Monthly Archives: December 2015

Andre Rieu (Wembley Arena)

Just before Christmas we went along to see the most wealthy and successful classical musician currently working, Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra.  Rieu does not come cheap – our tickets came to £91 each once you factored in booking fee – but he does put on a spectacle.

His USP is his digital backdrops, his sopranos dressed as Disney princesses, and his own slightly cheesy Master of Ceremonies schtick.  The musical programme is made of crowd-pleasers: not simply the Strauss waltzes he is known for (the Blue Danube, for which we were handed tiny keyring lights to wave), but also such well-known pieces as the Hallelujah Chorus, the Pearl Fishers duet (for tenor trio and choir here, a bit odd), that aria from Madame Butterfly, 76 Trombones, the theme song from Exodus, and some Christmas pieces – The Holy City, O Holy Night, White Christmas …

There was a guest bell ringer, who had a speed playing contest with the xylophonist.  There was a trilling soprano who sang Christine’s Think of Me from The Phantom of the Opera.  There was a lot of mock drinking.  There was fake snow dumped on to the floor-sitting audience.  There were balloons.  There was Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, ending proceedings.

Rieu has energy, and, in a trio for Amazing Grace with his violin, and flute and bagpipes, he proves he can actually play a decent solo.  He also has friendly patter with which he engages his adoring audience.  Those waltzes get people up dancing, whether they are ageing couples, mums and daughters, or grannies and tots.

He puts on a good show, but like all good things, especially sugary or cheesy ones, he is best enjoyed in moderation.  This was a tightly programmed and shrewdly scripted piece of entertainment of which Rieu is the mullet-haired ringmaster.  And the audience went away humming the tunes with smiles on their faces. (National Theatre)

There’s something in the water on the Southbank.  It’s been 150 years since Charles Dodgson took up the name of Lewis Carroll and wrote ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, vibrant, inventive and frankly mad novels which have puzzled and charmed children ever since.

Damon Albarn (formerly of Blur) has written the music for this new musical set squarely in the generation.  Lyrics, such as they are, for the songs are written by Moira Buffini, and direction is from Rufus Norris, the new incumbent as Artistic Director at the National Theatre.

A good pedigree, you might say, and with such a book as a springboard, could it really miss?  The trouble is, I don’t think it is mad enough – our heroine, Aly (Lois Chimimba) is a moody, mixed-race teenager with separated parents (her father is sort of the Mad Hatter as he has mental problems and, well, wears hats) and a baby brother who vomits over the stage.

Said baby brother is called Charlie which leads to a laboured act two song called, yes, ‘Everyone Loves Charlie’.  It’s about as far away from Jefferson Airplane’s druggily Alice inspired anthem ‘White Rabbit’ as you can get.

The other songs channel the Laughing Policeman, Chim Chim Cheree, and Knees Up Mother Brown, and where we have a bit of melody, such as avatar Alice singing about herself or the trippy and glittery green caterpillar asking ‘Who Are You’ in true Disney style, we are pulled up short and feel as if we have wandered into another show.

What plot there is centres on Aly entering the world of, coaxed by the Cheshire Cat (Hal Fowler, who also plays the Caterpillar) in stunning digital graphics, of which I would have loved to have seen more.

She creates a Tenniel-perfect Alice as her alter ego (Carly Bawden) who starts off all fluffy and cute and then becomes an evil troll when turned into the Red Queen by the nasty and vicious headmistress Ms Manxome (see what they did there?  Manx.  Cat.  Ho.), played by Anna Francolini.  She’s fun, but too one-dimensional, and really, is someone evil because they want to stop a child playing on their phone during lessons?

In lip service to Carroll’s original, Dinah, Mary-Ann and Kitty are here transformed into bullies who torment Aly in the girls’ loos, while the Mock Turtle, Humpty, Dum and Dee and others are avatars her Alice encounters online.  They could be any characters, really, and the creators don’t seem to know what to do with them.

With special effects which seem set to disappoint – an early screen full of messages goes nowhere, and other opportunities are missed – poor songs, and a plot which tries to shoehorn in everything possible (including a gay guy and a zombie apocalypse), this show tries to dazzle but instead irritates.

It doesn’t fall into the ‘so bad it’s good’ camp.  It has no hummable tunes (but that’s sometimes OK, if the show is good enough).  It has some good costumes, and that Cheshire Cat animation is excellent, but it isn’t enough to save this from being a true Christmas turkey, despite the best efforts of its cast.

All glitter on the outside with nothing inside, I’m afraid.

Requiem for a Heavyweight, 1956 – ★★★★

A marvellous version of the play which became a better-known movie starring Anthony Quinn a few years later.

This story of a washed-up boxer (Jack Palance), his promoter (Keenan Wynn), and his medical man (Ed Wynn, in a rare straight role) is a beautifully played live drama, written by Rod Serling and directed by Ralph Nelson.

One of the greatest pleasures of this version of the play is watching the Wynns, father and son, work together, and especially Keenan, who has rarely been better than he is here as the manager who takes a bribe.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Mr. Holmes, 2015 – ★★★½

I am a Sherlock Holmes nut. And this promised something different, a portrait of Holmes in his retirement, aged ninety-three and beekeeping, losing his faculties (he writes people’s names on his cuff).

This isn’t the full story, though. We see him in middle-age in his last case, without Watson, and without the pipe and deerstalker he has been saddled with in penny dreadfuls.

So we see a man with deductive qualities, a quick mind, a cunning turn of phrase – and we see him elderly, frail, slipping towards dementia at the end of his life.

Ian McKellen joins the list of great Holmeses, and he brings something new and fresh to the role. We believe in him, and although he may not quite be Conan Doyle’s detective, he makes us believe in his methods and his interactions with others.

I liked the in-jokes (Ambrose Chappell from ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’; Nicholas Rowe playing the Sherlock Holmes our real Holmes sees at the cinema, this Holmes being no fiction …, Phil Davis who was in Sherlock’s Study in Pink appearing as a policeman).

But I didn’t like the housekeeper’s distrust of her son’s friendship with the old man – and in fact, although the boy was very good, I can’t see Holmes getting close to anyone. He didn’t form human relationships, other than the brotherly friendship with Watson.

The ‘cases’ are also frustratingly disjointed – the case of Ann Kelmot being misunderstood – and our glimpse of Watson is restricted to just hands and feet, we have no concrete figure to make flesh. ‘After all these years, John didn’t know me at all,’ muses Holmes, and tells us of their estrangement followed close upon by the death of the Doctor, leaving a lonely Holmes with his bees and his failing mind.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

National Theater Live: Of Mice and Men, 2014 – ★★★★½

A book I know well from school I’d lovingly presented here in a Broadway production brought to our cinema screens courtesy of NT Live.

I’m not a big fan of James Franco generally but he is excellent here as George, and Chris O’Dowd was a pleasant surprise as Lennie.

In fact the casting is good thoughout, but special mention for Jim Norton, who was heartbreakingly believable as Candy, an old disabled swamper whose only friend is his smelly old dog.

Anna Shapiro’s production is small scale (just three simple sets) which uses music and lighting to present this classic tale.

As a film, it doesn’t give many nods to ‘cinema’ look, but the use of occasional close – ups was very effective, especially in the key – and still shocking – final scene.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Cabaret, 1993 – ★★★★

Very good record of the Sam Mendes stage production from the Donmar, which is much closer to the story than the Liza Minnelli film. Jane Horrocks is rough at the edges as Sally, Adam Godley is sweet as Clifford, Alan Cummings is in fine camp feckle as the MC, Sara Kestelman is stunning as Frauline Schneider.

I saw a stage production (not this one) a few years ago and was taken by the darkness of the plot and the ending, and the version is no exception; although it does not yet have the final bleak coda.

Sally Bowles may be Liza to most people, but this is how she is meant to be. This is a tragic story of Berlin at the brink of war, and it is powerful piece of theatre.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Catch My Soul, 1974 – ★★★½

This curio has quietly made it to DVD release after being pretty much unavailable for years. Patrick McGoohan might not be your first choice to direct a hippie rock opera, but here’s the proof it happened.

Richie Havens is the pastor Othello who has taken a new white (and rather geeky) wife Desdemona (Season Hubley). On the sidelines is the malevolent Iago (Lance LeGault), who identifies himself as Satan and plans to spoil things in the cause of white supremacy.

Cassio is a wastrel, a drinker, a trampy mumbler, played here by the fantastic soul singer Tony Joe White (his song Polk Salad Annie, later covered by Elvis, is seriously hot), and although he’s wasted a bit and not given full reign, it is fantastic to see him in his prime on film.

The songs are more gospel than rock in places, making this more akin to Godspell than Jesus Christ Superstar, and the score varies from a few memorable numbers to some cringeworthy pieces. However, as a musical, it just about succeeds on a sense of cheek and the forgiveness of the period in which it was made.

Where the storyline tries to shoehorn in Shakespeare’s verse (the bit about paddling the palm, Cassio’s reputation speech, etc) it does actually work well, but Iago is just too cartoon a villain, and without the conceit of Othello being a military general, I can’t really see Iago’s motivation for humiliating a fellow white man and women in the context of what’s causing him so much hate against the black pastor.

The DVD sleeve has all sorts of hyperbole about this being ‘exquisite’, ‘legendary’ and ‘a missing piece of cinema history’. If you go in expecting that, you’ll be disappointed. If you go in expecting anything like McGoohan’s other screen work, you might be a little bit confused. But if you are open minded about musicals, Shakespeare, and hippy culture, then give this a go.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

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