Sunday, September 14, 2014

Dvd/150: THE HOLLOW CROWN: RICHARD II (Rupert Goold, 2012)

This trilogy of films based on four Shakespeare history plays, commissioned by the BBC for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, are excellent examples of intelligent, gripping stage-to-screen adaptations.

All three are cast to perfection: Ben Whishaw is marvellous as Richard, fey, capricious and remote, who, like Lear, initiates his own downfall by banishing his cousin Bolingbroke to six years abroad then appropriates his cousin's fortune and lands when Bolingbroke's father John of Gaunt dies.

Rory Kinnear is fine as the conflicted usurper Bolingbroke, their scenes together have an electric quality especially in the riveting abdication scene.

Excellent support comes from Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt as well as David Suchet, Lindsay Duncan and David Morrissey among others.

Goold, whose adaptation with Ben Power has a fast-paced clarity, directs in a fluid style which leaves no symbolism unchecked and has a slight over-reliance on slow-motion detailing.

Shelf or charity shop?  I'faith my lord, shelf.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kate Bush... 35 years later

One of my big 'claim-to fame's was that I saw Kate Bush live at the London Palladium during her only tour.  To be honest I don't remember that much about it - what I remember the most is that I was up in the Upper Circle and it's steepness gave me the feeling of being a mountain goat.  I also remember vaguely liking it but also being aware that it's reliance on mime trops played up the worst in the young Kate - that slightly tragic air of preciousness, the feeling of a 6th form girl being allowed the afternoon off lessons to prepare something artistic for the last day of term.

Since then I have bought her cds, some I have kept and loved, some I have dispensed with.  Around the turn of the naughties, I fell in with a particularly manic clutch of Bush fans and their constant whining about when will she release an album quite turned me off her so I didn't really pay any attention to her 'comeback' ARIEL.  Needless to say, when ARIEL was released, these fans started on about "when do you think she will release her next album".  After passing through them, I was ready to be interested in her again when she released her hypnotic album 50 WORDS FOR SNOW.

The shock of the announced residency at Hammersmith Odeon (as it always will be) gave way to the anxiety of could tickets be booked.  Of course they could thanks to Owen's super-fast clicky finger!  Then the long wait to the actual night of the show BEFORE THE DAWN...  which finally came last Friday.

Thanks to the stage being extended, our tickets went from being 8 rows from the stage to 4!!  Taking our seats after the very polite but vaguely irritating scrum at one of the merchandise stands and seeing how close we were to the stage was when the excitement kicked in.  We also started to ask a burning question... how would she actually get on stage? Walk on? Fly on? Bounce up through a trapdoor?

The answer came soon enough... when the onstage musicians launched into LILY and from stage left on came Kate, shuffling on in rhythm to the music and leading her onstage singers behind her - and it was, you know, it was Kate Bush. I'd know that face anywhere - and I would know her voice anywhere too.  The news that she was not singing anything from the first four albums suggested a diminishing in vocal range but she sounded great, her head and chest voice were superb and had real power.  Her fuller figure might have compromised her dancing but vocally she was excellent.

If she had just played the first section I would have been happy as that segment with Kate, band and the backing singers gave us - finally live on stage - HOUNDS OF LOVE and RUNNING UP THAT HILL.  To see her sing those was worth the price of the ticket alone.

After RUNNING UP THAT HILL it seemed natural to lead into KING OF THE MOUNTAIN but as that song built in clamorous intensity, certain elements of the stage set began to shift, the band's risers retreated to the back of the stage - and two onstage cannons shot a ton of small parchments into the auditorium on which were written the lines of Tennyson which inspired her song cycle THE NINTH WAVE.

Utilising all the Hammersmith stage - and auditorium - we were given a visual interpretation of that collection of songs starting with footage of Kate floating in the ocean wearing her life jacket for DREAM OF SHEEP which led into a full theatrical show with billowing material as the sea, the singers as sea rescuers and bone-headed fishmen fighting for possession of the hapless shipwreck survivor and an impressive lighting gantry/rescue helicopter that hovered over the audience, it's searchlight sweeping across the auditorium culminating in an onstage buoy for the woman to be rescued - or was she?

It was all fabulously imaginative and all achieved with a remarkable simplicity, wonderful but for one clunking mis-step.  Step forward 16 year old Albert McIntosh, billed as 'creative advisor' for the show, wannabe actor/singer... oh and the son of a certain K. Bush.  He popped up in an interminable scene between the lost woman's husband and son leading up to an appearance on the cramped box set of a ghostly Kate singing WATCHING YOU WITHOUT ME.  It was Amateur Hour in Dixie writ large and it stopped the momentum of the piece dead.

After an interval that found a good percentage of the audience on their hands and knees at the front of the stalls scooping up handfuls of Tennyson verse - we had ours that had landed on us tucked safely away - it was time for the second half, ARIEL'S song cycle A SKY OF HONEY.  Now Constant Reader, you will remember that I was very off Kate at the time of that album's release so I had no expectations, I just sat back and watched the spectacle.  

I was not as engaged as I was for THE NINTH WAVE - a combination of unfamiliarity with the material, a noticeable lack of choons (apart from what appeared to be Kate's version of LA ISLA BONITA) and the return appearance of son Bertie, this time in a larger role as a painter.  Dear God, he even had a solo.  Yeesh I don't think even Barbra Streisand allows Jason Gould that!  But it ended with a deliriously insane climax of Kate taunting her guitarist - everyone by now had bird skull masks on - and eventually, after an initial blackout, she seemed to fly.  


The show however ended finally with Kate alone at the piano singing the haunting AMONG ANGELS from her last album and the last song was a massive, rousing-sing-a-long version of CLOUDBUSTING.  And then, her thank you's barely heard over the huge loving ovation she was receiving, she was gone with a smile and a wave.

It was only after the lights came up that I realised that the odd feeling I was experiencing was due to the fact that while she had been onstage I had been smiling the whole time.  It was such a joyous experience to see her, seeming so happy and contented to be sharing her work finally with her enraptured fans that it was impossible not to surrender to her.

It was magical, uplifting, disturbing, haunting, touching - and maybe a little puzzling.

It was Kate Bush.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"Guys and Dolls": Yesterday once more...

In 1982, I saw the greatest production ever staged of the greatest musical ever written.  There, Constant Reader, I have said it.  I can say it with confidence because there will never be a company assembled with such an array of talents to draw on, both onstage and off.  I am of course talking about Richard Eyre's now-legendary production of GUYS AND DOLLS.  As you are my Constant Reader you will have read my previous blogs where I have talked about my love for this production - oh ok... look here and here.

The importance of that production was that it turned me literally overnight into a theatre fan while making me realise the special alchemy that can happen between a company of actors and the audience watching them.  And it was a damn fine production.  I know I will never see it's like again but what of future generations?  They must be allowed to experience the joy that Abe Burrows & Jo Swerling's book and Frank Loesser's score combine to make so revivals must be staged.  You just have to hope that they are staged by talented people who understand what the show needs to make it flow.

The Donmar's 2005 revival has faded to a sepia memory but the current revival at the Chichester Festival Theatre left me dazzled, smiling and thoroughly happy - just what this show can do like no other.

Gordon Greenberg's production does nothing to stand in the way of the show's inner motor which powers along through it's plot derived from two stories by Damon Runyan.

Nathan Detroit needs $1000 to secure a place for his floating crap game which he has to hide from both the police and Miss Adelaide, his fiancee of 14 years.  He bets the legendary gambler Sky Masterson that he cannot take the strait-laced Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah Brown to Havana but when Sky pulls off the bet, the couple find themselves falling in love.  Once back on Broadway Sky and Sarah discover the gamblers have used her empty Mission for their crap game and Sarah breaks with Sky... how will we ever get to the happy ending that they and we deserve?

What must frighten any potential revival directors is the knowledge that the show just *works* so if something isn't working then it's your production.  Greenberg luckily has trusted in the material and by and large comes through unscathed although not without the odd audible sigh from me at a missed opportunity or two.

He has cast very well which fits his production just right with one surprising exception.  I have enjoyed Clare Foster's previous performances in CRAZY FOR YOU and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG but here it felt like she still doesn't have a handle on Sarah, she certainly can play the righteous Sergeant but didn't convince at all that there was anything else to the character.  It is frustrating as it throws the quartet of lovers off-kilter, leaving Jamie Parker with not an awful lot to work with.

Parker is one of the production's big successes. Charismatic and likable, he also has a very good singing voice and I loved in particular how he worked his way through I'VE NEVER BEEN IN LOVE BEFORE, really putting over Sky's own surprise at his feelings.  He also delivered a powerful LUCK, BE A LADY.  I will always compare any Sky against Ian Charleson's performance but Jamie Parker certainly delivers.

A major plus was also Peter Polycarpou as Nathan Detroit who suggested his put-uponess without making him a complete nebbish. He certainly made an excellent foil for Sophie Thompson's Miss Adelaide.  As bright and larger-than-life as Peter McKintosh's permanent backdrop of advertising signs, Sophie effortlessly got her laughs sliding up and down her vocal range and also delivered a delightful ADELAIDE'S LAMENT.  If she lacked that spark of lovability that Julia McKenzie had that made the part forever hers, Sophie still thoroughly deserved the huge cheer at her curtain call and her performance made me feel very proud for her.

Their supporting cast were also all worth the price of admission: Harry Morrison and Ian Hughes made a likable pair as Nathan's gophers Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet with Morrison stepping up nicely-nicely to belt across the show-stopping SIT DOWN YOU'RE ROCKING THE BOAT with excellent help from Melanie La Barrie as the formidable General Cartwright.

I also liked the other double act of Nick Wilton as a pugnacious Harry The Horse and Nic Greenshields as Big Jule, a big noise from Chicago.  I should also mention Neil McCaul's resoundingly Scots Arvide Abernathy who sang a nice but shortened version of MORE I CANNOT WISH YOU.  Sadly, although all good, none of the chorus really stood out which is where Eyre's production will always trump other revivals as he cast such unique talents as his ensemble players, giving them all a back story and a definite personality.

As I mentioned before, Peter McKintosh's standing set of a rainbow of fragmented vintage ads worked much better than I expected and an unexpected treat was to be seated high enough to be able to appreciate the way the highly polished stage mirrored the action on it.

A major coup for the production is securing the services of fashionable choreographer Carlos Acosta in his musical staging debut but while his routines are a cut above the usual fare - especially for the male dancers - they didn't exactly strike me as being generic to this particular show.  What he is to be applauded for is staying away from any "dance" elements and keeping them all within the musical theatre tradition.  Kudos too for Tim Mitchell's eye-popping lighting and the always-dependable Gareth Valentine's steady music direction.

The cherry on my slice of Mindy's cheesecake - or was it strudel? - was seeing Sophie Thompson afterwards, alarmingly for the first time in 10 years!  I first met Sophie in sister Emma's dressing room in 1986 when she was in ME AND MY GIRL and have watched her successes with a paternal pride.  It was lovely to see her again, get a hug and tell her how much I loved her in this, my most favourite of shows.

I had been more than somewhat nervous about seeing this revival but Gordon Greenberg's production is a joy from start to finish and the thought did cross my mind that hopefully yesterday afternoon, someone was sitting in the same auditorium and had a similar life-changing experience that I had when I first made the acquaintance of these eternally wonderful GUYS AND DOLLS.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

They Don't Make 'em Like That Anymore...

Here we are in late August and I have yet to mention any of the films I have caught at the National Film Theatre this year... yes you heard me National Film Theatre. I will never call it BFI South Bank.  It will always be the National Film Theatre.

I have been lucky to catch a few films that I have always wanted to see, and of course it's always a pleasure to see them as they were meant to be seen.  I shall try and review them each in 100 words...

Yes, I know I have THE GENERAL (1926) on DVD but it was a joy to see it finally on the big screen.  In his undisputed masterpiece Buster gave us a rollicking comedy, a sweeping adventure and a thrilling Civil War epic all in one.

War is declared and engine driver Johnny Gray is rejected by the army who think he is more useful driving his train.  His girlfriend and her family ostracize him as a coward but when she and his beloved engine The General are snatched by the Yankees, Johnny will stop at nothing to get them back!

Sadly, THE GENERAL was a box-office failure and Keaton was talked into joining MGM where he was not allowed the creative control he had enjoyed before.  Despite all the constraints placed on him THE CAMERAMAN is still a delightful, inventive comedy.

Buster is a street photographer who realises the big money is now in being a newsreel cameraman and we follow his hapless attempts to get a news scoop.  Highlights include a hilarious swimming pool changing-room scene with Buster sharing a tiny cubicle with a large, fat man and Buster getting caught up in a Tong street battle. 

The final Keaton film was his last silent one SPITE MARRIAGE (1929) although he had wanted it to be his sound debut.  Working under similar studio restrictions, Keaton still showed he was a supreme comedian and I enjoyed it more than I expected to.

Elmer lands an onstage job to be near an actress he has fallen for but the havoc caused on his first night get him fired.  However the actress (delightful Dorothy Sebastian) proposes marriage to Elmer to spite her unfaithful lover.  The comic highlight happens when Buster attempts to put a drunken (and slippery) Sebastian to bed!

Then it was time for a blast of 1940s British crime drama, GOOD TIME GIRL (1948), shown in tribute to Jean Kent.  Kent played bad girls in 1940s British films and this one gave her a stonking lead role which she handles well.

Judge Flora Robson tries to convince stroppy Diana Dors not to end up like Jean Kent who is seen in flashback making her wrong choices which leads to reform school, befriending bully Jill Balcon (looking alarmingly like son Daniel Day Lewis), later becoming the mistress of dangerously sexy Griffith Jones then falling in with murderous American soldiers!

Then it was time for a Gary Cooper double-bill, in roles not immediately connected with his image.  Ernst Lubitsch's frothy adaptation of Noel Coward's DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933) dumped most of the plot but that left plenty of time to watch and enjoy the three stars: Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins.

Although outshone by bustling March and slinky Hopkins, I still enjoyed Cooper's nonchalant performance as George, attempting with friend Tom to live in a sexless relationship with their friend Gilda.  He and March had a nice playing style together and Miriam Hopkins was born to play Gilda.

Then I blubbed at Frank Borzage's emotional-wringer A FAREWELL TO ARMS (1932), based on the Hemingway novel.  Cooper was charismatic as Frederic, the American ambulance driver who meets and falls in love with English nurse Catherine Barklay in WWI Italy.

Helen Hayes was fine as Catherine but her playing style has dated somewhat compared to Cooper's relaxed persona.  Separated by war and the meddling of Frederic's friend Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou), Cooper battles through war-torn Europe to find his lost love with Borzage unleashing his trademark deliriously emotional film-making to make a fabulously cinematic, over-the-top ending.

Speaking of delirious cinema, Rouben Mamoulian's debut film APPLAUSE (1929) is a rollercoaster starring the tragic Helen Morgan as Kitty Darling, a fading vaudeville star reunited with her convent-raised daughter April, born in Kitty's dressing-room on the night before her father was executed. April is appalled at Kitty's life with her abusive lover so grabs a chance of escape with a young sailor she meets while Kitty makes her own escape.

Mamoulian's film still fascinates as he explores the possibilities of the camera and sound as well as for the out-and-out melodrama of the film's plot.

We also saw a filmed stage performance of DRIVING MISS DAISY which I first saw in New York with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones before it transferred to London.  This however was from the Australian run where Angela Lansbury replaced Redgrave.

It was nice to see and interesting to compare the acting choices of the two actresses but I cannot say I found it a particularly good transfer.  The stage lighting did not work on screen and it plodded along.  The interview afterwards with Angela Lansbury however was worth the price of admission alone - she also hated the lighting!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Dvd/150: KVINNODROM (Dreams) (Ingmar Bergman, 1955)

A lesser-known Bergman that balances light-heartedness with the feelings of longing and loneliness that the director excelled in.

The onscreen relationships reflected Bergman's own dwindling affair with Harriet Andersson who plays the mercurial fashion model Doris opposite the more statuesque Eva Dahlbeck as Susanne, a fashion photographer who is using Doris for a new campaign.

On a day in Gothenburg, both women confront the limits of happiness.  Susanne suggested the location as that's where her married lover lives and Doris, wandering around the city, meets Otto, an older, wealthy man who lavishes presents on her, doing so because she reminds him of his now-insane wife. 

But Otto rejects Doris after a visit from his sarcastic daughter while Susanne's happiness at being reunited with her lover is dashed when his wife appears.

Exquisite performances from Dahlbeck, Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand as Otto and Kerstin Hedeby as his daughter Marianne.

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf, in a Bergman box-set

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dvd/150: NIAGARA (Henry Hathaway, 1953)

After six years of supporting roles, 1953 saw Marilyn Monroe break though to stardom with the musical GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and thriller NIAGARA.  Directed by Henry Hathaway, Marilyn played an unfaithful femme fatale and even good actors like Joseph Cotton fade to grey against her sheer screen magnetism.

The plot is film noir hokum: Ray & Polly Cutler are honeymooning to a motel overlooking Niagara Falls and make the acquaintance of a 1950s Madame Bovary named Rose Loomis.  

Rose is bored with WWII vet husband George with his unpredictable mood-swings and, on a visit to the Falls, Polly sees Rose with her secret lover.  The couple plan to murder George at the Falls, but when it goes wrong, both Rose and Polly find themselves in danger.

As a thriller, you never engage with the perfunctory characters but as a star vehicle, it does exactly what it needs to do.  

Shelf or charity shop?  Neither, NIAGARA is in DVD limbo by living in a paper sleeve in a plastic storage box!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dvd/150: SECRET AGENT (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)

For SECRET AGENT, Hitchcock kept elements from THE 39 STEPS: espionage, mistaken identity, trains and star Madeleine Carroll but while STEPS is regarded a classic, SECRET AGENT has met with less favour but I find it great fun.

In 1916, writer Edgar Brodie is given a new identity by MI5 as 'Richard Ashenden' and is sent to Switzerland with fellow agent Elsa - posing as his wife - and The General, an eccentric, enigmatic assassin, to catch a German secret agent. 

While Elsa encourages the humourous advances of Robert Marvin, an American guest at their hotel Ashenden and the General suspect the spy is a seemingly benign Englishman.

The General kills him but to Ashenden and Elsa's horror they have targeted the wrong man.  Can they unmask the real spy?

Gielgud's austere performance sits oddly with the relaxed charm of Carroll, Robert Young, the magnificent Peter Lorre and a young Lilli Palmer.

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf