Monday, March 25, 2019

DVD/150: BEYOND BIBA: A PORTRAIT OF BARBARA HULANICKI (Louis Price, 2009)

An intimate - and maddeningly short - documentary of designer Barbara Hulanicki, which sketches her life as swiftly as one of her fashion drawings.


Filmed in Miami, where Barbara has resided since 1987, she prepares for a London drawings exhibition while reminiscing: Polish-born, she moved to Jerusalem in the 1940s with her diplomat father, only for her life to change aged 12 when he was assassinated by Zionists.


Growing up in England, Barbara was working as a newspaper fashion illustrator when the Daily Mirror asked her to design a day dress - her design in pink gingham, costing 25 shillings, resulted in over 17,000 mail order requests!


Barbara and husband Stephen Fitz-Simon opened Biba in 1964 which in it's third move became Big Biba on Kensington High Street: where seven floors offered it's customers, for the first time, a whole lifestyle - clothes, furniture, food. make-up, dog food - at affordable prices.


Shelf or charity shop? Big Biba is one of my most treasured memories of growing up in Kensington in the 1970s so this is obvious to keep!  It is also interesting to follow Barbara's post-Biba career designing hotel and restaurant interiors in Miami, and to see her meeting old friends like Twiggy and Molly Parkin.


Sunday, March 24, 2019

DVD/150: DON'T LOSE YOUR HEAD (Gerald Thomas, 1967)

Anglo-Amalgamated released the first twelve CARRY ONs but when the franchise moved to Rank, DON'T LOSE YOUR HEAD was released without the prefix due to problems over who owned the CARRY ON.. title, the words still appear on the poster...


Robespierre's Reign of Terror is interrupted by the elusive Black Fingernail who, disguised, rescues aristocrats from the guillotine and under the snooty nose of police chief, Citizen Camembert.


The rescuers are two English fops, Sir Rodney Ffing and Lord Darcy Pue so Camembert journeys to England to catch them with his bumbling assistant Citizen Bidet and his mistress Desirée.


DON'T LOSE YOUR HEAD, despite the tsunami of double entendres, runs out of steam about two thirds in and never recovers.


Sid James is fine while the anarchic pairing of Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey fizzes and Joan Sims is glorious as the outwardly-'refained' but common-as-muck Desirée.


Shelf or charity shop?  Despite some classic CARRY ON... gags, I think I can let this one go...

Saturday, March 23, 2019

50 Favourite Musicals: The Interval...

The interval - time for a mid-performance wee, an ice-cream or an over-priced drink in the under-staffed bar. I am halfway through my 50 favourite musicals so let's have a recap of the action so far - it's only taken nine months to get here!


How many would be in your Top 50?

The bell is ringing... the mission continues...

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

50 Favourite Musicals: 25: A CHORUS LINE (1975) (Marvin Hamlisch, Edward Kleban)

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: 1975, Public Theater, NY
First seen by me: 1989, Shubert Theatre, NY
Productions seen: two

Score: Marvin Hamlisch, Edward Kleban
Book: James Kirkwood Jr, Nicholas Dante
Plot: On an empty Broadway stage, director Zack selects seventeen dancers for the final round of auditions to be cast for an upcoming musical which needs a chorus line of four women and four men.  Zack puts them through a rigorous physical and emotional work-out; he wants dancers for whom it's life itself... not just a job.

Five memorable numbers: DANCE: TEN, LOOKS: THREE, WHAT I DID FOR LOVE, NOTHING, AT THE BALLET, ONE

Like a lot of musicals on my list I came to the show first through the cast recording which can be a bit of a problem when you finally see the show: the score which flows naturally from song to song in your mind actually stops every so often: "wait, there are lines *during* the song??  Who knew!"  A case in point was A CHORUS LINE which was played continuously by someone who I used to work with.  I knew practically every breath that the cast took so when I finally saw the show - on Broadway which was like drinking wine in the country where the grape was grown - it was a shock to realize that the show was actually more like a play with music, so strong are the 17 main characters and the situation they find themselves in.  I found myself totally involved, quietly rooting for my favourite dancers to get the all-important job.  The imprint of director/choreographer Michael Bennett is all over the show but of course most of all in the great dance numbers - the exhausting "God I Hope I Get It" as the successful 17 are selected out of a general chorus cattle-call; the epic montage number which incorporates "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" as all the dancers tell director/choreographer Zack of their years growing up and what lead them to become dancers, and Cassie's big solo number "The Music and The Mirror".  Cassie is Zack's former lover and former established dance soloist who left Broadway - and Zack - to try her luck in Hollywood, but now she's back and despite Zack's goading, desperate to get a job again on Broadway, even if it means being part of an anonymous chorus line: "God, I'm a dancer, a dancer dances".  It all culminates in the shiny and brash "One", the chorus' big number in the upcoming show, which reduces the individual dancers into a glittery, uniform ensemble - all moving and looking as one - but we now know what each of them has gone through to give themselves over to that collective unit, a chorus line.  A CHORUS LINE was Broadway's longest-running musical until overtaken by by CATS in 1997, and won nine Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and, for it's London production, the prize for Best Musical from both the Evening Standard Awards and the Society of West End Theatre Awards (which later became the Oliviers) - the first year the latter were awarded.  It is sad to think that from the eight people who made up the original production team only co-choreographer Bob Avian is still with us. 

Sadly most of the video available for A CHORUS LINE is from Attenborough's galumphing film version but here is the 2018 NY City Center gala production featuring some of Bennett's iconic choreography.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

DVD/150: LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)

One of silent cinema's true masterpieces, Dreyer dispenses with the events of Joan's life to focus on her heresy trial in 1431 by the clergy, basing his script on the trial transcripts.


Dreyer distills the trial's four months to a single day, all elements of the film pared down to focus on the extraordinary performance of Maria Falconetti, previously known as a light comedy stage actress.


Dreyer's extensive use of extreme close-ups rivets the viewer to Falconetti and the actors playing the conniving judges.  Rudolph Maté's cinematography shoots them without make-up, capturing every blemish and wart.  But Falconetti's pure face allows every fleeting emotion to shine through her glassy, obsessed gaze.


Critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful, for many years PASSION was only viewable in a truncated version which Dreyer disliked - ironically the original having burnt in a fire in 1928 - until a complete print was discovered in 1981.


Shelf or charity shop?  I can see myself wanting to re-visit the haunting intensity of Falconetti's performance so she can live in the limbo of my plastic DVD box...

Friday, March 15, 2019

GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM at the Park Theatre - ...In Gay Years...

Forty years ago this year, Martin Sherman's play BENT opened at the Royal Court Theatre.  Originally written for the Gay Sweatshop theatre group, they passed on it hoping a bigger theatre company would do it so the play could be seen by a wider audience.  It was initially rejected by the Royal Court while Hampstead would only stage it if a gay director did it, but none came forward.  The Court eventually staged it with the star power of Ian McKellen and Tom Bell but the management still disapproved.  No leading West End producers wanted it until producer Eddie Kulukundis took it to the Criterion but only on the agreement with the Society of West End Theatre that it would be gone by December as the Society felt it would be distasteful to be seen at Christmas time in the West End.

In those forty years, gay plays and musicals have found an easier journey to the stage usually through the tried and tested route of either the subsidized theatre or fringe stages.  Those forty years have also seen a whole societal change for gay men and women in the UK and Martin Sherman's latest play GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM addresses that very idea.


Directed by Sherman's frequent collaborator Sean Mathias, GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM takes place in London between the years 2001 and 2014.  Pianist Beau is an American from New Orleans who has lived mostly in Paris and London since the 1950s, ruefully observing the world around him from a distance and through the prism of his music.  Beau has taken the plunge and met a much younger man called Rufus online through Gaydar.  Beau is taken aback when Rufus reveals that he is actually a fan of his music and, in particular, his years accompanying the legendary cabaret star Mabel Mercer.

It transpires that Rufus - who works in the City of London - loves the films and music from the 1930s onwards and had been aware of Beau's presence online and made the first move.  Beau is skeptical of Rufus' effusiveness - especially when he confesses to being bi-polar - but is slowly charmed by him and his genuine interest in recording Beau's reminiscences of his life as a gay man down the years.  However he refuses to indulge in Rufus' starry-eyed nostalgia, telling him that those years were dangerous and lonely years for gay men: "Someone like Mabel confirmed our misery, and mythologized it, but misery it was - and, as a result, everyone was drunk.”


Rufus moves in and they negotiate his manic spells and Beau's unspoken disbelief that they can possibly have a life together, a combination of his only serious affairs having ended sadly, and his knowing that any new-won rights can just as easily be taken away.  Eventually Rufus confesses that he has fallen in love with Harry, a gay performance artist in his early 20s with an ego bigger than his empathy.  Beau is saddened but maintains a friendship and even acts as the couple's Best Man at their wedding.  While Rufus and Harry dwindle into a semi-bickering married life, Beau realizes that happiness can arrive just when you wouldn't suspect it...

Sherman's work can sometimes take on too many themes - I shudder to remember his clunky 1989 play A MADHOUSE IN GOA which even Vanessa Redgrave couldn't rescue - but here the bulk of 20th Century gay experience isn't as unwieldy, thanks in no small part to Beau being such a fascinating character, aloof from the world's cruelties but surprising himself at his capacity to feel.  At times it reminded me of another Sherman play called ROSE which starred Olympia Dukakis at the National Theatre which, while an admirable one-woman feat, finally wore you out as the eponymous Everywoman figure hit every major Jewish experience in the 20th Century like a crazed bagatelle.   Here, because Beau is imparting his stories to Rufus, the experiences of living through Mabel Mercer, AIDS, the shocking 1973 UpStairs lounge arson attack and gay soldiers in WWII New York, doesn't seem such information overload.  Beau got through it all... and he's still here.


This is helped by Jonathan Hyde's exquisite performance as Beau; looking at times like a slightly pissed-off parrot, Hyde's wonderfully acerbic patrician Beau showed subtle changes of thought with delicate expressions of under-played humanity.  It is remarkable to think that the 2017 premiere of GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM off-Broadway starred Harvey Fierstein as Beau, a radically different interpretation I am sure.

The roles of Rufus and Harry cannot help but pale next the the all-encompassing Beau but Ben Allen and Harry Lawtey both eased their performances into the spaces around Hyde's to give him plenty to react to, Lawtey in particular, was very good at turning the initially ghastly feckless Harry into a character with hidden depth.  Sean Mathias might have had some misfires before but here his direction was nuanced and illuminating.


GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM certainly sends you into the night musing on Sherman's arguments of the changing gay experience and I hope it will be seen by a wider audience than us lucky few who have seen it at The Park.

In thinking back on Martin Sherman's work, I am now hoping that one day we will see a revival of his remarkable play WHEN SHE DANCED based on Isadora Duncan's later years in the 1920s Riviera - but where would you find actresses now who could match the power of Vanessa Redgrave and Frances de la Tour?


Saturday, March 09, 2019

50 Favourite Musicals: 26: SOUTH PACIFIC (1949) (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II)

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: 1949, Majestic, NY
First seen by me: 2010, Vivian Beaumont, NY
Productions seen: two

Score: Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II
Book: Hammerstein II, Joshua Logan
Plot: On a South Pacific island, nurses and sailors in the US Navy find love against the background of WWII,  Nurse Nellie Forbush falls in love with French plantation owner Emile de Becque while Lt Joseph Cable falls for Liat, the young daughter of a wily Tonkinese peddler but their happiness founders on perceptions of race from within and without.

Five memorable numbers: THIS NEARLY WAS MINE, SOME ENCHANTED EVENING, YOU'VE GOT TO BE CAREFULLY TAUGHT, I'M IN LOVE WITH A WONDERFUL GUY, I'M GONNA WASH THAT MAN RIGHT OUTTA MY HAIR

Indeed - as Lt. Cable sings - you have to be carefully taught.  For many years I had an active disinterest in the musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein. The only show of theirs I had seen on stage was the National Theatre's CAROUSEL which I found dreary, and despite seeing the films of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE KING AND I and OKLAHOMA!, still the team's work was never something I actively sought out.  I guess my baptism in stage musicals coinciding with discovering Stephen Sondheim kept their perceived excessive sentimentality at bay.  Indeed any liking I had for them was thanks to individual songs being recorded by Barbara Cook, Nancy LaMott or Bernadette Peters.  So it was no surprise that I had never seen SOUTH PACIFIC before despite a 1988 West End revival with Gemma Craven or the 2001 National Theatre production, but a trip to New York in 2010 made me want to see Bartlett Sher's acclaimed Lincoln Center production - the idea of seeing this quintessential Broadway musical where it should ideally be seen made me book - and I'm glad I did.  Bartlett Sher's wonderful production featured a 30+ orchestra which made the score wonderfully alive and his concentrated direction gave the piece a respect for the sub-plots of lonely people, unchallenged prejudice and the irretrievable loss of the future that war brings.  The committed performances of Laura Osnes, David Pittsinger, Andrew Samonsky, Daniel Burstein and Loretta Ables Sayre made the characters very real, and the next year Sher brought the production to the Barbican where Ables Sayre was joined by Samantha Womack, Paulo Szot (Sher's original Emile), Daniel Koek and Alex Fearns.  Remarkable how the show's score which features so many standards makes those songs seem fresh when you see the characters' lives that they were written to illustrate. The original production won 10 Tony Awards - every one it was nominated for - as well as the Pulitzer Prize; Barlett Sher's revival won 7 Tonys.  I think the show's rating will increase the next time I do one of these lists...

There are plenty of SOUTH PACIFIC video clips to choose from but I went with a scene from a 2010 live recording of Bartlett Sher's Lincoln Center production which illustrates the way he makes the songs flow naturally from the book scenes leading up to them; of course it helps to have performers like Kelli O'Hara as Nellie, Paulo Szot as Emile (who I saw at the Barbican) and Andrew Samonsky as Cable (who I saw at Lincoln Center)!