Saturday, October 30, 2010

This week we finally got to see PASSION at the Donmar. You know the year is speeding by when that show it seemed absurd to book so far in advance for is suddenly the next day.

I had deliberately not read any reviews for this production but I was worried going in as Jamie Lloyd is not a favorite director and I had heard there was 'streamlining' of the score - this worried me as the score for PASSION seems so hermetically-sealed that it's hard to see where trimming could take place without disrupting the flow.

However very soon into the show I was forgetting all my worries. Jamie Lloyd, for all his speeding problems, has directed the best version of the show I have seen. The original London production was top-heavy with the casting of Michael Ball and the over-rated Maria Friedman and the Bridewell production - as was usually the case with that theatre - was slightly under-whelmingly cast. But here, the production is as intense, focused and driven as the play's anti-heroine Fosca, it has the hothouse atmosphere of an invalid's sickbed.
The musical has a book by James Lapine and is based on Ettore Scola's 1981 film PASSIONE D'AMORE which is itself based on the novel 'Fosca' by Ugo Iginio Tarchetti. Tarchetti died of Tuberculosis aged only 29 while writing the novel so the strange, feverish nature of the story can be fully understood knowing that fact. The original production ran only nine months from 1994-95 but still deservedly won the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Score, Book and Actress for Donna Murphy.

Giorgio is an army Captain who is enjoying a passionate affair with the married Clara which is interrupted when he is drafted to a remote outpost. He is warmly welcomed by Colonel Ricci and Dr. Tambourri while being viewed somewhat suspiciously by his fellow soldiers for his literary interests. He soon learns there is another inhabitant of the outpost, the Colonel's sickly cousin Fosca who stays in her room and whose agonised cries are heard often.
Giorgio lends her some of his books and Fosca makes a rare appearance at dinner to thank him for his generosity which he confesses in his letters to Clara he only did at the prompting of the Doctor. It is soon apparent that Fosca has become obsessed with the handsome Captain and haunts Giorgio wherever he goes, driving him to distraction. His attempt to end their friendship leads to a decline in her health and the Doctor begs him to see Fosca again. Fosca asks one thing of him - that he writes her a love letter which she dictates much to his discomfort. He later learns she was married once but was swindled of her fortune and left destitute.

The constant drain on his emotions takes its toll and Giorgio becomes unwell. However he cannot bring himself to go on a lengthy sick leave which angers his superiors and makes him the subject of barrack room gossip. Giorgio slowly begins to question whose love is more real - Clara's carefully managed trysts or Fosca's total devotion. The news that Giorgio is to be transferred leads to a hysterical collapse from Fosca and the Colonel, suspecting Giorgio has led her on, challenges him to a duel...

Sondheim's lush score seems to never pause for a moment, using several leitmotifs to keep the music swirling around the mind only coming to rest really for two wonderfully pure love songs - or declarations of intent - sung by Fosca "I Wish I Could Forget You" and "Loving You". I defy anyone to listen to the score and then make the complaint that Sondheim is not a romantic composer.

The production has no interval so the plot's momentum is allowed to sweep one along unlike the original London production which had an interval after the scene where Fosca dictated the letter to Giorgio and which completely destroyed any intensity.

The usual Donmar design suspects are also much in evidence - Christopher Oram's stark set of three rounded double doorways beneath a painted faded mural of classical lovers is aided immeasurably by Neil Austin's romantic lighting, grey/blue for the outpost or warm sunlight for Clara's Milan.

The role of Fosca demands an actress who can turn on the intensity and Elena Roger can certainly do that. The Donmar's artistic director Michael Grandage is getting a lot of use out of her: she was his Evita in the West End, his Piaf at the Donmar and beyond, now she is Fosca... he must be scouring the shelves to see what will fit her ripe personality next as she ain't the easiest performer to fit in a show. One might suggest Googie Gomez in THE RITZ!

Her intensity and heavy accent at first pull the focus a little as there are no other attempts at Italian accents in the cast and I *did* fight hard to get the images of Edith Piaf, Rita Moreno and Liliane Montevecchi from colliding in my mind but slowly the intensity became muted and she had a wonderful quality of stillness in her solo numbers, you could feel the audience holding it's breath as she sang them.

She has been unfairly picked on by some - yes Whingers - but I am glad she played the role - it could have been Jenna Russell playing another Sondheim female role in an 'ecky thump' Northern accent.David Thaxton was new to me and I thought he excelled in the role of Giorgio, he has a fine singing voice and although his singing slightly overshadowed his acting he is still a name for the future methinks. Scarlett Strallen played Clara and, despite a worrying degree of Langfordism (Bonnie is her aunt) in voice and expression, she also was fine.

There was excellent support from Allan Corduner as the meddlesome Dr. Tambourri and David Birrell as Colonel Ricci. Birrell was sporting an eye patch from the incident in early October when the gun he uses in the duel scene misfired and led to him being hospitalised and a few shows cancelled as the Donmar has a no understudy policy. I should praise too the nine piece orchestra under the musical direction of Alan Williams for their rich, full sound.

It may not be one of Sondheim's more popular works but you will find PASSION a haunting experience if you can get a ticket.

Friday, October 29, 2010

This week the time had come to go back to the bosom of the Bard, namely Nicholas Hytner's production of HAMLET at the Olivier Theatre.Right from the start, with the roar of a fighter plane and the appearance of Francisco, Bernardo and Marcellus in greatcoats carrying assault rifles, the production sets up a Denmark on a war footing while the second scene presents us with a West Wing-style court with Claudius giving his opening speech to a news camera team while security men and apparatchiks linger in the background.

Yes it's a very 21st Century Elsinore, well alluded to with little details like Hamlet and Laertes having to obtain Claudius' signature to leave the country with their passport as evidence and Polonious showing Ophelia surveillance photographs of her with Hamlet as well as planting a tape recorder in the book she carries in the 'Nunnery' speech scene.It was earlier in the day that I realised this would be my first HAMLET at the Olivier since seeing Ian Charleson - gulp - 21 years ago. I have blogged before that I doubt I will ever see a HAMLET to rival Ian's - his suffering from the AIDS virus which would claim him less than three months later gave his performance a power beyond the written word. Indeed once or twice I found myself moist-eyed remembering him, in particular the "We defy augury" speech which I will never hear bettered.

From his opening scene Rory Kinnear set off on an interesting course: pugnacious and sardonic, a hard-edged melancholia but with a very masculine gentleness in the soliloquies which he spoke beautifully so you almost felt you were hearing them a-new. His was not the most immediately winning of Hamlets but I warmed to his performance and this seals his place at the top-table of current stage actors. It also seemed to be more of a performance than a star turn so he certainly banished memories of Jude Law.
The other big selling point of the show was to see Clare Higgins as Gertrude and she gave a memorable portrayal of a professional First Lady who grabs the nearest drink whenever she feels the attention is off her which, of course, sets up her incredulous refusal at Claudius' entreaty for her not to drink in the final scene. It was good that the modern dress choice of the production didn't mean they dropped the end of her speech about Ophelia's drowning - "her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up" which was absurdly cut in Michael Grandage's production at the Wyndhams last year.

Oh and speaking of that production, sadly here again Gertrude has to suffer the indignity of having practically the smallest royal wardrobe! Mind you, she was spared the indignity of Penelope Wilton's cardigans, going instead for a tight-fitting sheath dress, occasional matching suit and tottering high heels. Sadly while she was being bounced from couch to couch in the closet scene the thought of Miss Piggy suddenly sprung to mind. Don't blame me Clare, blame Vicki Mortimer's costume and the hair-stylist.

Sadly for me, the biggest mis-step in the production was the Claudius of Patrick Malahide. I was looking forward to his interpretation but again, very early on I got the mental image of Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons" and nothing in his vocally thin performance could shift that.
David Calder has also a bit of a let-down as Polonious (looking frighteningly like Charles Clarke!) - this is where the Grandage production triumphed in the great double-act of Kevin McNally and Ron Cook in these roles. However Calder was more effective as the Gravedigger. Giles Terera was also a lightweight Horatio - mind you, he was scuppered from the get-go by the awful idea of having him wear light brown hush-puppy boots.

I liked Ruth Negga's contemporary Ophelia very much although I'm not too sure of the directorial conceit of having her wheel a shopping trolley around in her mad scenes. It was however a nice touch to have her distribute her character's props badly wrapped-up as gifts to the others during the "Rosemary" scene instead of the usual straggly weeds.

Hytner has added a tiny silent scene after her final scene where Ophelia is snatched by two secret service men and bundled away. I am not sure if the idea of Claudius having Ophelia bumped off actually works - does he suspect her derangement would lead her to betray him? - but it was an interesting touch.

Alex Lanipekun's Laertes was easily swamped by whoever he was playing against but Jake Fairbrother was a very convincing Fortinbras - again sharing his obituary of Hamlet with an embedded tv news team.

It is a tribute to Hytner's direction that the three and a half hours running time slipped by unnoticed and he kept a grip of the narrative throughout. Vicki Mortimer's palatial boxed set swiftly changed from location to location with a particular emphasis on windows and hidden doors and Jon Clark's lighting design also deserves praise.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A few days after hearing Stephen Sondheim deconstruct Noel Coward - and not in a good way - we were at the Old Vic seeing DESIGN FOR LIVING by the latter.
I had never seen the play before so was curious to finally get to see it, to say nothing of it balancing the year nicely having seen PRIVATE LIVES in February.

PRIVATE LIVES is a good reference point for the play as again it deals with lovers who can't live with each other but who also find it difficult to be apart. They are also potentially totally insufferable, Coward merely makes everyone they come into contact with cartoonishly boorish or silly. It helps having performers who can keep the shuttlecock of brittle comedy aloft and here the play is graced with three actors who, more or less, prove adept at this.As much as I enjoyed the production, the 2 hours 40 running time couldn't always keep momentum and there were noticeable longueurs in the first and second act, usually when it settled down to just two characters talking. Anthony Page's direction was as smooth as one would expect but it could have whipped along a little quicker in these scenes, the second act reunion of Gilda and Otto seemed to go on and on and on.

The love triangle between Gilda & Leo & Otto would appear to also include the chaps having had a relationship before they met her and Page ramps this up with hands held and a full-on snog. Not having seen the show before, I'm not sure how much is in the original stage directions although Coward certainly drops enough clues in the text.

Oddly enough the play, when produced initially in New York in 1933 with Coward, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, had no problems but in England the censor banned the play until 1939 with Rex Harrison playing Coward's role.

The mix-and-match lovers were led by Lisa Dillon's scintillating Gilda, effortlessly slinking around Lez Brotherston's sumptuous sets and displaying the maddening, quicksilver quality that Coward would surely have loved. The men didn't quite match her stylish turn but Andrew Scott showed a delightful comic touch as the temperamental playwright Leo - his sudden splenetic fits of rage were huge fun. Tom Burke however was only occasionally interesting.

Angus Wright's very tall and vocally ponderous 'straight man' to the trio of lovers literally over-tipped the balance of the scenes he was in - imagine The Addams Family's Lurch attempting high comedy. Maggie McCarthy, however, scored with each of her appearances as Leo and Gilda's maid in Act 2.All in all, it was an entertaining production of one of Coward's key plays.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The persistence of Memory is at the heart of Samuel Beckett's KRAPP'S LAST TAPE which we saw at the Duchess Theatre last week. Memory is a tricky thing. What is remembered and how much should it be revisited?
The decrepit Krapp, who we later learn is an author, every year on his birthday stirs himself from his torpor and records a message of what is happening to him. Consulting a dusty ledger (they must get through a lot of talc with two shows a night) he chooses a diary recording from when he was 39 and we listen along with him as his middle-aged self expounds on how his magnum opus will seal his status as a great writer and also his loss of a lover.

We were primed by the production manager - in person, mind, no recording ironically - to ensure that all phones and pagers had to be silenced before the play started. As the play's stony silence played out I have to admit that I was on the edge of my seat STRAINING for the silence to be shattered by a tinny version of "Single Ladies" or some such. Only when Gambon actually started speaking could I on some way relax... it was mental torture!I was intrigued by the production as I have never seen KRAPP'S LAST TAPE and it was a pleasure to let the richness of Beckett's poetry seep in and the clues to the mystery of Krapp's past being dropped along the way.

You need an actor at the top of his game to pull off the sheer concentration needed to keep the tension throughout and Gambon is certainly that. It was a fine performance but at no time did it surprise me - I got the performance I was expecting. Gambon's physicality was there as always - I did wonder however how many of those hand gestures were the same as press night as he loves to embellish - but I felt that director Michael Colgan had drawn the 'business' out to the nth degree so that, although, this was my first KRAPP - as 'twere - I could second guess each of the moves.

The Irish actor Patrick Magee was the inspiration for the piece and I would love to see an actor with his brillo-pad abrasiveness play the role, Gambon's mellifluous speaking voice was more Baileys than Sarsons.

Still, for all it's vague predictability, Gambon gave us a memorable miniature of lost chances and sorrowful regret.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I haven't given you a helping of Brown Sugar lately which is very remiss as I have a long way to go with them!

Here I peel a banana to the effervescent Josephine Baker, she may not have been the best singer to come out of the early 20th Century flowering of American black performers but she had that undefinable *something* which has made her to this day a cultural icon.

As with some of her preceding Divas, Baker came from humble beginnings and had known hardship for most of her life until her dancing skills saw her progress through clubs to Broadway chorus lines where her frequent facial mugging and quicksilver movement soon made her a favorite with audiences, if not her fellow-chorus girls.

By the mid-twenties she had arrived in Paris whose citizens welcomed her animalistic quality on stage with open arms and soon she was starring at the Follies Bergeres which featured her performing her famous version of the Charleston in her skirt of artificial bananas. Her onstage semi-nudity seemed to come natural to her and she was soon the toast of French intelligentsia. Although she married a Frenchman in the 1930s, Josephine was not adverse to women as well including a relationship with Frida Kahlo.

The 1930s saw her refining her persona to that of a sleek chanteuse and starring in two successful films "Zouzou" with Jean Gabin and "Princess Tam-Tam". By now she had adopted her song "J'ai Deux Amours" as her anthem: 'I Have Two Loves / My country and Paris" although America paid scant interest in her when she returned for an engagement with the Ziegfeld Follies. She remained in France during the Nazi occupation. Like Édith Piaf, Josephine was involved in covert work for the Resistance and after the war she was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

In the 1950s she adopted 12 children of different nationalities called her 'Rainbow Tribe' but this led her into financial problems which meant she had to constantly work to provide for them. In 1951 she was also involved in a nasty incident at the Stork Club in New York when she was affronted at being kept waiting for an hour for her meal and accusing the club of racism left the club, accompanied by Grace Kelly who refused to go back ever again. Her complaint against the club was dismissed four years later.

She died in 1975 aged 68, four days after opening at the Bobino Music Hall in a musical celebration of her 50 years in show business. She had been found surrounded by newspapers carrying rave reviews for her show. Now that's a way to go.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

In the past week we have been to two music events - one of which was mostly all talk, go figure Oh Constant Reader.

Last Saturday we saw Stephen Sondheim interviewed on the stage of the Festival Hall by Jude Kelly. I have never seen an event like this at the Festival Hall and I'm not sure the space served the event well but Sondheim at 80 has quite a few stories to tell and he was as entertaining, analytical and candid as ever.

He also proved adept at gently deflating Kelly's over-articulated analysis of some of his themes, he's been to the interview rodeo so many times he must be used to having to parry such thesis'.

There were occasional snatches from his scores and Sondheim also was wryly amused at the mismatching slide show that was shown while the song played. The slides were from his shows in chronological order - but the songs were not. It would have been better had the visuals gone with what we were hearing (the best disconnect was "Being Alive" played over pictures from SWEENEY TODD!) but Sondheim laughingly said after one such interlude that it was a brilliant idea for a musical, one where the songs had nothing to do with what was happening on stage - actually Steve I think I have seen some dog shows like that!

The show was to coincide with the publication of his first collection of lyrics with added analysis of his process and I bought a pre-signed copy, it's already proving to be a great "dipping-in" book.
On Wednesday we chomped our way through the usual uninspired Jazz Cafe food just in time for the start of Gavin Creel's solo show. There was a connection too as Gavin appeared in the first production of Sondheim's troubled last show BOUNCE (which will play the Menier next year in the re-written guise of ROAD SHOW).

Gavin was returning to London after his recent run in the wondrous revival of HAIR at the Gielgud Theatre but now he was not hiding behind his beads and Claude wig but out there on his own performing his own songs. Gavin proved to be as captivating a presence as himself then when he is playing a character.
Gavin has one album and one e.p. under his belt and a selection of recently-written songs that will be the basis for an album hopefully next year. I was hearing all the songs for the first time and they impressed me with their from-the-heart lyrics and great melodies. I liked "For Nancy" a no-doubt autobiographical song of a son coming out to his mother, "Radio Lover" which is his hymn to pop music, "Might Still Happen", "Love Fell Down" and "Hot Ohio" which he dedicated to a former schoolfriend who moved to London and was a few tables down from us. He also has a delightful presence on stage - chatty and irreverent.

He attempted a cover version of George Michael's "Faith" which was charming, mainly because he dried on the chorus lyrics twice! He fared better with his own take on the dreaded "I KIssed A Girl".

We hung around long enough to tell him how much we enjoyed the show and to tell him belatedly how much we loved HAIR and we had seen him in New York on the eve of Snowmageddon. Bearing in mind he had just come off after a 90 minute show he couldn't have been more charming and gracious. He is hoping to be back next year with the new album and it will be a delight to see him again.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Matthew Bourne's iconic production of SWAN LAKE opened last night at New York City Center for a limited run of four weeks and to celebrate this The Swan and his menacing eyrar invaded Times Square and no doubt ran amok...
In the past week I have been to the National Film Theatre (BFI South Bank m'arse) twice - yes Constant Reader, just like the old days.

First off it was to see a little-seen Michael Redgrave film from 1939 A WINDOW IN LONDON directed by Herbert Mason. I had not heard of the film - it doesn't even rate a mention in Alan Strachan's biography of the actor - but it turned out to be an intriguing little gem.
It's quite remarkable to consider how quickly Redgrave had established himself - A WINDOW IN LONDON was filmed only five years after he made his professional stage debut and in that time he had become a star of classical revivals with seasons at Tyrone Guthrie's Old Vic and with John Gielgud's company at the Queens Theatre.

He had left Gielgud's season early to make his film debut starring in Hitchcock's 1938 classic thriller THE LADY VANISHES and his film career took off immediately - in 1939, the year he made A WINDOW IN LONDON, he also starred in two Carol Reed films: CLIMBING HIGH with Jessie Matthews and THE STARS LOOK DOWN with Margaret Lockwood as well as A STOLEN LIFE with Elisabeth Bergner. Oh and starred in the premiere production of T.S. Eliot's THE FAMILY REUNION... and all this while aged 31.

In A WINDOW TO LONDON, he plays Peter, a crane operator working on the building of the new Waterloo Bridge. His wife Pat (Patricia Roc) is a night-time switchboard operator in Dolphin Square so they hardly see each other. One morning when his tube train goes overground, he sees a man stabbing a woman through an open window. He races to the house with a handy policeman to discover what Peter saw was an illusionist Zoltini (Paul Lukas) practising a trick with his wife Vivienne (Sally Gray) who is also his glamorous assistant.

The press report the incident and Vivienne's smarmy agent friend manages to get them a booking through the resultant publicity but Zoltini's hair-trigger jealousy leads to yet another argument and she storms out midway through the act - straight into Peter who has come to see their act. Needing an escape from the world, Peter takes her - ahem - up the crane and he gives way to her sultry charms. She takes him to a swanky party at the agent friend's apartment but finds she has left her bag at the crane. The obliging Peter goes to fetch it only to find the vengeful Zoltini waiting for him...
Peter and Zoltini have fistycuffs which results in Zoltini's plunge from the bridge. What now for our hapless hero? Will Peter face the gallows for murder? What of his marriage now he is under the spell of Vivienne? There are two more neat twists to the plot before all is resolved.

Although the characters become little more than pawns to the screenwriter's fevered plotting, the winning performances of the four leads have won you over as their lives spiral out of control and keep you onside despite the twists and turns of the last act. Patricia Roc is a trifle insipid as the nice girl but Mason wisely concentrates on Redgrave, Lukas and in particular Sally Gray in the main. Sally Gray makes a memorable femme fatale and one can quite imagine how the sex-starved Peter would fall for her sultry charms. It's a shame she is not as well-known as she should be.

The film has a wealth of London locations and it was intriguing to see the building of Waterloo Bridge with the open vistas on each side of the Thames. The film was shown with a 1944 short film LONDON TERMINUS which covered a day at Waterloo Station. It was quite fascinating seeing the main concourse looking not that different from it does today but to see little details lost to us now such as the timetable being changed by a long pole closing the wooden slats with the names written on them and the surprise of seeing a news cinema inside the concourse. It made for a hugely enjoyable Friday evening double-bill.

The second trip was to see Ronald Neame's 1963 screen version of Enid Bagnold's play THE CHALK GARDEN which had the all-star cast of Deborah Kerr, John & Hayley Mills and Edith Evans.
Bagnold's play - which was given such a memorable production at the Donmar in 2008 - was adapted by John Michael Hayes (who wrote the screenplays for four Hitchcock films including REAR WINDOW) but very little of what makes the play so remarkable remains in the film. Where the play is primarily about the war of wills between the eccentric but formidable Mrs. St. Maugham and the governess she has employed to manage her wilful grand-daughter Laurel, the film moves the focus to the governess Miss Madrigal and Laurel thus making it an amiable teen rights-of-passage film instead of something deeper.

It's not that the performances are at fault although I have never been a particular fan of either Kerr or John Mills. Edith Evans deserved her Academy Award nomination for her stately performance and Hayley Mills shows that she was a child actress who really could hold her own against the best adult performers. It's not even that the film itself is bad - Ronald Neame's direction is measured and manages to sustain the underlying tension as to what is the secret of Miss Madrigal's past. It's just a bit smothered by the standard Ross Hunter high-gloss production.

It's just a letdown that the play could not have been adhered to more - Edith Evans would probably have won the Academy Award if the adaptation had included Mrs. St. Maugham's final showdown with her daughter who arrives to take back her daughter.

The screening was introduced by Julie Harris who designed the costumes for the film. Now in her late eighties, it was a delight to hear her recollections on the making of the film and a quick shufty at her filmography shows that her next two films were A HARD DAY'S NIGHT and CARRY ON CLEO - how versatile can you get!