Sunday, 30 September 2007

Liverpool: Centre of the Creative Universe?; Gone With the Wind

Liverpool: Centre of the Creative Universe?

Firstly let me declare that I have nothing against Liverpool, I have been there (for the theatre) several times and enjoyed myself. It is not my favourite English City (as a true born Londoner I count the capital as a nation unto itself, and above all other municipalities). If I had to list my favourites, Sheffield and Manchester would be higher than good old Liverpool, but I don’t in anyway dislike it (I say this again, as Liverpudlians are know to be, shall we say, defensive?).

Anyway, in the Sunday Time ‘Culture’ magazine today (and in other publications this weekend) the North West Tourist Board and the Liverpool European Capital of Culture 2008 people have taken out a full page advertisement extolling the virtues and attraction of the fair city during its cultural fiesta next year. All well and good, I am all for regional arts, and UK cultural life should not rest wholly in London (I am delighted at the state of regional theatre in 2007 as compared with a decade earlier, there is so much excellent work being done. I just can’t get out, and don’t have the money, to see it all, though I do try my best).
Anyway, the problem for me came when I read the following:

Liverpool [is] the Centre of the Creative Universe’

No, sorry, but Liverpool may just about be the creative centre of its region (on account of pop music, which I have very little knowledge about, but I’m told Liverpool is important somehow, apart from the obvious Beetles), though I would say for current creativity, and not past glories, Madchester is way ahead.

The second stupid quote, almost comedy gold is:

we call it liveable culture- culture that is ‘always on’.’

Liveable culture? Are you serious?! What idiotic council think tank though that one up. We speak English in this country, though you might think that bullshit is taking over as the official language.

I also have to say that the line up so far announced is not exactly setting my pulse racing. Liverpool- The Musical and some rather depressing serious music pieces, as well as a one off Macca concert (with other Liverpool greats apparently). No thanks, I’m not travelling for any of it, unlike the inaugural Manchester International Festival in July just gone. Sure the ‘serious’ music (Britten’s War Requiem and a new Tavener requiem about ‘reconcile[ing] the worlds warring religions through music and contemplation of the final journey that we all share’. I for one had no idea that the Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus were at war! Sounds like a wonderful evening out. Plus the Berliner Phil and a new lyric tale for two voices by Martin Crimp based on the Pied Piper of Hamlin. My hear leaps!) will be of a great standard, and I’d probably catch some of it if it were happening in London, but I think these serious pieces are one off performances and are solemn and grave, thereby giving credibility to the whole city of culture event.

P.S: Apologies for my jokey asides, I like serious music, it’s just that a ‘serious’ (po faced) Tavener and a Crimp piece (will the Pied Piper be wearing a catheter?) are not my idea of a jolly night out.

Frankly My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damn

Also in today’s Culture is another notable advert. This one is for the forthcoming stage musical version of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, adapted and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn with music, book and lyric by Margaret Martin (who she? More later….). Opening in April 2008 at the less than lovely New London Theatre with a top price of £60 and bottom of £27.50 (plus between £1.50 and £2.50 booking fee), plus a £10 reduction during previews (thanks!).

This advert annoys me, the website is fine, basic details are given, but the booking is not open (on the web anyway, the See Tickets site draws a total blank) but is advertised as booking now (or the details of bookings are given anyway, and a booking link on the show website also draws a blank). If you’re going to do a specific ad that has booking details etc, not just a general hype generator, then you should have the booking system sorted, up and running.

As for the identity of the composer and lyricist, Margaret Martin is a doctor and author of childbirth books:

‘Author of book, music and lyrics, Gone With the Wind is Dr. Martin’s first play’

Hmmm, her first ‘play’ is being put on in the West End with top whack ticket prices, no out of town try out and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn?

Now I’m not saying that people who have not been composers all of their lives can’t write musicals, in fact I’m a great believer in people learning themselves throughout life and doing exciting things at any age (and that you can do a day job, but be a creative person too!). But I would expect a first time composer to have a slightly less grandiose introduction to the business. It has the slight whiff of a vanity project (Behind The Iron Mask anyone?), but come April I’ll be sitting in the £17.50 (plus booking fee) cheap preview seats and I’ll find out. As will we all on 23rd April 2008, when the critics will have their say. I can’t wait, I want to make my booking now…

Review: The Country Wife

After a consciously modern production of Etherege’s The Man of Mode at the National earlier this year, Jonathan Kent’s new venture at the Haymarket (the ambitious, some would say foolhardy, Theatre Royal Haymarket Company, with three shows announced over the coming year), opens with a rather muddled production of William Wycherley’s 1675 comedy The Country Wife. There are several problem with restoration comedies, one being that are perceived as rather pantomime like (although are in reality are quite sophisticated, but of course restoration comedy has neither the appeal, or the box office, of pantomime). Another, that they revel in world play and can seem convoluted or complex to modern audiences (therefore requiring ‘work’ for those unfamiliar with the story or language, which is true and attested too by comments I heard tonight from other audience members). This is why I can see the rationale behind a director bringing the bawdy action of these sex comedies up to date (projecting ‘sexy’, ‘modern’ etc), but if you do that you really have to be fully committed to it, otherwise you should just stick with gaudy 17th century settings. Kent has it both ways, he gives us (hideous) floral frock coats, but skinny jeans and tight shirts under them (for the young men), but breeches and stockings for others (the oldies). We get lurid sets (costume and set by Paul Brown) of bright coloured wallpaper, again with bold floral patterns, but they have a note of post modern kitsch irony, and are rather angular, they could almost come out of a trendy Hoxton restaurant. We get glossy magazines, brightly coloured writing paper and modern furniture, mixed with period pieces and candles. We even get a modern pool table and bar room set (complete with a Kronenbourg 1664 beer advert). For me, the pieces of the concept (if there is one) just don’t sit right, or very easily, together.

So, my main grumble with the production is the design, the acting is spot on (broad comedy, but not broad as the Thames) and the direction pleasingly brisk (Kent has also cut the original text wisely, though the addition of ‘wassup’ was less welcomed and as jarring as the confused set). The story is of a notorious man about town (Horner, Toby Stephens) who comes back from a sojourn in France, falsely spreading the rumour that he is now impotent via some horrible continental venereal disease, so otherwise (rightly) jealous and suspicious husbands will not consider him a threat, and he can essentially get easy access to any women he wants. It’s a funny premise, with all the sub plots, disguises and intrigues that you would expect. In fact herein lies the problem, but with the play and not the production; all this witty word play and Byzantine goings on can get a trifle tedious, especially in the first act. In the second act, with the characters and plot device established, we have more time for jokes and improbable happenings, and indeed sex. It all ends as neatly, with the sexual shenanigans sorted out, and outraged morals soothed.

Stephens is an alluring presence onstage, he is clearly sexy, and his character wily with it. I don’t generally think he is the greatest actor in the world (I have almost forgotten his Hamlet), but he fits this role well (and indeed his last role, the caddish Jerry in Pinter’s Betrayal at the Donmar). David Haig is a delight as the cuckolded Pinchwife, all nervous energy, totally fed up with life (and he treats his young bride of the title like a pet dog, and is worryingly free in brandishing his pen knife at her). The other notable cast member is Patricia Hodge, but her role as Lady Fidget is funny enough (she’s just as randy as Horner), but ultimately not a very rewarding part for such a talented actress.

Remembering that this play is a wonderful piece of social history, and restoration comedy a brilliant flowering of impious, scandalous and generally wicked writing before centuries of prudery, The Country Wife is well worth seeing (and this will be on the half price booth every night, so save money, you needn’t book in advance). But maybe I just have a restoration problem, I just didn’t laugh as much as I think I should, and that set and its awkwardness just won’t leave my mind.

P.S: There is a live rabbit, safely housed in a pink hutch, onstage. I know the rabbit is a motif in this production, but I still think the poor creature could have been left at home without any adverse effect for the play.

Review: Rhinoceros

The last time I saw Eugene Ionesco’s 1958/9 ‘absurdist’ play Rhinoceros, was in March 2005 courtesy of the Belfast based theatre company Kabosh. That was a brilliant production where the small audience huddled inside what was effectively a shed constructed inside of the Lyric’s rehearsal room. That production was taught and lean (at not much more than an hour), it didn’t have fancy sets, instead characters used models to illustrate scenes where necessary. I wrote at the time that the production was ‘a thrilling evocation of mass hysteria’.

The Royal Court’s new staging of the play, on their main proscenium arch stage, is not quite as sleek a creature and is also not particularly thrilling (though it is often very good). The play lasts a full two hours and thirty minutes (with interval), and although I was never actually bored by the play, I just knew that a reverential attitude towards the text is not always the best option (i.e. cut, cut, cut). As an aside, I’m not asking for plays to be necessarily short, I love a good three or four hours at the theatre, but only when that time is really justified. In fact I have previously object to the truncated nature of some contemporary plays, feeling that issues, characters or situations have not been fully allowed to develop, especially in order to fit a 90 minute (or less) time frame (don’t even start on Edinburgh, at least the Traverse and EIF stage full length plays). It it’s good, if it’s pertinent, we’ll watch it and maybe even enjoy it. Having said that, this concern of mine has faded in the last few months, as I’ve seen ambitious longish new plays (like Flight Path) and excellent short ones too (The Ugly One, also at the Court, and covering some of the intellectual ground of the Ionesco).

Back to Rhinoceros, the direction by Dominic Cooke is very good, and his cast first rate. The translation of the play is new, by Martin Crimp, and thankfully it is unobtrusive and natural sounding (absolutely not a given when it come to Mr Crimp). Benedict Cumberbatch (so persuasive in BBC2’s Stuart: A Life Backwards, last week) is excellent as Berenger, a lazy semi-alcoholic underachiever in a small provincial French town. Cumberbatch is a geeky, weary presence, he even looks ill at the right moments. Although he does not seem like an imposing physical presence at first sight, he does manage to impose himself on the largish stage, and his yawns are some of the most believable I’ve ever seen fabricated. Berenger’s friend, the nattily dressed Jean, is superbly portrayed by Jasper Britton. Britton always exudes intensity, and Jean is certainly that, he is almost obsessive compulsive about his appearance, but has a hint of physical menace about him too. When rhinoceroses start to rampage around the town, panic and dismay spreads, some people dismiss it as a fantasy, but as the animals become more and more prevalent, the trend can’t be ignored. Some dismiss the rhinos as harmless, but Berenger sees a more sinister and destructive side as more and more of his friends and colleagues choose to become one with them.

The play is quite clearly a parable, intended to warn of the dangers of Nazism, but most belief systems and all consuming ideologies could just as easily be substituted. In fact most basically the play is telling us to beware the heard mentality, to protect individuality (much like the admirable contemporary play currently upstairs at the Royal Court, The Ugly One, which I review in pervious posts). But Ionesco also has a message of resistance, rather than allowing people to freely choose these destructive values (and thereby possibly eventually imposing them on everyone), we should stand up to them (but how does this square with the rights of minorities to be different, is stamping out differences not just as bad as fascism anyway? I personally think not, but in the right circumstances, which is a rather woolly reply I know). In the play, Dudard, a colleague of Berenger tries to persuade him that the rhinoceroses are free agents, who should be able to do as they wish, harmless to them and other people. But amidst their passive resistance the phenomenon gowns and Dudard himself succumbs to the lure of the rhinos. I think this part of the play is important to take note of, because many plays today might bemoan social ills, intolerance or consumerism for example, very few actually advocate action (by that I mean proactively standing against something). And although Rhinoceros in by no means agit-prop, it does come from a person who witnessed the destructive forces of political extremism first hand, and it does suggest that action should be taken before things are too late. This sort of confrontational politics, or attitude, is not very fashionable today amongst the general public (despite populist causes like bashing hoddies and killing burglars, which is a slightly different thing). We like environmentalism, but not if we personally have to do anything, voting changes nothing (‘they’re all the same’); terrorism/fundamentalism/whatever is not our direct problem. And as for consumerism and the tyranny of body conformism/the beautiful people, I think most people talk rubbish about it, actually they directly lie to themselves even. Few people I have ever meet think they are in thrall to conspicuous spending, peacockery and basically showing their wealth/membership of a group/coolness. With looks it may be even worse; many women are still putting powder on their face, paint on their lips and fitting their feet into tiny shoes (almost reminiscent of Chinese foot binding in some cases) in order to leave the house. There is much that is wonderful about modern culture and our western society, and I think that Macmillan’s ‘you’ve never had it so good’ line rings true today, but I also feel some social isolation from many of the mainstream trends, and especially from some of the less mainstream types I see at the theatre or in the arts, a clique worthy of the worst American high school musical meanies and no mistake. This might be going rather deep into my personal neuroses for a theatre review (‘oh! the terrible isolation!’), but I really do meet so many people with the most closed of minds when it comes to other people, but think they are the most open and welcoming when it comes to art, music, travel or whatever esoteric subject you might wish to name.

But back to the overall theme: just because the big ideological battles of the 20th century are well and truly over, and our consumerist society has prevailed, doesn’t mean that there are not big issues (and possible shifts of power) to be discussed and thought about in the 21st century (although I think they might creep up on us rather more subtly than deciding whether you are red, blue, pink or green etc).

Rhinoceros is a worthwhile play, it might not be as subtle as it could be, or as taught, but the production is good (well realised, but not over the top, design by Anthony Ward), the acting likewise and there are certainly many laughs to be had. Interesting to note that the same company will be performing The Arsonists (by Max Frisch) from November, in rep with Rhinoceros (should be good, with Ramin Gray directing).

Saturday, 29 September 2007


I attended a marvellous and huge Iraqi-Palestinian (mixed with Tunisian traditions) wedding held in a lavish hotel located on Tunisia’s stunning Mediterranean coast a couple of weeks ago. Tunisia is an interesting nation, a small, naturally diverse and beautiful country, it enjoys social and political stability, a relatively good economy (far better than other North African nations, and I didn’t see one beggar for instance), and an increasingly profitable tourism market (see the ‘visit Tunisia’ posters plastered all over the tube at the moment). For the visitor, the excellent weather, very favourable prices, the stunning coast and the safety are all attractive (and most of the western tourists in Tunisia go on package tours, not bothering to see much of the country outside of their compound hotel and perhaps an afternoon coach trip to the market/historical site). But, as an independent traveller, and one interested in seeing in the country and not just lying in the sunshine, I was surprised at how few other visibly western people were to be seen in the capital city of Tunis, some days I didn’t spot any.

Tunisia is also one of the most liberal Islamic countries in attitudes towards women, there were many women wearing no head covering at all, and those that did normally had small brightly coloured ones coupled with jeans and tops just as you might find in London on Paris. In fact the day I came home from Tunisia, walking in my hometown of Acton (West London), I saw many women wearing flowing black robes and/or total face coverings; I saw none in Tunisia. The people also seemed nice and welcoming, I was never hassled by salesmen or ripped off in shops or restaurants (being with Arabs may help). The Arab speakers I was with were in constant conversation with the local people we meet, all interested in where they were from and to hear details of the wedding we were attending (which was a major boon to the Tunisian economy!).

On the bad side, Tunisia is a dictatorship and a police state. I knew that President Ben Ali was not exactly open to the democratic process before I arrived (it is a secular nationalist regime, and has been since the colonial power, France, vacated the scene in 1956), but I was not expecting the cult of personality and police presence that I encountered. A picture of the President in morning dress and with lots of medals and ribbons attached to his chest, is present in every shop, restaurant, museum and hotel. There are also huge posters of him throughout the city and suburbs (and I assume across the nation). The President strikes heroic poses, putting his hand on his heart (‘I’m With Ben Ali’) or waving to the little people, in the souk (market) of the medina (old city) of Tunis, there was even bunting with the picture of the president on it. All this is quite alien to me, although British culture dose have some personality cults (celebrity mags, the Daily Express etc), they are not always totally favourable, and the scale of the Tunisian operation is vast. Imagine a huge billboard of the Queen in Trafalgar Sq, then again in Leicester Sq etc, add to that a regal pic of her maj in every shop and you have the Ben Ali model. The Tunisian’s will not openly talk about politics, especially with a foreigner, but from what I have learnt about Mr President and his regime, he’s not a very nice man. On the other hand the country is supposed to be very safe for tourists (and locals…. Unless you say the wrong thing). This is because there are armed police and roadblocks everywhere, our taxi was stopped once and the driver asked for his papers. This is a regular occurrence. When visiting the spread out remains of Carthage, we accidentally strayed into the orbit of the Presidential Palace/compound, which is not a good idea. We were question by a secret service guy, backed up by a small regiment of heavily armed soldiers and police. Not a nice experience, but still a fascinating one (and of course, I can say that because I don’t have to live under that regime. Some of my Arab friends told me that they are in favour of the checkpoints etc, it makes the country safe and the economy for everyone is better for that. Would we be here if we couldn’t walk the streets safely? I counter that you have a low opinion of people if you think they need a military strong man to keep order).

Anyway, back to the better points of Tunisia. Firstly the coast really is stunning, my hotel had a private section of totally unspoiled beach (you could even take a camel ride into the desert). But my main interest was the city of Tunis and the remains of the ancient city of Carthage.

Tunis is a big city; most of the inhabitants of the Country live in or around it. The old city (the medina) is a wonderful maze of streets, unchanged for centuries, containing monuments, mosques and the wonderful souk or market. This is a proper market for the local people, and not tourists (though there are some tourist bits). The fish market was extraordinary, with a smell to remember for life (in a good way), and the clothes part also interesting (as they mostly sold tight jeans, fashionable tee shirts and branded trainers which the local young men wear). There was also some real craftsmanship on show, I was particularly impressed by the hat workshops, where the traditional felt hat of the country is made, and wood workshops where chessboards and much besides were made. There are also some traditionally dressed figures in the souk, old men wearing the red hat and constantly smoking black cigarettes, some of the cafes are very atmospheric indeed (not to mention smoke filled, like everywhere unfortunately). The Zitouna Mosque is in the middle of the souk, and buildings dating from the 8th century onwards. It is a beautiful oasis of calm in the middle of a really mad market (which makes Oxford Street look deserted, remember these are narrow alleyways). Next to the old city you have the Ville Nouvelle, or new town, started by the French in the 1880’s, when they took over rule from the Ottomans. The new town has big boulevards and grand white buildings, just like a mini Paris, and the cafĂ© culture is very similar (though strops surprisingly early). Here we have a white stucco national theatre, a bizarre hotchpotch of a Cathedral (with a huge figure of Jesus and his outstretched hands above the monumental doors) and the grand French Embassy. There is also a metro line, which takes passengers on a causeway over Lake Tunis, to the suburban towns beyond (including Carthage, and almost to the place where we stayed). All I’ll say about the metro is that it was an ‘experience’, and that most of the stations didn’t have name signs. Food wise, I’d highly recommend Dar El Djed, a fabulous and luxurious restaurant in the old city (but at prices you would pay in a London Pizza Express type place). Dining in a former Ottoman mansion with a beautiful courtyard, carvings and doorways, is a real visual pleasure (never mind the food). They even splash rose water on your hands as you leave (not compulsory).

Looking for the remains of Roman Carthage (they destroyed anything before them) is not easy, and you’ll have to take cabs (which cost insignificant amounts). The remaining sites are disparate and of varying quality, but overall well worth seeing. The highlights were the Antonin Baths, a huge Roman bath complex (only the underground, but now effectively ground level, section remains, which is still very impressive), and the Carthage Museum and grounds (some remains and lots of random columns), which has a now ex-Cathedral next to it (another French import), and it is very bizarre to go into this large space and find it completely empty and devoid of all the usual religious trappings. Nearby the beautiful village of Sidi Bou Said is also well worth a visit, the small (care free) streets of white houses with blue ironwork bustle with flaneurs (mostly Arab). It is an exclusive location, where many wealthy people live, and has some excellent restaurants. We dined on a terrace overlooking the sea and with the lights of the city shimmering in the distance as the sun set, it was a cosmopolitan crowd and the food was a fusion of classic French and Tunisian cooking (the food in Tunisia has many cultural influences).

Back to Tunis, but a rather anonymous suburb, and the Bardo Museum, housed in the former Ottoman rulers’ palace. The building is a treasure in its own right (though not form the outside), with courtyards, carvings, grand rooms and ceilings to amaze the eye. The museum contains a huge collection of mosaics, mostly from the Roman period, but some before and others well after. This collection is a real joy, some of the scenes are so vibrant and striking. You can see how important the sea is to Tunisia in the museum, many of the mosaics have maritime themes (Neptune is a good one), and fish (the de facto national dish) are often to be seen somewhere, even in the most unlikely settings. The museum also houses statues, sarcophaguses and other artefacts from ancient Tunisian history, and in well worth a several hour investigation. When I was there, at first it was totally empty, but then a fleet of coaches arrived, and the museum was buzzing with guided parties (many German and Italian, none British that I noticed) for about an hour, and then calm descended once again.

The wedding was an excellent party with some wonderful traditional Arab music (a large band and four different singers), and the guests of all ages very much enjoyed themselves. Another night we also went to a club in La Marsa, a very nice town outside of Tunis, which was actually a big restaurant and bar complex with a subterranean nightclub. The whole place was lovely (especially the garden with hundreds of lampshades of all hues sparkling and hanging over our heads, the perfect location to while away a few hours putting the world to rights on a beautiful evening), I had tea and cake in the restaurant at about midnight before braving the club. The DJ did his own thing, and played a very mixed bag of Arab pop tunes and some clear Tunisian favourites. I was possibly the only white person present, and the rest was made up of British/European Arabs attending the wedding and mostly locals, women and men, all having a good time. When you go to an Islamic country, drinking and dancing are not what first spring to mind, but they are most certainly present in Tunisia.

There are lots of there things to say about Tunisia and their culture, but that’ll have to wait for another day.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Thoughts; The Terracotta Army; Summer Films; Greenwich Planetarium and Museums; Matthew Barney Exhibition

Some varied thoughts on some of my other cultural activities in the last few weeks (and more in the case of cinema).

The Terracotta Army

The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army, to give the exhibition its full title, is an absolute must see for anyone interested in history, art or culture in general. Probably the British Museum’s biggest blockbuster exhibition since King Tut in the 1970’s (and the boy king comes to the Dome in November, but not the great sarcophagus itself, it will never leave Cairo again), and the Terracotta Army show is part of a cultural exchange programme with Beijing’s main museums (which is all very worthily spelt out in the catalogue), but beyond the hype and the diplomatic niceties, this exhibition is simply exhilarating. 20 of the figures have come to the Reading Room (with a platform build above the listed desks), not all of them warriors, but bureaucrats, strongmen, musicians and acrobats too, all there to serve or entertain the Emperor in the afterlife (built by the Emperor Qin, who forged what we now call China, in approx 200BC, to make his rule eternal. There are over 8,000 figures, mostly warriors, but also everyone that would normally make up his court too).

I can’t replicate all the articles and reviews that have gone into detail about the exhibition and the warriors in general. But I can tell you that my personal feelings when coming face to face with the figures was something akin to bliss. It was also quite moving, making eye contact to these amazing, mass produced (yes, mass produced in 200BC!), but also individually personalised statues, almost portraits. You get very close to the figures, more so than at the site in China apparently. There you see the massed ranks of figures in the distance (only a fraction have so far been uncovered), here, most strikingly with the main martial group, you get to see them up close and personal. No figure is the same, and here in London each type is different, we have two generals, an archer, foot soldier, charioteer and his horses (amongst others). Their dress, shoes, hair and facial hair are all different, personally created from a uniform base by an army of craftsman and convicts (forced labour and slavery created something this beautiful and human). Alongside the human figures are beautiful birds and many other artefacts relating to the Emperor, his rule and the creation of the army. The exhibition runs until April, and I’ll certainly be going again several times.

Summer Films

What a summer of films, unfortunately I mean that in a slightly disappointed and exasperated way, not as an enthusiastic exclamation. I won’t mention some of the more expected clunkers (Transformers, Shrek, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four. Yes, I did see them all, for varying reasons), but retreads aside (two stupendous Bergman’s, plus the brilliant Richard III, directed and starring Laurence Olivier. Richard’s opening soliloquy is delivered by Olivier to a fixed camera at one end of the room, he comes towards us, his face moving into darkness as his dark intentions are made clear. Superb), I’ve not seen a really wonderful film for months (La Vie En Rose, Zodiac, Darrat and Tell No One, all count as wonderful in some way or other).

Knocked Up was pretty tame and highly predictable stuff, hardly a radical comedy departure. The follow up, Superbad, was more gross out, and mildly amusing, but not laugh a minute either (and again, has an infuriatingly ‘sweet’ ending). Both of these films, supposedly at the cutting edge of Hollywood comedy, seemed like good ol’ fashioned gross out comedies to me (the latter in particular), certainly not left field or indie as some make out.

Atonement was beautifully shot and had some great acting, but was let down by a lack of plot (or a silly plot) towards the end and the wooden acting of Kiera Knightly (though I did shed a tear at one point, but it was an emotional day). Hallam Foe, another British hope, fell rather flat for me. Jamie Bell was very good, but the story just didn’t grip me, it all washed over me, it was more a mood than a story at times (so yes, it was ‘atmospheric’ and again beautifully shot, especially in my favourite [Scottish] city of Edinburgh).

As for Death Proof, what can I say? Controversial, gripping, visceral? No, boring and overlong, self indulgent (Tarantino has an overextended ‘cameo’) tosh. Risible really (but why the hell is this an 18 certificate?).

The Simpsons Movie was a huge disappointment, not one tenth of the charm and humour of the TV show at its best. Why did they have to leave Springfield? And Over in Baltimore, Hairspray seemed rather antiseptic (think, this was a John Waters movie once!).

I did enjoy Harry Potter, but that seems likes an age ago, and was exactly as expected (and a mega franchise to boot). Also of the franchise ilk was The Bourne Ultimatum, which I did enjoy quite a bit, a very satisfying and tense action thriller (although ultimately silly and leading nowhere sensible). Was Spider Man 3 this year? Yes it was, and it was that forgettable (especially compared with the first two). Who decide that Peter Parker should become and emo?

A Mighty Heart was a good effort from Angelina Jolie (directed by Michael Winterbottom, of the awful non story 9 Songs, but some good films too) to prove that she is a serious actress, and she certainly is. Whilst the film, about Daniel Pearl, the US journalist killed in Pakistan and more specifically his French wife, Mariane, was not phenomenal, it was a serious and solid effort that was consistently interesting.

However, maybe the worst film of the year (so far...) was Pirates of the Caribbean 3, I could only manage 15 minutes of the mind numbing crap before removing myself from its orbit. There I must stop, as the April isn’t considered Summer in London.


A visit to Greenwich is always a pleasure, so I booked for the new Peter Harrison Planetarium that has not long opened at the Old Royal Observatory (originally designed by Wren, and an interesting site without visiting the planetarium, with exhibitions on time and the history of astronomy amongst other things) sitting atop of Greenwich Hill in Greenwich Park. For a modest fee you can see a very instructive show about our solar system lasting 30 minutes (entitled Star Life, and suitable for children). I’d not been to a planetarium since going to the now defunct London Planetarium (at Madam Tussaud’s) as a child, and I was sad to see that close and very happy to se this new institution open (the Observatory and Planetarium are run under the auspices of the National Maritime Museum just down the hill). Alongside the planetarium are brand new Weller Astronomy Galleries, which are interesting to the casual observer of all ages (the children seemed to be loving the interactive exhibits). I’m not particularly interested or knowledgeable about astronomy or science in general, but that’s why the planetarium, the astronomy galleries and the observatory are so interesting, they really did teach me a thing or two (and I’d been to the Observatory before).

Down the hill (and up the hill you have a great view of Canary Wharf and East London) is the Queen’s House (again, run by the National Maritime Museum), which is a superb mini palace designed by Inigo Jones in 1616 for Queen Ann (James I’s wife), said to be the first purely classical building in England. And it is a beautiful and elegant treasure in itself, now housing the NMM’s art collection, showcased in some superb rooms. The collection, naturally with a nautical theme, ranges from painting of the Spanish Armada to depictions of life at sea in the 20th Century, via portraits of the great and the good of the maritime world. We have works by Turner, Gainsborough, Reynolds and a huge range of other British artists to see, I liked a painting of Napoleon as a prisoner aboard the HMS Bellerophon before his exile to St Helena, he was still a proud and cocky leader, not at all the defeated man. However, I personally find the building more exciting than most of the art on display inside it.

Next to the Queen’s House is the main event, the huge National Maritime Museum. I had forgotten how large this institution was, its collections cover everything from a 17th century royal barge to exhibitions on transatlantic liners via the early seafaring explorers. You really could stroll into this fascinating collection and come out five hours later, even if (like me) you are not a salty sea dog. Seeing Nelson’s holey tunic is quite amazing though, as is generating a large wave by gently turning a handle.

All these attractions are free (apart from the planetarium show), plus Greenwich also has Wren’s Royal Naval College (you can visit the splendid main hall, again free), Hawksmoor’s imposing St Alfege’s is worth a visit (and they sometimes have concerts) and a variable indoor market (selling stuff not produce, if you see what I mean). The town centre is more homogenised than it was a few years ago, and the old pie and mash shop is much missed, and of course the Cutty Sark is under wraps at the moment, awaiting restoration, but Greenwich is still one of the must see London towns. Add the Greenwich Theatre and the smaller fringe Greenwich Playhouse, and you even have a theatre town.

Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint, Serpentine Gallery

Is this a ‘cool’ (or maybe I mean hot) exhibition, or was it just the free admission and pleasant Hyde Park setting that filled the modestly sized Serpentine Gallery with hordes of yummy mummies, their shrieking babies, gormless husbands and wannabe Shoreditch twats? Matthew Barney is an American artist, but is also Mr Bjork, who works in various media. Here at the Serpentine we get lots of exhibits related to an unseen film called Drawing Restraint 9 (to be shown at the Gate Cinema), and we also get lots of little videos featuring himself, pushing the body to extremes perhaps. He gives us huge plastic instillations, ramps and vaseline. I thought the show interesting enough for a wander around (it is visually arresting and meticulous), but not intellectually compelling or coherent (but then I’ve into seen the film). Also perhaps I was on an off day, my mind not as open as it could have been (posing idiots, screaming babies and huge crowds can do that to me).

Reviews: Flight Path; The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents; The Member of the Wedding; Fragments; The Ugly One; The Burial at Thebes

Some Quick Reviews, Part 2.

Flight Path, Bush. Out of Joint visits the Bush (as part of a tour, of course) with a new play by David Watson, a young writer who clearly has great potential. Whilst I enjoyed the play, it is not quite a polished pearl, but it is an entertaining night out. The story of Jonathan and his chaotic life is told with real feeling and a great sense of naturalism and reality, speech and mannerism really encountered in urban life are reproduced onstage. Story wise, we have the too busy social worker mum who looks after everybody but her own family, a distant academic father long separated from his children (and resented for it), a older downs syndrome brother, a maniac druggie friend, and the beautiful and sincere girlfriend. The production, directed by Naomi Jones often managed to take flight on the strength of Watson’s words, but is let down by a slightly soppy ending, however, it is well worthwhile.

The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, Gate: The new regime at the Gate starts well with this German play by Lukas Barfuss, translated by Neil Blackadder and directed by (one of the new bosses) Carrie Cracknell. A highly physical, sometimes even symbolic production (with choreography by Ben Duke), with some excellent performances (and one I didn’t like so much), the play is a simple, quite straightforward telling of a story. It is real and direct, because it is not a high romantic sage, but a modern play with a horribly fascinating story, but occurring in an almost grey urban setting. The play was, for me at least, very moving, I was struck by the awful position of our protagonist, but I also feel for her mother, somehow losing a child forever. Dora (a superb Cath Whitefield) is a young learning disabled woman (perhaps with downs syndrome), who is coming off drugs which have anesthetised her to the world for years. Her mother, a loving and sympathetic woman, is behind this move, she wants to unlock her daughter, to let her become herself. But the move leads to Dora expressing her preferences, but not always to the liking of her parents. She meets a very sleazy salesman and he takes her to his room for sex. Dora love sex and is very happy for this relationship to continue. However, we in the audience see that her lover is a horrible and abusive man, we morally want to override her wishes and see her infantilised and unable to make her own decisions, just like before. She becomes pregnant and has an abortion, having little concept of what it really means. She is then persuaded to be sterilised, not understanding this is forever (she wants a baby, she has no idea of the sanctity of life, saying they could just kill it if they didn’t like or want it). Are we to be pleased that Dora can now not have a baby; she clearly couldn’t look after it and is totally unable to look after herself let alone others? But despite this, they situation that Dora is in seems like a violation by horrible knowing people, people who never want her to have a real life. This is a moving play that subtly asks questions about the mentally disabled in society. A great start to the season from the Notting Hill powerhouse.

The Member of the Wedding, Young Vic: A 1946 novel and later play by Carson McCullers wonderfully transports us into the deep south during the Second World War, but also into the world of a 12 year old tomboy called Frankie. She and Bernice, her widower father’s black maid (and effective nanny to her and her cousin John), are both brought vividly to life by Flora Spencer-Longhurst and American actress Portia respectively. The relationship of the girl and woman is beautifully represented, with the juvenile intensity and changeable nature of Frankie contrasted with Bernice’s world wearing nature and daily grind. The wedding of the title is that of Frankie’s much older military brother, whom she hardly knows. But Frankie becomes obsessed with running away with ham and his new bride, unable to understand the realities of adult relationships. The scene in which Frankie is disappointed by the bride and grooms polite refusal, and loudly shows her anguish at the news, has a great emotional intensity from Spencer-Longhurst, and anyone who has ever spent any time with a tired pre-teenager will relate to the petulant actions shown. The end of the play is all about loss, John is dead (from meningitis) and Bernice is leaving the service of the family. The position of back people in the United States is bitterly shown up in the play, and it was Bernice’s pure devastation, with so may injustices faced, that stays with me.

Fragments, Young Vic: In the Maria studio, Peter Brook’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production of five short pieces by Beckett, arrives to a sell out run. Rightly so, for seeing these Beckett pieces is relatively rare (though we’ve had quite a few of the shorter pieces recently with his centenary festival in 2006 and a few other productions), and the chance to see a production of Brook’s in London seems even rarer (the last was, La Costume, which briefly visited in 2003, also at the Young Vic). But this is only a very good production, even if it does sometimes become great. Jos Houben, Marcello Magni and the inimitable Kathryn Hunter play a variety of roles, only being seen together in Come and Go (the other pieces being Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, and Neither). Hunter is the stand out brilliant performance for me, I think she is simply superb, her face and voice are filled with pathos and always seem right. Magni and Houben are very funny together in Act Without Words II, where the futility and repetition of life are shown up in a silent farcical cycle of getting up and going to bed. Indeed, all the pieces show Beckett’s typical disillusionment with life and inability to reconcile oneself with it. Come and Go was excellent, the play is written for three women, so the two men dress as old ladies (Beckett was a stickler fro stage direction, I’m surprised his notoriously ‘difficult’ estate allowed this production. But then can you say no to Peter Brook?) who gossip silently in the ear of the other when the third is out of earshot. Hunter’s outraged expression was so brilliant; it will be etched in my memory for many years to come.

The Ugly One, Royal Court Upstairs: The Ugly One is a short but sharp 60 minute play, written in German by Marius von Mayenburgh and translated by Maja Zade, on the brittle subject of looks in our image obsessed society. Lette is the ugly one, a middle aged inventor/engineer, he only realises that he is hideous when his company refuses to allow him to present his new invention at a sales conference, sending a more palatable colleague instead. His ugly looks are confirmed by his wife, who counters that he’s got used to it and that he has a great personality. Lette sees a surgeon and is transformed into a neat and handsome man, the face of his company and desired by women (and men), not least his wife. When his surgeon starts producing equally handsome look-alikes, he is just a face in the crowd again, but worse his individuality is gone (all underlined by the fact that the actor is not ugly or particularly handsome, just an ordinary man). You could say that this is a very interesting parable on body fascism, a looks obsessed society, but also one that is in thrall to conspicuous consumerism and susceptible to mass market commercialisation. I’m not saying that the market economy of 2007 Britain (Germany or whatever industrialised country) is making us faceless clones, some would say we now have more real choice than ever, but there is a stifling expectancy of conformity amongst many groups of people which can be worrying (this is coming from a 25 year old without an ipod or mp3 player). The play is brisk and direct, scenes flow into each other, the cast of 4 can transfer from one character to another in the course of a sentence. This is a refreshing style, and very slickly realised in Ramin Gray’s production, all played out on a scruffy platform in the lighted auditoria, with no props (save a plastic bag and a chair to complement the benches the actors sit on, the same benches that the audience also use), all very Brechtian. An excellent hour, thoughtful but very entertaining with it.

The Burial at Thebes, Pit, Barbican: Seamus Heaney’s 2004 interpretation/translation of Sophocles Antigone arrives at the Pit courtesy of the Nottingham Playhouse (apparently changing the title brings us to the matter more directly). It is a good version, with some powerful poetic touches that you might expect (though the original is pretty good too…), but there are one or two awkward phrases or words (‘garbage’ and ‘dumped’ being two of the worst). Unfortunately the production by Lucy Pitman-Wallace is a tad on the earnest side, though it is a just about decent production for the hordes of schoolchildren present to get an idea of the Antigone story, only it not inspiring or inspired theatre (which is not good for schoolchildren, and certainly not good at encouraging theatregoing). The production is a curiously passive experience, lacking the power that the play can deliver in a great production. I’m afraid none of the acting really did it for me, either being too cold or rather overacted, there is much dancing and singing from the chorus (who also play most of the character parts), but that too seems quite flat (and some people were calling it silly and worse after the show). Creon as the tragic, wrongheaded ruler, whose principals cause death and suffering is a very pertinent concept for our times (around the world, and not just in the knee-jerkingly obvious case), but it is not properly explored in the production. At 75 minutes the production doesn’t quite outstay its welcome.

Reviews: Twelfth Night; I Am Shakespeare; Silence; White Boy; The Boy Friend; Reverence; When Midnight Strikes

Some Quick Reviews, Part 1.

I’ve been madly distracted by life since coming back from Edinburgh a month ago, weddings, holidays, job hunting and house cleaning have taken most of my daytime attention, with the theatre taking up the evenings. So here is a round up of my thoughts on various productions, in brief (sometimes brief-ish):

Twelfth Night, Chichester Festival Theatre: Patrick Stewart disappointed as a Scottish Malvolio in Philip Frank’s post World War One production. Compared to the electric, vibrant and urgent Macbeth, with the same company of actors in the Minerva Studio (now transferred to London), Twelfth Night seems flat and lacks much comic brio or verve. I just felt mildly bored by the whole production. I should mention the superb Filter Twelfth Night I saw in Edinburgh (and which will play for one night only at Stratford’s Courtyard next season), only 90 minutes, with a relatively tiny company, and as riveting and funny as could possibly be imagined.

I Am Shakespeare, Minerva, Chichester: This only appeals to Shakespeare nerds, and if you’re one of those you will have a slightly diverting time and either be angered or encouraged with Mark Rylance’s position on the Bard of Avon, which is basically to cast doubt that William Shakespeare was the author of the 37 play and various poems that we venerate today (well, I’m not personally venerating Two Nobel Kinsman or Henry VIII, the only two of the surviving plays that I’ve not seen). I could write several paragraphs telling you have wrongheaded and silly Rylance is, but I won’t. William Shakespeare (however you chose to spell it, whichever variation you favour) is William Shakespeare, I have seen nothing to seriously make me consider otherwise. I think much of the ‘evidence’ against him is snobbish invention, cooked up by people with too much time on their hands, and who are frankly, a tiny bit tragic. The play shows a sad sack teacher (Rylance) hosting a lonely webcam show exploring the ‘real’ identity of Shakespeare, the man himself and3 other pretender to the title then appear and rather didactically expound their cases. To me, infuriating, dramatically unfulfilling, but watchable enough (even just to trash the predictable arguments in your head).

Silence, Wilton’s Music Hall & White Boy, Soho Theatre. National Youth Theatre: Two triumphs for the NYT, showing us the really talented and interesting faces of the future. Silence is a beautiful and very funny revival of Moira Buffini’s 1999 play about a medieval forced marriage, where the groom turns out to be a woman, unbeknownst to him/her. I can’t praise the acting enough, the whole company was superb (and my 15 year old sister was impressed by the presence of a Skins cast member when I told her about the show). Paul Roseby, the NYT’s head, directs in the stunning and decaying old Music Hall, with great skill, making me glad he’s training the actors of tomorrow, but sad we don’t see him in the ‘real’ theatre so much. White Boy is a highly interesting and relevant new play by Tanika Gupta about inner city life, cultural identity, belonging and friendship. Perhaps that sounds predictable and hackneyed to hardened new playgoers, but Gupta weaves a wonderfully gripping story, and really made us care about her sometimes damaged characters. Again the acting is terrific, and direction by Juliet Knight is also crisp and moves along at great pace, with physical elements also taken nicely into account.

The Boy Friend, Open Air. Not quite as good as the first time round last season, but a welcome evening of camp fun none the less. Sandy Wilson’s 1950’s parody of 1920’s musicals is gentle and loving (and not rammed down your throat like the awful, and not lamented Drowsy Chaperone). Director Ian Talbot relishes his role of Lord Brockhurst, a comic lord who espouses the charm of the older gentleman to younger ladies.

Reverence, Southwark Playhouse: Nice to see the Southwark Playhouse back, now situated in arches underneath London Bridge Station (yes, just like Shunt, but unlike Shunt they actually put on shows!). A very atmospheric (i.e. slipper, dusty, uneven, dank but quite charming) space, used to full extent by the Goat and Monkey Theatre Company in their staging of the tale of Abelard and Heloise, a smitten Monk and his love, naturally domed never, ever, to be happy together. The actors are all decent enough (perhaps a hint of ‘big’ theatre from some, but it is a huge space, even with such an intimate gathering), but the staging throughout the railway arches is great. We all had to be initiated as monks first, robed up and flagellated, then we follow the action via the library, chapel, bedrooms and hallways of the monastery. An enjoyable experience, and the company have improved on their last outing (The Ghost Sonata at Trinity Buoy Wharf, which is a wonderfully semi-deserted wharf in Docklands, untouched by developers and including London's only lighthouse- used for training years ago). Certainly ones to watch, especially if you like meticulous promenade productions, but also like a storyline and the chance to see the whole play unfold rather than just snatches (you know who I mean).

When Midnight Strikes, Finborough: I’m not an evangelist for this musical I’m afraid, I thought it rather predictable with unremarkable music. That’s not to say that I didn’t have a good time all things considered, just that many of the parts don’t fit for me. The cast (a huge 12 for the tiny Finborough, a room above a pub) are charming and probably give just about the best account of the show possible without a huge amount of money being spent, and several of them were excellent. Fenton Gray directs on the tiny stage surprisingly well, but Kevin Hammonds (book and lyrics) story of a 1999 New Year’s Eve party in New York is pretty write it by numbers, and Charles Miller (music) is workmanlike and unmemorable. Some praise this as showing the future of British musical theatre, that may be hubris at the moment, but I’d certainly say that they are a competent pair and I’d more than happily see their next show (should their be one). Also drop the disgusting smoking, the number which goes with it might be a highlight without it, we have imaginations.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Review: A Disappearing Number

Is it compulsory to like all new pieces by Complicite? It did feel a little bit like that as I left the Barbican Theatre having watched the companies’ latest play, A Disappearing Number. The crowds around me were loudly showing their approval for the show, but more on the cleverness and general importance of the company than on the merits of this particular piece it seemed (‘aren’t they clever!’).

I’m not saying that I disliked it, the two hours running time passed quite quickly enough, even in the rather uncomfortable upper circle of the Barbican Theatre, just that the whole play felt rather too clever, sometimes smug, and sometimes simply flat. Conceived and directed by Simon McBurney (who doesn’t appear in the production), with an addition credit ‘devised by the company’, the play tells us two stories linked by India and maths. One is of the real life maths genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and his significant work in Cambridge with GH Hardy a don at Trinity College. The other is of a modern day transatlantic couple, an American businessman of Asian decent and a white British maths professor (what I wrote in my notebook on the way home as a ‘predictable global inter-ethnic modern couple’). This second tale sometimes seems more dominant than the more interesting, but more unconventional, story of Ramanujan’s life. The modern love story, running through the usual issues of identity and understanding, and eventually loss and grief, didn’t inspire me very much. Certainly the use of India as he lynchpin in the relationship not only between the couple but between them and the genius of 80 years earlier, didn’t really work for me either. Yes, India is magical, crowded and overwhelming, yes they have call centres that deal with UK customers (there was a strand about Indian call centre workers, which was groan worthy and not sweet as clearly intended), yes we live in a global world. All this I know, and didn’t learn anything much about it anyway. What I didn’t know about is the fascinating story of an Indian man who was persuaded to leave his home and travel many thousands of miles to live in Cambridge, survive on a diet of rice and carrots, was rejected by the conventional academic establishment, became gravely ill, possibly had a mental breakdown and died tragically young, but who also managed to (I’m reliably informed) produce some of the most startling mathematical formulae in history. So we glimpsed the life of the exotic figure in a drab academic environment, but we never really got very deep down (of course this would have to be a somewhat speculative rather than accurately historically representative personal character). So A Disappearing Number intrigued me, but never satisfied me. The demonstration of maths done on a blackboard at the beginning of the show left me none the wiser, I’m afraid that I wanted to relate to the maths professors by their personalities, as I’m useless with the numbers. The physical touches in the production are classic Complicite and are done beautifully (bat and eyelid and the stage picture has totally changed). The cast are excellent, I always believed in their characters, especially Paul Battacharjee (in varied roles, and sometime narrator). Music is composed by Nitin Sawhney, and he should be given credit for a beautiful score that at no point tries to dominate. An often interesting piece, that sadly falls flat on occasion and didn’t connect all the dots for me.

Review: Awake and Sing!

I was slightly disappointed on my first acquaintance with Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets at the Almeida Theatre. I’d heard so much about the play and its importance in the American cannon (precursor to Miller, social realism and politics combined etc), but although I think it is decent piece, it certainly does show its age (especially compared to many a Miller play or even the recently revived Great White Fog, by Theodore Ward, which had a period atmosphere but still felt somehow relevant). Awake and Sing receives a gutsy production from Almeida boss Michael Attenborough, with the US actress Stockard Channing as the Berger family matriarch. The story is of a New York Jewish family in the interwar period, not exactly dirt poor, but poor enough to make life hard. Ralph (Ben Page) wants to be free of the constraints of his overbearing mother, he also hates the financial pressure he is under, never able to do as he pleases. His sister Hennie (Jodie Whittaker) has become pregnant and her mother tricks a naive immigrant to marry her (he’s not the father), Hennie herself hates her pathetic new husband. Uncle Jacob (John Rogan) espouses freedom and socialism to the youngsters, but is mocked and ignored by his own children. All this adds us for some interesting family drama, the lies that have to be told and compromises that have to be made. At the end of the play, with Uncle Joe dead (probably suicide) and her own husband realising that he may not he the father of ‘their’ child, she is set to run away with an injured WWI veteran, now small time crook, whom she loved all along, but of course never showed it much. I wasn’t convinced by this. A mother abandoning her baby at the drop of a hat, her brother eagerly encouraging this, where would they go? The play said some interesting things about the pressure of poverty, and the sometimes misplaced hopes of the poor, but it is mainly a good solid familial drama. Performances were good all round, and the evening was enjoyable enough. A solid production, but certainly not a play that will make you cry, shock or inspire you.

Review: All About My Mother

Kevin Spacey’s reign at the Old Vic has not been universally successful, and I was dubious as to the merits of adaptation of a tricky Almodovar film. Firstly, how could the Spanish-ness of the film, All About My Mother, be captured on the most venerable of British stages? Secondly, how could such a visually arresting and cinematic entity be transferred to the stage at all? Most importantly though, what would a stage adaptation of a beloved and lauded film bring to the piece, was it just a cynical ploy to deliver a product that the audience would already be familiar with?

All these points were answered in the negative by Tom Cairns’s production, and Samuel Adamson’s fine version of the story. The cast are also generally top rate, with Lesley Manville leading the company as the grieving mother Manuela, searching for the long estranged (and transsexual) father of her recently deceased teenage son, but also drawn to the celebrated actress who played a key role in his death (he crossed the road in order to get an autograph, and was hit by a car, unknown to the her). The Spanish flavour is retained, but given a British bent, perhaps the emotions are slightly more restrained than in the excellent film. The plot of the film has been closely followed, but with several adaptations necessary due to the nature of the stage versus screen, and Adamson gives us a perfectly natural British vocabulary (and the cast a range of accents). As for the point of the stage version, it is simply that this is a great story, told with pathos and skill by the actors, that works well onstage. No other justification is needed, but this is an artistic endeavour, not a cynical reproduction like some other plays and especially musicals that I could mention.

The story involves Manuela leaving Madrid for Barcelona where she looks for her ex husband (the junkie transsexual) and meets up with an old friend, Agrado, a transsexual prostitute (beautifully played with comic gusto, but also great emotional intelligence towards the end by Mark Gatiss, proving him to be a worthy stage actor and a great fabricator of the Welsh accent). Through Agrado, Manuela meets an outreach worker, a nun, Sister Rosa, who she eventually takes in and cares for (due to illness and an un nun like pregnancy), unable to repress her maternal instinct. She also becomes involved with Huma Rojo, a famous actress, played by Dame Dina Rigg. Rigg plays the tough but nice lesbian actress well; it almost like no acting is taking place, just Rigg being a slightly grand but likeable actor.

The second act is where the play really came together for me, I enjoyed the first act, but knowing the story well it felt slightly flat at times (simply through familiarity). In the second act, when characters and situations are all already established and allowed to grow, the emotional heart became clear. The perseverance of these women, despite deaths and diseases, the fact that life will endure even with sorrow. The strength of women, their crucial role in creating and running society, is the overarching theme. There are a couple of interesting features that the play delivers differently than on screen. Here we have Manuela’s son, Esteban (excellent Colin Morgan, so wonderful in Vernon God Little down the road at the Young Vic recently), appearing several times during the course of the play (after his early death), to speak to characters or sometimes directly to the audience. This underscores the point of the, not only the title, but the underlying grief and loss that drives Manuela. Also, when Agrado announces the cancellation of a performance A Streetcar Names Desire (the play that Huma is starring in), it’s a direct announcement to a real audience, not a fake on screen audience. In fact Agrado makes the announcement twice, one more flat and monotone and the second revealing the real emotions of the evening. Agroado then begins to entertain the audience with tales of his/her life. I think that the immediacy and personal nature of the performance here is far more powerful than the same moment on film.

The set by Hildegard Bechtler is an impressive entity, mostly comprising of atmospheric 1960’s style wallpaper. But it also includes spinning walls and a stage within a stage at one point. The production flows very well, despite several changes of atmosphere and pace, that in less deftly directed shows would creak. All About My Mother is also a film that was all about the theatre in a way, certainly about acting in general, so by the end I concluded that it was the perfect choice for a stage adaptation. Cairns, Adamson (and Almodovar), and their first rate cast have created a very enjoyable, even moving, evening out.

Best Line on the London stage so far this year:
Nina an actress, to Manuela about Huma, her lover (aka Dame Dina Rigg): ‘She’s always looking for fresh muff’.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Review: Bad Girls the Musical

I’m at a loss as to why Bad Girls the Musical, actually a flaccid excuse for a musical, came to be performed on the professional stage (it originated at the West Yorkshire Playhouse), let alone in the West End (and cluttering up a playhouse, the Garrick, too).

The woeful derivative music (sub pop, thin and electric sounding) is bad enough, but the pointless plot and central casting characters ensured that I had absolutely no interest in events onstage. The surprisingly large company of 24 do their best to enliven proceedings, but the painfully banal dialogue and risible lyrics kill any acting or singing talent dead (though not all the cast possess great singling talents).

You might reasonably expect a camp comic treat from Bad Girls (advertised with a glitter ball acting as a ball and chain), a cult trash TV hit on ITV a few years ago, but the humour is (mostly) sorely lacking. Set in a tough women’s prison, the plot is inconsequential, so I won’t bother you with it, suffice to say that dastardly ‘screws’, lesbian inmates, nasty drug dealers, a suicide and a prison riot are all seen before the interval (the people next to me fled before 30 minute were up, many more left in the interval, and on a Saturday night the theatre’s upper circle was closed).

The second act saw more of the same, combined with an unlikely union of prisoner and a sympathetic female Governor to get some bad screws (an evil sexual predator screw, imagine!). There is one parody number, ‘All Banged Up’, which was like a budget version of ‘Prisoners of Love’ in The Producers, the sequins and costumes just looked so cheap.

The set/design is reasonable enough, respectably spare, with back projections of grim prison landings and jail cell bars, and a few pieces of moving scenery making up the cells or the various prison environs. Due for a lengthy period of community service are director Maggie Norris, book writers Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus and composer and lyricist Kath Gotts. This flat musical is stretch out to over tow and a half hours. It felt like a life sentence (is that enough prison ‘jokes’?).