Monday, August 31, 2009

On Saturday I descended into madness with Natasha Richardson. Twice.I watched her 2005 film ASYLUM on DVD that Natasha had struggled to bring to the screen and it certainly provided her with one of the few screen opportunities she had to stretch herself and show how powerful she could be.

She had read the book before it was published and was determined to bring it to the screen. Sadly I don't think it was particularly successful although as I say, she was never less than watchable.

The film moved along at a brisk rate and that I fear was the problem - again and again I got the impression that I was watching a scene that probably had more impact on the page, but stripped of all internal dialogue etc. it slid by with hardly any impact.

Richardson played Stella, the unfulfilled wife of a newly-appointed chief psychiatrist to a large asylum, who falls in love with a charismatic but dangerous inmate who was formerly an artist. Abandoning her husband and son, this 1950s Mrs. Soffel lives with her lover in his moodily-lit garret room until tracked down by her husband's jealous colleague (an oily Ian McKellen). Returning to normality she attempts to play the repentant wife but slowly her life unravels as she finds herself as much a prisoner of her emotions as she is of the men who wish to possess her.

I still have the DVD so I guess there is the chance a second viewing will be better but it's a shame I didn't enjoy it more as it was obviously a project that was very close to her heart.

No such problems with the 2nd outing as it was a work I was already familiar with. The National Film Theatre - I can't call it the British Film Institute no matter how much they try and brand it - have had a short season of stage-to-small screen adaptations so it meant I could finally see Richard Eyre's 1992 BBC production of Tennessee Williams' haunting SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.

As with Brando and Leigh in STREETCAR.., the celluloid shadows of Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor threaten to loom heavy over any production of this play. However the late Sheila Gish and Rachel Weisz banished any filmic memories when I saw the 1999 Donmar production at the Comedy Theatre as the play is radically different to the film and here, although the overall feel was a bit too cool for the fevered hothouse atmosphere, I think Richard Eyre coaxed performances of greater nuance and subtlety from the leads.
It is reported that Maggie Smith was unwell during the filming and she certainly appears to be firing on a quieter cylinder than usual but this in fact leads to a new interpretation of Mrs. Venable, the possessive mother willing to go to any length to protect the reputation of Sebastian, her dead poet son. Rather than Hepburn's Cruella De Ville turn or Sheila Gish's dominating matriarch, Smith gave Mrs. Venable the unassailable quality of the patrician snob, sure in her power of getting people to do anything for her money.

Rob Lowe was surprisingly good as the young doctor whose clinic is promised a large donation from the Venable coffers... just so long as he performs a lobotomy on Catherine, Sebastian's poor cousin who is the only witness to his death.

Tennessee Williams had doubts as to Elizabeth Taylor's suitability for the quiet and poor relative who is naive in the ways of the world and in particular, her effect on men. Natasha Richardson was a luminous Catherine, obviously damaged by what she witnessed but also capable of firey anger when confronted by her mother and brother (a fine double act of Moira Redmond and Richard E. Grant) who are more than happy for Catherine to stop upsetting her aunt who disdainfully finances that side of the family. She handled the devastating climactic soliloquy with great skill.

On the whole I preferred SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER over ASYLUM but both stand as further evidence of the tragic loss of Natasha Richardson.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It was with sadness tonight I read of the death of singer-songwriter Ellie Greenwich from a heart-attack aged 69. Greenwich was responsible with her then-husband Jeff Barry for some of the Brill Building's most enduring pop hits.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, Ellie was already writing songs as a teenager. She visited the Brill Building aged 22 to meet a songwriter for guidance in her career. Left alone in an office for a while, she started playing the piano. A man walked in and said he liked what he heard - he was none other than legendary songwriter Jerry Lieber who shared the office with his writing partner Mike Stoller! Signed to their publishing company she soon showed her worth, co-writing "Why Do Lovers Break Each Others Hearts", "Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home" and "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry" with Phil Spector.
Marrying Jeff Barry later in 1962, they soon rivaled the other Brill Building husband-and-wife teams of Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Cynthis Weil and Barry Mann: they were responsible for, among many others, "Be My Baby", "Baby I Love You", "Da Doo Ron Ron", "Then He Kissed Me", "Chapel of Love", "(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home", "Baby Be Mine", "Leader Of The Pack", "I Wanna Love Him So Bad", "Hanky Panky", "Maybe I Know", "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" and Ellie's haunting "You Don't Know". Ellie and Jeff even recorded as the group The Raindrops "The Kind Of Boy You Can't Forget" which has one of the greatest non-Motown drum lines ever!

After their marriage foundered in 1965, they still co-wrote for a while - actually writing two of their most enduring hits "I Can Hear Music" and "River Deep, Mountain High". During this period she discovered a young songwriter called Neil Diamond who she and Barry went on to produce at the start of his singing career.

She continued in the music business on a less-showy level, recording demos, writing, singing backing vocals on other singer's tracks and writing commercial jingles. Her biggest success of her 'solo' years was "Sunshine After The Rain".

There was a major resurgence of interest in her work when in 1985 a jukebox musical of her songs "Leader Of The Pack" played on Broadway with Greenwich and Darlene Love appearing as themselves. How odd that now you can't move for these sort of musicals on both sides of the Atlantic but back then it lasted 3 months.

As long as people love a 3 minute pop song, Ellie Greenwich will be remembered.
Last month saw an end of an era...

Despite being sceptical when it opened ten years ago I soon found myself won over by Borders Books on Oxford Street. It's late closing time was ideal for when I used to finish work at 7pm at Flashbacks. Many a walk to Oxford Circus station was interrupted by a quick wander round - doing my famous picking-up-and-putting-down, heading to the new titles... to my favorites in the fiction department on the first floor... to the history section and wandering around the biography section which bizarrely only appeared about two years ago. I had a great time getting books signed by Mary Wilson of The Supremes and Boy George.

I started my retail job life in a West End bookshop chain - the long-gone Claude Gill Books on Piccadilly then 19-23 Oxford Street and in my 10 month spell of unemployment I applied to Borders for a job - to no response.

So it was with mixed feelings when a few weeks ago I saw the shop windows plastered with large CLOSING DOWN posters. That'll learn 'em I thought... but it didn't stop me feeling a bit sad too.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Although I have been to Somerset House in the past to see Grace Jones and Beverley Knight perform in the big courtyard - by the way, if you ever see a gig there, bring a plastic screw-top with you as they take them off any bottles of water you buy there - I had never visited it's main claim to fame these days which is the home of the Courtauld collection. Well not anymore! I am down with the Courtauld posse innit?

On Sunday afternoon, as London sizzled in the boiling sunshine, Owen and I stepped into the cool of the Somerset House portico and had a hugely enjoyable time! The main reason for me going was to see the BEYOND BLOOMSBURY exhibition which is currently on there. The small exhibition - only two rooms - celebrates the brief six year period of the Omega Workshops, set up in Fitzrovia by the artist and critic Roger Fry.

Fry set up the workshop to bring together the worlds of applied and decorative arts as well as giving regular work to his artist friends who all worked anonymously under the workshop's 'omega' trademark. As with all things ahead of it's time, the Omega didn't quite fulfill it's ambition.

A schism led by the artist Wyndham Lewis resulted in his defection with his Vorticist chums to set up a rival enterprise - and he drearily continued to snipe at Fry and the Bloomsbury Group for years. The Workshop would work to order so there was never a chance to build up a name known to everyone so most of their work was created for wealthy benefactors. It was also a quirk of fate that it's opening coincided with the build-up and arrival of WWI.

But it's legacy lives on and the exhibition boasts a wide range of it's creations, from ceramics to textiles, from clothing to carpets. A few of the pieces I had seen at the Tate's wide-ranging Bloomsbury exhibition in 1999 but I would happily have run riot there with a shopping trolley!There was Vanessa Bell's large screen of figures in a campsite, Duncan Grant's wonderful 'lily pad' design on a table and screen, the carpet that Bell and Grant designed for the Omega's stand for the 1913 Ideal Home Exhibition, a very nice women's tailored waistcoat, Grant's fantastical design of a curled-up Giraffe for a plate and some impossibly cute cat figurines designed by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, one of the most promising sculptors of his generation, killed on the Western Front aged only 23. There were also some delightful woodcuts and toy designs by Winifred Gill in a side exhibition.

After that we wandered down through the remaining rooms housing the permanent exhibition - and soon we found our own Courtauld catchphrase "...there's another famous one in here!" What I really liked was that, although there were punters walking around the relatively small gallery rooms, it didn't feel crowded so you could spend time in front of these master works without having to look after 20 heads as you do in other galleries. It also meant that areas of art history that don't appeal to one can be skimmed through again as opposed to other galleries where room after room after room can seem to be endless.

Cranach, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Seurat, Manet, Modigliani, Bell... wow!All this and a nice lunch in the basement cafe was a great way to get away from the Sunday herds. I think the Courtauld will get a re-visit! Some snaps I took - without flash of course!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Last weekend I took on the mammoth task of sorting my theatre programmes - all six plastic storage boxes.

As I sorted through them, memories tumbled through my mind... actors crowded into my mind's eye singing, acting, crying, laughing, going up on wires, falling down dead.I realised I have been lucky enough to see some fantastic performances that will stay with me for a long time - of course I have seen performances that have completely faded from my memory, by quite a few name performers too!

Well Constant Reader, you know how I just *love* doing lists... so here they are, in alphabetical order... the best Shakespearean performances I have been lucky enough to see -

BEST ACTORSimon Russell Beale as "Hamlet" (2000)
Simon Russell Beale as 'Benedick' in "Much Ado About Nothing" (2008)Simon Russell Beale as 'Iago' in "Othello" (1997)Ian Charleson as "Hamlet' (1989)Michael Gambon as "King Lear" (1983)Henry Goodman as 'Shylock' in "The Merchant of Venice" (1999)Ian Holm as "King Lear" (1997)Derek Jacobi as 'Malvolio' in "Twelfth Night" (2008)Adrian Lester as "Henry V" (2003)Ian McKellen as "Richard III" (1990)

Brenda Blethyn as 'Helena' in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1983)Susan Fleetwood as 'Titania' in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1983)Geraldine James as 'Portia' in "The Merchant of Venice" (1989)Vanessa Redgrave as 'Cleopatra' in "Antony and Cleopatra" (1986)Vanessa Redgrave as 'Katherine' in "The Taming of The Shrew" (1986)Emma Thompson as 'Helena' in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1990)Sophie Thompson as 'Rosalind' in "As You Like It" (1990)Sophie Thompson as 'Isabella' in "Measure For Measure" (2004)Zoe Wanamaker as 'Beatrice' in "Much Ado About Nothing" (2008)
Emily Watson as 'Viola' in "Twelfth Night" (2002)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTORDavid Bamber as 'Pandarus' in "Troilus and Cressida" (1999)
Michael Bryant as 'Polonius' in "Hamlet"
Ron Cook as 'Polonius' in "Hamlet" (2009)Finbar Lynch as 'Enobarbus' in "Antony and Cleopatra" (1998)Finbar Lynch as 'Edmund' in "King Lear" (1997)Kevin McNally as 'Polonius' in "Hamlet" (2009)Derek Newark as 'Bottom' in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1983)Jack Shepherd as 'Puck' in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1983)
Antony Sher as 'The Fool' in "King Lear" (1983)Clive Wood as 'Edmund' in "King Lear" (1983)

Maureen Beattie as 'Emilia' in "Othello" (1997)Sinead Cusack as 'Paulina' in "A Winter's Tale" (2009)
Judi Dench as 'Gertrude' in "Hamlet" (1989)Deborah Findlay as 'Paulina' in "A Winter's Tale" (2001)Barbara Flynn as 'Goneril' in "King Lear" (1997)
Clare Higgins as 'Queen Elizabeth' in "Richard III" (1990)Sara Kestelman as 'Goneril' in "King Lear" (1983)
Helen McCrory as 'Olivia' in "Twelfth Night" (2002)Siobhan Redmond as 'Goneril' in "King Lear" (1990)
Sophie Thompson as 'Ophelia' in "Hamlet" (1988)