Sunday, May 31, 2015

Dvd/150: WALTZES FROM VIENNA (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934)

An oddity from the British half of Hitchcock's career, he later disowned it saying he only did it to keep working.

It was based on a popular 1931 stage musical but Hitchcock ditched the music to concentrate on it's fictional account of the writing of The Blue Danube and Strauss Junior's rather chaste love triangle with a Countess and a baker's daughter.

Admittedly it has the inherent charm of a well-made British film of the era and Hitchcock has fun with interesting visual moments and sly supporting performances but you feel every one of it's 80 minutes going by.

Jessie Matthews is her entertaining self as the baker's daughter who suggests the DANUBE's melody while Fay Compton is a very knowing Countess.  Edmund Gwenn rages about as the egotistical Strauss senior and Frank Vosper is a scene-stealing jealous Count.  Esmond Knight as Strauss Junior though is truly wearing.

Shelf or charity shop? Set to waltz onto the charity shop's dvd shelf - I just hope that because it's a Spanish dvd it doesn't get left behind...

Saturday, May 30, 2015

WOOLF WORKS: Moments of Being...

I was lost for words when Owen told me he had booked tickets for the Royal Ballet's WOOLF WORKS at Covent Garden.  I just couldn't grasp it... three short ballets based on MRS DALLOWAY, ORLANDO and THE WAVES?  How could this be?  What can there be of Woolf without her writing, it's rhythms and the power to connect moments of her life with ours.  How could this succeed robbed of her words?  It was with this air of quiet bafflement that I took my very good seat in that most sumptuously decadent of London auditoriums and the light lowered as the curtain raised...

Within seconds my central question was resolutely answered.  Virginia's voice sounded out, steady and strong in her only recorded piece for the BBC in 1937, talking about the difficulty with trying to find new forms of writing when English words are so over-familiar through being used again and again.  As we listened, her writing appeared on a screen, meshing and re-forming into a likeness of Virginia then coming apart again.  It was as if choreographer Wayne McGregor was saying that if words have lost their imaginative use then their must be other ways.

The first in the triptych was I NOW, I THEN based on the main characters in MRS DALLOWAY and the atmosphere and mood of the story.  Again after a few minutes not only did the penny drop but I found myself deeply involved.  This was helped by Lucy Carter's sombre lighting, the hazy video projections of London as seen through a dream and the striking set design of Cigué, 3 wooden oblongs that rotated slowly to open up new vistas and configurations, occasionally revealing a new dancer as if from nowhere. 

The hypnotic Alessandra Ferri, returned from retirement, danced the role of Clarissa Dalloway and as the title suggests, she was joined onstage by Francesca Hayward as the younger Clarissa who danced with Beatriz Stix-Brunell as the quicksilver Sally Seton and Gary Avis as the younger Peter Walsh, the older Peter was danced by Federico Bonelli.  Max Richter's intriguing score kept returning to the chiming of Big Ben, ticking clocks and watches, all suggesting Woolf's subject of time, the past and memory.

Edward Watson enthralled as he interpreted McGregor's disjointed choreography as the shell-shocked Septimus Smith partnered by Akane Takada as his despairing wife Rezia.  In a marvellous visual cue, the stage was bathed in a warm reddish light when he danced with Tristan Dyer as Evans, his dead friend from the trenches.

What was good about WOOLF WORKS was that each of the three sections felt totally different, the only connection being the source novelist.  Totally different in tone was BECOMINGS, the second of the three and based on ORLANDO.  Twelve dancers appeared on a darkened stage as an overhead spotlight searched them, their golden costumes gleaming as it swept around them as if trying to find a single person.  It finally alighted on one and the dancers soon started dancing in pairs, male and female, again suggesting Woolf's theme of gender confusion.

This was the longest of the three and it's abstract form did rather outstay it's welcome but what made it all the more thrilling was Richter's crunching music which at one point got so loud I actually thought the circle might give way!  The lighting was all very 80s with laser beams illuminating the dancers, suggesting the other-world space of Orlando's changing gender. The lasers swept into the auditorium too, lighting up each of the circles with beads of light and in a dramatic, sudden finale end with countless lasers firing all over the auditorium, just like the last Pet Shop Boys concert!  It was all very thrilling - and again not what I had expected.

After a second interval - each about the same length as the actual dance pieces themselves - oh and after a second wild strawberry champagne cocktail (I LIKE Covent Garden), it was time for the last of the three, TUESDAY (based on THE WAVES) as the curtain rose on a bare stage apart from a long screen on which a slow film of crashing waves played.  

Gillian Anderson was then heard reading Virginia's heartbreaking suicide letter to Leonard and, as usual when confronted with it, I soon had tears running down my face.  Beautifully read by Anderson and with nothing on stage to distract from the words it was incredibly powerful.  It affects for many reasons: the private nature of a suicide letter to a husband by a writer who always strove to find new ways of describing life, the sheer beauty of the writing even though the content is so tragic, that in describing all she knew she shared with Leonard was not enough to stop Virginia from doing what she did to end her losing battle with her insanity.

Alessandra Ferri was magnificent as the spirit of Woolf, painfully moving through her duet with Federico Bonelli, his attempts to hold her and keep her aloft ending with her escaping away, her sheer force of personality filling the auditorium.  They were joined on stage by children dancing with Sarah Lamb, again Ferri interacting with a dancer playing her younger self, for the children to vanish into an ensemble of dancers who filled the stage with slow, sinuous movement which culminated in Ferri joining them, at first moving on her own but slowly becoming one with their repeated moves, as if subsumed by the rhythm of the waves.

Slowly the ensemble pulled away, moving forward and back, forward and back as Richter's moving composition for strings reached it's climax as Bonelli carried Ferri for the last time to slowly lower her on to the stage to retreat away with the others.  It was powerful, emotional, impossibly moving.  She deserved every minute of her extended ovation, as indeed did her fellow dancers.

At the start of this year, Owen suggested that this should be a year of discovering new cultural things to see and on the back of this visit, Owen has indeed booked to see two more non-Matthew Bourne ballets.  I suspect however that nothing will come close to the emotional tour-de-force of Wayne McGregor's WOOLF WORKS.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

New Play, New Theatre (kinda): BOMBER'S MOON

A week or so ago we went to see a new play at the Trafalgar Studios (aka the old Whitehall theatre).  It was in the smaller 'studio' theatre (aka the old stalls seats) and was the first time I had been to this alarmingly small space.  It would be advised that anyone with 'touching' issues stay well away from it.

We saw BOMBER'S MOON, a new play by William Ivory about the burgeoning friendship between an old man and his younger carer.  It had moments but mostly felt a bit padded and could have done with a shorter running time.

Jimmy is a cantankerous old man who lives alone in a sheltered accommodation flat who at night is haunted by memories of the bombing raids over Germany he was involved in during World War 2.  He relies very much on his daily carer but is upset when his usual help is replaced by David, a hesitant newcomer.

Slowly a trusting relationship develops between them with Jimmy providing David with encouragement in his new job and in his personal life as a recently-separated husband while David encourages Jimmy to talk about his World War experiences, especially when Jimmy discovers that David has strong religious beliefs which remind him of his best friend who was killed in the war.

And that's about it, towards the end David is arrested after a fracas with his ex's new partner and Jimmy finally reveals the true extent of his feelings for his long-dead friend.  This last revelation was the only part in the play that took me by surprise and it is a measure of James Bolam's performance that it rang true as he suggested a man who has lived many years with a genuine feeling of loss.

 I can't stay Steve John Shepherd ever made much of an impression on me before but here he gave a fine performance of a man trying desperately to do good for others to cover up his own troubled life.  It is more the fault of Ivory that ultimately the character is less of a real person than a series of
attitudes for Jimmy to argue against.

Matt Aston's direction certainly brought out the best in the actors but in the end it was a two-hander that could have done with at least one other person knocking on Jimmy's door, although I will admit the play's final moments gave it an emotionalism that it had lacked up until then.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dvd/150: FOLLIES IN CONCERT (Michael Houldey, 1986, tv)

Originally shown on the BBC's Omnibus, this documentary covers the lead-up to two concert performances of Stephen Sondheim's musical FOLLIES at New York's Lincoln Center with the Philharmonic Orchestra.

Sondheim and record producer Thomas Z. Shepherd were unhappy that the 1971 cast recording of FOLLIES was severely edited to fit on one album so in 1985 they had the opportunity to record two semi-staged concert performances of the full score.

It stars Lee Remick, Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin and George Hearn with remarkable supporting performances from Elaine Stritch, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Newman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Liliane Montevecchi, André Gregory and Licia Albanese among others.

We see them nervously rehearsing quickly-learnt songs in the few days leading up to the concerts and sharing their thoughts on the resonance of the material as they are all contemporaries.

A touching, entertaining tribute to the show and it's cast.

Shelf or charity shop? You're kidding right?

CLOSER TO HEAVEN is still out of reach

Since it's unsuccessful first run in 2001 I have often wondered when the Pet Shop Boys musical CLOSER TO HEAVEN would get a revival.  Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe's electronic score finds room for both their signature dance beats and their introspective ballads and I've played the original cast recording regularly over the years.

Despite showcasing a magnificent star performance from Frances Barber as the drug-addled Eurotrash hostess Billie Trix, the original production foundered at the Arts Theatre after 5 months with most critics pointing the finger at Jonathan Harvey's paper-thin book which fundamentally damaged the show despite the goodwill that the score and cast generated.

But now - and I might have guessed this would be the case - the enterprising Union Theatre in Southwark have revived the show and the fact that it sold out in a few days shows that I wasn't the only one wanting to see it again.  I had hoped that Harvey's book would be re-hauled for this second twirl round the go-go pole.  Sadly that is not the case - and it looks even more threadbare on the unadorned Union stage.

I suspect that this is also down to the equally threadbare casting.  Like the Bridewell Theatre in the 1990s, it's great to have a theatre which regularly stages musicals that otherwise would not be revived but it must be said that the shows are cast with performers from the second or third rungs of performers.  A scan through the programme mostly reveal understudies, fringe and regional productions, cruise ship performers or first-job from Drama School.  Now I know everyone has to start somewhere... but not the lead surely?

CLOSER THAN HEAVEN follows two young characters whose lives intersect at a Soho gay club run by Vic, a hard-drinking, hard-snorting self-confessed "vampire" who lives at night.  Vic's daughter Shell from a short-lived straight relationship makes contact with him after many years and they struggle to establish a relationship.  At the same time, the effortlessly sexy - and Irish - Straight Dave arrives looking for work as a bartender although he soon establishes himself as the club's lead dancer.

Shell and Dave are attracted to each other and through her job as a PA to a gay record producer Bob Saunders, Dave is lined up to be the new member of his boy band Up & Coming.  Dave warily keeps the nasty Saunders at arm's length but finds himself attracted to the surly Mile End Lee, a young drug dealer who supplies Vic and his temperamental Eurotrash hostess Billie Trix in drugs.

Vic tries to clean up his life and club to impress Shell but when he discovers Mile End Lee delivering a large drugs package to Billie, he fires her and confiscates it.  Shell sees Dave and Lee getting physical in the club toilet and she dumps him.  Lee and Dave have a night together but Dave later dies from a ketamine overdose.  Dave becomes a pop star in his own right.

The End.

All the characters are expertly introduced during the opening number MY NIGHT but after the interval, Harvey's anorexic book starts coming apart at the seams.  Vic, Shell and Billie are neglected midway through the second act as the spotlight is switched to Straight Dave and Mile End Lee who promptly dies which leads to the big eleven o'clock teary ballad FOR ALL OF US, but it's efforts to get the tear ducts working fail because we are being asked to care for a secondary character who has had minimal effect on our sympathies up until then.

The show's climax - Dave's ascent to stardom - is unexplained and is obviously there to end the show with an uptempo number - but in this revival, the original last number, the excellent Barry White-sampled POSITIVE ROLE MODEL is ditched for VOCAL, a track from the last Pet Shop Boys album.

Director Gene David Kirk plods through the troublesome second act relying on the lights, music and his seven-strong ensemble to bump their crotches - no hiding when you are in the front row believe me - and grind their bums to hopefully distract from the paucity of content.  Said ensemble are excellent by the way but sadly Owen pointed out the similarity in Philip Joel's choreography to the famous, embarrassing flailing-about of Westlife's first appearance on Irish TV.  Once pointed out I couldn't get it out of my mind.

As in the original production some actors made the most of what they had to work with.  Although a bit shrill, I liked Amy Matthews' Shell as well as Craig Berry's blokey Vic while Ken Christiansen made the most of the viperous Bob Saunders.  Praise too for Ben Kavanagh as Flynn, Saunders' bitchy assistant.

The main problem was in the performances of Katie Meller as Billie Trix and Jared Thompson as Straight Dave.  As I said above, Frances Barber created a wonderful sacre monstre that covered up some of the dodgy, fag-haggy type lines Harvey gives her and sang her big solo FRIENDLY FIRE with a world-weary sadness that was really stopped the show.  Sadly Meller just doesn't have the wattage to deliver, her casting is a complete mystery other than I guess she's affordable.

Jared Thompson was even more problematic.  Paul Keating played Straight Dave at the Arts and was believable as the sexually-confused new kid on the go-go box while also being charismatic enough to make you believe in the other characters' interest in him but Thompson appears to not so much act as point his lantern jaw, floppy hair and erect nipples at people.  There was another more irritating problem - I had to laugh when he lisped through the line "Why does everyone think I'm gay".  Because they have ears?  What made me truly baffled though was in Thompson's duet with Connor Brabyn's Mile End Lee in the second act, Brabyn showed he had an excellent, strong singing voice - how on earth was he not cast as the lead?

So there we are, CLOSER TO HEAVEN has been revived and it is still has problems.  Not the first time a great score has been allied to a weak book but all the more frustrating when you can see it's obvious potential.  I am guessing we might not see another production anytime soon.

PSB have been very supportive of the show which is good of them and Neil Tennant was actually in the third row at our performance - I was quite sanguine about it, I only looked round a handful of times!  Oh for the chance to question him about what he really thinks of it.

I have been playing the original cast recording ever since seeing it and believe that this show could be successful if they dropped Jonathan Harvey's script which has all the depth of a Boyz magazine comic strip.

Three months after CLOSER TO HEAVEN closed, Boy George's TABOO opened a few minutes walk away from the Arts and ran for over a year.  Both dealt with gay club culture, had a bisexual leading character and of course both had scores by artists who had come to prominence in the 1980s.  In retrospect I think why TABOO survived was down to a sympathetic, inclusive outlook which CLOSER TO HEAVEN ultimately lacks.  You simply don't care for any of Harvey's characters no matter how good the songs they are singing.

Saturday, May 09, 2015


On Monday we made our way through the Bankside Bank Holiday crowds to visit the Globe Theatre for the first time this year - believe me, there will be a few blogs from there this season!  Odd as up until last year it was a theatre I was not keen on but with several involving 2014 productions (TITUS ANDRONICUS, ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, JULIUS CAESAR) this year we are going Globe crazy.

My two previous visits to productions of Shakespeare's tale of star-cross'd lovers have left me rather unsatisfied - the most recent being the underwhelming National Theatre one in 2000 which was only memorable for Chiwetel Ejiofor's Romeo.  Neither was a patch on Baz Luhrmann's wonderful updated 1996 film with it's charismatic pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

Although I was apprehensive that the Globe's production is a touring version with a cast of only 8 actors it actually proved to be a good production that certainly concentrated the mind for the "two hours traffic" of the stage.

Being the Globe needless to say the production was bookended with a song and dance routine, this time a frantic Eastern European-style tune.  I know it's all part of the roister-doistering Globe ethos but it's a bit jarring after the big death scene at the end.

As I said it's only a cast of 8 so there is a lot of doubling-up - almost comically so at one point when Matt Doherty as Tybalt walks upstage, slings on a robe and is back as Paris!  Maybe one more actor would have given the rest of the cast at least a chance to catch their breath.

Luckily Samuel Valentine's Romeo and Cassie Layton's Juliet don't get to double up - that really would be daft!  I really liked Cassie Layton's performance, she spoke the verse with great passion and made the most of her soliloquies, Valentine (ha!) was suitably trouble-tossed as our ginger Romeo but couldn't quite match Layton in the desperate passion stakes.

The stand-out supporting performance was Sarah Higgins as the Nurse, played with a broad Scottish accent, who stole every scene she was in with brio.  Also making an impression was the louche tattooed Mercutio of Steffan Donnelly (sadly his Queen Mab speech was nearly drowned out by a circling helicopter!) and the muscular Tybalt, clueless servant Peter and impassioned Paris of Matt Doherty.

Dominic Dromgoole (in his last season as Artistic Director) and Tim Hoare's direction focuses the action well with a stripped down production acted in and around a tall trestle platform and gives us a ROMEO AND JULIET which grips and moves in equal measure.

As I said the production is touring around the UK until August so it is well worth checking the website to see if it's coming near you.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Dvd/150: NIGHT GALLERY: THE FIRST SEASON (various directors, 1969-70, tv)

Rod Serling's portmanteau horror tv series ran for four years, each episode involving several stories.  They range in quality: the better ones are models of spooky brevity, the jokey ones outstay their welcome.

The first season includes some memorable tales: Roddy McDowall kills his artist uncle but notices a graveyard painting changing; imperious and blind Joan Crawford - directed by a young Spielberg - blackmails a doctor to operate on her eyes so she can see; fugitive Nazi Richard Kiley seeks a strange escape when finally tracked down; vagrant ex-doctor Burgess Meredith discovers a medical bag from the future; John Colicos is rescued from a lifeboat to bring doom to his rescuers and William Windom's washed-up executive is haunted by a coming-home party from years ago.

Robert Serling was a memorable host and other tales included Larry Hagman, Joseph Wiseman, Diane Keaton, Agnes Moorhead, Rachel Roberts and Raymond Massey.

Shelf or charity shop?  The best stories deserve a place on the shelf

Saturday, May 02, 2015


Seeing Caryl Churchill and Eugene O'Neill plays are never going to be the most laugh-heavy evenings but two recent theatre visits have been made harder by distracting scenic concepts.

Caryl Churchill wrote LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE in 1976 for the Joint Stock Theatre Group where it was performed by six actors.  Now here we are, revived at the National with a cast of eighteen with forty-four supernumeraries bulking out the stage.

I can understand why director Lyndsey Turner has wanted to flesh it out - election year, a play about the different protest factions left to flounder after the Civil War, big stage needing an epic play of the people etc. etc.  It just doesn't work - and it doesn't work with the scenic concept that has been clamped down over the text like a metal cloche.

The stage is filled with a huge wooden table - raked like a platform stage - at which are seated noblemen eating a candlelit dinner in the first act, puritan scribblers in the second.  The characters in Churchill's fragmented scenes clamber up onto the table and play their scenes with admirable commitment but without much interest generated for me as I nodded off a few times in the first act.

The play was arrived at through a research workshop and at times I felt I really ought to paying more attention as each scene felt like a 17th contemporary pamphlet being acted out but it's sheer relentless dourism made it hard to engage with anything - and just as you felt being drawn into a debate, we were treated to a group folk sing-song. Yawn.

Cromwell's New Model Army has won the Civil War but in it's wake troops of dissenters have appeared, all of whom think the time has come for their visions to be fulfilled but all of them had not realised that Cromwell was replacing one tyranny with another and he sounded the death knell for their hopes and ambitions.  The Ranters who believe that God is within and wanted sexual and political freedom, The Diggers who wanted all common ground to be given over to the common man, and the more politically-minded Levellers who drew support from unhappy members of the army are all represented.

The second act begins well with Gerrard Winstanley demanding his rights to farm on common land but again Turner's wish for a scenic Big Idea muffs the action by having the supernumeraries break up the large table with spades to disclose a huge allotment underneath.  A nice scenic idea but in practice it means that the following scenes are overshadowed by extras pulling up the planks of wood and slowly moving them off the stage, ridiculously distracting and something that should have been quashed during the technical rehearsals.

Performances from Nicholas Gleave, Ashley McGuire, Joe Caffrey and Ann Ogbomo were good, but they would have worked better in a smaller, less distracting production.  Bruno Poet's lighting is good, Soutra Gilmour's costumes are down to her usual drab standards and Es Devlin is responsible for the distracting set.  I must admit that while watching this first production under Rufus Norris' reign as NT Artistic Director, my heart sank a little - please don't let this be an omen.  I am also seeing Lyndsey Turner's HAMLET later this year at the Barbican which is again designed by Devlin.  Quakes.

Next was the Young Vic revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1933 play AH, WILDERNESS! which holds the distinction of being his only comedy.  Needless to say an O'Neill comedy is hardly Brian Rix material but it has a gentle charm where the comedy is more character-based than anything that happens within the plot.

Which is just as well as director Natalie Abrahami has thrown out O'Neill's stage directions and set it in and around sand dunes which have taken over a large clapboard house.  Oh and she has a character obviously meant to be O'Neill who hangs around the stage, pulling props out of the sand - a table yet! - and intoning in voice-over the stage directions.  This drafted-in character also has the last lines, a paraphrasing of a quote from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam which O'Neill inscribed to his wife on his own copy of the play.

So why?  Is Abrahami so unsure of the material that a concept has to be imposed on it?  To make it more 'relevant' to the Young Vic, a theatre which relishes director-imposed reinventions of texts?  When, at the start of the play, the O'Neill character describes in taped voice-over the stage description of the Miller household with it's tasteful but tasteless furnishings, none are to be seen - just banks of sand which the actors gingerly clamber over like so many turn-of-the-century mountain goats.

Richard Miller is 16 and at *that* age, discovering literature for the first time and brooding that all of his life will be stymied by his parent's conventional lifestyle and the lack of intellectual freedom in his world.  We've all been there and O'Neill's sensitive handling of the archetypal prickly teenager is charmingly done.  He is angered by his mother's blinkered ideas of his advanced reading matter - there is a nice joke when Oscar Wilde is said to have been found guilty of bigamy - but not far beneath the surface he still loves her and his amiable, newspaper-owning father.

He shares the house with his older and younger brothers as well as with a maternal uncle and paternal aunt.  Aunt Lily is on her way to becoming an old maid but quietly loves Uncle Sid but his not-so-secret drinking is getting out of hand and will always be a barrier between them - and needless to say, there is also a cheeky Irish maid too.

Richard is also struggling with his feelings for his neighbour Muriel whose father does not approve of him but when he goes out for a 5th of July drink with his older brother, he is seduced by good-time girl Belle.  It was around now that I managed to transcend Abrahami's absurd concept and started to just enjoy O'Neill's writing.

The play culminates in a scene between Richard and Muriel, full of wonderfully hesitant writing as they deny then declare their love and this is played against Richard's parents expressing their continued love for each other.  See Miss Abrahami?  The play is definitely the thing.

The usually-dependable Janie Dee played Essie the mother, but here she noticeably stumbled over a few of her lines, but there were good performances from Martin Marquez as her husband Nat, Susannah Wise as Aunt Lily and Dominic Rowan as the wastrel Uncle Sid (although his drunk acting was a bit over the top).  By far the performance of the evening was George Mackay as Richard, usually prickly and intellectually snobbish but played with great guile and he even executed a funny belly-flop into the onscreen lake.

Charles Balfour's lighting was a major plus for the production while Dick Bird's monumental set finally came into it's own when a lake suddenly appeared from nowhere.  Ultimately what made me annoyed was that Abrahami's handling of the performers proves she's a worthy director so there really is no need for the unnecessary concept imposed on the play.  I am sure if O'Neill had wanted AH, WILDERNESS! to be a dreamy, memory play he would have written it as such.

An odd footnote: AH, WILDERNESS! inspired no less than two musical adaptations - in 1948 Mickey Rooney starred as Richard in the MGM film SUMMER HOLIDAY while in 1959 Jackie Gleason won a Tony award for his role of Uncle Sid in Bob Merrill's TAKE ME ALONG.

An even odder footnote: It was Bob Merrill's second O'Neill-inspired score as in 1957 he had written the music and lyrics to NEW GIRL IN TOWN starring Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter which was based on ANNA CHRISTIE.  Go figure.