Sunday, August 29, 2010

Last week Owen and I ventured into the murderous mind of Simon Russell Beale. I know, I've re-read that sentence and it looks peculiar, but believe me... he's got you in his sights.

Mind you, so does everyone in Ira Levin's DEATHTRAP which is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre (that just looks wrong too) in a flashy production from Matthew Warchus.I had seen the film version many moons ago and didn't think it was all that, however it did keep giving me premonitions of what plot twists were just about to happen on stage a few seconds before they actually happened. The second female lead wasn't the only one with second sight! However I enjoyed it by and large - but not as much I fear as Messrs. Warchus and Levin.

NOW we have a problem... do I reveal what are charmingly called *spoilers* - especially seeing as how the play itself is 32 years old, has been filmed (although it's not currently available on dvd) and Wikipedia gives the game away anyhoo? I'll see how I feel as I type...

Sidney Bruhl (Beale), a successful writer of stage thrillers, has not had a hit play for some time and the bills are piling up in the converted barn he lives in with his wife Myra (Claire Skinner). Surrounded by weapons - both real and stage props from his past shows - you would think he would think of something but nope, nothing.

He receives a package from a student who attended one of Sidney's college lectures and to the writer's amazement he finds he is reading a script that he would, indeed, kill for. A perfect stage thriller... and only he, Myra and the student Clifford Anderson (Jonathan Groff) know of it's existence.

Sidney invites the young man to visit them that night - the house is of course off the beaten track - ensuring that the young man brings along the original manuscript. The personable and awed student arrives and much to Sidney's delight - and Myra's growing unease - reveals he has not only brought along the original but also all his notes - the only evidence of the play is in the room.

Does Sidney kill him? Does Myra kill him? Do Sidney and Myra kill him? Do they play Uno? Oh bugger - I can't bring myself to tell you.
Needless to say they were plenty of jumps and screams and nervous laughter - and not just for the occupants of the Long Island barn. However, as I said before, I have either seen too many of these damn things or I had sudden memory flashes of the film version but I had a mind that something was about to happen a couple of seconds before it did. That can be a bugger.

Needless to say Simon Russell Beale gave a wonderfully sly performance - his delivery of Levin's tart, waspish dialogue was delivered with killer timing. It's a mark of his quality that he can bounce from THE CHERRY ORCHARD and THE WINTER'S TALE last year to LONDON ASSURANCE to DEATHTRAP this year (via Sondheim's 80th Birthday prom). Far from a standard star performance, Beale gave Sidney a real heart - albeit a black one.

Jonathan Groff was a pleasant surprise as I had not been expecting that much but he played nicely against his boyish All-American looks and certainly gave his GLEE-loving fans - we were surrounded by them! - something to cheer.

Clare Skinner was her usual adequate self, she's just not an actress I find very interesting.

The main excitement was to see Estelle Parsons on stage! She is a tricky actress to cast, her seemingly innate eccentricity (illustrated best in her Oscar-winning role as Gene Hackman's hysterical wife in BONNIE AND CLYDE and ROSEANNE's maddening mother) are always liable to pull focus but here that was allowed to be given full reign as the Dutch psychic who is renting the house next door to the Bruhl's. The role doesn't outstay it's welcome so it was a delight to see her - and God love her she's 82!

The only other role is played by the violently tall Terry Beaver as the Bruhl's family lawyer. While giving a nice supporting turn, his scenes were added an unreckoned-for bizarre quality in that his extreme loftiness - and on the already wonky perspective of Rob Howell's set - made everyone he was playing with look like figures in a Dali landscape, it played havoc with your sense of perspective.

Matthew Warchus' direction was slick and flashy with a nice balance between the witty wordplay and the feeling of imminent suspense but the play's coda, which in itself comes as a surprise after a suspected sturm und drang ending, cut to blackout so abruptly that if it hadn't been for the clapping of the ushers the cast would have lined up for their bow to stony silence. SOMETHING - a music cue, a flash of the over-used lighting effect, some damn BUTTON!

My only problem with the play is that for all it's tricksy playing with the audience, it's awfully self-satisfied knowingness eventually becomes like Levin digging you in the ribs going "Geddit? Geddit?" Ira, we got it the first time you referenced the very play we are watching in the opening ten minutes already.

However if you want a fun night out with some stylish performances you could do a lot worse than see DEATHTRAP.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Last week Owen and I attended High Church in Soho, a gathering held by the one and only Our Lady J and her London Train-To-Kill Gospel Choir as she preached her Gospel to The Godless.

We first saw OLJ a few years back at the same venue where she was Justin Bond's pianist for his LUSTRE show and so finally here we were, ready to experience her solo (well, apart from the choir).

There is even more to go round too as OLJ has now had a boob job paid for by Boob Aid, her ingenious fundraiser and online auction - get outta the way she's unstoppable!

OLJ has her first album out towards the end of this year which sees a move from more piano-based songs to a more electro vibe - she sees herself as a post-transexual pre-android! I was a bit worried at first as I like her introspective but uplifting songs but I need not have worried... J's journeys into sound were all done with great musicality and taste.

Switching between her computer and piano with ease, J gave us a great 80 minute set, all held together with her winning personality and reflections on a life that has taken her from a fundamentalist Christian upbringing (her brother was forced to take a shotgun to his smuggled-in CDs!) to the special creation she is now.

Sprinkled among her own songs PICTURE OF A MAN, AFRICA, 1-2-3-4 TRAINED TO KILL and PINK PRADA PURSE were some inspired covers: Dolly Partons LIGHT OF A CLEAR BLUE MORNING and I'M GOING HOME from the Rocky Horror Show were given a new life within the context of the show and they also both helped highlight the London Show Choir who had been Trained To Kill and thrill by Our Lady J.

By far my favorite covers of the evening however were an absolutely Discotastic version of Buffy Sainte-Marie's LITTLE WHEEL SPIN AND SPIN - as soon as Our Lady J started singing the chorus I spun round to see how Buffy fan Owen was and he was in a state of rapture! She finished the set with her amazing version of HURT which she has made into something really wonderful and profound.

We had a nice longish chat with her afterwards and it's a joy to find her as warm and friendly offstage as on. I can't wait for her to come back when the album is ready to roll.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Not camp at all.

Ethel Waters- Honey in The Honeycomb
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My second helping of BROWN SUGAR for you is Miss Ethel Waters.

Born to a 13 y/o rape victim Ethel had an abused childhood. Ethel was herself married at 13 but soon after seized a chance to sing and slowly worked her way up the entertainment food chain until she was working across the board on record, concerts, Broadway, film and television.

Sadly she remembered every slight that she had taken on her way up the ladder and the charge was frequently levelled against her that she was particularly tough of younger female singers.

She is seen here recreating her stage role in Vincente Minnelli's screen version of CABIN IN THE SKY, a galvanising performance in which she does not have to act too hard to show her loathing of co-star Lena Horne.
After having seen Leo diCaprio's latest fillum at the weekend I had a look on IMDB out of idle curiosity to see what his next film is going to be. My jaw hit the deck.

He is due to star in an upcoming biopic of FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, scripted by Lance Black who won an Oscar for MILK and the film is to be directed by one Clint Eastwood. One can assume that scripted by Black the film will address the rumours of Hoover being a closet gayer and transvestite. I am sure Leo will be up to the challenge... no, what shocked me was that Eastwood should be handling this material.

The reason I am worried by this is due to whether or not Jean Seberg will be included.

In 1968 Eastwood and Seberg started filming the screen musical PAINT YOUR WAGON and during the extended location shoot they started a love affair. Eastwood gave Jean enough encouragement for her to tell then-husband Romain Gary that she wanted a divorce only for Eastwood to fly back to Hollywood and end the relationship - one of his several extra-marital affairs, one of which had already produced an illegitimate daughter.

At the same time Jean became passionate about the plight of inner-city black children and started giving financial support to various groups including the Black Panthers. This came to the attention of the right-wing J. Edgar Hoover who immediately started a wire-tap surveillance on her as well as planting stories to discredit her in the public eye. Jean realised she was being followed and repeatedly tried to alert people she was being spied on.

When it was announced that Jean was pregnant in 1970, one such fake story was printed in the Joyce Haber gossip column in May of that year in the LA Times. A "Guess Who Don't Sue" type piece gave enough clues to the fact that Miss A was Seberg and finished with the scoop that the father was a prominent Black Panther leader.

Jean and her now-reunited husband did their best to quash the press sniffing about but in early August Jean was hospitalised with a suspected overdose of sleeping pills. In late August the final blow came when Newsweek printed the story as a news piece in which she was actually named. Jean Two days after it was printed Jean went into labour and the baby girl died two days later.

Jean returned to America to bury her child in her hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa, making sure that the open coffin was viewed in the funeral home so the world could see she had given birth to a white baby. What was known only to Romain Gary however was that the child had been fathered by a Mexican dissident who Jean had briefly seen during their estrangement.

Although she continued to work in European films, Jean's mental health declined under the weight of the guilt over the sleeping pill overdose while pregnant and the ongoing paranoia of being spied upon with the allied addictions of alcohol and drugs. Every year she attempted suicide on the date of her daughter's birth.

In August 1979, nine years almost to the day after her daughter died, Jean was found dead from a massive overdose of barbiturates and alcohol in the back seat of her car near her apartment in Paris. She had been missing for eleven days. The coroner returned a verdict of probable suicide although there has always been conjecture as to possible foul play.I have never understood the high regard afforded Eastwood by the critics - the sexual politics in his films invariably stink - and now he is taking on this film biography of a man who had direct influence of the fate of a woman he purportedly had feelings for but who he in his own way used.

One hopes that the 80 year old Eastwood will still have time to show some sympathy to the memory of Jean Seberg.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I had been watching the skies all day on Tuesday as Owen and I had tickets to see the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production of
I was way excited as we had seats four rows back and after a few dribbly rain showers during the day, by the time we took our seats the skies were bright and cloud free.

We saw the Witch...
We saw Cinderella and The Baker's Wife...and we saw The Prince.We scurried back after the interval and just as the afore-mentioned Prince and his brother Prince started singing their reprise of AGONY I felt a drop of rain.

No I told myself... it was just a pidgeon's teardrop.

And then it pished down.

And the two Princes were told to get off the stage and we had to stand in the bar area.

And five minutes later we were told the show was cancelled and to apply to the box office for exchange tickets for another night.

And I realised I had left my programme on my seat so i ran back to get it as I had my ticket pushed into the spine, as I do.

And it had been nicked. So Owen has e-mailed his e-mailed tickets back for the exchange.

Now all THAT'S Agony.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

For the first time in months and months and months O and I went to a picture show - they have sound and everything nowadays. The film that was honoured by our presence was Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic INCEPTION.I must say although I was initially thrown and floundered for about 20 minutes I soon found my dreamscape feet and was hooked throughout the film's lengthy running time.

The screen it was showing in was one of the Odeon's smallest and there were only a handful of us there until just as the lights went down for the obligatory ads when a constant stream of punters appeared and by the the time the film proper started it was full! Luckily they were very quiet.
The convoluted plot involves Leonardo di Caprio (filling out with every new film) as Cobb, the best man you can employ to enter someone's dreams and generally move things about in there for corporate gain. But Cobb and his sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) have their most challenging job yet when the shadowy - aren't they always? - businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants them to infiltrate the dreamworlds of a rival Fischer (the oddly featured Cillian Murphy).

As Saito wants an untried action, a thought to be implanted in deep sub-consciousness, Cobb gathers together a team to help him - the cocky impersonator Eames (Tom Hardy), the King of sedatives Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) a young architecture student to design the landscape the dream will take place in.However Ariadne discovers a secret Cobb has kept from the others - his dreams are haunted by his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) who appears to be bent on revenge for him living on without her. But once inside the rival's head they find that they are all in danger as Fischer has previously been treated for such intrusions and has a personal army to thwart any attempt to interfere with his dreams.

A race against time ensues - can the team manage to implant doubt in his mind? Can they escape the businessman's dream army? Can Cobb escape from his tortured memories of Mal - or will she get her revenge? Ahh go and see the film and find out!As I said while I was there I has hooked on the journey our intrepid band take but since then I have had a few doubts about it. I read an interesting review where a female critic took several swipes at Christopher Nolan's vision. I have to agree that the dreamscapes are remarkably prosaic - rainy NY streets, hotel, an empty city of lakes and high-rises and, most boring of all, an arctic bunker a la James Bond.

I am hoping Nolan would respond by saying that the visions are the boring businessman not his. But where was the surrealism that makes dreams such a challenge usually in film? Where was the wondrous colour and strange juxtaposition? Dreams should be something unlike life - not like so many dull action films. I fear also the lengthy dream level set in the arctic had the film loosening it's grip on me.Also, while it was good that the Cobb - Ariadne relationship doesn't devolve into a standard love story, I have the sneaking suspicion that this could be because Nolan really has no idea how to write a credible female character. The potentially fascinating character of Mal is written rather large as a man's nightmare woman - it is thanks to the hypnotic Cotillard that she emerges as a haunting creation. It's very much a Boy Film - it's very father-based, mothers are never referred to. I also found it rather irksome that the whole film was ultimately resolved by a daddy and kids Happy Ending.The performances are all luckily from the same dictionary of dreams page. Leo has a role which is surprisingly an echo of his last one in SHUTTER ISLAND - husband haunted by the death of his wife having flashbacks to his boy and girl playing in the garden! Like, Leo... let it go lover! Actually he gives another fine performance. He is nicely partnered by fellow former child-actor Gordon-Levitt who gets the best of the hotel sequence.Tom Hardy steals every scene he's in as Eames the laconic forger who can change into any likeness in any dream, his sardonic lines give the film a much needed dash of humour. Ellen Page is fine as the architecture student who realises Cobb's obsession will jeopardise the job and Ken Watanabe is fine although sometimes incoherent as Saito while Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite give telling cameos as the fathers of Cobb and Fischer.

Constant Reader, you will know I have rated Marion Cotillard's performances in LA VIE EN ROSE and NINE and here again she gives a film a vibrant shot of genuine pain and febrile intensity as Mal, so you yearn for her next appearance. I just wish Nolan had given her more screen time.I am sure the film will intrigue and have filmsites a-buzz for a while, how long it lives in the memory though will have to be seen. I would however recommend you see it on the big screen while you can as the film will diminish if seen on a smaller screen.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Back in 1986 there was a great PBS 4-part series called BROWN SUGAR based on Donald Bogle's book chronicling the lives of the 20th century's great black female singers - well, this is my version!

The only place to start is with The Empress of The Blues, Bessie Smith.

She set the template for so many biographies to come - impoverished childhood, huge acclaim, good times, bum times, abusive cheating husband, affairs with both sexes, slapping down anyone who crossed her and sadly, a tragic death at 43 which has long been the subject of rumour and conjecture.

73 years after the car crash that rich, pure, voice lives on - to inspire, to move, to thrill.
Last week I ventured into the pinkest place possible. No Constant Reader... even pinker that that.

O's bro and sis-in-law were in town which was the spur needed to go to the Savoy to see LEGALLY BLONDE, the latest show that is slowly turning the West End into a living version of a dvd shelf in your average HMV.On arrival it soon became clear that the show is now an event - there were quite a few groups of pink-stetsoned, balloon-trailing larger-sized women out on a jolly. Needless to say, if it moved it got a round of wild applause.

Through careful maneuvering I have managed not to see the original film so I was unfamiliar with the actual plot though of course these sausage-in-a-greenhouse tales write themselves.

Like the similar-themed SISTER ACT it goes like this
  • take your sassy, noisy heroine - here uber-girly Elle Woods
  • waste no time setting up your situ - dumped by posh boyfriend for better class girl
  • then re-locate - Elle gets into Harvard Law School after a few nights cramming. Yes.
  • triumph in new situ - Elle wins a court case on her knowledge of hair care
  • cop off with quiet guy - the show ends with Elle loved up with Emmett from her class
Now I realise I am flying in the face of all opinion of this - that it's FUN FUN FUN - but feck me it's also THIN THIN THIN.

Again like SISTER ACT, it is in such a rush to keep moving on, on, on - just in case the film-loving audience will riot in the theatre because they can't fast-forward the action - that it's like you are watching a non-ending trailer. Just once - once - I wanted it to stop and just be... give us a minute to connect, to feel some empathy.

Ah you say, but Elle is just a cartoon-y dumb blonde, but compare - for a very obvious reason - Audrey in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS who through the clever placement of "Somewhere That's Green" in the middle of the first act gives you a moment to stop and feel real empathy for the character. Elle is given no solo number in the first act, no point of genuine connection.

Mind you, it helps when you have a song like "...Green". In all the reviews I have read variations on "The score is not too memorable but..." But? BUT?? It's a musical damnit - the score should be the most important element of the show.

Owen thought all the songs sounded like rejects from WICKED and I can agree with that - they all sound like pastiche Broadway songs and the arrival late-on of a superfluous but original patter-song "There! Right There" aka the "Gay or European" song sadly only shows the opportunities lost. Even more so as this is followed up with the show's title song which gives us the stupidest use of a title in a song ever.

What makes the show a success however is the game performances of the cast. Peter Davison was quite effective as the nasty Law lecturer but Richard Fleeshman almost seemed to fade from the stage as you watched him. However Alex Gaumond as Emmett has an interesting quality on stage, his timing was a bit slow, a bit Schwimmer-esque so he always seemed a bit out-of-step with the rhythm of the scenes which I guess helped the character.

I have to say the biggest surprise of the show was the delightful supporting performance from Jill Halfpenny as that most tiresome of devices the loved-and-lost best friend. She had a great American accent and invested this sadsack part with immense charm - her eventual hooking up with Chris Ellis-Stanton's studly UPS man was sweetly done.

But of course the show is a vehicle for Elle and I suspect the real reason for the show's SRO status is down to Sheridan Smith.She deserved her standing ovation - of course - at the curtain for making the show as enjoyable as it was although she ultimately wasn't doing anything she hadn't done a few years back in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.

However she has developed into that rare thing - a gifted comedy performer who is also an excellent musical actress and an undeniable theatre star. It's 12 years ago since I first saw her as Red Riding Hood in the Donmar revival of INTO THE WOODS and it's great that she has continued to return to the theatre despite her success in television.

I just wish the show had given us something other than a relentless diet of e-numbers. Too much pink icing can lead to theatrical diabetes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rainy London and all round blahness happening?

Kick it away with the all-round poptastic Alphabeat's HEAT WAVE...

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Any doubts that Emma Thompson is movieland royalty were quashed with her being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today. Here she is at the unveiling with two-time co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal and her Footlights pal Hugh Laurie.

It can be found on Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Pig 'n' Whistle pub - how very English!
It's 25 years since I first met Emma when she starred with Robert Lindsay in ME AND MY GIRL at the Adelphi and her career since then has filled me with almost paternal pride!

Friday, August 06, 2010

I am gobsmacked - about now twenty-eight years ago - twenty-eight years - I was standing in the front row of the Olivier at the National Theatre applauding and cheering the cast of Richard Eyre's revival of GUYS AND DOLLS having seen it for the first time.

It was a night that literally changed my life and as I have often said before my eterenal love and affection go to that amazing cast of actors:

William Armstrong, Mark Bond, James Carter, Ian Charleson, Sally Cooper, Julie Covington, Irlin Hall, David Healy, Fiona Hendley, Bob Hoskins, Rachel Izen, Julia McKenzie, John Normington, Robert Oates, Bill Paterson, Kevin Quarmby, Robert Ralph, Barrie Rutter, Bernard Sharpe, Belinda Sinclair, Imelda Staunton, Harry Towb, Larrington Walker, Richard Walsh, Norman Warwick, Kevin Williams.Stars all... some shining from afar now.
Er... who came up with THIS adline - and under this picture???

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Like Miss Mansfield, Constant Reader, I am all behind! So a quick catch-up...

We went to see how the HAIR company are faring these days now that Will Swenson who had played 'Berger' has left the show. Well I can report that the understudy and former Tribe member Steel Burkhardt has slipped into the role with ease and in fact the show seems to flow a little easier without Swenson's overly-manic performance.There was no Caissie Levy as 'Sheila' so we had Megan Reinking who although she has a similar voice didn't really have Levy's control so she sounded a bit loosey-goosey when belting.

However the show was still a fantastic experience and as we were in the fifth row, a bit scary being so close to the marauding hippies! It was great to be close enough to see all the interaction between the actors - especially when Gavin Creel had to start the title song again after he ran his fingers through a co-star's hair that was just a bit too manky for Gavin!

Of course we were also close enough to be among the first ones up on the stage at the end... well after I had buffaloed over the rest of our row.
It was nice to linger on the stage after - Owen had a chat with Woof (aka Luther Creek) who had come over to complement O on his beard and I had a wee chat with the ever-chatty, ever-approachable, Chrissie (aka Allison Case). Her rendition of the glorious FRANK MILLS never fails to get me blubby so it was nice to tell her so!London will be the lesser for their disappearance after 4th September.

Last week Owen booked to see GUTTED: A REVENGER'S MUSICAL which played a couple of days at the Riverside Studios before making it's way to Edinburgh.
Now I had no idea what it was all about... and I suspect Owen didn't either, however what he did know was that one of his cultural heroes was playing a featured role - none other than Jim Bob from Carter USM!

What, no programme - not even a photocopied sheet?? I was less than impressed and even less so with the Soho media-type audience who all seemed to know each other. Loudly. Director Chris George popped up to tell us that as it was just a preview it would be nice to laugh as loud as we could - oh and that one of the cast had not been able to make it so someone was standing in! Needless to say my heart was sinking by the time the lights went down.

But damn it all.... it was HUGE fun. Martin White and Danielle Ward's show is a sort of delirious mix of KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS and THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW.

It's the wedding day of Sorrow (the delightful Helen George) to her super-posh boyfriend (the unstoppable Colin Hoult) so everyone should be happy, right? Wrong. Sorrow has tracked the posh bloke for years after finding out he murdered her parents when she was young and now she has him, not only in her wedding photographs but in her sights.

However there is also his awful family to deal with... literally, as they keep turning up at the wrong time. An obnoxious cousin to be smothered, an aunt harpy to be dispatched with a rake, etc. However there is the chance of future happiness with the friendly gardener (Doc Brown). But Sorrow is haunted by Fate (well... a trio of them to be precise) so no one is guaranteed a happy ending.The cast is full of rich comedy talent - The Penny Dreadfuls aka David Reed, Thom Tuck and Humphrey Ker played the ghoulish figures of Fate as well as the three policemen after the murderer while Michael Legge was a prissy, hysterical vicar spouting truisms like "When you sin it's like God sticking his finger up your bum and you have to smell it for the rest of your life"!

Margaret Cabourn-Smith was an acerbic housekeeper, Doc Brown had an appealing presence as the young gardener with a love of M&Ms (but not the peanut ones) and Jim Bob felt his way through his roles of a washed-up pop star and Sorrow's ghostly Dad but did them both with an undeniable charm.As mentioned, Helen George was a delight, a good voice as well as sharp comic timing but the undeniable star of the show was Colin Hoult who did an Alec Guinness and played all the members of the ghastly rich and nasty family - disappearing and re-appearing in quick-change after quick-change and coping disdainfully with recalcitrant props. He was huge fun.

The score was amiable rather than memorable but it is the sort of show that carefully nurtured in a small theatre could become a big cult hit. I wish them well!

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