Author Archives: Louise Penn

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan.

King Lear (Duke of York’s)

Ten years ago we saw Ian McKellen play the title role in King Lear at the New London Theatre, a storming performance which was captured on film and shown on television.  Now he’s back for another crack at the complex role in a modernish production directed by Jonathan Munby and fresh from acclaim at the Chichester Festival.

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Ian McKellen (Lear)

This Lear rules a court dominated by a huge portrait of him in royal and military regalia, and although his map is one of the modern British Isles, his entourage pray to the old gods and seem in thrall of curses and the stars.  In a vignette opening, we have seen the old soldier stand, a sort of far ancestor of the Richard III he played in 1991 at the National Theatre, stiff and resolute.

When the old man states his intention to divide his kingdom, there is an exclamation of “what?”, and as each daughter takes the microphone to flatter their way into a coronet, we get the measure of their (Goneril and Regan in any case) duplicity and his weakness for flattery.

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Anita-Joy Uwajen (Cordelia), Sinead Cusack (Kent), Ian McKellen (Lear)

Claire Price is ice-cold as the elder daughter, who tolerates her meek husband Albany (Anthony Howell) for his connections as she watches elsewhere for a suitor.  In contrast, Kirsty Bushell starts calm enough as Regan, but becomes unhinged to the point of dancing like a dervish in Gloucester’s torture scene, and seems consumed by lust and power as the play progresses.

And finally, Anita-Joy Uwajen’s Cordelia convinces as the honest and loving child who takes up arms following her exile in marriage to the King of France and brings back strength to her ailing father.

Kent, often a difficult role to carry off, is played here by Sinead Cusack, as a Countess who disguises herself as a rough manservant (shades of Twelfth Night and the metamorphosis of Viola to Cesario).  She’s a convincing character, having fun with the text and yet portraying the sensitivity of a true friend to the King through female eyes.

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Ian McKellen (Lear) and Danny Webb (Gloucester)

As the unfortunate Earl of Gloucester, Danny Webb brings amusement to his astronomical charts, naivete about his sons and their intentions, and eventually pathos in the scenes at Dover with first the disguised Edgar, and then the broken-minded Lear; quite a contrast to his brutal Cornwall of the 2016 Old Vic production.

I always find the Edgar/Edmund plotline to slow down this already lengthy play, and neither Luke Thompson nor James Corrigan really convince, although I liked the camp and vain Oswald of Michael Matus, and the Fool (Lloyd Hutchinson) had his moments here and there.

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Ian McKellen (Lear)

But this is McKellen’s show, and whether raging against the daughters he feels have discarded his status, authority and dignity, losing his mind and faculties in a raging storm of rain, or presiding over a mock trial with offal and pig’s heads, he keeps your interest, and his final scene is completely, emotionally, heartbreaking, as the loss of his youngest child causes his own life to ebb away, but as it does we see within the dementia-stricken brain the brave soldier – who we saw, isolated, in the battle scene – as well as the anointed ruler who caused all to bend their knees in supplication.

A marvellous performance, and if this is McKellen’s final Shakespeare on the stage, we have been lucky indeed to “see so much” and “live so long”.  I found the production a little bit modern, and felt that the religious aspects were forgotten too quickly, but these are “just trifles here”.  This production is worth your time, and runs at the Duke of York’s until the second week in November 2018.


DVD audit 2018 – pt 3

More film and television from my DVD collection.




The Lehman Trilogy (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

On paper this does not sound particularly promising – a saga of three brothers who move from Bavaria to America to make money by the creation of first a middleman business, then a bank.   A saga which runs for over three and a half hours, including two 15 minute intervals.

Eight years ago I saw Enron, the clever drama by Lucy Prebble about a corporate financial crisis.  Due to excellent performances and use of music, this was a fantastic show on a dull topic.  This is also true of The Lehman Trilogy (Three Brothers, Fathers and Sons, The Immortals), even more so as every single role is played by three actors at the top of their game – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley.

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Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles (photo by Mark Douet)

Sam Mendes returns to stage directing, as Ben Power and the company have developed this rather special piece of theatre from an Italian play by Stefano Massini.  It starts in the mid-2000s with the collapse of the Lehman Corporation, but we are quickly pulled back to 1844 and the arrival in America of the newly renamed ‘Henry’ Lehman, his ambitions beginning with a small general store (beautifully described by Russell Beale as he gestures to glass walls and office storage boxes and conjures up rows of clothes, hats, ties, jackets and more; just as he described with words like pictures his long voyage between continents).

Surrounded by the plantations of the prosperous South of Montgomery, Alabama, Henry soon welcomes his brothers Emanuel and Mayer across the ocean, and opportunity quickly strikes when they expand to offering material needed by the overseers and owners, then trading in raw cotton itself following a fiery stroke of fate.  The expansion of the business in these years of growth is indicated by the movement from one small room to a larger one, each having a black marker sign written up by the actors; over the course of “Three Brothers” this will be utilised a lot, so we can see the past within the present as the saga progresses.

Henry dies, young, of yellow fever, and the Jewish brothers still steeped in their culture of home, grow their beards, shut themselves away, tear their clothing, and mourn – but time moves on, Mayer marries, then so does Emanuel (Babette and Pauline are depicted brilliantly by Russell Beale and Godley, with just a change of vocal pitch and characterisation).  Their motivation moves from doing good for their community to the movement and acquisition of money – the Civil War finally forcing an uproot to the prosperous shores of New York and the North.

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Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley (photo by Mark Douet)

“Fathers and Sons” brings in the next generation, the precocious Philip, who can recite every city his family does business with, and who has an eye for the railroads, and Herbert, who starts as a playful toddler and ends as the Governor of New York.  There are other children quickly enumerated but discarded from the narrative, which races through the last years of the 19th century, into the 20th, and up to the fateful day of the Wall Street Crash.

Philip has himself found a wife during this time, but in his analytical mind he only looks for the material advantages, as an amusing vignette demonstrates, as girls are assessed against his twenty-point list for the perfect mate.  He also gains an acquaintance who climbs as high as he does, the high wire artist (Russell Beale, again, who also plays the doddery Rabbi who fights on matters of Biblical doctrine with young Herbert) who topples from his perch the day the markets collapse.

“The Immortals” starts with the suicide of stockbrokers, and the cunning of the now mature Philip and his son, Bobbie, who invest in the future – first, transportation, then the movies and television. Bobbie likes the horses, and lives to win, even capturing the divorced Ruth Lamar, who sees the dollar signs within her new husband’s heart.  By the time the trading floors open under the custodianship of the uncouth Lew Glucksman (Miles, again), we are a long way from Henry Lehman’s fabrics and suits shop of a hundred years before.

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Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles (photo by Mark Douet)

It is a tribute to the three actors involved, and their director and set designer (Es Devlin) that they create this wide variety of characters without any costume changes, and with the use of a minimum of props – those office storage boxes and glass walls, a revolving set, some chairs and a table, a bunch of flowers, a marker pen.

There is a piano, which leads to one amusing scene courtesy of Russell Beale’s Babette miming to Beethoven, Mozart, and ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’.  There are squawling children who grow to run the Lehman empire when the last family member has been laid to rest (with no mourning, no tearing of clothes, or closing of business).  And, finally, we return to the boardroom at the closure of the Corporation on that last day.

A very funny, perceptive, engrossing and well-written piece, the play moves quickly and is never dull.  There is one wickedly amusing bit about progress and music which leads to the death of one of the characters, but got one of the best laughs of the afternoon.  Ultimately this is a family saga for which you might be advised to do some background reading (and the programme has a useful chronology and family tree), but don’t let that stop you going – if you can get a ticket!

The Lehman Trilogy runs until the 20th October 2018, in repertory.  Tickets have sold out, but some may become available through Friday Rush or Day Ticket schemes, please see https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-lehman-trilogy for more details.

 


Classic Corrie: back to the 80s

I think I finally called time on Coronation Street about sixteen years ago. There were too many episodes, too many silly storylines, and after about 25 years viewing I’d noticed a definite decline in quality.

I know it’s still there, and that Ken, Rita, Gail, Audrey, Kevin and Sally are still on the cobbles they probably all wanted to leave far behind.

For several months now, since 2nd October 2017, ITV3 have been showing two episodes a day of classic 1980s Corrie, starting with a storyline which is about to reach its lengthy conclusion – the arrival of arch-villain Alan Bradley (Mark Eden).

This was on the 15th January 1986, when he was a fairly mild-mannered man, reunited with his daughter Jenny (Sally Ann Matthews, who these days has returned to the cobbles as a forty-something lady causing as much trouble as she did as a teen).

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Jenny, Rita, Alan (Sally Ann Matthews, Barbara Knox, Mark Eden)

Fast fact one: the social worker who engineered this touching reunion, and incidentally gave the widow Fairclough (Barbara Knox) a bit of rough and romance, was no other than the actor who returned as Gail’s third husband and smarmy serial killer Richard Hillman (Brian Capron).

Aside from Bradley, those 80s episodes introduced the threat to the Rovers of the grotty Graffiti Club, run by Alec Gilroy (Roy Barraclough), who chased the leopard-printed and huge-bosomed Bet Lynch (Julie Goodyear) like a little tiger cub, until financial ruin, a job in sunny Spain waiting tables, and a touch of vulnerability, united them in marriage.

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Bet and Alec (Julie Goodyear and Roy Barraclough)

This marriage was a joy to behold as this couple were a rich source of comedy, as well as one of the shortest but saddest storylines: they found themselves prospective older parents planning a baby bedroom, then having a tender moment after the pain of miscarriage before picking themselves up and going on as before.

Fast fact two: Julie Goodyear’s second marriage ended at the reception, as her new husband left her for his own best man, after she had put everything she owned in his joint ownership.

Later in the run, the Gilroys would have a divorce scare due to their mutual jealousy, but soon grew together again. Their reign in the Rovers was a high point of the late 80s and early 90s, even if Barraclough took a lot of time away from the programme due to other commitments in a busy career – he was half of the double act Cissie and Ada with the fabulous Les Dawson, and a regular in the theatre.

Youngsters Kevin Webster (Michael Le Vell) – whose family had upped and left him, following the marriage of his father Bill to Elaine, the niece of local busybody Percy Sugden – and Terry Duckworth (Nigel Pivaro) fought over pretty Sally Seddon (Sally Whitaker) until Kevin married her and Terry went through a succession of married ladies including his own father’s mistress, horny Dulcie.

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Sally, Hilda and Kevin (Sally Whitaker, Jean Alexander, Michael Le Vell)

The Duckworths were growing from grasping and selfish to national treasures during this period. Jack (Bill Tarmey), a layabout who once bedded Bet Lynch and sees himself as a wise lothario, and Vera (Liz Dawn), a loudmouthed, spiteful chav who thinks the sun shines out of her son, have some great storylines on the periphery, but their best years are ahead of them.

Fast fact three: Bill Tarmey was an accomplished singer despite Jack’s lack of talent, and Liz Dawn had also started her career as a nightclub chanteuse. Jack’s on-screen death memorably had him visited by the ghost of his beloved Vera, as they dance to Matt Monro’s ‘Softly As I Leave You’.

Vera works at Baldwin’s Casuals factory alongside Ivy Tilsley (Lynne Perrie), Ida Clough (Helene Palmer), Shirley Armitage (Lisa Lewis), and Emily Bishop (Eileen Derbyshire). Over this re-run we have seen Ivy deal with the scandal of her son Brian’s split with daughter-in-law Gail (Chris Quentin and Helen Worth) when Gail, bored, has a fling with an Aussie, Ian Latimer (Michael Loney) and thinks the resulting pregnancy might be his.

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Gail and Ian (Helen Worth and Michael Loney)

After an age, the Tilsleys reconcile, only for Brian to be killed in a knife attack. In the episodes currently being shown, Gail is living with Martin Platt (Sean Wilson) who was previously a teen dating young Jenny Bradley, before suddenly growing up and finding himself able to support a family of three.

In the meantime, (poison) Ivy, who is a strict Catholic with a range of expressions from darkest disapproval to the sunniest of smiles, has hooked herself husband number two to help her forget her first, Bert, in fiery taxi driver and gambler Don Brennan (Geoff Hinsliff). We will see his story arc develop into obsession and madness over the next decade.

As the Websters get closer together as they lodge with the wonderful Hilda Ogden (Jean Alexander) and her ‘muriel’, the twittery Mavis Riley (Thelma Barlow) and the dithering Derek Wilton (Peter Baldwin) also make their way to the altar (fortified by a lot of Dutch courage in Derek’s case, as he gets completely blotto at the stag night). Mavis and Derek will offer another ten years of amusement in the show., as well as the second union of a Barlow to a Baldwin (albeit utilising real names).

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Mavis and Derek (Thelma Barlow and Peter Baldwin)

Another marriage does not fare as well, as Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs) falls for Susan Barlow (Wendy Jane Walker), daughter of his sworn enemy, Ken (William Roache). Why enemies? Well, in the early 80s, Mike had availed himself of the bespectacled charms of the dull Deirdre (Anne Kirkbride) and nearly caused Mrs Barlow Number Three to escape to more exciting climes.

Fast fact four: the Ken-Deirdre-Mike storyline was the talk of the North West, and even caused the message “Ken and Deirdre reunited. Ken 1 – Mike 0” to be displayed on the scoreboard at Manchester United’s ground during a football match!

Still, with Ken showing what a pompous man he really is, up on his moral high ground, he can’t stop Susan and Mike being happy for a year or so, even when he plans a 21st party full of bright young things to show up the 40-something boyfriend. It’s enjoyable watching the starchy Barlow fail in his machinations, but less enjoyable later watching him put down his wife when she successfully runs for council, then start an affair with Weatherfield Wendy Crozier (Roberta Kerr).

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Susan and Mike (Wendy Jane Walker and Johnny Briggs)

After the Baldwins plot to bring Alan Bradley and Rita Fairclough back together (Alan’s been straying, with barmaid Gloria Todd (Sue Jenkins), who puts herself about so much she goes – via Baldwin – to her own tempestuous exit after stealing the beau of mousy cleaner Sandra (Sally Watts)), they part following Susan’s decision to abort the baby Mike so desperately wants after his previous girlfriend Maggie stopped him seeing their son, Mark.

It’s another powerful storyline (showing even the brash Mike has a soft side) somewhat cheapened these days by the 2001 retcon that Susan did not in fact abort the child at all. I prefer to believe the original storyline, which was played out beautifully by all concerned, particularly Anne Kirkbride’s Deirdre who still, at this point, wants a child with Ken.

Fast fact five: Mike Baldwin’s life was retconned more than once, as his long-standing status as an only child was changed to give him yet another son he did not know about (Danny, played by Bradley Walsh). Mike’s eventual exit was in true King Lear style, dying in the arms of his arch-enemy Ken Barlow on the Street’s cobbles.

The Bradley-Fairclough relationship takes several turns – Jenny proves a problem teenager, who briefly and amusingly gets engaged to a comedy Frenchman; Alan shows a tendency to violence when he batters Terry and threatens Martin, and further romantic excursions when he starts an affair with a married woman, Carole. He also tries various business ventures, always leeching off his unsuspecting partner – you even realise his attempt to marry her had financial gain in mind.

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Alan Bradley (Mark Eden)

Rita, who confesses to Mavis that Alan reminds her of her late husband Len, isn’t put off by all the red flags, and even grovels to tempt him back for her money. Barbara Knox plays the vulnerable core under the steely front of Rita brilliantly, and Mark Eden’s Bradley develops in a terrifyingly realistic way from a man with a wandering eye and a bit of temper to a psychopath.

Fast fact six: Mark Eden (Alan) and Sue Nicholls (Audrey) were and are a real-life couple, having been married since 1993 and together for some years previously. Mark Eden (born Douglas Malin) was previously married to Joan Le Mesurier, the widow of the Dad’s Army star John. Sue Nicholls is styled ‘The Honorable’ due to her father’s status as a Life Peer.

I’m sorry we didn’t see more of Jean Alexander’s Hilda during this period, as she left in the Christmas episode of 1987. Looking back now, she could have had a future in Formby with Sally’s nice but boring Uncle Tom, but for dramatic licence she had to be nearly murdered (by the chap who returned in this week’s repeats, now playing a police officer, Mark Jordan) before deciding to move from the street. She was a great comic character who was also capable of pathos, Spoonerisms, and a motherly disposition and gossip.

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Gloria, Bet and Hilda (Sue Jenkins, Julie Goodyear and Jean Alexander)

Gail’s mother, Audrey (Sue Nicholls) is at this point married to the most decent man on the cobbles, grocer Alf Roberts (Bryan Mosley). She’s a grasping social climber while he’s a miser who can hardly believe he’s caught this vivacious party girl, even if she regularly causes him grief. Their mutual love was obvious in the storyline where Alf has a heart attack, leaving Audrey clearly worried and devastated.

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Audrey and Alf (Sue Nicholls and Bryan Mosley)

Aside from a silly, but fun, interlude, where Audrey is tempted by Canada, a son we never knew about, and a chancing Canadian widower (Shane Rimmer, returning after playing the chap who widowed Elsie Tanner for the second time in 1970), they settle into a companionable union often characterised by ‘Alfie’ having those secret little smiles – although he will always have a yen for Rita.

The older characters are not neglected in 80s Corrie, either. We meet Vera Duckworth’s shop-lifting mother, Amy (Fanny Carby); the pious parents (Kenneth Waller and Angela Rooks) of Norman ‘Curly’ Watts (Kevin Kennedy), former dustman, student, and eventual supermarket supremo; Don Brennan’s mother Bridget (Pauline Letts); and already mentioned Tom (Len Marten).

These were fleeting appearances, but more solid were the two would-be lovebirds Percy Sugden (Bill Waddington) and Phyllis Pearce (Jill Summers). The actors playing these two were old sparring partners from the days of music hall, and their naturalistic portrayals gave strength to the characters, even if Phyllis was occasionally tempted away by Sam Tindall (Tom Mennard), a meek man who might have a bit of money stashed away.

Percy’s barricade of his flat at the Community Centre gave him a sense of purpose which is now put to good use as a lollipop man, and nicely judged lodger of Emily Bishop – the two remain on formal terms, although you suspect Percy might yearn for something a little more.

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Percy and Phyllis (Bill Waddington and Jill Summers)

Money was also a motivator for cafe owner Alma Sedgewick (Amanda Barrie), who isn’t particularly likeable at this point, but has already thrown her cap and more at Mike Baldwin, before he dumped her for another younger partner, Dawn Prescott (Louise Harrison).

Dawn is only back for the conclusion of the Bradley saga, though, as his early release from prison to terrorise poor Rita will lead him to the seaside, very soon, and his demise under that tram.

Alan Bradley’s run on The Street came to an end in the second episode to be shown on the 30th July 2018, on ITV3. It originally aired 8th December 1989.


The King and I (London Palladium)

A glorious revival of one of the greats of the American Songbook has taken residence at the Palladium, in a perceptive production directed by Bartlett Sher.

The leading principals, Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara, have enviable chemistry and an ear for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s glorious score and lyrics.

With the original book draft plundered for new and apposite political references, and culturally appropriate casting, this show obtains a sense of new relevance, especially in the Act Two showpiece The Small House of Uncle Thomas (“written by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe”).

This fits the narrative of the Burmese girl, Tuptim (Na-Young Jeon, in a mature and heartbreaking performance) torn from her home and lover in Burma and sold in sexual and emotional slavery to the King.

This King, though, struggles with the traditions which revere him close to a deity, allow his subordinates to grovel in supplication, and give him many wives and children; and a thirst for modernity and knowledge.

Into this mix comes Anna Leonowens, a widowed schoolteacher, who comes to teach the children (and it transpires, some of the wives too) about Western facts and ways.

How much influence the real Anna had on the Siamese King is up to question, but in this fictionalisation a grudging respect and affection develops within the pair, the curious King and the feisty Anna.

Head wife Lady Thiang understands that change is necessary, but also understands her husband – Naoko Mori’s rendition of Something Wonderful is as touching as O’Hara’s Hello Young Lovers as an anthem of knowing devotion.

This is a sumptous production with a talented supporting cast of youngsters and an excellent orchestra. Don’t miss.

The King and I continues at the London Palladium until the 29th September 2018.


Human League (Kew the Music)

My first ‘festival-ish’ experience of the veteran electronica act whose high point remains the run of chart buzzers from 1981’s Dare, and the rain – a couple of spits aside – stayed away to prove the weather warnings wrong.

The core of the band remains Philip, Joanne and Susan, a little older but with their energy undiminished as the girls dance (Susan is the confident one keeping the crowd ‘up’) and the main man doesn’t keep still for much time, with several costume changes and racing around from side to side of the stage.

A 75 minute set was high on those hits from their most successful year, plus the opener Sky from their last studio album to date, Credo (2010), several ‘middle period’ crowd-pleasers (Heart Like A Wheel, Soundtrack to a Generation, Tell Me When), and minor hits The Lebanon (with the notable line about the shops) and Louise.

There’s a cover, too, of Eric Clapton’s Behind The Mask and – a seeming fixture in this 40th year since the band’s formation – Being Boiled, from the days the League was quite a different trio with their own manifesto.

Support from Blancmange and Luna started the evening in style, and a few thousand people mainly above the age of forty enjoyed a fun and nostalgic night of dancing and singing along with a trio who remain tireless and undiminished.


Fashioned From Nature (V & A, Kensington)

If you have ever wondered about the relationship between raw materials, animal products and fashion, and how this evolved into a sustainable and ethical mindset, this current exhibition at the V&A is for you.

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Set over two floors, production from material such as silkworms, raw cotton, wool and fleece, glass, rubber, fruit, and animal fur, feathers, and leather are explored. You can explore areas such as ‘murderous millinery’, mother of pearl, spun glass, and lace, as well as looking at some more ethical alternatives from the mid-20th century.

The V&A describe this exhibition as “the first to explore the complex relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to the present day”.  Have you ever stopped to think about how your clothes have been made, coloured, or decorated, or are you content to just purchase mass-produced items without reflecting on their origins?

Whether you want to look at how raw silk or cotton evolved into stylish and functional pieces, or consider the utilisation of beetle cases and wings or mother of pearl for embellishment, you will see items on display which make you stop and think.  You will also see clothing made from a combination of materials, including real fur and feathers, discarded yarn, and even a German parachute.

You will be able to consider the workmanship that goes into spun glass or lace items, see the influence of fashion from around the world, and (briefly) reflect on the influence of outside movements such as punk or the industrial revolution.

Tickets for this exhibition are £12 and there is no need to book in advance.  There is also a fascinating book which accompanies the show, with additional text and photographs, which costs £18, and several items in the shop which compliment the items on show.

Fashioned from Nature runs until the 27th January 2019.

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Knights of the Rose (Arts Theatre)

“It’s impossible to imagine how a musical could be more epic” is one of the taglines of this new hybrid of rock musical and serious literary references which has charged into the Arts Theatre until 26 August.

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The House of Rose (not York or Lancaster, you’ll notice, this is some kind of medieval house where another kingdom is just around the corner) is ruled by a King and Queen in their dotage, with their heir, Prince Gawain, and daughter, Princess Hannah.

They also have a ‘Lady’ Isobel who seems to have joined their family somehow, and one Horatio who I swear said at one point he was an illegitimate son of the House, but he is the devoted servant of Gawain even though they love the same woman.

In the meanwhile the other Knights include the wet but decent Lord Hugo and the fiery Lord Palamon, and both want the Princess, although the battle and tension between them that should arise from this psychological conflict is not really explored, and is weakly resolved in Act Two.

Then there’s John the messenger boy, who acts as narrator/chorus at various points, and a couple of servant girls who have potential in their characters but remain undeveloped.

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This show tries to shoehorn in some classic rock songs as the plot progresses, but they are forced in with such ineptitude that the audience doesn’t know whether they should be laughing or not (one example of a character saying “would you dance, if I asked you to dance” to lead into the song “Hero”), and by Act Two there is a whole run of questionable creative choices starting with “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” over the body of one of the fallen Knights and ending with a bizarre staging of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

The singers are very impressive though, with Andy Moss as Gawain, Oliver Savile as Hugo, Chris Cowley as Palamon, Matt Thorpe (excellent rock vocals) as Horatio and Ruben Van Keer as John as the brave and testosterone-heavy Knights, while the ladies (Katie Birtill, Rebekah Lowings and Bleu Woodward) do a spirited version of “Holding Out For a Hero” in Act One.

Adam Pearce as the King also surprises with the heart-rending lament from the opera “King Arthur” in Act Two, but this whole sequence sticks out like a sore thumb and simply confuses, as did the reprise of “Bed of Roses” from the royal couple in their garden.

I would have liked more numbers which treated the plot with folk material (“Turn Turn Turn” did well), and with more tightly choreographed pieces – there’s one in each Act, which do have the sense of epic fire we were promised.

Also follow through on those relationships and tangled loyalties which would put meat on the show’s bare bones and give these characters much needed emotional investment for an audience – it is to the credit of the actors that we can engage now and then with their dilemmas, but it is frustrating to have to fill in the blanks ourselves.

Ultimately this feels like a show still in workshop mode which doesn’t know whether it wants to include rock songs ironically (like “Rock of Ages”), or whether to present the plot as musical comedy (like “Spamalot”). Quoting – or rather misquoting – Shakespeare and a whole host of other luminaries to make up for a weak book is not enough, and this needs a lot more thought to really succeed.

My thanks to Premier PR for arranging the tickets to Knights of the Rose.


Hanwell Zoo: an appreciation

There’s a quiet corner of the Brent Lodge Park in Hanwell which has some very special residents.

If you have a long memory, you might recall this as the Bunny Park, due to the population of rabbits, and later as the Brent Lodge Animal Centre, which thrived as a small collection of animals, reptiles and birds.

Since April 2017, the Animal Centre has re-branded itself as Hanwell Zoo, and currently boasts residents including rabbits, budgies, wood rails, pygmy goats, kune kune pigs, mara, capybara, lemurs, alpacas, tamarins, porcupines, agoutas, domestic chickens, java sparrows, tortoises, flamingos, ibis, cranes, peacocks, ducks, dwarf mongooses, turkeys, poison frogs, butterflies, a rarely spotted dormouse, and the most recent addition, a small aquarium.

There is a small charge for entry – currently £3.50 for a standard adult ticket – and for repeat visitors, the best value is for an annual pass, at £15.00 for an adult or £10.00 for a child, a senior, or registered disabled.

For those who wish to have more financial involvement with the Zoo, a sponsorship scheme is available to support your favourite resident(s), and the chance to experience the life of a Zookeeper for a Day.

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Regular opportunities to “Meet the Meerkats” are available, and occasional opportunities to “Meet the Lemurs” – both are highly recommended for a chance to get closer to the fascinating animals who have made Ealing their home.

There is also a thriving education programme available to schools, especially relating to Key Stages 1 and 2 of the National Curriculum, and a birthday experience can be booked for groups of children.

Let’s take a look at some of the current residents:

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Mara. The oldest residents of the Zoo, who arrived around ten years ago.  These three rodents (Lily, Grace and Lati) have shared their space over the years with wallabies, guinea fowl, and have now settled with …

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Capybara. These two large rodents (Hydro and Tupi) may be found swimming in the pond on hot days; they arrived in the new South American enclosure in May 2017.

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Flamingos. The flock of twelve birds arrived from Chester Zoo in May 2017, and live happily in the Caribbean area alongside a group of ducks.

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Meerkats. In August 2014, Chico and Kali, two female meerkats arrived from Tilgate Nature Centre in Sussex.  This later grew to a group of six with the addition of Arthur, Stephen, Rex and Titch, although Kali has since passed away.  They are fascinating to watch and interact with from the public viewing area, and share their space with …

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Porcupines. Hatari came to the Zoo in Animal Centre days after being rescued from poor conditions with a broken leg.  He has thrived over the years and with the arrival of Kuchimba, found his perfect mate and has now fathered two sets of porcupettes.  They generally sleep during the day, being nocturnal animals, but you may spot them at opening time or later in the evening.

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Lemurs. These three ring-tailed lemurs are mother and daughters (Tia, Vana and Fi), and are best spotted at feeding time, when they may oblige visitors with a rare appearance!

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Alpaca. The two are members of the camel family, and have very different personalities; you will find that one loves the shade while the other loves to sunbathe.

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Tamarin monkeys.  These three little primates (all females) replaced the long-standing and much-loved resident marmosets in 2017, and are a joy to watch whether feeding, grooming, or exploring their own adventure park.

Hanwell Zoo is a member of BIAZA and participates in a number of international breeding programmes and conservation initiatives.  It remains both friendly and professional, with a real community focus, and a clean, safe and caring environment.

Between April and mid-September the Zoo opens each day from 10am-5pm, and between mid-September to the end of March from 10am-4pm.  There is a playground to keep little visitors happy, and toilets and a small shop on site.  Just outside the perimeter of the Zoo you will find a cafe and picnic area.

Hanwell Zoo can be easily accessed by foot, by bus (10 minutes walk from Drayton Bridge Road), by bicycle, or by car (there is a small, free car park associated with the park, or pay by phone bays).  For more information, visit the website or follow on Facebook or Twitter.

All photos by Louise Penn or Colin Penn, 2017-2018

 


Suzanne Vega (Meltdown, Queen Elizabeth Hall)

A slice of New York came to the Southbank Centre last weekend as the Meltdown Festival drew to a close; this year, Robert Smith from The Cure has curated an interesting mix of musicians, and it was good to share the first date of Vega’s international tour – taking in Dubai, Australia, New Zealand, and back to the UK – with an appreciative audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

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Image credit: Virginie Viche, The Upcoming

Vega made her first impact on folk music in 1985, with her first self-titled album, containing the single Marlene on the Wall, which she obligingly performed with the Dietrich hat firmly in place.  Now a woman in late middle age, Vega is immaculate, with a black trouser suit, glittery boots, and a lot of attitude, sparring with her guitarist, Gerry Leonard, who knows a lot about accompanying legends, having worked for years alongside the late David Bowie.  He’s also known for creating clever waves of sound which make the stage feel far more full than it is.

In a varied and interesting set, Vega shared both hits and pet songs with us, including her other big hit, Luka, her story song The Queen and the Soldier, the rockers Blood Makes Noise and I Never Wear White, the sweet ballads Small Blue Thing and Gypsy, and much more. She engages with her audience, too: many artists do not really talk, but she conspires, teases, and exudes a warmth I didn’t expect.

A very accomplished night was started by her support act, James Walsh of Starsailor, who impressed with Empire and If I Had The Words.  He made me think of Layne Staley at times with his vocals, and of Uriah Heep with the sheer sweep of his melodies.  Neither a bad thing.

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Famous Names from Ealing Studios – new local project

Ealing, West London, is the home of the iconic Ealing Studios, and during the stewardship of Will Barker, Basil Dean, and Michael Balcon, produced some of the most iconic and well-loved films to come out of British cinema, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.

In more recent years the studios have become a place where both films and television have been created, and you can still see the ‘White House’ adminstration building as you walk from High Street towards St Mary’s Road.

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For the last ten years Ealing town centre has not had a permanent cinema; there is the local Film Club, which meets in the Town Hall, and there has been a travelling van showing up-to-date titles, first on Haven Green, and later within the perimeter of the demolished Empire/ABC.

There have been plans afoot for some time to develop a lifestyle quarter within Ealing, emcompassing retail, residential, and cultural spaces (including that long-awaited replacement cinema). This is where the Famous Names from Ealing Studios comes in.

The brainchild of Tony Moore, this project now has a dedicated public Facebook group and has attracted interest from Ealing Council, Ealing Regeneration, Ealing Highways, Rupa Huq M.P., Ealing Today, the Ealing History group, Ealing Department of Works, Talking Pictures TV, with other potential supporters already approached.

Ealing, with its importance not just to the history of cinema, but also to television (Monty Python filmed many sketches within the borough, Downton Abbey’s ‘downstairs’ scenes were all filmed at the Studios), and to music (‘The Ealing Club’ was instrumental to the careers of The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Cream), should be a popular stop on the tourist trail, and a Walk of Fame would attract interest, investment, and a financial boost for the area between Ealing Broadway, Bond Street, and Mattock Lane.

Many performers have been linked with Ealing or been in residence here: Sid James, Tony Hancock, George Formby, Gracie Fields, Dick Emery, Earl Cameron, Freddie Mercury, Dusty Springfield, Julian Clary, Arthur Haynes, Googie Withers, Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sam Kydd, director Steve McQueen, Matt Monro, Liz Sladen, John Gregson, Stewart Granger, Maurice Chevalier, Gloria Swanson, Tommy Trinder, Will Hay, Ivor Novello, Harry Fowler, Jack Hawkins, Joan Greenwood, Gordon Jackson, and Mervyn Johns, to mention just a few.

What better way to remember them, and put Ealing firmly on the destination map?

The Famous Names from Ealing project needs publicity, awareness, and the backing of the local community and business owners to make this work. Please consider joining the project – for more information follow the link above to the Facebook group, or contact Tony Moore directly by email.


DVD audit 2018 – part 2

More titles from the collection. Film, TV, documentaries, music. There’s more to come!

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The Meerkats of Hanwell Zoo

Meet the fabulous meerkat residents of Hanwell Zoo – these little guys are my favourites of all the animals there, and here are some photos I captured of them out in their enclosure today.

I would also recommend meeting them at close quarters in the “Meet the Meerkats” feeding opportunity which is offered regularly on Sunday lunchtimes.

Stay tuned to this blog for a more in-depth look at Hanwell Zoo later in the week.


Macbeth (Olivier, National Theatre)

Life is too short for a bad Shakespeare. Rufus Norris, artistic director at the National, returns to the Bard after a long sabbatical, and unwisely places this tight drama of power and ambition on an Olivier stage which drowns it.

Rory Kinnear as Macbeth, and Anne-Marie Duff as Lady M, are both actors who have excelled in previous stage productions here, but here both seem lost in the way Norris has chosen to direct them, even to the point of mangling the rhythm of the verse.

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There’s a lot of plastic in this production. Severed heads in supermarket bags. Cheap and dilapidated sets. Even the witches don’t gain a sense of horror or magic.

Good things – I like Stephen Boxer as Duncan, in his blood red suit. It’s always a difficult role to pull off as it is so small, but we had the measure of him, quickly.

Making Ross and the 2nd Murderer female was interesting – although the latter was dreadful – but making Fleance a girl was pointless, as she would not succeed to the throne and so was no threat to Macbeth, even with the prophecy of Banquo “fathering a line of kings”.

Removing Duncan’s younger son Donalbain removed the constant problem of what to do with him. He contributes very little – a previous production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse gave him learning difficulties, which at least allowed the character to be memorable. Here we just have Malcolm, but in Norris’s cuts and changes to the text, his big speech with Macduff disappears.

The royal palace of the Macbeths when they reign was as decayed as they were, with signs of a front-line military occupation, with the billycans of the banquet giving it the sense of a greasy spoon affair. The ghost’s appearance though was poorly thought out, and didn’t work.

Having dual casting with Seyton and the Porter gave a new dimension with the Porter’s comedy routine consisting of snatches of plot he has overheard, about the murder of the King – this gives him some power over his employers, but as this character isn’t well-developed enough, this isn’t as developed as it could have been.

I really didn’t like the mangled verse I have already mentioned – blank verse has its own music, so use it! And the drunken dancing on Duncan’s last night didn’t work for me.

This could have been so much better, but was yet another disappointing production from this particular director’s tenure. I would have liked to have seen an intimate production based in the Dorfman, perhaps, which got to the core of the characters.


TV series still without a DVD release

These titles are still missing in action, surviving but with no video release. They are also, with one or two exceptions, completely absent from the bootleg circuit.

Is any company out there interested in securing the rights to get these out in the world for archive TV lovers to enjoy?  Would lovers of comedy, drama, or period adaptations buy?

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Phyllis Calvert and Penelope Keith in Kate.  Photo via Nostalgia Central.

Kate – starring Phyllis Calvert.  38 episodes across three series, 1970-1972.  Made for Yorkshire Television.  Kate is an agony aunt who has a knack for getting into trouble.  Also features Penelope Keith and Jack Hedley.

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Helen: a Woman of Today – starring Alison Fiske and Martin Shaw.  13 episodes in a single series, 1973.  Made for London Weekend Television.  Helen is approaching middle-age and decides to end her marriage.  Also features Sharon Duce and Sheila Gish.

Bel Ami – starring Robin Ellis.  5 episodes, 1971.  Made for the BBC.  Adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel about the amoral Georges Duroy.  Also features Elvi Hale, Garfield Morgan, Arthur Pentelow and Peter Sallis.

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Stanley Baker and Daphne Slater in Jane Eyre.  Photo via Bronte Blog.

Jane Eyre – starring Daphne Slater and Stanley Baker.  6 episodes, 1956.  Made for the BBC – my thoughts on seeing it at a BFI screening here.  Rich adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel, in fact one of the best I have seen.

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Liza Goddard and Dinsdale Landen in Pig in the Middle.

Pig in the Middle – starring Liza Goddard, Joanna Van Gyseghem, Dinsdale Landen (and later Terence Brady).  20 episodes across three series, 1980-1983.  Made for London Weekend Television.  Comedy about the middle-aged Barty who is torn between two glamorous women.

Foxy Lady – starring Diane Keen and Geoffrey Burridge.  12 episodes across two series, 1982-1984.  Made for Granada Television.  Daisy joins a Northern newspaper in this breezy comedy.  Also features Gregor Fisher, Milton Johns and Patrick Troughton.

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The Informer – starring Ian Hendry.  21 episodes made across two series, but only 2 survive, 1966-1967.  Made for Associated-Rediffusion.  Alex is a former lawyer now released from prison, making a living on both sides of the law.  Also features Jean Marsh.

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Neil Innes as the Wizard with Toby Spelldragon in Puddle Lane.

Puddle Lane – children’s series with Neil Innes.  75 episodes, 1985-1989.  Made for Yorkshire Television.  A magician tells stories with the help of his cauldron and dragon. Also features Kate Lee.

Great Expectations – starring Dinsdale Landen.  13 episodes, of which 12 survive, 1959.  Made for the BBC.  The first television adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel.  Also features Colin Jeavons, Michael Gwynn, and Helen Lindsay.   The atmospheric opening episode is accessible at the BFI Mediatheque.

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Article from the Radio Times.  Janet Munro in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Scan via Britmovie.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – starring Janet Munro and Corin Redgrave.  4 episodes, of which 3 survive, 1968.  Made for the BBC.  Adaptation of the Anne Brontë novel, clips were shown on ‘The Brontës at the BBC’.  Also features Bryan Marshall, Megs Jenkins, and Felicity Kendal.

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Nicol Williamson, George Segal and Will Geer in Of Mice and Men.  Photo via eBay.

Of Mice and Men – starring George Segal and Nicol Williamson.  A two-hour drama, 1968.  Made for the American Broadcasting Company.  Adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel.  Also features Will Geer, Don Gordon and Joey Heatherton.

The Coral Island – with Nicholas Bond-Owen and Richard Gibson (I know of the German release without English soundtrack).  9 episodes, 1983.  Made for Thames Television.  Ralph, Jack and Peterkin find themselves shipwrecked.

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Ian Hendry and Nyree Dawn Porter in For Maddie With Love.

For Maddie With Love – starring Ian Hendry and Nyree Dawn Porter.  48 episodes over 2 series, 1980-1981.  Made for ATV.  Maddie is terminally ill and her husband and children have to come to terms with change.  An excellent and overlooked series, only one episode has been officially released on Network’s Soap Box set. Also features Colin Baker, Robert Lang and Bruce Montague.

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Dinsdale Landen in Devenish. Photo via Memorable TV.

Devenish – starring Dinsdale Landen.  14 episodes across 2 series, 1977-1978.  Made for Granada Television.  Prufrock Devenish is an amoral social climber in this nutty comedy.  Also features Doran Godwin, Terence Alexander, Geoffrey Bayldon and Michael Robbins.

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Clive Dunn and Michael Bentine in It’s a Square World.  

It’s a Square World – with Michael Bentine.  56 episodes, of which 45 survive, 1960-1964.  Made for the BBC.  Zany and influential sketch show .  Also features Frank Thornton and Clive Dunn.

Thirty Minute Theatre – just under 50 episodes survive from 285 (many never filmed), but only a handful have been released.  Includes key work from a variety of writers and directors.  Made for the BBC.

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Benedict Taylor and Paul Rogers in Barriers.

Barriers – starring Benedict Taylor.  20 episodes, 1981.  Billy seeks his adopted parents.  Made for Tyne Tees Television.  This has turned up on YouTube so I rewatched it in a poor quality copy, but it has stood up well.

Hamlet – starring Ian McKellen.  One-off film, 1970.  A co-production between the BBC and Prospect Theatre Company.  Also features John Woodvine, Faith Brook, and Susan Fleetwood.  One of the few colour Shakespeares that remains resolutely in the archives.

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David Swift and Richard Beckinsale in Bloomers.  Photo via Nostalgia Central.

Bloomers – starring Richard Beckinsale and Anna Calder Marshall.  5 episodes recorded of the planned six, 1979, this series was curtailed with Beckinsale’s death.  Made for the BBC.  A comedy in which a resting actor starts work in a flower shop.  I have seen the episodes in poor-quality copies, with thoughts here.

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William Windom in My World and Welcome to It.

My World and Welcome to It – starring William Windom.  26 episodes, 1969-1970.  Made for Sheldon Leonard Productions.  John Monroe observes and comments on his wife and family in this comedy based on artist/writer James Thurber.  I first saw this in the 1980s on Channel 4, and have seen the whole series on poor quality copies.

That’s my twenty most wanted at the moment – what’s yours?


DVD audit 2018 – part 1

By no means my entire collection, here is a peek at some of the films and TV series which make up my DVD collection.

Check back for more and for some book shelfies during the next few weeks.


Red (Wyndham’s Theatre)

A revival of John Logan’s play about the artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), this play brings back its star, Alfred Molina, and director Michael Grandage, for its West End debut, following a 2009 run at the Donmar Warehouse, and later on Broadway.

Alongside Molina’s bald, brash and bullish Rothko, Alfred Enoch plays Ken – a young artist who assists Rothko in the creation of his sequence of abstract canvases of reds, blacks, and browns, destined for the walls of a high-class restaurant for the nouveau riche.

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We first meet both men in the claustrophobic studio, lit by low lighting and dominated by the huge and bloated canvasses, cavernous blood reds (or variants on red, enumerated in one amusing back and forth exchange) and harsh blocked shapes.  Rothko is self-absorbed, uncompromising, creative, with each painting a child with its umbilical cord ripped from the heart.

As this short piece – just 90 minutes – progresses we see the men achieve an unspoken understanding about art, which culminates with Ken, enthusing about the pop art revolution of Warhol and Lichtenstein, just as Rothko and his contemporaries shook up the establishment in their day, emerging from the chrysalis as a fully formed butterfly, ready to go it alone with his own work (which we never see).

There are moments of pathos in this play, which reminded me at times of the closing moments of Yasmina Reza’s clever three-hander, Art.  Molina displays both the passion of the veteran painter – in the vibrant and almost balletic sequence where he and Enoch prime an entire canvas in maroon tones, leaving them exhausted, paint-speckled, and fully engaged with the joy of creation – and the tragedy of a painter finding himself almost out of time, reduced to ‘selling out’ for the masses.

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This play is a treat, which made me start to read around about the abstract painters and their descendants.  Both leading roles are judged perfectly, and a nod needs to be made to Christopher Oram’s richly dressed sets, Neil Austin’s lighting design, and Adam Cork’s sound design, which mixes gramophone records of opera, classical and jazz.

Red continues at the Wyndham’s until the 28th July 2018.

 


Black Sheep by Gabriel Hershman (book review)

Gabriel Hershman now has three biographies to his name, all of actors who achieved prominence in the 1960s. The first, on Ian Hendry, and the second, on Albert Finney, were well-written and researched, and now with a step up to an ‘authorised’ biography, this book profiles Nicol Williamson (1936-2011).

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Williamson was a firebrand of an actor both on- and off-screen, coming to prominence in a dual screen and stage career which took off in the late 1960s. Yet by the end of the 1990s ennui had set in, with a retreat from performing, and this great actor just fell off the radar. By the time of his death – which was not announced until some weeks later – he was almost forgotten by all but his most devoted fans and admirers.

This book, authorised and supported by son Luke and former wife Jill Townsend-Sorel, sets out to redress that balance. In the acknowledgements Hershman describes his book as aiming to be a “truthful, balanced portrait of a complex man, neither coffee-table saccharine nor a hatchet job”. Luke Williamson describes his father as “the front seat of an exhilarating, terrifying rollercoaster”. Those who met Nicol Williamson, however fleetingly, would agree that he was infuriating, mystifying, and an incredible creative force.

As with the other biographies, Hershman dissects the best of Williamson’s performances as well as touching, where appropriate, on the man behind the actor. On Inadmissible Evidence, a film adaptation of the John Osborne play, where Williamson had created the role of Maitland, far older than his own age, he showed signs of dissatisfaction and vulnerability with his performance, asking the cameraman for his view on whether he “was as good as Spencer Tracy”.

By the 1970s this coiled spring would burst into violence during the Broadway run of Rex, the Richard Rodgers musical in which he played Henry VIII, a show in which his dominance of the role must have been something of a strain. By the time he completed his last notable screen role in The Hour of the Pig, he was idly teasing his colleagues and appearing bored, cast only after “the usual suspects” of his generation (Harris, O’Toole) were found to be unavailable. Pig was not treated well in terms of distribution, and is rarely revived now, but the balance of farce and straight-faced interpretation was handled well by Williamson, and rightly treated as a career highlight by this book.

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Personal issues – alcoholism, two divorces, arrogance, self-obsession, misogyny – continued to blight what can only be described as a troubled life. Hershman addresses these concerns with tact and diplomacy, with perceptive comments from Townsend-Sorel and others who knew him best.

This may well be a tale of a life which didn’t reach its potential in many ways, because the subject was his own worst enemy, and the final chapters inevitably have the sheen of sadness across them, but there are also pockets of celebration. He may have never been good enough for his own standards (by them, better than anyone else!) but the body of work left behind speaks for itself.

This is a very entertaining book, which casts the net widely to locate the man, the ‘black sheep’, which was Thomas Nicol Williamson, a Scot, a grammar-school boy, a boy who loved his parents but resented his sister, a young man who sang Al Bowlly songs but struggled with real love (an odd relationship with Sarah Miles, who seemed to relish his working-class roughness; the hook-up with his stage daughter from Inadmissible, Townsend-Sorel, which turned into marriage and high living), the performer who could essay tormented characters from his jaded older man in Laughter in the Dark to his tense gay lodger in the fantastic TV play Horror of Darkness (which visitors to the London’s National Film Theatre can view in the on-site Mediatheque).

On a personal note I found the Nicol I came to know and admire springing from every page, and it was an emotional read. The occasional glimpses of softness in screen and stage performances (Robin and Marian) were close to how he could be when introspective, caring, and kind. The novel Ming’s Kingdom, conversely, in its pornographic sex scenes and confused situations, showed the bile, the sharpness, and the loathing of women which was a troubling facet of his life (whether the novel is about his second wife Andrea, or a composite of characters affecting his equilibrium).

Hershman’s book is essential reading for biographic connoisseurs, for fans of 60s screen culture, and for those specifically interested in underrated and neglected British performers. It is an open question whether the subject would have approved of the final work, or collaborated with it had he still been alive (Finney did not contribute to Strolling Player). I’d like to think yes on both counts.


Mental Health Awareness Week

Twitter will be sympathetic this week, even empathetic.

Tips will be shared, there will be discussions about ‘stigma’ and how in these more enlightened days, mental health issues are treated in the same way as physical ones.

Except that’s still not the case.  Why is that?  Are people frightened that their own minds might be as fragile as those around them?  Are people embarrassed, irritated, inconvenienced?  Do they see it as yet another modern ‘trend’?

I wrote about my own engagement with the black dog recently.  The more of us who do this, who say, ‘this is me’, in just the same way one discusses a broken arm, a dicky heart, or a chest infection, the more we will break through the awkward silence, the suspicion, the blatant disregard of situations which need our help.

This is me.  Get over it.

Follow the #mentalhealthawarenessweek tags on Twitter.  Read around the links and articles which will be shared.  Take a look at the cartoons and photographs.

Don’t say people ‘confess’ to a mental health condition.  Don’t treat them as something shameful – if a colleague of yours is ill, then treat them the same way you would with a physical ailment.  Send them a get well card.  Say you hope they’ll feel better soon.  You know, ‘normal’ stuff.

Because these are ‘normal’ people.  I hope this week makes that clear, and gets the dialogue moving, continuing, and progressing.

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Lou’s Top Tips:

  • Put yourself first.  Not anyone else.
  • Fight for what is right for you, whether that is in work or personal life.
  • Engage where you feel up to doing so, disengage where you need to.
  • Don’t feel guilty is you can’t do something.  It doesn’t matter.
  • Find something you enjoy, as that will lift you up.
  • Forgive ignorance, however well meant.
  • Be honest.
  • Value yourself.  If you don’t why should anyone else?
  • Go out and listen to the birds sing.
  • Look back to those you loved, and situations which made you happy.
  • Be mindful.  Meditate.
  • If you believe in something, don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong.
  • Be that inner child again.
  • And finally … life is short.  Don’t waste it.

Chess (again), Coliseum Theatre

Now, you may recall that last week we took a visit to see one of my all-time favourite musicals, Chess, and that it was not an entirely enjoyable experience as our upper circle seats were most definitely ‘restricted’ although not sold as such.  The show was fantastic, as I expected, so I took a very rare decision to pay for a more expensive ticket, and revisit the show to see what I was missing.

I’ll talk a bit about pricing at the end of this piece.

The difference between viewing the show from a seat in the upper circle, row J, in the central block, and a seat in the dress circle, row E, at the side, is like night and day.  In the case of this production of Chess, the effect is like watching a completely different show from a design point of view.

Just look at the difference here; last week’s view first, then last night’s view.

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The ENO’s annual musical has become a big event of limited runs: we have had Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard, Carousel, and now Chess.  These are generally big productions with star names, and for the last two years, they have been fully staged.  None of these were ‘new’ musicals to me, and in fact all have been long-time favourites, and Chess is no exception.

I talked a bit about the casting for Chess last week.  Musical theatre veteran Michael Ball has been cast as the Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky.   Rock singer and musical star from Canada, Tim Howar, is the American champion, Freddie Trumper (an unfortunate surname right now with the current President).  Actress/singer Cassidy Janson, who has led in small musicals and covered in larger ones, is Florence Vassy, Freddie’s second and girlfriend of seven years.  X Factor winner turned musical belter Alexandra Burke is Svetlana Sergievska, the wife of Anatoly and mother of their son Ivan.  Phillip Browne is the Russian second, Molokov, a KGB operative and a sinister bass. Cedric Neal comes from Broadway and a leading role in Motown the Musical to portray The Arbiter, the judge and referee of the Chess Federation tournaments we see.

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In the last post I referred to the casting drama during rehearsals which saw Neal brought in at short notice to take over the role (hard on the voice, but underwritten).  There was an additional event which affected the first preview, when Tim Howar’s wife gave birth to their son Hamish during Act One, which meant the understudy had to take on Act Two (including the big solo number, Pity The Child, and some tricky moments of recitative).  There have also been reports of Michael Ball missing some lines in the Endgame number which has all the principals together for the last time, but no such problem was present last night (although his “Frederick, thank you” in the close of The Deal/No Deal number has now switched to “Freddie”).

So what’s ‘new’ if you are in the lower levels?

First off, there is a platform which comes up during key scenes, and this is located in the pit, where the orchestra is usually based.  Honestly, from the upper circle last week I had no clue this was even there, nor did I realise that some of the chess board set design was made up of steps which allowed some characters to exit quickly or for technicians to nip under the stage to set up the next scene or the video projections.

Second, without a clear view of the front of the stage you miss around half of the choreography of The Soviet Machine, roughly a third of One Night in Bangkok, and you are unable to see the chorus behind the screen in The Story of Chess, or the chorus based under the platform during the chess games.  This does a great disservice to the hard working singers and dancers who deliver the layered melodies and high energy movement the ensemble numbers require.

This time I hardly glanced at the video projections (which are sometimes mirror images of the same scene in close-up, but sometimes seem to be there just so you can see what is going on – for example, in Burke’s two solo numbers, in Janson’s two solo numbers, and -with some synch problems last night – for Howar’s big Act Two number).  I found them distracting in the major duets I Know Him So Well and Mountain Duet, as that by definition requires two people to be shown, and the screens seemed superfluous.

In other places they are used well – the plane arrival in Merano, the fire-breathing dragons in One Night in Bangkok in front of which acrobats and aerial contortionists perform, the chess games (although, rather than 1960s headlines about the space race, it might be fun to show us the actual moves, assuming they are not just random!), and the explanatory pictures about the history of the game and former champions.

Last night I could watch close-up, on the stage itself, what was going on.

I still can’t find any emotional engagement with Svetlana – she appears briefly early on in the show, and then we don’t see her again until the end of Act One, in which we are supposed to empathise with her delivery of Someone Else’s Story.  This song was written for the character of Florence (in the original Broadway production), and still makes more sense, as she finds one relationship collapsing as another begins.

Neither female character is fully drawn, but I find Florence an interesting one.  She is Hungarian-born and living in the US, with a self-centred lover who treats her as an accessory, although she’s fiery in support for him when we first see them.  Why she’s stayed so long, and why she suddenly bails to join with a refugee from a country she hates, is not explored sufficiently, nor the reasons this Russian leaves his family for a new life in the West.   Janson seems to make Florence fluffy in love by the time we get to Heaven Help My Heart, which makes the You and I duet between her and Anatoly bittersweet by its conclusion.  Perhaps the implication is that Freddie’s drinking and coke sniffing had made him less exciting between the sheets than the focused Russian!

Svetlana has another song which opens Act Two, a translation of the Swedish production’s song He Is A Man, He Is A Child, which is a towering ballad for a character we don’t really know.  But without those two songs, it isn’t much of a part, regardless of the engagement the audience would have with her.  Burke does well enough and is very good indeed in Endgame, and she’s a hard woman to return to, for sure.

Michael Ball probably wouldn’t have been my first choice for Anatoly, but with his spectacles and air of concentrated ennui, he does convince – and the songs, Where I Want To Be, Anthem, and the duets previously mentioned, are delivered well, without too much of the vibrato that has characterised his recent collaborations with Alfie Boe.  Hopefully we will see him in some more mature musical roles as time progresses.  Anatoly, though, is a difficult proposition for any actor – he appears emotionless, he hates the West and everything Freddie Trumper represents, then beats him in the championship and steals his girl.  It’s to the credit of the writers and the actor that we still feel some connection with him, and don’t dismiss him as a selfish sot.

Freddie is another conundrum – clearly focused on the game of chess, but highly-strung and feted (and behaving) like a rock star, from the moment he touches down in Merano.  His songs range from massive power force fields like Pity The Child to cynical rap in One Night in Bangkok.  He throws things around and hurts people who get close to him; he is by no means the confident front he puts on.  It’s a tough part because it isn’t the one which gets the natural audience sympathy, but he’s always been my favourite character in Chess, and he’s pitched just right in this, with a redemption arc in The Deal/No Deal which might, despite Florence’s pointed look during the TV interview which opens Endgame, lead to some form of reconciliation for them.

The ensemble numbers are absolutely fine, and well done, and from close-up they were very enjoyable.  The orchestra from the ENO is conducted by John Rigby, and musical director is Anders Eljas, who has been involved with the musical since square one, doing the original orchestrations, and what a glorious sound they make.  As for the ensemble, let’s have a shout out for the pop choir trio Jordan Lee Davies, Sinead Lang and Alexandra Waite-Roberts, and associate choreographer Jo Morris, although all are excellent.

I mentioned the pricing.  The upper circle pricing is £65-80, and the dress circle will cost you over £100 for a ticket.  I hear that there are rush tickets for £25 through TodayTix for weekday performances, so this would seem to be the future of such shows – eye-watering prices for committed fans, and cheap tickets for casual ones.  I find this a worrying trend as a theatre obsessive, and one who nearly always puts hand in pocket for pre-discount prices.  If I visited a show on a cheap ticket or a comp, I would tell you.  It’s a rare occurrence, but if you are in the happy position to not have to plan your visits to a show until the day itself, it’s an option to play the discount lotteries.

Chess continues for another three weeks.

 

 

 

 

 


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