Tuesday, March 31, 2009

At the weekend Owen and I went to the always-delightful Brixton Ritzy to see Zack Snyder's film WATCHMEN.

I will happily put my hand up and say I knew nothing about it other than what I had heard about it during it's long journey to the screen when it changed hands more times than a scruffy pound note.
Three days later I still have no idea whether I liked it or not!

For fellow non-Watchman-believers the action takes place in a parallel universe America where during WWII a group of lawmakers masqueraded as The Minutemen, a group who donned Superhero outfits and fought crime. They are superseded by the Watchmen who fall foul of a ban on vigilantes and are broken up just as some of the original Minutemen are found dead or go insane.It's 1985, Richard Nixon is still President and America won the Vietnam War, largely thanks to the atomic power of Dr. Manhattan, a scientist who thanks to an accident in a laboratory was left with superhuman powers of molecular structure. America and Russia are on a nuclear collision course and New York is descending into chaos. When former Minuteman The Comedian is murdered, former Watchman Rorschach decides to investigate with the help of his former crime-fighting friends who are all discovering that life outside the mask is a difficult and dangerous place. First what I liked - the whole look of the film was remarkable, the opening credits excellently set up the film with it's retro 1940s look slowly morphing into a more modern look and there is always something to catch your eye and keep you watching. I also liked the post-911 feel of the film - here is an America devoid of hope and riddled with a gnawing fear that greater powers are at force against the peace of the world.
There are fine performances from Patrick Wilson as the former Wise Owl II, now a bit of a shy schlub who feels lost in the post-superhero world, Jackie Earle Haley is great as Rorschache, a film noir-style investigator whose ever-moving inked mask covers a tortured soul with scary capabilities, Billy Crudup shone (literally) as Dr. Manhattan, a super-human being who still feels the tug of humanity and Carla Gugino was fine - despite the dodgy 'old' makeover - as the boozy former crime-fighter Silk Spectre whose daughter carries on the name. But for every thing I enjoyed there seemed to be things that kept getting in the way. The film is way too long and although impressive, the look of the film is totally claustrophobic - I presume a lot of it is totally based on the look of the original book and one ultimately begs for something original, off the cuff, unplanned. The literal bone-crunching violence even made me wince a few times and felt absurdly gratuitous at times and apart from the performances mentioned, most made no impression and in particular Matthew Goode turned in a resoundingly invisible performance - laughable when he is the catalyst for the film's denouement.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Just to keep you up to speed Constant Reader...

Today I e-mailed my 124th job application in nine months of looking.

It's enough to make a lesser Supermodel go postal...

O happy day...Clicky on the picture to see a new video from Miss Beverley Knight telling her bizness...

A new album on her own label out later in the year and a tour.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

You celebs these days... bunch of wusses.

In 1960 the Amazonian Swedish actress Anita Ekberg confronted the paparazzi outside her Italian villa - with a bow and arrow!

She demanded the films out of the camera which turned out to be blank but all the same... that's the way to see them off!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sad to report the death of Funk Brother Uriel Jones aged 74.

Among the stone Motown classics Uriel played the drums on were both the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell and Diana Ross versions of AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH - Smokey Robinson & The Miracles' I SECOND THAT EMOTION - The Temptations' CLOUD NINE and Marvin Gaye's I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE.

I was lucky to see Uriel when The Funk Brothers played the Festival Hall in 2004 after they were given the fame that was overdue through STANDING IN THE SHADOW OF MOTOWN and it was a truly emotional night to see the men who made so much musical magic.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Recently I pointed out how the theatre marquees of London and Broadway are turning into large illuminated video shelves with wave after wave of screen-to-stage adaptations and jokingly wondered when the musical of PERSONA would be turning up.

Well while we wait... how about a stage adaptation of Nikita Mikhalkov's 1994 film BURNT BY THE SUN which won the Best Foreign Language Academy Award? Why not I said and went with Owen last night to see
Howard Davies' production at the Lyttleton.

For such a film where the dreamlike visuals are primarily what one
remembers, Peter Flannery has transferred it well to the stage. Indeed the start is reminiscent of Chekhov with a family seated around a veranda table mildly squabbling - and of course addressing each other by their full names "Now Irena Irenavanovich...". How short Russian plays would be if they didn't do that!

It's an interesting way to start as these are indeed Chekhov's people but we soon find out that times have changed. It's 1936, the revolution, Tsar Nicholas and Lenin are history and a glorious world awaits the people under Stalin. What we know (thanks to the programme) but they don't is that he is about to initiate his reign of terror when he scythed down his rivals in the higher echelons of The Party before starting on the populace.
We are in the dacha of General Sergei Kotov - a Revolutionary general whose name still strikes awe in soldier and populace alike and who boasts of having Stalin's private number in the Kremlin. He lives there with his younger wife Maroussia and little daughter Nadia as well as playing host to his in-laws: mother-in-law, grandmother, grandmother's best friend, the best friend's son and and Maroussia's maternal great-uncle, all of whom cling to their vanished past when they were part of the cultural elite, much to Kotov's frustration. They have a reason though... it is their old home.

On a long drowsy summer day the family members are surprised when a disruptive old tramp who invades the home is none other than Mitya, a young former friend of the family who vanished from their lives years ago. The joyful reunion though is fraught with tension as Mitya makes no attempt to hide his bitterness at Maroussia for marrying the older man. But as the long day closes Mitya's real reason for returning is revealed.As with every production of his, Howard Davies' direction is slowly methodical, no peaks or troughs, trusting to the material and performers to generate the tension required. The sexual tension is certainly there among the three lead characters, finally released in an explosive scene where Mitya performs a cocky tap-dance learned while in Paris only to be answered in kind by Kotov's stamping peasant dance learned in the army.

The solid cast all contribute to a seamless ensemble - the family members include Anna Carteret, Rowena Cooper, Tim McMullan and Duncan Bell who all suggest lives of stifled happiness. There are also telling performances from Stephanie Jacob as the family's put-upon maid and Tony Turner as a truck driver who has lost his way. For a brief moment they start the flowering of a friendship but the truck driver is also synonymous with the Russian people,
cluelessly lost and heading for disaster.

The major annoyance of the evening was the absence of Ciaran Hinds as Kotov.

No don't mind me, Mr. Hinds you take that night off. I can only hope his absence was due to his possibly being at Natasha Richardson's funeral as they starred on Broadway together. Anyway Kotov was played by Colin Haigh who actually reminded me a lot of Colin Blakely - especially as Stalin in RED MONARCH. He was ok in the role
but I can imagine Hinds dominating the stage as befits the character's magnetism.
The role of Marussia was played quite marvellously by Michelle Dockery, how to describe her? Imagine a Keira Knightley who can act. It is a difficult part to play as for most of the time she simply has to react to Mitya's relentless goading but she conveyed a woman torn by feelings of doubt and frustration very well. In the film it is revealed that the character vanished into the Gulags and you can imagine Dockery's tragically wilful Marussia suffering such a fate.

With the absence of Mr. Hinds Rory Kinnear dominated the play
with his firey, kinetic performance as Mitya. It would have been nice to see him colliding with a more immovable object than Haigh's Kotov but it's so rare these days to see an actor who can 'play out' as well as Kinnear can. It's a strange role as half the time Mitya is infuriating with his sudden manic bursts of energy and unreasonable demands on Marussia's fidelity but as the play progresses Rory Kinnear perfectly captured the quick flashes of the character's own painful betrayal before revealing his true mission to the house.

The ending shared the film's tragi-comic air of impeding doom delayed by the family's unwitting interference but was also hampered by the need to have a dramatic full-stop whereas Mikhalkov's film ended with a series of haunting images.

It's a film I think I would like to seek out again.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Constant Reader I have been remiss in keeping you up to snuff on my latest theatre visit.

On Wednesday Owen and I took advantage of a lastminute.com offer of cheapo seats to see PLAGUE OVER ENGLAND at the Fortune Theatre written by Evening Standard theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh.

We were at the end of the 4th row and when I stood up in the interval and turned and saw a mass of red velvet seats, I realised why ours were discounted so much.

It's a shame if it is not finding
an audience as it's a well-written play with some enjoyable performances. I suspect the subject matter might not be your standard Avenue fare telling as it does of the 1953 arrest of Sir John Gielgud in a gents lav off the Fulham Road. I had a vague knowledge of the incident so it was good to find out what really happened.

1953, John Gielgud has recently been knighted and is in rehearsals for a new play by the then-fashionable N.C. Hunter called A DAY BY THE SEA with Sybil Thorndike, Ralph Richardson and Irene Worth. It is also a period when it was a dangerous time to be a homosexual with heightened press hysteria spurring on police and politicians to be seen to be doing something about this "plague over England".
After a night on the town he stops off at a cottage off the Fulham Road and after responding to the wink from a young guy at the urinals he goes over - a big mistake as this is a plainclothes policeman who arrests him for "persistently importuning for immoral purposes" - the catch-all accusation used for arrested men.

He is relieved the desk sergeant gives him an early court slot to stop the wider public finding out but soon finds out the police have tipped off the Evening Standard as his arrest makes front page news in the lunchtime edition. John is then confronted with the possibility of losing all he has worked for and facing a public humiliation on his opening night.
As has become theatrical history, on his first entrance during the play he was cheered to the rafters. However he had come close to losing the backing of the producer 'Binkie' Beaumont, himself a known homosexual. The play ends in 1975 with Gielgud ruefully acknowledging that he can now portray an obvious gay character on stage in a new Pinter play.

I enjoyed the play and found it illuminating on this period of gay history. de Jongh has an ear for theatrical cattiness and tells his story well with an eye to the outer world as well as the west end. There are two problems I had with the play however - to balance the Gielgud story he has two subplots of young gay men finding out that love is hard to find in the legendary twilight world of the homosexual which are fairly predictable and give the impression that no gay man ever found happiness back then. He also rather muffs the end of the play, bypassing a good opportunity for a closing scene with Gielgud sharing a drink with his critic friend who he secretly loved when they were younger - instead opting for a long and fairly pointless scene where Gielgud returns to the gents on it's last day of opening. It seemed to be striving for a profundity which isn't really there. Director Tamara Harvey could have shaped this better.
de Jongh does however provide a marvellous role for Michael Feast as John Gielgud, who in turn gives a remarkable performance. He captures Gielgud's hauteur, his ramrod posture and the whinnying unique voice but he also portrays a man suddenly facing a world of rejection and shame with touching grace-notes. Michael Feast is the perfect actor for this role - he appeared with Gielgud in NO MAN'S LAND, the same play the onstage Gielgud accepts at the conclusion.

Feast is supported by a trio of winning performances: Celia Imrie as a loving and supportive Sybil Thorndike as well as a louche theatrical owner of a gay private club; Simon Dutton as a cagey, slippery 'Binkie' Beaumont and David Burt in a succession of roles but primarily as the attendent in the gents who brings to this insubstantial role a suggested world of stunted loneliness.

Hugh Ross also scores with his cameo of a brisk-mannered doctor happy to give gay men electric shock therapy to 'cure' them.
The other actors are all fine but are hampered by having to double-up roles - one has to play a gay American cruiser who dashes off to reappear as the inspector in charge of the entrapement. Just one more actor in the cast would have helped. A special mention to Alex Marker for his standing set which easily suggests a Victorian gents, a dressing room or Westminster flat.

I recommend PLAGUE OVER ENGLAND though for anyone who wants a view into what should be a vanished world but for a lot of people is ever-present.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

It is with sadness that I have to write about the tragic death of Natasha Richardson at the age of 45 from head injuries sustained in an accident on a ski-slope in Canada.

Since the news broke I have watched as the initial reports went from bad to worse and felt with a sinking heart that there could only be one outcome.

As the eldest daughter of my favourite actress Vanessa Redgrave I have followed Natasha's career since seeing her in her first major stage appearance in 1985 as 'Nina' in THE SEA GULL opposite Vanessa as 'Madame Arkadina'. She triumphed in this role - which Vanessa had played not only at the same theatre in the '60s but also in Sidney Lumet's film - beautifully portraying Nina's journey from a shy teenager to a broken and disturbed actress.

In 1987 she lit up the stage at the Victoria Palace in Richard Eyre's
misbegotten attempt at making the GUYS AND DOLLS lightning strike twice with the tepid stage version of HIGH SOCIETY. However Natasha showed true star quality and charisma as Tracey Lord, ably following in the footsteps of Grace Kelly and Katherine Hepburn.

18 years later I saw her final
London stage appearance as the haunted and haunting Ellida in the Almeida Theatre's production of Ibsen's THE LADY FROM THE SEA - again re-visiting a role that Vanessa had played in the 1970s.

Of course in the intervening years she had established herself in America as a leading lady on stage and screen. As successful as she was on stage I feel, despite her 20-odd films, she never
really found a good defining screen role.
She certainly worked consistently but real screen stardom seemed to elude her. She certainly had the potential to have the career that Kate Winslet now enjoys but whether it was due to a lack of offers, her private life as wife and mother or a combination of both it never really seemed to happen.

She certainly had her
chances - a luminous Mary Shelley in Ken Russell's GOTHIC, a sterling stab at PATTY HEARST in Paul Schrader's less-than-gripping biopic, the abused future slave in THE HANDMAID'S TALE and as Sofia, a Russian countess adrift in pre-war China in THE WHITE COUNTESS.

Time and again Natasha Richardson seemed drawn to playing women dancing on the edges of volcanos - on film:
Mary Shelley, Patty Hearst, Offred in THE HANDMAID'S TALE, Countess Sofia, Stella Raphael in ASYLUM; on television: Catherine in Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, Zelda Fitzgerald; on stage: Nina, Ellida, Ophelia, O'Neill's ANNA CHRISTIE; Anna in CLOSER; Sally Bowles in CABARET and her final stage role as Blanche DuBois in STREETCAR. For someone who appeared so stable and together offstage it is fascinating how she was drawn to these emotionally-out there roles.

I also saw her once at the National Film Theatre after a screening of her father's last film BLUE SKY where she spoke movingly and eloquently about her father. His death from an AIDS-related illness no doubt informed her decision to campaign for and actively support AMFAR the US AIDS charity. Indeed it was just over a month ago that she appeared, as glamorous as ever, at an AMFAR gala to launch New York Fashion Week.

It is a sad irony that Vanessa's most recent stage role has been in THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING which in part dealt with a
mother's grief for her dead daughter.

In January Natasha and Vanessa appeared together in a concert performance of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in New York. They supposedly both enjoyed the experience so much they were contemplating appearing in a proper Broadway revival next year. When the concert was announced last year it coincided with me receiving my Flashbacks redundancy payment so I mused on booking the $100+ ticket but no... it was saved to eek out my existence sans job.

I'll never learn.

A few more photographs of Natasha whose loss to the theatre is incalculable... as Sally Bowles in CABARET and accepting her Tony Award for that performance, as Blanche DuBois in STREETCAR and with Vanessa after the A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC Benefit two months ago.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day Constant Reader...

I am also writing to wish a speedy recovery to Natasha Richardson, seen here last month at an AMFAR Benefit in New York, who is currently in hospital in Canada after a skiing accident which has left her with critical head injuries.

I guess that puts paid to the previously-discussed Broadway revival of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC with her mother Vanessa Redgrave.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Ok... let's have a look at musicals that have been announced for Broadway...
9 TO 5 by Dolly Parton
THE FIRST WIVES CLUB by Holland, Dozier and Holland...

and in the West End?
SISTER ACT and PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT are due on, Dave Stewart is co-writing a version of GHOST, a QUADROPHENIA tour is starting...

A stage version of the Russian art house classic BURNT BY THE SUN has just opened at the National Theatre and CALENDAR GIRLS is opening soon

Oh and the producer of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE has mused on the possibility of it being turned into a stage show...

I can't understand what's keeping PERSONA....

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

My March Heroes are The Temptations!

The group went through quite a few name changes and personnel before hitting on the right combination in 1963 of (l-r) Melvyn Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and Otis Williams. In early 1964 they had their first hit with THE WAY YOU DO THE THINGS YOU DO and soon Kendricks' falsetto and Ruffin's gruff vocals were taking turns as lead on 'Smokey' Robinson produced such classics as MY GIRL, SINCE I LOST MY BABY and GET READY.

When GET READY - amazingly - only reached #29 in the US charts, producer Norman Whitfield wrested the group from Robinson and with AIN'T TOO PROUD TO BEG started to move the group to a more abrasive sound. Despite their great run of hits - YOU'RE MY EVERYTHING, CLOUD NINE, PSYCHEDELIC SHACK, IT'S SUMMER, JUST MY IMAGINATION, PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE - they also brought the drama.

David Ruffin was sacked in 1968 when his demands became too outrageous and there were bizarre scenes when he would turn up at gigs and jump up on the stage with the band! Ruffin would later persuade Eddie Kendricks to also leave in 1971. By then Paul Williams was struggling with ill health and a drug addiction and commited suicide in 1973. By the mid-1970s the Temptations' line-up was a moveable feast and Melvyn Franklin died in 1995 but Otis Williams kept the group together down the years and is still touring today!
Last night Owen and I, after having some yummy cocktails to celebrate Stephen's near-birthday, finally got to see Sean Penn's Academy Award-winning performance as Harvey MILK. I did enjoy it but found the tone of Gus Van Sant's film a bit too reverential.

We meet Harvey in New York, a closeted gay man who reaches 40 with the realisation he had done nothing important with his life so
moves to San Francisco and soon finds himself involved in the local politics of his Castro area. After three failed attempts he finally is voted onto the city's Board of Supervisors in 1977, the first 'out' politician to be voted to public office. He was in office only 11 months before he and Mayor George Moscone were shot dead in City Hall by Dan White, a Supervisor who had recently resigned and not been reinstated when he changed his mind.

Van Sant excels in recreating the atmosphere of the late 1970s through excellent art direction and a seamless use of contemporary news footage although several times the stylised photography which strives to give certain scenes the dull brown-ish tint of old snapshots is a bit annoying. What is shocking is the archive footage and recreated press conference scenes of the right-wing Anita Bryant and John Briggs - their hatred and sanctimonious outpourings would be
laughable but for the fact that they are still being propagated today.Van Sant certainly directs the film with the respect that Milk deserves but... he couldn't have been adorable all the time surely! There is one scene where Milk gives a veiled threat to Mayor Moscone to use his voters against him should he reinstate Dan White which finally gives the character some shade but surely more instances could have given to provide a warts-and-all view rather than the overall saintly figure suggested.
Van Sant has surrounded Penn with an effective supporting cast. Two lovers are singled out in the screenplay: James Franco is fine as Scott Smith who moved to San Francisco with Milk but who eventually felt frozen out by his lover's political ambitions while Diego Luna plays Milk's last lover, the tragically unstable Jack Lira, and he negotiates the character's unlikeable traits well. Emile Hirsch has great fun with the role of Cleve Jones, the street hustler who Milk recruits to be one of his most trusted supporters and Alison Pill is also effective as Anne Kronenberg. the young lesbian who Milk hires to run his successful campaign. Denis O'Hare is eminently punchable as John Briggs and it was nice to see Victor Garber as George Moscone, the Mayor who shared Harvey's fate.The most difficult role in this film is surely that of Milk's nemesis Dan White and Josh Brolin delivers a performance of brooding intensity. it would be easy in a film like this to portray him as an out-and-out villain but Brolin portrays a character who is psychologically flawed and his relationship with Milk is here shown as one of two men who fatally could not share a common ground. There is a painful scene at Milk's birthday party where a drunken White confronts his rival but they might as well be speaking a foreign language to each other. The film starts with Diane Feinstein's announcement of the shooting of Milk and Moscone but still the final moments of the film are hard to watch as White exacts his revenge at being slighted.
Ultimately the film belongs heart and soul to Sean Penn - and who would have thought he could be so winning?

He turns in a performance that makes you smile and brings a tear to your eye. Funny, rueful, loving, inspiring and tragic - he makes you believe the appeal of the man and one wonders who else could have played the role and given themselves over to it so completely.

As the film ends a series of captions tell us how Milk's supporters went on to continue their activism into the AIDS era and the shameful surroundings of White's trial when he was found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder and served five years imprisonment. Two years after his release he killed himself.

How successful ultimately was Harvey Milk's career? No one came forward in his wake as his natural successor and his wish for high-profiled gay figures in all areas of public life is still a pipedream.

Monday, March 02, 2009

"I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten..."

Is it really ten years ago today that Dusty Springfield died?

For me she has never stopped singing thanks to 385 tracks by her on my iPod.

I'm off to play some now...

Sunday, March 01, 2009

This afternoon Owen and I went East... to the wilds of Brick Lane.

Now why did I think because it was a Sunday it would be a bit quiet? Wrong! After wending our way through the milling Spittlefield market punters who couldn't get enough of shirts, bags, dresses, framed prints, jewelry and home-made cakes we
ran straight into the top end of Brick Lane - oh yes more bags, dresses, jewelry etc.

Now we ventured there not to chance my stomach with a lobster arse biriyani and a pint of mild but to see the SIMPLY MADONNA exhibition at the Truman Old Brewery, a collection of M's stage and screen outfits and other memorabilia. As you can imagine I had been quietly excited about this but sadly I found it a bit underwhelming.

The exhibition is in a massive high-ceilinged room with whitewashed walls, indirect lighting and zero atmosphere. On either side of the room are two platforms on which are grouped mannequins - the right side are stage outfits and the left are some of her many costumes from EVITA. In various corners there are individual figures wearing other film, stage and video costumes. The
space is complemented by display cases of memorabilia from a hardcore Madonna fan as well as displays of promotional posters and a large wall-display of magazine covers.So far so good, but sadly there was no imagination behind the set-up. There was definitely stuff there worth seeing but it was spread so thinly around the large badly-lit space that I felt I had covered it all in about 20 minutes. The display shelves were so crammed with memorabilia that nothing really stood out although there were bound to be treasures to be found, areas of the room were just wasted space - the AMERICAN PIE outfit is stranded off in a corner with a couple of posters beside it which are lost in the gloom. The fan's collection of tour t-shirts look good all strung together on poles on the other side of the room but are positioned so high above you that you pass under them without them really registering.

Yes it was nice to see the outfits I have seen countless times on film and video but.... Jean-Paul Gaultier summed up the obvious problem with the exhibition when he said some time ago that an outfit is in itself dead until someone wears it and he loved designing for Madonna "as she is very much alive" thus making his designs look fantastic. Walking around the exhibition, looking at the iconic MATERIAL GIRL pink "Marilyn" dress or the cream silk tango dress from EVITA, they look like the inert skins shed by a lithesome animal that has moved on.
The biggest flaw however is the dopey idea to display the outfits on a job lot of showroom mannequins which are tall and willowy. Now Madonna is 5'4" with a 34c bust so in particular the stage costumes look just plain odd and particularly ill-fitting around the bustline. Pride of place is given to the OPEN YOUR HEART black corset costume with the conical breasts with gold-tassels. On Madonna it's iconic - on an akwardly-posed and seated mannequin you don't give it a second glance.

However - and there's always something to like - the major pieces in the collection have been
augmented with Barbie-style recreations by Magia2000 and they are great fun... especially the overview of her tours. These show an originality and fun singularly missing from what is surrounding them. Again, most of these are badly lit when positioned next to the actual costume that has been recreated. Ultimately SIMPLY MADONNA is a bit of a let-down, all the more annoying because the exhibition brochure is everything the actual event isn't - linear, focused and well-designed. This approach points to the best way to stage a Madonna exhibition - not the random, lumping-together style on display here.