #3, Topaz, 1969 – ★★★

On this second viewing, Topaz has lost a star because I didn’t find it engaging enough once I knew the story, the ending, and the handful of good sequences within this laboured story of defection and subterfuge in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis.

The biggest problem is Frederick Stafford, who is surely no one’s idea of a leading man. He’s just awful, stiff as a board and a bore to look at and listen to. John ‘Blake Carrington’ Forsythe does slightly better but the acting is largely TV standard (including that of John Vernon, usually better than he is here, and Dany Robin, in a role that is largely thankless).

Hitch was experimenting with a colour palette of reds and yellows here to show plot points, but it doesn’t work, and after a strong start (the whole sequence with the Russian defector’s daughter is tense and sets expectations for a film that never happens) the story tails off with just a gem here and there of the director’s genius or enjoyable performances from his actors (Roscoe Lee Browne as Dubois is good in his brief appearance).

I missed the humour which is there in other Hitchcock classics. I didn’t like the way the music was used. And the last few minutes seemed ridiculous and a waste of time. It’s a watchable film, but distinctly average, and as an example of a Hitchcock movie, it is a shocker for all the wrong reasons!

Heaven 17 (Birmingham Town Hall)

One of Sheffield’s finest electro-pop groups, Heaven 17 emerged from the original Human League in the early 1980s leaving the name (and it has to be said, the chart success) to Phil Oakey, while continuing to plow their own furrow as a trio.  With Ian Craig Marsh leaving the band in 2007, the others (keyboard wizard Martyn Ware and singer Glenn Gregory) continue to perform as a duo, augmented by two girl singers (Billie Godfrey and Rachel Mosleh) and a keyboardist (Berenice Scott) for their live shows.

Heaven 17 never really bothered the Top 40 – achieving just two big hits in 1983 (‘Come Live With Me’ and ‘Temptation’), and did not even play fully live until the 1990s.  Still, their brand of pulsating electro-beats and melodic vocals evokes the spirit of thirty years back while still sounding musically relevant.  The venue was not the most inspiring of settings so I was pleased that early crowd-pleasers included ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ and ‘Let’s All Make a Bomb’, which got the stalls crowd on their feet.  A quieter passage included the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’, while a couple of early Human League songs – notably ‘Being Boiled’ – went down well, as did their own personal favourite of their own songs, ‘Let Me Go’, and the dreamy synch-swirl of ‘Dive’.

I was especially pleased to see ‘Temptation’ make the set – one of Great Britain’s finest dance records, in my opinion – giving the girls a chance to let themselves go after a fairly restrained backing performance throughout.  It seems that this group have had something of a resurgence following their complete live performances of the ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ album a few years ago.

I’d say this show takes a while to get going (and it’s short – advertised as 70 minutes, it actually ran to 90) but by the end, everyone had the chance of a bop and left happy.

Miss Julie (Theatre 625, 1965)

This entry in the Theatre 625 series was adapted and directed by Alan Bridges, from the play by August Strindberg.  ‘Miss Julie’ is a heady and melodramatic mix of class rivalry, sexual lust, and psychological breakdown which is all the more intense from happening within the space of one night and day (or as in the running time here, 70 minutes).

Jean (Ian Hendry) is a valet who has ambitions to rise in the world and open a hotel, but lacks the capital (and probably the initiative) to live out his dreams.  He freely helps himself to wine from his employer’s cellar, but admits that the sight of the Count’s boots makes him feel ‘servile’.  Into this frustrating setting steps his mistress, Miss Julie (Gunnel Lindblom) who is bored with her privileged existence and physically drawn to Jean, despite the class differences between them.  She orders him to dance with her, and then teases and taunts him until eventually things progress to a head and their relationship clearly crosses a line which will eventually be fatal to one of them.

My initial feeling was that Lindblom (a Swedish actress) was too over the top in her role, and Hendry too reticent and modern, but as the play developed their styles began to gel, and in Jean’s character we saw that combination of vulnerability, arrogance, cruelty (the killing of the greenfinch) and sensitivity which characterised many of Hendry’s early roles.  Remember at this point it was still possible to imagine him succeeding in major leading film roles, even romantic ones, before fate placed him into the realms of character playing.  There’s a moment where Jean jokes about drinking being something you do to keep your partner company which may have echoes of the actor’s real life situation at the time, and I found this a rather sad moment of coincidence; still, this was a good role for Hendry – who looks great, speaks the dialogue well, and is eventually convincing in all the nuances of this complex role.

Bridges’ direction does not hold back on bringing the audience into the heart of the play, with extreme close-ups (sometimes of just eyes or mouths), odd flashbacks in vision and sound, and heightened dramatic performances especially as Julie realises a moment of madness has cost her far more than a fleeting moment of pleasure away from her position of privilege.  Her fall is ultimately tragic, the more so as you feel it will have no real consequences for Jean and his cook fiancée, Christine (a small role for Stephanie Bidmead, but she’s good, and you feel she really is the driving force in their relationship).  He is a weak man who will probably again rise to the bait if he is tempted, but he is destined to be answering the ring of bells in the servants’ hall for life.


One Fine Day (1979, Alan Bennett)

My trip to the BFI Mediatheque yesterday afternoon gave me an opportunity to see another one of the ‘Six Plays by Alan Bennett’ which were first broadcast in 1979.  Sadly none of them have been released on DVD (although there is a listing on the BUFVC website for a VHS compliation – can anyone confirm if this was ever released?).  I had already seen four of the other plays (‘Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf’, ‘Afternoon Off’, ‘Doris and Doreen’, and ‘The Old Crowd’) but many critics, including the BFI’s own Screenonline, have described ‘One Fine Day’ as the most powerful of the series, so I put it top of my viewing list.

Bennett is rightly known for his powers of observation in terms of conversation patterns and the minutiae of life, and this play is no exception, opening at a board meeting at the estate agents headed by Welby (Robert Stephens in a relatively rare television role), which deals with the sale of both residential and commercial property.  The biggest white elephant on the commercial side is Sudley House, the sale of which is being handled by Phillips (Dave Allen in a non-comedic role), who is clearly remote from the world around him and heading for some kind of mid-life crisis.

The play does have a wide range of character parts for the likes of Benjamin Whitrow, Bill Paterson, Liz Crowther, Barbara Leigh-Hunt (as Allen’s wife) and – in a tiny but revealing part – Antony Sher; but it is mainly a solo piece for Allen and a soundtrack rich in operatic arias, whether heard in his head or through the headphones he uses to block out the chatter of his wife, son, and son’s teenage girlfriend, who seems to be in permanent residence in their house.

The peace and power of Sudley House does strange things to this 40-something businessman who longs to escape the inanity of lift-bound conversations about the best time to play squash, or the ingratiating ambition of a young residential agent (Dominic Guard) who feels he had the nous to sell on the unloved building.  So Phillips takes up residence in the building’s unloved top floor, with a sunbed, radio/cassette player and a Bible – a place where his colleagues and family can’t get to him, but where he can observe a couple in residence on the roof of the local Odeon (first all loving and affectionate, but eventually bickering and violent), sleep in his deckchair on the roof of the building, and have a quiet cup of tea and a cigarette while enjoying the view over London.

It is to the credit of the director, Stephen Frears, and Dave Allen’s acting ability as the main (and quite often mute) character, that we retain our interest in this odd person who flouts convention in order to do what he pleases, against the norm of his workplace and home-life.  A nice bit of drama comes when the security guard locks the route to the roof, leaving our Mr Phillips to find his way down by another route; while snippets of dialogue and situation which impressed me included the girls in the office talking about beards becoming ‘too popular’ to be interesting, the discussion about hedgehogs and fleas the family have at the dinner table following Phillips’ encounter with a hedgehog on the road, and a delightfully oily performance from Stephens (‘I’m glad they’re Japs.  So reliable.’).

But in the main, this operatic and sweet little gem is quietly brilliant and very enjoyable, only occasionally breaking into situations one could call amusing, until the final few moments where we feel as exhilarated as Phillips that things have worked out in his favour, and to the expense of characters we might find less sympathetic.

It is the best of the Six Play series that I have seen so far, and I lament the fact that it hasn’t had a television showing since the 1980s and is probably not known at all to a lot of people.  Do take the time to watch it if you can.

Update: this is now available on DVD from Network along with the other five plays in the series as of February 2017.

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