Monthly Archives: October 2015

Randy Newman (Royal Festival Hall)

Randy Newman has been in the singer-songwriting business for close to fifty years now, and here he is at the Royal Festival, with just his piano for accompaniment, sharing in excess of thirty songs with us over two hours, ranging from his one hit, ‘Short People’, through to classics like ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’, ‘Political Science’, ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’, and my personal favourite of his songs, ‘Feels Like Home’, which closed the concert and sent us home.

Newman has quite a range of songs even if his delivery and vocalising is much the same throughout – there are love songs like ‘I Miss You’ (written for his first wife when he was with his second) and ‘She Chose Me’, more jokey numbers like ‘The World Isn’t Fair’ and ‘My Life Is Good’, serious pieces like ‘Rednecks’, and fun pieces like ‘Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear’.

There was even a bit of audience participation in ‘I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)’, while the song Newman claimed was his personal favourite, ‘My Country’, came across well.  Toy Story’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend In Me’ was perhaps more commercial than pieces like  ‘Where’s My Wandering Boy Tonight’ or even ‘I Love To See You Smile’, which opened the concert.

What I like about Newman is the way he can change the mood of a room from amusement at clever lyrics, to emotional engagement, to shock at more edgy and sarcastic material.  His voice may have weakened, but even in this large space it felt like an intimate occasion in which one person engaged with many in a way which transcended the venue.  Pricey it may have been, but this was a show well worth catching.


National Theatre Live: Hamlet, 2015 – ★★★★

This Barbican theatre production has suffered from a ridiculous amount of hype and is supposedly the fastest selling show in London stage history. Reviews have been mixed and audiences have been hysterical.

Now, this is Hamlet, the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays. His greatest tragedy, of the young melancholy student who has suffered the shock of his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage to his uncle within a matter of weeks. His discovery – via a ghostly visitation – that dad was in fact murdered by uncle tips him over the edge into a type of madness (real, feigned, or a mixture) which causes the catastrophic events which forge the remainder of the play.

In this lead role is cast the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, internationally known for playing ‘Sherlock’ in the TV series and perhaps a victim of his own hype. One review of this production sniffily referred to Cumberbatch as ‘not the best actor of all time, not even the best actor on this stage’.

However, I found his portrayal very good indeed, a mixture of the sad and moody prince in the first scene, the manic regressive of the scenes where he marches within a toy fortress or marches along a long table, the revengeful son who reflects on the motivation of the Player King or Fortinbras as opposed to his own situation, the conflicted man who knows he must spurn Ophelia while being more than aware of the effect he will have upon her. He may declaim a bit too much the way Kenneth Branagh did in his own version of this play, but physically his performance is intense, and he is generally convincing.

This is a very cinematic production, using depth of sets to move the story along (Ophelia’s final exit and Gertrude’s desperate chase after her being one example), as well as effects such as video projection and vast dust clouds dressing the set for the second half. There is a sweeping staircase, a balcony, the grave of Yorick, dark exit points, and a long table which serves as the marriage feast, a council, a war cabinet, and more.

The rest of the cast are variable: I didn’t care for Ciaran Hinds’ Claudius, although it was nice to see he was not the crazed tyrant often portrayed. I found he was too shouty in places, and poor in diction in others. Anastasia Hille has been criticised as Gertrude, but I found the closet scene very powerful, as was the description of the death of Ophelia she delivered to the court. It was a mistake to put the revelation of the poisoned drink from her to Horatio, though.

As Ophelia, Sian Brooke is always on the edge of breakdown, whether receiving her brother’s advice or her father’s ultimation to ‘not have talk with the Lord Hamlet’. Her eventual collapse, here signposted by her father’s murder by the addition of lines not in the original scene, is heartbreaking, and the piano interplay between her and Laertes is well done.

Poorer performances come from Leo Bill as Horatio (his verse speaking and acting are both atrocious), and Karl Johnson’s Ghost, who seems to be casting around for a regional accent between Scottish and some vaguely foreign mutter (his Gravedigger, singing along to Sinatra’s ‘All of Me’, is much better).

Polonius, although shorn of a couple of his best lines (no ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, no ‘beautified is a vile phrase’), is well played by Jim Norton, and his death scene, grabbing at Hamlet’s hand, is good. Laertes, an example of colour-blind casting, is played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who is OK but now and again you can’t hear his lines and now and again he overacts.

The opening and ending sequences have been tampered with – at the start, it is Hamlet, listening to ‘Nature Boy’ on the gramophone, who utters the first two words, which eventually reveal Horatio, come from Wittenberg. At the end, the final sword play declines into a slow-motion sequence which muddles the moment, and the ‘goodnight sweet prince’ speech is completely ruined by poor acting and delivery.

You get freeze-frames during soliloquies, slow-mo, a panto-type chase and some other jarring flourishes in this production; and also some inappropriate laughter from the Barbican audience, who seem to see Cumberbatch as a stand-up comedian rather than accepting the arc of the story. This gives the show a feel of being over-produced in places, and misunderstood in others.

However, these reservations aside, I liked this. It is not a perfect production, and I would have been annoyed to pay £80 or more to see it on stage, but it has become an engrossing and effective film, perhaps the first NT Live production of which I can honestly say that.

 

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


London Literature Festival: Terry Gilliam and Tom Jones

Two very different nights out last week in the company of two very different chaps, both born in 1940, at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre.

‘Inside the head of Terry Gilliam’ was a conversation between the American film director, artist, and ex-Python; and Arts Editor of the BBC, Will Gompertz.  Starting with the young Gilliam’s childhood in Minneapolis and working through his start in animation, through to his breakthrough at forty years old as an international film director, this conversation – supporting the publication of ‘Gilliamesque: a pre-posthumous memoir’ – was engaging, informative, and funny.  It also included a rather beautiful montage of scenes from his feature films, and a chance for audience members to ask questions.  Sad to say, with John Hurt’s recent illness it seems that the Don Quixote film is again stalled.

‘A conversation with Tom Jones’ was a night of two halves; first an opportunity for the Welsh singing legend to talk about his life and work, with Matt Everitt from BBC Radio 6, using photographs displayed as slides on a big screen to illustrate the tale and promote his ghostwritten autobiography, ‘Over the top and back’, and then a concert in excess of an hour which opened with ‘It’s Not Unusual’ and then settled into tracks from his new album, ‘Long Lost Suitcase’, proving that the ‘Voice’ was very much present and correct.  We even got an outing of his 80s hit, ‘Kiss’, but thankfully not with the thrusting around of old.  My favourite tracks of the night were Gillian Welch’s ‘Elvis Presley Blues’, Bob Dylan’s ‘What Good Am I’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’ (and I’m a big Cohen fan, but this was a good version), and John Lee Hooker’s ‘Burnin’ Hell’.


Sunset Boulevard (Geoids Musical Theatre at the Bridewell Theatre)

sunset

Amateur theatre can sometimes be hit and miss, but recently it seems that there is work going on in this sector that is close to professional standard in places.  So it is with this version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Don Black musical, the first amateur production of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ to be staged, and with the announcement of the ENO version coming next Spring, one may view this version as an appetizer.

My husband attended with me, and he is not familiar with the show at all.  I am, both film and show are firm favourites of mine, and so we were both coming to this show with different expectations.  What struck me first was the rather odd idea of having every sequence performed as if it was a shot within a film, with cameramen, clapperboards, cuts and steps out of character.  As this is based on an iconic film, it didn’t bother me, but it was really just a way to distract the audience from stage and set changes.

As Norma Desmond, Susan Booth was terrific, especially in her second act solo ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ which gave me goosebumps.  She was touching in her madness and her vulnerability, too.  Patrick Harrison, as Max, was note perfect as an actor, if not quite as a singer (but his solo number is a notoriously difficult song to put across, and his interpretation was valid enough), and his loving guardianship of the woman he still saw as his teenage wife, the ‘greatest star of all’ was well-defined.

Michael Stacey’s Joe was just the right mix of self-absorption and opportunitism, and his voice was fine in both his solo number ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and in his desperate duet with Betty, ‘Too Much in Love to Care’.  Betty was played by the sparkling Nikki Davison, as an ingenue who would be spat out by the Hollywood system she didn’t quite understand.  The company, too, threw themselves into the ensemble pieces with their heart and soul, whether welcoming a New Year, offering beauty treatments or new suits to the principals, or setting the scene for a dog-eat-dog movie wonderland which had seedy edges of disappointment.

The set and staging, too, was effective, from the glow of Norma’s swimming pool in the opening scene, the iconic staircase from which she descends for her ‘close-up’, the rolled-out tiles on which Valentino once tangoed, to the car in which Joe drove from his debtors through dark and dreary streets in a filmed backdrop.

Sarah Burrell’s orchestra also deserve a nod, although at times they overpowered the singers, especially in ensemble pieces.  Overall, though, this was an excellent version of one of my favourite shows, which made me laugh, moved me, and kept me watching.  My husband also liked the show despite knowing nothing of the plot, so I would also give it a nod for newbies unfamiliar with the source material.

Last performance is on tonight.


Remembering Graham Chapman

graham

The wildest, funniest, most bizarre of the Monty Python team left us on 4th October 1989 when he died of cancer at the age of 48.

The most talented actor in the group – he played the title role in Life of Brian and King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Chapman was also a hedonist who overindulged in many things, notably alcohol (gin was his drink of choice) and, according to his tongue in cheek book, A Liar’s Autobiography, sex.

molluscs

Openly gay, he was something of an activist, funding the fledgling publication Gay News.  He was also sharply intelligent behind the silliness: a qualified doctor and a man who, in an appearance on the Channel 4 show Opinions, railed against gender stereotyping and dealt with the issue of death in a matter of fact way.

His contribution to Python has been downplayed over the years, with writing partner John Cleese claiming he ‘carried’ Chapman: yet many of the quirks and ideas which made Python sketches special came from the quiet and contemplative pipe smoker in the corner.

grahampipe

His outrageous side was legendary, whether sticking a part of his anatomy into a stranger’s drink in a pub, appearing full frontal nude as Brian, or fully embracing a spoof advice page on masturbation for the team’s second book, The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok.  (This last item was said to be ‘upsetting to Gray’s fans’ when I shared on a Facebook page yesterday, which surely misses the point that this chap pushed the boundaries each and every day of his life).

naughty

An attractive man, Chapman was probably just as aware of his appeal to fans of both sexes as he was of his ability to appear outrageous (he was the Python who looked best in a dress). His enduring (but open) partnership with David Sherlock lasted more than twenty years, during which time they adopted teenage runaway John Tomiczek.

After Python his career was not that successful,  although he starred in two feature films – The Odd Job, which had previously been a vehicle for Ronnie Barker; and Yellowbeard, a sort of mad pirate saga.  His last professional appearance was in an Iron Maiden video called Can I Play With Madness.

Chapman died on the eve of Python’s 20th anniversary – a true case of ‘party pooping’.  At the memorial service his colleagues took the opportunity to be outrageous and offensive on his behalf.   Since then he has been a regular participant in their shows right up until their ‘farewell’ shows at the O2 in 2014.

He will always be my favourite of the Pythons: the one who makes me laugh, and makes me think.

flix-yellowbeard00


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