Sunday, August 31, 2008

So my big news is I left my job of nearly four months on Friday.

A commute of 90 minutes to and from Borehamwood, Hertfordshire was just not doable anymore. The
annoying thing, Constant Reader, is that on paper and Transport For London website it is.

But in practice it equates to:
2 buses = 90+ mins

2 BR trains & 1 tube train = 90+ minutes

What with the travel, the stress that it provokes and my desk-bound job I have felt sluggish, depleted and under-par and this has been reflected in my diabetic assessments so it's probably for the best that I leave now and stop putting it off.

Now I realise this is not the best time to look for a new job but I am hoping for an 'out time' of a less tha
n a month like in April. I bloody hope so anyway.

So below we have my final arrival at Elstree & Borehamwood Station, the view across the shopping park to the business centre (you're all sad you don't work there now eh?), my last Cappuccino from Cafe Nerro - no Polish girl knowingly not employed - and me taking my leave at 5:30pm of the Kinetic Business Centre.

Gizza job?

It was with some sadness that I heard about the death of comedy producer Geoffrey Perkins on Friday.

I first noticed him in the series KYTV and he then went on to be creatively involved in such favorite shows of mine as SPITTING IMAGE, FATHER TED, THE THIN BLUE LINE, HAPPINESS and THE FAST SHOW.

He was also a frequent visitor to Flashbacks and I always found him to be a genuinely nice man, friendly and engaging.

The details of his death are still not exactly clear but it is currently believed he fainted on Marylebone High Street and fell into oncoming traffic which is shocking. My sympathies go out to his family and close friends.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

In what has been quite a momentous week I have been taken away from the cares of the world by a couple of theatrical outings.

On Tuesday I finally got to see THE REVENGER'S TRAGEDY at the Olivier Theatre. I have been meaning to see this but Dawn's recent visit spurred me on to action. She is such a trailblazer.

I love a good Jacobean tragedy which 86s most of the cast by curtain fall and this one I had never seen before. It has had a strange past: written in 1606 it was attributed to Cyril Tourneur nearly 50 years later but more recently it has been re-attributed to Thomas Middleton and that is who the NT is going with. Amazingly it appears not to have been produced for over 300 years - possibly due to it's bleak content - until being revived during the 1960s. The play was inspired by HAMLET and it's revenge motif is certainly obvious but where as Hamlet had only Claudius in his sights with others becoming collateral damage, here Vendice is happy to see off any of the family.

It certainly shows a rotten society: A corrupt
lecherous duke rules an Italian city with his second Duchess who he has recently married. The disfunctional family includes the duke's son, as perverse as the father who also has an illigitimate son who hates the Duke for his reduced state. The Duchess' three sons from a first marriage are no better, the two eldest are both desperate to rule and the younger is a swaggering rapist. When he rapes a nobleman's wife the Duke orders him imprisoned which angers his wife into starting an affair with his bastard son for revenge. How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen.

Above all the Duke is hated by Vendice whose betrothed was poisoned nine years earlier by the ruler when she refused his advances as well as ruining his dead father financially. Vendice is obsessed with thoughts of revenge, even going so far as keeping Gloriana's skull in his room. The chance comes when his more pragmatic courtier brother tells him the Duke's son has asked him to find someone with no morals to seduce a virgin for him.
Vendice leaps at the chance and disguises himself as chav-like Piato. His pleasure is short-lived however - the Duke has set his sights on Vendice's young sister Castiza.

This sets the characters on a frantic, hurtling journey into the heart of darkness as plot and counter-plot crash into each other
and leaves a trail of dead bodies in it's wake. The play features one of the most famous moments in the tragedy genre when the disguised Vendice traps his enemy The Duke who has asked him to find him a young virgin. He is lured to a darkened room where he kisses the face of the quiet demure girl and is gripped with pain. Vendice then reveals to him he has kissed a mask covering the poisoned skull of Gloriana.... and that's just before the interval!!

On the whole I enjoyed this production, it was fast-paced and the surprising black comedy hidden within the mordant text was excellently played but director Melly Still, like so many others, distrusted the audience's capacity to understand the text so the opening tableaux featured the three-roomed standing set revolving to
thumping techno music while the cast cavorted and perved around & around the set showing us just *how* decadent the court was. It was all rather obvious and seemed to go on for ages. The climactic dance of death was also staged as a contemporary dance piece with them flying all over the place which again just seemed too obvious and disrupted the tension that had been built up till then.

The cast made the night worthwhile in particular Rory Kinnear as Vendice. Swiftly changing from the embittered Vendice to the oi-oi Jack The Lad of Piato, he dominated the evening and was the perfect central figure to hold the attention. Just one thing... why did he sound *exactly* like Simon Russell Beale?? I was half-convinced SRB was in the wings with a microphone!
He was matched by a brace of excellent supporting performances - Barbara Flynn was great as Vendice's mother who shocks him when she gives in to Piato's bribery for her daughter, Elliott Cowan was nice and sleazy as the Duke's oldest son, Tom Andrews gave a great scene-stealing turn as the Duchess' scheming eldest son, Billy Carter had good fun as the Duke's aggrieved illegitimate son, Katherine Manners was effective in the always-difficult role of the virginal good girl, Ken Bones - making a belated debut at the NT - made a very nasty Duke and Jamie Parker was very good as Vendice's brother and partner in vengeance.

I suppose you could say that as Vendice plays a role to fulfil his destiny so did Kenneth Williams. I remember back in the 80s seeing an edition of GIVE US A CLUE where Williams was one of the guests. He was given a charade to do which his team didn't guess. When asked what he had mimed he said something like "Life Of The Party". Parky then corrected him saying it was something like "She's The Life Of A Party" and Williams launched a furious tirade at him. It was a disquieting moment - the happy smiley face of light entertainment turned into a glaring snarl. With the publication of The Kenneth Williams Diaries five years after his mysterious death this real face behind the comedy mask was revealed for all to see.

On Thursday, thanks to Dawn's entrepreneurial spirit, David Benson reprised his 1996 one-man show THINK NO EVIL OF US
at the Vauxhall Tavern. The one-man show explores a tenuous link between the two performers. In 1975 the teenage Benson had a story accepted for the tv series Jackanory which was read by Kenneth Williams. The show is as much about the life-changing circumstances that year in Benson's life as about Williams. Although physically unlike the star,
David Benson brings him to life with the swoops and honks of that astonishing voice and by adopting the Williams posture, tightly clenched and preening. The climactic scene of Williams terrorising a restaurant dinner party is a real tour-de-force.

Benson was captivating, handling what could have been a tricky crowd in a trickier venue with ease. It is a tribute to his stagecraft and performance that he can play a difficult scene such as one where his mother is taken away to a mental home and pitch it just right so that you could hear a pin drop in the Tavern.

I should add that these two potentially depressing shows were separated by a quick trip to Kingston, Jamaica via the Playhouse to see the still-excellent THE HARDER THEY COME. The production is due to close in about two weeks time so I urge you to see it if you haven't done so.

This is my fourth time seeing this amazing show and the cast are still giving 110% - amazing too as they had played a matinee in the afternoon.

It's a boss production y'know.

Monday, August 25, 2008

So the 16 days of the Beijing Olympics are over. Jiang Yimou's opening and closing ceremonies were astonishing with huge spectacle but with small telling moments that linger in the mind.

How refreshing it has been to see sportsmen and women who have all shown genuine happiness, humility and common sense when interviewed, whether they were successful or not. How sad that now the spotlight will swing back to the overpaid, preening, scowling, prima donnas of football who so often under-perform on the international stage.

By the way how strange that the complaints of human rights abuses and Tibet etc. kinda stopped when we started winning medals?

My quote from the last day? Steve Redgrave talking about the over-zealous security checks which made waiting time for non-media ticket-holders up to 45 minutes "This has been a real chink in their armour". Ooops.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

This afternoon Owen and I stepped back in time and to quote Simone Signoret's autobiography "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be". We went to the Menier Chocolate Factory to see the first London revival of the 1978 Neil Simon/Marvin Hamlisch/Carole Bayer Sager musical THEY'RE PLAYING OUR SONG. The show has not been seen in London for 26 years. I guess all good things must come to an end.
It started as it meant to go on with an outdoor rave happening next door so the auditorium was rattled by the thump-thump of the dance music. Proceedings were held up for about ten minutes while the police were called, despite them not having a licence the best that happened was a couple of speakers were turned off and the show started. Well, we got the first scene... then director Fiona Laird appeared and there was another break while they tried to quieten the neighbours again to no avail. Despite the offer of a refund or replacement tickets for later in the run, the mainly elderly audience voiced their Dunkirk spirit and voted for the show to continue.
Vernon Gersche (Alistair McGowan) is a hugely successful songwriter with Academy and Tony Awards - just like Marvin Hamlisch - who is unsuccessful in love and Sonia Walsk (Connie Fisher) is an upcoming pop lyricist - just like Carole Bayer Sager - who are paired by their agents to collaborate on some songs. Soon they are involved romantically - just like Hamlisch & Bayer Sager. But guess what Constant Reader? The course of true love doesn't run smoothly. By the time of the London opening Hamlisch and Bayer Sager had split up, leaving us with this musical testament to their relationship. Cheers.
Frankly I am at a loss as to why it's been revived. It is another in the canon of shows where great individual talents combine to produce a not-so-great piece. I have always liked the bouncy title song and the first two songs are promising - the ballad FALLING and uptempo WORKIN' IT OUT are good show songs but the rest of the Hamlisch & Bayer Sager score is blander than the blandest thing - these people are supposed to be fantastic songwriters for God's sake. In the first scene Sonia gushes that the only person comparable to Vernon is Stephen Sondheim. Yeah, right. It's interesting to note that THEY'RE PLAYING OUR SONG opened during the same Broadway season as SWEENEY TODD.

Neil Simon's book is woeful - what should be wisecracks full dead to the stage and just sound facile. The idea of an offstage character is annoying too. Sonia's ex-boyfriend is dragged into every scene as a way of causing conflict between them in an absurd way - so the character is expanded to fill any turn in the plot - he's left her, he's back, he might have taken an overdose, he is in LA, he's in the same hospital, he's actually not a bad bloke.... Augh! Simon also has the bright idea of providing a possible Greek chorus of three alter-egos for the two characters but never utilises them to do anything but provide backing vocals.
Silk purses have been made from sow's ears before but it's difficult to know where to start with what is wrong with this production but you have to start with the fact that McGowan and Fisher have zero charisma. McGowan is giving us a nerdy Woody Allen character pitched low while Fisher is giving an over-the-top, cartoon character pitched way Up HERE. It really is an annoying performance - she is giving us zany and kooky with flapping hands and all you want to do is have her sectioned. In a big argument scene towards the end Sonia accuses Vernon of not treating her like a human being - it would help if she had suggested one in the previous scenes. She certainly sings sweetly but that sadly isn't enough. Still, the audience I suspect was full of people who see her as the People's Diva so she was clapped loudly. Left to me she would have been clapped in irons... it would have stopped those am-dram hands.

Fiona Laird's production runs out of steam and falls back on ramping up the 70s setting - to annoying effect. When you are putting all your energy into the set design then it shows distrust of your material. The wigs are vile - sadly Our Connie has to play her big dramatic scene with what appears to be a cowpat on her head - and the design is BOB - Beige, Orange & Brown. We lived through it once, we don't need to again.

The Menier has now a good reputation for staging musical revivals - SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES - I can think of plenty of shows that are worth being revisited - surely one read-through should have shown the production team this wasn't one of them.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

On Friday night I witnessed a singer drugged off her head, falling over on stage and living her offstage life for all to see. See Amy Winehouse, your shtick ain't new. Owen, Sharon & Eamon joined me in the front row of the Donmar circle to see the 30th anniversary production of Pam Gems' play PIAF.

The original production made a star of Jane Lapotaire and co-starred Zoe Wanamaker and Ian Charleson and had it's London debut at the same theatre. I saw Elaine Paige in the 1993 London revival and now we have a revised version starring Argentinian actress Elena Roger.

It was a bit of an odd evening. As fine as it is to celebrate it's 30th anniversary, it comes a scant year after Marion Cottilard's Oscar-winning role in LA VIE EN ROSE. Now the film has problems - it seems to last 27 years for a start - but at least it gives significant weight to certain events in Piaf's life, in particular her relationship with boxer Marcel Cerdan, the great love of her life. The play, um, doesn't. It's written with short hard-hitting scenes to be played by a small cast of actors playing about 4 speaking parts each. Now for a reason known only to himself the director Jamie Lloyd has the play performed at breakneck speed which raises more problems than it solves with it's running time of 95 minutes. The original was over 2 hours!
The scenes whizz past at a rattling rate leaving you sometimes flailing with actors meeting themselves going off as they come back on. The worst moment for this being when an actor
playing her husband who caused a car crash she was injured in assaults her in a hospital, walks off then reappears in the same costume but now playing the proprietor of the Olympia arguing with Piaf's manager! The afore-mentioned relationship with Cerdan is covered in a scene of Edith watching him box then a post-coital scene - and that's it. At times I felt like I was watching a staged trailer for the film. With the male cast kept so busy it's hard for any of them to make much of an impression but Luke Evans as an oddly-characterised Yves Montand has great fun with his painful country & western number and Leon Lopez has a calming presence as her last husband Theo. The supporting actresses have more chances to shine: Lorraine Bruce is an outrageously bawdy Toine, Piaf's streetwalking friend and Katherine Kingsley is a (very) tall & practical Marlene Dietrich.
But of course the show has at it's centre a blazing performance by Elena Roger.

There have been some reviews which peeved that the show is just a tour-de-force for Roger.... but when you're playing Edith Piaf that's what you have to give - what would be the point of seeing the play if the actress in it gave a merely adequate performance? To make the play work you need a
huge blazing performance and Elena Roger seizes the part and pours everything she has into it.

I never saw her performance in EVITA a few years back but here she gives a remarkable performance for it's sheer physicality, she is rarely off-stage and she throws herself into the onstage shagging and being knocked about by her early lovers to the later years of crippling pain and morphine addiction. It is admirable that she never attempts to play Edith for sympathy - which would go against the grain of the script anyway - and of
course she interprets the songs well although she does not have as natural a belt as Piaf had.

The show has sold out at the Donmar unsu
rprisingly but there is talk of a transfer to a west end theatre possibly later in the year.
Constant Reader, I have been running hither and yon this week that I can only stop for a few minutes - somewhere someone is being told "Beginners on stage please" and I have to be out front for them. This week I have seen two American lady singers who spookily enough both start with A... and now I think about it, one ain't that much of a lady!

First off the rank was Alela Diane at the Roundhouse... but a Roundhouse with a difference as curtains had been hung around the pillars inside the main auditorium making a more intimate space with tables and chairs in front of the stage surrounded by bleacher seating (where we were). all bathed in atmospheric red light.
The support was The Cave Singers, three odd-ball guys from Seattle with a sort of grunge-zydeco sound - bizarre but easy enough to sit through.
Truth be told I am not the world's biggest Alela Diane fan - Owen is in the running for that award - indeed up until that night I had only heard a few songs on MySpazz.

I can't say that I'm going to be helping Alela's cd sales as I am afraid folk music kinda leaves me unmoved but I can certainly appreciate the clarity of her remarkable voice, the intensity she brings to her song-writing and her charming manner on stage.

Then it was time for the big kahuna... Miss Amanda Palmer at the ICA. This was only about the fifth time I have ever been there, the atmosphere of rarefied ponce can be a bit overwhelming. I was curious to see her again as she would be concentrating on her new solo material which kinda passed me by at Bush Hall last year but they sounded a lot better this time out... She has inhabited the songs more now and sings them with a greater conviction.

All lingerie-d up like some turn of the century tart, she started off miming to a Ben Folds song while doing a Bob Dylan and holding up words on cards which she then buzzed into the audience.

Amanda is showing signs of being a great belter. When she wants to turn up the volume, her voice is still travelling when it hits the back wall but her repertoire also includes introspective numbers which shows her full range.

She included Dresden Dolls classics like COIN-OPERATED BOY and HALF JACK as well as new songs such as the moving AMPERSAND, the glam-rock stomp of LEEDS UNITED and the magnificent STRENGTH THROUGH MUSIC about a high school student getting ready to kill his classmates. We also were treated to I GOOGLE YOU - a new song co-written with Neil Gaiman - in the style of a 1950s Sinatra ballad. Amanda suggested we imagine her as Ella Fitzgerald for that number.

She also started talking about hearing a song in Edinburgh last year which she assumed was an old standard but which she later discovered was written by Dillie Keane then sang a heartfelt cover of LOOK MUMMY NO HANDS - Amanda meets Fascinating Aida!!

We were treated to encores of Leonard Cohen's HALLELUJAH - which as always outstayed it's welcome - and her own special version of CREEP accompanying herself on the ukelele. This time she jumped off the stage and threaded her way through the audience to clamber up on the mixing desk at the back - she'd get where water wouldn't!! She ended the song among the audience, serenading the foolhardy soul who had shouted out he didn't like Radiohead.

It's been great to see Amanda over the last few years growing in maturity as a performer. She totally owns her space on stage and has an excellent rapport with her audience, chatting and responding to them with a ready wit.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I think it's about time for a tribute to Twigg The Wonder Kid...

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Happy Birthday WEST SIDE STORY! 50 years old and still one of the most vibrant shows you will see onstage.

It crossed my mind as I sat watching the production at Sadler's Wells last night how odd that the show's longevity has been assured thanks to the film but how to appreciate it's mastery you really have to see it where it was written to be performed... on a stage. The show is one of the rare times when four theatrical greats collaborated - and it worked: Leonard Bernstein's excellent score, Arthur Laurents' lean book, Stephen Sondheim's Broadway debut as a lyricist and Jerome Robbins' ground-breaking choreography.

Of course no genre-changing show 50 years old can still retain all it's cutting edge. The hipster-slang of the Jets does make you chew your bottom lip occasionally (more of this later) and Robbins' choreography - although still great to watch - has been copied so often down the years that it holds no surprises and you quickly notice repetitions in the steps -
I lost count of the times we see this step - although I will admit it's quite an iconic move for this show.My own relationship with the piece goes back to the mid-60s seeing what I guess must have been a reissue of the film with my Mum and a friend of hers at the good old Gaumont in Notting Hill Gate. All I can remember of the experience was the two of them crying at the end... so I started blubbing because they were - I've always been suggestible.

We used to have the soundtrack l.p. at home which had a full synopsis with the songs in brackets punctuating the action and remember being fascinated by how easy it was to actually follow the story through the songs. The essence of a good musical, certainly of a show with Sondheim lyrics.

Until last night the only time I had actually seen it on stage was in the mid-80s when a production from Leicester Haymarket played at Her Majesty's for a year before that theatre was written off as the home of PHANTOM. I remember being surprised at the differences between the film, being charmed by the lovely Jan Hartley as Maria and mightily fucked-off at the jabbering party of German students behind me.

So now it's playing a near-sold out run at Sadler's Wells to celebrate it's 50th birthday. It has the slight ponceyness of having two performers playing Tony, Maria and Anita on different nights - something that would have never happened with Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence and Chita Rivera in 1957, so what does that say about today's performers? We had Scott Sussman as Tony who was okay on the big notes but faded in the quieter ones, Elisa Cordova was a fine Maria - such a
difficult role - and the star of the show was Oneika Phillips who was a fiery, fiesty Anita. She tore it up during AMERICA and, in a cast that puts it's dancing before it's singing, she also had great diction. Her scene towards the end when, assaulted by the Jets, she is the catalyst for the last tragic act was excellently played. Leo Ash Evens and Marco Santiago both did enough with Riff and Bernardo but a bit more would have helped define the characters better.As I said the chorus seem to have been picked more for their dancing ability than for their voices but I particularly liked the sonic overload of the QUINTET which captures the tense, febrile mood before the Rumble with the Jets, the Sharks, Anita, Tony and Maria all anticipating the coming night. Paul Gallis' set design has been criticised by some critics but I thought it's two moving skeletal tenement blocks with projections of b/w 1950s NY as backdrop was quite atmospheric and a special mention must be made of Peter Halbsgut's excellent lighting, vivid and dramatic. The score sounded great too under the baton of Donald Chan - achingly yearning in the ballads and vibrantly alive in the dance routines. The production will be touring the UK for the rest of 2008 into 2009 so I strongly recommend you to see it if it comes your way.It's natural that with four great creative forces behind a show that in the 50 years since it's inception that disparate views have arisen - both Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim dislike the film due it's literal translation to film - it's one thing to see the Jets and Sharks dancing around a stage, another to see them doing it on a NY sidewalk in broad daylight. Sondheim has never been particularly keen on the show citing it's one-dimensional characters and applying self-criticism to his Broadway debut lyrics. His dislike of I FEEL PRETTY is legendary - although Bernstein liked it! Sondheim maintains the clever multiple rhymes within the song are too sophisticated for Maria's character.
Personally I think he is too harsh on himself and the show - a bemused Leonard Bernstein once said that once Sondheim disliked something nothing could change him - but I do agree with him on one point. He always felt the Jets songs COOL and GEE OFFICER KRUPKE were misplaced in the show and they are. To have them stop and perform the comic KRUPKE after the trauma of their leader's death is a bit odd. The film however transposes the songs to better effect so COOL is sung by the new leader of the gang trying to calm his friends nerves. But then Arthur Laurents thinks KRUPKE is in the perfect place!! So go figure.

So the exciting news is that while this 50th Anniversary show is touring, a new Broadway revival is due there in Spring next year, the first for 29 years. Arthur Laurents will direct it fresh from directing the hit Broadway revival of GYPSY (he originally wrote the book for the show which reunited him with lyricist Sondheim and director/choreographer Robbins). He has said he is looking to update the dated areas of the book and the big news is that Sondheim is looking at reworking some of his lyrics.
I wonder if "Hobe" is still around? He reviewed WEST SIDE STORY's opening night in September 1957 for Variety and said "The show seems a doubtful prospect for record album popularity and would need considerable revision as film material... at a guess it might be a sensation in London" !

Monday, August 04, 2008

One reason I hate the credit crunch.... the proliferation of vile tv ads for penny-pinching twunts who like comparing the comparison sites of comparison prices of comparison sitezzzzz.....

The most hated?

In second place.... "You can save money with" *cue gurning actor monging at the camera*

And the ultimate...
Bloke: "We need to fly to Barcelona..."
Lisping bint: "...and thoon as pothible"

Oh to hit her with a stick till she stop twitching...

Friday, August 01, 2008

Last night I had another immersion in the loopy, funky, dirty, zany world of Macy Gray at the Indig02. Owen and I saw her a few years ago and she was as blazingly original live as she is in her albums.

We had nice central seats in the circle - first time up there - but I must admit it was a bit sad that both sides of the circle were a bit sparse of punter... still all the more Macy for us! She swaggered onto the stage in a tight-fitting trouser suit and tie. The thumping and densely-sounding band were also suited with ties but Macy was the only one with a huge monogram on the back! Here she is wearing it at an earlier gig.

It took a bit of time to get fully cranked and the audience were a bit muted but as soon as Macy had said fuck a few times and got the audience to scream a few times we were off and running. She gave us songs from her four albums as well as a few covers. Annoyingly she only did a few songs from her excellent last album BIG choosing instead quite a few from her debut album.

Among my favourites were "Do Something", "Glad You're Here", "One For Me", a whacked-out woozy version of Sly Stone's arrangement of "Que Sera Sera", an epic version of "Demons", a deep soul version of "Creep" which was fantastic and the perfect song for her, then a wonderful cut'n'shunt "Sexual Revolution" which morphed into "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" (and yes - it did sound great) then her two amazing back-up singers - like refugees from a touring production of DREAMGIRLS in their red fringed dresses - gave us a quick chorus of "Groove Is In The Heart" which was the signal for all the madness to start with the oompa-oompa band thrash-out that is "Oblivion" - one guy doing the Dylanesque peeling away of large lyric pages while another staggered around the stage clashing drum cymbals in his hands. Glorious!

This of course left us with only one way to go and soon we were joining in with the chorus of the mighty "I Try". I don't know how many times she has sung it, I don't know how many times I've heard it but belting out that great chorus with her felt wonderful.

I left in such a happy state I can even forgive her the non-appearance of my two favourite songs from BIG "Finally Made Me Happy" and "Treat Me Like Your Money".