Monthly Archives: April 2016

Richard III, 1995 – ★★★★½

Back from a cinema screening of this at BFI Southbank with a live Q&A with McKellen and Loncraine.

This film is quick and modern Shakespeare with a multifaceted study of pure evil from Ian McKellen in the lead.

His malevolence as he takes the viewer into his confidence, his duplicity as he blithely waves his brother Clarence (a superb Nigel Hawthorne) off to the Tower while plotting his death, the ice cold ambition which makes him reach out to Anne over her husband’s corpse and just as coldly dispatch her, his manipulation of friends, foes and family (sister in law Queen Elizabeth, whose young daughter he covets even after he has arranged the murder of her two young brothers), his disregard for anyone but himself.

All this is beautifully and expertly conveyed in a film which cuts 75% of Shakespeare’s text, but which is purely cinematic and almost blackly comic, ending as it does with Al Jolson singing ‘I’m Sitting on Top of the World’.

This film has grown in stature over the years and is well worth watching for Bard buffs and those unsure alike.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Six books which shaped my life

The #9albums meme on Twitter made me think about how this might impact on the books which mean the most to me (and which have followed me for a long time, so no recent titles will appear here).  Dates are for the edition I have to hand, not necessarily original date of publication.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams.  Puffin, 1973.

watershipdown

This story, of a group of rabbits finding a new home, is a bona fide classic, which was later made into a rather scary animated film.  Fiver has psychic powers and can sense bad vibes in the warren in which he and his brother Hazel live, but as he is the runt of the litter and not that powerful in the pecking order, the Chief Rabbit doesn’t listen to him with, as we see later, horrendous consequences.   I try to re-read this book each year and never get bored with it.  The rabbits are given distinct personalities and even their own religion, as the Black Rabbit is their demon of death, and El-ahrairah is almost their Christ figure, or at least comparable to that of Aslan in …

The Chronicles of Narnia, by CS Lewis.  Fontana Lion, c.1980.

narnia

Across seven books (The Magician’s Nephew, in which a young boy and girl find themselves witnessing the birth of Narnia; The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, in which four children become kings and queens and see the death and resurrection of Aslan the Lion; The Horse and His Boy, set within the reign of the Pevensie children with a Prince and Pauper theme; Prince Caspian, which deals with a usurper and a rightful king; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which a valiant mouse joins a crew to find a number of lost Lords; The Silver Chair, in which a prince is enchanted; and The Last Battle, which deals with the end of Narnia as a world), CS Lewis’ fantasy series is an endlessly fascinating piece of fiction with prose which generally vivid visually stunning images, and a strong storyline in which talking animals and mythical creatures live alongside swordsmen, warm-hearted dwarfs, and a London cabbie who becomes the equivalent of the Biblical Adam.

The Houses-in-Between, by Howard Spring.  Reprint Society, 1954.

housesinbetween

This sprawling saga follows Sarah Undridge, who tells the story in first person, and her family, friends and acquaintances through many years.  It starts in the Victorian age and ends with the Second World War, and the characters and situations crackle with life, across time, class, and legitimacy.  This book has been comfort food for me for many years, and remains my favourite of Spring’s novels.

Flush, by Virginia Woolf.  Penguin, 1977.

flash

Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a little dog.  A cocker spaniel, to be exact.  And Virginia Woolf was his biographer.  This is slight on first glance, but absolutely delightful, and very perceptive on all manner of external forces which impacted on the poet and her pet.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.  Faber and Faber, 1989.

belljar

Plath’s fictionalised account of her own teenage years is a tour de force of confessional writing, and in her character of ‘Esther’ we can follow her dreams, ideals, depressions, sexual awakening, suicide attempts, shock therapy, and more.  This book may have influenced Susanna Kaysen’s own work drawing on her own life and experiences, ‘Girl, Interrupted’, which is in itself an excellent book.  But Plath, being essentially a poet with a great eye for detail and sense of the power of the written word, wrote the stronger of the two novels, and even though it was published more than fifty years ago, it remains a gut-punching read today, while also retaining flashes of black humour which are very refreshing.

Silences, by Tillie Olsen.  Virago, 1994.

silences

From a time when I myself was a writer, and discovering a wide variety of female voices, from the Brontës and Austen through to Ruth Fainlight, Jackie Kay, and my historical fiction writer of choice, Jean Plaidy.  Olsen’s book focuses on the invisibility of the woman writer in the context of wider politic views such as race, class, and ultimately gender.  It is a highly feminist book which is very readable and even now, very perceptive and relevant.

 


Shakespeare 400: Film and TV

There have been many, many screen versions of Shakespeare’s plays – please follow the links below to my lists on Letterboxd to find a range of straight adaptations and versions inspired by the Bard’s work.

Such a rich store of films, television and recordings from the RSC, the National Theatre, the Globe, and Digital Theatre exist to prove the Bard remains relevant 400 years after his passing.

tragedieshamlet

Shakespeare – The Tragedies (http://boxd.it/8yDy), covering 11 of the 37 plays: Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida.

Five to try:

  • Antony and Cleopatra (1974, dir Jon Scoffield, with Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman).  This will be released by Network Distributing later this year.
  • The Bad Sleep Well (1960, dir Akira Kurosawa).  A Japanese loose version of Hamlet.
  • Macbeth on the Estate (1997, dir Penny Woolcock, with James Frain).
  • Othello (1990, dir Trevor Nunn, with Willard White and Ian McKellen).
  • Romeo and Juliet (1984, from the Royal Ballet, with Wayne Eagling and Alessandra Ferri, to Kenneth Macmillan’s choreography).

comediescomedydench

Shakespeare – The Comedies (http://boxd.it/8yDS), covering 12 of the 37 plays: All’s Well That Ends Well, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Measure for Measure, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing.

Five to try:

  • The Comedy of Errors (1976, dir Trevor Nunn, with Judi Dench, with music by Guy Woolfenden).
  • McLintock! (1963, dir Andrew V. McLaglen, with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara).  A Western inspired by The Taming of the Shrew.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, dir Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle).  A Hollywood fantasy with Mickey Rooney as Puck.
  • Much Ado About Nothing (2012, dir Joss Whedon).
  • The Merchant of Venice (1972, dir Cedric Messina, with Frank Finlay as Shylock and Maggie Smith as Portia).

historiesrichardshaw

Shakespeare – The Histories (http://boxd.it/8yEc), covering 10 of the 37 plays: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, Richard III, Henry VIII, King John.

Five to try:

  • Richard III (1995, dir Richard Loncraine, with Ian McKellen).  Set in the Nazi era with a modern feel.
  • Henry V (1944, dir by and starring Laurence Olivier).  A stirring version made during the Second World War.
  • King John (1984, dir David Giles, with Leonard Rossiter, for the BBC Shakespeare).
  • Henry VIII (2010, dir Mark Rosenblatt, for Globe on Screen, with Dominic Rowan).
  • Richard II (1978, dir David Giles, with Derek Jacobi, for the BBC Shakespeare).

romancestempestglobe

Shakespeare – The Romances (http://boxd.it/8yEw), covering 4 of the 37 plays: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest.

Five to try:

  • Prospero’s Books (1991, dir Peter Greenaway, with John Gielgud).  Inspired by The Tempest.
  • The Winter’s Tale (1999, dir Gregory Doran, with Antony Sher, for the RSC).
  • The Tempest (1908, dir Percy Stow).
  • Cymbeline (2013, dir Michael Almereyda, with Ethan Hawke).  With an urban gang setting.
  • The Winter’s Tale (1910, dir Thanhouser).

 

 


Shakespeare 400 in images

  • Marlon Brando plays Mark Antony in the 1953 film of ‘Julius Caesar’;
  • Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the 1968 film of ‘Romeo and Juliet’;
  • Kenneth Branagh in his 1996 film of ‘Hamlet’;
  • Laurence Olivier in his 1944 film of ‘Henry V’;
  • Wendy Hiller, Cyril Cusack, Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltrey in the 1983 BBC Shakespeare TV version of ‘The Comedy of Errors’;
  • Simon Russell Beale in the National Theatre’s 2012 production of ‘Timon of Athens’;
  • Dumaine (Adrian Lester), Berowne (Kenneth Branagh), Longaville (Matthew Lillard), and Ferdinand (Alessandro Nivola) in the 2000 film of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’;
  • Philip Quast as Achilles and Jeremy Sheffield as Patroclus in the RSC’s 1996 production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’;
  • Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce in the Globe Theatre’s 2015 production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’;
  • Judi Dench as Titania in the 1968 film of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’;
  • Antony Sher as Falstaff in the RSC’s 2014 production of ‘Henry IV Part 1’;
  • Ian McKellen in the 1979 TV version of the RSC’s production of ‘Macbeth’;
  • Guy Henry in the RSC’s 2001 production of ‘King John’;
  • Robert Shaw (Leontes), Rosalie Crutchley (Hermoine) and Patrick McNee (Polixines) in the 1962 TV production of ‘A Winter’s Tale’;
  • Paul Robeson in a 1942 stage production of ‘Othello’;
  • Christopher Benjamin as Falstaff in the Globe’s 2010 production of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’;
  • Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore in the 1953 film of ‘Kiss Me Kate’ (based on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’);
  • Gary Bond and Irena Mayeska as Benedick and Beatrice in the 1970 Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’;
  • Anthony Hopkins in the 1999 film of ‘Titus’;
  • Heathcote Williams as Prospero and Toyah as Miranda in the 1979 film of ‘The Tempest’;
  • Romola Garai as Celia in the 2006 film of ‘As You Like It’;
  • Ben Miles as the Duke and Anna Maxwell-Martin as Isabella in the 2010 Almeida Theatre production of ‘Measure for Measure’;
  • Derek Jacobi in the BBC Shakespeare TV adaptation of ‘Richard II’ (1978);
  • Ian Charleson and cast of the BBC Shakespeare TV adaptation of ‘All’s Well That End’s Well’ (1980);
  • The National Theatre of Greece at the Globe in their 2012 production of ‘Pericles’;
  • Tom Courtenay in the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1999 production of ‘King Lear’;
  • Alan Howard in the RSC’s 1978 production of ‘Coriolanus’;
  • Alan Bates and Frances de La Tour in the RSC’s 2000 production of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’;
  • William Houston as Prince Hal and David Troughton as Henry IV in the RSC’s 2000 production of ‘Henry IV Part 2’;
  • Mark Rylance in the Globe’s 2012 production of ‘Richard III’;
  • Richard Johnson in the BBC Shakespeare TV adaptation of ‘Cymbeline’ (1983);
  • Tommy Steele as Feste in the 1969 TV adaptation of ‘Twelfth Night’;
  • Dominic Rowan as Henry with Amanda Lawrence as his fool in the Globe’s 2010 production of ‘Henry VIII’.

Shakespeare 400: The Complete Walk and Shakespeare Live! (RSC)

The 23rd April is both St George’s Day and the anniversary of both the birth and death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and as we have now reached 400 years since the poet/playwright’s death, both the Globe Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have created projects which happened this weekend.

completewalk

The Complete Walk presents all 37 plays in chronological order in a route starting at St Thomas’ Hospital with The Two Gentlemen of Verona and finishing at Potters Fields Park with The Tempest.

We saw eleven of the plays between Hungerford Bridge (Titus Andronicus, with Peter Capaldi, rather battling against the noise of the trains above), to the back of the Oxo Tower (The Merry Wives of Windsor, with Mel Giedroyc).  Three screens (The Comedy of Errors, Henry IV Part 2, and Much Ado About Nothing) were not working as we passed, and I understand technical issues have plagued this project a bit on a windy, cold and showery day yesterday – hopefully today will have more of a hit rate.

  1. Titus Andronicus (under Hungerford Bridge).  Filmed in Rome, this shows a different side of Capaldi than is familiar to most these days from Doctor Who.
  2. Henry VI Part 2 (under Golden Jubilee Bridge).  Filmed at Spitalsfield Market, this was a very modern take of a little-known history play.
  3. Romeo and Juliet (opposite Royal Festival Hall).  Filmed at Verona with Jessie Buckley and Luke Thompson in glorious blue tints in the closing tomb scene, this was well acted and also featured scenes from the Globe’s production with Ellie Kendrick and Adetomiwa Edun.
  4. Richard III (next to Waterloo Bridge).  Filmed in the Tower of London, with a glorious monologue from Claire Higgins, Queen Margaret’s speech from Act 4.
  5. Love’s Labour’s Lost (in front of the National Theatre).  Filmed in Navarre, with Gemma Arterton and David Dawson.  Beautifully shot but the volume made it hard to follow.
  6. King John (in front of the National Theatre).  The Hubert and Arthur scene, filmed a the Holy Sepulchre, with the right amount of murderous intent and tension.
  7. Richard II (Observation Point).  Filmed in Westminster Hall, with James Norton in the abdication and ‘I have wasted time’ scenes.  An actor I don’t care for, but I wanted to see more of this.
  8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Gabriel’s Wharf Bandstand).  Filmed at Wilton House, with the Theseus and Hippolyta scenes, and the wall scene with ‘the rude mechanicals’.  Funny but lacking the play’s magic.
  9. The Merchant of Venice (Riverside Slice).  Filmed in the Jewish Ghetto, Venice, with Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce reprising their roles as Shylock and Jessica alongside scenes from the Globe production.  Looks great but the sound was drowned out by an adjacent screen.
  10. Henry IV Part 1 (Bernie Spain Gardens).  Filmed at the George Inn, Southwark, with Toby Jones as a drunken Falstaff we first meet passed out in a cubicle in the Gents.  Very funny but far too loud.
  11. The Merry Wives of Windsor (behind the Oxo Tower).  The scene between the Mistresses discussing Falstaff and the basket, with one of them in drag.  Plays like a comedy sketch.

It’s a varied project, and an accomplished one.  The YouTube channel for Shakespeare’s Globe includes trailers for Timon of Athens (with Simon Russell Beale) and King Lear (with Kenneth Cranham).  I hope this project – which also ran in Liverpool this weekend, but mainly in interior locations – has an additional life beyond the opportunity to see the films in situ.

shakespearelive

In the evening, there was a television broadcast live from Stratford-upon-Avon which mixed music (excerpts from West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate, opera and ballet, jazz and hip hop, and appearances from Rufus Wainwright and tenor Ian Bostridge), comedy (a delightful ‘nine Hamlet’ sketch which includes Cumberbatch, McKellen, Dench and others, including Prince Charles, advising on how to speak the classic ‘To Be or Not To Be’ soliloquy), speeches (Ian McKellen as Thomas More, Roger Allam as Lear, Judi Dench as Titania with Al Murray as Bottom, Rory Kinnear and Ann-Marie Duff as the Macbeths) and filmed inserts (Joseph Fiennes within the Shakespeare Trust properties at Stratford, and Simon Russell Beale doing part of the John of Gaunt speech from Richard II).

Uneven at the start, this settled into a classy piece of live theatre, although it was not quite as good as the earlier ‘National Theatre at 50’.  Appearances from the likes of Helen Mirren, David Suchet, and the aforementioned Dame Judi and Sir Ian interested me more than a group of students performing Bernstein or a poorly spoken Juliet in the balcony scene.  Still, there was a good range of plays represented, and a strong sense of how Shakespeare has moved into many areas of popular culture.

olivierhamet

To close this post, I will share the costume from the 1948 film of Hamlet, starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, which can be found in the BFI Southbank’s small Shakespeare on Film exhibition in their Mezzanine (above the box office), which accompanies their rather populist season of screenings.


Hamlet, 1964 – ★★★½

Richard Burton’s Hamlet is uneven and in places given to declaiming, but it is certainly interesting to see him tackle the role, under the direction of John Gielgud.

This is purely filmed theatre, complete with scene entrance and closing applause, and because it was not intended to be kept or released it has limited cinematic value. Burton kept a copy and it was made available from his estate after his death, so was hidden from view for many years.

Interestingly, Gertrude is played by Eileen Herlie, who had played the same role opposite Laurence Olivier in 1948. Here she is more age appropriate. Polonius is played by Hume Cronyn, who is marvellous (and not totally played for laughs, which is refreshing). Alfred Drake is a curious choice for Claudius, but he does well enough, while Linda Marsh is a pretty Ophelia, lacking the delicacy and vulnerability of others who have played the role.

Gielgud is the voice of the Ghost, giving the production gravitas, but Burton’s leading performance at times threatens to overbalance proceedings. Having said this, now and again he is very good indeed, and one wishes he had been coaxed into a quieter, more reflective interpretation of the Dane that is finally on show. His verse speaking is excellent. It may be that it is simply the fact that his ‘star quality’ and associated baggage influence an audience’s reading of his performance here.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


The Taming of the Shrew (Above the Arts Theatre)

Custom/Practice’s flagship production at the heart of the Verve Festival (a month-long exploration of shifting relations between minority groups and the theatre) is ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, which is in itself an interesting addition to the wide variety of productions being staged for Shakespeare 400.

The difference in this production is that all the male characters are played by women, and all the female characters by men.  This allows some interesting ideas to be explored – as the Shrew Katharina, Kazeem Tosin Amore may cause some amusement in his bride’s veil, but also a moment of shock when he strikes the boisterous Petruchio (Martina Laird) during their first explosive meeting.

It isn’t just gender-swap casting which is being portrayed here: Petruchio, Baptista, Tranio, Hortensio, Gremio and Biondello become women, and so the balance of power shifts in that they inherit fortunes from their mothers and take the lead in romantic relationships, engaging in physical and cultural behaviours quite unthinkable in a usual 16th century society.

In contrast, Katharina and Bianca become men, in high heels, corsets, and in Bianca’s case, with a mouth smudged in lipstick.  They are made submissive and powerless while the strong and powerful female characters roister, make plans for their future, and wager on their obedience, while they stand quietly by.

Where the switch from male to female worked well in the other characters, I felt that the weakness of this production was in the depiction of the sons who were sought out as husbands.  It was an interesting idea on the surface but in Bianca’s case in particular, the characteristics which made the young girl endearing in Shakespeare’s original simply made ‘him’ tiresome here, and unworthy of so many suitors.

The staging is interesting – this is a very small theatre space, using the most perfunctory of set dressing, but a sense of place, time and travel was very well done.  The programme mentions help from a number of well-known names to bring this production to fruition, and it is clearly money well-spent.

This is a clever and in some way subversive show which turns some ideas of what is one of the Bard’s most problematic plays on its head, especially in the famous speech of Kate’s near the end, in which ‘he’ speaks of offering his hand under his wife’s foot to give her ease.  I found this touching, where usually the speech can cause a modern audience to cringe because of the very gender politics this festival seeks in part to address.

The diversity in terms of ethnicity is also on display here, with Trinidadian Laird in the pivotal leading role, surrounded by Nigerian Karlina Grace-Paseda (Baptista, whose reactions in the ‘Kate is sweet’ scene were delightful), and other actors of colour, including the vibrant Kayla Meikle as Tranio.

Director Rae McKen has created an excellent production of an enduring classic in which the company’s stated belief that ‘anybody, whatever their class, background or education can create, access and enjoy theatre of the highest quality’ is definitely vindicated.

Other standouts in the cast include a Gremio from Brigid Lohrey who goes from the waspish old man of the original to a rather bitchy and scene-stealing mature lady, and Lorenzo Martelli’s grumbling Gromio (we will forgive him for showering us with water at one point, which gives a whole new meaning to integration of stage and audience).

Laird’s Petruchio is a delight and worth admission in itself, while Tosin Amore is an excellent Kate, whether shaking in rage at the audacity of a mother seeking to rule his future life, to his eventual placidity as part of a loving couple.

A solid company, a literate reimagining of a source product, and a good fringe venue make this a highly recommended outing.  Book until 1 May at https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/whats-on/the-taming-of-the-shrew/.


The Father (Richmond Theatre)

Florian Zeller’s emotional and difficult play, translated into English by Christopher Hampton, had its UK premiere in October 2014 at the Theatre Royal Bath.

father

Since then it has been to London on three occasions, and in all its versions Kenneth Cranham has been the cornerstone of the cast as André, the eighty-year old whose life starts to fracture because of the Alzheimer’s which causes his memory to fail.  As he states himself at the devastating close of this 85 minute play, he is losing all his leaves.  His is a towering masterclass in acting, destructive, playful, irritable, confused, and ultimately vulnerable and locked in his own collapsing universe.

Amanda Drew plays his daughter Anne, who may or may not be divorced, moving to London, living in her father’s flat, taking him into her own flat, or finding carers to help her cope with an increasingly difficult existence. It’s a nuanced performance

Rebecca Charles, who has been with the play since the start as well, appears as Anne, as a carer, as a nurse, as a face André clearly remembers, but from where?  And Jade Williams remains as a sympathetic Laura, a young lady who jokes with a mischevious André in a moment of lucidity (although claiming he was once a tap dancer), but who also has a second where she cracks at a revelation about the unseen daughter, Elise (‘the one I love’, says André, in the presence of the long-suffering Anne).

Daniel Flynn and Brian Doherty round out the cast as men who may or may not be Anne’s husband Pierre or her boyfriend Antoine, or is it Pierre?   They present an unsympathetic side of observers outside the immediate space, although whether simply frustrated or openly hostile is not clear.

I went to this with my husband, who was himself a carer for a parent with dementia.  This play stirred some deep-seated memories, and he found it a disturbing and upsetting experience and said afterwards he would have walked out of the play had he felt able to do so.  This is not a reflection on the quality of the production, just on how it made him feel on a personal level.

For myself, with experience of a grandparent who was eventually put in a home when she could no longer look after herself or process her short-term memories, and with a parent who is increasingly frail and elderly, I found that many aspects of the play rang true and that the ultimate and inevitable conculsion was heartbreaking.  It upset me for quite a while afterwards, which is a reflection on the quality of the cast and the writing, and the ability of both to reach across to engage and move an audience.

The sound and staging design uses the repetition and sticking of a musical coda to represent the mind of the central character, as indeed does the play itself, with scenes repeating with different focus, sometimes different actors playing the roles, and other interesting flourishes.  Furniture disappears between scenes – indicating the loss of areas of the brain which happens during Alzheimer’s, perhaps, as well as highlighting the sense of confusion.

One of the reviews of this play called The Father ‘immersive theatre’, and I see what they mean.  It should – and in our experience did – make an audience think and reflect, and to linger for longer than the short running time.  I think it achieves both the aim and the definition.

 


Rolling Stones: Exhibitionism (Saatchi Gallery)

Londres-Rolling-Stones

The whole of the Sloane Square Saatchi Gallery has been given over to this major exhibition of one of the UK’s most enduring bands, The Rolling Stones.  Even the area outside the gallery on the King’s Road is home to a group of ceramic tongue logos for the six month duration of this hot ticket.

stones

Stones’ fans will know the basics about how the band was formed (although here the focus is on Mick and Keith’s childhood friendship, rather than Brian Jones and his advert for band members), and how they grew from Edith Grove flatmates to billionaire corporate businessmen over a period of fifty years.

Even casual observers will know the iconic logo, the album covers, and the songs which, for their first twenty years at least, were part of the regular musical tapestry we all grew up with.  It’s no surprise that the final showpiece in this exhibition is a performance of ‘Satisfaction’ from Hyde Park in 2013, rendered into ‘Real 3-D’.  We pass from a mock-up of the backstage area through to a darkened room where, with the help of strobe lights, we feel kind of part of the show itself, with a strutting Jagger, a wrinkled Keef, and a crowd bordering on hysteria.

By this time we’ve watched a video wall retrospective of concerts, news items, interviews, press footage, and more; seen guitars and stage costumes up close; experienced recreations of that first filthy flat with its death-trap cooker, mouldy wallpaper, and half-eaten tinned goods; played producer with a mix-desk mock-up; seen a set of artworks which became iconic album covers, and models of sets such as the Lotus Flower and the Bridges of Babylon (a laconic quote on the wall states this cost a cool £1million); and squinted at documents such as Keith Richards’ surprisingly articulate diary, that first contract signed by Brian Jones as group founder, and handwritten lyrics by Jagger.

The sense one gets is of a slick, corporate machine with no personal insight whatever.  This is a money-making enterprise which long ago moved away from ‘six boys playing the blues’.  The exhibition has more of Mick and Keef than anyone else, although Brian is there if you look for him (there are clothes of his, and he is in photos, and notably looking spaced out and bored in the clips from Godard’s ‘Sympathy for the Devil’).  Bill and Charlie are there, but they were the quiet ones, and it shows, although interestingly early fan club guff on the band claims Wyman was born in 1941, when it fact it was 1936.

Collaborators get their own small gallery, too, although the story around Ian Stewart’s demotion from full band member to road manager and session pianist is not fully explored (he was inducted with the rest of them to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).  Was he really deemed too square, or too old (he was younger than Bill)?  I would have liked to have seen more about how Brian Jones’ vision of the band gave way to Mick Jagger’s, and the story around how the rebellious young men got to the point that the souvenir book which accompanies ‘Exhibitionism’ has an insert which is a letter from the corporate sponsor, DHL.

There’s also little on the women who were alongside the Stones.  Marianne Faithfull and Mick’s wedding to Bianca is on the video wall, and Anita Pallenberg is namechecked in the costume section alongside two of L’Wren Scott’s creations, but the women you might go away remembering the most are the groupie who cavorts naked in the clips shown from the film ‘Cocksucker Blues’, and the lady whose full frontal inspired an album sleeve.

Video and film get relatively short shrift: promos get a confused compilation and the concert films and documentaries get a hagiography from uber-fan Martin Scorsese, who caught them himself in his own ‘Shine A Light’ (2008).  The Stones are two things, when it comes down to it, a slicky protected image (no photos allowed throughout the exhibition) and a vibrant live presence, although this has both faded and tipped into caricature over the years.

 


Sunset Boulevard (ENO Coliseum)

sunsetprog

The posters proclaim ‘The theatrical event of 2016’ and indeed, bringing Glenn Close across for her London stage debut more than twenty years after she played the role of Norma Desmond on Broadway is quite a coup.

This is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best scores, based on the superb Billy Wilder film which starred Gloria Swanson as Norma and William Holden as Joe, narrating the film opener as a corpse face down in a swimming pool.  This production takes its own opener from that, with a dummy which is highlighted in what is usually the orchestra pit in cool blue light, and then hoisted to hang prone above proceedings for the whole show.

joesunset

Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier) is a studio hack, a writer who hasn’t had that much success but who knows a lot of young and hungry performers and creatives who litter Tinseltown, waiting for their big breaks.  Early on his script pitch is knocked back by Betty Shaffer (Siobhan Dillon), a twenty-two year old idealist who grew up on studio lots, and so it is that trying to escape from loan sharks, he drives his car into the vast palazzo of fading star Norma Desmond, Cecil B De Mille’s ‘young fellow’ (the name De Mille in fact gave Swanson in their days of collaboration).

Glenn Close’s Norma starts as big as she is, the star who may not always hit the notes but can certainly put across the key numbers, and her ‘With One Look’ rightly gets the first huge audience response of the night.  Later, when we know Norma better, and when we have seen how she has manipulated Joe into enjoying both her and her life of luxury, she is both luminous and delicate in ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, on the Paramount lot where the gateman and the lighting tech remember her, but the studio runner estimates she ‘is about a hundred years old’.

Xavier may be a little too chiseled, and although his Speedo appearance in Act 2 gives a bit of comedy, it is out of place for the period.  I enjoyed his singing, but the gold standard for this part, for me, remains John Barrowman who was close to perfect in his fatalistic attitude to the only way he can survive in the fake world of Hollywood.  Norma Desmond exists in a false sense of reality, kept there by her devoted servant (and ex-husband) Max (Fred Johanson, who I saw years ago when he played Judas in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’).

Max’s solo song of obsession, ‘The Greatest Star of All’, is a big ask for any singer, with its large range and soaring line endings, and if Johanson didn’t quite nail the ‘fade’ line, it didn’t matter.  His acting, always in the background, observing, and, in this production, perhaps calling up the ghost of Young Norma from the past (she appears, touchingly, when Norma’s ‘Joan of Arc’ film is screened, and at the New Year’s Eve ball).  For him, his job is to keep the young girl he once knew alive, and happy.

Semi-staged as this production is, the orchestra (the ENO’s own) are centre stage, with metal staircases and walkways which double as different locations as we progress through the tale.  There’s a sofa for Norma to lounge on, a car for Max to drive on to the lot, and a bar for the bright young things to celebrate life in.   There’s also the love story which blossoms between Joe and Betty (they have their big duet ‘Too Much In Love To Care’, but they are within the cardboard lot and frontages, and we know that Norma is unbalanced, tragic, and jealous, and that their young love is doomed.

Joe said it himself in the title number which opens Act 2: “You think I’ve sold out?  Dead right I’ve sold out”.  And so, like half-forgotten director William Desmond Taylor, he winds up shot in the back and in a watery tomb, while a distraught Norma gets ready for her close-up and her devoted Max calls the invisible cameras to ‘action’ one last time.

Is this production worth your time?  Absolutely yes.  This musical demands a ‘Star’ and La Close is very much it.  But there are many other pleasures to enjoy as well in this excellent revival.


Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (Dominion Theatre)

You may be familiar with the 1978 album which brought the progressive rock bombast to the words of HG Wells to tell the story of the journalist George Herbert’s encounter with invading martians threatening the Earth.

To give it its full title, ‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds’ has had several years touring arenas, first with a kind-of hologram presentation of an actor impersonating Richard Burton and mouthing his narration, and more recently, with screen presence of Liam Neeson, allowing additional segments of text to be included and the plot, such as it is, to be developed further.

Don’t expect a full musical presentation here.  What you do get is Jeff Wayne on stage with an all-female string ensemble and a rock band led by Chris Spedding on bass, driving through the familiar instrumental backing and synth wailing you’ll remember from that album.  You’ll get Neeson’s narration, sometimes as video inserts on cloth backdrops, sometimes as full holograms.

The on-stage cast includes Michael Praed (if you’re a certain age, you will remember him as Robin of Sherwood) as the journalist, singing ‘The Eve of the War’ and ‘Forever Autumn’, the musical’s two big numbers.  You have David Essex, there for nostalgia’s sake as he was the original recording’s Artilleryman, voice not quite there anymore but appearing as the ‘Voice of Humanity’ with Chris Thompson’s shoes to fill in the Thunder Child number.

The Artilleryman in this production is Daniel Bedingfield, but he was off the afternoon we saw this and we enjoyed understudy Simon Shorten’s performance instead, especially in the staging of a rather Village People-ish ‘Brave New World’, with a troupe of lads and lasses stomping around with shovels and rhythmic steps.  There are leading ladies, too, with Madalena Alberto as Carrie (a much extended role from the original), and Sugababe Heidi Range in Julie Covington’s old role as the Parson’s wife, Beth.

And then there’s Jimmy Nail, as the Parson, and he overacts like crazy whole trying to sing the role the way the late lamented Phil Lynott did back then.  The singing is OK, but he needs to tone down his portrayal, especially in one of the two new superfluous songs, ‘Life Begins Again’, which takes a musical coda from the original recording and develops it into a bloated number which works about as well as the intrusion of a group of candle-holding children signalling to the alien craft in Act One.

There is a bit of CGI, and a real cylinder and Martian pod, and a bit of artfully choreographed red weed, and, of course, autumn leaves.  There are tongues of fire which shoot up as fireballs at alarming close quarters to the cast, and a bit too much smoke spilling over the edge of the stage.

But you can’t fault this on spectacle, and you can’t fault Wayne on his rockingly good creation.


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Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Loud Alien Noize

Revealing the True Origins of Silence

Pfeiffer Pfilms and Meg Movies

Blog titling at its best

Emily Baycroft

Freelance Theatre Producer and Administrator

MTAS

WE MADE BADGES COOL AGAIN

A Red Lip And A Nude Shoe

Dior Dreams On A Kmart Budget

is there room for me to sew?

Quilting, Reading and the Movies

The Case for Jeanette and Nelson

"Whaddya gonna do? I love her. I think she loves me." -Nelson Eddy on the Jack Parr Show, 1960

STARDUST AND SHADOWS

Opinions on Classic Hollywood , B Movies, Grindhouse, SF film , Classic Horror, Film Noir, Books, and related subjects by Canadian film guy TERRY SHERWOOD. (This site is not affiliated with author Charles Foster and his book Stardust and Shadows.)

The Wonderful World of Cinema

This blog is all about cinema, movies and stars of every decades. It's wonderful!

Movie classics

Thoughts on older movies, especially those from the 1930s to 1950s.

Hiss and Tell

Featuring Gryff, the angry diabetic cat, and the humans who serve him

TESSA BARRIE'S LOST BLOGS

LIFE'S TOO SHORT TO BE NICHE ...

[insert title here]

just one of many things i'm still trying to figure out

buchanblog

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The Phantom Frame

Information about the creative works of Gareth Preston

West End Blog

Bringing you independent, honest, experienced reviews of current theatre shows. We believe theatre is something truly magical and can be enjoyed by everyone.

Archive Television Musings

"To waste one second of one's life is a betrayal of one's self! I wonder what's on television?"

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