Saturday, 31 May 2014

Review: Between Us, Arcola

“I bet you’d rather be at Mamma Mia”

Sarah Daniels’ new play for the Arcola opens with a cracking sequence that pokes fun at stereotypical theatregoers and set the scene intriguingly for what is to come. There’s something wonderfully subversive about Julia’s stand-up routine, especially before its true purpose really manifests itself, the forthrightness with which she muses about female sexuality has a delicious edge (although I’ll never hear ‘snack box’ the same way again) and it is almost a shame that there isn’t more of this taboo-busting chat alongside the outrageous liberties she later takes in taking inspiration from her work and life to make people laugh.

For we soon find out that she is a therapist and we get to eavesdrop on two of her regular patients as they work through the issues plaguing them. Waitrose shopper Teresa is struggling with the realities of having adopted two troubled children, five star builder Dave is plagued with depression after the birth of his baby daughter, and even Julia herself is coming to terms with meeting the daughter she gave up for adoption long ago. As is often the way in plays such as these, the stories of these three are interlinked in ways they can’t even imagine and Daniels teases out the reveals with real skill, ensuring the level of her play never flags.

Re-review: Handbagged, Vaudeville

“One had to laugh”

Definitely something of a luxury revisit this one, my third time seeing it. But as Moira Buffini’s Handbagged has grown from a sketch as part of the Tricycle’s 2010 Women, Power and Politics season through to an Olivier-winning full length play which has now transferred into the West End, the chance to see its third incarnation was one I couldn’t resist. Not just seeing it on a larger stage, the one change to the cast from last year’s Tricycle production was what sold it to me. 

Lucy Robinson may not be the most recognisable name out there but she played the first Lady Macbeth I ever saw on stage (at the Bolton Octagon) and she also starred in the most amazing schlocky late-night soap called Revelations back in the 90s which I was obsessed with at the time. She replaces Clare Holman as the younger version of the Queen (Liz) who locks horns regularly with Fenella Woolgar’s awesomely impressive Thatcher (Mags), in a hugely entertaining manner. 

Saturday afternoon music treats

Jodie Prenger – Secret Love (from Calamity Jane)

Friday, 30 May 2014

Review: Life of the Party, Menier Chocolate Factory

“I planned a well-rendered, one-gendered lesbian love story”

You’d be forgiven for not being familiar with Andrew Lippa, whose work is being celebrated at the Menier Chocolate Factory with a vivacious show that cherry-picks from his career so far. Although born in Leeds, his successes have been over the Atlantic with shows like The Addams Family, Big Fish and The Wild Party which have helped him to build a considerable, if niche, audience. With the help of some classy West End friends though, this sparkling revue could well encourage a further groundswell of popular support in the UK and get Lippa’s work produced here more often. 

In the meantime, the concert format works well here. Lippa is a born raconteur and from his piano, he is a hugely entertaining presence full of gossipy tidbits but more importantly, brimming with enthusiasm for the world of musical theatre and his continued place in it. Talking about the songs and shows that have made up his oeuvre, there is no mistaking his sheer love for what he does and that brings something extraordinary to the material, an intensity that might not even been matched when the songs are being performed in their natural context within the shows.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review: Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, Theatre Royal Stratford East

"Once in golden days of yore
Ponces killed a lazy whore"

In a year celebrating the centenary of Joan Littlewood’s birth, the Theatre Royal Stratford East that she did so much to develop with Theatre Workshop can be forgiven for having a distinctly nostalgic tinge to its programming. But though this 1959 musical was both a critical and commercial success for Lionel Bart before he really hit the big time with Oliver!, it is also very much of its time and so proves a much less likely choice for revival than say, the glorious revisit of Oh What A Lovely War at this same venue earlier this year.

Even at the point of its writing, Fings… basked in a glow of barely earned nostalgia, a picture postcard version of the Soho underworld with an almost cartoon-like like approach to violence and absolutely no sense of responsibility or repercussions at all. The book was written by an ex-convict no less, Frank Norman, so one can see from where this longing for the good old days has sprung but it doesn’t undo the unpalatability of the material as it stands. And excusing it because it is a musical and so is all just good fun feels lazy and near irresponsible.

Cast of Fings... continued

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Review: John Ferguson, Finborough

"Do you not like the whistle Mrs Ferguson...?"

There is often the sense that selective quoting from the Bible can assert pretty much any viewpoint and so it turns out in St John Ervine’s John Ferguson, receiving its first airing in the UK for nearly 100 years with this production at the Finborough Theatre, directed by Emma Faulkner. Set in the 1880s in the unforgiving Ulster farmland of County Down, it centres on the Ferguson family and the trials they are forced to ensure when threatened with foreclosure by their grasping neighbour and tenant-holder, the dastardly Henry Witherow.

Ageing paterfamilias John is unwell and thus unable to work the land that gives them their living, finding succour instead from burying his head in a well-worn copy of the Bible. And in a reversal of roles, his son Andrew is induced to return from his training to join the ministry in order to run the farm. But he is ill-suited to the job at hand, they’re behind with payments and the promised cheque from John’s brother in America has failed to materialise. The only collateral they seem to possess comes in the form of daughter Hannah’s hand. 

Review: Johnny Got His Gun, Southwark Playhouse

"I'm the nearest thing to a dead man on this earth"

The centenary of the start of World War One has thrown up a raft of interesting programming in our nation’s theatres, looking at the devastating impact of that inconceivably destructive conflict and the decimating effect it had on an entire generation. At the same time, it has also seen a concerted movement from a self-serving Conservative government to try and recast this narrative as anti-patriotic and misrepresentative. I challenge any member of that administration to sit through Johnny Got His Gun and maintain such attitudes.

Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel has been adapted by Bradley Rand Smith into a simply sensational one man show that scorches its way through the Southwark Playhouse’s Little space with indignant fury and surely-warranted outrage. Colorado native Joe Bonham cheerily volunteered to serve for his country when the time came, leaving his family and his girl behind, but like so many of his fellow conscripts, was utterly unprepared for the visceral reality of war and the enormous personal cost it would demand from him.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

CD Review: Nadim Naaman – We All Want The Same

“Scenes from a movie played out face to face” 

Nadim Naaman is one of those actors who has circled the edges of my attention without ever really demanding it – recently he was strong in Chess but didn’t make too much of an impact for me in Titanic (nor did the show itself tbh) but I do admire the industry of performers who make the decision to record albums that push beyond the too-oft-repeated collection of standards that people put out. We All Want The Same is a collection of songs written over the last decade by Naaman and makes for an interesting collection of original material. 

Without wanting to sound too damning, the style is best characterised somewhere around soft rock and MOR pop. Formally, it may not be the most adventurous set of song-writing you’ll hear, rather, the emphasis is on a highly professional sheen of well-produced music that glides by across its 11 tracks. This gloss also relates to the lyrics which tend to generic pronouncements rather than specifically personal – this suits the album as a whole but in the hints that occasionally peek through, of the man behind the music, there’s a feeling that his song-writing could usefully dig a little deeper. 

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Re-review: A View from the Bridge, Young Vic

"You'll see, you'll get a blessing for this" 

Too often, I leave a play thinking I really want to see it again and never quite manage to get round to booking for it. But I loved Ivo van Hove's extraordinary take on A View from the Bridge so much on first viewing that I knew there was no chance I wouldn't make sure a repeat visit would be inked into the diary. And it was just glorious getting to experience this transcendent production of Arthur Miller's classic play again, to really soak in its textures and further appreciate the acute psychological insight it brings to the work. 

There's not too much more that I can say about the play that wasn't already mentioned in my original review and being a part of it again simply reaffirmed how I felt that first time. The tension that it creates in the Young Vic almost immediately is exquisitely painful, the knowledge of that final scene coming an additional pleasure, that central scene between Phoebe Fox and Luke Norris (I noticed this time that the way she jumps on him here is identical to the way she jumps on Eddie at the beginning of the play, showing just how complex these relationships are) - I really can't imagine a better piece of theatre emerging in this country this year. 

Saturday afternoon musical treats

Clive Rowe – Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat

Review: Sunny Afternoon, Hampstead

"I am so lazy, I don't want to wander, I stay at home at night"

I am the wrong age for a Kinks musical to make me particularly excited, nor were they really a part of my family's soundtrack whilst growing up so there was little reason for me to get too excited about Sunny Afternoon at the Hampstead Theatre. Indeed, even my personal alert service notifying me that Dominic Tighe appears in a police uniform (albeit briefly) scarcely raised my attention which is most unlike me. But with the end of the run fast approaching, a rumoured transfer as yet unconfirmed and someone willing to queue, I found myself at the final show.

Where I enjoyed myself mostly. Aiming itself above the jukebox format but still coming across as a luxury version thereof, it is paper-thin stuff, clearly far too in reverence of its still-living protagonists (one imagines Joe Penhall writing the book with Ray Davies hovering over his shoulder). The focus is far too much on Ray rather than the band as a whole or even the excitement of 60s Britain and so one is left waiting for the songs, which are undoubtedly extremely well done. Miriam Buether enjoys the chance to reconfigure the auditorium once again with her design and Ed Hall keeps a pulsing energy about the piece although it would be nice to see a show like this that doesn't force the jollity quite so much at the end... 

So whilst glad I caught it, my instinct that it was missable was on the nose. And for my money, Waterloo Sunset is a Cathy Dennis song (and I had the cassingle to prove it).

Cast of Sunny Afternoon continued

Friday, 23 May 2014

Review: Holiday/The Eisteddfod, Bussey Building

"Once upon a time..."

Australian theatre hasn’t necessarily been particularly well represented on these shores, certainly in recent years, and so the opportunity to see a double bill of UK premieres at Peckham’s Bussey Building makes for an interesting evening of theatre. Raimondo Cortese’s Holiday revels in its surreal world of dark comedy as Arno and Paul slip into the shoes or should it be thongs, of Vladimir and Estragon with this Antipodean take on Waiting for Godot.

Dressed in just budgie-smugglers and dipping in and out of a paddling pool, these two men while away an hour up any number of conversational avenues, throwing in snatches of obscure love songs and generally chewing the fat. Strangers when they met and strangers, probably, when they finally part, they talk about everything and they talk about nothing. It is tempting to try and read a greater purpose into Cortese’s writing but its real beauty lies in its sheer randomness. 

Review: The Testament of Mary, Barbican

“I went to sleep and when I woke up, Miriam was standing over me. Whispering.”

This whole blogging malarkey can get a little bit wearing when small things like real life, the day job and editing another website get in the way of going to the theatre most every night and then writing about it. Thus the temptation to eschew a 'proper' review for something a bit less demanding and more fun to put together get a little stronger and in the cases when I'm not on official reviewing duty - I'm becoming more inclined to just go with it - example #1, example #2

So you will have to look elsewhere for serious writing and thinking about this Fiona Shaw/Deborah Warner collaboration on Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary which resides in the Barbican for just a few more days. For I wrote a wee ditty in the pub afterwards and that's all I am inspired to do. I thank you.

"Mary had a big black bird, 
I think it was a vulture. 
Her testament was long but dull, 
I guess that what's called culture"

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 25th May 

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Review: Miss Saigon, Prince Edward Theatre

“Hey Joe, try taking a little excursion
You'll feel good from a little perversion"

There’s a real generational split when it comes to Miss Saigon – a contemporary of such 80s mega-musicals as Phantom and Les Mis, it has comparatively fallen by the wayside in terms of longevity nor has its score really attained the status of a bona fide classic. So there’s a group of people familiar with the show ready and waiting to make comparisons between the original and this major revival at the Prince Edward Theatre, and then there’s the rest of us – me included – for whom this is a new experience.

And as is often the case when expectations have been pumped sky-high (“Box office records broken on the first day!” “The greatest musical ever?!” “Watch out for the helicopter…”), it isn’t immediately clear what all the fuss is about. Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s book is basically Madame Butterfly redux but transplanted to the Vietnam war as GI Chris is loved long-time by Kim, their love then forced apart by the US defeat in Saigon and a reunion, of sorts, organised once he finally discovers that he left more than his heart with Kim that evening…

Cast of Miss Saigon continued

Cast of Miss Saigon continued

Cast of Miss Saigon continued

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Review: This May Hurt A Bit, St James

“Is that blood on the ceiling?"

Like many things in this country, the National Health Service is something that we all love to complain about – long waiting lists, jam-packed A&E departments, staff without any time to pay enough attention. But it is also an institution that many of us have cause to give huge thanks for, so to see it gradually decimated from within by insidious Coalition politics is a bitter pill indeed to swallow, though it is one which we have taken without too much complaint. Stella Feehily’s This May Hurt A Bit marries her own recent experiences of our health service with an overtly political study of how it has gotten into its current state and how we have let this happen.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the personal inflections to her writing produce the most effective part of the play. Her partner, who just happens to Max Stafford-Clarke who directs here, suffered a stroke a few years ago and from their interactions with the NHS, comes the story of the elderly Iris and her family who are sucked into the system when she falls ill with a suspected stroke. Stephanie Cole brings a hugely affecting dignity to the role, laced with a cutting sense of humour, as she tolerates the mayhem of a modern overstretched hospital ward and her two adult children (Brian Protheroe and Jane Wymark) bicker by her bedside about whether they should go private or not. 

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Review: Things We Do For Love, Richmond Theatre

“Generally…I just look at them, generally”

And so once again I find myself drawn to the theatre to see an Alan Ayckbourn play despite the fact I know it is most likely to be a big mistake. The assembly of a good cast is something I’ve always found hard to resist - in this case it was the glorious Claire Price and Ed Bennett, plus the slightly left of the middle choice of Natalie Imbruglia, making her stage debut here. Plus there was the general assertion that the near-twenty year old Things We Do For Love is ostensibly one of his better plays, though on this evidence I don’t quite know why and thus I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression, this play left me far from satisfied.

Starting today at Richmond Theatre after a tour that has taken in many a UK city, Laurence Boswell’s Theatre Royal Bath production is certainly handsomely mounted in Giles Cadle’s perfectly designed set which reflects the demands of one of Ayckbourn’s rare forays into specifically end-on work. Set in the Fulham home of frustrated career woman Barbara which has been partitioned into three flats, we see the entirety of her middle floor home but only a couple of feet into those of her tenants – creepy handyman Gilbert below and old school friend, and new affiancéed, Nikki.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Review: In The Heights, Southwark Playhouse

"My mom is Dominican-Cuban
My dad is from Chile and PR which means
I'm Chile..Domini-curican!
But I always say I'm from Queens!"

Amid the crashing and burning of ill-conceived big budget West End shows, it has been left to the smaller venues of London to carry the torch for musical theatre in the capital and currently leading the charge with what will surely end up being one of the productions of the year is the Southwark Playhouse. They secured the UK premiere of Tony winning show In The Heights which in itself is an achievement but more importantly, they assembled a team who have expertly reconceived it for the relatively intimate space to create some explosively exciting theatre.

Luke Sheppard’s production is pitch-perfect on every level. The choreography – Drew McOnie deserves every prize going – is fearless, fast and furious, Latin influences married with contemporary movement to create something that feels incredibly organic in its fluidity; Howard Hudson’s lighting is full of vibrant splashes of colour and well evokes the near-unbearable heat; and takis’ set design maximises the space brilliantly, suggesting the communal spirit and run-down feel of a hard-done-by enclave yet also finding room for a band of 8 along with a cast of 17.

Cast of In the Heights continued

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Not-a-Review: Secret Theatre show 5

"I just called to say I..."

And so Secret Theatre continues, on their fifth production now which has been devised by themselves and has a shorter run than usual as it will apparently be going to Edinburgh. So press reviews have been scrapped for this one, which may also have been motivated by the devised nature of the show, something which the UK mainstream critics automatically seem to react against. That said, I wasn't much of a fan at all of A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts and its highly experimental structure. 

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 22nd May then going to Edinburgh

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Review: The Last Five Years, Greenwich Theatre

“I think you're really gonna like this show 
I'm pretty sure it doesn't suck”

First performed a shade over a decade ago, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years swiftly became a hot favourite when I first heard the score, something confirmed by the first production I saw which featured Julie Atherton elevating herself to goddess status! As a two-hander with little staging needed, it is a popular show to revive, though not necessarily an easy one as a hugely misguided Guildhall production showed. Pleasingly though, this new version avoided such pitfalls to give a brilliant account of this unique love story, albeit with a criminally short run.

Co-produced with Greenwich Theatre, As Told By’s new revival played just four shows in Greenwich and will show another three times at the Brighton Fringe next week. Which is fine, but Katie Pesskin’s production is a simply stellar piece of work that deserves a much wider audience, Michael Riley’s musical direction makes the score sound as good as it has ever done and in its performances by Danielle Hope and Jon Robyns, it showcases British musical theatre talent beautifully. Let’s hope there are future plans afoot. 

Saturday afternoon music treats

Rebecca Trehearn and Shaun McCourt – Love on the Edge of our Tears (from My Land’s Shore)

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Re-review: The Pajama Game, Shaftesbury

“I like a man with spunk
‘You like a man, period’” 

As is often the way, a canny bit of recasting ensured my need to revisit a show I’d already seen and resolved not to revisit. In this case, it was The Pajama Game, which I caught last year in Chichester when Joanna Riding and Hadley Fraser led Richard Eyre’s productions to great acclaim, which now arrives for a summer at the Shaftesbury Theatre with Michael Xavier taking over from Fraser. I am most fond indeed of Xavier’s work, and as I enjoyed the show in all its strangely charming old-fashioned oddity, going back wasn’t too much of a trial. 

My original review is here and there really isn’t much more to add. The show fits in well into the Shaftesbury, even if a little of its expansiveness feels lost in the reconfiguration, but Xavier makes a predictably excellent fit into the company, he really is one of our leading exponents of musical theatre, delivering the goods time after time. Jo Riding emerges unscathed from Stephen Ward to return to a role in which she is wonderfully comfortable to watch but the real star ends up being Alexis Owen-Hobbs’ spunky Gladys. Book soon whilst you still can. 

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 13th September

Cast of The Pajama Game continued

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Not-a-review: NewFoundLand, Royal Court

“You need to stand out from all the other ordinary and average homos out there”

The fun of play readings is often getting to see actors you don’t see so frequently on stage and so it was with NewFoundLand which offered the opportunity to see Kieran Bew return to the theatre. Neil Coppen’s play is part of the Royal Court’s South Africa season, marking 20 years of democracy by pulling together a week of readings with a panel discussion, a live poetry evening, featuring top spoken word artists from South Africa and a late night music event.

As the plays are presented as works-in-progress, I won’t say a huge amount about it other than to say it made for a fascinating 80 minutes exploring, amongst other things, gay sexuality, inter-racial relationships, the intersections of race and religion for different cultures and a deeply interesting look at how memory can be tinkered with. A strong cast were directed well by Simon Godwin and as lead character Jacques, Bew was most enjoyable to watch, even if someone saying the above-mentioned quote to him stretched credulity somewhat!

Not-a-review: Fana Le Fale (Here and There), Royal Court

Another of the South African readings that the Royal Court were hosting this week, Omphile Molusi’s Fana Le Fale (Here and There) translated by himself from his native mother tongue Setswana.
As works-in-progress, I’m not saying much about them other than to say they make a welcome addition to the theatre scene and I really hope we get to see at least a couple of them once they’ve further developed. Show’s synopsis: Street clown Wilfred and his girlfriend Cindy live in a shack of corrugated iron. Joined by their young relatives, “born frees” with very different dreams, they start a fight against a corrupt housing system to drag themselves out of life in the slums.

Review: Just Another Love Story, London Theatre Workshop

“Pardon me, is everybody here? Because if everybody's here, I want to thank you all for coming to the wedding, I'd appreciate your going even more, I mean you must have lots of better things to do, and not a word of this to Paul, remember Paul, you know, the man I'm gonna marry, but I'm not, because I wouldn't ruin anyone as wonderful as he is"

Sondheim revues can feel two a penny – Putting It Together played the St James just a couple of months ago – but Ray Rackham’s Just Another Love Story has a real ace up its sleeve in the return of 2010’s Best Actor in a Musical fosterIAN award winner Sam Harrison to a London stage. His turn in Salad Days was an absolute treasure and being able to hear him sing again was something I couldn’t resist, so I made my way over to Fulham to the London Theatre Workshop above the Eel Brook pub.

The show is a real labour of love for Rackham, having evolved over several incarnations in the past couple of years and now including over 40 Sondheim songs from the widest range of his back catalogue, delving into rarities just as often as his more popular shows. They’ve been carefully stitched together into a free-flowing musical tapestry which includes solos, duets, medleys and even a bit of choreography to bring the music to life, celebrating the music of Stephen Sondheim by creating their own love story from his work. 

Monday, 12 May 2014

In appreciation of…our elders and betters

So much of the focus of our culture today is based on the young and the new that those at the other end of the spectrum can often seem neglected. Indeed, should a movie (for example) be aimed elsewhere than the tween market, it can get quickly labelled as chasing the ‘grey pound’ and with the success of some of these movies, it is a term that gained some purchase. Grey or otherwise though, I love watching stories that involve older actors, the experience that they can bring to bear is just unparalleled and when married with the right material, has significant emotional punch.

So on this day when I remember two of my grandparents, I present to you a selection of Third Age, grey pound-chasing films full of oldies. The unbearably poignant Amour which upset me more than any other movie of recent times, recent films Les Beaux Jours and The Love Punch which take place on two very different bits of French coastline, the very British pleasures of Mrs Henderson Presents and A Rather English Marriage, the striking sexuality of The Mother, and three films that were in cinemas recently which spurred on much of the grey pound chat - Song for Marion, Quartet, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

With love to Nan and Grandad x

Film Review: Les Beaux Jours (Bright Days Ahead)

“Time is all I have”

There’s something I find very hard to resist about the impossible glamour of French actress Fanny Ardant and so when a friend spotted that one of her newer films was being screened as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema mini-season and that there was a post-film Q&A, I was glad to be able to attend. Marion Vernoux’s Les Beaux Jours places Ardant full square and centre as Caroline, a 60 year old recently retired dentist in Calais mourning the death of her best friend some months before.

To help her out of her funk, her daughters get her a trial membership to a senior centre where she has the option of picking up any number of new hobbies like acting, pottery or IT skills. But being as gorgeous as she is though her grumpily overworked husband may not notice, what she soon picks up is the très charmant Julien who teaches the computer class and a deliciously thrilling affair strikes up between the pair as she surrenders to hedonistic pleasures with a handsome lover 20 years or so her junior.

DVD Review: Amour

“Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over"

I don’t think there’s much that can be said about Michael Haneke’s Amour that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before. I wanted to go and see it at the cinema when it was first released last year but after a good friend went, he advised me that I would be perhaps best waiting until I could watch it in the privacy of my own home, cognisant of the types of thing that make me bawl (I once wept for 15 minutes outside a cinema after Pan’s Labyrinth destroyed me) and I am forever grateful for his advice. Tears fell down my face for pretty much the entire film but on two occasions, I broke out into full-on sobbing, such is the devastating emotional impact within.

Amour is truly one of the greatest films about old age ever created and possibly one of the finest films I’ve ever seen. Georges and Anne are retired music teachers in the 80s, bobbing along quite merrily in their Parisian apartment when their lives are rocked by a series of strokes that Anne suffers. Bit by bit, she fades away from the person she used to be, further wasted by progressive dementia, and Georges is left to hold together the pieces of their shattered lives, their shared love. Haneke’s camera barely leaves the apartment where the couple’s existence is unutterably changed, and where previously much-loved visitors are no longer welcome, not even their daughter Eva. 

DVD Review: The Mother

“Would you come to the spare room with me?” 

It is remarkable that even now, 10 years after it was released, it is difficult to name another film aside from The Mother which has dealt so openly with the sexuality of older people, specifically older women. Can it really still be something of a taboo subject? One would like to think not but a sneaking suspicion remains that this might just be the case. Thus this film, directed by Roger Michell from Hanif Kureishi’s story, is all the more special, not least because it is also a rather spectacularly good piece of work.

Anne Reid plays May, a Northern grandmother in her sixties who finds herself bundled down to London where her two children live, after the sudden death of her husband. But metropolitan life leaves her nonplussed and in the face of her children’s disinterest in her welfare over the dramas of their own lives, she finds herself spending more and more time with Daniel Craig’s Darren. He’s building a conservatory for her son and is sleeping with her daughter, but an irresistible connection grows between the pair which eventually turns into a sexual affair, the fallout from which scatters its shockwaves far and wide. 

DVD Review: Song for Marion

"I am a bit scared"

I wanted very much to like Song for Marion, the Paul Andrew Williams film retitled Unfinished Song for the North American market (was that purely because the Diane Warren-penned Céline Dion song that unexpectedly plays over the end credits has that title?), but its generic tear-jerking qualities which seem to borrow from any number of recent heart-warming Brit-flicks fall flat in the face of its good intentions. Vanessa Redgrave plays Marion, terminally ill but determined to live what life remains to the full by singing in a local choir called the OAPz. Her husband Arthur is diametrically opposed though, Terence Stamp characterising excellently his emotional repression and unspoken grief at the way in which life has turned out and only grudgingly prepared to build the bridges he needs to carry on life without his wife in the way she wants him to.

Stamp and Redgrave pair beautifully as this mis-matched couple – his gruffly taciturn nature keeping a constant edge in the saccharine morass, her instinctive vivacity tempered by a wonderful sense of the ordinary – and their family dynamic, along with divorced son (Christopher Eccleston) and granddaughter, is well-drawn, most affecting as they come to terms with the speed of her demise. But the focus of the film settles on the music group led by Gemma Arterton’s relentlessly perky Elizabeth and it is here that Williams comes undone when dealing with his older company. Elizabeth has her choir singing rap and rock songs like Salt’n’Pepa’s 'Let’s Talk About Sex' and Motörhead’s 'Ace of Spades' but there’s never any emotional connection to the material. It’s just there for the shock value and so there’s an uncomfortable feeling that we’re closer to laughing at than with the choir. 

DVD Review: Quartet

“I do hate getting older, I hate every bloody moment of it” 

Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut on film came last year in the form of an adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play Quartet, set in a retirement home for gifted musicians and singers. At Beecham House, the residents attend various classes and activities, teach visiting youngsters the tricks of their trades and participate in the yearly gala concert necessary to boost the finances and keep it open. And this ability to fulfil their love for performance is what makes it a special place and where the film finds its greatest successes in the midst of its otherwise inoffensive charms.

The main thrust of the story is around the arrival of grande dame Jean Horton, a retired opera singer who is struggling to come to terms with her new circumstances. She keeps herself to herself, refusing to join in with the communal activities, even though she is now living with former friends, colleagues and husbands. This is particularly pertinent as her arrival completes the quartet of performers from the most acclaimed version of Rigoletto since the Second World War and everyone is alive to the fundraising potential of such a reunion. But Jean has bridges to build, most notably with her bitter ex Reg, and with Cissy and Wilf hoping they’ll all get to sing together again, they get to the business of putting the past to rest. 

DVD Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

“You won't see better for your grey pound”

The opening quarter of John Madden's film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might leave you wondering about the state of British comedy and our collective tastes, given that it really was quite the box office success in 2011. A unconnected collection of retired and retiring Brits all decide to up sticks and move to a hotel in the Indian city of Jaipur, though it turns out the judicious use of Photoshop means it is not quite the luxurious venue it has set itself up to be. Their reasons for going are various - personal, medical, debt-fuelled - and as we delve into each of these characters, we see how their journeys are just as much emotional as they are physical.

The film's success was practically guaranteed with its luxurious casting of the crème de la crème of this particular age bracket - Judi Dench, Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, its pretty much a dream collection and they add a veneer of class to the whole film which pulls it through its undoubtedly tricksier moments. These come during the aforementioned opening section which seems to set the film up as a broad culture-clash comedy, poking easy fun at the discomfort of elderly travellers arriving in a completely foreign land. Is it funny? Are racist comments in this context acceptable because they're delivered with a wonderfully acerbic bite by Maggie Smith? I guess it is a decision you make for yourself but it feels a fine line.

DVD Review: Mrs Henderson Presents

“I’m bored with widowhood”

As the aristocratic Lady Conway, Thelma Barlow’s amusing run through the options open to a rich widow of nearly 70 sets up Mrs Henderson Presents succinctly in its opening moments – Laura Henderson pricks her thumb trying embroidery as a hobby and bristles at the snobbery of the ladies who run charities for the deserving and so is left to spend money as she sees fit, alighting on the derelict Windmill Theatre which she purchases in a moment of inspiration as she passes in her car. Martin Sherman’s script is based on the true story of this woman who became an unlikely theatrical impresario and in director Stephen Frears’ hands, Judi Dench delivers a heart-warmingly cracking performance at the centre of a lovely film.

Set in the late 1930s, the story follows Laura as she and her theatre manager, Bob Hoskins’ cantankerous but inspired Vivian van Damm, set up a continuous variety revue called Revudeville and trying to keep ahead of a market full of copycats, they introduce still tableaux of female nudity into the show which becomes a roaring success. The onset of war casts a heavy shadow though and whilst the show continues, providing much needed entertainment and respite, as the bombs fall on London, the determination that the show must go on puts everyone in serious peril.

Cast of Mrs Henderson Presents continued

Film Review: The Love Punch

“It’s all gone. Let’s get drunk”

There’s something hugely likeable about the amount of fun The Love Punch is. It is at times ridiculous and downright barmy but it always has such a cheerfully warm-hearted glow – no doubt helped by the French Riviera sunshine – that made it an irresistible silly pleasure to watch. Emma Thompson and Pierce Brosnan play a (relatively) amicably divorced couple whose retirement nest egg has been smashed by a hostile takeover of his company and its pension scheme by an avaricious French hotshot. So naturally they set about trying to get revenge. 

And it is this wonderfully batty scheme that makes up the most of the movie. After spotting that the Gallic gazumper (a tragically beardless Laurent Lafitte) has purchased a vastly expensive diamond to give to his fiancée, Kate and Richard decide to steal it in retribution, calling on friends and neighbours Penelope and Jerry as they impersonate Texans, infiltrate hen parties and weddings, and don wetsuits and climbing gear to break into a private residence, amongst a ton of other unlikely activities. But Joel Hopkins imbues everything with such warmth and not a hint of seriousness, it’s best just to crack open a can of Kronenbourg and enjoy the ride. 

DVD Review: A Rather English Marriage

"We rubbed along alright"

Master of televisual adaptation Andrew Davies turned his hand to Angela Lambert’s novel A Rather English Marriage in 1998 and watching it back now, it seems to harken back to an even earlier age, one of uncomplicated classic quality with a resolutely unfashionable straight-forwardness that we simply don’t see that much at all these days. The tale is a simple one of two retired veterans who, after being widowed on the same day, are placed together by a well-meaning social worker who reckons the companionship will do them both a world of good.

They’re an odd couple though. Albert Finney’s Reggie was an air squadron leader and having married into money, is used to a wealthy life. By comparison, Tom Courtenay’s Roy was a mere NCO and became a milkman after the war so as they move into together, Reggie naturally assumes a dominant position with Roy slipping easily into the habit of calling him Sir as their relationship settles into something imbalanced. Ultimately, both men recognise the private pain they are hiding as long-held secrets come to light but it is the return of women to their lives that proves to be the most significant change.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Review: Microcosm, Soho Theatre

“Two men just watching a bit of Cruise, nothing wrong with that…”

The most amusing part of James Perkins’ design for Matt Hartley’s Microcosm may be accidental or it could well be a nod to the sweltering heat that often builds up in the attic room of the Soho Theatre Upstairs. In the midst of moving flats on a hot summer’s day, one of the characters sets up a desktop fan, points it out towards the audience and switches it on – it may only offer comfort for a small group but in lieu of effective air-con, it is well played. 

The flat belongs to Alex, recently purchased with an inheritance from a grandmother and long-term girlfriend Clare is moving in too. It may only be a conversion but it marks a major step for him in becoming lord of his own manor but he soon comes to realise that along with property comes neighbours. Some are benign, if overbearingly creepy, as in the relentless attentions of married Philip from next door but others are more ominous, like the small gang hanging out down the road – the show opens with the chirpy tones of ‘On The Street Where You Live’ which soon gains a double meaning.

CD Review: Scott Alan – Anything Worth Holding On To

“When you feel like you just slept through all the best years of your life”

This 8 track EP may seem like slim pickings at first glance – a handful of these songs appeared on Scott Alan’s last album What I Wanna Be When I Grow Up and one is an instrumental of a song already on there. But further examination shows us what is actually happening here, this is the first time that Alan has released a collection that features only himself, rather than the multi-talented cast that he is able to call on to sing his ever-growing songbook. And for that instrumental, the aching tunefulness of the title track of Anything Worth Holding On To makes it more than worthy of the focus.

The focus here is intimately personal. The collection of songs traces the writer’s struggles with depression and faces up honestly to the difficulties of being a composer of new musical theatre in a world that too easily defers to the familiar. The solo voice of Alan thus serves a dual purpose – it simplifies matters, and costs, for a new record, but it also provides a stunning connection with the material that hasn’t always been present before, a real sense that these are genuine emotions lying behind the work, lived in in the most intimate of ways. 

CD Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Original London Cast Recording

“That’s my Charlie, that’s my son”

At a time when big new musicals have been dropping like flies, the mere fact that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is still open is something of an achievement, never mind its actual enduring success. And with a major cast change soon to take place (featuring the likes of Alex Jennings and Josefina Gabrielle, just to make sure that I have no choice but to return), it seemed as good a time as any to give the soundtrack a listen.

I’ve seen the show a couple of times now and even in the couple of months between those viewings, it was clear that my original thought, that Marc Shaiman’s score might possess longevity that wasn’t initially obvious, wasn’t too far off the mark. The tunes worm their way into your head under the cover of the cuckoo in the nest that is the late-arriving Pure Imagination which predictably is what most people will leave the Theatre Royal Drury Lane humming. 

Charlie CD cast continued

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Review: Donkey Heart, Old Red Lion

“This has been going on for years…we never put it right, it just repeats.”

Mere mortals don’t stand a chance without a dynasty behind them... Moses Raine’s father is noted poet Craig and his sister is playwright and director Nina (who looked into my very soul with the peerless Tribes) and not only that, his mother, who has her own literary career, is the niece of Boris Pasternak who wrote Doctor Zhivago. And it is to the Russian connection that Moses has turned to write his new play Donkey Heart, directed by Nina, which opens at the Old Red Lion with one of the best casts you could hope to see in any intimate theatre, never mind one perched atop an Islington pub.

Casting director Emily Jones definitely deserves mention for gathering such an illustrious company on the fringe – such experience as Wendy Nottingham and Patrick Godfrey, the younger talents of Emily Bruni and James Musgrave and emerging with one of the performances of the year so far, Lisa Diveney, She plays Sasha, the 20-something daughter of a Moscow family, three generations of which are compressed into a small apartment, along with a British visitor Thomas, her brother’s mouthy girlfriend and her father’s PA whose been stung by her landlord.

Friday, 9 May 2014

DVD Review: 8 Femmes

“Un homme? Pourquoi un homme?”

Having recently seen Isabelle Huppert on stage and Fanny Ardant at a film festival, I was reminded that I hadn’t watched François Ozon’s 8 Femmes for some time and I took great pleasure in reacquainting myself with a film I love dearly. If I believed in guilty pleasures this would be up there but for me, there’s no guilt at all, purely pleasure. Adapted by Ozon from the play by Robert Thomas, 8 Femmes is a retro delight, a technicolour musical version of an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery, beautifully spoofing the overblown Hollywood style.

It also boasts quite the roll-call of cross-generational French acting talent in the eight women it gathers in a snowbound country mansion to celebrate Christmas with the single man of the piece Marcel. There’s his wife Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), his mother-in-law Mamy (Danielle Darrieux), his sister-in-law Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), his daughters Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier) and Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen), his sister Pierette (Franny Ardant) and his household staff Madame Chanel (Firmine Richard) and Louise (Emmanelle Béart).

8 Femmes chantent

The cast of 8 Femmes all sing in the film so it wasn't too hard to find other examples of their music and so here's a selection of some of my (Deneuve-heavy) favourites.

It is no secret that I consider Isabelle Huppert to be something of a goddess and here is further proof, as she totally owns the 80s look in singing Souvenirs Chiffonées at the end of the film Signé Charlotte

DVD Review: La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher)

“It’s being aware of what it means to lose oneself before being completely abandoned”

There’s not much I can say about La Pianiste that I feel would do it justice. Michael Haneke’s film-making is always fiercely concentrated but matched with Isabelle Huppert’s peerless performance as the emotionally challenging Erika Kohut, something extraordinary happens. This is cinema at its most powerful, confrontational and blisteringly intense, thought-provoking in the extreme in the way in it asks questions about subjugating humanity for the artistic ideal, and whether our most intimate fantasies can ever be shared with those we think we love.

Kohut is a pianist, specialising in Schubert and Schumann and teaching at a Viennese conservatoire. Behind her immaculately composed exterior though is a mass of seething complexity – she still lives with her mother(the late Annie Girardot) despite being in her 40s and shares a tumultuous relationship with her. And sexually repressed, she craves ever more extreme channels of release as we see her visit porn shops, spy on horny teenagers at a drive-in and take razor blades to her most private parts in an attempt to control her emotion.

DVD Review: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)

“Tous ces gens qui chantent, moi, tu comprends, ça me fait mal.”

I will never truly understand why some people insist on hating musicals so, the rich diversity of the genre meaning there’s such range and to dismiss them all in the same breath feels lazy. But with that in mind as I sat down to rewatch Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, one does have to recognise that this most glorious of film musicals does take some getting used to. The entire film is sung as recitative, right down to the last piece of dialogue and though Michel Legrand’s score swells with such beautiful themes as I Will Wait For You, the near-operatic style is resolutely unforgiving.

But this total immersion is what makes the film work, the heightened colours of the costumes and set create a special visual language that nods to the world of Hollywood musicals but rather than the sometimes cloying saccharine of those films, here the flavour is more of a sherbet lemon – there’s sweetness in the romantic headiness of Geneviève and Guy’s teenage relationship but sourness too as things turn bittersweet, Demy doesn’t protect his characters from the harsh realities of life as pregnancy, debt, conscription and parental pressure come into play over naïve dreams of love.

DVD Review: Crime d’amour (Love Crime)

“On fait un bon équipe”

Alain Corneau’s Love Crime may be more familiar to English-speaking audiences as the Brian De Palma remake Passion starring Rachel McAdam and Noomi Rapace but given that l’original features Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier locked in a titanic battle of wills, on a performance level it probably wins out. That’s not to say though that it isn’t a problematic film, it may open as an intriguing psychological drama but it closes as something of a schlocky thriller.

Scott Thomas plays Christine, a ruthless executive in the French branch of a multinational corporation who will do anything to get the New York promotion she craves, including stealing the ideas of her quietly competent junior Isabelle, Sagnier in impressively muted form. Christine revels in the emotional, even sexual manipulation of her colleague but unaware of the depth of Isabelle’s ambition, she unleashes something traumatic. 

DVD Review: Nathalie...

"Qu’est-ce que tu veux monsieur?”

Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie… doesn’t have the greatest of reputations but I have to say I rather like the film, so very typically French in its study of middle class angst, extra-marital affairs and sexual obsession. Fanny Ardant plays icily cool gynaecologist Catherine whose marriage to Gerard Dépardieu’s Bernard has grown a little stale, her suspicions at his increasing absences eventually proved when she finds evidence of adultery on his phone.

So naturally she contracts a prostitute, Emmanuelle Béart’s Marlene who is swiftly renamed Nathalie, to meet up with her husband, seduce him and then tell her all about it. This then awakens something in Catherine’s own sexuality which encourages her to develop a somewhat unhealthy relationship to an already twisted set-up as she has an affair by proxy with her husband, as well as an actual affair with another man.

DVD Review: Persepolis

“Je me souviens à cette époque je menais une vie tranquille et sans histoire, une vie de petite fille.”

There’s something a little depressing in finding out that people were right all along – my natural (and completely irrational, I know that) antipathy towards animated films means that it takes a lot to get me to watch them and so this is actually the first time I have actually watched Persepolis, the Cannes Grand Jury prize winner from 2007. An English version has been made which replaces some of the actors but as I wanted to listen to Danielle Darrieux as Grandmother, I opted for the original French (with subtitles natch). 

France’s own Judi Dench and Finty Williams, Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni star (and interestingly, both also appear in the English version) in this coming of age tale of a young Iranian woman, set against the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of Islamic fundamentalist rule. Mastroianni plays Marji, through whose eyes we see the whole thing - the optimism of change as revolution kicks in, the excitement of being involved in a family full of activists, the fear at the realisation of what has actually been implemented by the new regime. 

DVD Review: Les adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen)

“Cela veut-il pour vous Madame dire quelque chose?”

Based on the novel Les adieux à la reine by Chantal Thomas, Farewell, My Queen takes us to a place that may seem familiar – Marie Antoinette’s court at Versailles in the days just before revolution – but shifts the perspective slightly to present a forensic yet subtle study of a way of life that, though it didn’t know it, was teetering on the brink of extinction. Benoît Jacquot’s 2012 film eschews political statement or even grand emotion in favour of a quiet observational style, an almost voyeuristic approach which offers an original take on events which is highly engaging.

The entry point into the royal court is Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux in scintillating form), one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting who is utterly devoted to her mistress (the ever-elegant Diane Kruger). So much so that as news begins to trickle in of the storming of the Bastille, the subsequent strange behaviour of the king and the disintegration of the social structures in the palace as people decide to flee for their lives, Sidonie remains by her queen’s side, obeying her every capricious order even when her demands eventually go beyond the pale.