Sunday, August 12, 2018

DVD/150: ATAME! (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) (Pedro Almodóvar, 1989)

Ricky has a goal: to find Marina, a former one-night stand, and make her love him, marry him and have their children... and now he's released from the psychiatric home...

Almodóvar set the cat among the PC pigeons with the scenes of violent attack and bondage - and America definitely had issues with it's two lead actresses seen peeing - but the shock has evaporated and what emerges is an oddly tender story - with restraint.

Antonio Banderas channels his four previous Almodóvar roles into Ricky and is sensational: dangerously unhinged but played so sympathetically that he delivers a real breakout performance which was his calling card to Hollywood; it would be 22 years before he worked with Pedro again.

I never warmed to Victoria Abril in any of her three three lead Almodóvar roles; here she fades against Banderas' electricity and the machine-gun attack of Loles Leon as her sister.   

Shelf or charity shop?  With nice cameos for three Almodóvar actressses: Maria Barranco, Rossy de Palma and Julieta Serrano - and a jaw-droppingly hilarious tv ad for pensions - ATAME! is tied onto the shelf...

Thursday, August 09, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 39: NINE (1982) (Maury Yeston)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life:

First performed: 1982, 46th Street Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 1997, Donmar
Productions seen: one

Score: Maury Yeston
Book: Arthur Kopit
Plot:  1960s Venice; Guido Contini, a famous film director, wrestles with the subject of his overdue next film while thinking of the women in his life, both current and in the past...


It's odd how you come to some musicals... I came to NINE through Elaine Paige's "Be On Your Own" on an 1983 album 'Stages'; the song intrigued me with it's compelling, snaking through-line that calls out an unfaithful lover.  I was so intrigued I bought the Broadway cast album and found that in it's original setting, it wasn't Paige's 80s power pop ballad but a downbeat, powerful, cold-as-ice dismissal.  The more I played the album, the more I was drawn into Maury Yeston's thrilling musical of Federico Fellini's film "8 1/2"  that gives a dizzying array of numbers to his lead character Guido and the women in his life: his long-suffering wife Luisa, his mistress Carla, his favourite actress Claudia, his producer Liliane and in his memory, Saraghina, the ample prostitute he desired as a boy.  Tommy Tune famously made his original production a chic black & white-themed show in which Raul Julia was the only male (along with a boy actor) in a cast of women.  I finally got to see the show in David Levaux's Donmar production which made a virtue of it's small playing area but still flooded the stage to show us Guido's vision of "The Grand Canal".  Laconic Larry Lamb played Guido and he was surrounded by some great musical actresses: Clare Burt, Eleanor David, Sara Kestelman and, in particular, Susannah Fellows who brought real heartbreak to Luisa, and a show-stopping turn from Jenny Galloway as the voluptuous Saraghina.  Despite the clunking screen version, this is a show that could definitely take a revival...

The 1982 Tony Awards delivered a shock when NINE beat the highly-touted DREAMGIRLS to Best Musical along with winning four other awards; the telecast immortalized the late Kathi Moss' rattling performance as Saraghina and her big number "Be Italian"...

Monday, August 06, 2018

Dvd/150: SUDDEN FEAR (David Miller, 1952)

To celebrate the BFI Joan Crawford season, I watched the thriller which gained her a third Best Actress Oscar nomination, SUDDEN FEAR. 

Playwright Myra Hudson demands Lester Blaine be fired from the lead in her new play; travelling home by train to San Francisco she discovers Blaine is on it too.  Despite their past, Myra is drawn to him and after a whirlwind romance they marry.

Lester discovers Myra will change her will in three days time to give him a small income after her death, so he plots with ex-lover Irene to kill Myra before then.  But Myra accidentally left her Dictaphone on and it recorded them - and Myra hears it the next day...

With time running out, Myra concocts a plan to stop them... but will she succeed?

Crawford is magnificent with hissable support from Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame.  David Miller's direction builds the tension excellently.

Shelf or charity shop? Definitely shelf... apart from a plot contrivance which stretches credibility to breaking point, I always find SUDDEN FEAR delivers Film Noir tension excellently... who knew a tin wind-up dog toy could be so thrilling!!! 


Sunday, August 05, 2018

Exit Through The Giftshop - Postcards at an exhibition....

More adventures in museum and exhibition gift shops...

1) NAKED MAN STANDING (1505-6?) - Michelangelo

Although this postcard is published by the Louvre I have an idea I bought it at the British Museum in 2010 for their Italian Renaissance Drawings exhibition.

Michelangelo's pen and ink sketch wonderfully conjures solidity and muscle out of thin air; even The Louvre are unsure of exact dates for the drawing or what it might have been a sketch for.

2) THE ARTIST'S GARDEN AT GIVERNY (1900) - Claude Monet

I bought this at the Royal Academy's 1999 exhibition MONET IN THE 20TH CENTURY which made me appreciate Impressionist painting for the first time as I was exposed to room after room of Monet's remarkable works.

A bed of vibrantly painted Irises lead you away from the painter to the seclusion of the tree-lined path by his house; another painting I just want to jump into!

3) LILY POND TABLE (1913) - Duncan Grant

The table design is attributed to Duncan Grant and I bought the postcard at The Courtauld Gallery's 2009 exhibition "Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of The Omega Workshops".  It was a poor excuse for the actual table itself but I would have had difficulty hiding it under my coat.

This lustrous design really stood out against all the other exhibits and suggested the dark cool water beneath the lovely greens and oranges of the lily pads.  Roger Fry set up the Omega Workshop in Bloomsbury to give younger artists the opportunity to make art (and money) by designing and making objects for the home, surrounding yourself with beautiful furniture as well as paintings on the wall.  Along with Grant, artists who worked on and off for Omega in it's six years of trading were Vanessa Bell, Carrington, Paul Nash and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

4) DAVID TRIBUNE (1501-4) - Michelangelo

Another postcard from the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence where Michelangelo's epic David stands in solitary majesty.  As you can see I do love a Michelangelo bloke in the nip.

DAVID was originally placed in the Piazza della Signoria beside the Palazzo Vecchio.  It stayed there for 369 years until it was moved to the Galleria in 1873.  One of the most famous bums in art.

5) PORTRAIT OF JEANNE KÉFER (1885) - Fernand Khnopff

I bought this a while ago at the Royal Academy's exhibition IMPRESSIONISM TO SYMBOLISM: THE BELGIAN AVANT-GARDE 1880-1900.  I love the charming delicacy of the painting of little Jeanne Kefér, dressed in her best to go out. The subdued colours of Khnopff's palette gives the picture an oddly luminous quality.

Five year-old Jeanne was the daughter of Khnopff's pianist friend Gustave; his positioning her in front of the large front door, along with her pensive expression, emphasizes her hesitancy in facing the outside world.

50 Favourite Musicals: 40: SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM (1976) (Stephen Sondheim / various)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life:

First performed: 1976, Mermaid Theatre
First seen by me: 1986, Donmar Warehouse
Productions seen: Two

Score: Stephen Sondheim / various 
Book: Ned Sherrin
Plot:  Three singers and a narrator explore the songwriting genius of Stephen Sondheim, spanning his first 19 years of writing for stage and screen.


David Kernan was appearing in Stephen Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Adelphi in 1975 when he was asked by Cleo Laine and John Dankworth to arrange a trio of fundraisers for their theatre in Berkshire.  He decided on a tribute to Sondheim, asked Millicent Martin and Julia McKenzie to join him and Ned Sherrin to do links between the songs.  Cameron Mackintosh, recently started out as a producer, saw it and produced it the following year at the Mermaid Theatre, which had previously been the home for two similar songwriter tributes COWARDY CUSTARD and COLE - both of which Julia McKenzie had appeared in.  The show was such a success that it quickly transferred to the Wyndhams where it ran for over a year before transferring to the Garrick for another year.  In 1977 the show - in true coals to Newcastle style - opened on Broadway where it was nominated for Best Musical as well as the whole cast being nominated too.  The show is credited with gaining Sondheim a bigger audience in the UK - of the ten musicals primarily featured, only half had been produced previously in the West End.  After falling in love with Julia McKenzie in GUYS AND DOLLS in 1982, I quickly sought out the cast recording which blew me away; 40+ years later, so many of McKenzie, Martin and Kernan's performances are still nigh-on definitive.  I finally had a chance to see it when Kernan staged a tenth anniversary production as part of his Show People series of shows at the Donmar, with the wonderful pairing of female powerhouses Diane Langton and Angela Richards with the men represented by Tim Flavin and Kernan (now the narrator).  Subsequent productions has attempted to drop in numbers from the post-1976 years and it is still a popular production to stage both here and abroad.  I suspect this is primarily because the piece attempts - to quote Ned Sherrin - "to explore three propositions, Sondheim is the best lyric writer of our time; the most adventurous composer of musicals; and the most considerable musical dramatist."  They succeeded.

Here is Millicent Martin on the 1977 Tony Awards giving her nuanced but steely version of 'I'm Still Here' from FOLLIES, as I said, near-definitive.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

SPAMILTON at the Menier Chocolate Factory - He's Not Throwing Away His Jokes

When Gerard Alessandrini saw HAMILTON he realized he was in trouble; what was he going to do when he wrote the next version of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY, his hugely successful off-Broadway comedy revue, to encapsulate the whole HAMILTON phenomenon?  A single routine? No.. even a medley of songs that he had used in the past for big shows would not cut it, there was only one thing for it... it would have to have it's own show.  Now that HAMILTON has repeated it's huge success in London, the ever-opportunistic Menier have served up Alessandrini's piss-take.

It opened in 2016 and, being Alessandrini, is about more than just HAMILTON - it is primarily about that show's writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda who has now been elevated to major stardom with everyone getting in on the act - it's the same over here where any show that has his dabs on is suddenly being rushed into production.  SPAMILTON has numerous references to his upcoming role in the remake of Disney's MARY POPPINS and some of the more in-house references even defeated me.  Needless to say - as with the Menier's last FORBIDDEN BROADWAY production - dotted around the audience were arseholes who's slightly too-loud braying said I KNOW WHAT THAT JOKE MEANS AND YOU DON'T - we had one such clown in front of us and it was only when a few women in the row in front of them turned around and stared daggers at her that she toned down the hysteria.

As such the wider ripples of the HAMILTON phenomenon are parodied and other shows and personalities come in for some gentle ribbing: the Book of Mormon blokes turn up to wail about the curse of being last year's hit-show, other hit shows are mashed up to be made relevant such as LES MISMA MIA and THE LION KING AND I while Liza Minnelli, Elaine Paige, Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews and Stephen Sondheim turn up to critique the show and Miranda.  In the show's most cutting number, George III turns up - and as in HAMILTON - the character steals the show with the "Straight Is Back" number, pointing out that now the history books are being raided for inspiration, shows about gays and drag queens are being shown the door.

It could have been more cutting about the show and it's creator - HAMILTON's woeful roles for women for example - but it was more of a cheeky poke in the ribs than a hard kick up the arse which might explain the Lin-Manuel Miranda press quote on the poster.  But it was certainly on point about the intricate plot having to be followed by a bewildered audience as exposition is spat out in tongue-twisting rap, the impossibility of getting tickets, and the cast who have practically all won awards but know they probably will not be picked for "the film when it happens"!

The cast of five meet themselves going off as they come on as they have so many roles to split between them but they are all very winning and talented - I also would not be at all surprised if they get a call when HAMILTON recasts!  Liam Tamne is a hoot as both Hamilton and his preening creator, Jason Denton is good as the bouncy Thomas Jefferson, Marc Akinfolarin made a good George Washington - wanting his One Big Song - and even more surprising as 'Annie'! - Eddie Elliott was a witty Aaron Burr ("sir") and Julie Yammanee was sensational as Philippa Soo, Eliza Hamilton, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Gloria Estefan!  The two 'guest stars' were Sophie-Louise Dann, a trifle overdoing it as Elaine Paige, Liza Minnelli and Julie Andrews but Damian Humbley was delicious as George III.

A special mention to music director Simon Beck who hammers out the score on his piano and the show does speed through it's 85 minutes quickly enough, but you do feel like the show is forever chasing iself to get to the end before the joke simply plays itself out.  See it for the hugely talented cast - but I would suggest it will all be lost on you if you have not seen HAMILTON.

The real joke is - as Alessandrini's King George puts it - the fun has gone out of musicals now they are all clamouring to get their own version of HAMILTON - if you had said only a few years ago that their would be a hip-hop stage version of the life of Sylvia Pankhurst or a 'rock documentary' of The Bronte Sisters or a pop jukebox musical of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald - well you would have thought it was a FORBIDDEN BROADWAY piss-take.  But no, these are real shows due on at the Old Vic, Southwark Playhouse and The Other Palace.

Be afraid, be very afraid...

Friday, August 03, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 41: LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (1983) (Jerry Herman)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life:

First performed: 1983, Palace Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 1986, London Palladium
Productions seen: four

Score: Jerry Herman
Book: Harvey Fierstein
Plot:  Georges and Albin, a middle-aged, long-term gay couple who run a Riviera drag club, find their public and private worlds clash when Georges' son falls in love with the daughter of a homophobic politician who wants to close the area's gay clubs.


The 1984 Tony Awards for musicals were seen as a clash between tradition and modernity as the two most obvious nominees were Jerry Herman's musical comedy LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and Stephen Sondheim's more austere SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.  SUNDAY was to lose out - apart from the Design and Lighting awards - to the LA CAGE juggernaut.  When Herman scurried onstage to receive the Best Score award he crowed that it put paid to the rumour that "the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway" - a not-so-subtle dig at Sondheim.  That certainly coloured my opinion of the show when I saw it's UK premiere at the London Palladium although I certainly enjoyed the delightful starring performances of George Hearn (recreating his Best Actor Tony-winning role as the flamboyant Albin) and Denis Quilley, as well as the fantastic drag chorus 'Les Cagelles' which spotlit performers like Scott St. Martyn as Chantal and Andy Norman as Hanna.   That production famously closed early citing it's failure on the public worry of AIDS; I never bought that reason as the show ran on Broadway for four years - I still suspect that the Palladium was just the wrong house for it.  It was only when I saw Terry Johnson's more intimate - alright, smaller - revival at the Menier then also when it transferred to the Playhouse - that the show's charm really showed.  It's sheer relentless optimistic tone can eventually be wearing - the second act really doesn't know where to go - but with the right performers, Fierstein's book can still make you laugh and Herman's self-referencing score can still charm.  I last saw the show when the Menier production transferred to Broadway and Harvey Fierstein played Albin.  Despite LA CAGE's longevity - the only Broadway musical to win Tonys for Best Musical and then Best Musical Revival for each of it's two subsequent incarnations - Jerry Herman has never written another original musical.  And where do I stand on the LA CAGE versus SUNDAY face-off?  Watch this space...

There is fair amount of video on LA CAGE but here is Denis Quilley from 1986 on the stage of the London Palladium introducing 'Les Cagelles' for the great opening number "We Are What We Are" - I first saw the show on a pro's matinee with West End Legend Nicola Blackman and I still remember the sheer excitement of watching this for the first time...

Saturday, July 28, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 42: KERN GOES TO HOLLYWOOD (1985) (Jerome Kern / various)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life:

First performed: 1985, Donmar Warehouse
First seen by me: as above
Productions seen: one

Score: Jerome Kern / various 
Book: Dick Vosburgh
Plot:  Four singers explore the songs of Broadway and Hollywood composer Jerome Kern with a particular emphasis on songs that were used in the Golden Age of the Hollywood Musical.


Before the Donmar became a player, along with the Almeida, in the off-West End, mini-National Theatre stakes, it was the humbler Donmar Warehouse and staged an eclectic mix of plays, musicals and cabaret.  In 1985 David Kernan formed 'Show People' to put on shows that had evening and regular late-night performances so performers in other shows could catch them too.  In that year they staged two revue-style shows which followed the tried and trusted formula of SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM - cast of four with some occasional biographical detail to space the songs out - and both are on my Top 50 musicals list.  The first is KERN GOES TO HOLLYWOOD which was Kernan's idea to showcase the remarkable songbook of Jerome Kern, emphasizing songs written for or used in films.  Kernan brought together a trio of female singers which gave the production a sheen of pure class: Elaine Delmar, Liz Robertson and, in particular, the glorious 81 year-old Elisabeth Welch who was nominated for an Olivier Award.  The show transferred to Broadway the following year for a short engagement but long enough for Welch to again be nominated, this time for a Tony Award.  On the back of her success in KERN she returned the following year to the Donmar with her own show, luckily for posterity both were recorded.  I was lucky enough to meet her around the time of KERN and when I complemented her on the show she said her only regret was more emphasis was not placed on the lyricists who had been on the top of their game with Kern's music.  KERN GOES TO HOLLYWOOD was a fantastic show and could certainly do with being revived... but where would you find performers of such impeccable musical taste and class nowadays? 

There is no video footage of the show but here is Elisabeth Welch's glorious version of WHY WAS I BORN? - existential pain never sounded so lovely... and just for you Elisabeth, the lyricist was Oscar Hammerstein II.