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


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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Dvd/150: CITY GIRL (F.W. Murnau, 1930)

Three years after his masterpiece SUNRISE, Murnau returned to the town vs. country clash in CITY GIRL.  As it was 1930 a sound-incorporated version was released but it is the silent version that survives.

Young farmer Lem comes to Chicago to sell his father's wheat.  Lonely Lem falls for Mary Duncan's city-smart waitress Kate although her cynical nature hides a girl equally lonely in the city.

Yearning for peace, Kate happily agrees to marry Lem when he has to return home.  Their happiness is shattered when his domineering father repremands Lem for selling the stock short and for marrying a tart, even striking Kate when alone with her.

Kate loses respect for Lem bowing to his father's dominance while also facing the father's hatred and the lustful attentions of the farm's hired reapers.  Then one dark and story night...

Moments of lyrical beauty offset the plot's later melodramatic turns.

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Screaming Inside: HENRY IV at the Donmar

I am still becalmed after seeing Phyllida Lloyd's all-female production of Shakespeare's HENRY IV at the Donmar on Monday.   What is frustrating is I think I can see what her intentions were but they were so smothered with 'concept' that the 400 year old play can hardly be seen under it - especially as it has been filleted down to about 2 hours - 1 hour 50 minutes probably if you take out all the music cues and karaoke singing.

This concept meets you at the door, actually at the door across the road to be precise.  Ticketholders are asked to convene at a bar opposite the Donmar and are then alerted by tannoy that they can enter "the secure unit".  Along the road we trooped guided by ushers dressed as prison officers doing their damnedest to look 'ard.  The whitewashed stone stairs may have been a culture shock to some but personally I was happy to see them again as this was the original entrance to the Donmar in the 1980s and quickly felt the excitement I always did going up them to see Barbara Cook, Nancy LaMott, Elisabeth Welch etc.  No such pleasures tonight.

The auditorium is transformed into a fluorescent-lit association room in a woman's prison with uncomfortable-looking plastic chairs dotted about.  Indeed the entire stalls seating has been replaced with said plastic seats so thank God I had the presence of mind to book for the circle.  Brightly-coloured children's toys and furniture are incongruous additions giving the impression this is also the visit hall.

A door is unlocked and the cast troop in and line up, staring mulishly at the audience, before the signal is given for the play to start.  So there's the concept: HENRY IV is being staged by the inmates in a women's prison and during the next two hours it is occasionally interupted when tempers flare between the inmates resulting in the guards appearing to break it up so the play can start again.  My problem with the production is that all this distances you from the actual play - an all-female cast, a play-within-a-play, the concepts unfurl like scrims from above to obscure you from the text.  Am I supposed to be paying attention to the play or to the action surrounding it?

What was sadly amusing was that all these strenuous efforts to make it an immersive, 'realistic' experience only made it feel more phony.  I have no problem with "director" theatre as long as it all goes to serve the play but here I felt at all times Phyllida Lloyd cramming the play into her concept box with no real connection to the text.  In it's favour I will say that it was marvellous compared to the staggeringly awful concept production of EDWARD II seen last year at the National.

This is Lloyd's second "Shakespeare in prison" production which is a collaboration between the Donmar and Clean Break Theatre Group - all very laudable - and with JULIUS CAESAR as the first, I can see the link between them as both deal with top-down power and attempts to overthrow that power by force.  But while I can see how CAESAR could fit within a prison structure, dealing with the race for power when a leader is assassinated, I felt HENRY IV fitted the structure less well.  Yes the major plotline of the HENRY IV PART 1 is Horspur's rebellion against King Henry but where does that leave the more internal, domestic struggle for power between Henry and Falstaff to be the paternal guide for Prince Hal?

Another problem I have with such concepts is that while I have no complaints about all-male or all-female casts all I ask is that the actors can speak the text as if they understand it.  There was also the aural nightmare of strident Northen Irish or Scottish accents, no doubt incorporated here to make it all the more 'real'.

The pleasures to be had from the production were soley down to performances that transcended the sheer obviousness of it all and gave us fully-rounded characters that justified their casting no matter what their gender.

Rising above them all was Ashley McGuire who was a wonderful Falstaff, making a memorable first appearance sprawled on a sagging football-shaped beanbag chopping up lines of coke.  Looking like a stroppy refugee from a benefits cheat t.v. exposé, her Falstaff was the self-appointed life and soul of any party and was eager to be the centre of attention no matter how big the lies to get her there.  She spoke the text with real conviction and gusto, finding a natural rhythm in her cockney accent.

The whole prison concept finally paid off in the final minutes when the newly-crowned Hal disowns Falstaff and bans him from the royal presence.  McGuire's angry response brought the guards swarming onto the stage and she was frog-marched away in handcuffs sobbing loudly, the character and the performer's fates mirrored.

Another surprisingly effective performance - cutting a swaith through the concept - was from Sharon Rooney as Hotspur's stressed wife Lady Percy.  Only a sob away from hysteria, she was very moving in her two small scenes by totally playing it straight down the line.  Her final scene denouncing her father-in-law for wanting to perpetuate the killing by citing revenge felt like the heart of the play and I wondered how Lloyd felt that this moment of pure anguish came from a 'real' female character.

Also standing out in a supporting role was Cynthia Errivo who was so memorable as 'Celie' in the Menier's production of the musical THE COLOR PURPLE last year.  Here she more than held her own in two roles: as the conniving Poins from Falstaff's band of miscreants and as the tenacious Earl of Douglass who fights with Hotspur against the crown.  She was great in the battle scene, lashing out in a martial arts stylee against unseen opponants and there slithering down to stage level from the platform above.  She really is one to watch.

Although it was easy to admire Jude Anouka's Hotspur, ultimately her bull-in-a-china-shop approach to the role was wearying and was played too much on one note, surely one should feel some sorrow when Hotspur is killed in battle?  It is noted in the play that there is a duality between Hotspur and Prince Hal, almost two sides of the same coin, but like Anouka's strident performance, Clare Dunne's unrelenting loudness - and in a mind-numbing Northern Irish accent too - made me recoil from both her and the character and felt she showed no real depth to Hal.  It was a shame too that not more could have been found for the ususally vibrant Jackie Clune to do but she did impress as the vainglorious Owen Glendower.

Oddly I felt no surprises from Harriet Walter as the haunted and troubled Henry IV, she played the role exactly as I suspected she would.  Still there were a few moments when she did deliver; in the confrontation scene between the King and the rebellious Worcester (very well played by Ann Ogbomo) and in the deathbed scene when the King is reconciled with his son but fortells the disaster that will befall the country during the War of The Roses.  Walter certainly had the right look: looking like a dessicated, drawn old lag, hidden away from any daylight for years.

Up until now I had never seen HENRY IV on stage, my only experience of it being through two excellent filmed adaptations: Orson Welles' haunting CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966) and Richard Eyre's excellent BBC adaptation for THE HOLLOW CROWN trilogy (2012) so it's a shame I did not feel more disposed towards this production.

I have heard it rumoured that the third in Lloyd's "Shakespeare In The Nick" projects will be KING LEAR... hasn't that poor old bugger suffered enough?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dvd/150: YOUNG AND INNOCENT (Alfred Hitchcock, 1937)

YOUNG AND INNOCENT begins midway through an argument between a man and woman in a clifftop house.  Next day Robert, who knows the woman, finds her dead on the beach but is later arrested when it is discovered she was strangled with the missing belt from his coat.

Robert manages to escape from the courtroom with the not unwilling help of Erica, the spirited daughter of the district chief constable, the Hitch trop of the couple brought together by fate to prove his innocence.

Waylaid by cafe brawls, a ghastly children's party and a collapsing mine, they finally discover the killer has a distinctive eye twitch.  All this leads to the famous scene when the camera pans from Erica, across a hotel ballroom to the onstage blackface band and into the eyes of the drummer which start to twitch.

Many incidental pleasures sadly do not make a completely satisfying film.

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf as it's Hitchcock...