Monthly Archives: January 2015

Taken at Midnight (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

This new play by Mark Hayhurst transfers from the Chichester Festival and brings the story of the incarceration of Hans Litten to the stage, timely so in this lead up to Holocaust Memorial Day.  Litten’s mother, Irmgard (Penelope Wilton), at the start of the play, claims that the name of Sonnenburg concentration camp would stand for shorthand for the cruelty of the Nazi regime, but of course the events of the post-Reichstag Fire round-up of political prisoners into long-term ‘protective custody’ was only the start.

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I hadn’t been that aware of Litten before seeing this play, although the programme makes reference to an earlier drama ‘The Man Who Crossed Hitler’ and documentary ‘How to Stop a Tyrant’ from the same writer, both of which are easily located online, to give a full picture of the story which is finished, here, in the stage play ‘Taken at Midnight’.

Litten (Martin Hutson) was a bright lawyer who identified as a Jewish atheist, the adoption of the ‘Jewish’ being taken from his father, who had himself converted to Christianity some time before.  The bright lawyer subpoenaed Adolf Hitler to the stand and humiliated him during a lengthy cross-examination and so when the Gestapo take power he is one of the first in line to face arrest and a form of revenge in torture and degradation in custody, while his mother uses her quiet and righteous rage as a German woman to tackle his freedom head-on, notably in exchanges with the initially sympathetic Dr Conrad (John Light).

This play is about Irmgard Litten and her crusade to free her son just as much as it is the story of Litten and his comrades in captivity – Carl von Ossietzky (Mike Grady), a pacifist who gains the Nobel Peace Prize while under arrest; and Erich Muhsam (Pip Donaghy), a cabaret performer and satirist.  We also see Litten’s father, Fritz (Allan Corduner) a man who lacks the conviction to make the difference his wife feels she can, as well as an English aristocrat, Lord Allen (David Yelland) who is ultimately powerless to intervene in the Fuhrer’s detention and murder of political prisoners for reasons of his own country’s political expediencies.

‘Taken at Midnight’ is a powerful watch, and a difficult one, especially in the second half where the lightness, where there was lightness, of the earlier scenes, becomes very bleak indeed.  To see the growth of a regime which is just as corrupt as the one it replaced, but with a dictator in charge who is revered by diplomats outside of Germany, is chilling in retrospect when you have the knowledge of the full impact of Kristellnacht and the Final Solution.  Dr Conrad’s words to Mrs Litten about Hans not having the choice to be Jewish makes one stop and pause, and the final speech of the bereaved mother, about events in Dachau, and not having stopped screaming, is one which can only provoke devastation.

Wilton is frankly superb here but she heads an excellent cast, and it is a true privilege to be able to spend time in their company hearing this tale which is just one of many, but one which should not be forgotten, especially in these dark days where the freedom of speech is under threat.

To Catch a Thief, 1955 – ★★★

#13 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

Teaming with John Michael Hayes as scriptwriter, and Cary Grant and Grace Kelly as stars, this amusing tale of con artistry starts strongly with posters in a travel agent’s window, a number of French people reacting to jewellery robberies, and a sumptuous house with a black reclining cat, leading of course to an article on cat-burglars.

Then our hero, Grant, revealed from behind in a beautiful garden vista. A man of wealth, then, but gained honestly? The fact he loads a gun at the sight of visitors would suggest otherwise. Then he’s up on the roof, just like that cat, and then he’s away – and what an opening six minutes for a film which is just as much about showcasing a location, in this case the French Riviera, and Monaco (where Miss Kelly, of course, would return as Princess the following year).

This was the second film Hayes would write for Hitchcock, following their successful teaming for ‘Rear Window’. This one has more in common with their final collaboration, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, though, which also relies on location shooting and some essence of style over substance.

‘To Catch a Thief’ is definitely a stylish film, from the jewellery displayed on those in small roles, the spotlessness of interiors, and the choice of decorations in the interior. However Grant’s sweater causes an irritating herringbone effect when watched on DVD, which is a shame.

In the cast we also Jessie Royce Landis (here Kelly’s mother, where she had been Grant’s mother, memorably, in ‘North by Northwest’), and a varied French cast, including Charles Vanel, the impish Brigitte Auber, and Georgette Anys.

The herringbone top gets jettisoned at the twenty minute mark to be replaced by tartan shorts. And they said Cary Grant was a man of style …! But no, the top is back when he’s tossing a coin in the market. And that activity attracts an English chap in a bowler hat, an insurer, a betting man, perhaps, and this makes our cat burglar the bait.

This film is a lot of fun, a light prospect which prefigures that off-the-wall film which followed (‘The Trouble With Harry’) and also had a plot feel which reappeared in ‘Family Plot’ a couple of decades later.

Now we see the glamorous Grace, looking tanned and majestic in beautiful clothes, but notably no gems, unlike her mother, who flaunts her diamonds. A naughty and gratuitous shot for Hitch, when Grant loses his card in cleavage and thus engages his prey, of mother and daughter, and gets to them with a drink.

And then the ice princess thaws, and there’s a lazy jazz purr on the soundtrack …

The fun in this film is seeing Kelly’s toying with Grant once she sees through the pretense of his being a wealthy lumber man. She’s the cat herself, prowling and teasing, and that’s a buzz to watch. Sorting out the mystery of who the thief might be, if Grant has really gone straight, is secondary to seeing Kelly in some frankly gorgeous costumes, and it is perhaps best to view this as an enjoyable travelogue with some semblance of a plot.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Elvis That’s the Way It Is, 1970 – ★★★★

It is Elvis Presley’s 80th birthday tomorrow, the 8th January, or would have been had he not died prematurely at the age of 42 in 1977. His fan-base remains huge and diverse, and his musical and cultural influence is wide-ranging.

‘That’s the Way It Is’ was his first concert film for the cinema – the ’68 Comeback Special had been originally presented on television. I first saw this film (the original 1970 cut) in about 1982 or 3, when we had a copy on laser disc. That version was in stereo which did justice to the wonderful range of songs presented in both the informal jamming sessions in the early section of the film, and the full concert in the later half.

EPE, however, had an idea up their sleeve and in 2001 they released a ‘Special Edition’ of TTWII. I remember going to see this at the cinema and, yes, it was excellent to watch The King in his prime, but some favourite songs had been completely cut (‘I Just Can’t Stop Believin”, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’).

I point this out to emphasise that there are now TWO versions of this film, and the one EPE give the full bells and whistles treatment is the later version. This original one, in the version now available on DVD as a second disc, is in mono, with muddy sound and un-restored picture. Happily I have a recording which I made to VHS and then to DVD of the laser disc version, but new fans coming to the film will not be so fortunate.

OK – this version has a lot of off-stage stuff with fans, promoters, and vox pops. A lot of this was snipped from the 2001 special edition, to present a different mix of songs with a much more rock and roll bias, but I like these informal bits, which give the film some humour as a documentary as well as a concert film.

And Elvis – well, for me, he is the greatest of all singers and at this time, was at the height of his physical peak as well. Although he only earned a co-writer credit on a handful of his early records, he was a gifted interpreter of other people’s songs, especially early rock numbers like ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ and contemporary classics like ‘Polk Salad Annie’, ‘Words’, ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’.

That’s what you get here, with his gifted backing band (the TCB ‘Taking Care of Business’ Band – James Burton, Glen D Hardin, Jerry Scheff and Ronnie Tutt); the Sweet Inspirations (Cissy Houston, Myrna Smith, Sylvia Shernwell); the Imperials Quartet (Jake Hess, Jim Murray, Gary McSpadden, Armond Morales) and the recently deceased Joe Guercio and his Orchestra, is a slick show, well-choreographed.

This film is directed by Denis Sanders and is really recommended viewing for any Elvis fan – but for goodness sake, I wish that the EP estate would release the thing with its original 4-track stereo mix.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 8,200 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Goodbye Piccadilly, exhibition at London Transport Museum

Running until the 8th March 2015, this is the latest exhibition to use posters and artefacts from the collections of the London Transport Museum.

Goodbye Piccadilly is about the First World War, and more specifically, about the fleet of London buses which were sent into Europe and beyond, along with their drivers, to assist with the war effort.

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The posters on show present quite a naive and chilling message to those back in Blighty at the start of the war, as the examples above indicate – ‘the childrens recruiting depots’ being an example which made me particularly shudder.

Other notable artefacts include the plate which adorned ‘Ole Bill’, one of those commandeered buses, the war memorial to the fallen, a bus conductress’ uniform, and more.

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There are two books to accompany this exhibition, and both are well worth getting (and currently available in the Museum shop at £20 for the pair).

There is also a wall where you can add your own message to the soldiers and civilians of the Great War, and one such item, drawn by a child, simply said ‘Thank you’.  With all the commemoration of the 1914-18 conflict we sometimes forget the scale of sacrifice, and how everyone joined up, expecting the conflict to be ‘over by Christmas’.

Potted Sherlock (Vaudeville Theatre)

Fresh from the Edinburgh Festival, this show is the fourth in the series of ‘Potted’ shows from Dan Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, who are joined in their Sherlockian endeavours by Lizzie Wort.  Their aim: to present all sixty Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories in just eighty minutes.

Their previous shows have centred on Harry Potter, Pirates and Panto, so this is a step further, and although the former CBBC presenters do aim this at the childish end of the spectrum and audience, somewhere along the way the point of the show is lost.

We start with Holmes being introduced by the theme from Shaft, and despite the best efforts of the three hardworking cast to swap characters and zip through the stories with some humour and a bit of song and dance, the moments which really work are few – a running gag involving a puppet Moriarty is fun, the Northern grit of the murderer in The Speckled Band works well, and some musical interludes during the Hound of the Baskervilles raise a smile.

It’s obvious that the performers love the stories, but why throwaway so many opportunities when characters like the one-legged man of the Sign of Four, the Crooked Man, the Man With The Twisted Lip, and even Mycroft – who is mentioned but sadly, never appears could be rich seams of comedy?  Too much mugging and fake corpsing goes on, and although it is funny to see the old water pistol gag making an appearance, it may be a case of too little, too late.

(Also, in the Priory School, it is not the father who orders his son to be kidnapped so the illegitimate elder son can inherit, but the half-brother himself).

Romeo and Juliet, 1966 – ★★★½

This film is of historical interest as it is the only record of the first production of Kenneth McMillan’s choreography to the music of Prokofiev.

The ballet was developed with, and planned for, the premier principal dancers of the Royal Ballet at the time, Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, but they got relegated to the second cast and missed out on being immortalized on screen – a great shame and although the decision to replace them must have made box office sense, I have heard from people who were lucky enough to see them dance fifty years ago that they were exceptionally good.

In this film we have the greatest and most famed pair of dancers of the day, the incomparably beautiful Rudolf Nureyev, and the too-old but sweetly convincing Margot Fonteyn, as Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. There are only a handful of films available of this pair dancing together, and of course film can never truly replicate the sense of ‘being there’, but they make a potent duo and are entertaining to watch.

As a film, though, this disappoints. Paul Czinner – who had directed a number of films before including Olivier’s Bard debut in ‘As You Like It’, puts at the start a flowery claim that he has discovered a new way to film dance theatre, but it really isn’t that good – the famed balcony sequence is partly in shadowy darkness, and there are too many long shots where a close-up would have been welcomed. In one key scene in the first marketplace scene our first view of Nureyev’s Romeo is inexplicably blocked by another dancer coming into shot, which is really unforgivable.

As a filmed record of a new and breathtaking piece of performance choreography, this is worth watching, although the stunning score is buried in an unappealing mono mix, and some of the dancers are too heavily made up for the screen.

For the definitive screen version of the ballet I much prefer the Royal Ballet’s version of two decades later, where Wayne Ealing and Alessandra Ferri – helped by new filming techniques, no doubt – succeed in bringing true emotion as well as athletic technique to their roles.

Devotees of the stars on show will want to add this to their collections, though, and you will also see Anthony Dowell and others at the peak of their dancing careers.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

London Life With Liz

Lover of good food, good wine and all things London-related - theatre, music, history and Arsenal FC being some of my particular passions. Join me on my travels around this amazing city and beyond...

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