Thursday, July 28, 2016

Dvd/150: SHOW BOAT (James Whale, 1936)

The year after James Whale directed BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN he made something totally different but equally memorable, his adaptation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's 1927 landmark musical SHOW BOAT.

The musical, based on Edna Ferber's novel, was the first to mesh a plot and fully integrated score and had already been filmed in 1929 with a couple of sound scenes and music from the show included in it's prologue.

Whale cast several actors who had appeared in stage versions of the show: Irene Dunne as Magnolia, Helen Morgan as Julie, Charles Winninger as Cap'n Andy, Sammy White as Frank Schultz and the mighty Paul Robeson as Joe.

Also cast were Allan Jones as Gaylord Ravenal, Hattie McDaniel as Queenie and Helen Westley as Parthy.  They all give sparkling, memorable performances - a particular joy is to see Robeson and McDaniel effortlessly stealing the film with their larger-than-life personas. 

Shelf or charity shop?  My friend John went to such efforts to get me this Spanish dvd I have to keep it (I would anyways...)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

TITANIC at the Charing Cross Theatre - Goin' down for a second time!

It's always nice when you see a musical staged that you never expected to see... it's even better when you get to see it again!

In 2013 I finally saw the musical TITANIC at the Southwark Playhouse.  I have been a big fan of Maury Yeston's wonderfully stirring score since first hearing the cast recording in 1997 when the show premiered on Broadway and just assumed that no London production would ever happen due to the risky prospect of the staging such a big show.  But the Southwark Playhouse seems to relish putting on shows that other West End producers might baulk at and although the show was naturally compromised by the size of the auditorium, cast and musicians, the quality of the show shone through.

And now the show's director Thom Southerland has been made the Artistic Director of the small Charing Cross Theatre and his lead show?  TITANIC - Yaay!  It's great that his fine production is getting another chance to be seen.  I am happy to say that the production has garnered some excellent reviews and it has been extended past it's closing date.

As much as I liked the original production there were one or two performances that pulled the focus in a bad way but I am happy to report that the cast here present a more unified whole.  There are quite a few of the cast returning from the original production and the new additions fit snugly in with them and like I said, they made a seamless ensemble - who also deserve much praise for the lightning speed in which they double and triple up in the character and ensemble roles they all have.

Of the new cast I liked David Bardsley's hissable Ismay, Helena Blackman's poised Lady Caroline, James Gant as the unflappable head waiter Mr Etches, Douglas Hansell's doomed Charles Clarke, Claire Machin's social-climbing Alice Beane and Peter Prentice as her exasperated husband Edgar.

It was a delight to see again Matthew Crowe's Harold Bride, the wireless operator who only lights up when talking about his machine, Victoria Serra as the vivacious (and secretly pregnant) Irish girl Kate McGowan eager to start a new life in America and Shane McDaid as her quick-thinking 'fella' Jim.

The ensemble singing again made the show thrilling as they belted out Maury Yeston's emotional score - GODSPEED TITANIC, LADY'S MAID and WE'LL MEET TOMORROW were all effortless tearjerkers. The late Peter Stone's book again stood out for what can be achieved in storytelling within a musical setting and I was struck how often he comes back to the fact that on Titanic everything depended on what class you were, even in the ultimate extreme of whether you lived or died.

David Woodhead's economical set fitted snugly onto the Charing Cross Theatre stage and again proved remarkably effective in changing locations aboard the ship - especially in the frantic action that takes place when the ship starts to sink.

Maury Yeston and Peter Stone's TITANIC is playing until the 13th August at the Charing Cross Theatre and, for me, it is currently the best show on in the West End.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET at Stratford East: "You've come home... Always had a fondness for you I did"

In 1973, while in London for the UK premiere of GYPSY, Stephen Sondheim went to the Theatre Royal Stratford East to see Christopher Bond's version of the melodrama SWEENEY TODD.  Sondheim enjoyed the Grand Guignol atmosphere and how street songs were incorporated into the action but what really excited him was how Bond changed the plot from a penny-dreadful melodrama into a revenge thriller with Sweeney seeking vengeance on Judge Turpin for the death of his wife.  An idea was born...

Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF LONDON opened in 1979 in New York and the following year in London and although both productions lost money, it has gone on to be rightly viewed as one of the great Broadway musicals and Sondheim's masterpiece.  London has taken the show to it's heart as was Sondheim's original wish - the original production won the Olivier Award for Best Musical and it has since won two further Oliviers for Best Musical Revival.

And now - finally - I have seen it in the theatre where Sondheim first got his inspiration for the show thanks to the Royal Academy of Music's Musical Theatre department who gave a few performances of SWEENEY TODD last week to showcase their final year students.  There were a few odd directorial choices and wonky performances but it made me realize that I could happily watch a good production of SWEENEY TODD every day!  This was my tenth SWEENEY and there has only been one really bad one - a ghastly am-dram one at the Bloomsbury Theatre in 1992 - which is a very good batting average I reckon.

The show also is a good example of why Sondheim always gives praise to his book writers.  Hugh Wheeler's book for SWEENEY TODD is a classic of musical storytelling, there are nine main characters who are all vividly drawn and it not only stands up to repeated viewings but the book always throws up things I had never noticed before.

I always thought the show would be a perfect fit for Stratford East and indeed it was, and Michael Fentiman's production did the trick for me; I found it hugely enjoyable although it did seem to combine elements of John Doyle's 2004 stripped-down production, Jonathan Kent's 2011 Chichester production and Lonny Price's recent concert version.

Opting for the now almost-standard 20th Century setting, this SWEENEY TODD started with grim-faced morticians taking a break from a new cadaver to sing THE TALE OF SWEENEY TODD and of course the cadaver turned out to be Sweeney who rose from the slab to join them at the end of the song.

And we were off on the wonderful runaway train that is SWEENEY TODD... an unstoppable thrill ride to it's shattering conclusion: as I have often said, the final sequence of the show - if done right - should be one of the most relentlessly scary things you can experience, even if you know the show  It has an internal motor that if stoked properly gathers pace leaving dead bodies in it's wake and an icy, clammy grip on the back of your neck.  Happily the RAM students gave it their all and if it *just* fell short it was due to the odd staging that slightly distanced you from the full action.

You see, Sweeney's mechanical chair was... well, not mechanical.  Like the recent concert version, once his victim's throat was cut they promptly stood up, walked down from the raised barbershop and jumped down an opened stage trap-door now the door to Mrs Lovett's ovens.  Actually the trap-door was a good idea for the ovens as designers usually struggle with incorporating that into their stage design but the stage traffic is always so busy at the climax of the show that this production's staging at the end just got too convoluted.

The fact that the performers were young was only a hindrance in Lawrence Smith's Sweeney who simply didn't have the heft for the role - he looked more like a pasty street thug than a serial killer.  His falling-short was exacerbated by most of his scenes being shared with Elissa Churchill's  no-prisoners-taken performance as Nellie Lovett.

Although she looked more like a candidate for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS' Audrey, Churchill gave a delightful performance of venal intent - Sweeney was her target from the second he returned to her shop - and although I felt her performance at times seemed too much like a facsimile of Emma Thompson's in the concert version, she still had enough personality to light up the gloomy stage.  I hope a successful career beckons...

In a seemingly cross-borders cast I also enjoyed Ruben Van keer's sweet-natured Anthony and Johan Berg's imposing Judge Turpin and there was an intriguing double act in Francisco del Solar's Hispanic Pirelli and Tao Deng's slippery Beadle.

Charlotte Clitherow's Beggar Woman was almost there while Brian Raftery's Tobias and Genevieve McCarthy's Johanna could both have done with more work - maybe simmering down the former and bringing the latter more up to the boil?

But like I said, this was an enjoyable production of one of my favourite musicals and it will be good to keep out an eye to see if the students get the breaks they need.

Now Stratford East.... how's about a proper production?

Dvd/150: AMY (Asif Kapadia, 2015)

Sometimes you really cannot see the woods for the trees...

What makes Asif Kapadia's documentary such a stunning experience is that the subject is still fresh in the memory: Amy Winehouse's meteroic rise to stardom with her album BACK TO BLACK and the subsequent media feeding frenzy as Amy became fair game for the paparazzi and tv comedians.

AMY gives you a 360 degree view of Whitehouse's life thanks to the astonishing amount of footage available to him and his editor.  Not only the 'official' gigs, interviews and studio footage but also the private camcorder and mobile phone material from her childhood friends and first manager

Over 100 interviews with people from Winehouse's life draw you into the life of a young, funny, gobby, Jewish North Londoner whose extraordinary talent catapulted her into a world where her shaky trust issues, inherited from an unhappy childhood, ill-equipped her to survive.

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf for this deserved Academy Award-winner....


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the Globe Theatre - O for a glass of Love-In-Idleness...

Last week we went to yet *another* production at The Globe - we should get some sort of badge shouldn't we?  This time it was to see - it's her again - Emma Rice's version of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.

I say 'version' as Rice has done her usual shtick of ripping out every third page from the text, rearranging the character genders for no real discernible reason and then throwing a bucket of coloured paint over it all.  Oberon uses the juice of the flower Love-In-Idleness to smear on the eyes of his Queen Titania and the mortal lovers in his wood to make them fall in love with the first thing they see.  Sadly I didn't have a glass of it on me as I had issues with the production.

Appropriately Rice has gone for an Asian flavour to her production with a sitar player front-and-centre, bright saffron-coloured flower garlands hanging in the doorways and several Asian actors in the cast paying the lead roles of Hermia, Oberon and Helenus.  Helenus I hear you cry?  Who is Helenus in the DREAM?  Welcome to the tipsy-tarty world of Emma Rice.... Helenus is the swapped gender character Helena, formerly the affection-starved female ex-lover of Demetrius, now Helenus the affection-starved GAY ex-lover of Demetrius.  It's all terribly modern.

The familiar Globe space has also undergone a transformation with huge inflatables almost blocking out the sky and long green diaphanous tubes which suggest tree trunks suspended over the groundling's heads.  It's certainly visually striking even if the 'tree trunks' can obscure the action at times.  It certainly does suggest the world of the stage spilling out into the auditorium as indeed it actually does... there are three large tables at the front of the stage which allow the actors to jump from the stage into the audience and back again.

So despite all this - was it magical?  Not really.  It was all fairly earthbound and for a season that is all about Wonder and losing yourself in storytelling there was precious few opportunities to do so.  The 'rude mechanicals' were dressed as Globe ushers and there was an interminable intro where two of them went through the do's and don'ts of the theatre which was tedious.

We also had to do without the presence of Australian cabaret star Meow-Meow in the double role of Hippolyta and Titania as she was having one of her regular nights off so Nandi Bhebhe was on instead.  As Hippolyta she let her red high-heels do all the acting while her Titania was regal in bearing if not in performance.  Having such an under-powered Queen threw more emphasis on Zubin Varla's Oberon which sadly didn't merit it - he played the role like a surly England football supporter still wandering around Marseilles looking for a fight.  I did like Titania's descent from the gods for her first entrance however, her voluminous frock spreading across the stage.

There were better performances among the lovers - Anjana Vasan was an impassioned and forceful Hermia and teamed well with Ankur Bahl as her best gay friend Helenus - this being an Emma Rice production their lifelong friendship was shown by them doing the dance routine from Beyoncé's SINGLE LADIES.  The sex change for Helena got wearying after a while as the character was played less for desperate comedy value than just as a prancing nancy boy.  How very not modern.

Edmund Derrington - last seen in the original cast of SUNNY AFTERNOON - was very good as Lysander and was particularly brave for the amount of time he was on stage in just his pants.  Ncuti Gatwa was an anonymous Demetrius although he is probably the basis of some interesting anagrams.

Ewan Wardrop as Nick Bottom got his laughs easily and well and as did Katy Owen's Puck although her constant 'business' pulled focus from scenes which she was not in - the confrontation scene between Oberon and Titania was largely ignored by the groundlings as Owens picked on them to snog.  Lucy Thackeray played the am-dram theatre director Quince in the style of a very bad Julie Walters impression.

However, as with even the worst version of the DREAM - and this wasn't that - by the time Bottom and his crew did "Pyrimus and Thisbe" I was enjoying it - Rice even managed to stick in a reference to the famous Peter Brook RSC production from 1970 - and by the time Katy Owens' Puck addressed the audience for a final time while Titania and Oberon flew above the stage (albeit on very thick hawsers) I found a trickly tear on my cheek - there is something quite magical in that last speech where Shakespeare addresses his audience down the centuries:

If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumber'd here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream, Gentles, do not reprehend: if you pardon, we will mend: And, as I am an honest Puck, If we have unearned luck Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue, We will make amends ere long; Else the Puck a liar call; So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends.

The production plays at the Globe until September, go see what you think...

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Dvd/150: LAURA (Otto Preminger, 1944)

Certain films never set out to be classics of their genre but for some reason became just that.  Considering how the studio system was, these films could have been assigned to another director or actors, and been nothing special but somehow with these films alchemy happened.  Step forward Otto Preminger's glossy film noir LAURA...

Advertising executive Laura is shot dead in her apartment.  Detective Dana Andrews singles out three suspects: waspish columnist Clifton Webb whose launched Laura, rich aunt Judith Anderson and feckless gigolo Vincent Price who leaves her to romance Laura.

The detective becomes fascinated with the beautiful but dead Laura until she suddenly arrives back in her apartment three days after her 'murder' very much alive!  So who was murdered and can the detective find the killer?

Gene Tierney is a luminous Laura while Webb triumphs as the queeny Lydecker.  David Raskin's memorable and haunting theme still delivers.

Shelf or charity shop?  LAURA is actually in DVD limbo (kept in a paper sleeve and in a plastic storage box)...

Friday, July 01, 2016

RICHARD III at the Almeida - a very fine Fiennes

My last Shakespeare play was the naff Irish stew version of TAMING OF THE SHREW so I was slightly worried what the Almeida's RICHARD III would offer up.  The Almeida is too keen on re-imaginings for it's own good but I really need not have worried, Rupert Goold has a firm grasp on the play and where he has strayed into the dangerous marshes of Director Theatre it at least is valid and frames the play in an interesting way.

Goold's production starts (and ends) with the excavation in the Leicester car park which reveals the skull of Richard III, his sword and finally his mis-shapen spine to a curious crowd of onlookers, the light fades out on this scene and slowly come up again, revealing Ralph Fiennes at the back of the stage, the skeleton made flesh.  I thought it actually worked, it ties in those recent events to a seemingly long-ago tale of political corruption and murder.

At over 3 hours, the production should feel long but it really doesn't as Goold keeps the action moving ever-forward.  I have seen previous productions which seemed to hit the buffers whenever Richard was not on stage but here nothing is allowed to get in the way of Shakespeare's thundering plot.

The modern-dress production has a simple set from Hildegard Bechtler - a semi-circular set of steps, sweeping curtains made of chains and a see-through stage over Richard's ignoble resting-place - which is a perfect setting for Goold's spare, stripped-down production; a spooky addition being spotlit silver skulls which appear on the back wall for every murder Richard sanctions.

Ralph Fiennes was magnificent as Richard, inhabiting the role with a slippery ease, turning on a groat from charming someone to do his bidding to cold-blooded sociopath.  He is such a skillful actor he didn't just play Richard as a monster but as someone who almost was cast in the role of villain from birth, the scene where his mother pours venom on him sees Fiennes slumped in a chair avoiding her gaze, you suspect he's heard it all before from her.  It was a performance of quicksilver cunning and intelligence, even when he was feigning piety to secure backing for his claim to be King, his mask slipped noticeably when Buckingham called him effeminate.

It's a world where people are only aware of Richard's murderous intent just as they are about to be (literally) stabbed in the back but there is only one person who knows how evil Richard is and that's the haunted and haunting Queen Margaret, the last living member of the deposed Royal family.  Here the ravaged Margaret of Anjou is played wonderfully by Vanessa Redgrave and Goold casting her in this role really lifts the character from being just a mere supporting character.  Although in only two scenes, Margaret haunts the play and the other characters.

In her first scene she curses all present that they know the depths of Richard's evil and one by one, as they suddenly face their destiny, Margaret's words come back to haunt them.  Vanessa's Margaret is dressed in dishevelled fatigues suggesting she has not changed since the Battle of Tewkesbury where her son was killed, and carries a damaged baby doll that Richard at one point smothers to her horror.  In a nice touch, when Margaret reappears to reproach the grieving Queen Elizabeth after the murder of her own children, Margaret leaves her battered baby doll with her, it's Elizabeth who must mourn a dead son.  As always, Vanessa was never less than thrilling.

They are complemented by other fine performances: Finbar Lynch was excellent as Buckingham, Richard's 'fixer' whose political double-dealing made the play all the more topical in these post-Brexit times, Scott Handy was very good as Clarence and made his speech of drowning all too real, James Garnon's Hastings was the very model of a careerist politician, always checking his Twitter account until it's too late, and Tom Canton was a suitably virile presence as Richard's nemesis Richmond.

Aislín McGuckin's Queen Elizabeth was suitably tigerish until she too is broken by Richard - Goold has him rape her in their final confrontation where he demands her daughter as his new wife.  This was the only directorial choice that I am unsure about although it certainly fits in with Elizabeth's sudden capitulation towards the end of the scene.  Susan Engel was exquisite as Richard's mother, The Duchess of York - her denunciation of him towards the end of the play was played with a marvellous delivery of fire and ice.  Interestingly Engel had played Queen Elizabeth in the famous RSC cycle of the War Of The Roses plays in 1963.

On 21st July RICHARD III will be the first Almeida Theatre production to be screened live in cinemas (although some filming will take place in performances before that) - I recommend it highly as the production is sold out for all performances at the theatre.