Monthly Archives: November 2014

King Charles III (Wyndham’s Theatre)

This highly topical play by Mike Bartlett is set in a not-so-distant future.  Queen Elizabeth II has passed away after reigning for seven decades, and her son Charles ascends to the throne for which he has been in waiting for so many years.  However being a very different type of person to his mother, he quickly makes decisions which shake the very foundations of freedom and democracy.

This has been done before, of course, notably in the second part of the House of Cards trilogy, but never before with the real Royal names and faces implicated.

In a scene where a Charles in full military regalia storms into the House of Commons and dissolves Parliament, there are of course parallels with that earlier autocratic monarch and namesake, Charles I, while William and Catherine are presented very much as the scheming Macbeths, with Kate taking the initiative to topple the very fabric of tradition – even in the opening scenes she is querying the right of monarch to reign in advance of the Coronation.

This is all fantasy, of course, down to Harry finding love with a girl from a council estate and seeking to put aside his Royal title, and to appearances from the ghost of Charles’ first wife Diana.  The play is written, cleverly, in blank verse, which means it steps back to the time of Shakespeare where the Right of Kings perhaps meant more than the ceremonial significance of the role does now.

The Royal Prerogative of refusing Assent to a Bill passed by the Houses of Parliament has not been acted upon since the days of Queen Victoria, and this play playfully surmises what might happen should a King fail to sign a piece of legislation – in this case a Bill affecting the freedom of the press.  In this future universe, Labour is in power but with a PM called Tristan, while the Conservative Leader of the Opposition is a slippery figure, not to be trusted.

As a spectacle, this play is a winner, from the choral opening with candles, through to cast members resembling their real-life counterparts just enough for us to feel on familiar ground, yet with personalities that are very different.  At times the play does verge on the cruel – I can’t imagine Kate bullying her father-in-law into abdication, or Charles to rant at William that he reminds him of the worst of Diana.

There have been casting changes, too, necessitated by Tim Pigott-Smith’s recent car accident, and so his understudy, Miles Richardson, now appears as Charles.  At a distance he has a slight resemblance to impressionist Alistair McGowan, which is a little distracting, but he does well enough, although reviewers who have seen both actors state that Richardson’s interpretation is weaker and less brought down by his pride.  Margot Leicester is Camilla, funny and tough, while Oliver Chris and Lydia Wilson look the part as William and Kate, as does Richard Goulding as Harry.  Adam James is the PM, Nicholas Rowe is the Opposition Leader, and Jess the Republican representing the common people is Tafline Steen.

If we could have a world where there is a tank in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, where a press conference can be hijacked by a Prince in waiting, and where an abdication could be forced within weeks – this play does give food for thought.  I also liked how Harry initially does not speak in blank verse until well into the play, which makes him seem more of an outsider, and the second act opener where a man in a Charles mask is hounded by the mob – just in case we have forgotten who the subject of this play is meant to be.

Pelléas et Mélisande (Southbank Centre)

This opening performance in the Philharmonia’s ‘City of Light: Paris 1900-1950’ season presented Debussy’s opera in a concert setting, with the orchestra centre stage and the singers walking down from the choir seats to stand stage front and sing their roles.

A piece rich in melodrama and both orchestral and vocal power, the music unfolded at a leisurely pace (starting at 7pm and finishing at 10.25pm, with a 20 minute interval) but there were moments which were moving, engrossing, and which presented the story with an immediacy which was captivating – much of this was down to the choice of lighting and in the use of cleverly staging (each act was ‘dressed’ in a different way to push the story forward).

Of the cast, Sandrine Piau (a last-minute substitute) was outstanding as Mélisande, her acting of the role as effective as her singing – while Stéphane Degout as Pelléas displayed a vibrancy and power of voice which kept you watching.  No less effective were Laurent Naouri as Golaud (I enjoyed watching him inhabit the role, through curiosity, anger, suspicion and finally grief), Jérome Varnier – a fine bass – as Arkél (the grandfather, so he looked too young, but his voice was perfect), Felicity Palmer as the mother of Golaud and Pelléas, and Chloé Briot as the little boy Yniold.

If I had a quibble it would be with the decision to add a narration which added nothing and which was hesitantly delivered by Sara Kestelman.  I appreciate this was an experiment to try and gain the pauses and silence which usually come naturally in a fully-staged production of this opera, but it didn’t quite come off.

Far better was the decision to have the cast garbed in white masks at the start, which were removed as the piece began.  As a metaphor for blindness, shadows, and secrets this worked very well indeed – this also reminded us of the great Greek tragedies, where the Chorus were generally masked but all-seeing.

In the case of ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ much is hidden, misconstrued, or simply missed.  The King, almost blind, sees only Mélisande’s innocence.  Golaud sees this in her, a frightened bird, but can not bring himself to trust this mysterious bird of paradise, while Pelléas betrays his family and eventually brings tragedy to them all.

An intelligent production, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, with the Philharmonia in good form.  Exhausting and immersive, but very much worthwhile.

The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956 – ★★★½

#11 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

My rewatch of this was initially aborted by picking up an appalling pan and scan version from my collection instead of the proper widescreen version from Sky Movies, and these things matter!

So, with the right version in the DVD player, there’s the overture, the clash of cymbals, and the hint that a family would be rocked by events to come. This film, teaming James Stewart (in his third Hitchcock title), and Doris Day, remakes the 1934 film Hitch made in England with Peter Lorre as the star.

Hitch described the earlier film as the work of ‘a talented amateur’, and this one as the work of a professional, so let’s see.

Not an exact remake, but a re-visioning with some plot aspects in common, this film is certainly more assured and slicker than the version from two decades earlier. Day’s casting was also inspired, not just because she can add songs (namely the much parodied ‘Que Sera Sera’), but because she was a fine actress who had convincing screen chemistry with Stewart.

There’s a kidnapped child, a Royal Albert Hall set piece, an English couple (Bernard Miles and Brenda de Banzie), and some choice location shooting in Marrakesh. The significance of the cymbals is a clever one, Hitch’s cameo is amusing (watching the acrobats), and there is a well-paced sense of tension with the intelligence/assassination plot.

It might be perverse to say that I like this film, but nevertheless prefer the original version, but such is the case. This is that bit too cutesy in places, and too American in feel – still, it is an assured entry in the Master’s catalogue.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Forbidden Broadway (Vaudeville Theatre)

The first main number in this uneven parody of the shows and stars of musical theatre is a spoof of Gypsy’s ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ rendered as ‘Everyone Thinks They’re A Critic’, which may be an attempt to put off us theatre bloggers, but no such luck!

‘Forbidden Broadway’ has been running in various guises for the past thirty years, with sections coming in and out depending on audience taste.  Now, I love my musicals, but I also love a good mickey take, and the ‘Les Miserables’ section of this show is one of the best I have seen, from the plaintive lament of Valjean to ‘Bring It Down’ (of the very high-pitched ‘Bring Him Home’, which must be the bane of every singer’s life since the character was created by the wonderful Colm Wilkinson) to a mischievous nod at the revolving stage, a bored Eponine ‘On My Phone’, and the Thenardiers bemoaning their lack of funny lines!

The rest of the show moves between spot-on send-ups of Broadway stars like Bernadette Peters (croaking through ‘See Me On A Monday, Please’), Angela Lansbury (not liking the modern Broadway in ‘I Don’t Want To Go’ – which started life as ‘I Don’t Want To Know’ in Dear World), Mandy Patinkin, Hugh Jackman, Idina Merkel, and – less successful – Kristin Chenoweth (not that well known here) and a tiny Elaine Paige in Toulouse Lautrec mode.  I felt the ‘Miss Saigon’ section was a little too cruel (especially The Producer) although the little helicopter is fun, while the section on ‘Once’ starts well but goes on too long.

Filling in the gaps are a nice piece on ‘Circle of Mice’ in ‘The Lion King’ lampooning the House of Mouse, Elphaba’s ‘Defying Subtlety’ in ‘Wicked’, a nip at the creators of ‘The Book of Morons/Mormon’, and a fun (but perhaps best if you have a long memory) competitive duet between Chita (Rivera) and Rita (Moreno) to the tune of ‘America’ in ‘West Side Story’.  There’s also a dig at ‘Liza One Note’ (rather unkind to the still-talented Liza Minnelli), and a very wicked and wonderful send-up of Sondheim’s wordplay in ‘Into The Words’.

I would cut the running time back a bit to stop the longueurs and padding that plague part of this show, but the five performers undoubtedly work hard – music director/pianist Joel Fram, Damian Humbley (Valjean/Cameron) and Ben Lewis, Christina Bianco (Peters), and the understudy Laura Tebbutt (Lansbury/Elphaba) standing in for Anne-Jane Casey.

‘Forbidden Broadway’ runs for one more week at the Vaudeville.

The Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands, 1927 – ★★★★

I watched this film from 1927, directed by Walter Summers, for free, on Armistice Day, courtesy of the BFI Player, and we’re in ‘Battle of the River Plate’ territory, with dramatic reconstructions of the battles which involved the Graf Spee, the Good Hope, and the Glasgow, the Invincible, and the Inflexible.

This film’s score (contemporary, but sympathetic to the genre, by Simon Dobson) and cinematography (by Jack Parker and Stanley Rodwell) lend a great beauty to the sea battles, and some tableaux resemble classical paintings of epic fights and their aftermath. But it is in the minutiae of life, of sumptuous dinners, of chats between the men, of behind closed doors doubts, of a dog dancing around waiting for its walk, which makes this film something rather different.

There’s a sense of realism here, and of camaraderie between men and officers on board ship. It’s also an assured film back on land, with recognisable locations like Tower Bridge bringing us into the action rather than keeping us at arm’s length.

This new restoration might put the film back in the list of great war pictures, certainly those made in Britain, and it was a worthy choice for a gala performance at the recent London Film Festival.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

The Wrong Man, 1956 – ★★★★

#10 in the Reverse Hitchcock Project

The film has an intro from Hitch himself, shown in silhouette, saying this was a different type of thriller than the ones he had done before.

Over the credits we have jaunty dance music, and underneath we see a club band, with maracas, and Henry Fonda on the double bass – a marvellous three minute intro into which to place our man in a recognisable setting.

Then to the subway, and a deserted train (and my goodness doesn’t Jane Fonda resemble her father?), all very ordinary.

I find it interesting that Fonda, by all accounts such a cold man off the screen, can give his characters such warmth and approachability, and so it is here with Manny, the ‘wrong man’ of the title. He’s got two children, and a nice wife in Vera Miles (who plays well in the later scenes).

We’re ten minutes in and all is well with the family, or so it seems.

Hitch does slightly off-kilter shots which make us uneasy without knowing why, exactly. I like the insurance office sequence with the bars which is definitely suggestive of our man being caught in a trap.

Our man is being accused of something, ‘he’s been here before’, but we don’t know what, but then we do know, he’s being accused of a previous hold-up, and the tension in the three ladies makes us start to doubt what we have seen before.

Twenty minutes in, and the cops are on the case, and it feels very Kafkaesque, while Fonda doesn’t even remove his hat in the car. Nice dialogue-less scene, underscored by the light jazz score.

And because you fit the description, you’re guilty. But you don’t have to worry, if you’re innocent. And it’s only routine, procedure. ‘You’re just helping us out.’ So this nice little frame-up of this man that we’re starting to think, OK, may not be guilty at all, starts to warm up.

Now there’s something about this film that grates on me a bit. I know it is based on a true story but still, it all seems rather obvious. All this ‘they’re expecting you’ stuff smells of a set-up.

Put a suggestion into someone’s head that a person is guilty, and they will see them as guilty. After all, it’s just an ordinary looking man in a hat and a coat, and the suggestion is there. Not exactly ‘evidence’.

Now the cell spins, and makes us as queasy as Manny. And now we know he is innocent.

Fonda absolutely nails this, you can see his contempt for his situation and his bewilderment at the attitude of those in authority – you know if he comes through this he will never trust anyone again, and he will never be easy in his mind again.

Hitch shows us the minutiae of this situation, the man shot through bars and barriers, the close-ups of handcuffs, keys, eyes.

Anthony Quayle plays the lawyer who casts doubt on the accusations and can prove Manny was elsewhere or unrecognizable at the time – but will justice prevail?

A good, tense, thriller, which makes you think about what might happen if you are innocent, and accused, and where all the ‘evidence’ seems to mount up against you.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


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