Thursday, February 04, 2016

Dvd/150: I CLAUDIUS (Herbert Wise. 1976, tv)

40 years on, the BBC series of Robert Graves' I CLAUDIUS shines bright with it's dazzling cast and Jack Pulman's witty, concise adaptation - a textbook example in bringing a sprawling novel to life.

Filmed on BBC TV Centre sets, budgetary constraints allow Herbert Wise to concentrate on the interplay between the characters - and what characters!

Derek Jacobi is outstanding as Claudius who, in old age, writes the history of the emperors in his Imperial family from Augustus to himself, along with the formidable women they married or were murdered by!  Stuttering, lame Claudius is the family joke but survives them all to bear witness.

Of course it's the monsters one remembers: John Hurt's psychotic Caligula and the equally dangerous Livia, sublimely played by Sian Phillips in one of the great television performances.

Brian Blessed's avuncular Augustus, Margaret Tyzack's stoic Antonia and Sheila White's lascivious Messalina are among the other treasures.

Shelf or charity shop? You must be as mad as Caligula to think I would part with this!

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

BILLY ELLIOT at Victoria Palace.... yes, I finally gave in!

It's only taken 11 years...
I tend not to see shows that hang around for years - to be honest none of the shows I like seem to be the hanging-around type.  I think it's also difficult to fully appreciate a show if you see it in it's nth year, shows can develop a run-of-the-mill quality with the original magic spark lost in numerous cast changes and resident director touch-ups.

I was fully expecting that with BILLY ELLIOT - I assumed it's much vaunted choreography would consist of a half-hearted leap here, an arm waved in the air there.  How wrong could I be?  Peter Darling's choreography was wonderfully kinetic and lively and a lot of that was down to our BILLY on the night, Euan Garrett who in the dance routines was a spinning, leaping and back-flipping delight.

So what took me so long?  I guess a love of the film which I have seen countless times allied to a general dislike of Elton John,  However the news that it was due to close in April and Owen asking for the dvd of the film for Xmas made me do the booking thing.

I haven't been in the Victoria Palace for years - more than 11 obviously - so I had forgotten how nice it is inside with room to roam in the theatre bars and with an impressive open auditorium - it's a shame this Frank Matcham-designed theatre doesn't have a bigger profile.  I was also surprised how busy it was!

But what of the show?  As I said I certainly enjoyed it for it's dynamic choreography and for the central performance of Euan Garrett but what really surprised me was how totally nondescript Elton John's score was.  For someone who has written the odd memorable tune in the (distant) past it was a bit odd that on leaving the theatre I couldn't remember one of the 13 songs in the score.

What I came out humming was Lee Hall's book as it lifted whole scenes out of his original film script.  Only with added swear words - make that a lot of swear words.  Now I am no prude but even I got fed up with the swearing, only there to 'shock' the audience with a kid saying "bastard" for the 100th time.  It all seemed a bit broad with certain characters becoming cyphers - Deka Walmsley's Mr. Elliot goes from being an unloving man to a bit of a lovable klutz in the course of one scene.

Ruthie Henshall played the dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson with less gritty realism than gritted teeth; I think her inherent teeth, tits & tonsils style was at odds with Mrs Wilkinson's dogged manner.  A character who has been built up is Michael, the not-so-secretly gay friend of Billy which was winningly played by Nathan Jones and who made the most of a big dance number with Billy where they are joined by giant dancing dresses.  Believe me, it ain't subtle.

Another surprise was how much it wore it's anti-Thatcher views on it's sleeve, not that I'm complaining, mind!  It was certainly more overt than the film and one of the more stirring moments of the show was towards the end when, as Billy leaves for a life of dance in London, his dad and his brother sing their way back to the pit, the auditorium and Billy illuminated in the dark by the torches from their mining helmets - defeated but unbowed.

As I said Peter Darling's choreography for Billy was quite wonderful and in particular the dream ballet between Billy and his older dancer self was quite breathtaking and Rick Fisher's lighting was also great in the dance sequences, creating areas on the stage to contain the dance.

Would I recommend it to anyone who has not yet seen it at the VP or on it's upcoming UK tour?  Yes I would, for the choreography and for Stephen Daldrey's production... just don't expect to be buying the cast recording.

Friday, January 29, 2016

CYMBELINE at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - heads it's Imogen...

...tails it's Innogen.  Mind you, the head just might belong to the Prince who wants to rape you... although you might think that it belongs to your exiled husband (who has actually hired an assassin to kill you).  Yes, Constant Reader... CYMBELINE is the Shakespeare play where he threw *everything* into the plot!

I was glad to finally see this play, if only to cross it off my Shakepeare list - only TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, TIMON OF ATHENS, HENRY VI trilogy, HENRY VIII and The TWO NOBLE KINSMEN to go!  All I really knew about the play was that Vanessa Redgrave had played the heroine in an RSC production in 1962 and that it's plot was a bit freewheeling - including a headless body.  It's very out there.

Because of this it has divided writers down the years: John Keats and William Hazlitt both admired it but in the last century Lytton Strachey and Harley Granville Barker disliked it, both citing that it showed a Shakespeare exhausting his talent.  You can see their point - at times you could almost see Shakespeare thinking "They like my comedies so I'll stick in some low comedy yokels" then "Oh and they love my nasty royals so I'll throw in a wicked Queen - oh and my fans love drag so I shall stick my heroine in men's clothes for a while etc etc."  It's like watching a 17th Century Jive Bunny 'doing' Shakespeare.

There's even uncertainty over the heroine!  Long held to be Imogen, it has also been contested that in the original performance she was actually Innogen which is what director Sam Yates has plumped for here.  And to be totally contrary - which I suspect is her raison d'etre - incoming Globe artistic director Emma Rice intends to stage a version later in the year retitled IMOGEN as she has more lines and is more of a central character than dreary old King CYMBELINE.  How very modern.

To be honest, the bewildering plotline did cause me to tune out a bit so when I regrouped and concentrated I had no idea what the multitude of characters were to each other and why they were doing what they did.  Thank God for the interval and a chance to read the synopsis.  But Yates' production hurtles through the plot - possibly as to linger on it for any length would be daft - and as usual, despite the inanity of the plot, I enjoyed the production and a few of the performances.  Sorry Lytton and Harley.

Emily Barber was a spirited and engaging Innogen, her performance even more impressive with the knowledge that she only graduated from drama school in 2014.  Calum Callaghan impressed too as the oafish Cloten who suffers one of Shakespeare's more bizarre deaths - all I am going to say is that the Globe Theatre is leading the field in well-modelled severed heads!  Pauline McGlynn was an interesting wicked Queen but Joseph Marcell was a bit milquetoast opposite her.  Jonjo O'Neill was a suitably confused Posthumus - one minute Shakespeare has him passionately in love with Innogen, the next believing that she is unfaithful and plotting to murder her.

Globe stalwart Trevor Fox delivered another eye-catching supporting performance as Innogen's Geordie servant and before the show started he stepped onstage to tell us that Eugene O'Hare, who was playing the nasty Iachimo, had broken his foot the night before but was still going on with 2 arm crutches - what a trouper!  It made for some particularly hairy moments - Iachimo hides in Innogen's bedroom in a large chest so watching him negotiate that with his crutches was real edge-of-the-seat stuff!

I would recommend it to anyone who has never seen it and wants to see it in the candle-lit surroundings of the Wanamaker Playhouse... just don't expect anything profound!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Mr Wonderful.... RIP Jonathan Ollivier

Last week saw us making the trip to Sadler's Wells with the promise of seeing scenes from Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE, THE CAR MAN, PLAY WITHOUT WORDS, MR WONDERFUL and SLEEPING BEAUTY as well as routines from Michael Clark, Northern Ballet and Motown: The Musical.  Sounds great no?  But sadly all these were appearing to pay tribute to the dancer Jonathan Ollivier who was killed last year as he drove his motorbike to the same theatre to star in the last performance of THE CAR MAN.

It was remarkable that an evening that had all the possibilities of being maudlin actually felt the reverse: it had the feel of a real celebration of a life lived.  Ollivier obviously made an indelible mark on the dancers and companies he worked with and that was reflected in the performances given.

The evening was compered by Matthew Bourne with a winning charm as well as putting each excerpt into context and how they fitted in Ollivier's life.  The show started with Bourne's own routine to Peggy Lee's MR WONDERFUL which featured Sam Archer, James Leece, Christopher Marney, Dominic North, Simon Williams and Richard Winsor who had all danced with Ollivier at some point. 

The quality of the performances was constantly high and all received great ovations.  The Rambert School (where Ollivier trained) performed two ethnic-themed pieces and Michael Clark appeared with his company in his dance COME, BEEN AND GONE which was all the more thrilling as it is danced to Bowie's "The Jean Genie".

Northern Ballet's artistic director David Nixon appeared on film to talk about his memories of Ollivier's time with his company and introduced a pas de deux from WUTHERING HEIGHTS as Jonathan had originated the role of Heathcliff.  Northern Ballet also performed their celebration of the male dancer called SAPPHIRE.  There were also one-off pieces from the Michael Bourne young dancer programme Re:Bourne, ex-Bourne dancer Drew McOnie's company, STRICTLY COME DANCING's Karen & Kevin Clinton and the MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL company gave us their recreation of The Temptation's MY GIRL as choreographer Warren Adams was a friend of Ollivier.

A real high point was the solo dance by Marcelo Gomes with violinist Charles Yang based on a solo by (and titled) PAGANINI.  Gomes was trained by Jonathan Ollivier in the role of The Swan for Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE and danced the role of 'Luca' in repertory with him last year.  Gomes had flown in from New York to dance this piece in honour to his friend.  Gomes personified the music played by Yang to perfection and both almost stopped the show.

The show ended on a particular high with an extended sequence from Bourne's SWAN LAKE with Gomes dancing The Swan and Dominic North as The Prince.  At the end the dancers all sat along the edge of the stage as a screen rolled down and they watched with us an excerpt from Channel 4's MATTHEW BOURNE'S CHRISTMAS of Ollivier dancing the same pas de deux.  At the end, everyone was on their feet applauding, both cast and audience.

A moving night, my only regret is that it had to happen at all.

Friday, January 22, 2016

SHOW BOAT at the Crucible, Sheffield - back to the beginning...

Last Saturday we took a long journey up to the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield and also journeyed back to the first milestone of the American musical, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's legendary SHOW BOAT.

I had previously seen the show once before in 1991 when Ian Judge directed an Opera North revival at the London Palladium with a memorable cast of Jan Hartley (Magnolia), Bruce Hubbard (Joe), Marilyn Cutts (Julie), David Healy (Cap'n Andy), Karla Burns (Queenie) and Margaret Courtenay (Parthy).  Nearly 25 years later I can still remember the production well.

But Daniel Evans - soon to be the artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre - has directed a fine production which smoothly moves through the show's timespan of 40 years.  It's a shame we do not see this show produced more often because it's one of the best Broadway shows which boasts a stunning score including "Ol' Man River", "Can't Help Lovin Dat Man", "Bill" and "Why Do I Love You?" among other classics.

The show, based on Edna Ferber's novel, broke the mould of previous revue-style shows and operettas, by telling a story which touched on serious themes with it's musical numbers allowing the story and the characters to develop.  Indeed Hammerstein's book, although admittedly thin on character development, does indeed touch on the racism that the black workers on the Show Boat faced from their overseers, which of course lend "Ol' Man River" a greater weight when seen within the show's context.

Through the timespan, apart from the travails of Magnolia's love for gambler Gaylord, we also see the times changing for the Show Boat performers too - song-and-dance team Frank & Ellie evolve from low comedy performers to headliners until they reveal in the final scene that they have moved to Hollywood.

Lez Brotherston's set design makes good use of the Crucible's thrust stage and his minimalist Show Boat was hugely evocative - although the cast probably could do without all those stairs!  The great lighting designer David Hersey has also given the show a glowing vitality and kudos too for Tim Reid's video projections which helped the years melt away within the show.

There are sparkling performances from Evans' handsome cast - Michael Xavier was in excellent voice as the raffish Gaylord Ravenal (although Owen did note that ultimately his character could be given more to do), Gina Beck was a delightful Magnolia (although at times her strong operatic soprano lent too hard on the notes), Allan Corduner was (and appeared to have) great fun as Cap'n Andy and was well-partnered by Lucy Briers' scowling Parthy Ann.

Emmanuel Kojo nearly stopped the show with his rousing "Ol' Man River" and he too was well partnered by Sandra Marvin's no-messing Queenie.  As you will see, it's interesting how there are so many couples within the show, another being the song-and-dance team of Frank and Ellie and they too were well played by Danny Collins and Alex Young - Collins energetic, athletic dancing betrayed his extensive work with Matthew Bourne.

Although initially partnered with Bob Harms' Frank Baker, Rebecca Trehearn as Julie LaVerne always suggested her character's inner solitude.  Julie is the star of the Show Boat cast until a jilted co-worker tells local lawmen her secret: Julie has been hiding that she is a half-caste.  She has to leave the boat which starts a downward spiral ending up as an alcoholic club singer.  Trehearn sang my two favourite songs in the score "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill" and gave a haunting, quietly tragic performance.

It was wonderful to experience this show on stage again, and it proved that a historical milestone from 1927 can be as vital, touching and entertaining as ever.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

English National Ballet's LE CORSAIRE - swashballeting!

2015's Year Of New Cultural Doings found us acquiring an appreciation of dance productions other than those choreographed by Matthew Bourne and I think this year will see a continuation of this (with maybe the odd opera thrown in to test that particular water).  So 2016's third theatre visit was to see the English National Ballet's LE CORSAIRE at the London Coliseum.

I must admit to knowing precious little about the ballet, only that it involves a number of virtuoso solos - but then that could be any of them!  First staged in 1858 by Russia's Imperial Ballet, the scenario is based on the 1814 poem by Lord Byron which also served as a basis for an opera by Verdi.  I must be honest and say I was expecting something a little more than we got from Anna-Marie Holmes's production which is actually a revival of her original 2013 premiere of this work.

A dashing pirate, a winsome slave girl, an energetic slave, a nasty slaver and pirate's double-dealing deputy - all this and swordfights and a shipwreck at sea.  Now with those elements you would expect something at least full-blooded but... how to put this?  The big selling point of English National Opera is that they sing their productions in English, I fear with their CORSAIRE, English National Ballet seemed to dance their production in English too, it was all a bit too polite.

There were certainly good performances that I enjoyed despite the slight Home Counties feel to it all.  The pirate Conrad was danced by Brooklyn Mack whose leaps and Grand Jetes were quite astonishing but his ready smile at all times did rather rob his performance of some gravitas.  As Ali, Conrad's loyal slave, Junor Souza from Brazil struck more Nijinsky poses than humanly possible but did it with a muscular grace and style.

Despite these two fine performers, LE CORSAIRE is from the time when the ballerina ruled productions so everything seemed to be geared around Laurretta Summerscales' captured Mendora and, while she danced well, it made one wonder why they didn't just call it MENDORA and have done with it.

I knew things might not be as I expected when the nasty slavers entered the market square with their female captives flicking their whips as if they were seeing how much they could make their bracelets sparkle and we later had a sword fight which resembled nothing more than a Morris dance.

Bob Ringwood's set and costumes were a feast for the eye however and the lighting was up to Neil Austin's usual high standard.  Maybe I have already decided I am a Royal Ballet person?


Thursday, January 14, 2016

GREY GARDENS at Southwark Playhouse - Art Imitating Life...

The Southwark Playhouse is one of the perplexing of theatres - it has almost been designed to put you off going there: the queuing out of the front door to pick up tickets, the crowded bar with the glacially-moving staff, the perennial queue outside the auditorium for the unnumbered seats, the woeful loo... so why go, I hear you cry Constant Reader?  Because they keep putting on musicals I want to see - goddamn them!

The latest is the 2006 Broadway musical GREY GARDENS with a score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie and a book by playwright Doug Wright.  The musical is based on the 1975 film documentary of the same name directed by the Maysles brothers which told of the eccentric mother and daughter Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale who lived in a collapsing, derelict East Hampton house that had been the family home when they were rich socialites.

What excited the American media was that these former socialites, now almost as feral as the cats and raccoons making Grey Gardens their home, were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy - how could it come about that relatives of one of the richest women in the world could be living in squalor?  'Big' Edie and 'Little' Edie lived together as they both felt that the other couldn't survive without the other, trapped in a squabbling relationship but one that was based on unspoken need. 

Interestingly 'Big' Edie also had two sons who had grown away from the Grey Gardens set up and who constantly asked their mother to sell the crumbling mansion and move away but she refused to leave the home where she had once ruled the roost and given private recitals as she was an amateur singer.  'Little' Edie had lived in Manhattan for a while from the late '40s to the early '50s but with both her love life and attempted acting career non-starters she returned to live with her mother and became locked in a bizarre mix of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and HUIS CLOSE.

Their crumbling, larger-than-life personalities made the documentary an underground hit and camp classic which has resulted in this musical which had a success first off-Broadway and then moving to Broadway where it won Tony Awards for Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson along with one for costume design, but it lost out in all the 'big' awards to SPRING AWAKENING.

The show has an intriguing structure which ultimately isn't that successful - the first half takes place in 1941 where young Edie is looking forward to being centre-stage for once as her engagement to Joe Kennedy Jnr is to be announced but it all collapses when she finds out her mother has turned the event into a concert recital, that her father will not be present as he is with his mistress and also that the engagement is called off when her mother intimates to Kennedy that her daughter has been around.

Act 2 zooms us forward to 1973 with mother and daughter living out their bizarre relationship interrupted by their regular visitors, the gardener son of their former butler and a young, monosyllabic slacker who mooches about as a handy-man while quietly stealing from them.  'Little' Edie finally attempts to make the break but ultimately returns: back to mother, back to the house...

The problem is that the two acts just don't fit together, you can see what Doug Wright is attempting by showing us the sins of the past that locked mother and daughter into their later relationship but it's all invention - 'Little' Edie was never engaged to Joe Kennedy Jr. - and it's as if you can almost feel Wright working overtime to try and make this non-event play.  It's vaguely over-written but seems becalmed.

The show is on surer ground in the second act as anyone who has seen the film knows that this is based on fact, not conjecture.  The score which in the first half sounds like standard pastiche musical fare - admittedly good pastiche - settles into something a bit more original with spiky solos and duets.

The second act also is better thanks to the excellent pairing of Jenna Russell as 'Little' Edie and Sheila Hancock as 'Big' Edie. It's a brave actress who goes up against Sheila Hancock but the show hands Jenna Russell an excellent showcase as she also plays the 40-something 'Big' Edie in the first act.  It is a mark of director Thom Sutherland that you can see how Russell's 'Big' Edie became Hancock over the years unseen.

Although she has all the possibilities of going totally over-the-top as the uncorseted, itchy, manic, possibly barking mad Edie, Jenna Russell still manages to ground her in reality so her final capitulation to the fact that she will never leave Grey Gardens while her mother lives is very powerful.  Hancock of course is excellent, mad as the sea but shading that eccentricity with a knowing quality of 'playing' the decrepit old woman to get what she wants from those around her.  But again, in the final moments of the show, Hancock's panicked fear of being alone really hit home.

Thom Sutherland's direction plods through the first act but picks up in the filial confrontations of the second act while Tom Rogers' set design of the crumbling mansion and Jonathan Lipman's costume design give the show a dank and flaky atmosphere.  The supporting cast have the good sense to keep out of the way of these two fine performances although, again, Sutherland has drawn a performance from Rachel Anne Rayham that exactly suggests the cracked personality 'Little' Edie will grow into.