Friday, June 24, 2011

See there IS a God.... I had doubts whether the hilarious US comedienne Kathy Griffin would ever come and play over here as her act is so based around US celebrities and politics but last Sunday there she was - playing a sell-out show at the Palace Theatre. So of course there I was too!

After a suitably diva-ish wait we were treated to the usual rapidly-edited video introduction to all things Kathy - from her early stand-up act through to appearing with Brooke Shields in the sitcom "Suddenly Susan" and onto her cameos in films ("Pulp Fiction"), tv shows ("Glee") and even pop videos (Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady"). There was also clips from her reality show "My Life On The D List" and her controversial appearances on tv such as the all-women chat show "The View" and the CNN New Year broadcast from Times Square with straight-laced Anderson Cooper when she screamed at a heckler "SHUT UP - DO I COME TO WHERE YOU WORK AND SLAP THE DICKS OUT OF YOUR MOUTH?"

And there she was! She was utterly hilarious, working her way through the few UK celebrities she had sussed out and her appearance a few days earlier on The Graham Norton Show with Cameron Diaz and Bear Grylls who needless to say came in for some severe shit-taking thanks to his Born-Again tweets and posh background.

She was very impressed by the audience being so aware of "right-wing nutjobs like Michele Bachmann - she said she played a gig in the South recently and there were unaware of her and her protestations that slavery was stopped by the founding fathers of the country!

In her 2 hour show Kathy mostly took well-aimed, beautifully-timed jabs at her favorite targets: Oprah Winfrey, Whitney Houston, Gwyneth Paltrow and most pleasing of all, Sarah Palin who recently pathetically called Kathy a "50 year old bully" - as if her knuckle-headed comments don't amount to a rally-cry for bullies everywhere.

I have enjoyed Kathy's eleven tv specials on YouTube as I presume the rest of the heavily gay audience had and I am being generous in saying that the excitement of finally seeing her in the flesh maybe provoked the near-hysterical response to her every statement. After a while it got really wearing, as if they were all trying to out-do each other in braying,

However nothing could stop me finally enjoying Kathy in the flesh! A woman after my own heart "I only talk about people behind their backs. It's called manners."

To give you an idea of the way she spins real life into her act here is her recent run-in with THE VIEW co-host - and right-wing bimbo - Elisabeth Hasselbeck (it's hilarious to watch the unease of the other co-hosts)

and here is Kathy's side of it:
Memorable Theatre Performances #10:
Chris Tummings as 'Ray Pierre' in THE HARDER THEY COME (Barbican/Playhouse, 2008)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

There were two more events at Ray Davies' Meltdown Festival that need commenting on.

Ray invited his fellow 1960s singer/songwriter Alan Price along to do a turn with his band at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and, because we had only ever seen him before in the quaint but cramped backroom space in the Bull's Head pub in Barnes, Owen decided on seeing him in a more traditional setting.
The last time he was certainly entertaining, singing his signature choons while holding forth behind his keyboards with folded arms like your worst grumbling granddad about alimony payments, the modern world in general and what with the price of coal... Here we got the dour act again but with more of a twinkle in his eye and he was certainly good fun.

I didn't have long to wait before he did the song I had hoped to hear, "Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear"! Yes you can keep your faux-New Orleans blues stuff... give me Randy Newman at his Vaudevillian best and I'm happy!

Alan is definitely a musician's musician. I say that because he certainly let his band members show what they could do, almost to the detriment of the show... I mean, a drum AND a bass solo? Admit.

However we also got wonderfully muscular versions of I PUT A SPELL ON YOU, DON'T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD, O LUCKY MAN, THE HOUSE OF THE RISING SON and much to Owen's pleasure, THE JARROW SONG.

He made a good addition to the Meltdown experience.On Saturday afternoon we had a hugely entertaining few hours in the company of Mr. Ray Davies himself on stage at the National Film Theatre in conversation with his good friend Julien Temple for a look at the films that shaped him growing up in the 1950s and through into films from the 1960s that reflected the times he was helping to shape.

Temple had edited together collections of film trailers that ranged from Ealing comedies to westerns, Hollywood historical epics to Carry Ons, Hammer to European arthouse and UK 'kitchen sink' films to the "swinging" films of the late 1960s.

Ray treated us to anecdotes of his filmgoing years - how he went with his courting older sisters to act as a juvenile chaperon, how he and brother Dave would recreate the westerns in their Muswell Hill bedrooms etc. I loved that he said that ever since BREATHLESS he had been searching for a Jean Seberg lookalike, he found an American girl who looked like her from behind (!!!) and took her to Paris just to have her walk up the Champs Elysee calling out "New York Herald Tribune?". The relationship didn't last the weekend.He was also very perceptive about BLOW-UP and PERFORMANCE, thankfully shattering the illusions of the obvious film fans in the audience by saying that, although he could appreciate them in a certain way, they were also testaments to a bygone age even as they were being filmed - that the film-makers were projecting onto "swinging London" their own sensibilities when in reality the momentum that had brought that era about had fatally stalled. I have always felt both films to be shockingly over-rated. Poor Ray kept returning to PERFORMANCE as he felt the cineastes in the audience were in a profound state of shock.After a break they screened two TV plays that Ray had appeared in. The first was a Play For Today from 1970 called THE LONG DISTANCE PIANO PLAYER about the attempt by a fragile pianist to break the record for the longest time a piano is played, for some unknown reason in a rundown Manchester church hall. It was nice to see Norman Rossington as the pianist's tough manager and a young James Hazeldine as his assistant but the play strained for a profundity that simply wasn't there and at 80 minutes it could have done with about 50 minutes taken out.

Bless him Ray is many things but he is no actor which was also shown in the second, shorter, TV play called STARMAKER from 1974. He co-starred with the delightful June Ritchie and told the story of a rock star who decides to take over the life of a nobody so he can write an album about 'real people' - or does he?

The show was entertainingly cringeworthy watching the TV studio audience reacting with bemused incomprehension at the action taking place all around them but it slowly worked it's charm and in the end it was an interesting take on the idea of stardom.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Time to clamber aboard the Meltdown Time Machine at the Royal Festival Hall... this time it was to celebrate READY STEADY GO! with past alumni and sympathisers.It was a really buzzy, happy audience - and we were star-studded, people... the star was Glen Matlock - sat behind us yet - and the stud was Cheryl Baker.

I was never aware of READY STEADY GO while growing up although I was certainly aware of Cathy McGowan as a media 'face'. I caught up with the shows when they repeated heavily-edited editions in the late 1980s on Channel Four - they had fallen into the hands of Dave Clark so instead of ad breaks there were interspersed clips of the Dave Clark Five with obviously-edited-in footage of screaming crowds.

However what I saw I loved... acres of Dusty footage of her being fabulous - my favorite was a clip of her singing EVERY DAY I HAVE TO CRY where she had an obvious fit of the church giggles after bumping into a frugging member of the audience while miming. It also was the first time I saw Motown diva Kim Weston when she was introduced by The Beatles no less singing the glorious A LITTLE MORE LOVE.

Sadly no Kim tonight - in fact there were no Motown acts which surprised as RSG was the acknowledged launchpad for Motown in this country - and of course there was no Dusty but there was a tribute, more of which later. What there was however was the chance to see three singers I have great affection for.First up was The Manfreds fronted by himself, Paul Jones - I have history with him on the South Bank. He took over from my beloved Ian Charleson in the NT's GUYS AND DOLLS in September '82 and every time PJ would come on for the first mission scene and the song I'LL KNOW - I fell asleep. Every time. In the front row. Oddly enough I stayed awake for him in THE BEGGAR'S OPERA which was on at the same time! Anyways they kicked the show off with the show's theme song 5-4-3-2-1 which was as good a way to start and PJ's showboating kicked in during an extended version of DOO WA DIDDY DIDDY.

After an amusing turn by Dave Berry - in full panto mode - and an endless set of only 2 songs from the stage school diva-stylings of Paloma Faith - the evening kicked it up a notch with the appearance of Carl Barát who brought a bit of good old fashioned star quality and some raucous rock n roll glamour to the proceedings. Then it was time for the actual reason for going... ladies and gentlemen, Miss Sandie Shaw.

SCREAAAAAAAAAM! I have always wanted to see Sandie Shaw on stage and assumed it was never going to happen but there she was RESPLENDENT in a fringed pink coat, lacy pink top and pink shorts.. and barefoot. Sadly she only did THERE'S ALWAYS SOMETHING THERE TO REMIND ME and GIRL DON'T COME (sat on the stage waggling her feet over the apron) but there she was - grinning from ear to ear, bouncing over the stage and looking so damn HAPPY to be there, she was utterly winning.

As if my heart couldn't take any more, on sauntered my very dear close personal friend David McAlmont and launched into a wondrous version of the anthemic McAlmont & Butler YES - damn it was good to hear it in this widescreen version - the last two gigs I have seen David do have been at most with piano, drums and bass - YES is a song that demands HUGE sound, HUGE strings, HUGE everything... and it was a joy to hear it done so loud.
Next cab of the rank was Nona Hendryx who had the longest time on stage... now it was great to see her so ultra-professional stage persona and magnificent arse encased in skintight leggings and of course, hear an original LaBelle sista WORK "LADY MARMALADE" but you can have too much of a good thing and as her anti-apartheid song WINDS OF CHANGE clocked onto it's 11th hour it smacked of favoritism - she is the girlfriend of Vickie Wickham who produced the show as she did the original READY STEADY GO. She followed this up with another marathon funk-workout called SWEAT - if she had done BABY A GO GO which Prince wrote for her it would have cheered me immeasurably. I was sweating for her to get off.

I should have mentioned that the show was - ahem - compered by Annie Nightingale - um, I know she is rock royalty and all that but damn she was like the walking dead, hair by Phyllis Diller, legs by Twiglet and wearing a purple sack dress that just hung on her like a shiny potato sack. It was embarrassing to see, especially compared to the soignée figure of Biba herself, Barbara Hulanicki who popped up to be interviewed onstage.After a short 2 song - 2 songs, Nona!! - set by young r&b/grime singer Loick Essien which was easy on the ear it was time for another visit from Planet Diva... the majestic Ronnie Spector. Honey she worked those heels... all 4' of her made large by teetering stilettos and a lioness mane of back-combed and messed-up hair, she wiggled and teased as she has been doing since the early 1960s and you knew why she is the old rocker's pin-up of choice...with boobs as big as her voice she turned in faultless versions of BE MY BABY, BABY I LOVE YOU and WALKING IN THE RAIN - I had tears of joy in my eyes!After Ronnie lifted the edge of her shirt one last time as she sauntered off it was time for a little tribute to our fallen Queen Dusty. After a ropey version of I ONLY WANNA BE WITH YOU from Nona Hendryx - who REALLY should have known better - it was time for an enjoyable evening to reach it's climax.

David McAlmont came on again and told a nice anecdote of how when he and Bernard Butler appeared on the 1995 episode of LATER... with Dusty, Sinéad O'Connor and Alison Moyet and was told by mistake that he would be singing back-up for her - it turned out it was just going to be the women. Crestfallen, he was visited the next night at his dressing room by Dusty and she presented him with a small bouquet of Freesias that he still has pressed in a book. Awww....

He then launched into a stunning version of YOU DON'T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME that just built and built and climaxed with David, arms outstretched, palms aloft and his voice effortlessly riding the music for the final "Belieeeeeeeve meeeeee" - I was on my feet as he ended the final note. Apart from the singalong ending his was the only standing ovation of the night.

It took a while after this glimpse of musical heaven to notice that Paloma Faith was on stage again with a karaoke SON OF A PREACHER MAN then did the best thing she did all night - introduced Ray Davies to duet on LOLA, joined by most of the performers. For the second night in a row, the Festival Roof was lifted to the mass singing in praise of a Soho transvestite. The hilarity was the song ended and while they were all milling about on stage, Sandie Shaw leaned into the nearest mike and started singing "Lola, lo-lo-lo-lo Lolaaaa" and started it all off again!!!

And another fabulous Meltdown omnibus show trundled off to live in memory.

Friday, June 17, 2011

This is the dawning of the Age of The Meltdown!

Yes Constant Reader, we have been a-visiting the South Bank a bit to sample what Ray Davies has cooked up for his tenure as curator of the annual Meltdown Festival.
The first show was the kid himself, Mr Ray Davies with his current band.

The first section of his show started, as usual, with Ray and his guitarist Bill Shanley playing a loose acoustic set - my personal highlights included "I Need You", "See My Friends", "Misfits", "Dedicated Follower of Fashion", "Set Me Free" and "All Day and All Of The Night". Also as usual, Ray threw most of his Kinks classics open for the audience to sing-a-long, which I always find a bit of a surprise - especially when he sings an extra chorus after the applause dies down to get the audience singing again. What this section always shows is what a gifted guitarist he has in Bill Shanley.After a while the other members of his band snuck on and again his extensive songbook was given a thorough airing with great performances of "Well Respected Man", "Where Have All The Good Times Gone", "I'm Not like Everybody Else" and audience-rousing "Sunny Afternoon" which of course took place "in the summertiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime"!

During the show my attention was constantly being diverted by the vaguely amusing sight of a clutch of *ahem* 40-something women who occasionally ran down the aisles to stand in front of the stage to do some dancing that only missed their handbags on the floor to complete the image. The ushers were not having any of that however and after a verse or two shooed away the Rayettes to their seats again.Ray of course left the best til last, ending with four songs that any writer would have given their eye-teeth to have written but luckily for us were written by him; songs that all beat with a true Londoner heart "Waterloo Sunset", "Days", "You Really Got Me" and "Lola".

And yes, Constant Reader... "Waterloo Sunset" again hit me right in the tear ducts. I had just started to type "I wish I knew what it is about this song that...." but on reflection I *don't* want to know what it is about that melody and that choice of words that has such an immediate emotional effect on me - every time. The only other song I can think of that has such an effect on me is Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday" from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.To go from that intense personal experience of "Waterloo Sunset", to "Days" with all it's memories, to the barb-wire whiplash of "You Really Got Me" to the the lyrical slyness and life-affirming generosity of spirit within "Lola" is to celebrate the genius of Ray Davies, songwriter.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Memorable Theatre Performances #9:
Helen Mirren as 'Lady Torrence' in ORPHEUS DESCENDING (Donmar, 2000)

"Tough, feisty, calloused by an awful marriage, she still managed to suggest a yearning, a tenderness and finally a joy deep within" - Benedict Nightingale, Independant

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sometimes you eventually get to see an elusive film and you wonder not only how on earth you managed all this time without seeing it but also why the film itself is such a hidden treasure.

On Friday I finally saw Carlos Saura's CRÍA CUERVOS at the National Film Theatre - BFI Southbank m'arse - and sat entranced, puzzled, and moved by it.

This milestone of Spanish cinema, filmed literally in the dying gasp of Franco's rule, is an allegory of the stifling grip the dictatorship had on the Spanish psyche through the story of an imaginative but sad little girl trying to comprehend the emotions of loss.

The film stars the astonishing child actress Ana Torrent (who was nine at the time of filming) in only her second film after her haunting performance in Víctor Erice's THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE in 1973. Her blank, wide-eyed stare follows you for hours afterwards.

Ana is the middle daughter of a military general (Héctor Alterio) living in a large house in Madrid but the busy city rarely impinges on their shuttered rooms or forlorn walled garden with it's drained swimming pool. Although close to her sisters, Irene (Conchi Perez) and Maite (Maite Sanchez), Ana is still quietly distraught at the recent death of her mother Maria (Geraldine Chaplin). The lonely girl gravitates towards the family's no-nonsense maid Rosa (Florinda Chico) who also looks after their maternal Grandmother (Josefina Diaz), wheelchair-bound and speechless.One night Ana sees a woman running from her father's bedroom in distress, when she goes in she passively observes him dead, seemingly from a heart attack. Ana empties his bedside glass of milk into the kitchen sink and meticulously cleans it.

The three girls seem non-plussed by this new tragedy but are dismayed when they are told that their new guardian will be their strict aunt Paulina (Mónica Randall). As Paulina attempts to stamp her authority on the girls and a resentful Rosa, Ana continues to imagine conversations with her dead mother. Another layer is added by having the adult Ana (Chaplin also) address the audience of her memories from that time.Ana's odd behaviour on the night of her father's death is slowly explained during the film: her mother asked her once to throw away an old tin saying it was dangerous to keep. Ana believes her mother to mean that it's a deadly poison and, thinking her father was ultimately responsible for her mother's early death she 'poisons' his glass of milk. The contents are revealed to only be bicarbonate of soda but Ana's belief in it's lethal qualities comes into play later in the film.

There are so many memorable scenes: the three sisters dancing to their only record, the oppressively jaunty pop song "Porque Te Vas" by Jeanette; the strict aunt's absence one day giving the sisters the chance to play dress-up with her clothes and make-up leading to a game of "mummys and daddys" in which they re-enact their parents arguments; the grandmother staring forlornly at photos on a wall of her lost youth; Ana accidentally wandering into her mother's bedroom as she lies contorted in agony, and most poignant of all, Ana's reverie of her being told her favorite bedtime story by her mother's ghost only for her to vanish a few minutes into it.This was the first film that Saura finally had complete artistic freedom over after a 15 year career of battles with Franco's censors and it tells with his sure grasp on the film's narrative, tone and imagery, in regards to which, the current restored print is marvellous - it's clarity and rich colours make you doubt you are watching a film over 35 years old. The film's odd diversions and elliptical moments are easy to go with as you are always aware that here is a filmmaker fully connected with his vision.

Saura's allegory of the Franco regime is easy to read with hindsight but at the time it must have seemed a radical statement of how things would be changing in the not-too distant future. It is telling so much of the film is about the holding on to memory as a way of dealing with loss, as even now, Spain still struggles to reconcile itself to aspects of the Civil War. I was struck too how certain aspects of the film reflect Lorca's THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA with it's closeted daughters, all-knowing maid and the grandmother left alone to her thoughts and memories.
Saura's vision also accounts for the excellent performances he elicits from his ensemble. The battle for the control of the children is beautifully played by Florinda Chico as plain-speaking 'Rosa' and Mónica Randall as the aunt 'Paulina', Saura taking care to show she is not in herself a bad person, just one unable to read the family situation.

As I said earlier Ana Torrent gives one of the finest performances by a child actress ever, all the more so as you are never aware of Saura 'manipulating' her performance from her. The surprise for me was Geraldine Chaplin. Hard to believe that this is the same actress who has given such milquetoast performances - here as the dead mother 'Maria' she gives a performance of arresting subtlety, complexity and strength.

CRIA CUERVOS, which won the Grand Jury prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival is a film which truly haunts you.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Last week it was time for my second Terence Rattigan play in this, his centenary year. Following on from FLARE PATH, we now have his last play CAUSE CÉLEBRE, he died four months after it's premiere at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1977.The Rattigan revival was kicked off last year by the huge success of Thea Sharrock's production of his little-remembered second play AFTER THE DANCE at the Lyttleton and here she is reunited with her stage designer from that production Hildegard Bechtler to work their magic again - and they do.

Rattigan based his play on a 1935 murder trial that had haunted him. In 1934, in that febrile hothouse Bournemouth, 18 year old George Stoner answered an ad in the Daily Echo "Daily willing lad, 14-18, for house-work; Scout-trained preferred. Apply between 11-12, 8-9 at 5 Manor Road, Bournemouth". The ad was placed by retired architect Francis Rattenbury, 67 and his younger songwriter wife Alma, 39. Before long Alma and George were openly having an affair with Francis' tacit approval as he was not only impotent but a heavy drinker. Six months later, the police arrived in the early hours to find him with his head bashed in and Alma in a state of drunken hysteria.

Alma and George were put on trial for murder in an atmosphere of lurid press headlines that played up the "experienced woman - innocent lad" angle. In a sensational outcome George was found guilty but Alma was found not guilty. A few days later Alma took a train to Christchurch near Bournemouth, found a spot near the River Avon and, believing her lover soon to hang, stabbed herself to death.

The irony was that after a petition of 320,000 signatures, his sentence was commuted to Life. However, in 1942 he was released on early parole, joined the army and fought in WWII, and was even reported to have been seen in the audience at Her Majesty's seeing his 18 year old self be seduced by Glynis Johns as Alma. He died in 2000 aged 83 on the 65th anniversary of the murder.Rather than retell the sad story as is, Rattigan seeks to spotlight the atmosphere of sexual hypocrisy that the case was rife with by contrasting Alma's trial with the fictional story of Edith Davenport, a sexually-frigid, emotionally-cold woman whose own marriage is collapsing due to her husband's small affairs and her puritanical attempts at keeping her teenage son with her and away from the temptations of the world. Out of the blue she is summoned for jury duty - and to her horror, is made foreman of Alma's jury.

He neatly shows that while Mr. Davenport's dalliances for sexual gratification are seemingly understood and turned a blind-eye to by society, the same cannot be granted to Alma whose sexual frustration is seen as something abhorrent especially when her lover is a younger man, the poor boy preyed upon by a wicked woman. The fact of a woman being judged more for her morals rather than any perceived crime had been the case over ten years before with the tragic hanging of Edith Thompson and was certainly a factor twenty years later in the case of Ruth Ellis.Rattigan said he didn't have far to look for his inspiration for Edith as he based the emotionally-fraught scenes between her and her sexually curious son on the relationship between him and his mother. In a remarkably hard-edged performance, Niamh Cusack excelled as Edith, a woman who finds at the end of the play that the woman she despised but could not find guilty thanks to her own morality, could not live on because of her own morality.

She was complemented well by Simon Chandler as her husband John, exhausted by years of living by her rules and Lucy Robinson as her more gregarious sister Stella, mad with excitement about the latest gossip from the jury room.Rattigan has great fun with the legal scenes in showing the court-room cat & mouse games between the defense and prosecuting councils are merely the public jousting to revenge losses between them on the golf courses. Nicholas Jones is a stand-out as T.J. O'Connor, Alma's wily Defence Council who gambles constantly with his handling of her case.

In a a role that only amounted to two bookend scenes, the consummate supporting actress Jenny Galloway still managed to shine as Alma's live-in companion Irene Riggs and Tommy McDonnell was a cocky and dangerous-to-know George in this, his professional stage debut. The echoes of AFTER THE DANCE were in the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch's father Timothy Carlton as the doomed Francis.
But the show was rightly dominated by Anne-Marie Duff's high-voltage performance as Alma. First seen playing with the gauche George by adopting a stolen-from-the-movies divinely decadent lady of the manor demeanor, the play's structure of flashback scenes had her moving from bring strained and drawn in court to be blindly hysterical while blindly drunk to being finally a shattered woman, her declared innocence a hollow victory. She was mesmerising.

The play's strangely amorphous quality where scenes move from place to place, forwards and back in time, betray it's origins as a 1975 radio play which starred Diana Dors as Alma (wow!) - both Rattigan's radio script and an initial stage version were edited together by the director Robin Midgeley with the ailing Rattigan re-writing when necessary. Thea Sharrock however keeps a firm grip on the narrative and the play is helped immeasurably by Hildegard Bechtler's set which opens up the whole of the Old Vic stage with walls constantly moving between scenes to provide new vistas with several hugely effective uses of the stage's depth. Again these visually arresting scenes emerge from the shadowy gloom of Bruno Poet's dreamlike stage lighting.When Rattigan wrote his play he left out some intriguing facts about the case: Alma was actually Canadian, having met George in 1923 while he lived and worked there as an architect of some renown Alma's first husband was killed in the Battle of the Somme and she volunteered to be a nurse in the French Red Cross where she was wounded twice in action and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Her second husband was a Pakenham so was distantly related to Lord Longford who later was such a supporter for the release of Myra Hindley.

When George's first wife refused him a divorce he harassed her mercilessly - stripping their home of furniture and turning off the power. He eventually moved Alma in and forced his wife to live on the first floor until she eventually agreed to a divorce and they were married in 1925. These actions were seen as in the Canadian newspapers as a shocking scandal. In 1929 they left Canada after his first wide died and his sons by that marriage disowned him. So his murder at the hands of Alma's lover 12 years later was headline news here and there.

The Rattenbury's youngest son John was evacuated to Canada in WWII and eventually, following in his father's footsteps, became an architect and joined Frank Lloyd Wright's practice helping with the design of the Guggenheim Museum amongst others.

Monday, June 06, 2011

C'mon... did you know that Emma Thompson and Alfred Molina had starred in a Carmel video in 1987?

Friday, June 03, 2011

Constant Reader, you can get set into certain ways of doing things.

Brushing your teeth, arranging your cds, putting on socks... and going to the theatre. You can settle into a certain West End Boy way of seeing things so in the spirit of the Arab Spring last Saturday I thought it was time for a change.

We left the smoke behind us to experience the untrammeled soil of the provinces. Um, Dartford. Well there *were* comps with my name on them waiting at the Box Office.Ah the years just rolled away to when I worked with the actor's agency and the countless excursions to the provinces to see clients in touring productions in theatres usually up sideroads and *never* signposted, joining the hardy perennials who did the Saturday matinees, that clatch of women in their prime who always wore their best Crimplene for their theatre visits - and God bless 'em for it.

Well times haven't changed and we joined the ladies who theatre, the quiet couples and the single rather furtive-looking men in the generic civic-centre style foyer of the Dartford Orchard for the quaintly-named FIVE BLUE-HAIRED LADIES SITTING ON A GREEN PARK BENCH.
During the play my mind wondered - it wasn't difficult - to the countless productions of plays like this that criss-cross the nation at any given time, and how - or why - audiences still turn up.

An alleged comedy by John A. Penzotti, it can be filed alongside STEEL MAGNOLIAS or CALENDER GIRLS, plays that can be easily toured with a standing set and a cobbled-together cast of ex-soap stars.

Sigh, what can I say? They were not blue-haired and they didn't sit on green benches.This is no reflection of our five gallant ladies of the stage. With the determination and guts that has kept them still keeping on, the titular-ladies were my very dear and close friend Miss Nicola Blackman, Anita Harris, Shirley Anne Field, Anne Charleston and Lorraine Chase. If you already don't have whiplash from the time-travelling involved reading those names, the cast was rounded off with Frazer Hines, Christopher Beeny and Tom Owen. I will let you have a breather after that.

Five women - some widowed, all lonely - have become friendly sitting on the same park benches in Washington Park Square. They pass the hours talking about their former lives and oddly enough their approaching deaths which I am fairly certain is the last thing on most peoples minds when talking to friends.So far so amiable but needless to say over the course of the year one by one the women disappear - and also needless to say with this playwright - the remaining women don't pass comment on their shrinking number until finally ex-jazz singer Lala, played in Nicola's best show-stealing stylee, is the last one alone. She is confronted by a stranger who tells when her former compadres died, tells her she is in fact now dead too and magics up a 60's sequined cocktail dress, a slash glitter curtain and flashy lighting signalling she can now headline in Heaven. Nicola obliged with a sassy rendition of "Miss Otis Regrets".

The second act finds our heroines reunited on white park benches in Heaven where they can now introduce their spouses to each other and clear up old arguments. Sadly by then the writer had totally run out of steam and was reduced to homilies like "Home is where the heart is", "Love makes the world go round", "It's better to have loved and lost..." etc. etc.As further proof of the writer's cluelessness, there is an over-reliance on references to famous stars: "Honey I bent over backwards for him more times than Elizabeth Taylor on her wedding nights", "You have more shoes than Sarah Jessica Parker" etc etc ad nauseum. Each name landed with a more desperate thud. His biog reveals he was an editor of Soap Opera Update magazine. It shows in his writing.

As I said, the women of the cast deserved better than the rather leaden direction and woebegone script. The male actors appeared late on in the second act and made no impression whatsoever.The leading ladies have a good chemistry together - and it's always a joy to see Anita Harris - but even their combined talents can do little with this wobbly vehicle.

Oh by the way, in the Dartford Orchard foyer there is a digital clock counting down the days to the opening of the panto starring Craig Revel Horwood as the Wicked Queen - no stretch there - and Anne Widdicombe as Widow Widdy.
"The horror... the horror" - it's hard to know who to be more angry with... the management for doing it, them for accepting it or the punters who will legitimise it by paying to see it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

When I heard that the Union Theatre were reviving Lionel Bart's "play with music" FINGS AIN'T WOT THEY USED T'BE I was cockahoop. I have been a fan of the original cast recording - recorded live - for some time but suspected that the show would not be revived as the lyrics certainly betray a certain dated quality. But I should have guessed that the Union, the home of the unlikely revival, would come through. Yes the show has dated in parts - and the production has a few distinct problem areas - but it won me round in the end. It certainly made me imagine how dynamic the original production would have been.

In 1959 Frank Norman submitted his first play to Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at Stratford East. It's story of Soho heavies and prostitutes - drawn from a milieu that ex-con Norman knew all too well - was too bald for Littlewood and she hit on the inspired idea of suggesting they show the script to Lionel Bart, a successful pop song writer who had recently written the lyrics for his first musical LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS to turn it into a play with music. The result was a huge success and the show transferred to the Garrick where it ran for 886 performances and won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.

The original cast - captured 'live' on the album - was one you would now kill to see: Glynn Edwards as Fred Cochran, the crook who owns a gambling club/brothel, Mariam Karlin as Lily, his long-suffering girlfriend who runs his decrepit knocking shop, James Booth as Tosher, Fred's second-in-command who pimps his two brasses Rosey and Betty, played by Barbara Windsor and Toni Palmer, Wallis Eaton as the camp interior decorator Horace, Tom Chatto as the bent local Police Inspector and, among the supporting cast, a young Yootha Joyce.
Phil Willmott's dimly-lit production did itself no favours by starting off with the cast bellowing out the numbers at the top of the volume which was ridiculous in such a confined space - I have rarely heard such an overbearingly loud noise - even the most experienced of them, Neil McCaul as Fred, barked out his lines and songs like he was on the Palladium stage.

People.... read, your, space.

The entrances and exits were at times a bit haphazard and the whole thing seemed to need a firmer hand controlling it as it's quite a large cast of characters and at times it was hard to get an idea of who one was supposed to be concentrating on.

Also I want to single out Richard Foster-King who played Horace, the camp interior designer. I have never seen such an over-emphasised, ugly, performance. His horribly over-the-top delivery totally ruined Bart's charming "Contempery" - imagine if you will the bastard offspring of Larry Grayson, Julian Glover and Frances de la Tour. Only camper. His screaming and lisping made me seriously consider leaving at the interval.That's him at the back of the picture being strangled by McCaul. If only... But despite this hideous performance and over-pitched delivery, slowly the show began to settle down and I found myself enjoying the show as much as I had hoped to.

Hannah-Jane Fox who it appears is a West End leading lady thanks to four years in WE WILL ROCK YOU played Lil with a gentle restraint - but all it took was a short reprise of "The Ceiling's Comin' Dahn" by Ruth Alfie Adams' weary-but-rough tart to show how great she would have been in the role. I did however like her performance of "Where Do Little Birds Go?" that stopped the show for Barbara Windsor.
The show was stolen by the partnership of Hadrian Delacey's crooked Inspector Collins and Suzie Chard's dizzyingly voluptuous tart Barbara - imagine a talented Jodie Prenger. Their tough-but-tender relationship was fully believable and they performed "Cop A Bit o'Pride" with a real élan.

I also liked Ian Rixon as Fred's 'gopher' Billy who nabbed all the funny lines going and Jo Parsons also made an impression as Tosher, a young cocky wide-boy quietly nursing his ambition for all that Fred has. The trouble with Norman's script is that the characters all have a moment to step up but the storylines are all left hanging as he cuts to a quick denouement to wrap up the Fred/Lily story - a storyline that seemed to be a cockney reflection of GUYS AND DOLLS' Nathan and Miss Adelaide.

A special mention must go to Nick Winston's choreography which makes the most of the wide but shallow stage although it was only a matter of time during Suzie Chard's raucous number "Big Time" that one of the jitterbugging couples would send one of the front row pub tables go a-clattering!

So despite the quibbles - and shiteous performance by Foster-King - I am glad I finally got a chance to see this show with it's delightful score and see a few performers that I will keep an eye open for in the future. It certainly helps to put Bart in perspective - it's frustrating that OLIVER! seems to be the only one of his shows that get's revived.

Maybe the Union Theatre would like to have a go at his Liverpool musical MAGGIE MAY which starred first Rachel Roberts then Georgia Brown during it's run at the Adelphi in 1964.