Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Dvd/150: BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (Michael Lindsay-Hogg/Charles Sturridge, 1981, tv)

I had not seen this in over 30 years and it still stands as one of the great tv literary adaptations.

1944: When Charles Ryder's army division is stationed at the stately home Brideshead it brings back a flood of bittersweet memories, of how at Oxford he became a close friend of Lord Sebastian Flyte whose family owned Brideshead.

Middle-class Charles is seduced by this entree to the Roman Catholic upper-classes but is soon trapped in the family politics of wayward Sebastian, his pious mother Lady Marchmain and the absent Lord Marchmain, living abroad with his mistress.

Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews gave career-defining performances as Charles and Sebastian, Nickolas Grace as effete Anthony Blanche, Claire Bloom as Lady Marchmain, Phoebe Nicolls as Cordelia Flyte and John Gielgud as Charles' father shine in the magnificent cast.  The marvellous adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel is by John Mortimer.

Shelf or charity shop?  One for the shelf...

Sunday, March 01, 2015

BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical

Well it took a while - and one crushing experience - but I have finally seen BEAUTIFUL, the musical based on the life and work of one of my favourite singers Carole King.

Of course I enjoyed it - with her wonderful catalogue of songs who wouldn't - but maybe a too-thorough knowledge of her story made it seem particularly thin at times.

We had tickets for the show two days before but arriving at the Aldwych with ten minutes to spare before the 7:30pm start time, we were greeted with the news that they had brought the opening night forward so the show had started at 7pm - and didn't we get their e-mail sent at 4:15 that afternoon?  I was shooting basilisk stares at all and sundry especially when their initial recompense was drinks vouchers rather than replacement seats.  As we trudged off I thought aloud that maybe the opening night had been brought forward so Carole King could attend.  Of course I was wrong.

It was actually Carole and fellow legendary songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil who attended and who joined the cast at the curtain call.  So, you know, nothing to be angry about.

Carole King was raised in post-war Brooklyn, her contemporaries including Neil Sedaka whom she dated in school inspiring his hit OH CAROL, Paul Simon whom she recorded demos with, as well as Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand.  While in college Carole began writing songs with Gerry Goffin, their relationship lead to Carole expecting a baby so they married in 1959, Carole was 17 and Gerry was 20.  Soon they were both working during the day and writing songs in the evening for Don Kirshner at Aldon Music's offices at 1650 Broadway.

Like the nearby Brill Building, 1650 Broadway was a hive of musical activity with songwriters assigned their own rooms where they could write hits for the artists of the day.  Next to Carole and Gerry's room were the team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and a deep friendship grew along with a competitive spirit: each trying for bigger chart successes and pop music innovation.

More comfortable behind the scenes than performing, Carole also liked being a New Jersey housewife but Gerry chafed at domesticity.  Still only 23, he felt tied-down and several affairs culminated in Earl-Jean McCrea of The Cookies having their child.  The astonishing thing is that he would admit these relationships to Carole who accepted his infidelities not to break up their partnership.  However his drug use and resultant mental health issues eventually led to divorce.  Carole moved to Los Angeles and slowly gained the courage to finally step into the spotlight, resulting in her second album TAPESTRY becoming one of the best-selling albums of all-time.

Douglas McGrath's book has to cover all this and he delivers quite a few laughs along the way - usually from the Mann and Weil characters - and it certainly has a good pace but in the process it reduces Carole and Gerry's personal life to the thinnest of soap opera situations.  Carole's triumphant 1971 Carnegie Hall concert is the climax of the show but is also serves for McGrath to give us the cliche of Gerry making an unannounced visit to her dressing room before she goes on... hey if it's good enough for FUNNY GIRL, MEMPHIS etc.  I did wonder how constrained he was as to what he could include?

Marc Bruni has directed a slick, sparkling and colourful production that does nothing to stand in the way of the Goffin/King and Weil/Mann classics that keep coming one after another, some used as songs within the storyline and others as stand-alone numbers celebrating The Drifters (ON BROADWAY), The Shirelles (WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW), Little Eva (THE LOCO-MOTION) and The Righteous Brothers (YOU'VE LOST THAT LOVIN' FEELING).

The performances are good from a largely-unknown cast: Katie Brayben has a sweet quality as Carole although McGrath gives her little to do but blub for most of the second act and although a good singer she doesn't have that quality of huskiness that makes Carole King's voice so beguiling.  Needless to say the audience snapped to it's feet at her curtain call in a response worthy of Pavlov.  Alan Morrissey does all he can with Gerry but again McGrath gives him little to actually get his teeth into.

Lorna Want and Ian McIntosh have better opportunities to shine as Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann while Glynis Barber has a few nice moments as Carole's mother.  The supporting cast give it their all with a special shout-out to Ed Currie for his excellent recreation of The Righteous Brother's Bill Medley.

If I sound overly critical it's because I so wanted to enjoy the show - and I did - but maybe, as I said before, knowing too much about the subject can be a bad thing.

Maybe a second visit is required to relax and just enjoy the show?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Dvd/150: THE HOLLOW CROWN: HENRY V (Thea Sharrock, 2012)

The last in the the BBC Shakespeare series THE HOLLOW CROWN is HENRY V which also brings to an end the chain of events covered in the Henriad.

HENRY V takes up where HENRY IV ended and, although both had different directors, luckily the same actors play the same characters so there is a natural continuity between them.

Tom Hiddleston moves effortlessly from HENRY IV's carousing Prince Hal to the commanding HENRY V making it easy to understand his sudden bursts of rage as coming from him trying hard to stamp his authority.

Ben Power's fine adaptation does have some odd omissions: Henry's execution of the traitorous lords, the killing of the pages by the French which leads to Henry ordering the deaths of his prisoners, and the non-execution of Nym.

Thea Sharrock's subdued film is enlivened by performances by Julie Walters, Paul Ritter, John Hurt and Mélanie Thierry.

Shelf or charity shop?  Joining his fellow Kings on the shelf...

Sunday, February 22, 2015

HAPPY DAYS at the Young Vic

A woman is buried up to her waist in a mound of earth exposed to the strength of the sun, a loud harsh bell wakes her up and announces when she should sleep, her meager, nearly depleted possessions are in a nearby bag while her uncommunicative husband remains on the other side of the mound just out of her eyesight but still she can tell herself:

"Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day.  After all.  So far."

Samuel Beckett's HAPPY DAYS is truly one of the great roles for any actress: actors may have the Shakespearean kings to look forward to as they get older, women have Winnie in HAPPY DAYS.

I had never seen the play before but I read it two years ago so was disappointed that Natalie Abrahami's Young Vic production last year sold out quickly.  However it has now been revived so jumped at the chance to finally experience the play's power in person - which is how HAPPY DAYS should be experienced.

Beckett wrote the English version of HAPPY DAYS in 1961 (he would also write a French version as was his custom) and the part was first played on the London stage by Brenda Bruce.  In 1976, Peggy Ashcroft played it at the National Theatre and she reflected that Winnie "was a part that actresses will want to play in the way that actors aim at HAMLET - a summit part".  Beckett told Brenda Bruce that who could cope with all that Winnie has to and still go down singing but a woman?

1n 1979 Beckett directed a revival at the Royal Court with his favourite interpreter. Billie Whitelaw.  She later wrote that when she read it for the first time she wondered "how this man could have written the story of my life so long before he knew me?"  For Winnie, does in her extreme state, what we all do - we get through the day as best we can.  We chatter about what is around us and recollect memories to keep the darkness at bay.  

Beckett actually left the rehearsals for two weeks as their intense one-to-one method was, for the first time, beginning to stress Billie out.  She contacted Brenda Bruce and asked did she feel that after doing HAPPY DAYS she could learn anything?  No, said Bruce, after HAPPY DAYS she felt like she could never learn anything again.

Luckily, Whitelaw's performance was filmed by the BBC and can be seen on YouTube in an uncomfortable tape-to-digital transfer - come on BBC, get this remastered and available on dvd.  However even during filming Whitelaw was put through the mill as she was recovering from the flu and had to have cortisone injections on the day of filming to get through it.  Seeing this revival only two months after Billie Whitelaw's death made it all the more moving.

In Natalie Abrahami's production which wonderfully balances the humour and the tragedy, Juliet Stevenson was simply astonishing as Winnie, her bright, optimistic chatter as she goes through the pattern of her day only clouding over when her fears overtake her: that she is an object of ridicule to a couple who pass by, that Willie will one day not be there to answer her with his monosyllabic answers.

Her parasol catches fire in the heat of the sun, her medicinal tonic runs out, her toothpaste is nearly squeezed out but still Winnie chatters away, playing with both the revolver and the music box in her bag.  And she has her half-remembered quotations and memories: a ball she attended with Willie, a kiss in a garden shed when young, a little girl frightened by a mouse while undressing her doll under a table at night.  

In the second act, she is in even more dire straits as she is now buried up to her neck, kept awake by the insistent loud bell and blanched by the heat of the sun.  Although her regimented emptying of her bag's contents is lost to her, she can still see it and there is Willie.  After all.  So far.

Dwarfed by Vicki Mortimer's rockface set with it's path of trickling pebbles and deprived of bodily expression, Stevenson mesmerised with her croaking voice and facial reactions and at the play's climax, when David Beames' decrepit Willie crawls across the ground in his (wedding?) suit to collapse in front of her, she broke my heart with her whispered singing of her music box tune 'The Merry Widow Waltz':

"Every touch of fingers
Tells me what I know,
Says for you,
It's true, it's true,
You love me so"

Monday, February 16, 2015

DI AND VIV AND ROSE (and us) at the Vaudeville Theatre

Last Wednesday it was time to step back in time thanks to Amelia Bullmore's comedy of three female friends negotiating life in DI AND VIV AND ROSE at the Vaudeville Theatre.
The play has transferred from Hampstead Theatre to the Vaudeville in the West End for a limited season - sadly without a title change which I think is unnecessarily cumbersome.  What has happened is the cast has had a two-thirds change since Hampstead: out goes Anna Maxwell Martin and Gina McKee, in comes Samantha Spiro and Jenna Russell.

If you know the individual actresses, you can imagine how this will change the dynamic of the play as Spiro and Russell, with their musical experience, play it more 'out front', more West End - and that is certainly not a bad thing in my book.

As good as the actresses are, I must admit that at no time did I find Bullmore's characters at all believable as they seemed to be types rather than fully-rounded characters, sporty lesbian, sex-mad ditz, driven fashion-writer career woman.

The set-up is age-old: three women from different backgrounds come together - here in a shared student flat - and we watch as they slowly evolve into genuine friends despite everything that life - and themselves - can do to them.

We first meet the threesome taking turns on their halls of residence phone, slowly getting to know each other and eventually sharing a flat together.  Over the course of the first act we get to know them too: Tamzin Outhwaite is Di, sporty and taking business studies who can finally admit to the world she is a lesbian after hiding it at home, Jenna Russell as Rose who is studying art history and whose good nature includes sleeping with any man she fancies, and Samantha Spiro is Viv who is studying sociology with a particular interest in how fashion has literally shaped women's lives.

Twice during the play Bullmore delivers a twist to the general sitcom feel, confronting her characters - and the audience - with the casual shocks that life can spring.  The first comes so out of the blue that it takes you totally unawares and the play violently changes gear for a while as the women bond together, only for the former tempo of fairly long scenes to creep back again by the interval.

The interval arrives at the end of their University years and they handle this last scene very well as the realization dawns that, although they are now firm friends, they will never share the experience of living together again. The 80s give way to the 90s and Viv is working for a fashion columnist in New York, Di is living with a partner and Rose is a single mother of two children.

I enjoyed these scenes more - the actresses seemed more comfortable playing ages closer to their own - although I also felt that Bullmore didn't really flesh out the characters that are left offstage, partners are mentioned but you never get a real sense of them.  Midway through the second act, Bullmore pulls the rug out from under the audience again with the death of one of the characters and the tempo changes again to one of loss and recrimination.

I was vaguely reminded of MY NIGHT WITH REG in these final scenes as it too covers the impact of a friend's death on those left behind, who has ownership of what memory, etc. but Kevin Elyot's play works on a more profound level than this one.

What made the play stand out were the performances of the fine actresses, in particular Samantha Spiro as the waspish, and later, soused Viv.  What is also good is seeing a new play that affords three equally prominent roles for actresses, I am sure the play will have a future life as it would be very easy to tour.

Briskly directed by Anna Mackmin, ultimately what's not to love about a production that gives you blasts of Kirsty MacColl *and* Madonna?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Dvd/150: CECIL B. DEMENTED (John Waters, 2000)

John Waters' freewheeling satire seizes it's opportunities to poke fun at both the Hollywood and Independant film worlds.

Hollywood actress/full-time bitch Honey Whitlock is kidnapped in Baltimore by The Sprocket Holes, a group of film terrorists and forced to star in their own underground film directed by their leader Cecil B. Demented.

Of course Honey soon becomes a willing guerrilla filmmaker - the irony of Patricia Hearst being cast as one of the gang's mother is not lost..

Melanie Griffith and Stephen Dorff have great fun in their lead roles and the cast give winning performances, in particular Alicia Witt and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and it's great to see Waters alumni Mink Stole, Susan Lowe and Mary Vivian Pearce in the mix.

However the film's climax feels oddly muted, as if Waters ran out of steam.

The dvd needs a commentary track as Waters excels when talking about his work.

Shelf or charity shop?  Possibly a contender for the limbo of a paper sleeve in the storage box

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Dvd/150: THE HOLLOW CROWN: HENRY IV PARTS 1 & 2 (Richard Eyre, 2012)

The second in the BBC trilogy of Shakespeare History plays are the two parts of HENRY IV, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre with a clarity that makes them gripping viewing.

Henry IV faces an uprising led by Lord Northumberland who had helped him overthrow Richard II.  Henry is envious that Northumberland's fiery son Hotspur would make a better heir to his throne than his son Hal who spends his nights roistering with the lowlifes in Eastcheap and in particular with the drunken rogue Lord John Falstaff.

Hal's killing of Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury changes the King's opinion but which father figure will Hal finally acknowledge?

Fine support from Joe Armstrong as Hotspur and Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly underpin superb performances from Jeremy Irons as Henry and Tom Hiddleston as Hal.

But above all is Simon Russell Beale's quintessential Falstaff: vain, angry, lyrical, sly and finally heartbreaking.

Shelf or charity shop?  Enthroned on the shelf!