Sunday, March 29, 2015


I am finding it difficult to write about the acclaimed production of Arthur Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE which has transferred from the Young Vic to the Wyndhams Theatre.  Not because of Ivo van Hove's production which grips like a vice but because of the action of one woman in the audience.

Miller originally wrote the play in 1955 as a one-act verse drama which was unsuccessful so he re-wrote it as a more traditional two-acter which premiered in London the next year in a production directed by Peter Brook with Anthony Quayle.

Belgian director Ivo van Hove has stripped the play down to it's bare essentials: an oblong playing area surrounded by a low ledge - and with on-stage seats on either side - feels like a bear-pit and with the single open door in the back wall there is the suggestion of a staging for Greek tragedy.  Miller acknowledged he was inspired by the Greeks in his story of Eddie Carbone who brings about his own inevitable destruction with a relentlessness worthy of Euripedes.

The white, brightly-lit, space serves for all the locations in the play - even the longshoreman's showers - but mainly for the claustrophobic apartment where Carbone lives with his wife Beatrice and her orphaned niece Catherine who has a deep attachment to him as a father figure.  Eddie has helped finance her secretarial school lessons but is upset when she accepts an office job before finishing her studies.  Exactly what fuels Eddie's smothering protection of his niece?  The situation is blown apart with the arrival of Marco and Rudolpho, two cousins of Beatrice who arrive illegally from Italy to stay in the Carbone apartment.

With no fear of exposure within the tight-knit Italian community, Eddie gets them work on the Brooklyn docks.  While Marco is quiet and respectful, just wanting to send his wages back to his impoverished wife, Rudolpho is more gregarious and a centre of attention on the docks with his blonde hair and love of singing at work.  Catherine is drawn to the fun-loving Rudolpho which triggers Eddie's jealousy and hatred of the younger man who he suspects is gay and using Catherine as his marital meal-ticket to stay in America.

When he realises that Catherine and Rudolpho have slept together, Eddie's jealousy consumes him and after first kissing Catherine he also violently kisses Rudolpho to show his niece what he thinks the younger man really is.  Eddie visits Alfieri, a lawyer who is trusted by the community (and the show's narrator), and hints at betraying the two men to the immigration department which Alfieri warns will make him a pariah.

But Eddie does betrays them and, when they are arrested that night, he dismisses the accusations of Beatrice and of Marco who contemptuously spits in Eddie's face.  Alfieri manages to get them bailed but begs Marco not to go after Eddie who, as he foretold, has been shunned by the community. But Marco wants his vengeance and Eddie wants his name restored, a stand-off that van Hove ends in literally a shower of blood.  It is left to Alfieri to close the play with a halting summation of the tragedy of a man who he will mourn "but with a certain alarm"....

...and it was at this moment in the play that the woman in front of Owen switched on her mobile phone.  

For it's two-hour running time, van Hove's pressure-cooker atmosphere built and built - aided by a constant ominous soundscape - to paraphrase Alfieri about Eddie, it was like a slow car-crash that you are unable to stop but can only view helplessly... all ruined by this stupid woman lighting up the first few rows with the light from her mobile phone.  Owen prodded her shoulder and asked her to please turn it off which she eventually did and after the cathartic relief of the ovation, she was railed at the two women sitting beside Owen and us both.

And what was her excuse for totally ruining the ending of this production?  In a self-righteous tone she whined "I had to check on the children".  That, Constant Reader, was when I LOST IT.  "Why couldn't you have waited FIVE MORE FUCKING MINUTES" I shouted at her smug puss.  Not once did she apologise, not once did that sense of entitlement waver.  

Frankly, I wanted to punch the fucker over the edge of the Dress Circle into the stalls.  On leaving the row, another couple were waiting to tell us they too had suffered through someone behind them rattling their last few Malteasers in a box toward the end of the play and fully understood our anger.  Which of course leads us on to why do theatres sell sweets that rustle and chocolates that rattle?  Why indeed.  And why didn't the Wyndhams give the usual announcement about switching off mobile phones, and why didn't the Circle usher race down to the woman and get her to turn off the phone?

I am sure if the hag had taken a photograph at that moment then the usher would have made her presence known so it leaves you to surmise that theatre managers are more eager to protect their rights over the rights of the audience.  John Waters has spoken about cinema audiences should become more militant - set light to projection booths if they show films out of focus etc. so maybe it's time for us as theatre audiences to have a similarly terrorist approach to idiots.

What angers me is that now this excellent production is forever going to be tainted by this stupid bitch and I don't want that.  I want to remember the excellent work of Mark Strong as Eddie, Nicola Walker as Beatrice who splendidly showed a woman slowly coming to realise the trouble in her marriage, Phoebe Fox's Catherine, Emun Elliott's Marco, Luke Norris' Rudolpho and Michael Gould's Alfieri.

Ivo van Hove's unrelenting direction leaves you breathless as he ratchets up the tension with every scene so any chance for salvation - Alfieri trying to persuade Eddie not to betray the men, Beatrice trying to tell Catherine to stop pestering Eddie - feel all the more desperate when they fail.

Jan Versweyveld's open but claustrophobic set with it's unexpected showers at the start and end of the play works wonderfully as does his lighting which subtly shifts the intensity of the bright light to mirror the shifts within the characters.  A special mention must go to Tom Gibbons' ominous soundscape which plays throughout the action, sometimes swelling into religious choral sound, that keeps you permanently on edge.

I am hoping the memory of the idiot in the row in front of us might fade but I fear she will not... so here she is.

So be warned if you see this person anywhere near you in a theatre.  Me? I just hope she drops dead.

Dvd/150: BROADWAY: THE AMERICAN MUSICAL (Michael Kantor, 2004, tv)

An unashamedly starry-eyed celebration of that most American of art forms, the Broadway musical.


Packed with interviews from the performers, composers, directors, writers, choreographers and critics who created and witnessed this evolving story, what makes the series really special is the dazzling historical footage of almost every great Broadway star.

Shelf or charity shop?  Singing out (Louise) from the shelf!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

MAN AND SUPERMAN / CLOSER: Love Is A Battlefield

It's odd how sometimes you can see two productions back-to-back and find particular themes that link them across the years - who would have thought that of George Bernard Shaw and Patrick Marber?

I booked to see MAN AND SUPERMAN because we recently saw Shaw's first success WIDOWERS HOUSES at the Orange Tree Theatre and also because I do like a theatrical challenge - the production runs for over 3 and a half hours!  It also gave us the chance to see Ralph Fiennes in the stonking lead role of Jack Tanner, a radical (and of course wealthy) writer who finds himself in the sights of the emancipated Ann Whitefield.

Tanner has no desire to be yoked to a woman in marriage - and believes fervently that a woman shouldn't want that either.  But he finds himself possibly ensnared when Ann's father dies and his will reveals that Ann's guardians are to be Tanner and her father's conventional older friend Roebuck Ramsden. 

Ann is being pursued by the lovesick Octavius whose sister Violet has caused outrage by announcing she is pregnant.  Violet, like Ann, is a young woman who is direct in her dealings with men and unbowed by her condition.  Tanner stands up for her right to give birth as it is woman's highest power but Violet dumbfounds them all by revealing that she is in fact married but refuses to tell them who it is!

Tanner challenges Ann to prove her independence by driving with him around Europe but is panicked when she accepts!  Octavius appears with his American friend Hector (who is Violet's secret husband) and Tanner is again floored when his plain-speaking cockney chauffeur 'Enry lets him in on something he hadn't realised - Ann is actually after Tanner.

Tanner flees to Europe to escape the pursuing Ann but driving through the Spanish Sierras he and 'Enry are captured by mountain-dwelling brigands.  Their leader Mendoza, however, is a poetic ex-Savoy hotel waiter and became an outcast when the woman he loved rejected him.  Well wouldn't you know?  It turns out that his beloved was none other than 'Enry's sister!  They settle down to sleep and Tanner, spun around by all these love affairs, dreams of being Don Juan in Hell.

The ensuing scene is the reason that MAN AND SUPERMAN has a wobbly history as it sometimes performed without this archetypal GBS scene as Don Juan debates with the Devil about man's inhumanity to man and the joys of Hell over the bland dreariness of Heaven.  I had been surprised how enjoyable the play had been up until then but this long scene of solid Shavian talk soon had me drifting off to watch the subtle, ever-changing video screen on Christopher Oram's set.

Eventually we return to the plot when Tanner and 'Enery are 'rescued' from the brigands by his pursuing friends but Tanner 'saves' Mendoza and his cohorts by telling the police that they were acting as his guides.  All the threads of the character's storylines are tied up in an Andalusian garden and Jack, finally worn down by the slyly predatory Ann, capitulates to married life although stating it will be on his terms.  Dream on Jack!

Ralph Fiennes gave a hugely enjoyable performance - made even more funny because he seemed to be channelling Leonard Rossiter as Rigsby in RISING DAMP which makes perfect sense for the role!  It's the best I have seen him on stage and makes one realise how much he is missed there.

Fiennes' excellence is sadly not matched by Idira Varma as Ann.  She certainly had the character's intelligence but lacked that quintessential quicksilver spark to make her Ann interesting.  Faye Castelow's spirited Violet showed all the individuality and tartness that Varma lacked.

There were fine supporting performances from Nicholas Le Prevost as the disapproving Roebuck Ramsden, Ferdinand Kingsley as lovelorn Octavius and Elliot Barnes-Worrell as the cocky cockney 'Enry Straker.  Tim McMullan is not an actor I usually like but here his fruitiness suited the heartbroken brigand Mendoza and the lushly urbane Devil.

Simon Godwin also directed the 3 and a half hour STRANGE INTERLUDE at the Lyttelton and it shared MAN AND SUPERMAN's speed of pace but although enjoyable, it ultimately felt that was down to the performances and not what Godwin had actually contributed.  Christopher Oram's arresting design of traditional sets against a video wall was handy to look at when Shaw's dialogue overwhelmed one.

With Jack Tanner's futile attempts to keep love at arm's length still fresh in my mind, it was interesting to then see the revival of Patrick Marber's CLOSER at the Donmar.

Marber's savage drama/comedy features two men - Dan a writer, Larry a doctor - and two women - Anna a photographer, Alice a sometime exotic dancer - who are all desperate for love but who are also desperately bad at staying in love.

I saw the original National Theatre production in 1997 (and the 2004 film version) so was curious to see how well it stood up 18 years later.  It was with some relief that I found still a fascinating, tantalising, brilliantly cruel play about the way you can hurt the ones you feel are closest to you.

Perfectly suited to the intimacy of the Donmar, you hung on the four characters every words, almost flinching at the emotional brutality inflicted.  It is definitely a play written by a man as Larry and Dan tend to get the bravura lines and the showier business - in particular the scene where they encounter each other in an Internet chat room and Dan toys with Larry while pretending to be Anna.

The women are more problematical; the roles feel somewhat lightweight compared to the men and, in particular, the character of Alice maddeningly feels like the young Marber's wank fantasy stuck in a naturalistic setting.  Alice is unknowable, an enigma to be solved by her lovers, but also a tantalising creature of habit, but also an innocent nymphet - it's like Marber is working through his own version of Wedekind's LULU.  The only resolution he can find for her is to have her die - a very Victorian end for such a modern girl - and in the play's coup de grace it is revealed that even her name wasn't real.  She is less a character, more a collection of pin-up girls.

As such I felt Rachel Redford was the weakest member of the cast as she didn't have the personality to distract from the character's flimsiness but I liked Oliver Chris as Dan, the personable young writer whose charming demeanour covers a shallow user of people.

The two more interesting characters were wonderfully played by Rufus Sewell as Larry and Nancy Carroll as Anna.  Sewell was a revelation, burning up the stage with a kinetic energy, emotions flickering across his face within seconds of each other while his eruptions of spiteful, lethal anger were great to watch.  Nancy Carroll brought her remarkable quality of attentive stillness to Anna, a woman who seems to be forever anticipating the next inevitable disappointment.  She proved again how exceptional an actress she is.

David Leveaux's direction caught every nuance of Marber's deftly-woven script, balancing the humour and the drama to great effect.  Bunny Christie's ingenious set had a cool East London, minimalist vibe hugely helped by Hugh Vanstone's lighting.

Two excellent revivals showing the possibility and impossibility of love.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Dvd/150: THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)

Gay couple Nic and Jules are content: Nic is a doctor and Jules is launching her landscaping business and both are proud that daughter Joni going to university soon.  Unknown to them, Joni and younger brother Laser have made contact with their sperm donor father Paul and want to see more of him.

Paul's presence proves unsettling and soon tiny details - Nic's enthusiastic wine consumption and Jules' reliance on Nic's financial support - are seized upon as weapons.

Lisa Cholodenko's comedy/drama benefits from excellent performances.  Annette Bening and Julianne Moore have great chemistry and it's a joy to see them explore their characters' confusion at their sudden shifting emotions.

Mark Ruffalo is great as Paul, although the script twist of him and Jules starting a sexual relationship feels contrived.

Fine performances too from Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as the teens starting to rebel against their loving but careful upbringing.

Shelf or charity shop?  Happy to have seen it, will let someone else enjoy it too...

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Dvd/150: BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (Michael Lindsay-Hogg/Charles Sturridge, 1981, tv)

I had not seen this in over 30 years and it still stands as one of the great tv literary adaptations.

1944: When Charles Ryder's army division is stationed at the stately home Brideshead it brings back a flood of bittersweet memories, of how at Oxford he became a close friend of Lord Sebastian Flyte whose family owned Brideshead.

Middle-class Charles is seduced by this entree to the Roman Catholic upper-classes but is soon trapped in the family politics of wayward Sebastian, his pious mother Lady Marchmain and the absent Lord Marchmain, living abroad with his mistress.

Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews gave career-defining performances as Charles and Sebastian, Nickolas Grace as effete Anthony Blanche, Claire Bloom as Lady Marchmain, Phoebe Nicolls as Cordelia Flyte and John Gielgud as Charles' father shine in the magnificent cast.  The marvellous adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel is by John Mortimer.

Shelf or charity shop?  One for the shelf...

Sunday, March 01, 2015

BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical

Well it took a while - and one crushing experience - but I have finally seen BEAUTIFUL, the musical based on the life and work of one of my favourite singers Carole King.

Of course I enjoyed it - with her wonderful catalogue of songs who wouldn't - but maybe a too-thorough knowledge of her story made it seem particularly thin at times.

We had tickets for the show two days before but arriving at the Aldwych with ten minutes to spare before the 7:30pm start time, we were greeted with the news that they had brought the opening night forward so the show had started at 7pm - and didn't we get their e-mail sent at 4:15 that afternoon?  I was shooting basilisk stares at all and sundry especially when their initial recompense was drinks vouchers rather than replacement seats.  As we trudged off I thought aloud that maybe the opening night had been brought forward so Carole King could attend.  Of course I was wrong.

It was actually Carole and fellow legendary songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil who attended and who joined the cast at the curtain call.  So, you know, nothing to be angry about.

Carole King was raised in post-war Brooklyn, her contemporaries including Neil Sedaka whom she dated in school inspiring his hit OH CAROL, Paul Simon whom she recorded demos with, as well as Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand.  While in college Carole began writing songs with Gerry Goffin, their relationship lead to Carole expecting a baby so they married in 1959, Carole was 17 and Gerry was 20.  Soon they were both working during the day and writing songs in the evening for Don Kirshner at Aldon Music's offices at 1650 Broadway.

Like the nearby Brill Building, 1650 Broadway was a hive of musical activity with songwriters assigned their own rooms where they could write hits for the artists of the day.  Next to Carole and Gerry's room were the team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and a deep friendship grew along with a competitive spirit: each trying for bigger chart successes and pop music innovation.

More comfortable behind the scenes than performing, Carole also liked being a New Jersey housewife but Gerry chafed at domesticity.  Still only 23, he felt tied-down and several affairs culminated in Earl-Jean McCrea of The Cookies having their child.  The astonishing thing is that he would admit these relationships to Carole who accepted his infidelities not to break up their partnership.  However his drug use and resultant mental health issues eventually led to divorce.  Carole moved to Los Angeles and slowly gained the courage to finally step into the spotlight, resulting in her second album TAPESTRY becoming one of the best-selling albums of all-time.

Douglas McGrath's book has to cover all this and he delivers quite a few laughs along the way - usually from the Mann and Weil characters - and it certainly has a good pace but in the process it reduces Carole and Gerry's personal life to the thinnest of soap opera situations.  Carole's triumphant 1971 Carnegie Hall concert is the climax of the show but is also serves for McGrath to give us the cliche of Gerry making an unannounced visit to her dressing room before she goes on... hey if it's good enough for FUNNY GIRL, MEMPHIS etc.  I did wonder how constrained he was as to what he could include?

Marc Bruni has directed a slick, sparkling and colourful production that does nothing to stand in the way of the Goffin/King and Weil/Mann classics that keep coming one after another, some used as songs within the storyline and others as stand-alone numbers celebrating The Drifters (ON BROADWAY), The Shirelles (WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW), Little Eva (THE LOCO-MOTION) and The Righteous Brothers (YOU'VE LOST THAT LOVIN' FEELING).

The performances are good from a largely-unknown cast: Katie Brayben has a sweet quality as Carole although McGrath gives her little to do but blub for most of the second act and although a good singer she doesn't have that quality of huskiness that makes Carole King's voice so beguiling.  Needless to say the audience snapped to it's feet at her curtain call in a response worthy of Pavlov.  Alan Morrissey does all he can with Gerry but again McGrath gives him little to actually get his teeth into.

Lorna Want and Ian McIntosh have better opportunities to shine as Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann while Glynis Barber has a few nice moments as Carole's mother.  The supporting cast give it their all with a special shout-out to Ed Currie for his excellent recreation of The Righteous Brother's Bill Medley.

If I sound overly critical it's because I so wanted to enjoy the show - and I did - but maybe, as I said before, knowing too much about the subject can be a bad thing.

Maybe a second visit is required to relax and just enjoy the show?