Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In 2006 the Landor Theatre in Clapham, which seats only 48, staged Sondheim's most opulent show FOLLIES and against all odds pulled it off remarkably well. Now they have put on one of his more intimate shows and by and large they have succeeded again.

ASSASSINS, score by Sondheim book by John Weidman, is a kaleidoscopic show which spotlights the nine people who have tried and sometimes succeeded in assassinating American Presidents. They interact and reflect each other's obsessions and madnesses. The original idea - disposed of here - is that the show takes place in a carnival setting with the protagonists being drawn to a stall proprietor who hands them guns to use in his shooting range - KILL A PREZ WIN A PRIZE.

The linking device is a young balladeer who sings the stories of the earlier killers in the style of popular music from the period. It took me a while to work
out that the balladeer here is played as a young student presumably researching the cases. Ultimately he is won over by their arguments... and is seen pinning his picture up next to theirs on the back wall, off to kill a president or his other high-school students.

The sad, misguided motives are given by the nine - John Wilkes Booth angered by Lincoln's subjection of the South through the Civil War, Charles Guiteau feeling slighted by Garfield refusing to make him Ambassador to France, Leon Czolgosz' adherence to Anarchist ideals, Giuseppe Zangara driven paranoid by ill-health, depressive Sam Byck who attempted to kidnap a plane to fly into Nixon's White House, Manson-acolyte Lynette Fromme wanting to carry on Charlie's gospel, Sara Jane Moore attempting to shoot Gerald Ford a few weeks after Fromme to prove herself to her radical friends and John Hinckley obsessed with Jodie Foster and "Taxi Driver", attempting to kill Reagan to prove his love for her.

The show itself has had an odd history - it opened originally in 1991 off-Broadway as the first Iraq War started and the expected transfer to Broadway was judged ill-advised due to the inexplicably poor reviews and it's resolutely bleak view of the American Dream. It was finally announced to open 13 years later at Studio 54 until it was pulled - previews were due to start weeks after the September 11 attacks. It finally opened in 2004 and despite only a three month run it went on to win 5 Tony Awards. It's London premiere in 1992 was the first production at the Donmar Warehouse under the direction of Sam Mendes.

The continued American resistance to the show is due I think to it's powerfully bleak tone. The show has a great twist towards the end which this production opened my eyes to I think for the first time. The Balladeer has been the moral conscience of the show, while the assassins sing of their anger and frustration he counters them with the fact that nothing changed because of their actions, the poor were no better off, the wages didn't get better, life didn't get better. But eventually he oversteps his mark and they turn on him with the song ANOTHER NATIONAL ANTHEM, the obvious conclusion to being fed the lie of the American Dream - where is their dream? Where is their prize? And what greater way is there of getting people to finally notice you than to kill the embodiment of the Dream? This leads into the show's most sustained and chilling scene.

A man sitting alone pulls a gun out of a paper bag and goes to shoot himself only to be interrupted by Booth wandering into the room. Booth proceeds to wear the man down by incessant wheedling questions as to what has brought him to this moment... and what can this man, Lee Harvey Oswald, do to make an impact on the world? The assassins appear to plead their case as well as showing him how he can literally make the world stop in it's tracks, how he can be remembered down through history as much as his victim, their dark and inverted version of the American Dream can be his... and now there is no one to balance their arguments. Booth presents him with a rifle...

The nine killers are all given a moment to shine (or shoot) and some seize their day better than others - Christopher Ragland although too over-emphatic in his solo as Booth later calmed down to make a charismatic focal point, Jeff Nicholson was on the money as Guiteau - the best role in the show really - who made the most of THE BALLAD OF GUITEAU dancing and clowning himself closer to the hangman's noose, Sebastian Palka was effective as Czolgosz - his number being my favourite in the score with it's double-meaning lyric about working your way to the head of the line, Tim Jackling was a very good tortured Oswald and I liked Jenni Bowden as the klutzy Sara Jane Moore.

My reservations are down to some alarmingly over-emphatic playing, unnecessary in such a small space - Graham Weaver played Hinckley as if possessed by Jerry Lewis at his most nerdiest - and the all-important opening version of EVERYBODY'S GOT THE RIGHT was compromised by it being sung by Kirsten Parks as the Proprietor who simply didn't have the voice for it. Indeed other numbers could have been better appreciated if they were better staged - the crowd members in HOW I SAVED ROOSEVELT for example were too busy hitting their marks to put over the central joke of that song - that they are all claiming to have thwarted Zangarra's assassination when interviewed by the press to secure their own moment of fame... while the assassin sizzles in the Electric Chair unwatched.

But what a joy to hear one of Sondheim's most enjoyable scores live again, all of them knowing pastiches of American song - from folk ballads to band marches, from vaudeville cakewalks to barber shop quartets. He even knowingly places a lovely pop ballad just where it would be in any other musical as the two youngest characters sing of their love. But here it's not to each other - Hinckley sings it to Jodie Foster and Fromme sings it to Charles Manson, the typical ballad lyrics of doing anything to prove your love taking on a dark and twisted turn.

Well done to the Landor and director Ben Carrick for reviving this challenging and haunting musical.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Tonight we had a voyage into the unknown at the Shaw Theatre for BOY GEORGE: SONGS THAT MAKE YOU DANCE AND CRY.

The last time Owen and I saw George was at
Koko about a year ago and he was..well... skittish on stage. I suspect he was feeling no pain. So we were a little worried about ho
w he was going to be tonight, the last show of his week-long residency at the Shaw Theatre. No worries this time... he was in great form and was backed by a fine band including his regular co-writers Kevan Frost and John Themis.

He opened with 2 of his recent ragga-style songs - I think they are "Czech's In The Post" and "Only You" - which led naturally into "Everything I Own" and any worries were soon gone. He was smiling, chatty and in great voice.

He dipped into all areas of his back catalogue - from Culture Club, Jesus Loves You and, happily, we had four songs from his score for TABOO - "Stranger In This World", "Petrified" - a truly magnificent song, Lizzie his backing singer torched the arse out of "Talk Among Yourselves" and in the encores George had great fun with "Ode To Attention Seekers" - a song he admitted he had never sung before an audience before!

Of course we got "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" and a Country & Western "Karma Chameleon" but we also were treated to a great rock-out version of "Church of The Poisoned Mind" and George's old friend Zee Asha sung a jaw-dropping version of "Time (Clock Of The Heart)". I thought something while she was singing and it has stayed with me so... here it is... Zee Asha has the voice most people think Alison Moyet has. How's that for a throwdown? She raised the roof. She came on later to duet with George on the old CC track "That's The Way"... Helen Terry who?

Again proving what a great songwriter he is George sang "Cheapness & Beauty", "Unfinished Business", a lovely "Losing Control" and a couple of songs I recognise from previous gigs "Vote For Love" and "Shadow Boxing"

He threw in a couple of covers: a stonking version of "Suffragette City" had me wondering how often the young George O'Dowd had sang that into a mirror in the 70's, a smoky and jazzy "Summertime", a rolling version of "I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl" - maybe George is the natural successor to George Melly as the modern interpreter of the songs of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey?

He brought the whole of the Shaw to it's feet with a rousing "This Little Light Of Mine" which was beyond Church and the evening ended with an anthemic "Bow Down Mister" and the lights came up on me grinning loudly!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ok... rant time!

The front page of the Daily Mail (yes I know...) has two lead stories...

The McCanns are in the middle of a bidding war between Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters for an exclusive interview on US Television which could be worth up to £1 million. Press speak I know but I'm sure they are going to be in for a tidy sum. All for the Foundation of course. Very Evita....

And the other story? The 'grieving' mother of the kid who was killed when his father chucked himself and the kids over the balcony of their holiday hotel after being told by said wife that she was leaving him - a known depressive - for another man and was taking the kids with her.

Not only is she sharing her side of the story - the only side which appears to have been heard in this case - but she is also sharing holiday photos of her dead son. I do hope they spelt her name right on the cheque.

I have some money worries at the moment. Shame I don't have a kid... I could be earning. Anyone got one they could lend me?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Well Constant Reader what can I say? I was so entertained by the two Noel Coward one-act plays that I booked for the last performance of the National Theatre's production of his comedy (and whopping star vehicle) PRESENT LAUGHTER.

Coward wrote the play in 1939 but it's premiere was
cancelled as it was due to start the week war was declared and had to wait until 1942 before it was staged. Over the years it has been revived frequently with actors who lean towards the showy - O'Toole, Sinden, Callow, McKellen - and now it was the turn of Alex Jennings. After having been impressed with his performances in THE ASTONISHED HEART and STILL LIFE I was curious to see him in the blazing star role that Coward wrote for himself of Garry Essendine, an unashamedly self-centred and vain West End leading man.
It's a very strange role, a character that it is difficult to like but very easy to enjoy as he shamelessly manipulates all around him. Essendine is always 'on', even in an empty room you suspect he would play to the mirrors and framed photographs. The two people whose eyes he cannot pull the wool over are his no-nonsense, seen-it-all secretary Monica and his ex-wife Liz, both of whom handle him with the resigned air of a parent with a sulky child.

The play opens with him once again having to declare undying love for yet another starstruck deb who has stayed the night just so he can get shot of her to prepare for an upcoming tour of Africa (of all places). News that his leading lady has pulled out means that he is saddled with the only available option: having to appear opposite Joanna, the predatory actress wife of his manager (who he knows is also having an affair with the manager's business partner). The next night while alone at home, Joanna appears and after a quarrel where they both show their dislike for the other... yes you guessed... she stays the night. And she makes it plain she is *not* about to be given the heave-ho in the morning. If this wasn't enough, Garry is also having to fend off the stalkerish attentions of a young playwright whose avant-garde play he has turned down.

suspect one's enjoyment of the play rests squarely on the lead actor and luckily Alex Jennings was excellent. He had the timing of death and the perfect style for Coward, seriously frivolous. He showed glimpses of the real Garry behind the theatrical posturing and outrageous damands, a man aware he is becoming his own creation.

There were fine performances too from Sarah Woodward as Monica the brusque secretary (although I have seen her play that sort of role before) and Sara Stewart as Liz his practical and knowing playwright ex-wife. The other performances were ok but were easily overshadowed. Lisa Dillon as the scheming Joanna had some good moments but could have done with shading the character more as
Coward stacks the play fairly well against her.

A spectacular set by Tim Hatley filled the Lyttleton stage (see Owen's sneaked photo here) and Jenny Beavan's evocative costumes held the attention when Howard Davies direction seemed to simmer rather than percolate.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The past two Wednesdays have seen me bunking off work early - apart from the pure joy of doing so - to race down to the National Theatre to see two one-act plays by Noel Coward in rehearsed readings.

In 1936 Coward wanted to work with friend and
PRIVATE LIVES co-star Gertrude Lawrence but was mindful of how bored they were during the long runs of that play in London and New York. So he came up with the idea of writing nine one-act plays (a tenth was quickly dropped after one performance) of which three could be performed nightly under the title TONIGHT AT 8:30 and could be alternated at each performance keeping it fresh for cast - and meaning audiences came back for the other six plays!

The two chosen for the National Theatre were the two of
these plays that were later expanded into full-length films THE ASTONISHED HEART and STILL LIFE which was filmed as BRIEF ENCOUNTER. As well as offering star roles to Alex Jennings, coming to the end of his run in Coward's PRESENT LAUGHTER, both plays also show short extra-marital affairs.

THE ASTONISHED HEART was last Wednesday - the first time I had seen it, never having seen the film. The plot is simple: Christian (Jennings) a famous psychiatrist and his wife Barbara (Kate Duchene) are visited by an old school friend of hers Leonora (Nancy Carroll) who has returned to England after living abroad. Despite initial frostiness, three months later Christian and Leonora are having an affair. Barbara finds out and demands that Christian leave. After a few more months the relationship is all but over, Christian tormented by guilt and Leonora sorry she set the affair in motion. After arguing for the last time Leonora leaves and Christian jumps from their hotel window.

Despite sometimes over-wrought dialogue I was hooked by it's unrelenting narrative drive and clever pacing. When Nancy Carroll made her first entrance I thought "She's put the beef on". About halfway through I realised she was in fact pregnant. Of course I then sat and waited for one of the characters to mention it but no. She's not that much of a method actress then.

By far the better however was this Wednesday's STILL LIFE. It was fascinating to see how Coward opened it up for his screen adaptation. Gone was the framing device of starting with the final scene and the story then being told in flashback - oddly enough this *was* used in THE ASTONISHED HEART. Gone too were all the scenes that take place 'outside' as the play takes place only within the confines of the station tea-room. Although no match for the classic film the simple sad love story of Alec Harvey (Jennings) and Laura Jesson (Harriet Walter) again found a lone tear trickling down my cheek. Both finding themselves dwindled into a normal married existence with children, a chance encounter leads to them falling in love possessed by feelings that neither knew they were capable of or that they can fully acknowledge. Victims of time, class and circumstance they snatch brief moments of happiness but it's a relationship ruled by the train timetable as they dare not risk doing anything out-of-the-ordinary. When finally they do something risky it goes wrong and, as Alec realises, signals the beginning of the end of their relationship. The clincher of course is the final scene. Their final meeting, their final chance to find some resolution they can both live with, is interrupted by Laura's garrulous friend Dolly on her way home from a shopping trip who commandeers the table and the conversation. Alec's train arrives and he leaves, a brushing of Laura's hand their only consolation.

Actually the play made me focus on the marvellous construction of the piece - yes the working class characters of Myrtle the tea-room manageress and Albert the chief guard are there for comic relief but their playful relationship counter-balances Alec and Laura's perfectly, an older couple who harbour real affection for each other. You also have the flirtatious relationship between Beryl the tea-room assistant and Stanley who sells snacks on the platform to show a young couple recognising an attraction for each other. Sheila Reid, John Burgess, Rachel Clark and Jonah Russell played this parts very well. And I know you will say "Oh course you'd think that" but this uncluttered production also made plain the subtext that has made BRIEF ENCOUNTER a film so discussed by gay critics.

I'm so glad I saw these two fine performances with actors who could transcended the inherent difficulties of a rehearsed reading to fully involve one in the piece.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I have deceided Constant Reader... this is my foot and I am putting it down. I *never* want to stand for a gig again. It has taken 30+ years of going to events to make me realise this but so many recent gigs have been ruined by the twunts who only go to a) drink b) talk c) drink & talk. The latest casualty was Morrissey tonight at the Roundhouse. Now Moz's fans can be odd at the best of times but... no. No more.

I was strangely unexcited as today went on... I was seeing Morrissey... where was the excitement that would normally be building? The Roundhouse is a good venue for him, he was coming off hugely successful residencies in NY and LA and had a fistful of new songs.

It started off promisingly with what I suspect are highlights from Mozza's video collection - slightly off-the-wall numbers by Sacha Distel, Brigitte Bardot, Anthony Newley and a bizarre one of a young Alvin Stardust lookylikey doing a twist number.
Oh and The New York Dolls on MusikLaden.

As you can see from the above shot I was well positioned for the central mike... until the screen dropped to reveal the stage when of course the twats in front of me happily let huzzing big tall blokes in to stand in front of them. Owen decamped to the back wall and texted to say he had a good view so I joined him. It was a good view. But sadly it was between the bar and the bogs, so the traffic was endless.Now I would usually expect Morrissey to be spellbinding enough to make me forget such things but no. Don't get me wrong.... he was in good voice, the songs themselves were not at fault (I did a setlist on my iPod on the way home and enjoyed all of them). So why at one point did I turn to Owen and say I was ready to go? A combination of the non-stop yakking and constantly moving punters all around me and Morrissey being good. Not spellbinding, not magnificent, just good. And being good was not enough to distract me from the constant stream of supposed fans roaming around the auditorium.

I saw him in blistering form three times in a row, at the Royal Albert Hall and Brixton Academy in 2002 and at Royal Festival Hall in 2004. Tonight there seemed to be no tension driving the band. A set of 19 songs felt like exactly that. At one point I turned to Owen and asked was this in fact one of the longest gigs ever? He had only been on for an hour.

By the time I had confronted myself with the fact that I really wasn't enjoying myself and that I was ready to leave... he had sung Irish Blood English Heart, said thank you and left. By the time I came back from the gents he was halfway through The First Of The Gang To Die which turned out to be the only song sung as an encore as he left the stage closely followed by me leaving the Roundhouse.

In case you want to know this was the set-list -
Last of The Famous International Playboys, How Soon Is Now?, That's How People Grow Up, Stop me If You Have Heard This One, Something Is Squeezing My Skull, Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself, Tomorrow, One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell, The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores, Stretch Out and Wait, All You Need Is Me, I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris, Sister I'm A Poet, Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed, Billy Budd, Death of A Disco Dancer, Irish Blood English Heart, The First of The Gang To Die

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I read today that Suzanne Pleshette has died aged 70 and that made me feel sad.

She was never a top-rank star but she always brought class and a warm immediacy to any film she was in.

In the early 60s she took over from Anne Bancroft in THE MIRACLE WORKER on Broadway and she later achieved notable success as Bob Newhart's screen wife in THE BOB NEWHART SHOW a role she played for six years in the 1970s.

The role she will be remembered for I suspect will be as 'Annie Hayworth' in Hitchcock's THE BIRDS. Although in relatively few scenes her role as Rod Taylor's sadder-but-wiser ex- who teaches at the village school brought a much needed sympathetic feeling to what is a fairly austere film.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

To be honest I was quietly dreading Friday evening.

I had managed to book tickets for a preview screening of Tim Burton's screen version of Stephen Sondheim's
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET for Owen, Angela and myself at the National Film Theatre.

SWEENEY TODD is my favourite Sondheim musical, a score that remains as fresh and hypnotic to me after all the countless playings down the years on record, tape and cd as well as the 8 different theatre productions I have seen. The score is allied to Hugh Wheeler's propulsive book which culminates - if staged correctly - in the most gripping 15 minutes you will ever see in a theatre. You only get one shot at these things, a bad film version would be there for prosperity. The frustration of watching it knowing that the wrong people had been cast... knowing whenever you mentioned the show's greatness people would only think of the duff film.. the dvd mocking me from the racks later... I take these things seriously.

Within 5 minutes of it starting a smile started spreading across my face... I was liking what I saw.... I was loving what I saw!! Yes there were times when I momentarily thought "you've cut THAT line???" or "Where is the chorus?? You NEED them there" but the thoughts soon vanished when I realised that the line in question or the chorus actually weren't needed there - we had seen what they would only have reiterated verbally.

The opening "Ballad Of Sweeney Todd" is missing it's lyrics but the
disquietening and ominous music plays under an ingenious title sequence following a stream of blood through Sweeney Todd's barbershop and Mrs. Lovett's bakehouse into the dank sewers and out into the Thames to lap around the prow of the ship that looms out of the fog carrying Sweeney back to London after 15 years away, transported to Australia on a trumped-up charge so his young wife can be seized by the venal Judge Turpin. Sweeney's psychotic quest for revenge is aided by his former neighbour Mrs. Lovett the maker of the worst pies in London in her bakery beneath his barber shop.

It's hard to know where to start the praise - the look of the film is stunning, indeed in parts it reminded me of Johnny Depp's earlier 19th Century psychopath- loose - in - the - East End movie FROM HELL. Darius Wolski's evocative cinematography of Dante Ferretti's grimy East End sets stamps the film with it's distinctive look - this part of London is truly a place where the sun never breaks through the fog caused by the workhouse and factory chimneys. Plaudits should also go to Colleen Atwood's run-down costumes and Jonathan Tunick's excellent music orchestration - the score sounds glorious.

And the cast? Johnny Depp is very good, his singing style is alarmingly 1960s Bowie, seemingly sung between clenched teeth and holding those consonants but for a non-singer he rises to the occasion with great style and a hypnotic panache. But every good Sweeney needs a good Mrs. Lovett. It is one of the great Broadway roles and I have seen it played to perfection by Beth Fowler in NY, Jessica Martin in The Bridewell Theatre, the magnificent Julia McKenzie in the National Theatre's production and of course the original, glorious performance by Angela Lansbury saved for posterity on video/dvd. How on earth could Helena Bonham Carter match them? I have had some choice words to say about this casting over the months.

Thank you Mrs. Lovett... I will have a slice of Humble Pie please!
Both Depp and Bonham Carter are slightly younger than the roles are usually played and this easily informs her performance. The trick of playing Nellie Lovett is at the denouement the actress must be able to suddenly switch tack, the music hall character must give way to her passionate declaration of love. Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs.Lovett through the film expertly suggests her unrequited love for Sweeney and creates a memorable character. If I did have one misgiving it's that I miss the pure theatricality inherent in her songs especially THE WORST PIES IN LONDON and A LITTLE PRIEST which here pass by as just other songs in the score, her light singing voice also means some of the funny lyrics in her songs don't quite hit home as well as they could. But she really was a revelation.

Otherwise the choice of actors over singers pays off with a fine gallery of villains - Alan Rickman's Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall's oily and lethal Beadle Bamford and a nice cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli, Todd's rival barber.If anyone loses out it's the forces of good! The roles of Anthony and Johanna suffer particularly through the loss of their duet "Kiss Me" which deprives their characters of depth but they are played well by Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener who hints at the disturbed woman that Johanna has become by the end. It's odd that the only real singer in the cast Laura Michelle Kelly is cast as The Beggar Woman and is not taxed vocally here to any great extent. Last but by no means least is 14 year old Ed Sanders who really shines as Toby, another innocent caught up in the whirlwind of Todd's murderous rampage.

Indeed the film made me appreciate again the nihilistic vision of this musical. None of the characters who survive to "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd" are left unscarred by the events and throughout we are given constant reminders of the cheapness of life in that world.
There has been some debate about the amount of bloodletting in the film but that is what the film can do better than any stage production. Rather than a quick pass over an actor's throat with a large blood-squirting razor, here we get the full gruesome effect with pulsing blood flows, flapping wounds and - something no stage production could ever capture - the sickening crack of the head on the stone flags of Mrs. Lovett's celler as the body is dispatched from Sweeney's tilting chair.

These you can trace straight to the macabre vision of Tim Burton who tells the story with great humour and verve - the narrative thunders along, all sub-plots having been trimmed to the minimum. I had at first thought he might try for some sort of redemption for Sweeney as I have always viewed his films as too optimistically gothic but far from it... he actually strikes the perfect balance in the film and the ending is chillingly simple.

The big treat was he was at the screening and it was good to hear him talk in a quick g&a afterwards with such feeling about the film while it was still fresh in our minds and the applause still ringing in our ears!

After being so pessimistic about it previously I now want it to be a huge hit... mind you I also want it to disappear so the dvd can come out as soon as possible!

If I know you... I expect you to go! Or I'll send this guy round...
and you know where that will lead...

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Over the Christmas period I sorted my theatre programmes - all 6 storage crates - filing away all the 2007 ones.

Needless to say this took longer than I expected, I *would* keep looking through them, memories scattering around me as each page turned.

So Constant Reader, here's a special treat for you - and me.... my 50 favourite stage musicals, illustrated by the productions of which I most enjoyed.

Ladies and Gentlemen this is your 5 minute call...

Monday, January 07, 2008

My Top Ten cds of 2007... I ain't saying they are the best, just the ones I take the most pleasure in listening in!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

I am hitting the ground running this year! Here we are, 6th January and the current score is Film 1 Theatre 2.

Owen and I saw THE GOLDEN COMPASS last night and by and large I enjoyed it.

Not having read Philip Pullman's
trilogy I have no idea how faithful it is to the source material so one is left comparing it to the other recent fantasy film series... how does it compare to POTTER, NARNIA or THE RINGS?

I was thinking of this in particular when the familiar round of English Equity members started popping up in supporting roles... how many leapt at the chance to hopefully be in another blockbusting film series?

The film is ably carried by young Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra,
an orphan in a parallel-universe England who sets out to rescue a friend who she believes is the latest child to be kidnapped by the Magisterium, the all-powerful entity that seeks to control every area of people's lives. On her journey she has to confront marauding armies, vicious wolves, enormous fighting bears and ultimately the clinical horrors of the Magisterium's research centre. Luckily she has been entrusted by her uncle Lord Asriel with the titular object that can point you towards the truth.

companions on the journey are a band of Gyptians a nomadic people whose children have been singled out for capture by the Magisterium, an American aeronautist, the leader of a witch clan, an enormous white bear Iorek who Lyra helps rescue from the humans in a town and her daemon Pan. In this world everyone's soul takes the visible form of a daemon, an animal that never leaves your side. Richards makes for a feisty heroine who easily holds her own - not only with the starry cast but with the CGI creatures.
The cast put their all into it - it was good to see Jack Shepherd, Clare Higgins, Jim Carter and Tom Courtenay in key supporting roles. They were joined by Simon McBurney as a scheming and murderous emissary of Derek Jacobi's eminense gris. Even Christopher Lee pops up as a glowering member of the Magisterium with a single line, Kristen Scott Thomas too has a single line as the voice of Asriel's feline daemon.

Nicole Kidman was surprisingly effective as Mrs. Coulter, the glamorous and stylish woman who requests that Lyra be her assistant on a journey to the north which just happens to be where the kidnapped children are being held. There is a good section of the film at the Coulter residence where Lyra starts to realise that life will not be easy with Mommie Dearest Coulter and in a clandestine search finds out that her benefactor is in fact the head of the organization responsible for the kidnap of the children. I was hoping for more scenes which played out this strange relationship but had to wait for a final confrontation scene in which Mrs. Coulter reveals the real reason for her interest in Lyra.

Daniel Craig plays Lord Asriel, Lyra's uncle whose discoveries anger the Magisterium.
It's a role that really does not call for such a name actor as he is only in two short sequences in the film. I presume the idea is that he will be more heavily featured in the sequels as the film ends with Lyra setting off to rescue him from his captors in the north. However the producing studio New Line has said there will only be sequels based on the success of this film and it has underperformed at the US box office although worldwide the film has been more successful.

Actually the main problem is it's length, for once a film of this nature seems too short at only 113 minutes. The film feels like it's captive to Pullman's plot, constantly working and pushing so I never really had an opportunity to relax into the film. Set piece follows set piece, characters are introduced at a steady rate without the novel's advantage of being able to build up their personality. The exposition at the start of the film also provides you with all the information you need, so there are very few plot surprises along the way.

On Sunday afternoon Owen, Angela and I went to see the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Even if I may not be Jerry Herman's biggest fan I had to see how director Terry Johnson managed to stage it - I mean to say, it played in 1986 at the London Palladium which seats 2,286... the Menier seats 190!

It's been a long time since the two Broadway camps (sorry) squared off against each other at the 1984 Tony Awards when LA CAGE went up against Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and won six awards against SUNDAY's two including the main ones for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Actor and Best Director. Traditional Broadway had won out against experimental Broadway - and despite Harvey Fierstein's gay-positive book it is still a deeply traditional score, one that sends the audience out humming - despite the fact that you could go *in* humming
them as the score has distinct echoes of Herman's scores for HELLO DOLLY! and MAME. There really is nothing here to shock the horses. Odd too that the Menier have chosen these two shows to do revivals of.

The show has been beset with illness problems
resulting in the opening night being postponed twice in December and now scheduled for later this week. One of the casualties was Douglas Hodge who luckily has re-joined the show and gave a fine performance as the emotionally overwrought Albin who blossoms nightly into the star 'Zaza'. My only problem with him was he took a while to get up to speed but he turned in an impassioned "I Am What I Am" and was fine after that - maybe he is saving his throat for the press night? He also reminded me in drag of Julie Walters which once I thought it I couldn't shake!!

He has the difficulty of taking over from the magnificent George Hearn who wowed all of us who saw the '86 version. Speaking of which maybe it's hindsight but I distinctly remember Les Cagelles having more dominant personalities particularly Scott St. Martyn's Chantal and Andy Norman's Hanna but our present Cagelles made up for it with frantic dance routines - their can-can was hugely exciting.
The cast included delightful turns by Una Stubbs as the repressed Mme. Dindon, Iain Mitchell as the killjoy Dindon, Jason Pennycooke's scene-stealing 'maid' Jacob and Tara Hugo as the glamorous restaurant owner Jacqueline - although once again Phyllida Law's '86 performance stays with me. The show's real joy is Philip Quast as Georges - he shines as the suave and witty club owner and his rendition of the score's standout number "Song On The Sand" was genuinely moving. Expert direction from Johnson, clever set designs by David Farley and Matthew Wright's flashy costumes all contribute to another revival success for the Menier.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Um... I saw 8 films in 2007 - I would argue that's probably because when I'm in the mood for the Picture Show there's nothing around I particularly want to see!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

I usually do a Top 10 Books list... luckily for me I did just read 10 books this year!
I don't understand Constant Reader how I went off-the-boil bookwise this year. Must try harder this year...
Out with the old... in with the new. Wednesday 2nd January saw me making my first theatre trip of 2008 when Owen and I to see one of my favourite Shakespeare plays MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at the Olivier, this time the sparring lovers Benedick and Beatrice are played by Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker.

Director Nicholas Hytner hasn't delved too deeply into the play and it coasts along serenely thanks to Wanamaker and Russell Beale, truly the uncrowned monarchs of the National who bring their formidable experience in stage comedy to the table and both give performances of great wit, empathy and that indefineable magic that makes for a memorable performance.

Much has been made about both being slightly too old for the roles but they use this to their favour. You really feel that here are a couple whose sniping and verbal jousting cover a lingering regret for the breakdown of their relationship in the past. It is never explained why the relationship foundered but it has turned both of them into hardbitten cynics - neither of whom can be easy to live with which explains why his friends and her family take such delight in tricking them into believing the one loves the other.

The play famously repeats the idea of people being fooled: Don Pedro pretends to be Claudio to woo Hero for his friend at a masked ball while at the same time, Don John convinces Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself; Benedick and Beatrice's friends and family trick them into thinking the other is in love with them; Don John tricks Claudio and Don Pedro into believing Hero is not a virgin by a further trick played on her maid Margaret; Hero's family pretend she died after being violently refused at the altar by Claudio. I must admit I have always had difficulty with the central conceit of Hero's unfaithfulness. As it was her personal maid who was mistaken for her - why doesn't the maid simply come forward to clear her mistress? The Branagh film version even has Margaret attending the wedding and watching the ensuing denouncement with only a slight guilty chewing of her bottom lip. I understand plot conceits as well as the next man but I would have thought the Bard could have come up with a better one than that.

I have also always had a slight annoyance at the passivity of Hero who does little to counter the angry slandering of her name by Claudio, Don Pedro and her own father at her wedding and who simply accepts a contrite Claudio at the end of the play. Girl, he's done it before... he'll do it again. But then who am I to pick holes in a play that has been constantly performed since about 1599? Funnily enough, having become so familiar with the 1993 film version from watching Emma's wonderful performance as Beatrice, it was interesting to see how much Branagh had shaved from the play for his screenplay.

On the whole the supporting cast are fine: Julian Wadham is silkily powerful as Don Pedro while Andrew Woodall makes a hissable Don John. Mark Addy is a likeable Dogberry although Trevor Peacock should have left his VICAR OF DIBLEY schtick at the BBC. The two young lovers were a bit blah... Daniel Hawksford was ok as the changeable Claudio but Susannah Fielding's Hero was too stage school-y to pass master with this company. She wasn't much better as Rosa in THE ROSE TATTOO last year.

Vicki Mortimer's set was functionable but a bit off-putting... a revolving open-sided structure which kept reminding me of one of those puzzling set-structures so beloved of BBC variety programmes like IT'S DUSTY! or THE VAL DOONICAN SHOW.HOWEVER on the whole I had a great launch into my '08 theatre-going with this production and Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker have already set a high standard for other actors to match this year.