Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dvd/150: CAT AND MOUSE (Daniel Petrie, 1974, tv movie aka Mousey)

An uneasy psychological thriller short on psychological insight and thrills and as gloomy as it's autumnal Canadian locations.  Were the 1970s really this drab?


Kirk Douglas - in usual teeth-grinding style - is George, a biology teacher ridiculed by his pupils after failing to dissect a mouse and when his wife Laura divorces him he descends into a homicidal state.


Laura was pregnant when they met and her marriage to George has always been unhappy so when she leaves with her son to marry a prosperous architect, she looks forward to starting life in a new home... miles from anywhere... very remote. Can you guess what happens?


Daniel Petrie's uninspired direction leaves an interesting cast - John Vernon, Bessie Love, Sam Wanamaker, Beth Porter - struggling to bring life to stock characters.


Jean Seberg, in her last English-language film, is luminous in the gloom but is defeated by her under-written role.


Shelf or charity shop? Shelf... but only for Jean


Friday, January 30, 2015

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC: 40th Anniversary Concert

...sort of.

The show premiered in New York in 1973 but the semi-staged concert we saw at the Palace Theatre on Monday was to celebrate 40 years since it's first London production.  It opened at the Adelphi with the deliciously characterful cast of Jean Simmons, Joss Ackland, Hermione Gingold, David Kernan, Maria Aitkin and Diane Langton and their cast recording is still my favourite version.


Owen took great delight in pointing out that, for all my ranting about the current trend of adapting films into stage shows, that A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC was based on Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles On A Summer Night".  Indeed Sondheim also did the screen-to-stage PASSION and is said to be working on a stage amalgamation of Luis Bunuel's THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE and THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL.  A subtle but important difference to MADE IN DAGENHAM and KINKY BOOTS. 

Meanwhile, back to the Palace (sounds like INTO THE WOODS eh?)  The Palace really is a frightful barn with a particularly gloomy auditorium but it was good to see it so busy for this one-off event.  By the end of it I was aching to see a full revival of the show!


We were treated to a cast that most producer's would chew their leg off to have - namely Janie Dee as Desiree Armfeldt, Anne Reid as Mme. Armfeldt, Jamie Parker as Count Carl-Magnus, Joanna Riding as Countess Charlotte and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Petra.

I felt David Birrell as Frederick Egerman sang well but was a bit anonymous when acting opposite Dee or Parker while Fra Fee as Henrik made the oddest noise when singing in his higher register (which his character does), he sounded like a gurgling drain.


What was enjoyable was getting reacquainted with Hugh Wheeler's exquisite book, the perfect setting for the jewel of Sondheim's score.  A great book should give you the impression that, stripped of it's songs, it can stand alone as a play and when original director Hal Prince described the show as being like "whipped cream with knives" that is exactly what Hugh Wheeler wrote, he mixes comedy and drama to perfection.

Even in the semi-staged setting, the best performers sparkled.  Janie Dee was a lustrous Desiree with her trademark champagne-dry wit and she sang SEND IN THE CLOWNS with a resigned sadness.  Yes, she muffed the final moments during the CLOWNS reprise but by then she had won us over.


Jamie Parker and Joanna Riding were marvellously paired as Count and Countess Malcolm, both finding their laughs with ease.  In his solo number IN PRAISE OF WOMEN, Parker showed off his considerable singing skills as he had in last year's GUYS AND DOLLS at Chichester and was huge fun too in the duet IT WOULD HAVE BEEN WONDERFUL with Birrell. 

Joanna Riding had the audience in her hand with her cutting lines and also duetted well in EVERYDAY A LITTLE DEATH with Anna O'Byrne's Anne.  It would be a lovely change for Anne not to be played as a hysteric but O'Byrne was on firmer territory when singing.


As the all-knowing Madame Armfeldt Anne Reid was enormously enjoyable, her withering put-downs were as dry as dust and apart from a tiny stumble during her solo number LIAISONS she sang it well and it would be great to see her in a proper production, if only for her to have a proper setting for her performance.  Madame Armfeldt actually has the very last moment of the action which was lost in a concert setting.

However the best performance was Laura Pitt-Pulford's Petra, the sly and sexy maid who knows exactly what she wants out of life and love.  What is interesting is how her solo number THE MILLER'S SON comes straight after SEND IN THE CLOUDS, two songs of great self-awareness, but the latter gives a supporting actress a real moment to shine.  Diane Langton's titanic version lives on through the London cast recording and I have seen Sara Weymouth and Kaisa Hammarlund seize that moment to shine and now I can add Laura Pitt-Pulford to that list. She was quite electrifying.


The onstage orchestra sounded great under the musical direction of the curiously-bouncy Alex Parker and although Alastair Knights' direction kept the show moving along nicely, Andrew Wright's choreography was a trifle redundant.

When one thinks of how often theatres are dark it would be nice to think that they could be utilised for similar semi-staged productions or for a seasons of them such as Broadway's acclaimed Encores productions where classic or little-seen musicals are presented.


Well done Duncan Bell for the photographs that capture the event.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

DARA, National Theatre

Following on from David Hare's BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS in the Olivier auditorium, we now have another play set in India at the National Theatre only this time in the Lyttelton.  Another difference is that while FOREVERS is set in present-day Mumbai, DARA is set in the 17th Century, but telling a true story that haunts India to this day.


Tanya Ronder has adapted the Indian writer Shahid Nadeem's 2010 play which tells the true story of two Moghul princes who fought each other to claim the Peacock Throne but whose personal enmity also was built on their different Islamic beliefs.

Emperor Shah Jahan is remembered as the man who built the Taj Mahal to the memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz but 25 years later his ailing health was the trigger for his sons to start battling to be his successor.  His eldest son Dara and his third son Aurangzeb emerged as the strongest contenders and battles raged for the next two years.  After a heavy defeat Dara was betrayed by an ally and was paraded through Delhi by a victorious Aurangzeb.


However it was more than sibling hatred that drove Aurangzeb to defeat his brother.  For Dara was a Sufti Muslim, seeking an inner truth in the religion and open to exploring the comparative ideas of other beliefs as well as writing poetry and meditations which are still in print today.  Aurangzeb however was a fervent Islamic fundamentalist.  Dara was put on trial for apostasy, found guilty and was summarily executed leaving Aurangzeb free to impose his hardline Islamic views on the country.  Well, Constant Reader, I am guessing you can see why this play is being staged now?

I had wondered whether I would be engaged by the play but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I will admit that a lot of my enjoyment came from Nadia Fall's handsome production: Katrina Lindsay's evocative marble palace of arches, steps and sliding metal screens conjured up that far-off world of power and opulence while the always excellent Neil Austin's lighting created striking images reminiscent of panoramic 19th Century paintings of mysterious Asian scenes.


There is also much to admire in Niraj Chag's score as played by 3 onstage musicians who provide a constantly involving soundscape to the action.

However despite the internecine plotting of Shah Jahan's fractious family - which also involves his sensible and loving daughter Jahanara who sides with Dara and the vindictive daughter Roshanara who allays herself to Aurangzeb - sadly I never really felt emotionally engaged by any of the characters.  They all go through the whole gamut of emotions and the religious arguments are well presented but none of the characters feel like they are being mined for depth, it all remains on the surface.


Sargon Yelda as Aurangzeb is suitably infuriatingly pious and Zubin Varla's righteous Dara are certainly well-played but again I felt that the writer didn't wish to explore them too deeply, it usually boils down to Aurangzeb glowering while Dara suffers nobly.

The structure of the play is also slightly off-kilter mainly because the long and exhaustive trial scene where Dara defends himself against the charge of apostasy comes at the end of Act One when one feels it would have been a better fit in Act Two.  At times during this lengthy scene I was reminded of the similar ones from SAINT JOAN and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS - I wonder if that was the intention?


There were other good performances - Anjana Vasan as Hira Bai the Hindu dancing girl loved by Aurangzeb, Vincent Ebrahim as Shah Jahan, Anneika Rose as the spiteful sister Roshanara, Emilio Doorgasingh as the exasperated judge of Dara's trial, Prasanna Puwanarajah as the Prosecutor and Chook Sibtain as Itbar the court eunuch who hides a savage anger.

I enjoyed the production and it plays at the Lyttelton Theatre until 4th April.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS at The Garrick Theatre


I was in two minds whether to blog again about THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, who have changed theatrical prisons from the Young Vic to the Garrick as it's a virtual straight transfer but last night, while reading Richard Eyre's collection of essays WHAT DO I KNOW?, I read this excerpt from the writings of theatre design visionary Edward Gordon Craig:

The Art of the Theatre is neither acting nor the play, it is not scene nor dance, but it consists of all the elements of which these things are composed: action, which is the very spirit of acting; words, which are the body of the play; line and colour, which are the very heart of the scene; rhythm, which is the very essence of the dance.

After reading that I thought that the notoriously mercurial Craig would go crazy at THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS as that quote describes Susan Stroman's production.


Since I saw THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS at the Young Vic in 2013 - do the clicky for my blog (shared with The Jersey Boys) here - the show won both the Critics Circle and Evening Standard Awards for Best Musical and was also nominated for 6 Olivier Awards.  It is great that the show is getting a second bite of the London cherry and there have been some replacements in an already exceptional cast.

The most obvious replacement is Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Paterson, the nominal leader of the nine teenage black boys wrongly accused of the rape of two white girls in Scottsboro, Alabama.  Dixon originated the role in 2010 and he was excellent, burning with a smouldering sense of his innocence.


For 21 years the Scottsboro Boys faced re-trial after re-trial, they saw execution dates came and go and heard one of their accusers recant her testimony only to still be judged guilty, until finally - long after the media had moved on - they were paroled in drips and drabs.  Haywood had managed to escape in 1948 but was re-captured in 1950 after a bar brawl which saw him sentenced for manslaughter.  He died in prison two years later.  82 years after that Spring day when they had been arrested, the nine Scottsboro Boys were finally exonerated by Alabama's governor.

John Kander & Fred Ebb's score bounces off the stage with it's mixture of "teeth, tits and tonsils" showstoppers and heartbreaking ballads but there is no padding, each song moves the action forward, illuminating the characters and the situation and also sounds sensational under Phil Cornwell's musical direction.


Susan Stroman's tight direction and exhilarating choreography still thrills, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon are still shining as the minstrel show comics Mr. Tambo and Mr Bones, James T. Lane is still stopping the show as the recanting accuser with "Never Too Late Ruby Bates" and the inventiveness and daring of staging it through the medium of a minstrel show still works marvellously well.

The show is on until 21st February... see it!


Dvd/150: LA BETE HUMAINE (Jean Renoir, 1938)

Loosely based on Zola's novel, Renoir's influential thriller is set in the Le Havre railway yards where the clattering, shrieking trains provide a metaphor for the characters' relentless journey to their destinies.


When stationmaster Roubaud realises his young wife Séverene was once her rich godfather's mistress he reacts violently, luring him onto a train journey to murder him making sure Séverene watches to incriminate her too.


However engine driver Jacques Lantier sees them leave the man's carriage.  Séverine implores Jacques to deny he saw them and another man is arrested.  As Roubard descends into jealous lethargy, Séverene and Jacques' relationship becomes a passionate love affair. 


Séverene suggests Jacques kill Roubard so they can escape but Jacques is hiding his own secret - moments of mental fugue which render him psychotic.


Renoir's masterly direction and great performances from Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Ledoux and Carette make this a classic of French cinema.


Shelf or charity shop? Sur le plateau bien sur!!


Friday, January 23, 2015

A Shaw thing: WIDOWERS' HOUSES, Orange Tree Theatre


Well last week was a novel experience - I went to a theatre I had never visited before!  Yes, Constant Reader, believe.

I have wanted to visit the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond for a while as they have a policy of staging little-seen and neglected plays but had hitherto put it off.  The news that they were staging George Bernard Shaw's 1892 play WIDOWERS' HOUSES was the spur to finally go.


My default setting for Shaw is "Oh my lord all those WORDS" but on reflection I find that more often than not I have enjoyed what I have seen.  Of his many plays I have seen MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION, HEARTBREAK HOUSE, PYGMALION and SAINT JOAN in the theatre, as well as having seen CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, MAJOR BARBARA, PYGMALION, SAINT JOAN and THE MILLIONAIRESS on film and television.  Yes that hectoring tone is always lurking in the background somewhere but I have enjoyed the plays seen.

WIDOWERS' HOUSES actually plays like a fast-paced drawing-room comedy but with lurking shadows among the teacups.  Shaw was 36 when it was staged at the Royalty Theatre in 1892 and it proved to be his first major success.  However it is not seen as regularly as some of his other works, I had only heard of one production before in 1970 at the Royal Court with Nicola Pagett, Frank Middlemass, Anthony Newlands, Robin Ellis and a young Penelope Wilton.  Mind you, it has only been staged on Broadway once - and that was in 1907!


Shaw sets up the play as a romantic comedy but then pulls the rug under our expectations.  Idealistic Dr. Trench is holidaying in Germany with his affected friend Cokane and has fallen for one of their fellow travellers Blanche Sartorius but although she is more than happy to reciprocate his feelings, Trench has to win over her stern widowed father, a secretive self-made man.

Back in London, Trench discovers that Sartorius has made his fortune from being a slum landlord, squeezing extortionate rates from tenants in poorly-maintained flats in deprived areas.  Sartorius even dismisses his unctuous rent-collector Mr Lickcheese for sympathising with his tenants' well-being.  Trench's shock is compounded when Sartorius reveals that the doctor's income is drawn from interest accrued from a mortgage on one of Sartorius' buildings!  Trench is further disenchanted when Blanche refuses to live without her father's 'tainted' money that has kept her in the style she has come accustomed to and they call their engagement off.


Four months later Sartorius is visited by a newly wealthy Lickcheese, grown rich by investing in a dodgy property company that renovates tenements to hopefully sell on or knock down for municipal building projects.  Sartorius' buildings - the Widowers' Houses of the title - are of interest to the company and Lickcheese hopes to persuade his former employer to join in the scheme so they can all get rich quick - including a certain doctor who has a mortgage on one of the houses.

Will Trench remain unsullied by the nefarious property deal or will he ditch his principals for a piece of the action and the chance to reconcile with Blanche?  It all leads to a surprisingly modern ending.


As I said, I was quite surprised how much I enjoyed the sharply defined characters and the swift pace.  The small in-the-round Orange Tree auditorium suited the piece well, giving the action an intimate immediacy.  

Simon Daw's design idea of having the playing area surrounded by a frieze of Charles Booth's 'poverty' map of central London helped to visualise the play's themes as these iconic maps were published around the time that Shaw wrote the play.


The Orange Tree's new Artistic Director Paul Miller's direction brought out Shaw's moments of comedy and drama in equal measure and he elicited strong performances from Patrick Drury as the commanding Sartorius, Alex Waldmann as the baffled Trench, Stefan Adegbola as the preeningly pretentious Cokane and it was a delight to see Rebecca Collingwood as the opinionated and 'modern' Blanche.  

We saw her last year in GRAND HOTEL, her final year production at the Guildhall Drama School, where she was an eye-catching and vivacious Flaemmchen so it was a thrill to see her again at the Orange Tree making her professional stage debut. Simon Gregor certainly made a splash as the oily Lickcheese - another of Shaw's working-class characters who refuse to know their place - but the Dickensian caricature he gave us was sometimes at odds with the more restrained performances around him.


As I have said, I was surprised how much I enjoyed WIDOWERS' HOUSES and hope to visit the Orange Tree again - even if the 'age specific' sold-out audience made it's small bar/foyer and narrow staircases a bit of a logistical log-jam.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Screen To Stage: WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN


I was in two minds whether I wanted to see WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN at the Playhouse.  I knew that, despite it's unsuccessful Broadway production, David Yazbek's score had it's admirers but there was one major problem with seeing it - I loved it's source material too much.


Pedro Almodóvar's 1988 hit film was the one that truly brought him to the world's attention although I had already fallen under his spell with his previous film LAW OF DESIRE (LA LEY DEL DESEO).  It confirmed to me how magnetic and talented his muse Carmen Maura was and marvelled at her emotionally true but luminous performance as Pepa which was the epicentre of the farcical action of the film with it's array of madcap characters.

So how did I end up seeing the musical?  Because after last Saturday's performance there was the particular thrill of Pedro himself being interviewed on the Playhouse stage joined by the show's director Bartlett Sher, star Tamsin Greig and Almodóvar veteran Rossy de Palma - like, wow!


So... how does it transfer?  I cannot say I am a big fan of Greig - I always feel she is standing outside of her character, 'commenting' on it rather than playing it - or Haydn Gwynne who played the dangerously sidelined wife Lucia, but by the end I was won over by the élan of Bartlett Sher's staging and the obvious respect for Pedro's work.

Actress Pepa is dumped by her lover Ivan which throws her into emotional turmoil and her attempts to contact him are frustratingly unsuccessful.  Pepa's despair is disrupted by ditzy model Candela who wants to hide in Pepa's flat as she has discovered her Arab boyfriend is a Shiite terrorist sought by police.  Both their traumas are disrupted by the arrival of Carlos and Marisa, a young man and his controlling girlfriend who are looking to buy Pepa's flat.  In the true spirit of farce, Carlos is revealed to be Ivan's son!  if that wasn't enough, they all have to contend with the arrival of Lucia, Ivan's deserted wife who is out for revenge... Oh did I mention the blender full of drugged gazpacho?


Despite committed performances from the cast and Bartlett Sher's smoothly stylish direction, the action cannot help but stop for the frequent musical numbers.  Yazbek's songs have a vibrant salsa vibe and are socked across by the onstage musicians, but it's difficult to keep the farce moving along like an express train when both female leads are given impressive but slow solo numbers.

Despite my misgivings I have to admit that Greig certainly held the stage as the distraught Pepa but never felt she really was ever out-of-control and Gwynne's Lucia was certainly a larger-than-life scene-stealer.  Anna Skellern was great fun as the hysterical Candela and Ricardo Afonso was very good as the sometime-narrator and Pepa's ever-ready taxi-driver.


I also liked Seline Hizli's bossy Marisa and Willemijn Verkaik's hissable solicitor Paulina, Ivan's new mistress, but Jérome Praden and Hayden Oakley were both a bit too anonymous as father and son Ivan and Carlos.

There was also a lot to like in Anthony Ward's economical set design of Pepa's split level apartment, Caitlin Ward's character-led costumes and Peter Mumford's bright and eye-popping lighting.


The after-show Q&A was a delight with Pedro being very gracious about the show and explaining where the inspiration for the show had come from while Rossy de Palma was great fun reminiscing about the filming of what was only her second film.  Bartlett Sher was insightful as to the show's creation and Tamsin Greig explained that the singing didn't come naturally!

I am already beginning to think that I might want to see it again,,,

Stage To Screen: INTO THE WOODS

"Sometimes the things you most wish for are not / to be touched..."

That lyric has stayed with me ever since I heard that Rob Marshall, the director of CHICAGO and NINE, was to film Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS which is one of my favourite shows.  Bearing in mind I couldn't abide his version of NINE with it's relentless cutting and disjointed story-telling, I quietly dreaded what he would make of Sondheim and James Lapine's cleverly constructed take on classic fairy-tales.  But despite some odd jangling changes, I enjoyed it.


INTO THE WOODS was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway and it is one of the shows that I love the most.  James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim took the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack, Rapunzel and mixed them up with their own characters of a childless Baker and his wife and a Witch who has lost her powers to show that there really is no such thing as Happily Ever After.

There is a recurring theory that this was written in 1986 in response to the AIDS epidemic with it's call for a united stand against all-encompassing threat that does not discriminate on who it takes and it's subdued rallying cry of "No One Is Alone" is a powerfully emotional moment.  That the film managed to hit that point made me happy.


What I found curious about the film was the oddly-unmagical feel to it.  There really didn't seem much sparkle to the first section of the film where we follow the retelling of the familiar stories, the tone seemed too downbeat and ho-hum.  Even the star casting of Johnny Depp as The Wolf came and went with hardly any impression.

The plot rewrites - although approved by Sondheim supposedly - do make the film seem a lesser work if you have know the stage version.  In the original, the character of Rapunzel is killed when she runs in front of the avenging giant's wife - here she simply rides off with her Prince to flee the danger.  That means that the reprise of the two Princes' song "Agony" has to be dropped which is a shame as it shows them already lusting after two new helpless heroines: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.


The film also has the Royal family riding off unscathed while the show has them also perishing, and Rob Marshall gives Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife a very subdued and confusing fate.  It's almost as if they could not bring themselves to illustrate characters dying, robbing the show of the desolation one feels when one sees the show.  It just seems another instance where a film adaptation judges it's audience to be more sensitive to things than in a theatre.

What made the film work for me were the three central performances.  Although Anna Kendrick was fairly anonymous as Cinderella, Emily Blunt and James Corden were surprisingly effective as the Baker and his wife, Blunt in particular revealed a fine singing voice.  Again though the film soft-pedaled her liaison with Cinderella's Prince to a rather chaste kiss.  The Baker's savagely mournful solo "No More" is also dropped from the film - was Corden not up to it vocally? - but otherwise he does give a charmingly heartfelt performance.


Dominating the film - and rightly so - is Meryl Streep as The Witch.  Although her entrance into the film is a bit cack-handed, she gives a charismatic performance which has just won for her a 19th Academy Award nomination.  Her soaring vocals on "Stay With Me" and "The Last Midnight" are quite wonderful.

The cinematography and costumes are both fine - although by the end of the film you are pining for some primary colours - and the score is wonderful to hear, it's worth sitting through the lengthy end credits to experience the full orchestral versions of "Stay With Me/Last Midnight". 


Despite the niggling annoyance of the omissions which rob the film of the show's profundity, it does succeed finally on it's own level, and us fans of the show have the great good fortune that the original stage cast reunited in 1989 to film the production and this is available on DVD.

I suspect I will add the film to it when it's released on DVD too.