Monday, December 08, 2014

MEMPHIS... And I'm as blue as a boy can be

I really have no idea what to say about MEMPHIS: THE MUSICAL at the Shaftesbury.  As opposed to MEMPHIS: THE CITY or MEMPHIS: THE SEWER SYSTEM.


Oh Beverley Knight... the things you put me through.  Some performers make it bloody hard to be a fan.

It didn't take too long to realise I was not enjoying the show but what was the cause of my distress?

I am still in a state of shock that one of the thinnest books I have ever sat through won a Tony Award.  So, the story: Huey, an under-achieving department store worker becomes a d.j. and uses his popularity to bring rhythm and blues to the masses while also starting an affair with a talented singer Felicia against the opposition of his mother and her brother Delray.


And that's about it.  Now I don't expect depth from the average musical book but sweet Jesu... the characters are paper-thin and change with their every appearance onstage: the hero's mother is a Southern racist but has an overnight conversion by going to a black church meeting, the girl singer's brother is ultra-protective, then he's not, then he is...

The biggest absurdity in the script is when Huey and Felicia are caught kissing on the street by a group of racists who beat her in the stomach with a base-ball bat.  Later Delray, while arguing with Huey, announces that because of him Felicia can no longer have children.  So how does this colour her character as written?  Not a jot as it's never mentioned again.


Maybe she didn't particularly care to have children?

On a bigger scale - and I am truly stunned that critics have not picked up on this - the second half is a direct steal from HAIRSPRAY as Huey is given his own local cable music show which he presents as truly integrated.  The final number "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll" also has a chorus that is a direct steal from HAIRSPRAY's "You Can't Stop The Beat".  But by then I was past caring.


There are incidental pleasures such as Sergio Trujillo's choreography which is energetic and gives the male ensemble in particular plenty of scope to shine.  There was good work from Rolan Bell in the schizoid role of the approving/disapproving brother and Jason Pennycooke was also fine in his musical numbers.

But the score by Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan and book writer Joe diPietro is uninspired, synthetic soul music - yes, Beverley Knight was in excellent voice but when you are listening to the extent of her vocal prowess rather than taking in what she is singing then you know something is out of whack.  Sadly the character of Felicia is so milquetoast that it's difficult to engage with her on any level when she is not singing.


As is the way with the West End, the usual leading man Killian Donnelly was off the night we went - they just don't have the range you know - so we saw Jon Robyns who has impressed before in ROAD SHOW and AVENUE Q and while good in the role of Huey, he could do little to make an unlikeable character interesting.

So there you have it.  And you are welcome to it.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Dvd/150: SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (John Schlesinger, 1971)

After finally seeing this, only 43 years late, I wondered why it is not more acclaimed.  Is it because the subject matter is so uncomfortably personal?


Maybe it is under-rated due to the varying quality of Schlesinger's later films but it has a particular power.  It is certainly a film of it's time - 1970s autumnal London - but it also has a timeless quality despite the clunky telephones and televisions.


Dr Daniel Hirsh and divorcée Alex Greville have never met but know of each other through mutual friends but, more importantly, they know of each other through a young artist Bob Elkins who is a lover to them both.


Both are careful to allow Bob his space but over the course of a week, they realise how they are both bound to lose him.


Unflinching performances from Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch shine as does Penelope Gilliat's adult, perceptive script.


Shelf or charity shop? A resolute shelf-filler.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Dvd/150: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY (Woody Allen, 1982)

After 32 years I have finally seen this transitional Woody Allen film.


Following the bitter STARDUST MEMORIES, this retreat to lighter comedy is Allen's take on Ingmar Bergman's SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT as well as a nod to Shakespeare as couples are transformed by visiting an idyllic wood. 


Egotistical Professor Leopold visits his cousin Adrian in the country with his young fiancee Ariel on the eve of their wedding.  Adrian and her stockbroker/inventer husband Andrew are having problems in the bedroom which is not helped when she realises that Andrew had an unfulfilled affair previously with Ariel.


Also visiting are Maxwell, a womanising doctor, with naive nurse Dulcy who are among the mixed-up lovers.


A fine ensemble includes Mia Farrow - their first film together - and she is well-matched with Mary Steenburgen and Julie Hagerty but are given little to do as Allen's film fades to nothingness.

Shelf or charity shop? Seen it now... don't think I need to keep it

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dvd/150: JAMAICA INN (Alfred Hitchcock, 1939)

Wanting to leave England to launch his Hollywood career with an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's REBECCA, Hitchcock first had to make what would be his last British film for 33 years and he disliked it.


Irish orphan Mary Yellen (Maureen O'Hara's first major role) arrives at Jamaica Inn to live with her aunt but discovers her uncle is the leader of a ship-wrecking crew of murderous plunderers.


However the film is thrown off-kilter by the unabashed hamming of co-producer Charles Laughton as the local squire Sir Humphrey Pengallon.  Du Maurier was unhappy her plot was changed to accommodate his over-written role and Hitchcock was unhappy that for the first time he was faced with a star who could overrule his ideas.


The characterful supporting cast mostly follow Laughton's lead but Robert Newton is uncharacteristically muted to the point of invisibility.  He also resembles Harpo Marx!


Shelf or charity shop? For what it is... shelf

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS

On reflection it hasn't been a year for memorable new plays but we saw a preview last week of David Hare's new play BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS and it is as entertaining as the subject is fascinating.


Hare's play is based on the non-fiction bestseller of the same name by journalist Katherine Boo which she wrote after spending three years in the Indian slum of Annawadi which sprung up next to Mumbai airport.  Her kaleidoscopic view of the community that exists there is an unlikely choice for a play but it's wide-ranging cast of characters more than fill out the Olivier stage and Hare finds unlikely heroes and heroines within it's occupants.

Hare spotlights several occupants of Annawadi who struggle every day to survive the hardships of life within the slum, mainly by back-breaking work shifting through the piles of Mumbai's rubbish for any material that can be sold on especially plastics or metal.  Odd that the west is forever banging the drum for green economies and recycling when in Annawadi it's a way to make money, not to lead a more ethical life!


We follow the lives of several young inhabitants: Sunil Sharma, a bright and resourceful 'picker' who dreams of a better life beyond the billboards - put up in an attempt to hide the slum from the visitors to the airport and hotels - as well as Manju Waghekar, a young girl wrestling with the need to study MRS DALLOWAY at school but wanting to be the first Annawadi college graduate.

We also meet Manju's mother Asha, the hard-hearted woman who is the go-to woman for financial help for the dwellers but who is feared by them too.  Another powerful woman in the slum is Zehrunisa who has grown rich off the recycled goods found by the 'pickers', the most successful of whom is her son Abdul.


Zehrunisa and her Muslim family are particularly despised by their crippled neighbour Fatima.  When they argue fiercely over the shared wall between their shacks, Fatima sets her own house on fire and is badly burned but before she dies, she accuses Zehrunisa's sickly husband, studious daughter and Abdul of having beat her and driven her to do the deed.

Zehrunisa is suddenly faced with the bribe demands of both the corrupt police force and court system and finds the family's much-cherished fortune dwindling to nothing.  With all her resourcefulness even she is no match for the real forces that govern the lives of the slum dwellers.


There were certain longueurs in the play which hopefully will be ironed out when the company have established a rhythm to the scenes, but apart from these and a bit of confusion at the start while sorting out the many characters and their relationships to each other, I enjoyed the play very much.  The inhabitants of Annawadi are hardly Hare's usual characters but that it makes it all the more interesting and you can feel his sense of enjoyment in the tense scenes dealing with the police and courts.

It was only when the company took their bow that it occurred to me how many fine roles there are for actresses in the play.  David Hare has given us many fine female roles down the years and here it is definitely a case where the women have the upper hand.


Soon-to-be NT Artistic Director Rufus Norris shows his mettle by making the world of the slum a palpable environment and elicits fine performances from all his cast.  Very early on, there is a scene of savage violence that seemingly comes out of nowhere, the resultant uneasy atmosphere is well developed by Norris so the audience is never really allowed to relax, he gives us a world where danger and downfall can happen at any moment.

The design team of Katrina Lindsay and Paule Constable combine to suggest the fetid, dusty world of Annawadi very well - there is one coup-de-theatre early on which immediately places you within that world when an avalanche of rubbish is dumped onto the stage - seeing it from the front row of the circle was damn impressive!


The exemplary cast work as a real ensemble and many have a chance to shine in individual roles, none more so than Meera Syal as the slum-Mother Courage Zehrunisa although I suspect Hare has made her a touch more sympathetic in his version of her life.  From her imperious bossiness at the start to her later humble approach to life's vicissitudes, Syal made an indelible impression. 

Equally impressive performances came from Stephanie Street as the hard-hearted Asha, Anjana Vasan as her more caring daughter Manju, Nathalie Armin as the corrupt court official Poornima Paikrao and Thusitha Jayasundera, excelling as both the pathetic Fatima and the poised but icy Judge Chauhan.

 

There were also fine performances from Hiran Abeysekera as Sunil, always optimistic in the face of despair, Vincent Ebrahim as Zehrunisa's husband Karam and Shane Zaza as their ambitious son Abdul.

I recommend the play highly, it plays until April of next year in repertory and will also be shown live in cinemas in March as part of NT Live.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Dvd/150: THE LADY VANISHES (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)

For me, THE LADY VANISHES is the greatest of Hitchcock's British films.  The archetypal caper thriller, it's mixture of thrills and humour is an enduring delight.


With it's plot of several English travellers on a train caught up in a foreign power's espionage in Europe on the brink of war, it speaks of it's time: when the passengers are finally confronted with the real threat facing them, they have to stand and fight.


Iris (sparkling Margaret Lockwood) is travelling back to London, resigned to her imminent marriage.  She is befriended by ex-nanny Miss Foy who vanishes while Iris sleeps.  When her fellow-passengers deny Miss Foy ever existed, Iris' only ally is Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in a glorious film debut) who she had previously argued with at their hotel.


Hitchcock's superb direction, Launder and Gilliat's cracking script and memorable performances make this a classic to enjoy again and again.


Shelf or charity shop? It's no mystery... Shelf!


Monday, November 03, 2014

Imelda's Turn: GYPSY at Chichester

This year Chichester Festival Theatre has given us very fine revivals of AMADEUS and GUYS AND DOLLS but they have topped even these with Jonathan Kent's production of the Jule Styne & Stephen Sondheim classic GYPSY, in no small part due to Imelda Staunton's stunning performance as Mama Rose.


Soon after their previous Chichester collaboration SWEENEY TODD, rumours started that Kent and Staunton would take on GYPSY which sent me into an utter to-do... could it really happen?  There has been the occasional regional production or tour but no London production for 40 years.

Yes Constant Reader, you read that correctly, 40 years.  Any number of possible Mama Roses have come and gone - whither Julia McKenzie?  There was talk that Sam Mendes' production starring Bernadette Peters would come in marking her London acting debut but it never materialised probably due to the fact that it had a troubled run on Broadway although Peters scored a personal triumph as Rose.


Up until now I had seen 5 Mama Roses: Tyne Daly on Broadway, Lynda Baron in Cheltenham, Bette Midler in the tv movie, Rosalind Russell in the disappointing film version and Patti LuPone again on Broadway.  I had thought I would never see another to match the latter's intensity.  Boy, was I was wrong.

Despite being one of the greatest musicals ever written, there is an imbalance in it as the title character is not the lead.  Arthur Laurents based his script on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee who was still alive at the time which might explain why the character of Louise feels slightly under-written compared to the more dominant role of Mama Rose, the eternal stage mother.  However Louise comes into her own midway through the second act and become a match for her mother towards the end.  This is a difficult ask as Rose is always cast with powerhouse performers in a role that is proven to be one of the biggest in musical theatre.
 

Of the five actresses who have played Rose on Broadway, all have been Tony Award-nominated with Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Patti LuPone winning.  In a battle of career-defining roles, Ethel Merman lost to Mary Martin in THE SOUND OF MUSIC while Bernadette Peters lost to HAIRSPRAY's Marissa Jaret Winokur.  Lansbury also won the London Critic's Circle Award for Best Actress, the first time it had been given to a musical actress.

All of which means that any actress that takes on Rose knows she is taking on a huge challenge.  Re-reading my blog after seeing the LuPone production I did say that although powerful, I also was not surprised by anything she did, she gave exactly the performance I was expecting.  Imelda Staunton also gave the performance I expected from her - but she then kept going!


It's a role she inhabits superbly: Rose's tenacious, terrier-like, attack on the world to make one of her daughters a star, the tough-as-nails exterior covering up a child-like vulnerability, it's all there in Imelda's performance.  But there are lovely touches too - her flirtatiousness attack on Herbie when they meet; her dejected capitulation when she realises the act is truly over when it's booked into a burlesque house, her crumbling into broken sobs when hugged by Gypsy at the end.

But truly hair-raising was how Staunton took on the two act-closing solos where any actress playing Rose has to go from 0-to-100 in as many minutes.  When Rose discovers her beloved daughter June has rejected both her and the act by eloping it leads to her switching her ambition to her unprepared daughter Louise by declaring EVERYTHING'S COMING UP ROSES.  Staunton launched into it with a thrilling attack, her Rose so caught up in her vision that at one point after hugging Louise, she then pushes her out of her way.  Her scorching final note was button-holed with her twirling her coat around, on her way to start her burning mission.


Laurents' book moves seamlessly along punctuated by Styne and Sondheim's glorious songs until the final, angry confrontation when Gypsy orders her mother out of her dressing-room and her life.

Alone on an empty stage, Rose finally gives vent to her long-bottled-up rage at all those who have walked out on her with the scorching ROSE'S TURN.  This legendary number - a mental breakdown performed to a bump-and-grind beat - is what the whole show has been building to and any actress playing the role has to be up to it's tricky challenges.  Staunton totally nailed it: the sarcasm, the anger, the despair and the mania that she had hinted at earlier all came together in an all-too-human performance.  Resisting the temptation to chew the scenery, Staunton kept it in check which made it all the more thrilling.


Lara Pulver was a delight as the less-talented, emotionally-neglected Louise who morphs into the self-assured, brittle glamour of Gypsy Rose Lee.  She captured Louise's sadness sweetly and her unrequited longing for the dancer Tulsa was also well-played, making it all the more touching when she is the one who is left alone when her sister and Tulsa elope.  All of this made her list of accusations against her mother during their face-off all the more biting.

I was surprised when Kevin Whateley was cast as Herbie but, apart from a dodgy American/Geordie accent, he was quite charming and played his character's permanent exhaustion well, especially in the scene when he is finally broken by Rose's intransigence.  Gemma Sutton also scored too as June, itching to be free of Rose's tyrannical ambition and her little-girl outfits.


One of GYPSY's great set-pieces is YOU GOTTA GET A GIMMICK, performed by the tough-as-nails strippers to an enthralled Louise in a tatty burlesque dressing room, and it was punched over by a great trio of broads: Anita Louise Combe as Tessie Tura, Julie Legrand as Electra and the wonderful Louise Gold as Mazeppa. 

Jonathan Kent's direction was seamless and strong with the main characters all feeling thought-through and 'real' while Anthony Ward's set and costume designs were a constant delight from the gaudy and glamorous vaudeville designs to the low-rent theatrical digs.  The eye-popping and colourful designs for Gypsy's LET EM ENTERTAIN YOU medley were a nice surprise.  Also adding immeasurably to the production's success was Mark Henderson's lighting design.


Stephen Mear's choreography was excitingly energetic and the show also included Jerome Robbins' original and inventive staging of both the 'transition' scene when June and Louise grow up in seconds and the YOU GOTTA GET A GIMMICK number - those moves might be 55 years old but are still great.

The Chichester run finishes this week and it will be the crime of the century if this does not transfer to London - we NEED this show in the West End.