Saturday, January 31, 2009

There are some things you really never expect to see.... like a naked Morrissey... ....if this is life in the new Obama world order I'm all for it!
On Thursday night Owen and I went back to the bosom of the Bard and saw the RSC's production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the Novello Theatre (formerly the Strand). It usually houses tat like THE RAT PACK etc. so I've not had a chance to visit it since it's nice renovation job - although the dress circle bar has an alarmingly bad whiff of mould.

I haven't seen a production of the DREAM since 2001 - Dawn French as Bottom yet - and while this one didn't totally work it's magic on me it obviously did for Owen... within ten minutes he was a-doze! Well... he did have a week full of tedious meetings.

The production, directed by Gregory Doran, certainly looked great with a dark mirrored floor and back wall which reflected the audience and cast in various ways, a huge moon which slowly traversed the stage during the play and with a gantry of lit bulbs that descended when the fairies appeared lighting the stage with a warm glow.
By and large the performances were ok - I particularly liked Kathryn Drysdale's spoilt little madam Hermia, Edward Bennett was fine as Demetrius - sliding across the stage lovestruck just to touch Helena's ankle, Tom Davey's slacker drop-out Lysander was effective too but Natalie Walter wasn't a memorable Helena.

Mark Hadfield was an ideal Puck, in his dirty vest and fluffy SWAN LAKEish trousers, great comic timing but knowing when to rein it in - unlike Joe Dixon who made every one of Bottom's scenes last an eternity.

Andrea Harris was a vibrant and sensuous Titania but Peter De Jersey seemed to mistake Oberon for Abanazar with lots of cape business and shouted lines. But then I suspect I won't see a better Oberon than Paul Scofield.But more often than not the thought that crossed my mind was how the production almost seemed to be skewed towards the possible school parties it was going to attract. They made an announcement at the end that the RSC are starting an initiative STAND UP FOR SHAKESPEARE aimed at getting more school trips to see the plays, to get primary schools to start teaching the stories - TITUS ANDRONICUS is possibly not a good one to start with - and to also teach the Bard in secondary schools through acting lessons and not just by reading it. It's certainly an excellent initiative but if it means that the rude mechanicals are just that - rude and mechanical then it will be a lost opportunity.

I honestly thought the Pyramus and Thisbe scene would never end... on and on and on, every gag underlined eight times with comic doubletakes and no innuendo knowingly overlooked. Right at the very end there was a germ of an idea where Ryan Gage's Flute plays Thisbe's death scene straight, like Juliet over Romeo's body but it was a tiny crumb of comfort.
So all in all a nice way to spend a Thursday evening though it definitely could have been better.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I think the buzzword for yesterday was outrageous. It's as good a word as any.

In the afternoon I finally caught up with the current revival of Joe Orton's LOOT at the Tricycle Theatre, directed by Sean Holmes. My heart sank a bit when I saw the auditorium was full of yoot all shouting and braying but they calmed down when the tabs opened and I think they enjoyed it - God knows if I had been taken to see LOOT on a school trip I would have loved it.. all I got was
Shakespeare and Ibsen (albeit with Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft and Wendy Hiller so I shouldn't bitch too much).
I must admit I am spoiled possibly for life with LOOT by seeing it for the first time on stage with Leonard
Rossiter's definitive Inspector Truscott, the perfect marriage of actor and role. I saw him twice in the role - once at the Ambassadors then at the Lyric when it transferred - but it is a bittersweet memory as he died backstage during the show four days after I saw it.

That production was directed by Jonathan Lynn at a frantic pace and this one, although enjoyable, just missed out on the timing and some of the performances. Orton's text - although sounding banal and commonplace - needs to be played in the high comedy style of the Restoration playwrights or Wilde, more often than not as the characters use such genteel terminology that they believe give them a more worldly veneer. Matt Di Angelo and Javon Prince played the amoral young bisexuals who have robbed the high street bank by tunnelling through from the Funeral Directors next door where Prince works and they *just* missed the right playing style. They certainly got the farce action right but neither had the depth of playing style to suggest either of the characters' freewheeling, cold-hearted sexuality.

Doon Mackichan also seemed *just* off as nurse Fay, the
one-woman genocide machine that has bumped off seven husbands and countless patients for financial gain. Her Irish accent wobbled alarmingly at times and she seemed also to be playing down rather than pitching it to the right level of lethal sexuality. A pity as this really is one cracking role for an actress. Luckily the role of the bewildered Mr. Mcleavy was played by the fine character actor James Hayes and he found the right comic style for the hapless widower whose day goes from bad to worse - I mean, how difficult can it be to get your wife buried? He was great fun.

Of course any production of LOOT should be judged by the actor playing Truscott and luckily this production had David Haig bringing his own charisma and energy to the role. It was no surprise that
the tempo noticeably sagged when he was not on stage. Recently David Haig has been seen more as the man driven to heights of panic in comedies, hurtling around the stage in more and more states of desperation. But here he brought the same pitch of comic playing but to the more in control Truscott. The character is never out of control, duped occasionally but never out of control - there's always a suspect to beat up to reaffirm his authority. He really was the motor for the production and it was a joy to watch him prowl the stage drop-kicking Orton's outrageous one-liners into the audience with expert timing.

I must admit the thing I was most worried about was whether to play itself would still stand up - it's hard to be shocking after 43 years (God knows I've tried) but despite the kvetches of some of
the critics I found the play still as deliciously venal as ever and at times even the enlightened Tricycle audience seemed to squirm - especially during Hal's lines about wanting to visit the brothel run by Pakistani teenagers who do it for sweets "so remember... stock up on the Mars bars".

As long as there is knowing laughter from an audience at lines like these I don't think LOOT will ever lose it's appeal:

Fay: The British Police Force used to be run by men of integrity
Truscott: That is a mistake that has been rectified

Mcleavy: The police are for the protection of ordinary people
Truscott: I don't know where you pick up these slogans sir. You must read them on hoardings.
Later that evening I experienced another outrageous theatrical event - Grace Jones at the Roundhouse. I have been waiting to see Grace for quite a few years now and it was as mind-blowing as I expected it to be.

We endured the standard diva-waiting time of 30 minutes after she was due on stage then an ominous deep sound echoed around the auditorium till the purple billowing curtain dropped to reveal Miss Grace high above the stage on a crane cradle looking resplendent in a tight fitting suit and a tall single feather headdress as the impressive band churned out the opening phrases of NIGHTCLUBBING. Cue jaws dropping and eyes widening from the packed crowd. She then proceeded to give us 15 songs over an extraordinary 145 minutes.

Very soon the pattern was set for the evening: Grace would end
the song and slip into the wings, chat a bit - mostly to herself it seemed - then emerge with a new hat, wrap, cloak, mask etc. on top of the corset and tights she wore throughout to launch into the next song. Yes this was REAL diva territory - even Madonna doesn't change her look for EVERY song! We were treated to some wonderful off-stage Grace wackiness "Sorry dahhling I didn't mean to hit you so early in the show. I might be an alien but I still get angry!" and even more scary mental imagery was provided with her frequent exclamations "Get me something to suck... I need to suck something.... schlurppp!

She was amazing - happily telling us how she's 60 but for us to tell everyone she's 70 - this was moments after she had spun a hula-hoop around her waist for the entire length of SLAVE TO THE
RHYTHM - and that's a long song! If I had a quibble or two it was the natural disconnect that happened because she did all her audience inter-action while getting changed backstage and that the show was crying out for a bigger theatrical space but she certainly created some fantastic images for her songs.
The Trojan headdress for THIS IS, the billowing cowled top and horned mask for LIBERTANGO, the Church Hat From Hell for WILLIAMS BLOOD - what an astonishing performance that was - and the horned eye mask and green lasers - quelle 70s! - for DEVIL IN MY LIFE and then there were a couple of utter showstoppers:

The silver top hat and black sequined jacket she wore for LA VIE EN ROSE was pure showbiz and perfect for the shuffling latin rhythms of her majestic cover version of the Piaf classic which she recorded all the way back at the start of her career in 1977. As with LIBERTANGO, she made full use during this song of a rotating circular platform which held a huge go-go
pole for her to entwine herself around while an enormous wind machine blew her draped outfits around and about her. For the encore of a beefed-up LOVE IS THE DRUG was a visual coup-de-theatre, the stage in complete darkness apart from a shaft of green lasers which beamed down onto the crown of her glitterball bowler-hat which sent shards of green refractions across the whole auditorium... absolutely stunning and wonderfully evocative!

The final number was her collaboration with Tricky and title track of her amazing album from last year HURRICANE - and that's exactly what we got! Wearing a huge billowing cape she battled
the big wind machine as it slowly was turned up to 11 - I could feel the cold wind blowing around the walls of the auditorium where I was in the circle - as Grace was blown back across the stage again and again closely followed by her mic stand and sheets of paper blown across the width of the stage. She was quite amazing and after a couple of thank you's - finally addressing us properly! - she was gone. A fantastic evening from a truly unique performer who simply cannot be categorized. Is it possible I have seen the gig of the year so soon into the 2009?
Massive respect to the stage photography of bitter69uk, dirge and gfitz36!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This afternoon I finally caught up with Carol Reed's 1941 film KIPPS starring Michael Redgrave.

It's a film I have wanted to see for a while so it was good to finally get it under my belt. Based on H.G. Wells' novel of the same name, it tells the gently humorous story of an unremarkable draper whose life is changed when he inherits a sizeable inheritance from an unknown relative.

It's the sort of film I suspect couldn't be made now as it bobbed along in no particular hurry with a diffident hero who does nothing out of the ordinary, reacting to events that happen to him rather than actively doing things that further the plot.
Arthur Kipps is a bit of a dreamer, an amiable soul who likes to help others and who seizes the opportunity to better himself through evening class while blind to the slights of those who consider him to be below them. These same people are happy to take advantage of him when he becomes wealthy but a possibly disastrous marriage is averted when he realises happiness lies with his childhood sweetheart.

Any possible tweeness was banished by Reed's elegant direction, a loving eye for detail and a deftness of touch and yet another marvellous performance by Michael Redgrave as the eponymous hero.
His gentle performance is totally winning and his deft comic touch is a joy to watch, he carries off the tricky task of playing a 'good' man by never condescending to 'cuteness' and with a conviction that makes Kipps a quietly heroic character. The final scene which could so easily tip the film into treacle is directed and played with a delightful restraint.

The supporting cast are all fine - Phyllis Calvert is a delight as Ann, Kipps' childhood sweetheart who he nearly loses to the more upper-class Diana Wynyard who also gives a finely judged performance. Max Adrien does a delightfully snidey turn as the socially superior Chester Coote and there is a scene-stealing performance from Arthur Riscoe as a boozy touring actor who changes Kipps' life.

It would be nice to have this on dvd if anyone from 20th Century Fox is reading.
Uh-oh.... I *need* to get a job...

From Perez Hilton's blog: "As we previously reported, the Queen of Pop is going to extend her Sticky & Sweet tour this year, hitting up many cities and countries she didn't get to during her 2008 outing, plus some repeat cities as well.

Madge just posted the following message on her
official website: "The rumors are true! Madonna will tour Europe this summer. Stay tuned for details later this week."

Here we go again.....

Monday, January 26, 2009

Requiescat Tony Hart

Time for a tribute... The Angel of The Morph
Ok explain this to me someone.

The BBC inundates us with appeals for war-torn countries in Africa and of course it's the centre-piece of it's COMIC RELIEF appeals, but it refuses to air an appeal for aid for the victims of Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

I presume some victims are more innocent than others eh Auntie?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I am sitting here typing this with a knot in my stomach. I blame it on watching UNITED 93 about ten hours ago.

I will admit I only bought the dvd because I knew Cheyenne Jackson was in it and he had impressed me on stage in XANADU. I hadn't much interest in seeing it when it was released in 2006 but this afternoon I suddenly got an urge to watch it. It is possibly one of the most gruelling experiences I've ever had watching a film.

What I respect about the film is that it is presented totally without any attempt at sentimentality or hindsight, happening in real-time and although we know what happens, the passengers and ground crew react as one would in the moment. The passengers - despite conforming to cliche disaster movie roles such as The Old Married Couple, The Young Students, The Granny, The Man Who Knows How To Fly A Plane, etc. - are presented as anonymous, none are even identified during the course of the film which I think is a brave choice. Greengrass' use of little known actors - even to me! - works very well and his roaming camera-style and jumpy editing means they all hardly register during the 40 minute lead up to the actual hi-jacking.

The pace constantly keeps you on edge, with the scenes on the ground growing from surprise to disbelief to frantic action as air controllers and military watch their radar screens as planes don't respond to commands while going off-route until they see live CNN footage of the World Trade Centre then cutting to the quiet humming of the cabin with tiny details known to anyone who has done an internal flight - no one heeding the safety
procedure (irony in itself), slight nods of acknowledgement as people catch another's eye, reading the morning paper, business paperwork being done, the bustling stewardesses preparing the breakfasts. The telling point is made too that the military were desperate to act but couldn't do it as they needed executive authority - Bush and Cheyney were both uncontactable.

The hijack when it happens erupts out of nowhere and the sudden violence is all the more shocking due to the cramped space, people stabbed in jerky sudden movements. Even here though, where lesser directors would now focus on the passengers as heroic good guys, the style remains fractured as passengers react with panic and fearful stoicism. The remarkable thing about the film is the way the four hijackers are portrayed - not as villains in the standard Hollywood way but as men fulfilling a mission they have set out upon - just after the hijacking there is intercutting between the prayers of the passengers with those of the terrorists flying the plane. Indeed the film opens with the hijackers reading the Koran and preparing in their anonymous hotel room for their mission, this then cuts to the daily routine of the ground staff at the airport - air and ground crews going through their procedures... just another working day.

Greengrass' handling of the finale is I suspect where the film is most controversial. Several cable tv movies were made before UNITED 93 which lingered over the passengers using their mobiles and the air-phones to contact their families, usually with reaction shots from the loved ones they were calling. Here Greengrass shows the calls but again in the jittery style as before - we overhear phrases but nothing is lingered over, the magnitude and the futility of the calls is evident in itself. It is only when one of the passengers is told about the WTC that it dawns on them a similar fate awaits them and, realising they have a private aircraft pilot as well as a man familiar with aircraft landings amongst them, decide to attack the hijackers. The notion of fighting heroically for the safety of their country as has been retrospectively claimed doesn't come into it... they are fighting for survival, a much more human trait and one that holds no shame. Of course ultimately it's all
conjecture as no one survived. That some passengers attacked the hijackers and made it to the cockpit is known from other passenger's calls as it was happening and the flight recorder.
The film actually gave me the queasy feeling I felt on that day and it's ending allows no relief or resolution and it took me quite a while to get over it. It's brutal honesty, excellent filmcraft, commited performances and overall vision makes it a film I will want to watch again. Finding the strength to do it is another thing altogether.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Another year... another show! And unsurprisingly... another theatre year starts in the Olivier Theatre.

I was a little surprised when Owen said he had booked tickets for EVERY GOOD BOY DESERVES FAVOUR. I had obviously not mentioned my antipathy to Tom Stoppard loud enough. So for once I felt a bit on edge as I took my place in my favorite theatre.

Sure enough after a few minutes we were being battered over the head with his preening wordplay that screams LOOK AT ME... I KNOW THE
ENGLISH LANGUAGE, ME... I JUST MADE A PLAY ON WORDS! Tom Stoppard has the same effect on me as Michael Frayn's NOISES OFF... it makes others roar their heads off while I feel it's written by someone who has read every book on the mechanics of making people laugh but has no sense of humour. However the knowledge that the running time was 65 minutes made me plow on. And then something changed my mind. The play is written by Stoppard with a score by Andre Previn and once the on-stage South Bank Sinfonia started playing I was hooked.

Toby Jones plays a madman in a Russian asylum who is not
only convinced he hears an orchestra playing all the time but joins in with his triangle. His orchestral reverie is interrupted by a new cellmate (Joseph Millson), a political activist - who just happens to have the same name as him - who has been incarcerated in the asylum for dissent. The activist is first quizzed by Jones about all things music - refusing to take in the fact that his cellmate is not a fellow musician - and later by a violin-playing psychiatric doctor (Dan Stevens) who tells him he can be released as soon as he admits his madness in opposing the State has been cured. The action in the Asylum intercuts with scenes in a schoolroom where the activist's son is being taught by a teacher who is sympathetic to him but who is also a loyal Party member.

Although it has not conquered my antipathy to Stoppard I did enjoy Felix Barrett and Tom Morris' production. The Sinfonia under the baton of Simon Over sounded wonderful throughout and became almost a character itself as they interrupted the scenes with music - soaring, troubled, soothing, discordant - to reflect the inner life of the characters. The production is full of physicality and although the modern dance torture scene was a bit obvious again it was fine as the music was so good.
The performances also made it watchable. Toby Jones had great fun with the role of Ivanov the madman and Joseph Millson was quietly effective as Ivanov the dissident who goes on hunger strike to frustrate the doctors. The servants of the State were also well played by Dan Stevens as the smooth doctor more worried about missing his amateur orchestra rehearsal than the injustices he was perpetrating and Bronagh Gallagher was excellent as the teacher, happy to admit that the Stalin years were the Bad Old Days but unyielding about the current regime.
A special word too for Bruno Poet's lighting which also contributed to the air of spooky threat and isolation.

In a perfect world however my first theatrical experience would have been on Monday night at Studio 54 in New York where the Roundabout Theatre staged their benefit rehearsed reading of Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC with Natasha Richardson as 'Desiree', Victor Garber as 'Frederick', Christine Baranski as 'Charlotte' and - gulp - Vanessa Redgrave as 'Mme. Armfeldt'. She looks radiant in the photos from the event.

Sondheim came on at the end to share the applause. Now if there really is a God they would have recorded it.

*whipps out rosary beads*

Monday, January 12, 2009

Congratulations to Kate Winslet who has just won her first Golden Globe award - Best Supporting Actress for THE READER - on her sixth nomination and she is still in the running for Best Actress in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD! Her previous nominations were for SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, TITANIC, IRIS, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and LITTLE CHILDREN.

Maybe she'll be winning her first Academy Award soon too.

PS It got better - she won both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress! Way to go Kate.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Wizard of Blair is being interviewed on Newsnight in his role as Peace Envoy to the Middle East. Doin' a good job Tone.

Despite the Israeli authorities refusing to allow journalists into the occupied territories - and how come when Zimbabwe does that they are condemned more than Israel has been - BBC journalists within Gaza are managing to get out shocking footage of the terror of the Palestinians.

Yes Hamas are to be blamed for the targeting of northern Israeli towns but the numbers speak for themselves - since 27th December 13 Israelis have been killed compared to approximately 800 Palestinians.

Again the Palestinian people are being caught in the fight between vested interests and the failure of the world governments to help these disenfranchised people is an abiding, bewildering shame.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

is 50 years old this year as you have probably heard, so by way of a tribute, my blog will have a different Hero picture each month representing my 12 favorite Motown stars.

January is the marvelous Gladys Knight & The Pips, surprisingly my most played Motown act on Signed to Motown from 1966 to 1973, the frustration of not being given their proper recognition within the company nevertheless resulted in 12 Top 10 entries on the US r'n'b chart and a devoted fan following.

Friday, January 02, 2009

I am happy to see the back of 2008 - my annus horibilus - but certainly not to see the back of some of those who will be mentioned in the Gone But Not Forgotten montages. I have blogged about Suzanne Pleshette, Paul Scofield, Julie Ege, Cyd Charisse, Geoffrey Perkins, Norman Whitfield and Levi Stubbs but there are some others I would like to tip the hat to:

Eva Dahlbeck starred in two of my favorite Ingmar Bergman films, A LESSON IN LOVE and, in particular, as 'Desiree' in "SMILES OF A SUMMER'S NIGHT" which was the source material for Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, Estelle Getty who memorably played 'Sophia' in "The Golden Girls and Elizabeth Spriggs who, among others, played 'Nan' in "Shine On Harvey Moon" and 'Mrs. Jennings' in Ang Lee's "Sense & Sensibility".

Leading actors Paul Newman, Heath Ledger and Roy Scheider all took their last bows as well as "Porridge" supporting actor Brian Wilde and freewheeling theatrical comic legend Ken
Campbell. The fine director, producer and sometime actor Sydney Pollack also yelled 'cut' for the last time.

Two great record producers went to the great booth in the sky - Joe Gibbs who
produced Dennis Brown's MONEY IN MY POCKET and Culture's acclaimed TWO SEVENS CLASH among hundreds of others and Atlantic Records legend Jerry Wexler.

And at the end of the year, two artists showed their innate sense of timing: playwright/director/political activist Harold Pinter and singer/dancer/actress/legend Eartha Kitt.

It is only with the passing of a genuine diva that one realises how devalued that word is now. When
any caterwauling melismatic mare with an addiction to Junior Disprin is accredited as a diva, maybe one should credit Eartha Kitt - Eartha Keith's own special creation - as Orson Welles did "the most exciting woman in the world".

Born on a cotton plantation, raised by a woman she thought was her mother but was actually her aunt, sent to NY at the woman's death to live with her real life mother, auditioning as a dare for the Katherine Dunham company - the first black modern dance company - she was accepted which led to Paris which, like so many black female entertainers before her, allowed her to hone her stage persona as the man-hungry exotic chanteuse.. the original Material Girl.

But beneath that seductive slinkiness was pure grit and steel - exemplified in 1968 by her using a White House luncheon with Lady Bird Johnson to confront the First Lady over the Vietnam war which led to an unofficial blacklist in the USA although Europe as always, opened it's arms to her.

I was lucky to see her in 1988 when she replaced Dolores Gray as 'Carlotta' in FOLLIES at the Shaftesbury Theatre. She prowled through the plot, nabbing her chances for a laugh when she could then seizing her moment with "I'm Still Here". Sparkling in a beaded dress in the spotlights, singing Sondheim's anthem for the showbiz female survivor she turned it on and turned it out. She was unique, dangerously near parody at times, of her period but also timeless. A real star.