Sunday, January 25, 2015

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS at The Garrick Theatre

I was in two minds whether to blog again about THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, who have changed theatrical prisons from the Young Vic to the Garrick as it's a virtual straight transfer but last night, while reading Richard Eyre's collection of essays WHAT DO I KNOW?, I read this excerpt from the writings of theatre design visionary Edward Gordon Craig:

The Art of the Theatre is neither acting nor the play, it is not scene nor dance, but it consists of all the elements of which these things are composed: action, which is the very spirit of acting; words, which are the body of the play; line and colour, which are the very heart of the scene; rhythm, which is the very essence of the dance.

After reading that I thought that the notoriously mercurial Craig would go crazy at THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS as that quote describes Susan Stroman's production.

Since I saw THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS at the Young Vic in 2013 - do the clicky for my blog (shared with The Jersey Boys) here - the show won both the Critics Circle and Evening Standard Awards for Best Musical and was also nominated for 6 Olivier Awards.  It is great that the show is getting a second bite of the London cherry and there have been some replacements in an already exceptional cast.

The most obvious replacement is Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Paterson, the nominal leader of the nine teenage black boys wrongly accused of the rape of two white girls in Scottsboro, Alabama.  Dixon originated the role in 2010 and he was excellent, burning with a smouldering sense of his innocence.

For 21 years the Scottsboro Boys faced re-trial after re-trial, they saw execution dates came and go and heard one of their accusers recant her testimony only to still be judged guilty, until finally - long after the media had moved on - they were paroled in drips and drabs.  Haywood had managed to escape in 1948 but was re-captured in 1950 after a bar brawl which saw him sentenced for manslaughter.  He died in prison two years later.  82 years after that Spring day when they had been arrested, the nine Scottsboro Boys were finally exonerated by Alabama's governor.

John Kander & Fred Ebb's score bounces off the stage with it's mixture of "teeth, tits and tonsils" showstoppers and heartbreaking ballads but there is no padding, each song moves the action forward, illuminating the characters and the situation and also sounds sensational under Phil Cornwell's musical direction.

Susan Stroman's tight direction and exhilarating choreography still thrills, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon are still shining as the minstrel show comics Mr. Tambo and Mr Bones, James T. Lane is still stopping the show as the recanting accuser with "Never Too Late Ruby Bates" and the inventiveness and daring of staging it through the medium of a minstrel show still works marvellously well.

The show is on until 21st February... see it!

Dvd/150: LA BETE HUMAINE (Jean Renoir, 1938)

Loosely based on Zola's novel, Renoir's influential thriller is set in the Le Havre railway yards where the clattering, shrieking trains provide a metaphor for the characters' relentless journey to their destinies.

When stationmaster Roubaud realises his young wife Séverene was once her rich godfather's mistress he reacts violently, luring him onto a train journey to murder him making sure Séverene watches to incriminate her too.

However engine driver Jacques Lantier sees them leave the man's carriage.  Séverine implores Jacques to deny he saw them and another man is arrested.  As Roubard descends into jealous lethargy, Séverene and Jacques' relationship becomes a passionate love affair. 

Séverene suggests Jacques kill Roubard so they can escape but Jacques is hiding his own secret - moments of mental fugue which render him psychotic.

Renoir's masterly direction and great performances from Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Ledoux and Carette make this a classic of French cinema.

Shelf or charity shop? Sur le plateau bien sur!!

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Shaw thing: WIDOWERS' HOUSES, Orange Tree Theatre

Well last week was a novel experience - I went to a theatre I had never visited before!  Yes, Constant Reader, believe.

I have wanted to visit the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond for a while as they have a policy of staging little-seen and neglected plays but had hitherto put it off.  The news that they were staging George Bernard Shaw's 1892 play WIDOWERS' HOUSES was the spur to finally go.

My default setting for Shaw is "Oh my lord all those WORDS" but on reflection I find that more often than not I have enjoyed what I have seen.  Of his many plays I have seen MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION, HEARTBREAK HOUSE, PYGMALION and SAINT JOAN in the theatre, as well as having seen CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, MAJOR BARBARA, PYGMALION, SAINT JOAN and THE MILLIONAIRESS on film and television.  Yes that hectoring tone is always lurking in the background somewhere but I have enjoyed the plays seen.

WIDOWERS' HOUSES actually plays like a fast-paced drawing-room comedy but with lurking shadows among the teacups.  Shaw was 36 when it was staged at the Royalty Theatre in 1892 and it proved to be his first major success.  However it is not seen as regularly as some of his other works, I had only heard of one production before in 1970 at the Royal Court with Nicola Pagett, Frank Middlemass, Anthony Newlands, Robin Ellis and a young Penelope Wilton.  Mind you, it has only been staged on Broadway once - and that was in 1907!

Shaw sets up the play as a romantic comedy but then pulls the rug under our expectations.  Idealistic Dr. Trench is holidaying in Germany with his affected friend Cokane and has fallen for one of their fellow travellers Blanche Sartorius but although she is more than happy to reciprocate his feelings, Trench has to win over her stern widowed father, a secretive self-made man.

Back in London, Trench discovers that Sartorius has made his fortune from being a slum landlord, squeezing extortionate rates from tenants in poorly-maintained flats in deprived areas.  Sartorius even dismisses his unctuous rent-collector Mr Lickcheese for sympathising with his tenants' well-being.  Trench's shock is compounded when Sartorius reveals that the doctor's income is drawn from interest accrued from a mortgage on one of Sartorius' buildings!  Trench is further disenchanted when Blanche refuses to live without her father's 'tainted' money that has kept her in the style she has come accustomed to and they call their engagement off.

Four months later Sartorius is visited by a newly wealthy Lickcheese, grown rich by investing in a dodgy property company that renovates tenements to hopefully sell on or knock down for municipal building projects.  Sartorius' buildings - the Widowers' Houses of the title - are of interest to the company and Lickcheese hopes to persuade his former employer to join in the scheme so they can all get rich quick - including a certain doctor who has a mortgage on one of the houses.

Will Trench remain unsullied by the nefarious property deal or will he ditch his principals for a piece of the action and the chance to reconcile with Blanche?  It all leads to a surprisingly modern ending.

As I said, I was quite surprised how much I enjoyed the sharply defined characters and the swift pace.  The small in-the-round Orange Tree auditorium suited the piece well, giving the action an intimate immediacy.  

Simon Daw's design idea of having the playing area surrounded by a frieze of Charles Booth's 'poverty' map of central London helped to visualise the play's themes as these iconic maps were published around the time that Shaw wrote the play.

The Orange Tree's new Artistic Director Paul Miller's direction brought out Shaw's moments of comedy and drama in equal measure and he elicited strong performances from Patrick Drury as the commanding Sartorius, Alex Waldmann as the baffled Trench, Stefan Adegbola as the preeningly pretentious Cokane and it was a delight to see Rebecca Collingwood as the opinionated and 'modern' Blanche.  

We saw her last year in GRAND HOTEL, her final year production at the Guildhall Drama School, where she was an eye-catching and vivacious Flaemmchen so it was a thrill to see her again at the Orange Tree making her professional stage debut. Simon Gregor certainly made a splash as the oily Lickcheese - another of Shaw's working-class characters who refuse to know their place - but the Dickensian caricature he gave us was sometimes at odds with the more restrained performances around him.

As I have said, I was surprised how much I enjoyed WIDOWERS' HOUSES and hope to visit the Orange Tree again - even if the 'age specific' sold-out audience made it's small bar/foyer and narrow staircases a bit of a logistical log-jam.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


I was in two minds whether I wanted to see WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN at the Playhouse.  I knew that, despite it's unsuccessful Broadway production, David Yazbek's score had it's admirers but there was one major problem with seeing it - I loved it's source material too much.

Pedro Almodóvar's 1988 hit film was the one that truly brought him to the world's attention although I had already fallen under his spell with his previous film LAW OF DESIRE (LA LEY DEL DESEO).  It confirmed to me how magnetic and talented his muse Carmen Maura was and marvelled at her emotionally true but luminous performance as Pepa which was the epicentre of the farcical action of the film with it's array of madcap characters.

So how did I end up seeing the musical?  Because after last Saturday's performance there was the particular thrill of Pedro himself being interviewed on the Playhouse stage joined by the show's director Bartlett Sher, star Tamsin Greig and Almodóvar veteran Rossy de Palma - like, wow!

So... how does it transfer?  I cannot say I am a big fan of Greig - I always feel she is standing outside of her character, 'commenting' on it rather than playing it - or Haydn Gwynne who played the dangerously sidelined wife Lucia, but by the end I was won over by the élan of Bartlett Sher's staging and the obvious respect for Pedro's work.

Actress Pepa is dumped by her lover Ivan which throws her into emotional turmoil and her attempts to contact him are frustratingly unsuccessful.  Pepa's despair is disrupted by ditzy model Candela who wants to hide in Pepa's flat as she has discovered her Arab boyfriend is a Shiite terrorist sought by police.  Both their traumas are disrupted by the arrival of Carlos and Marisa, a young man and his controlling girlfriend who are looking to buy Pepa's flat.  In the true spirit of farce, Carlos is revealed to be Ivan's son!  if that wasn't enough, they all have to contend with the arrival of Lucia, Ivan's deserted wife who is out for revenge... Oh did I mention the blender full of drugged gazpacho?

Despite committed performances from the cast and Bartlett Sher's smoothly stylish direction, the action cannot help but stop for the frequent musical numbers.  Yazbek's songs have a vibrant salsa vibe and are socked across by the onstage musicians, but it's difficult to keep the farce moving along like an express train when both female leads are given impressive but slow solo numbers.

Despite my misgivings I have to admit that Greig certainly held the stage as the distraught Pepa but never felt she really was ever out-of-control and Gwynne's Lucia was certainly a larger-than-life scene-stealer.  Anna Skellern was great fun as the hysterical Candela and Ricardo Afonso was very good as the sometime-narrator and Pepa's ever-ready taxi-driver.

I also liked Seline Hizli's bossy Marisa and Willemijn Verkaik's hissable solicitor Paulina, Ivan's new mistress, but Jérome Praden and Hayden Oakley were both a bit too anonymous as father and son Ivan and Carlos.

There was also a lot to like in Anthony Ward's economical set design of Pepa's split level apartment, Caitlin Ward's character-led costumes and Peter Mumford's bright and eye-popping lighting.

The after-show Q&A was a delight with Pedro being very gracious about the show and explaining where the inspiration for the show had come from while Rossy de Palma was great fun reminiscing about the filming of what was only her second film.  Bartlett Sher was insightful as to the show's creation and Tamsin Greig explained that the singing didn't come naturally!

I am already beginning to think that I might want to see it again,,,

Stage To Screen: INTO THE WOODS

"Sometimes the things you most wish for are not / to be touched..."

That lyric has stayed with me ever since I heard that Rob Marshall, the director of CHICAGO and NINE, was to film Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS which is one of my favourite shows.  Bearing in mind I couldn't abide his version of NINE with it's relentless cutting and disjointed story-telling, I quietly dreaded what he would make of Sondheim and James Lapine's cleverly constructed take on classic fairy-tales.  But despite some odd jangling changes, I enjoyed it.

INTO THE WOODS was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway and it is one of the shows that I love the most.  James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim took the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack, Rapunzel and mixed them up with their own characters of a childless Baker and his wife and a Witch who has lost her powers to show that there really is no such thing as Happily Ever After.

There is a recurring theory that this was written in 1986 in response to the AIDS epidemic with it's call for a united stand against all-encompassing threat that does not discriminate on who it takes and it's subdued rallying cry of "No One Is Alone" is a powerfully emotional moment.  That the film managed to hit that point made me happy.

What I found curious about the film was the oddly-unmagical feel to it.  There really didn't seem much sparkle to the first section of the film where we follow the retelling of the familiar stories, the tone seemed too downbeat and ho-hum.  Even the star casting of Johnny Depp as The Wolf came and went with hardly any impression.

The plot rewrites - although approved by Sondheim supposedly - do make the film seem a lesser work if you have know the stage version.  In the original, the character of Rapunzel is killed when she runs in front of the avenging giant's wife - here she simply rides off with her Prince to flee the danger.  That means that the reprise of the two Princes' song "Agony" has to be dropped which is a shame as it shows them already lusting after two new helpless heroines: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

The film also has the Royal family riding off unscathed while the show has them also perishing, and Rob Marshall gives Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife a very subdued and confusing fate.  It's almost as if they could not bring themselves to illustrate characters dying, robbing the show of the desolation one feels when one sees the show.  It just seems another instance where a film adaptation judges it's audience to be more sensitive to things than in a theatre.

What made the film work for me were the three central performances.  Although Anna Kendrick was fairly anonymous as Cinderella, Emily Blunt and James Corden were surprisingly effective as the Baker and his wife, Blunt in particular revealed a fine singing voice.  Again though the film soft-pedaled her liaison with Cinderella's Prince to a rather chaste kiss.  The Baker's savagely mournful solo "No More" is also dropped from the film - was Corden not up to it vocally? - but otherwise he does give a charmingly heartfelt performance.

Dominating the film - and rightly so - is Meryl Streep as The Witch.  Although her entrance into the film is a bit cack-handed, she gives a charismatic performance which has just won for her a 19th Academy Award nomination.  Her soaring vocals on "Stay With Me" and "The Last Midnight" are quite wonderful.

The cinematography and costumes are both fine - although by the end of the film you are pining for some primary colours - and the score is wonderful to hear, it's worth sitting through the lengthy end credits to experience the full orchestral versions of "Stay With Me/Last Midnight". 

Despite the niggling annoyance of the omissions which rob the film of the show's profundity, it does succeed finally on it's own level, and us fans of the show have the great good fortune that the original stage cast reunited in 1989 to film the production and this is available on DVD.

I suspect I will add the film to it when it's released on DVD too.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


The recent retrospective on Maggie Smith at the National Film Theatre gave me the opportunity to see two of her more elusive performances - sadly they didn't show her 1973 Alan J Pacula film LOVE AND PAIN AND THE WHOLE DAMN THING which has also eluded me.

The first seen was George Cukor's film adaptation of the Graham Greene novella TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT for which Mag was nominated for the 1972 Best Actress Academy Award.  It was a delicious, highly artificial film which benefited enormously from both Cukor's classic Hollywood style and Smith's idiosyncratic performance.

The film had a difficult genesis: Cukor had wanted Katharine Hepburn to play Greene's eccentric and maddening character Aunt Augusta but at the last minute she pulled out of the project, but not before she had reworked the script with Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler - Allen later stated that Hepburn should have had a writing credit on the film but she couldn't as she was not a member of the writer's union.

Cukor offered the role to the younger Smith which gave him the opportunity to use flashbacks to show Augusta in her glamorous youth, a much sought-after courtesan and her relationship with the mysterious Mr. Visconti who was the man she loved the most.  Ironically this was played by Robert Stephens, the year before he and Smith divorced.

At the sparsely-attended cremation of his mother, staid bank manager Henry Pulling is accosted by the whirlwind that is his eccentric Aunt Augusta who wastes no time in asking him for a large sum of money that she needs to pay the ransom on her great love Mr Visconti who is being held by kidnappers.

Initially stand-offish and judgemental, Henry agrees to fly to Paris with Augusta and her black fortune-teller lover Wordsworth to pay off the blackmailers and to solve the mystery of the kidnapping.  A journey to Turkey aboard the Orient Express is interrupted when the authorities discover Augusta smuggling the ransom money and eventually the trio track the kidnappers to North Africa where everyone is in for a surprise...

Cukor's elegant and champagne-dry handling of the material was a joy to watch - even though the denouement did seem a long time in coming - and the MGM production values make it feel like a film that could never be made now.  Alec McCowen, in a rare leading role, was delightful as a man who discovers life through the madcap world of his outrageous relative and Lou Gossett Jnr, gave a strong supporting performance as the equally unreliable travel companion Wordsworth.

But Maggie Smith rightly dominates the film in a showy, highly theatrical performance that had it's detractors at the time but gives the film the energy it needs.  Aunt Augusta may be low on funds at times but that is never reflected in her dizzying array of costumes for which designer Anthony Powell won a well-deserved Academy Award.  I am so glad I have finally seen this important film in Smith's filmography.

The second unseen work was also an adaptation of a novel, this time Jack Clayton's 1992 BBC Screen Two version of Muriel Spark's MOMENTO MORI.  I cannot understand how I missed this the first time round but it was worth the wait.

It's obviously limited budget helped set the scene of 1950s London and Clayton does a fine job directing the teasing and mockingly sardonic Spark tale of a group of elderly friends who receive ominous, anonymous telephone calls where the caller tells them "Remember you will die".

Who is threatening this group of people - an outsider or an insider?  They mostly all have long-festering niggles about one another and they all react with different degrees of alarm to the calls.  The group include the snobbish Dame Lettie Colston (Stephanie Cole), her brother the ageing but still randy Geoffrey Colston (Michael Hordern), his absent-minded wife Charmian (Renée Asherson) whose pre-war novels are being revalued, and the critic Guy Leet (Maurice Denham) and poet Percy Mannering (Cyril Cusack) who have had a literary feud for years

Outside the circle are Gwen, Dame Lettie's stroppy maid (Jacqueline Leonard), the Colston's gay and neer-do-well writer son Eric (Peter Eyre), Charmian's beloved maid Taylor (Thora Hird) who is now bed bound in a hospital, Percy's dutiful daughter Olive (Zoe Wanamaker) and the scheming housekeeper Mrs. Pettigrew.  Is it one of these or does ex-police Inspector Mortimer (John Wood) discover a more surprising culprit?

Maggie was great fun as the conniving, waspish Mrs. Pettigrew but Clayton keeps her performance muted so as not to outshine his dazzling veteran cast which gives it a real ensemble flavour.  They were all excellent but particularly memorable were Renée Asherson and Thora Hird, their final scenes as mistress and servant having to renegotiate their relationship as equals were a joy.

One day hopefully a dvd release of MOMENTO MORI would be a fitting tribute to them as well as Jack Clayton and composer Georges Delarue whose last screen work this was.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Dvd/150: NATIONAL THEATRE 50 (2013)

A marvellous celebration of the National Theatre's 50th birthday, this 2-disc dvd includes the all-star gala which re-staged scenes and musical numbers from the NT's greatest shows plus the 2-part BBC Arena programme covering the National's tumultuous history, as dramatic as anything ever staged there.

Wonderful archive recordings and footage tell how Laurence Olivier launched the NT at the Old Vic and, in the second programme, how Peter Hall took over with it's move to the South Bank and how his successors Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner have sustained it.  The programme interviews these directors along with the new Artistic Director Rufus Norris.

Also interviewed are Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Tom Stoppard, Peter Brook, Ronald Pickup, Jonathan Miller, Ian McKellen, David Hare, Peter Shaffer, Judi Dench and Alan Bennett.

It's worth it for the footage of GUYS AND DOLLS alone!

Shelf or charity shop? It has a shelf all to itself.

Friday, January 02, 2015

It's the 2014 Chrissies!

Yes for the 8th year I am proud to present the apex of theatrical awards... the Chrissies!  As always, it has been hugely easy to find nominees, more difficult to sift a winner.  Be that as it may, here we go...

BEST DRAMA (Original/Revival):
MY NIGHT WITH REG - Kevin Elyot (Donmar)
ELLEN TERRY WITH EILEEN ATKINS - Atkins (Wanamaker Playhouse) /
KING LEAR - Shakespeare (Olivier, NT) / MEDEA - Euripedes (Olivier, NT)

BEST MUSICAL (Original/Revival):
GYPSY - Arthur Laurents / Jule Styne / Stephen Sondheim (Chichester)
CITY OF ANGELS - Gelbart / Coleman / Zippel (Donmar) / FINGS AIN'T WOT THEY USED T'BE - Norman / Bart (Stratford East) / HERE LIES LOVE - Byrne / Cook (Dorfman, NT) / SUNNY AFTERNOON - Penhall / Davies (Hampstead) 

 SIMON RUSSELL BEALE - King Lear (Olivier, NT)
BRIAN COX (The Weir) / RUPERT EVERETT (Amadeus) /
BILL NIGHY (Skylight) / CLIVE WOOD (Antony and Cleopatra)

HELEN McCRORY - Medea (Olivier, NT)
EILEEN ATKINS (Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins) / ASHLEY McGUIRE (Henry IV) /

BEST ACTOR (Musical):
JAMIE PARKER - Guys and Dolls (Chichester)
ALEXANDER HANSON (Stephen Ward) / DOMINIC NORTH (Edward Scissorhands) /
PETER POLYCARPOU (Guys and Dolls) / MICHAEL XAVIER (The Pajama Game)

 IMELDA STAUNTON - Gypsy (Chichester)
JANIE DEE (Keeping it Together) / NATALIE MENDOZA (Here Lies Love) /
SOPHIE THOMPSON (Guys and Dolls) / JESSIE WALLACE (Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be)

Geoffrey Streatfeild - My Night With Reg (Donmar)
MATT BARDOCK (My Night With Reg) / PHIL DANIELS (Antony and Cleopatra) /

ANGELA LANSBURY - Blithe Spirit (Gielgud)
PATSY FERRAN (Blithe Spirit) / SHARON ROONEY (Henry IV) 

 MIKE McSHANE - Assassins (Menier)
GEORGE MAGUIRE (Sunny Afternoon) / ANDY NYMAN (Assassins) /
JAMIE PARKER (Assassins) / AARON TVEIT (Assassins)

REBECCA TREHEARN - City of Angels (Donmar)
SAMANTHA BARKS (City of Angels) / SUZIE CHARD (Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be) / KATHERINE KELLY (City of Angels) / LARA PULVER (Gypsy) 

ROBERT HASTIE - My Night With Reg (Donmar)
JOSIE ROURKE (The Weir) / ALEX TIMBERS (Here Lies Love) 

LIZZIE CLACHAN - Treasure Island (Olivier, NT)
BOB CROWLEY (Skylight) / WILLIAM DUDLEY (Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be) /
ROBERT JONES (City of Angels) / Tom Scutt (The Weir) 

HOWARD HARRISON - City of Angels (Donmar)
PAUL PYANT (My Night With Reg) / JUSTIN TOWNSEND (Here Lies Love) 

 SCOTT AMBLER - Lord of The Flies (Sadler's Wells)
MATTHEW BOURNE (Edward Scissorhands) / BILL DEAMER (Grand Hotel) /

I do enjoy doing these!  Congratulations all...