Monday, 30 July 2007

Review: Carmen Jones

Jude Kelly’s first big musical production as artistic head of the Southbank Centre is Carmen Jones, the 1943 Oscar Hammerstein (book and lyrics) re interpretation of the opera Carmen, retaining Bizet’s music with slight re-orchestrations. The Royal Festival Hall’s huge open stage now contains a South American style faded colonial street front, lampposts and rubbish bins, completed with the orchestra in the middle of the stage, so action can occur in front, besides and behind them (the full orchestra is provided alternately by one of the two RFH house orchestras, it was the London Philharmonic when I attended, wearing informal clothes too! The Philharmonia is the other.).

South America is not where Hammerstein relocated Carmen Jones to, it is actually a story set in the deep south of the USA with an all black cast. Kelly hasn’t changed one bit of the book or lyrics, and of course keeps the all black casting as the piece demands (so it’s not quite Latino ethnic variety), but the show is so absolutely American (with much of it set in Chicago, frequent US geographical references as well as the parlance) that these attempts to change the setting seem at times silly. Kelly says she wanted to give some contemporary relevance to the story, thereby relocating to South America, perhaps Cuba (and updating the costumes to modern dress), where the need for a standing army and the social situations portrayed in the show might make more sense than in the US black community today (then just do it as a period piece if accents and culture can’t be genuinely changed!). Unfortunately Hammerstein’s lyrics (and characters) are highly stereotypical of black people in the 1930s and 40s, which seems very dated now, that would be fine if the production didn’t so consciously strive for modernity. Happily however, this problem does not overshadow the entire production by Kelly, which is enjoyable, energetic and well sung (that’s not to take away from the attractive design by Michael Vale, the concept is the director’s).

This is quasi-opera, it has some of the feel of musical theatre and spoken dialogue, but ultimately the songs and music is mostly operatic, which means mostly operatic voices. Carmen is played by an astoundingly thin and quite beautiful South African actress Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi, a fiery and changeable femme fatal. Her sometime lover, Joe, played by Andrew Clarke is totally smitten by her charms and leaves the more homely Cindy Lou (the excellent Sherry Boone) to follow Carmen. Carmen meanwhile has taken up with champion boxer Husky Miller (a superb performance by Rodney Clarke), to the inevitable deadly conclusion. The large ensemble is not extensively used, but when they get their chance they do very well indeed (the large numbers are the best, very compelling). There are some wonderful songs to be heard to the familiar Bizet music, as long as the words are audible (lots of the dialogue is lost in the cavernous hall, or behind music). I particularly enjoyed ‘Stan’ up an’ Fight’ the boxers big number and its effective reprise in the second act (’Dat’s Our Man!’), and ‘Beat Out Dat Rhythm On A Drum’, where the whole cast and orchestra unite to make a huge sound, with a great percussive underscore. Some of the acting can be a little broad, but then the material is pretty broad in the first place.

This is not a classic piece of musical theatre, Bizet’s music is memorable and easy on the ear, but Hammerstein’s story and lyrics seem very dated now. Nothing Jude Kelly does can stop this being a period piece, but it’s an interesting and often musically welcome one.

P.S: The unnecessarily lavish and thick papered programme costs a ridiculous £5, it may be a nice souvenir (still it’s has many pages of adverts and only three short articles, one on Bizet, one on Hammerstein, both effectively short biographies, and one on the Carmen story throughout culture) but it’s a hell of a cost for those just wishing to have some information on the cast and creative team. For £6 programmes at the Royal Opera House (though I rarely buy them) gives you hours of reading material.

Review: Take Flight

After a run of successes and West End transfers (particularly the Olivier laden, Broadway bound and generally superb Sunday in the Park with George), expectations were high for the Menier Chocolate Factory’s brand new musical from Richard Maltby and David Shire. Take Flight is certainly an enjoyable show, often intelligent, and well worth seeing, but without it ever being superb, so it doesn’t quite live up to those high expectations.

It’s an ambitious show, with three distinct plots focusing on aeronautical endeavours, which never really blend together or give the sense of a truly cohesive show (until the very last minutes of the production anyway). As the title suggests it’s all about flying, striving for the impossible, a sort of feel good American parable (and it is a very American show in the Broadway tradition). We see the Wright brothers struggle to make the first powered flight in the early 20th Century (it lasted under a minute in the end), in the mid 1920’s Charles Lindbergh learns to fly and dreams of being the first person to cross the Atlantic solo by air, and in the 1930’s Amelia Earhart crosses the Atlantic, the first woman to do so, and strives for record after record. It’s all great and inspiring stuff (never mind Lindbergh baby or Earhart’s eventual fate) and is well represented in the jazz and Broadway standard music and lyrics. The problem may lie in the book, by sometime Sondheim collaborator John Weidman; he simply doesn’t fuse these interesting stories into a satisfying whole. It all seems rather fragmented, although what is in those fragments can be rather good, but each strand on its own is never enough. The musical clearly takes much inspiration from Sondheim’s works (like Weidman’s own work on Assassins, which showcases several thematically linked stories to far greater effect).

There are some fine tunes and clever lyrics here, with three particularly funny songs (again, very reminiscent of Sondheim, with direct stylistic links). One is a vaudeville number, which has Lindbergh asking for a bank loan to finance his plane, and a group of bankers comically lines up to reject him, the second is a comedy revue of the failed European challengers to Lindbergh, where the various nationalities are lovingly mocked (gesticulating Italians and camp Frenchmen etc). The other song introduces our fourth important character, a sort of cynical commentator, Otto Lilienthal (a 19th century German glider inventor/aviator), who tells us about the other pioneers whose dreams and lives have gone ‘pffft!’. Then of course there are the standard narrative songs, telling of hopes, dreams and loves, with the title song being the most effective of those.
Some people have said that a grand, video backed production (as the director and designer have done before) might help this show to soar, I don’t agree. The simple staging, with a travelling trunk, a step ladder and a gentle sand-bank, directed by Sam Buntrock and designed by David Farley (also Sunday in the Park’s director and designer respectively), is effective in creating a sense of the possibilities (and limits) of human endeavour exactly because it asks us to use our imaginations, no fluffy projected clouds for us (how can a pioneering flight ever be realistically presented onstage, perhaps it could be excitingly conjured, but never with much truth). It is also quite an intimate show (there are few big number), and the simplicity of the staging helped focus us on the emotions, story and characters onstage, big productions can take away from that.

The cast of 13 is universally excellent, with the brilliant and delightful Sally Ann Triplett leading the field as Earhart, with her husband played by Ian Bartholomew with great sensitivity, showing a touching love for his independent wife. The young Lindbergh is played perfectly as a loner and outsider by Michael Jibson, who is suited to such intense, troubled or isolated men (as in A Chorus Line and Brighton Rock). The Wright Brothers are portrayed by Sam Kenyon and Elliot Levey with comedy and emotional intensity, which pays off in their beautiful number ‘What Are We Doing Here?’. The eccentric Lilienthal is depicted by Clive Carter, who also brings comic value and gravitas to the role. The rest of the ensemble are most effective in the title number Take Flight, where they harmonise to great effect.

By the end of the show I was moved, as the promise of each of our heroes is fulfilled in the closing scene (we leave them at the height of their powers, leaving human frailty for another day). Seeing these miracles of human achievement, achieving feats which would have been thought near impossible only a generation earlier (and which I have personally experienced, although firmly as a passenger), an achievement we don’t marvel over or think about very much today (except in an environmental light), but which has totally changed the world we live in irrevocably, is inspiring. I’m not saying that Take Flight will enthuse you to great deeds, only that it will make you awed by the brave and perhaps foolish people who forged part of the world we live in today, who pushed the boundaries of convention. Take Flight is never going to be a populist hit, but it should have some limited life after the Menier (a new production off-Broadway in a few years perhaps).

The Simpson's Movie; Heroes; Clapham Junction

A few non theatre related thoughts:

The Simpson’s Move

What a strange creature The Simpson’s Movie is. After 20 years on television, gaining worldwide recognition and universal praise, their arrival on the big screen (perhaps before the brand fades too much) seems just as hyped and cynical as all the other summer ‘blockbusters’ (i.e. rehashes, remakes and derivative crap). Unfortunately this feeling is borne out by the film itself, it has reduced the humour to constant slapstick jokes, rather than high quality gags and mild subversion (though there are funny moments, enough for a short episode perhaps). The main problem is the Simpson family themselves, they feature too heavily, the film has become a family parable and overly sentimental (of course the Simpson’s are sentimental). The Simpson’s never need to overtly justify their relationships in the TV series (apart from the normal range of loving/hateful discussions all families have), they are a just great family and we see them in their domestic Springfield setting, crucially with all the various characters who make up the town adding the storylines and incident. The film barley features all our favourites (Krusty, Principal Skinner, Apu, Mr Burns et al), and when they do appear it’s as very secondary characters. The plot is undemanding; ecological disaster strikes Springfield (caused by Homer, natch), President Schwarzenegger’s Government seals the town off with a glass dome and plans to bomb it out of existence, naturally the Simpson’s must save the day (after initially fleeing to Alaska), and Homer rises to the occasion and in doing so repairs his father-son relationship and his marriage. But it just never takes off; intermittently funny and highly disappointing (but to be fair, the television show has become disappointing too).

Heroes

Watching the first two episodes of Heroes on BBC2, I was struck by the glossy feel and fast pace of it all. This was not a show where you could idly glance at your newspaper from time to time (yes, I do read the newspaper and watch TV at the same time occasionally, especially during Newsnight Review). Heroes is the new hot American import, and already has a cult following around the world. The plot is multi stranded, but all somehow linked (but please God, don’t turn into another Lost with one ludicrous turn after another. I was so glad when it went over to Sky so I didn’t have to watch it anymore), and all very compelling, blending sci-fi and thriller qualities. All the people we meet, around the globe (but mostly American or in the USA), are ordinary Joe’s going about their everyday lives, when they discover extraordinary power that can make them into heroes (though not all of them have become worthy of that soubriquet at present). It’s great fun watching a cheerleader run into a burning wreck to save a man, and then the next moment have an intriguing office type flying to save his suicidal brother. Although Heroes takes itself quite seriously, it does seem like a solid series (23 episodes, they know how to make em’ in the USA), which I will follow with interest.

Clapham Junction

Clapham Junction was also a big disappointment. Commissioned by Channel 4 as part of a season celebrating 40 years of the legalisation of two person (and no more) sex in private for males over the age of 21 (we can ‘celebrate’ just over 7 years for the equal age of consent for all sexes and sexualities). Well, Kevin Elyot’s two hour drama didn’t fell like much of a celebration to me. It was a tawdry trawl through all the ‘old’ prejudices imaginable, framed by deplorable violence towards gay men (which I have no problem in him highlighting). I felt it reinforced a negative image of gay people, they all were pretty sad characters, and the anti gay violence seemed rather besides the point (though by the end it was supposed to be serious and central, with a melancholy closing sequence behind the credits, showing a poor sensitive violin playing black boy’s violin smashed up in an underpass) when faced with these randy amoral gay types. It featured a top drawer cast of British talent (including Paul Nicholls and Rupert Graves), with possibly the most annoying and absurd dinner party ever shown on television. However, I’m not reviewing Clapham Junction, but the reviews of Clapham Junction. Many of the reviews make points about the programme that I agree with, and it’s always nice to read other peoples considered opinions whether you agree with them or not. But I was shocked by the ever so mildly homophobic comments that accompanied the reviews, it was my gay friends this, and gaydar that. Are gay people not part of mainstream society? Do they have to be referenced by straight journalists via gaydar and the grand media queens that these journos personally know? Would these reviewers take the few black people they might know and use them as a template to comment upon the entire range of the black community (‘this black guy I know doesn’t even have an accent, and he goes to dinner parties and everything!’)?

I noticed during The Simpson’s Movie, when two policemen kiss and head into a motel room (the briefest of scenes, a couple of seconds), groans and ‘ewwh’ was heard throughout the packed auditorium. I dare say that two gay men kissing amongst the local hard men on Shepherd’s Bush Green outside the cinema wouldn’t go down well either. Constantly on TV the worst thing, the most disgusting, is the thought of a straight man accidentally touching another man or any hint of homosexuality. So whilst gays might be accepted in certain ways on TV and in society, homosexuality is still as disgusting and repulsive to a huge section of the British public as it ever was (and I’m not saying that people should be delighted by homosexuality as a concept, just rather more neutral and accepting, you don’t constantly think about unappealing heterosexual situations and shudder now do you?). Gay is still a horrible word across much of the UK, and we are nowhere near equality as some of the cosy straight middle class press thinks. While being gay can’t be stated publicly, as being heterosexual can be, anywhere without fear or recriminations, equality is nowhere near.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Review: The Great Theatre of the World

I’m sorry to say that I found The Great Theatre of the World at the Arcola a slight, portentous and pretentious piece. It’s a Spanish Golden Age play, a religious allegory on human existence meant for a Catholic feast, by Calderon de la Barca, here adapted by Adrian Mitchell and directed by ex Royal Court artistic director William Gaskill. Mitchell has brought a forced ‘ordinary’ lyricism to the play, but it really doesn’t work as poetry for me, and it seems a little prolix at times too (and I’m sure he was trying for a more pared down style). Gaskill has directed his cast lightly; it sometimes feels hardly at all, like a group of acting students left to get no with it by their remiss tutor.

The play concerns the acting out of a play under the direction of a god figure, Director (Madhav Sharma), who doles out symbolic parts to his favoured creations (us humans), under the closer supervision of World (Wunmi Mosaku). So Beauty, King, Peasant, Beggar and Rich Man act out their allotted parts, and when their play is done they go to judgement. Surprise surprise the suffering beggar goes straight to sit at the right hand of the Director, her intercessions on behalf of the Peasant who had shared a meagre scrap of food with her in life, also land him a place at the top table. The Rich Man however suffers eternal damnation in a red lit corner of the stage. It’s all done in a rather pantomime and actorly fashion, they players are dressed in black bodysuits with skeletons painted onto them and wear their character’s costume over that (I’m sure this is supposed to represent our ultimate nakedness or something else significant). It’s all very heavy handed and clunky, and not very enlightening at all (maybe a bit of lightness in the production could have changed that slightly). This play is not a humanist piece as the adaptor and director would like to see it as (the programme notes by Mitchell says: ‘… its poetry shows us how to love each other and the planet’), but a 17th century religious metaphor, and it really should have stayed that way. This translation and production are flat and are not radical or exciting (which they think they are), in fact Gaskill’s production is sub-Brechtian in the worst possible way (and I have admired his direction in the past). The cast include several RADA graduates and others with varying acting experience. They show talent, but I’m positive that their skills were not fully engaged by this piece, and at times I was embarrassed for them (they are mostly likeable young actors). It left me cold, but was thankfully a brief 70 minutes.

Thoughts: The Seventh Seal

Watching The Seventh Seal in a brilliantly re-mastered digital print at the Curzon Soho, I could have been watching a newly minted avant garde allegory on the problems facing the world in 2007 (religious zealots and terror gripping society anyone?), but of course the imagery is so famous any cinema lover would recognise it from a mile off. The pure beauty of Ingmar Bergman’s seminal black and white 1957 film (and I’m also luck enough to have seen one of his theatre productions too) is stunning, simply superb, flawless cinematography. The existentialist theme, with death playing a medieval knight at chess for his life in a land blighted by plague, is brilliantly simple, the story unfolding with surprising humour and pared down elegance. The inevitable ending, the death that we will all meet, is also surprisingly hopeful and upbeat (in a very understated way), with a chubby child and his acting troupe parents enduring, living another day. We also have a Saint Joan style burning of a witch, the acting out of a play to a baying rabble, and some communal humiliation in the tavern, all of which bring something to the discussion of faith, human needs and the despair of life. But you can take what you want from this film, it ask why and does not didactically tell you what the answers are. The absence of faith is our prevailing credo in 2007, this film doesn’t inspire religious feelings, but it dose ask us to think about our belief in nothing.

All I can say is, if you’ve not see this film, you really should. It is also one of those films where watching on the big screen is almost a must, the film cries out for a wide canvass (I have a tiny television, so I try and avoid watching great films on DVD or video. I just can’t imagine watching Downfall, one of my cinema favourites, or any subtitled film on such a small screen). This is a film that truly deserves the word superlative.

Hunterian Museum

After my fascinating trip to the newly opened Wellcome Collection (a hotchpotch of medical, scientific and sociological artefacts amassed by a prolific collector and allied exhibitions) earlier this month, I took myself off to the equally interesting Huntarian Museum, located behind the Royal College of Surgeons imposing 1813 portico in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (and opposite that other brilliant and eccentric London collection, also free, the Sir John Soan’s Museum). This institution is not to be confused with the Glasgow Huntarian Museum, which stems from William Hunter (John’s brother).

The collection was started by John Hunter, an important figure in the development of surgery in the 18th Century and contains literally hundreds of pickled specimens of all sorts (if you like that sort of thing, booking a tour of the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre is also a must, you can even see the Thames Shark in a big Damien Hirst sourced display case, seriously). Apart from these sometimes gruesome specimens, which include human organs, there are lots of skeletons, including that of a notorious convict who was hanged, and a large number of intricate and hauntingly delicate skeletons belonging to foetuses at varying stages of gestation, the twisted frame of a man suffering from a gruesome bone deformity and a tiny little woman (next to a painting of her in life), who’s bones looked disturbingly like one of the dead babies, and the frame of a 7’7 giant.

This might sound grim, but the light and modern galleries (re-opened in 2005 after a two year refit) dazzle you with the variety of humankind and animal life. We also get to see Churchill’s dentures and quite a few things of the sort contained in the Wellcome Collection, like horrible surgical implements and another picture of the 50 stone man. Then we have a delightfully bloody look at the science of surgery (with some interesting photographs and instruments from the First World War, where due to horrible circumstances many surgical advances were made. The photographs of those with facial injuries are difficult to look at), and a temporary exhibition entitled ‘A Visible Difference, Skin, Race and Identity 1720-1820’. This is mostly about piebaldism, a skin pigmentation disorder that causes black skinned people to have patches of white skin (most famously George Alexander, a slave’s child, whose portrait is owned by the NPG). This is a brief but interesting exhibition which makes us think a little bit about ourselves, though the whole museum made me question identity in a rather unconventional way. Just seeing those tiny skeletons was quite moving (seeing very early foetuses fully preserved at the Bodyworlds a few years ago and Bodies at Earl’s Court more recently didn’t have quite the same affect of those skeletons, they seemed more real than a plastic looking grey blob).

By chance after my visit to the museum, I happened to notice the blue plaque commemorating John Hunter in Soho, after which he moved and actually had his original museum, home and surgery/operating theatre in two separate houses backing on to each other in Leicester Square.

Having these free museums and collections, in addition to our beloved national museums and galleries, is such a wonderful opportunity for Londoners in particular. I only wish more people would take the chance to visit (they are not exactly on the tourist trail either, are they too challenging or individualistic for people to cope with? Do people really only want to see the greatest predictable hits at the National Gallery then have a Starbucks?)

Review: Lady Be Good

Attending the Gershwin’s Lady Be Good at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, on a day when torrential rain had lashed London and I had personally braved the torrents on Kingsway and Long Acre (getting soaked through, despite my sturdy brolly), I was not generally optimistic about the evening. But the rain held off, and despite slightly chilly temperatures, the show turned out to be a light as a feather delight.

The 1924 Broadway musical is one of those ludicrous shows built around annoying upper crust idiots (whom somehow you actually like, or don’t wish dead at any rate) and their awful ‘problems’, usually involving them not being able to afford a Rolls Royce or a spiffing new aeroplane (i.e. being ‘poor’), various romantic/marital yearnings/complications and convoluted deceptions (an excuse for a particular comic/foreign tune, character or dance more often than not). Lady Be Good doesn’t disappoint, abiding by all the daffy 1920’s musical comedy rules; we have two winsome siblings being kicked out of their mansion for serial unpaid rent, the poor dears having to attend cocktail parties for food (not exactly a gritty life). The brother, Dick Trevor decides to marry for money so he can save his sister from a life of penury, and eschew his real love. Meanwhile, his sister Susie impersonates a Mexican widow to try and earn some money in a dodgy scam so that she can save her brother from having to marry the woman he doesn’t love. Add in a Mexican gangster, a shyster lawyer and an incognito presumed dead millionaire, and you have the plot. I’m not surprising anyone by saying that it ends in a quadruple wedding (in a Shakespeare style plot wrap up in the final scene), but the speed of the marriages is dizzying (same day as the engagement mostly, a brilliantly casual approach to life choices on the part of the contented rich before pre-nups were necessary). But all this is really just an excuse, as with many musicals of the time, for some brilliant toe tapping tunes. So we get ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, ‘Oh Lady, Be Good’, I’d Rather Charleston’, and ‘Just Another Rhumba’, all of which are also great excuses for brilliant dancing (the tunes of which may well be familiar to you already, and quite hard to forget).

I was here in a social capacity, so I didn’t have a pen handy to write down lines that tickled me, but there was something about being double jointed combined with a high kick and flash of knickers that particularly made me laugh. My companions were even pouring wine during the performance, if that had been in an ‘indoor’ theatre I would have disowned them, but in the open air I don’t even mid the eating of sweets.

I feel I should mention The Drowsy Chaperon (a modern pastiche of 1920’s musicals) at this point, a show I disliked. The difference between these musicals is massive; Lady Be Good is not trying to be clever or deliver a brilliant parody, it is being entertaining and tuneful. The utterly false Drowsy Chaperone delivered none of this innocent charm, but emits a self regarding reverence that only the camp musical theatre crowd could adore. Lady Be Good is genuinely light and funny, somehow The Drowsy Chaperone is leaden, pretentious and dumb all at the same time.

Back to Lady Be Good, and the direction by Ian Talbot (in his last year as theatre supremo) is brisk enough, with Bill Dreamer’s perfect flapper choreography really making the show. The black and white set design, made up of a huge piano forming a staircase and sparkly double bass, was not particularly inspired, but suitable enough as a backdrop for the dancing. The cast act with the finesse required to play upper class twits to an open air amphitheatre in wind and rain, with their talents more exuberantly expressed in singing and dancing. Standing out amongst them are Paul Grunert as the highly questionable lawyer Watty Watkins and Giles Taylor as idiot English toff Bertie Bassett, both being rather wonderful comic roles performed with élan (as opposed to the more earnest young siblings).
All in all a lovely evening, if the weather is with you.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Review: The Car Man

Matthew Bourne’s muscular and sexually charged The Car Man arrives at Sadler’s Wells for a welcome summer season (to 5/8/07). I’ve long been an admirer of Bourne’s dance works, from his gay Swan Lake, and the vibrant jazz scored The Play Without Words to his striking West End choreography for My Fair Lady, but I’d not seen The Car Man before, which was premiered in 2000. A re-imagining of Bizet’s opera Carman, the music has been re-orchestrated and uses only string and percussion, striped of the singing, and is beautifully played here by a small orchestra. Set amongst the Italian American community in small town America sometime in the 1950’s, the action has Luca, a drifter, fall in love (or lust) with a married woman and a young man, with terrible consequences. Long time Bourne collaborator and designer Lez Brotherston’s set wonderfully evokes a small town garage and diner, with classic American style.

I saw James Leech perform the central and magnetic role of Luca, he and the rest of the male corps as muscular grease monkeys did a wonderful job of embodying masculine sexuality (of all shades), with Luca as an understandably attractive figure. The other main player, Lana, is beautifully played by Michela Mezza, with Luca’s other lover, Angelo, the boyish yet muscular Sam Archer. The rest of the female dancers are mostly attractive adornments to their male counterparts; this work seems male centred, as with much of Bourne’s work and general aesthetic (and certainly The Car Man is more homoerotic than heteroerotic). The wit and vigour of the show is supplanted by pathos and despair towards the end (particularly Angelo’s desperation to see Luca), and the tragedy, as with Bizet’s original, is inevitable.

Despite the dark ending, I came away from the production with a smile, with the imaginative choreography, excellent dancing and beautiful visuals combining to make an excellent piece of dance theatre that is comprehensible and enthralling.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Review: Calling

Calling (Old Red Lion Theatre) is a promising debut full length play by Debora Espect, a three hander set in a modern day mental hospital. It’s a pleasingly simple affair with one patient, Rebecca, a motor mouthed ‘chav’, firm friends with the more obviously deluded David who thought his mother was Satan and tried to kill her, and the geeky introverted Scott, mourning for a ‘girlfriend’ he never meet. The dialogue is in the common parlance; no high rhetoric or verbal flourishes here (subjects such as mental illness can often be an excuse for moralising, over emotionalism and specifying). Here we get the story of the interaction between the three characters, David’s jealousy, Scott’s twisted intentions and Rebecca's general good nature and lonely life outside of the institution. The three actors are good, but Matt Prendergast as Scott, the obsessive geek, clearly shows great talent, his nervous ticks and initial disinterest was slightly reminiscent of John Simm’s character in Elling (another play on mental illness, though that one is quite superior). In criticism I have to say that very little of in the play brings much to the subject of mental illness, and it is quite predictable (though often funny). Despite this I don’t dislike the piece, it shows an ear for ordinary language and an interest in a subject that is worth looking at, plus it is entertaining in a genial kind of way. The set and production is almost as simple as the premise, Alison Goldsmith using minimal furniture to create communal areas and patients’ bedrooms, and the white walled background of the small pub theatre is fittingly stark for an institution.

This is mostly a good debut effort, in a decent production with a promising cast. What will stick in my mind though is David’s (Lawrence Tate) consumption of many cheese puffs and several new potatoes during the performance, which must take quite an effort night after night.

Review: Ours

The Finborough Theatre, an admirably programmed studio space above the Finborough (Arms) pub in Earl’s Court, continues to dust off forgotten gems from theatrical obscurity, resurrecting playwrights who haven’t been heard of much outside academia for generations.

Their latest production is Ours, by the Victorian dramatist T.W Robertson, who was a pioneer of naturalism in the theatre (and partly responsible for genuinely realistic domestic sets and stage design coming into fashion). He also liked snappy one word titles judging by several of his other works (Caste, Play, School, Birth, Progress, Society), which were admired by George Bernard Shaw, who called his oeuvre ‘epoch making’. I can see why Robertson’s work was considered so important, he moves away from formulaic romps, and with gentle wit and great observation represents certain strands of mid Victorian life in a very watchable and even informative way.

Ours was premiered in 1866, but events occur over a decade before that, just prior to and during the Crimean War (1854-56). It concerns an upper class couple, the Shendryn’s, and their circle (extending to more than just upper class niceties), firstly in their country estate, then in their London home, and finally in a hut in the Crimea (where the men are now fighting). Lady Shendryn and Sir Alexander are not the picture of marital happiness at the start of the play, their friend Chalcot has too much money and too little to do, Lady Shendryn’s companion Mary is thoroughly fed up with her lot, her friend Blanche is in love with an unsuitably poor man whilst being courted by a wealthy Russian Prince on the eve of war with Russia (though that’s not considered to be a major obstacle). Got all that? It’s actually an effective comedy, highlighting the age old conflict of the sexes and giving us some brittle, witty dialogue along the way. It is also representative of its time, particularly looking at the position of women in society and the shadow of war and patriotism, although this is no deep meditation on sex or conflict. The premise of the play becomes less believable as the story moves to a climax, particularly when the women turn up unannounced at the Crimean front as war tourists (apparently women did go to visit their upper class husbands and view skirmishes), the lack of the horror of war and the gallant behaviour of the enemy are also slightly suspect, but it never becomes melodrama and gives us a dramatically satisfying ending.

It’s an enjoyable evening, though by no means radical or unpredictable, but where else would you see a jam roly-poly pudding being made onstage or a Russian Prince join his captors for a mutton dinner? It’s also nice to see a play from this mid Victorian period, with something akin to realistic dialogue. Direction by Phoebe Barran well utilises the small in the round space, with an attractive and surprisingly detailed set by Anna Bliss-Scully. Acting is generally good, with Robert Irons as the overly rich Chalcot and Emilie Patry as the disgruntled ladies companion (who eventually get engaged), particularly good.

I think I’ll leave the last word to a bemused and somewhat distressed American lady, whom I heard saying to her equally baffled, but clearly expert bluffer husband during the interval, ‘is this before or after Jane Austen?’

Food Onstage

The delightful West End Whingers (the delightful part is supposition, as I’ve never actually meet them) are very interested in the use of food onstage, and often fascinate us with their descriptions and worries about it (is it is real, whether it is genuinely eaten etc).

Well, after the cake business at The Hothouse (a cake is sliced in two by a sword and eaten like a huge sandwich, only a few bites are taken though), I can report several other instances of food related news that I have witnessed this weekend. The Whingers and other interested parties might want to book their seats fast.

Firstly ‘The Car Man’ at Sadler’s Wells uses real dough and possibly real flour. More interestingly during ‘Ours’ at the Finborough Theatre, a jam roly-poly pudding is made onstage, seemingly for real (I could smell the jam, it’s a tiny space), but they don’t get around to eating it. Real vegetables are also put into a pot, and real ice in a bucket is seen (as well as lots of steaming brown liquid purported to be tea)! Is there no end to the naturalism at the Finborough?

But best of all was ‘Calling’ at the Old Red Lion. Not only did one character eat cheesy puffs all the way through the play, but at one point the three actors came onstage with hearty dinners of potatoes, carrots and chicken (one sans chicken as a veggie). The cheesy puffs eating man actually ate several potatoes, lots of carrots and much of the chicken (he then just moved it around the plate, as he was in the background to the other characters talking, and they didn’t touch a thing. But the eater was fascinating to watch, what would and wouldn’t he consume? He moved his potatoes round, mashed some of them, selected bits of chicken. It had a pleasant enough smell too). Then at the end of the play this chap even eats some sweets. All in all he must have had a large packet of cheesy puffs, several new potatoes, a small amount chicken and a couple of sweets by the end of the show.

Perhaps there will be a banquet eaten onstage at the Arcola tonight, I do hope so!

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Review: Baghdad Wedding

Baghdad Wedding (Soho Theatre) is the first play by the London based Iraqi scientist/academic Hassan Abdulrazzak, which ultimately gives short shrift to the American presence in his native land. This play uses several styles (first person and third person perspectives, and flashbacks amongst them), which mainly work because of artistic director Lisa Goldman’s well executed production on a functional multi level set. The play centres on Salim and the circumstances around the wedding of the title. It is a tale of moral hypocrisy, sexuality (particularly the differences between Iraq and London), the brutalities of war, the cyclical nature of occupation and insurgency, and good old fashioned love (which can feel a tad bolted on).

Matt Rawle plays Salim, a charming but arrogant bisexual Iraqi studying medicine in London and living it up with the Arab intelligentsia and other privileged young Iraqi’s. Marwan (Nitzan Sharron) is his rather straight laced best friend, an engineering student and fellow Iraqi; he becomes our narrator for much of the play, though the story never quite becomes his own (belonging to his more glamorous friend). Alternating between their student days in 1998 and post-invasion Baghdad in 2004-05, we see the events of the late 1990’s as a background to the more important and complicated events of 2004-05. Sometime before the war Salim has had published a controversial novel featuring copious gay sex, which naturally makes him a somewhat controversial figure back in Baghdad. He returns to the city in 2004, ostensibly to get married (but also show his faith in the US/UK invasion, which he had approved of from a distance). His wedding party is mistakenly attacked by a US helicopter and he is presumed dead, along with his unseen bride. Actually Salim survives and is captured by an insurgent group in the hope of a future ransom form his wealthy family. In turn these insurgents are attacked by US forces who capture and brutally interrogate Salim as a possible terrorist. He endures far worse treatment at the hands of his American captors than his Iraqi ones, although the latter were considerably more likely to eventually kill him if they didn’t get their way (despite letting him read the Koran). The Americans are portrayed as ignorant brutal bullies, their authority simply stemming from the fact that they are there and they have the biggest weapons, certainly not in pursuit of a just cause or the betterment of Iraq. After his eventual release, Salim graphically describes the sexual torture that he would like to visit upon his American interrogator. I’m sure this is supposed to show Salim as a man cracked by terrible circumstances, but it was still horrifying for him to have conceived of it.

His initial support for the war (with some caveats), turns into furious opposition when he is personally affected by torture and the death of many of his friends and family. I didn’t see this as some great moral awakening from supporting invasion to opposing what he now saw as occupation, but the natural reaction to murder and degrading treatment (I didn’t think his previous position was immoral or wrong in the first place). Earlier in the play he had dismissed the abuses at Abu Ghraib as nothing compared to what was going on there before the Americans took it over. The fact is that if Salim had been held in one of Saddam’s prisons, his prognosis would have been far grimmer than with the Americans. This is moral relativism, I know, but it is also true. It does not excuse any abuse or torture ever, but it is the kind of reasoning that the vast majority of people use in their everyday lives but in a drastically more banal way (or indeed a real way that people can judge the changes between regimes in places like Iraq; ‘will I get shot on the street corner?’, ‘will the interrogator kill me?’, a beating for an innocent man or woman would be better that murder, but still nowhere near right)

The representation of the insurgents is also very interesting. They are killers, but always with some kind of personal justification, an often emotional call to violence that conversely immunises their emotions when it comes to other people’s lives, the great cause worth fighting, dying, or killing for. Salim is nothing to them; they hold him simply for his financial value. He asks one of them if he can see that waging war against the Americans might make them stay longer, the man can’t see merit in this argument (the innocent who are killed will go to paradise and the guilty will be despatched to hell is his general message). I can see that these men aren’t fighting for their country or co-religionists either, they are fighting for their particular sectarian vision of Iraq, they will kill Americans and then fellow Iraqis to get their way. It really is an intractable situation, a situation that strangles the hopes of Salim and those who thought a post Saddam Iraqi could work.

Some of the acting can veer towards the ‘over demonstrative Arab’ school, but most of the performances are very good, particularly Rawle, Sharron, and Shirine Saba as Luma a fellow ex-pat student friend of the two men, who becomes an heroically struggling doctor in Baghdad, and loved is by both of them (she marries Slalim eventually, which makes me feel very sorry for the faithful Marwan).

The events in Baghdad Wedding do stretch the limits of credulity at times, but who can say what can and can’t happen in the crazy mess that is modern Iraq? This is however a very interesting play, not perfectly written, which raises myriad issues, and has some great performances.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Review of Hairspray; Historic Cinema

Hairspray

London (specifically the theatrical graveyard that is the Shaftesbury Theatre) gets the 2003 Tony Award winning Broadway musical version of John Water’s 1988 cult film Hairspray, in October (starring Michael Ball in drag no less. Beware the mad women, reportedly fans, who will be in attendance nightly). But the world has got the film version of the musical of the film (if you see what I mean) this week, so I previewed what is in store for lucky theatregoers come October (or now if you’re in New York City), whilst bearing in mind that a film is a very different animal to a stage show, even using the same songs and material.

It really is strange, certainly in no way as subversive as the original Water’s film, it has the whiff of antiseptic about it, despite being mostly faithful to original central story. The film looks at several subjects, including racial segregation, plucky individualism and the isolation of fat women, through the travails of Tracy Turnblad, a ‘pleasantly plump’ schoolgirl in early 1960’s Baltimore. As a larger person myself, I can accurately tell you that Ms Turnblad is not pleasantly plump but very fat, and however many song she sings about accepting herself and living life unhindered, I will not believe that being of such a size is a happy position (but neither is it a situation deserving of cruelty or ridicule). Fooling yourself into being happy with yourself on the surface is not wise, it will only end in tears (plus insecurity to some extent or another is intrinsic and necessary in us all, surely?)

That aside, and American film morals are a big thing to put aside, the plot moves nicely on. Tracy want to be on her local TV station’s groovy dance show, but being big she can’t get accepted. The black students at her school are, predictably, great dancers, but they only get their chance to shine on the monthly Negro Day (TV being horribly segregating, more or less overlooking black people). Of course Tracy and her black friends overcome adversity and get back on the horrible people who have spurned them, get justice and integration on the TV show, and get nice boyfriends and girlfriends to boot (strictly heterosexual mind). This sounds glib, and it is, but it is also a musical so absolutely allowed.

This is a fun movie, with some nice dancing and catchy tunes, but it won’t be one of the musicals I remember fondly in my old age (mainly due the clunky moralising, a paean to kooky but safe individualism).

The casting is interesting, Tracy played by Nikki Blonsky is a chipper and perfect choice for the role, but her mother Edna is play by John Travolta (the role is always played by a man). Travolta is of course a leading Scientologist, not particularly known for its promotion of kooky individualism or homosexuality, he plays Edna with aw shucks down home guts. Christopher Walken plays Tracy’s dad; is it me or is he getting more like an alien as the years go by? Michelle Pfeiffer, (a rather slim looking) Queen Latifah, the hilarious Allison Janney and teen heartthrob (who also whiffs of antiseptic) Zac Efron all put in appearances too.

When the credits rolled and I walked out of the cinema, I was actually smiling weakly (from the film’s happy ending and not the thought of it ending I think), so it can’t have been that bad. But neither was it insightful, emotionally engaging or in any way challenging. What Michael Ball et al bring to this show onstage god only knows. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

P.S: John Waters makes a brief cameo appearance as a flasher.
P.S.S: The adorable little Justin from Ugly Betty got his Tracy impression just right.

Historic Cinema


I saw Hairspray at the delightfully named Cineworld Haymarket, formerly the Carlton Theatre (built in 1927). What a building, the airy lobby in a classical style is a delight, but the main screen feels like going to the cinema in a real old fashioned picture palace (albeit with comfortable seating). The vaulted ceiling is claret with gold highlights, and there are art deco lamps/chandeliers on either side. It is rare to have an original cinema auditorium surviving in once piece (many having been converted to multi screen uses), but actually even this screen has been divide up, I assume that where screen 1 now is the dress circle used to be, so we still get the same with and décor as the original, just not the height. It is certainly more glamorous screen than my trusty local cinema, Vue Shepherd’s Bush (which of course is half the price with double the choice of Cineworld Haymarket). Other cinema’s I enjoy for more than their films include (prolific theatre architect) Sprauge’s Coronet (with dress circle) and the Gate, both in Notting Hill, the now posh Electric on Portobello Rd (another early picture palace) where I saw films as a kid when it as fleapit. Notting Hill Coronet (ex ABC I think, now a club and occasionally used for art films/shorts), Screen on the Green, the Rio in Dalston, Brixton’s Ritzy and the Chelsea are all pretty good too (where would local London cinema be with out the likes of them?).

Pick of the Month

Here are my top tips for the coming weeks in the mainstream theatre (all stuff I’ve seen, no sage predictions!). Due to short runs this only really covers the mainstream theatre, mostly in London.

Elling, Trafalgar Studios.
Surprisingly delightful comedy about mental illness, starring John Simm.
Pygmalion, Theatre Royal Bath then touring. Wonderfully funny classic play directed by Sir Peter Hall. Tim Pigott-Smith is an excellent Higgins.
Fiddler on the Roof, Savoy. Solid traditional revival of the classic Broadway show.
The Hothouse, Lyttleton. Dark and menacing, but very funny, production of an early Pinter play.
Philistines, Lyttleton. Exceptional revival of Gorky’s play. Howard Davis directs a crack cast.
Saint Joan, Olivier. Extraordinary theatre, staged beautifully by Marianne Elliott. Shaw’s play grips throughout.

Review: Mojo Mickeybo

Owen McCafferty’s 1997 play Mojo Mickybo is set during a hot Belfast summer in the early 1970’s, where two boys’ innocent friendship is eventually soured by the growing troubles. The two hander gets a lovely production at the intimate Trafalgar Studio 2 (and at the Arcola before that) directed by Jonathan Humphreys and starring Martin Brody and Benjamin Davies as the title characters (plus a host of others from cinema usherettes to locals thugs). It’s a cliché, but a true one, that Irish accents of every sort are very melodic, even poetic (despite some harshness in certain version of the Ulster accent), so hearing the childish rhymes and jokes in the cadences of the nine counties is a pleasure itself, but McCafferty also has a great ear for the ways people really do speak, he is steeped in the culture replicated onstage.

The play is mostly about the firm friendship between the two boys, only moving onto the horrible adult inspired events that arbitrarily lead to the end of their friendship at the end of the play. For now they are children to whom bullets don’t really kill, when the imagination can let you be a superhero and where a journey around the world can be completed before teatime.

We also get a sense of 1970’s childhood, days out playing games, being Batman and Robin (or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), making dens, starting harmless gangs with terrifying enemies (that you’re not scared of…). It all seems a much simpler time than now. Kids weren’t savvy to the ways of the world, adult society was very separate from children’s, games had to be made up, whereas now we have every form of entertainment from the internet and mobile phones to computer games and DVDs to ensure that the little darlings aren’t bored, and children are pandered to at many social occasions. Of course all these things are indoor activities where parents can protect their offspring, except for the mobile phone which also helps to keep tabs on children. Due to a fear culture (and being generally risk averse), fostered by the media, I can’t think that many parents would ever give such free reign to their children as Mojo and Mickybo had. And that is actually a sad thing; independence is a wonderful asset in life, as is the ability to find wonder and amusement outside the walls of your house or pre-packaged home entertainments. I’m certainly not proposing a return to 1970’s values, the UK and Ireland are undoubtedly better places now than then (especially so for Belfast), and who would want a return to a society with more discrimination, gender roles potent, and increased violence in many areas of society? But with all our progress some spark of personal freedom has been lost.

The acting is excellent, a mixture of necessarily broad performances and touches of nuance. It’s a very brisk and engaging 70 minutes, with the reality of the (sometimes incomprehensible) adult world hitting you just as you’ve really begun to like Mojo and Mickeybo. A fine production, with a healthy dose of comedy, also garners praise for the existence of the Trafalgar Studio 2, where else in the West End would such work be performed?

Friday, 20 July 2007

Art Special: The Wellcome Collection; Impressionists by the Sea; R.A Summer Exhibition; Insider Art at the ICA.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a few excellent exhibitions lately (and one not so good one), which I describe below:

Wellcome Collection

Firstly I went to the newly opened Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road. Set up by the Wellcome Trust (a medical and scientific charity funding research into all sorts of interesting and complex projects), to display their huge collection of artefacts brought together by their founder Sir Henry Wellcome, who died in 1936, and also with galleries enabling them to mount temporary exhibitions relevant to medicine and science today. Their grand building also houses the prestigious Wellcome Library, and is decorated with an airy feel and smart modern simplicity throughout.

Starting with their temporary exhibition, The Heart (to 16/9/07), in the lower galleries. The exhibition looks at the human heart and it’s representation in history, art and medicine, starting with the Ancient Egyptians, via early understanding of the human body, romantic connotations, religious symbolism, to the very modern medical miracle of heart transplants. I’m not a squeamish person, but some of the videos and exhibits relating to modern medicine made me feel very uncomfortable indeed. It’s not that they were disgusting or morally wrong, just that thinking about the organ that constantly sustains our life, to see it beat outside of the body, is simply strange and unsettling. This is a fascinating and beautiful exhibition, including sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, Egyptian scrolls and gruesome Aztec drawings.

To the permanent collection and the Medicine Now galleries. These galleries follow four themes, The Body (looking at our internal functions and new techniques of seeing inside), Genomes (looking at DNA and identity), and most interestingly Malaria and Obesity. The treatment of malaria in the third world and the treatment of obesity in the western world couldn’t be more different. There are also several interactive exhibits, video installations and art, so it’s not as dry as it might sound.

Finally I entered the Medicine Man gallery, this is the spaced dedicated to Sir Henry’s bizarre and Byzantine collection of artefacts. Notionally medical related, this is actually a fascinating and wonderfully eclectic museum of anthropology, a sort of min Museum of Mankind. Sir Henry was clearly an eccentric visionary philanthropist in the grand Victorian mould, and I am so please that a small portion of this truly wondrous collection have been brought together for pubic display once again. In this collection we have 19th Century Japanese sex aids, tribal masks, the grave marker of a child, English anti masturbation devices, very nasty looking surgical instruments from many eras, a mummified body from Mongolia, the portrait of England’s fattest man in the late 18th century (he died at 52 stone), the list could stretch to several pages.

The collection is free, interesting and educational, with a beautiful café and well stocked bookshop to tempt you after your perusal of the exhibitions.

RA Summer Exhibition

Over at the Royal Academy the 238th Summer Exhibition is taking place. I have less positive thing to say about this, it’s not that there aren’t some very good works on show, just that there are such a large number of bad one on display. The exhibition is open to all submissions, and a committee the Academicians chooses those accepted for exhibition, different Academicians also curate different rooms, some being ‘prestige rooms’ for the display of prominent artists work, some being rather, well less prominent, displaying the general submission nearly from floor to ceiling (everything is for sale, so little orange dots rack up on the cheaper prints and lithographs, rather spoiling the integrity of the picture, in the prestige rooms the dots goes on a plaque below the work).

I won’t go into the specifics of the works I didn’t like; it would take too much time for one thing. But the preponderance of dogs, cats, pigs, birds, horses and other boring domestic subjects is not electrifying, nor challenging, nor interesting. In the ‘prestige’ rooms there was much to like (and again, dislike), and it’s hard to decide if the individually curated rooms and themes are a good thing or leave the exhibition as an incoherent mess. David Hockney’s 50 panelled canvas of a Yorkshire scene dominates the exhibition (the largest work ever shown there), it is certainly striking and the skill in painting 50 separate canvasses having them all match up when constructed, is impressive. The simple method of painting and relatively small pallet of colours actually make the huge piece quite welcoming and not oppressively grand.

Elsewhere we have a mud/iron picture by AnselmKiefer , a neon sign by Tracy Emin, a wooden candle by Gavin Turk and a hysterical drawing of the Blair’s outside Downing Street flanked by dead bodies and abused prisoners by Michael Sandle RA (a rare moment of politics in an otherwise ‘polite’ exhibition). The room devoted to architecture is a delight as always, why can’t we have more than one room? This is the room that does feel truly modern in the exhibition, and if half of the designs showcased here (in model, drawing and computer simulation forms), the world will be a more beautiful place (including designs for a new tower in Hoxton and a small but perfectly formed kiosk for the park next to City Hall).

Impressionists by the Sea

In the small upstairs gallery at the RA, Impressionist by the Sea is installed. Another Impressionist exhibition at the RA, but it’s actually quite good and if not revelatory then informative. We see the way that the sea is represented in French art before the impressionist, all haggard fishermen, women shrimping, storms at sea, shipwrecks and the like. After the impressionist got through with the coast, the seaside that we still think of today emerged in art. The French upper middle classes, helped by the railways, had the money to go to the sea and the painters of the time really do capture the spirit of bourgeoisies’ society promenading and parading themselves. There are some lovely paintings in this exhibition, particularly Manet’s vibrant depiction of the sea, Monet’s painting of the gentility of a seaside resort and then a return by him to more elemental paintings of the sea alone (juxtaposed with a horribly sugary Renoir of a shining idealised family on a beach). It’s a small show, but worth battleling the crowds for.

Insider Art

Insider Art at the ICA is really a revelatory experience. After the polite art of the Summer Exhibition and the safety of the beloved impressionists, seeing Insider Art was very refreshing, it is actually the ultimate in outsider art. This is an exhibition of works submitted to the annual Kostler Awards Scheme (so everything has been made in the last 12 months), which encourages art in prisons, young offenders institutions, bails hostels, secure hospitals and immigration centres. The scheme has thousands of entries every year (for a very small prizes, ranging form £20-£100), and for this exhibition Grayson Perry and several other curators have chosen a selection for display (and sale). None of these people are trained artists it is safe to assume, their styles can be very childlike or naive, there are homage’s to famous artists and works (including a pot similar to Grayson Perry’s work). But the art is often excellent and very moving, but always complexly real and heartfelt. It also feels decidedly male, although there are women represented here, the exhibition like the penal system is overwhelmingly male, so we have quite a few representations of women in various stated of undress, often in idealised and fantasy situations. We also have some interesting representations of prison itself, the threat of violence in the halls, or a mournful scene in the prison yard, plus of course that yearning from freedom, a painting of an outdoor scene or an ideal dinner. Celebrity and TV culture also has prisoners in its grip just like everyone else, with a few representation of famous folk (including a picture of a woman very much like Madonna in a Warhol style, and a creepy picture of our last PM), most strikingly was a Mummy Dalek and her small pink child dalek, wearing a bib reading ‘daddy’, which I found stupidly moving at the time (assuming daddy is the artist)! There is also, again mirroring the disproportion in the prisons system, a large number of consciously black works, black history, black heroes and remembrance of slavery all feature, these often seem to come from people in young offenders institutions, and I hope that admiration of people like Dr King and Muhammad Ali will give these young people some guidance in their future lives. A game, a bit like monopoly, by the inmates of HMP Lewis, is meant to introduce new inmates into the ways of this particular institution, and the game shows creativity and intelligence aplenty. Another exhibit, Ship Home, from a man at an immigration detention centre (having not committed or been tried for any crime remember) depicted a ship with the words ‘Iran’, reminded me that our debate over immigration does have another side too, and a human cost. Finally, probably my favourite piece in this consistently interesting and varied exhibition was The Puppet Master, by Peter Thomas of HMP Dumfries. It is a small and vigorous sculpture, shows a red robed and bewigged judge with the figure of Justice above him, pulling the strings of a barrister and police officer below, between these figures sits the inmate holding a tiny but perfect recreation of his letter from the Kostler Scheme. Below that is another tier of Judges and prisoners straining to hold up the edifice above them. It is very funny and shows practical artistic ability as well as humour and self awareness.

This is an excellent show, highly recommended. It will make you think about crime and punishment, and how art can certainly play its part in rehabilitation.

Review: The Hothouse

Harold Pinter’s rarely performed 1958 play The Hothouse, is a brilliantly unsettling comic gem. The wide Lyttleton stage is filled with an industrial scale set consisting of a dilapidated office replete with dowdy late 1950’s furniture, an eerie white tiled stairwell and a soundproofed room above, perfectly conjured by designer Hildegard Bechtler. Ian Rickson, in his first job after leaving helm at the Royal Court, deftly directs Pinter’s second play for ever ounce of menace and dark comedy it possesses. He is helped by a first class cast, led by Stephen Moore as Roote, the head of a strange and mysterious institution, somewhere between a prison and a hospital (a sinister ‘rest home’ as one of the staff puts it). Moore brings out the absurdities of the piece, by playing his upper crust ex-Colonel with a very straight bat, with his orders from ‘the ministry’, but seemingly nothing of any use to do (a sort of administrative hell). Finbar Lynch gives a pitch perfect performance as his cold, distant and dangerous second in command. But my acting laurels ultimately go to the sublime Paul Ritter as Lush, an inquiring staff member at the elliptical establishment. I have never seen Ritter give anything less that a fabulous performance, and his extraordinarily dry yet sincerely arch Lush is no exception.

The play is simply about the running of this horrible institution (and the lunatic power of oppressive bureaucracy), with the mystery of one dead patient and another who has just produced a baby boy added into the mix (though we don’t see the patients, all referred to by number and not name, we do hear haunting cries and slamming doors occasionally). As often with Pinter there is a palpable sense of menace throughout, and sinister, unexplained events occur (but I won’t spoil the end, which is not totally unexpected, the characters themselves predict the end in a way). There is also a strange sexual fascination, with Miss Cutts (Lia Williams) conducting an affair with at least two of the male staff, plus the mystery of the baby perhaps produced by rape or an affair with one of the staff (the idea that the inmates possibly mentally ill, perhaps political detainees, are being abused/used by the staff is particularly horrifying when you hold it apart from the general menace of the play).

Pinter is a master at showing us our own discomfort, distorting the world into the horrible place just beyond our imagination, but very recognisable. This is a brutally funny play, I defy anyone to sit through it and not laugh heartily, but the very fact that such a dark piece can result in hilarity is interesting itself.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Review: In Celebration

David Storey’s 1969 play In Celebration (Duke of York’s) brings us firmly into an England that is thoroughly different to today’s society, but strangely recognisable too. Storey was brought up in a mining family in the North, and this familiar background is also the setting for his play. The Shaw family are coming together to celebrate Mrs Shaw’s 60th Birthday (and 40 years of marriage incidentally). Her three male children have left the rows and rows of back to back houses and now have their own lives far away, which their father has made sure did not involve the back braking and dangerous works that he is engaged in. The family is unsure of itself, they do not sit altogether easily with each other, underlying tension and alienation are evident. After all Mr and Mrs Shaw don’t have a telephone to speak to their distant sons, and emotions are restrained by the nature of the times and culture anyway. Their sons haven’t lived under their roof for many a year, and a once a year visit seems the limit of their relationships. In these circumstances how can you really know who these people you call your family are? It’s not long before that alienation and tension break out into open resentment and full scale arguments. But I was never quite sure what this was really all about. One son (the showy artist) has a grievance against his mother, involving another brother who died in childhood, but this sense of grievance is not shared by his more conventional siblings, and angers them and his father. If this is simply a ‘they fuck you up, your mum and fad’ sentiment, then he was being quite self centred in his actions (certainly knowing that it would never be properly discussed and would only cause trouble. Leave well alone would have been my advice). If it was something more, I’m afraid it was lost to Northern reticence and perhaps mumbling from the actors.

The play is set in the front room of their small house, the set (by Les Brotherston) meticulously creating a palpable sense of time and place (the picture of the Queen, the coal scuttle etc. Anyone with working class Grandparents can relate to it, except sans coal and with a brown 1980’s push button TV set). Direction by Anna Mackmin seemed a little on the slow side, but I think the play is partly to blame. Paul Hilton dominated the stage as Andrew, the iconoclastic oldest son, who has dropped out of the law to become an artist, he was perhaps a tad too young looking for his supposed 40 stage years, but Hilton is such a great actor it hardly matters. Tim Healy is the gruff father and Dearbhla Molloy the very proper Mother. The ‘star’ amongst the cast, Orlando Bloom, fails to set the stage alight as the youngest son Steven, a taciturn and nervous looking young man, but his acting was certainly passable.

At the end of the evening I’d seen a slice of life drama, but gotten very little out of it, I didn’t really understand the characters very well, and my sympathies were not stirred in any direction. My main though when leaving the auditoria was, regarding the feuding brothers, who speaks like that in real life? David Story is a talented dramatist, recent viewings of his plays The Changing Room and Home have convinced me of that (and of course the film, This Sporting Life), but this production didn’t live up to the high expectations I had of it.

Review: Joseph

Lord Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat arrives at the Adelphi Theatre (replacing Lloyd Webber’s own Evita), with a huge critic-proof box office advance and much hype, all due to the hit BBC1 programme ‘Any Dream will Do’, where the public got the chance to cast the title role. The winner, Lee Mead, was greeted with ecstatic applause and screams when he first appeared, and two standing ovations either side of the ubiquitous ‘mega mix’ at the close of the show (an even more poppy rehash of the show’s tunes, usually bolted onto feel-good shows to get the audience dancing in the aisles). Mr Mead has an easy charm and winning smile perfect for Joseph, and he can sing more than adequately well.

Calling the audience ebullient would be an understatement, the air was full of shrieking and hyperventilating from kids young and old; rhythmic clapping, applauding and cheering over the actors singing, and general chatter was the order of the day (‘that’s the choir’, ‘that’s the narrator’, ‘that’s him, Joseph!’ were the helpful insights of the people two rows in front of me).

Apart from the entertainment emanating from the stalls, the show is pretty attention grabbing too. It’s a gaudy and glitzy (in the nicest possible sense) production, based on Stephen Pimlott’s 1991 staging and overseen here by Nicholas Treherne and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast. It is certainly better than the wobbly and novelty production that last graced the London stage (a couple of years ago at the New London Theatre). The trouble is, I often felt that the simple story of Joseph, his 11 brothers and his eventual rise to power in Egypt is overdone. The music is light, ranging from parody calypso to parody country and western (Lloyd Webber and lyricist Sir Tim Rice love their parodies), which are jolly enough, and a couple of memorable ballads (Any Dream Will Do, Close Every Door to Me) in the more traditional style, sung by our hero. The problem for me came when Pharaoh appears, he also happens to be an ancient Egyptian Elvis impersonator, and his rather strained and overlong parody of The King didn’t keep me amused for very long (also, will many 10 year olds know who Elvis is to the extent that they get the jokes?).

The singing and dancing is of good quality (the ensemble numbers are well done and amusing), and the show mostly moves along apace, with the next joke just around the corner. It’s certainly not a deep show, or one of great musical quality, but it is fun, and you would find it very difficult not to enjoy the vivacious evening (though I draw the line at mega mixes).

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Review: Pygmalion

Sir Peter Hall once again returns to one of his favourite playwrights, George Bernard Shaw, whom he has championed for many years (and in doing so given us some superb productions of his plays). Of course we have also seen another Shaw recently, the startlingly relevant Saint Joan in a wonderful production by Marianne Elliott at the National Theatre. Here at the Theatre Royal in Bath, Sir Peter comes up trumps and delivers a meticulously directed dose of witty and intelligent theatre, with some wonderful acting to boot.

Most people know the Pygmalion story through the delightful 1956 Lerner and Lowe musical and subsequent film entitled My Fair Lady. However Shaw’s original Pygmalion is a much less rosy and romantic tale than the musical, with a sad ending unthinkable for a Broadway show of the time. Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can’t turn a cockney flower-girl they meet in Covent Garden, into ‘a lady’ and pass her off in polite society as such. This simple premise, inspired by Ovid’s tale of Pygmalion wishing an ivory sculpture of a perfect woman he had created would come to life, is told in five acts, focusing on the consequences of Eliza Doolittle’s transformation and ultimate flowering into an independent woman. The play’s comedy, lightness of touch even, actually sits very well with Shaw’s more serious exploration of social class and identity. His jokes at the expense of the British class system are still very funny today, with class still a potent force in our modern society.

The production itself is marvellous. Sets by Simon Higlett are perfect, opening underneath the grand columns of St Paul’s Church Covent Garden (complete with a moving taxi cab) and taking us into Professor Higgins’s wood panelled ‘laboratory’ at his well appointed home on Wimpole Street. The direction gives the play a light edge, with the action buzzing along (the production last 140 minute, a relatively short Shaw). Acting is generally excellent, with Tim Pigott-Smith as a brilliantly petulant and restless Higgins, sometimes reminiscent of a bored schoolboy unable to grasp the niceties of polite conversation. Eliza is played charmingly by Michelle Dockery, who I really felt for and heartily applauded her eventual independence (whilst noting that Eliza thinks rather scornfully of her old friends once her social position rises, and her independence is still ultimately reliant on a man, so she’s not quite a feminist icon). Barry Stanton as Colonel Pickering and Tony Haygarth as Alfred Doolittle (Eliza’s Father), give spirited performances, particularly the latter as an uproarious amoral dustman turned willing victim of middle class morals. The final meeting between Eliza and Higgins shows faults in both of them, with Higgins doggedly rejecting kindness and emotion if favour of what he sees as honesty, and Eliza equally set on her course of independence and no compromise. Naturally Eliza gains our sympathies, she is being by far the most reasonable and she has a right to live her life as she pleases. But you do have some sympathy with Higgins, especially in the last seconds of the play when he realises that he has lost Eliza (a romantic liaison is certainly not the intention if the play).

Social position (perhaps more importantly social obligations, or lack of them), aspiration, and some of the snobbery and thinking displayed in Pygmalion, are alive and well in 2007, just they hide themselves slightly better than in Edwardian England and are expressed differently. ‘This is an age of upstarts’, as Henry Higgins says.

I hope this production will be seen in London after its short summer season in Bath, it deserves a longer life. The main problem with the play is that I always keep expecting the characters to break out into song, but dare I say it, Pygmalion is much more interesting and satisfying piece than its musical counterpart, if not quite as fun.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Review: Little Nell

Little Nell at the Theatre Royal Bath, is a curious play. Written by Simon Gary and inspire by Claire Tomalin’s book on the subject, the play explores Charles Dickens’s relationship with Nelly Ternan, or Little Nell (nothing to do with the other, fictional Little Nell). Dickens meets his future mistress at the age of 45 when she was only 18, part of a theatrical family performing in a play he was producing; eventually he sets up an alternative home with her, with the affair contiuning until his death at the age of 58. The play dramatises their meeting and events in their shared life through a plot device; the meeting of Ternan’s son (from her subsequent marriage after Dickens’s death) and Dickens’s son some time in the early 1920’s (the former to find out about his mother’s totally concealed relationship with the latter’s father). This enables most of the exposition to be done by the two twentieth century characters, and for Dickens and Ternan’s scenes to concentrate on their relationship.

The play is strange because it feels very old fashioned and rather stolid. The framing device never really fully pays off, as the two men in the 1920’s never really matter to our central story, they are very much incidental to, whilst conversely framing our understanding of, the plot. It also feels quite uneventful (though not totally undramatic), the kind of play that gives you the basics of the story and doesn’t really go any further. I didn’t have any gripping interest in the story development or characters’ fate, there was nothing really fascinating there (perhaps the fame and familiarity of the subject is partly to blame for this). But this is a play that is easy enough to watch, an inconsequential 90 minutes (I think this brevity is, unusually, a mistake. A fuller examination, or fictionalisation, of Dickens and Ternan’s lives and characters would have been more satisfying). The most striking moments in the play focus on Dickens sexual obsession; his creepy paternalistic approach to the young Nelly soon turned into less wholesome business not fit for the self proclaimed uncle, 27 years the young woman’s senior. Indeed Dickens does seem to have treated many of the woman in his life roughly, his wife was turned out of his official residence in favour of her sister (though a romantic relationship is not clear), at the time of course he was having his affair with Nelly. His disavowal of Nelly publicly, and hiding her in suburban obscurity also seems pretty rotten, he can take her or leave her as he wills. Dickens actually managed to keep his affairs out of the public eye (bar some salacious rumour), which would be particularly astonishing in our 24 hour media age, when the thought of a major A-list celebrity literally living a double life for 13 years and successfully concealing it from the public, is nearly unthinkable.

Sir Peter Hall, now on his fifth summer season at the picturesque Theatre Royal, directs, with an oak panelled set design by Simon Higlett and lighting by the every reliable Peter Mumford. Tim Pigott-Smith plays Ternan’s son, a mentally scarred WWI veteran, with suitably restrained emotion and flashes of anger about his mother’s treatment. Loo Brealey is Nelly, whom evolves from a wide eyed and winsome young girl into a bitter woman (the former seemed quite stilted). Dickens is played by Michael Pennington, as a slightly creepy figure with high blown rhetoric to convince his Nelly of his good intentions. Pennington (and the play) has to be careful not to make Dickens too black and white, but I thought him a generally unpleasant and tawdry man, I didn’t get any sense of his greatness or importance.

It’s a play that will be enjoyed by the vast majority of those seeing it, as inoffensive middle class theatre. But I would have liked a little more life in the piece.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Review: Saint Joan

Saint Joan, in a beautiful production by Marianne Elliott, fills the Olivier Theatre with self-possessed style and composure. It’s not that this is a showy or consciously big production (that goes for the acting too), just that the concept, performances and execution of the piece are so good, everyone in the huge auditorium can’t help but being captivated by it (or they seemed to be when I went). Key to this is a stunning central performance from Anne-Marie Duff as the Maid of Orleans, playing Joan as a wide eyed country girl (which she must have been) with an Irish accent, with great strength but all too human vulnerability. Duff had me on her side form the get go, and despite being what we would now call a religious fundamentalist and an ultra nationalist (or a mental patient more probably), Joan still has the ability to speak to us now, to show us devotion and dedication, that beliefs still matter in an age where apathy and caution sometime seem to rule.

St Joan is ingrained in French culture as a national hero, and venerated a saint by the Catholic Church, yet here in England, whom she helped to defeat in the 15th Century, she seems quite forgotten, I certainly never learnt about her in school. In fact the only time I have ever heard about Joan outside of historical or theatre circles is on the Orange Mobile Phone Network’s advert currently shown at cinemas (where St Joan is satirically turned into a cheerleader to make her more saleable as a movie character). Mentioning this to several young people has elicited a bewildered response.

Shaw seems to like Joan very much; I felt that he must have enjoyed writing her vigorous dialogue and expressing her infectious enthusiasm. He wrote this play in 1923, only three years after the church officially canonised her, and 5 years since death and war had ravaged continental Europe. Jean Anouilh 1952 play also deals with Joan and her life story, and I thought after seeing Shaw’s Saint Joan, how welcome a revival of Anouilh’s play would be, especially because he now seems like an almost forgotten titan of 20th century playwrighting (if only the National had got Elliott to do The Lark in rep with Saint Joan, with the same cast. What an exciting thought!).

But back to the marvellous Joan we do have at the National Theatre, extraordinarily part of the £10 Travelex Season (can there be a better deal in town?). Elliott (responsible for the terrific Pillars of the Community at The NT last season) uses music and movement to effectively underscore and illuminate Shaw’s words, she also shrewdly had playwright Samuel Adamson work with her on some judicious cutting to the mammoth play (Adamson is credited as ‘textual advisor), so this Joan justifies every second of its three hour and ten minute duration, by being simply gripping. Designer Rae Smith gives us a raised square platform in the middle of the Olivier stage, which also revolves and can be used in several versatile ways, whilst in the background we have stark branchless tree trunks. It is a simple and effective set, which the director uses to the full extent, sometimes having the central platform as stage of its own, the rest of the actor watching from the edges, passing up chairs when needed and making their entrances simply by stepping up onto the platform, not coming in from the wings. Elliott also uses choreographed movement (that reminded me slightly of Katie Mitchell’s work), which she makes an integral part of the work. It is especially impressive in the moving moments leading up to the burning of Joan, and in a battle scene, where chair banging and percussive sounds replace swords (also reminding me of Northern Broadsides ‘Wars of The Roses’, where battles were drummed and aggressively tapped danced out to brilliant effect). Elliott is not bound by theatrical conventions or sticking to a rigid style; she has a flag fluttering in the wind done so by hand, and a kingfisher conjured up by two men in black. The music is also a fundamental part of the production, with a live band of five providing beautiful chanting, singing and background sounds to the action. The lighting, by Paule Constable, is also first rate, with highly dramatic framing, often painting an evocative atmosphere.

There is quite a regional feel to the production, by that I mean the characters have different accents and feel like a disparate group brought together by events, convincingly signifying the diversity of France. Joan is a Lorraine woman and speaks with an Irish accent, others speak with a Welsh or Northern drawl, the Dauphine and his peers speak in a more neutral English accent. The play focuses on the conflict between the English, the church and Joan in several terms, one as Catholic hegemony and vested interests fighting against strong nationhood, threatening usurpation of their Rome sanctioned powers, a view which they see as being proposed by Joan. The other is the feudal English wanting to crush any thoughts of a divine King of a truly united Kingdom, a King who actually uses his power against his Barons, again they think that this is what Joan is effectively proposing. The realities of Joan’s power, influence and positions are hard to accurately tell so many hundreds of years later, but Shaw paints Joan as a woman without much more motivation than the voices in her head from god who tell her to drive the English out of France and crown Charles at Rheims Cathedral (which she does). So it is very easy to see Joan as a simple girl which a fearful and protective Church condemns, and whom the British vengefully burn, you can also see they hysteria in her arguments; Joan is not a woman to do things by half or temper he beliefs with reason. Joan’s trial by the Catholic clergy is agonising, and the run up to her death very moving, most affecting for me was the stripping of Joan’s manish clothing when captured by the Burgundians and handed to the English, leaving Joan in a simple smock and looking truly vulnerable for the first time. Adamson and Elliott wisely drop the last scene as written by Shaw, where King Charles meets a cleric and discusses the retraction of Joan’s sentence to heresy, which was done some 25 years after her death. Instead we have an amalgam of this scene, where the relevant information is imparted but the pointless stage business not entered into. At the very end we are left with Joan asking us when the world will ever be ready for people like her. ‘Never’ still seems to be the resounding answer, and I suppose thankfully on one had (one Joan could cause a lot of damage as a devout ‘soldier of God’ in 2007), but sadly on the other (ideals and principals will always be corrupted by human fallibility).

Paul Ready (long a favourite actor of mine) plays the Dauphin as a petulant and rather camp young man, perhaps a tad too camp. The French men of war, here dressed in vaguely early 20th century uniform, are lead by Finn Caldwell as Captain Le Hire (a sympathetic battlefield friend of Joan). The clergy, mostly a self interested cabal, include James Hayes as the Archbishop of Rheims (a politician and arch manipulator), Patterson Joseph as the Bishop of Beauvais (he helps condemn Joan to death and collaborates with the English, but Joseph’s wonderful performance made me believe that he did genuinely want to save her soul. He spoke movingly at the trial, and was overjoyed at Joan’s initial recantation.). The English commander, the Earl of Warwick (Angus Wright), is ever so slightly effete and wonderfully English with it. The rest of the cast (including Oliver Ford Davis as the Inquisitor) are equally good, and work extremely well in this ensemble piece. Overall there are a surprising number of Laugh’s in St Joan, but that certainly dose not overshadow the moving fate of our heroine. A wonderfully production which I would highly recommend.

Thoughts: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The full galaxy of British screen talent is once again assembles, no not for James Bond, this time for the fifth instalment of the Harry Potter saga. I’ve always enjoyed the films, from the rather wooden first attempt, through to this latest episode, where the acting is much more grown up. Indeed, Harry is so grown up that he starts to discover… girls, and even kisses one (which produced something between a gasp and an oooowww from the younger members of the audience). The more mature Harry is also reflected in the general tone of the film, this time directed by David Yates (best know for Sex Traffic and string of other TV projects; he’s also set to make the sixth film). The film is, as ever, a visual treat (but we don’t get any quidditch!), with the Ministry of Magic (underneath our Muggle world’s Whitehall), and its strange characters and huge rooms proving particularly memorable. Potter (Daniel Radcliff) is reunited with his old friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) at Hogwarts, but the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Finnes) is still after Harry. Headmaster and all round good egg Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) fights to save his young charge from a variety of attacks, but back at Hogwarts the Ministry of Magic sends in Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to take control of the school and limit the use of magic. Hogwarts effectively becomes a totalitarian state, Harry leading the underground resistance. It’s all great fun and highly diverting, ending up in the anticipated magical battle. There are also some nice broomstick flying over London shots, which reinforce the British brand value of Potter, and make London look very glamorous indeed.

The heroes of the film, Harry and his teenage chums, are all developing as characters and the acting is getting much better than in the early outings (indeed Daniel Radcliff starred in Equus in the West End earlier this year, and I can report that he did very well, if not quite superbly). As for the character roles, Staunton is brilliant as the horrible and awfully Pink Mrs Umbridge, on a one woman mission to take the joy out of life. Emma Thompson has a brief and quite funny appearance as a thickly bespectacled and incompetent teacher, Kathryn Hunter even has a small but crucial part (playing and old lady before her natural time I think). What with Gambon, Finnes, Staunton, Thompson, Maggie Smith, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Gary Oldman, Mark Williams, Julie Walters, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman (brilliantly deadpan as ever), David Bradley, Robbie Coltrane and Helena Bonham Carter (who is excellent in her creepy role), making an appearance to some extent or another, you could celebrity cast several West End revivals in the years to come.
Despite taking on more responsibility, emerging as a leader and even his first kiss, Harry is still a schoolboy, and watching this film is a deliciously juvenile way to spend an afternoon.

P.S: Was I the only one to think the giant was a dead ringer from Shrek?

P.S.S: Was nice to The Osteology Lesson of Dr Sebastiaen Egbertsz by Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, on the wall at Hogwarts. I’d see it at the National Gallery the day before.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Thoughts: Cape Wrath; Dutch Portraits, The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals; Simon Munnery’s EGM

Cape Wrath

Talking of David Lynch, Channel 4’s new drama Cape Wrath (Tuesday nights C4 & E4), looks a bit Lynch lite. I saw quite a few bits and pieces lifted from the great mans oeuvre (creepy motel anyone?). Unfortunately it’s not half as good as anything Lynch has made, but it was entertaining enough. I watched the first two episodes and enjoyed the unrestrained sex, violence, angst, longing and slight mystery, pus David Morrissey is always very watchable. Here he plays a father on a witness protection programme; the family are moved to the eerie Meadowlands, when they discover that this is an invisible town, everyone there is also on witness protection. From then on we get a wonderful array of slightly weird and sinister characters.

Tom Hardy also makes an appearance in the first episode as a brutish handyman, but his sadistic rapist character doesn’t last too long… My favourite line was Hardy calling a woman on the phone to come to his flat for sex: ‘your gums, my plums’. Well, what can you say to that?

Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals

To the National Gallery for their latest show, Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. I left asking, why? There were some brilliant paintings there (particularly a pair of Rembrandt’s depicting a couple, mercilessly aged), but the theme was hardly exciting or particularly coherent. I am also depressed to trudge down to the Sainsbury Wing basement galleries again, the last two exhibitions (a so-so Renoir and extraordinary Velazquez) were held in sunny rooms in the main gallery. I would strongly recommend that the NG put some of their more sepulchre suited permanent collection into the Sainsbury Gallery and free up some lighter space for temporary exhibitions upstairs permanently.

Simon Munnery’s EGM

I went to see some stand up comedy last night, Simon Munnery’s EGM at the Soho Theatre to be precise. Whilst I like Munnery and some of his comedy, I am invariably left disappointed and dissatisfied by stand up. I generally only go during the Edinburgh Festival these days, finishing off a day of intellect testing theatre with some comedy seems right. But in London, sacrificing theatre time for comedy seems foolish, and so it proves. Comedy is so personal, and stand up so hit and miss that I yearn for a good play when seeing an indifferent comic perform. Of course drama is also personal and hit and miss, but the structure and depth seems to satisfy me more (not all the time mind, plus you have to be judicious in what you see. Choosing comedy can often be more difficult than a play, such a stab in the dark).

As for Simon Munnery and his EGM, I went because I have enjoyed his work previously (and also his last Edinburgh show got great reviews and personal recommendations), and couldn’t fit him in when I’m in Edinburgh this year. My friend and I were both agreed that his material was hit and miss, tending towards the latter (though to be fair, I mostly had a smile on my face). His observational comedy was pretty banal, of pub standard I thought. His character comedy can be much better (Alan Parker, Urban Warrior always makes me laugh. I just have to laugh at that type of person, the idiot ultra lefty who’d abolish everything twice), and his poems and songs can be very good indeed. I particularly liked a poem about London that he performed at the end, showing what a vibrant, infinite and aggressive city we live in. Overall a mixed bag of whimsy and lovely moments of character comedy.

Thoughts: Inland Empire

To the Prince Charles Cinema to catch up with David Lynch’s latest film Inland Empire for the bargain price of £3.50 (not bad for over three hours entertainment).

I’ve always been a fan of Lynch’s work, I particularly loved Mullholland Drive, which Inland Empire was loosely billed as a follow up too. One of the things that makes his previous work so interesting is his wonderfully stylish and beautiful cinematography, unfortunately Inland Empire is shot on digital video not conventional film (digital video being a sketchy and rougher looking medium then old fashioned film). Digital obviously has the advantage of being versatile and much cheaper than film, but I can’t help but feeling very sad at the possible demise of traditional film in the cinema (actually, until digital is as aesthetically pleasing as film, film should be retained for mainstream movie production). Practically though, if digital can help get more less-mainstream and arty films made, I’m prepared to live with it, but nice looking pictures shouldn’t be the preserve of the blockbuster.

Anyway, that gripe aside, Inland Empire is a gripping tale. I can barley understand the plot, so far as there is one, it is certainly more surreal and non linear than anything he has done before, but I can say that Laura Dern plays an actress, and then plays several different characters in several different strands of seemingly/possibly unrelated stories (again story is a strong term for a series of things that happen). Dern is brilliant, she is highly versatile and fascinating to watch. Her scenes as the actress (and acting?) were most interesting for me, crackling with tensions. There are also many other Lynch regulars on hand to prick your memory, which makes the film even more intriguing.

The film deals with many of the standard Lynch motifs, Hollywood, sex (or sexual tension certainly), dreams (possibly), rabbits (a follow up on his web project) and hotels. There is also a thread of Eastern Europe, Poland in particular (I think), running through the film. Once again an actress is in trouble, perhaps her film is jinxed? It is brilliant and I can’t quite say why. I find it fascinating as I’m not looking to be annoyed by open question and unresolved action (I love both in this context), but perhaps 3 hours of plotless scenes is extremely challenging for some people (I’m sure Lynch could tell us what it all means, but he thankfully never has before, and hopefully never will).

Lynch didn’t have a script for Inland Empire, he wrote the lines as he went along. But knowing him, his labyrinth mind had it all worked out in advance. When Inland Empire comes out on DVD I would advise you to go with the flow and not get too uptight about answering all the questions about the plot. If you do this you’re in for a rewarding evening.

Thoughts: Manchester International Festival

Heston Blumenthal, Street Performers

Whilst in Manchester I enjoyed as much as I could of the inaugural biennial Manchester International Festival.
Firstly there was a splendid festival pavilion, which was like a big white plastic tepee. Inside you could freely watch a host of musical performances; I caught some rather nice jazz and relaxed for a while. Next door to the pavilion was Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Chilled Summer Treats’ stalls. For £5 you could try a mini portion of strange ice cream, mushy pea sorbet or strawberry and vanilla sundae with olive and leather included. I decided that I didn’t have a fiver to spare on two bites of possibly horrible muck, but not wanting to miss out on the ‘chilled summer treats’ fun I went to the newsagents and got myself a lolly for 80p, and very nice it was too (how unadventurous!).

After the excitement of the festival pavilion I moved onto a rather more traditional British pastime, the drinking of beer. Well actually I didn’t drink any myself, but in Albert Square (home to the imposing Victorian Town Hall) there was a huge crowd all enjoying beer emanating from a temporary hut, there was also another hut serving all thing German (= comically suggestive sausages). This was augmented by some very jolly street performers (no, they were genuinely funny, sometimes), we has cone headed aliens taking pictures of us strange earthlings, a pack of gorillas picking fleas from peoples’ heads and generally acting drunk, and a couple of brightly coloured big bird type things who generally pecked at people or chased them. It was really nice to see people of all ages having fun, and that rarest of things, laughing out loud with total strangers in daylight hours. Not very British.

Queen and Country, Manchester Central Library

Then to a more serious subject, and back to the International Festival. They commissioned Steve McQueen to make a new work, which has resulted in Queen and Country, on display at the beautiful Central Library Grand Hall (a copy of the British Museum Reading rooms really). The piece consists of storage and display cabinet, with vertical draws which pull out to reveal a sheet of postage stamps depicting British soldiers who have died in Iraq, along with their names and date of death (and of course the Queens head in the corner, as with all stamps). Each sheet depicts another face, and the only sound you hear in the huge reading room is the opening and closing of the drawers. It is almost too painful to open another drawer, to see that smiling and proud young face stare back at you. The noise of the drawer shutting almost hurts your ears. I could say much about the courage and bravery of those who have died in Iraq, I could also mention the bereaved families, so proud of their dead children, and so devastated and often angry. But this work needs to be seen, it speaks for itself, the horrible inevitability of death following in the footsteps of war, the quiet dignity in the portraits of the dead. I can’t understand what serving your country in the armed forces means, I find the notion somewhat alien. But few of us can ever properly comprehend the deaths of these young men and women serving our country, and what they mean to their families. This is a very powerful piece of art, which at least makes us shockingly aware of the sacrifices being made.