Sunday, August 20, 2017

Dvd/150: PEPI, LUCI, BOM Y OTRAS CHICAS DEL MONTÓN (PEPI, LUCI, BOM AND OTHER GIRLS ON THE HEAP, Pedro Almodóvar, 1980)

Almodóvar's debut feature film is only 77 minutes long and is a whirlwind of scattergun story-telling; sleazy and unfocused but captures the heady movida movement in Madrid after Franco's death.


PEPI, LUCI, BOM allows a first glimpse of future El Deseo stars - Kiti Manver and Julieta Serano both feature in eye-catching cameos in a club scene, Cecilia Roth is seen in a commercial for wonder-panties, Cristina Sanchez Pascual plays a screeching bearded lady and Fabio McNamara flaps about shrieking as per.


But it's dazzling heart is Carmen Maura as Pepi who is raped by fascist cop Felix Rotaeta at the start of the film, and who exacts her revenge by getting her lesbian punk singer friend Bom to seduce his wife Luci, a downtrodden woman who loves to be degraded.


With it's mad swipes at pop culture and personal politics, it's amateurish at times but huge fun.

Shelf or charity shop? It's Almodóvar, it stars Carmen Maura and uses Little Nell's DO THE SWIM as it's title track - SHELF!!!!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

YANK! at Charing Cross Theatre - Over There, Over Here, Over Done

So here we are in August, and I have seen four - count 'em - four musicals, and none have been totally successful - I am banking everything now on the National Theatre's FOLLIES to kick-start the musical joy this year.  So director Dominic Cooke... DON'T fuck it up.


But first there is YANK! (nice to see the eternal exclamation mark for musicals with one-word titles still making it's presence felt) which has opened at Thom Southerland's Charing Cross Theatre.  I had high hopes when I heard that he was going to be this dodgy theatre's artistic director but this year has been a bit 'meh', hopefully the upcoming revival of Lloyd Webber's THE WOMAN IN WHITE might give it a shot in the arm.

Sadly I have to report that there is nothing in the show to match the ironic humour of the title in this musical about two soldiers finding love among the US army ranks in WWII.  It is very an odd show, it's heart is resolutely on it's sleeve but that is attached to off-the-shoulder earnestness.  Even when the show takes a sudden detour into a sense-deprivation interrogation of one of the lovers you just know you are not far away from a soupy ballad with lyrics worthy of Hallmark Cards.


The show, a transfer from Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre, is hampered by it's structure; it starts with a young narrator talking about a diary he picked up in an antique shop and the same actor then plays Stu - irksomely called Stuey through most of the show - who is drafted into the army in 1943.  Pitched into the bullying, testosterone-filled atmosphere of the Basic Training camp, Stu keeps his head down but finds gay men still thriving - most notably in the office admin where three typists call each other by the "Gone With The Wind" names of Scarlett, Melanie and India.  What... no one wanted Mammy?

Here he meets Mitch, a ruffty-tuffty fellow soldier who Stu falls for after a snatched snog in a train berth but their friendship ruffles feathers within Charlie Company.  However Stu's life takes an upturn when he meets Artie, a photographer for the Army magazine YANK!, who gets him moved to be his assistant.  In a bizarre-but-well choreographed number, Chris Kiely as Artie leads the troop in a lengthy tap routine called "Click" which equates tapping with sex.


It's that kind of show, Stu and Mitch are the good gays because they have a 'relationship', Artie is the snake-in-the-grass because he has arbitrary sex.  Sadly book-writer David Zellnik cannot make the couple interesting; Stu is too passive (no pun intended) to be interesting and Mitch is just a cypher - he loves Stu so they can sing a ballad, he goes cold on Stu so they can sing a conflict song.  As I said earlier, the show has a real stop-start feel to it as Stu narrates each scene-change.

Artie and Stu's relationship founders when Stu puts them in harm's way by following his beloved to the battle front but the couple are betrayed to the authorities and Stu's diary implicates him and he is jailed.  On his release, they meet one more time and Stu's long-dreamt future is shattered forever...


The performances were all very committed but the two stand-outs were Chris Kiely as Artie and Sarah-Louise Young in the potentially sticky role of every woman in the story but she was huge fun singing in a variety of styles and even had the chance to give a good individual performance as Louise, a closeted lesbian who knows that silence is the best way to progress up the army career ladder.

The show was certainly tightly directed by James Baker and well-lit by Aaron J Dootson and Chris Cuming made the most of the stage space for his choreography.  The score by Joseph and David Zellnik was a curiosity: they stated they wanted to write the musical Rodgers and Hammerstein never got to write which is pitching it a bit high but their score certainly has the retro sound of 1950s musicals.  The trouble is because of that it comes across as pastiche and not it's own entity.



Saturday, August 12, 2017

JUST TO GET MARRIED at the Finborough - the eternal struggle...

Looking back in 1924, Virginia Woolf posited the idea that in 1910 "human character changed".  She admitted this was an arbitrary choice but it was a year that seemed to ripple with change beneath the surface.  Among that year's little earthquakes were Dr Crippin being arrested for his wife's murder aboard a ship thanks to a wired telegram, Roger Fry organizing the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London, and EM Forster publishing HOWARDS END.

For some reason, HOWARDS END kept popping up in my mind while watching JUST TO GET MARRIED which marked my first-ever visit to West London's small but important fringe venue the Finborough Theatre.  The Finborough prides itself on resurrecting 'lost' 20th Century plays that might just still be relevant today.  Their latest find is Cicely Hamilton's play, first performed in 1910 and not seen in London for over a hundred years. More than ever, one is aware of hearing words and thoughts long-silenced primarily by those stalking horses, modernity and fashion.


While Hamilton's play exhibited the drawbacks of the classic three-act upper-class drama which probably did it no favours, especially after the cataclysmic Great War, it still sparked with a debate that rages on, the position of women in a world of money and limited opportunity.

Cicely Hamilton was born in 1872 into a military family in London, the eldest of four children, whose life was rocked at the age of 10 when her mother left the family forever.  Cicely was moved into foster homes which left her wretched.  She took the obvious job of being a teacher but she soon chucked it to become a touring actress but this too left her disenchanted so she turned her hand to writing.


Her first play was produced in 1906 and her second in 1908, DIANA OF DOBSONS, was a big success.  In the same year she joined the Women's Social and Political Union and even wrote the lyrics for their anthem "March of The Women".  But unhappy with Emmaline Pankhurst's elitist stance she left to join a more root-and-branch Suffragette organization as well as help founding two arts-based women's groups.

Her political life reflected in her art, writing three plays in 1909 HOW THE VOTE WAS WON, A PAGEANT OF GREAT WOMEN and MARRIAGE AS A TRADE.  She followed these with JUST TO GET MARRIED.  As with so many women fighting for the right to vote, WWI saw her having to stand down from campaigning and join the war effort.  She became an army nurse but continued her writing career after the war; she died in 1952.


JUST TO GET MARRIED centres on Georgiana Vicary, a 29 year-old upper-class woman who is fast becoming a burden to her aunt and uncle with whom she lives.  Their own son will soon need to be financed through his college years and Lady Catherine, Georgiana's formidable aunt, is fast losing her patience with her niece's unmarried state.  Hamilton's own experience of unhappy foster homes is certainly reflected in her character's shaky position within the family.

What is so frustrating for them all is that Georgiana is being pursued by Adam Lankester who is obviously besotted with her but whose crippling shyness makes it impossible for him to tell her this, let alone propose marriage.  This state of affairs annoys Georgiana too, she cannot do anything to provoke him into a proposal and despite the sympathy of her girl friends, a happily married woman and a bohemian artist, she is all too aware that in the wider society's eyes, time is running out for her.


But Adam finds the stammered words to ask her to marry him and Georgiana of course says yes.  The day of the marriage arrives in a whirl of catering requirements, wedding presents and trousseau fittings, but Georgiana becomes more and more agitated until she can no longer suppress her anguish: that she knows she has only said yes to become a wife - it could have been any man, just anyone to move her along the tracks of her pre-destined life.  She tries to explain to Adam that she would be depriving him of the chance of a wife that loves him but he can only lash out at her for being cruel.

In a series of confrontations Georgiana is faced with the icy fury of Lady Catherine, and the derision of her spoiled cousin Bertha.  After denouncing them and the wider society that forces women to be mere property, trained only in writing thank you letters and putting up their hair, Georgiana flees the Grayle family home and makes for a local station in a thunderous storm.  With just the vague promise of shelter with her artist friend in London, Georgiana faces her life alone... or does she?


Hamilton's play seems to point towards a sour but realistic climax but, after a first-act of seemingly-Shavian drawing-room wit and a second of almost Ibsenite emotional bloodletting, she gives us a surprising happy ending, but on reflection it can be seen as a-wished for way ahead... a place where men and women can start from with openness and understanding.

The intimacy of the Finborough's 50-seat theatre space helped Melissa Dunne's production enormously - we too were guests at the Grayle's country house watching Georgiana's fate unspool and the by-necessity simple design was charming.  I did however think that us the audience would have given the dramatic license needed for the staff to be summoned using a small bell, not the huzzing big school playground bell that sat so incongruously on the bureau.


Philippa Quinn was impressive as Georgiana but her second act Wrestling With Her Guilty Feelings was just as emphatic as that - she overplayed the ironic snorts and bitter expressions of happiness to such an extent that it made you wonder why none of her fellow characters didn't say whatever the Edwardian equivalent is for "Bitch, are you taking the piss?"  However once her Guilty Secret was out and she was allowed to just play the anger in her situation, Quinn was very good.

Jonny McPherson was a delight as Adam, moving seamlessly from gauche twit to being genuinely moving as his character's emotions went from love to despair; hopefully this will lead to bigger chances for him.  Nicola Blackman was a real delight as Lady Catherine, her gushing benevolence being turned off like a tap at the mere hint of her wishes not being carried out.  Her interrogation of the distraught Georgiana was marvellous: a woman of her class being confronted with her own failings but swatting them off like flies from the sandwiches at her last garden party.


I also liked the impenetrable dimness of Simon Rhodes' Uncle Theodore and Joanne Ferguson as Georgiana's sympathetic but position-conscious married friend Mrs Maccartney.  As I said Melissa Dunne directed the play with a sureness of hand and with no air of condescension to Hamilton's Edwardian dialogue or plot.

It was interesting to see that Cicely Hamilton could go from writing three polemical plays about the struggle for women's rights to this which illustrated the same theme but within a dramatic narrative.  Well done to the Finborough for championing this writer and I am sure I will be back to see another of it's reclaiming of past plays.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Exit Through The Giftshop - Postcards at an exhibition....

I haven't done one of these for a while...  more postcards from exhibitions and galleries...

1) ELLEN TERRY (1889) - John Singer Sargent


I bought this at the National Portrait Gallery after seeing the wonderful exhibition of Singer Sargent's portraits. In a room filled with other larger-than-life portraits of the rich and famous, Ellen Terry's ruled them all with the intensity and majesty invoked.

Capturing Terry in her role as Lady Macbeth which she played aged 42, you can see how Singer Sargent has captured lightening in making you aware of both the power and the incipient madness that must have been conjured by Terry's performance.  The portrait is all the more remarkable in that it is pure imagination as there is no such scene in the play.  Singer Sargent has painted her in an extended, larger-tan-life pose to show off the heavy medieval costume, jewelry and accessories and those enormous plaits!  But what arrests the viewer is the intense look on Terry's face, her eyes unfocused and lost in a reverie of power

2) MONA LISA (1503-6) - Leonardo de Vinci


Well... how can you not buy a postcard in the Louvre where Lisa del Giacondo stares out at you from anything and everything.  Started by Leonardo when she was 24, Lisa Gheradini had been married at 16 to (gasp) Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, a silk and cloth merchant.  It is believed that he commissioned the portrait of his wife but Leonardo never delivered it to the couple and worked on it over the years until it was found in his possession when he died in Paris in 1519.

I wonder did Lisa ever entertain thoughts of becoming well-known, possibly when her husband became a Florentine official in 1499.  But as the mother of five she probably thought she would be known only to family and friends.  I wonder how she would feel to know that her face is one of the most famous in history?  As you cannot get close to the painting in it's bullet-proof shrine, really the only way to study it up close is though the postcards, books, posters, prints, tea-towels, fridge-magnets...

3) VERGINE ANNUNCIATA (1528) - Jacopo Pontormo


How many surprised Virgin Marys does one see in Florence?  This postcard was bought when we visited the church of Santa Felicita in Florence which boasts several works by the Renaissance painter Pontormo.  In this fresco of The Annunciation, Pontormo gives us a restrained version of the event as Mary turns to look behind her at the arrival of the Angel in her bare whitewashed room.

It reflects a Mannerist influence where the bling and emotionalism of Renaissance painting is stripped back to a clear, restrained version of the story.  The light shining on her face could be from an external source or from the Angel's radiance and it highlights her pale colouring, blond hair and the simple colours of her robes.  I think it's rather lovely.

4) THE GREAT DAY OF HIS WRATH (1851-3) - John Martin


I bought this in 2011 when we visited the John Martin exhibition at Tate Britain.  Odd how things trigger memories... we came out of this and I remember getting some very sad news so that is what stays with me when I see Martin's extravagant painting of the Apocalypse. I remember walking round the exhibition and wondering what the Victorians thought of his huge panoramas of sturm und drang. To me, they seemed to be early incarnations of the Biblical epics of Cecil B. deMille; massive palaces with huge empty terraces spotted with 'extras', or as here, huge set-pieces come alive with huge visual effects.

Two huge mountains of earth rise up to be crashed to earth with a zig-zag of lightning cracks across the sky to hit the tiny house raised high off the ground.  At the bottom of the painting, tiny figures cower in terror as the end approaches... and all lit by a sickly, glowering deep-red sunset.  This painting was one of a triptych that Martin painted about the end of days and they actually toured around theatres in England and America, presented like a sound-and-light show with music and lights to scare the bejesus out of the audience!

5) BANKS OF THE SEINE AT CARRIERES-SUR-SEINE (1906) - Maurice de Vlaminck


I bought this at the Courtauld Gallery which boasts a wonderful collection of both Impressionist and  Post-Impressionist paintings, and one of them is this vibrant landscape by Vlaminck.  I love his Fauvist world of reds, blues and greens; the year before he painted this, he did a town landscape called "Restaurant de la Machine a Bougival" and whenever I see it I just want to leap into it and live there.

Vlaminck's painting of the banks of the Seine in a town to the north of Paris glows with life and the joy of painting.  The whole painting moves with the breezes that swirl the branches of the trees and bushes.  The houses on the far side of the Seine offer solidity and community - but on this bank all is life, nature and vivid colour.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

.....COMMITTEE..... at the Donmar: Sing Out Those Sentences Camila!

COMMITTEE.... not the best musical title eh?  It's not even COMMITTEE!  It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single word musical title needs an exclamation mark to really give it that zing.  Ah but Constant Reader, that's because COMMITTEE isn't actually called that...  Got your reading eyes in?

The actual title is THE PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS COMMITTEE TAKES ORAL EVIDENCE ON WHITEHALL'S RELATIONSHIP WITH KID'S COMPANY.  Try and get that on a badge and a mug for the merch stand.  The title nearly lasts longer than the show as it runs only 80 minutes.


Is there any reason for this show to be a musical?  No.  Is there any reason for this Committee to be a show?  Actually I would say yes as it was constantly interesting to observe two immovable objects colliding: the Government and Camila Batmanghelidjh the self-publicizing CEO of the children's charity that spectacularly crashed and burned in 2015.  Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke and the inexplicably-popular actor (at the Donmar anyway) Hadley Fraser wrote it while Tom Deering is the composer of a score that is ever-present but only there to string the words together.

I was never bored - at 80 minutes there really is no time to be bored - but I was exasperated by the twee doodlings that passed as songs.  With the Committee chair Bernard Jenkin becoming increasingly exasperated at Batmanghelidjh and Trustee Chariman Alan Yentob's (yes, him from the BBC) refusal to answer even the most basic questions allied to her larger-than-life personality and his preening ego, you would think that grand themes could be found for them but no.  Wispy tunes go in one ear and out the other...


Being a worker in the Third Sector, I found the dissection of the catastrophic situation that the charity allowed itself to get into fascinating.  I have always been immune to the cult of personality that was Camila Batmanghelidjh - her standard bleat being that any criticism of her or her charity must mean that the questioner was against helping any under-privileged children and was probably racist too.  To see her shown to be the smoke and mirrors expert she was, with her spurious claims to be a registered psychotherapist and her outlandish threats to use her unique access to tv and print media to get what she wanted, was schadenfreude of the highest quality.

The trouble with the show - as with any verbatim theatre - is that ultimately the writer / adapter can never show any real stance either way: so Batmanghelidjh is seen dodging questions with lumbering ability but is then given a big song about how she is just doing it for her children without any sense of irony.  It's like the text is showing her to be untrustworthy but the writers desperately still want to present her as a heroine.  No such qualms with Alan Yentob who is shown to be name-dropping and self-important, and indeed it is his character that provides the climactic blunder when he tells the committee that there was never any real need to worry about Kid's Company finances as the Government would always give them money.


I suspect we had an insider audience on our night as there was lots of knowing laughs at innocuous lines, it did feel like there was a level just playing to that part of the peanut gallery.  What I also found vaguely annoying was that the show just stops dead - there was a lot of set-up with civil servants telling you who all the participants were, what the background was and the purpose behind the committee.  But the show ended with the Chairman thanking the two witnesses amid shuffling papers.  It all seemed to suggest that there was no real reason for it or the audience to have shown an interest in the past 80 minutes.

For me, the show failed because of it's inconclusive structure and drab score but it was briskly directed by Adam Penford and the bland, neutral committee room was well duplicated by Robert Jones.  Luckily too, there were some real stand-out performances: Sandra Marvin was very impressive as Batmanghelidjh, negotiating the odd Sin-Bin trough in the stage with her padding and large frock, but she shone through all that to deliver an impassioned performance.  Sadly Omar Ebrahim as Alan Yentob had no match to Sandra's charisma and his opera voice was too top-heavy for the score.


I really liked Alexander Hanson's performance of Bernard Jenkin, the suave chair of the committee who looked very happy at the prospect of getting the 8am interview slot on the Radio 4 TODAY programme but I liked the way he showed Jenkin becoming more and more rattled by his witness' stone-walling.  Anthony O'Donnell as very good as the combatitive Welsh Labour MP Paul Flynn as was Robert Hands as the milder David Jones MP.

There were also sparkling performances too from Rosemary Ashe as a terrier-like Kate Hoey (landing her difficult accent to a tee) and Rebecca Lock - standing in for an absent Liz Robertson - as the Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan; patronizing, condescending and blithely mispronouncing 'Batmanghelidjh', Lock nailed the archetype Tory female to perfection.


So in conclusion: if you are going to make a musical then write music to lift the show and if you are going to do verbatim theatre musicals - don't.


Thursday, August 03, 2017

THE TEMPEST at the Barbican - The Bard goes digital...

For a play about the use and misuse of magical powers, I have not yet seen a production of THE TEMPEST that was particularly filled with wonder.  It's almost as if directors are afraid to embrace it, as if they are worried that it will be criticized as being too obvious, too much like the over-produced Shakespeare productions of the actor/managers of old.


So it was a surprise to hear that Gregory Doran's new RSC production had gone for a tie-in with Intel to include video projections and motion-capture technology - well if that wouldn't bring the wonder then something was seriously wrong!  The other selling point was that Simon Russell Beale was playing Prospero which in itself is a bit of a special effect.

I am still unsure where I sit with THE TEMPEST, it has one of my favourite Shakespearean speeches and other moments of great poetry but the fragmented nature of the plot means that the vengeful Prospero, by far the most interesting character, is frequently absent from the stage.  We seem to spend an awful lot of time with the Milan/Naples faction of lost lords, none of whom are interesting.


Prospero was Duke of Milan but was deposed by his brother Antonio, aided by the King of Naples.  Helped by courtier Gonzalo, Prospero escaped with his young daughter Miranda in a small boat, also laden with his magic books.  They land on an island where Prospero discovers Ariel, a spirit trapped in a tree by the now-dead witch Sycorax, and her disfigured son Caliban.  Prospero easily subjugates both but promises Ariel he will release him one day.

Prospero learns that Antonio, the King and his son Prince Ferdinand are on a boat nearby so he conjures a mighty storm to sink the ship and the passengers wash up on the island.  Prospero and Miranda discover Ferdinand and the young couple - of course - fall instantly in love.  The surviving passengers remain lost until Prospero brings all together, finally reconciled with friend and foe alike.


For all it's whiz-bang graphics, at the production's centre was Simon Russell Beale troubled Prospero.  It was an interesting performance, shot through with Beale's very human qualities as an actor, none more so than his reading of the wonderful "Our revels now are ended..." speech.  Rather than playing it for just the poetry of the words, he spun the words with a real feeling of bitterness; it felt like his Prospero was aware that his life has been wasted on his island and it seemed that he is realization of Miranda's love for Ferdinand will leave him truly alone.

The play's climactic scene - where Prospero finally gathers all the characters of the island and the shipwrecked boat together - was played very mournfully, Prospero's muted forgiveness of his brother and the King for overthrowing him, as well as forgiving Caliban for his murderous plot with the drunken servants, seemed more like a man who is almost broken with the weight of seeking vengeance.  However his final speech - where Prospero pleads for the audience to give him his freedom now his magic has been abandoned - was very moving.


The always dependable James Hayes was great fun as the drunk butler Stephano although a little Simon Trinder as the jester Trinculo went a long way.  Jenny Rainsford was very likeable as Miranda and I liked Mark Quartley as Ariel, a role possibly made more difficult by the technology, but he made the spirit a real presence with his hesitant tiptoe walk and clambering about the set.  Joe Dixon was also fine as Caliban but again seemed imbued with the mournful feel of the production.

The big selling point - going by the size of the Intel logo on the poster at any rate - was the use of computer graphics and motion-capture and they certainly were arresting and occasionally thrilling.  Stephen Brimson Lewis designed a large standing set of a shipwrecked hull and from above the stage there is a cylindrical shape which occasionally descended, such as when Prospero reminds Ariel of how he was trapped in a tree by the witch Sycorax - in an instant the tree seemed to appear from nowhere, it's spindly branches cracking and groaning, only to vanish as quickly as it arrived.


I noticed the occasional flash of light on Ariel's costume which showed where the motion-capture sensors were; at certain moments Quartley would make a movement and suddenly Ariel was projected onto the stage trapped in the tree, flapping above the stage like a frightening phoenix or walking through the air high above the stage.  The disappointing thing though was I would rather have watched the ethereal Quartley than any video-game approximation of him.

The computer graphics came into their own in Miranda and Ferdinand's wedding masque where the three goddesses Iris, Ceres and Juno serenade them with operatic voices.  As they do this, the stage was flooded with almost fauvist landscapes, vividly coloured mountains and fields as well as glowing peacock feathers, and multi-coloured flowers appearing on the goddess' dress as she hovered above the stage.


An interesting experiment certainly but the wrecked ship set was a cumbersome one and left little space for the video projections to really work on the whole of the stage; I feel it would have worked better if the set had occasionally broke apart to give a space for the projections to fully transform the stage.

I am glad I saw this version of THE TEMPEST however but for all the IT bells and smells, it will stay in the memory for the essential human element of Simon Russell Beale's troubled and conflicted Prospero.