Tuesday 30 October 2012

Skyfall - Review

On general release, certificate 12A


Skyfall is the 23rd film in the James Bond franchise and as has been widely reported, is released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of  Dr No, the first in the series. It’s a dark movie, featuring a Bond who, in the words of director Sam Mendes is a “combination of lassitude, boredom, depression [and] difficulty with what he's chosen to do for a living”.
The acting in Skyfall is outstanding. Whilst Daniel Craig continues to refine and define his interpretation of 007 the film introduces the elite of Britain's performing talent, the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear, Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw, to the various echelons of Judi Dench's MI6. Noted theatre critic Mark Shenton tweeted on seeing the film of the legacy owed to British theatre by world cinema. He is not wrong. Shenton further points out that several of these names have already gone so far as to have reached the pinnacle of playing Hamlet within their stage careers. In the current climate of public spending cuts Mendes is clearly leaving this Government department very ably staffed, pending the next Bond instalment. To witness the interaction between these performers, including Javier Bardem as the villain and even a cameo from Albert Finney towards the film’s conclusion, sees the movie mirror the stellar casting that the Harry Potter franchise has consistently attracted over the years.
Whilst the script is biting, witty and sharp, the plot disappoints and to describe the story in even the remotest detail risks spoiling. The evolution of this yarn has had a chequered path as MGM’s finances wobbled during the film’s development and it shows. The plot ultimately evolves into a British based version of Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner's The Bodyguard, an unquestionably well acted but nonetheless unfulfilling narrative.
For the fans, the classic ingredients of Bond are all there. The lines, THAT tune, and an outstanding opening sequence filmed in Turkey are all an absolute delight. Bond’s women are stylish and sexy as well as being thoughtfully fleshed out as characters, though perhaps the film could have cut back on some of the topless nudity. There is only so much of Daniel Craig’s chest that one can bear to watch over the course of two plus hours.  The film also largely plays out in London and the UK and again it is pleasing to see so much of the capital city and the nation's landscapes being exploited by Mendes in this 50th anniversary tribute.
Whilst the photography and the performances shine, some of the action sequences and visual effects disappoint. Relatively early in the movie when a prominent London building is the target for a terrorist explosion, the Bond special effects team fail to deliver a convincing blast. It has also been widely trailed that the film features a tube train crashing. When this moment occurs, the visual effects involved in capturing the destruction of the (clearly model) train carriages are poor. The producers need to bear in mind that modern audiences have sophisticated tastes. They are accustomed to, for example,  both the excellence of the Harry Potter visual effects and also the outstanding work of James Cameron, so when in 2012, the audience is presented with a crashing Underground train that looks as authentic as Spielberg’s shark from the 1970’s, they are entitled to feel cheated. At the risk of being accused of pedantry, a minor point of location credibility also extends to the actual tube trains used. A journey in the movie through Temple tube station on the District Line is being made by a deep “tube” train, rather than the more “rectangular” stock that actually serve that line. The film is of course being marketed at a global audience, many of whom will not have the faintest idea of what carriages run on which London Underground lines. But some of that audience will be Londoners and they will watch those scenes with some part of their suspended disbelief (essential for all story telling) being gradually brought back down to earth. And when filmmakers choose to play fast and loose with even the most basic elements of consistency and respect for location, they insult  their audience's intelligence and it can leave a temporarily unsatisfying taste. On a positive note, Bond's on-foot chase of a villain through the foot tunnels of the tube station is the best such sequence since John Landis' An American Werewolf in London including an impressive and much envied slide down a deep Tube escalator. 
The climax of the movie, without revealing anything, is a shoot out between the good guys and the bad guys that relies too heavily on silhouettes machine-gunning each other and lobbing grenades and sticks of dynamite. For this sequence, less would have been more, and again a model of the final building in flames was visually disappointing.
Whilst the opening and closing chapters of this Bond tale are truly striking moments of quality cinema, it is a disappointment that the intervening narrative lacks depth and credibility. Notwithstanding, Mendes and Eon Productions have crafted a worthy and watchable adventure that demands to be savoured on the big screen before it is swallowed up for broadcast on the Sky 007 channel, if only to gasp in amazment at the opening sequence of Bond grappling with a villain on top of a moving train. A classic action movie sequence, captured brilliantly by Mendes and his crew.

James Bond is a very modern icon of very traditional British culture and this film is gloriously British. Mendes however has had his creditable turn at the wheel of this Aston Martin of the movie business. He should park the car and give the keys to Danny Boyle.

Saturday 27 October 2012

The Horror! The Horror! - Review

Wilton's Music Hall, London


Book by Stewart Pringle & Tom Richards
Music & lyrics by Jeffery Mayhew
Directed by Tom Richards 

Tom Richards throttles Alicia Bennett in The Horror! The Horror!

The Horror! The Horror! is a delightful, Victorian styled Grand Guignol piece from Theatre of the Damned. A site specific work that commences with a pre-show in the Wilton's bar reminiscent of Oom-Pah-Pah from Lionel Bart’s Oliver, before leading the audience off to explore the more obscure parts of this wonderful old building whilst the main hall undergoes renovation.
Tom Richards, who also directs, is the gloriously whiskered (shameless link to my Movember fundraising page) Alfred Brownlow, the Chairman of the evening, who complete with gavel, announces each vignette with Music Hall showmanship. Over the course of the evening, the audience are escorted by established dwarf actor Ben Goffe, whose miniscule stature and comic delivery lends lends a freakish chill to proceedings, through Wilton’s crumbling corridors to four sometimes saucy but never smutty presentations that each has a grisly end, the details of which will not be spoiled here.
The acting of each playlet is typically excellent. The evening commences with Alicia Bennett and Kate Quinn singing a charming ditty about the preservation of a young lady’s honour, quickly followed by some clever puppetry. Both women are a delight to watch and listen to, their beautifully rehearsed performances evidence of the high production values that Theatre of the Damned strive for.
The second piece concerns an escapologist and his two young assistants who plan to elope, abandoning the old magician. Tim Barton as the ageing illusionist needs to be a tad sharper with his lines – even a minor stumble in a piece such as this can pierce the suspension of disbelief that the company are trying to elicit from the audience.
The penultimate presentation features Jonathan Kemp as a comic, face caked in white, evoking both John Osborne’s Archie Rice and Trevor Griffiths’ Gethin Pryce as at manic speed his patter lurches from mother-in-law gags to murderous confessions. His soliloquies are breathtaking and his performance stunning, intensified by the claustrophobic cell-like room in which he is encountered.

Kate Quinn, Ben Goffe and Alicia Bennett

It would not be fair to comment on the gory, shocking final scene, other than to say that it includes the entire cast rounding the evening off with a witty farewell song.
Together with Stewart Pringle, Richards has made for a fun night of imaginative theatre. The performances are generally outstanding and the imagination and magic that has gone into some of the effects is very entertaining. Some of the show's horror can be a little average with prosthetic face masks echoing kids' “trick or treat” capers rather than professional actors. Similarly some of the stories go on a touch too long and some of the sightlines in the rooms can be obstructed by tall audience members. But those criticisms should be set in the context of an imaginative company presenting cleverly crafted traditional theatre for a modern audience. If there are “date” movies, then this is “date" theatre. Take your girlfriend or your boyfriend – there will be enough shocks to make them cuddle up very close to you as these gruesome tales unwind.

Runs to November 7

Friday 26 October 2012

Anything Goes : Karen Akers Sings Cole Porter - Review

The Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel, London


Karen Akers
Karen Akers’ one week residency at Brasserie Zedel’s Crazy Coqs  is a cabaret performance that is simply sublime. Gliding on to the stage, in a long black dress, and a cascade of pearls, Miss Aker’s diminutive frame belies her rich and beauteous sound.

Accompanied by Leigh Thompson on piano, Aker’s set is composed entirely of Porter including many favourites,  as well as some of the lesser known gems from the talented American composer.

Opening with I’m Throwing A Ball, Akers immediately sets out her range and her understanding of Porter’s wit. Not only does she know her Porter musically, she has the most extraordinary grasp of the man’s history and a thorough understanding of the nuance that underlies each word and key change of his compositions. Her performance is a masterclass in musical theatre. Singing Let’s Fall in Love, another of Porter’s witty wonders, she interjects additional verses written by Noel Coward for the American’s classic, classy tune. The Englishman’s lyrics are as funny as they are brilliant, particularly when performed in a foggy autumnal London by such a talented Yank!

Favourites such as Don’t Fence Me In and Anything Goes sound like new songs in Akers’ delivery and Begin the Beguine is an astounding reclamation of a stunning song, back from its mauling by Iglesias! Half way through her song list, she drops a gear for a few more reflective numbers, including It's All Right and I Love Paris, in which her performance is literally spine-tingling. It is apparent that Akers’ voice is the perfect foil for Porter's poignant composer’s pencil.

The hour long set seems far too short. Thompson is a genius on the ivories, complementing the chanteuse perfectly. Catch this if you can.  Karen Akers’ cabaret is an evening of simple intimate excellence.

Runs to November 3

Thursday 25 October 2012

The Monk - Review

Barons Court Theatre, London

Writer: Matthew Lewis
Adaptor and director: Benji Sperring
This review was first published in The Public Reviews
As Hallowe’en fast approaches, The Monk is one of several offerings on the London fringe promising a chilling time. Based on Matthew Lewis’s novel from the late 18th century, it is presented at the Baron’s Court theatre in a new adaptation by Benji Sperring, who also directs.

The monk of the title is Ambrosio, an inspirational abbot from Madrid who becomes tempted by the sins of the flesh and falls from grace, ultimately condemning himself to eternal damnation. Alongside this, the Church’s senior figures of the time are shown to be deceitful and morally bankrupt and Ambrosio’s journey through the play takes place amongst episodes of rape, incest and infanticide. In short, the broadest of horrific canvases to portray.

Sadly this production falls far short of its ambitions. All horror and especially low budget horror, requires acting performances of the highest calibre if the audience is to be truly captivated and frightened. Sperring’s (noble) background is from education and far too often the standards of The Monk resemble a well-meaning sixth form performance, rather than a professional show.

Making his UK debut as Ambrosio is Argentinian Francisco Ortiz. It may be harsh to criticise given that he is acting in a non-native tongue, but whilst Ortiz’s diction is very good, his ability to convey supremely divine and subsequently, demonic, powers of influence through his performance were severely limited. A role as evil as his demands to be performed with a diabolically fiery passion that Ortiz just does not deliver. The fault could well not be entirely his as it is possible that Sperring’s adaptation is at times too simplistic and poorly constructed.

Several of the other performers make their professional debuts. Sadie Tonks plays Matilda a delightfully believable young minx, on an infernally inspired mission to seduce the Abbot. Lucy Dascalopolous, playing Antonia a young girl who is seduced by the Abbot, fares less well though. Her diction frequently tailed off with a lack of crispness to her speech and she is entitled to have received better direction from Sperring. Dascalopolous also has a brief nude scene that troubles within the structure of the play, her bared midriff seemed somewhat gratuitous.

Adding strength to the company were Angela Bull, with several credits to her name in the production, and veteran Judy Tcherniak , who portrayed a convincingly wicked Prioress.

The programme notes that Sperring taught at Eton College and that two of the male debutant actors also attended the school, at which they both obtained extensive acting experience. Whilst that is encouraging to read, for its many virtues Eton does not yet appear to be a vocational drama school. Professional theatre demands professionally trained actors, a paying audience deserve nothing less. Sperring’s endeavours are nonetheless to be encouraged and with some workshopping and rewrites this play could yet become more of a Halloween treat rather than the trick that it currently is.

Runs to November 4

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Dangerous Lady - Review

Theatre Royal Stratford East, London


Adapted by Patrick Prior

Directed by Lisa Goldman

Claire-Louise Cordwell as Maura Ryan
Dangerous Lady is the most traditional of plays, mounted in a wonderfully traditional theatre. Martina Cole's first novel has been adapted for the Theatre Royal Stratford East by Associate Writer Patrick Prior who, in an age where crime novels are typically dramatised via film or television replete with clever camera angles and expensive explosions, has taken this tale of London's criminality in the late twentieth century and simply transformed it for one of London's most atmospheric stages. This play is a cracking yarn of old fashioned east-end values, villainy, violence and virtue.

Claire-Louise Cordwell is Maura Ryan, the femme fatale of the play's title. We follow her from birth, born into a family of Irish Catholic heritage. Her mother is a single parent matriarch, adored by her three sons and daughter and the theme of family loyalty and the consequences of betraying such commitment, runs through the play as through a stick of Brighton rock. The young Maura unwittingly falls in love with a rookie policeman, a relationship that is destined to be doomed whilst her siblings slowly build up an empire of organised crime across the city and the play tracks her over thirty years with neat socially historic nods to the illegality of abortion, the illicit widespread fundraising for and growth of, the IRA and an intolerance of homosexuality. Maura's brothers are characterisations of villains both factual and fabled. There are aspects of their life that echo the Kray Brothers and the emerging republican influence on London's gangland bears more than a passing resemblance to the crumbling of Harold Shand's empire in Barrie Keefe's The Long Good Friday (see weblink below). Director Lisa Goldman has her cast portray shootings, beatings and factory explosions in a manner that is convincing without ever being gory, her London very much a recognisable tableaux.

Cordwell's is a tour de force performance . On stage for almost the entire production, she carries the success of this story. Hers is the character that is the most defined by Prior and she brings an authentic humanity to the spectrum of Maura's emotions as she experiences love, loss, and anger as well as developing a ruthless controlling streak as she grows to command her brothers' empire. Her journey is physically tough, and the violation she suffers at the grubby hands of a bungling abortionist is harrowing to watch. Cordwell has her audience wincing at the pain she endures and cheering at her triumphs.

Veronica Quilligan is convincing as the sibling's mother, powerful yet, in later years, weary with grief and surprisingly vengeful. As eldest brother Michael, James Clyde is a watchable if somewhat two-dimensional hoodlum, his gay sexuality, coke habit, and menacing manner being a little cliched. In a haunting moment, Allyson Ava-Brown, playing several supporting roles in the story, sings an ethereally beautiful Amazing Grace at a family funeral.

Whilst act one of the play charts Maura's rise to power and is both credible and gripping, the second half, in which the story's various plot lines moves towards resolution can at times feel contrived. This may well be the corollary of editing Cole's original 500 page novel into one evening's entertainment.

The set is simple yet ingenious and with 48 scenes to accommodate, Jean-Marc Puissant's use of concentric revolves enables a diverse range of locations to be effectively and stylishly represented. Matt McKenzie's sound design, with background music suggesting the years passing and vocal and special effects, including a particularly authentic church echo, add to the production's ambience.

Martina Cole's work belongs in this east London setting. Her story with its classic themes of love, brutality and revenge makes for a grand evening of adult theatre.

Runs to November 17

 A lookback on The Long Good Friday

Photograph: Robert Day

Monday 22 October 2012

Loserville - Review

Garrick Theatre, London

Book, music and lyrics by Elliot Davis and James Bourne
Director: Steven Dexter

This review was first published in The Public Reviews
Eliza Hope Bennett and Aaron Sidwell in the Planetarium
Busting on to London’s West End following a run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Loserville is a rare beast, an entirely original musical brimming with innovation. Free of star billings and with no movie or jukebox tie-in, this show stands on the infectious confectionery of its lyrics and a deliciously talented cast.

Staged on an amusingly “low-tech/hi-tech” melee of printed circuit boards, this all-American story – played out in the 1970s – follows teenager Michael Dork, a geeky, youthful, Bill Gates-type character, as he discovers the foundation of internet computer connectivity. Along the way he encounters love, betrayal, jealousy and rivalry, not to mention the villainous scheming of the local rich-kid bully, out to steal his invention. Francis O’Connor’s design, with oversized pencils and notepads, suggests a Matilda, albeit one for high school kids, and the whole visual impression is that of a retro cartoon-style America, in which the digital age has yet to take off.

Responsible for the music and lyrics, as well as the book, are Elliott Davis and James Bourne. Bourne was the creative force behind the UK band Busted and to those familiar with his recordings, the style of his compositions will not disappoint. He has a clever eye and ear for the nuances, angsts and frustrations of teenage life and the songs Don’t Let ‘Em Bring You Down and The Little Things provide amusing vehicles which not only portray the boys’ awkwardness but also describe the teenage girls’ recognition of the testosterone fuelled course that boys typically chart through adolescence. Whilst the bouncing Busted tone and sometimes smutty lyrics are a guilty pleasure to which to listen, the plot does occasionally become more reflective, though plaintive number We’re Not Alone, set in the town’s (beautifully lit) planetarium, fails to move in the way that the writers would have intended. Steven Dexter has directed a show that is a fun and imaginative night out, but is nonetheless a tale that lacks a central passion. The plot pales in comparison with, say, the grand celebration of human diversity that was the bedrock underlying Hairspray. It feels simply too hard, and actually too geeky, for the audience to care too much about the invention of email.

Aaron Sidwell leads the line as Dork, and whilst his acting is convincing, his voice lacks a smoothness that one might expect from a West End production. No doubt as the production settles into its run his vocal performance will mature. Lucas Lloyd is Dork’s closest buddy, and Richard Lowe in this role, presents the most moving portrayal of social inadequacy of the night. His solo number Holly, I’m The One, in which he painfully pines for the girl who Dork is romancing, is perceptive and poignant. As Holly, Eliza Hope Bennett is both convincing and impressive to listen to whilst Charlotte Harwood’s performance as the bitchy girl Leia is also a fun caricature to savour. The astonishing performance of the night however is delivered by NYMT alumnus Stewart Clarke as bad guy Eddie, not only making his professional and West End debut, but filling the shoes of Gareth Gates who had created the role in Leeds. It may well be easier to act the villain, oozing pecs, sex and charisma, but Clarke owns the stage with powerful delivery and superbly controlled poise.

This ball of candy floss of a show undoubtedly makes a fun family treat. Nick Winston’s clever choreography delights and the production will appeal to both those old enough to remember the 70s and those young enough to enjoy the clever songs of Bourne and Davis.

Runs until 2nd March

Sunday 21 October 2012

Molly Wobbly's Tit Factory Original Cast - CD review

Music & lyrics by Paul Boyd
Released by SimG Records

Orla Gormley and Leanne Jones address Tara Flynn

One of the pleasing aspects of a CD being released a couple of months after a stage show, is that it provides an opportunity to re-visit the production, re-imagine the songs and also to study the lyrics, melodies and vocals with more careful consideration. Songs that can take weeks to write and rehearse, often (but not always!) deserve more than a simple 5 minute playing time on stage to appreciate the work that has gone into their composition.
So it is with the original cast recording of The Lyric Theatre Belfast’s production of Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory, released this week on the SimG label. The show premiered earlier this year in Belfast before a stay at the Edinburgh Fringe, receiving generally excellent reviews. A full review of the staged show can be found in this link. The briefest of synopses tells of three women, frustrated with their marriages and with small town life. The arrival of Ithanku (Russell Morton), a shock headed stranger  with hypnotic powers and a skill in  breast augmentation, offers each woman an opportunity to pour out their frustrations and their desire for a happier life and an improved figure . Add in the three husbands,  Ithanku’s henchman Kitten (played by Tommy Wallace) and the cast is complete in a production that is extremely camp and mocking of both sexuality and religion. This is not a recording for the easily offended.
As has already been documented, the show’s original cast are a delight. This CD however allows their vocal skills to be relished at a more leisurely pace and it is striking how pervasive the predominantly Irish cast’s brogue is upon their performances. In Edinburgh’s vast Assembly Room the softer nuances of the actors’ accents was not so discernible, but in the carefully controlled environment of a recording studio, they are a delight. Tara Flynn and Orla Gormley both hail from Ireland, whilst Leanne Jones piles on the years as a credible 42year old English lady of the shires.
The three husbands all perform excellently, although their roles are broadly confined to reflecting their respective wives' search for happiness and liberation. It is Ithanku and surprisingly Kitten, who deliver the most distinctive male contributions to the recording. Ithanku with his narrator-like role as well as being a protagonist, makes a contribution to numerous numbers. The Bricusse/Newley like song Trust Yourself To Me, (think of The Candy Man from Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory)  that promotes his talents as a cosmetic surgeon has lilting lyrics that are chillingly matter of fact about the nips and tucks.
Late into the plot, Kitten delivers two stunning performances. Guardian Angel is a number that has true torch-song potential on the cabaret circuit, whilst with One Night Stand which, so it is to be understood, is a well written observation on some of the sexual complications of casual gay encounters, he delivers a hilarious crowd-whooping showstopper. Similarly, earlier in the show with Presbyterian Ministers Wife, Paul Boyd assisted by Gormley’s enchanting performance, proves that the f-word can still be an eye-wateringly rich seam of comedy if mined responsibly.
This recording will be a fun addition to many a music library. Boyd has created a celebration of crude irreverence combining it with moments of true observation of the human character. The CD notes contain a detailed synopsis that contexts each of the show’s songs, so if one has not yet seen it live, the story’s narrative can still be understood.   The production’s success at Edinburgh was well deserved and it can only be hoped that this recording’s release will herald Molly Wobbly being performed at a London venue in the not too distant future. Pending such an opening and with all royalties being donated to the Terrence Higgins Trust, grab a copy of the album and enjoy the bawdy banter of this tale.

CD available from www.simgproductions.com

Monday 15 October 2012

I Heart Peterborough - Review

Soho Theatre, London


Written & directed by Joel Horwood

This review was first published in The Public Reviews

Jay Taylor and Milo Twomey

I Heart Peterborough is a piece of drama that may be brilliantly performed but unfortunately lacks a direction in its construction. Whilst programme notes suggest it is drawn from “modern suburbia”, the publicity flyer makes reference to the play’s location being “a city stuck in the fens” and as a further contradiction, co-producer Eastern Angles’ website refers to the play being “a desperate tale of life in an overspill town”. That these three diverse descriptions emanate from the production’s own creative team suggest the fact that this is a play still struggling to define its own identity. As it happens, the setting of Joel Horwood’s work is probably best described as “grim provincial”.

The story tells of Lulu, a gay transvestite and his son Hew (sired in a moment of unprotected adolescent exploratory sex) tracking both men’s trajectories from birth, with a scope that commences in the 1960’s but is largely played out in the 70’s and 80’s. Life for this unconventional pair is hard, particularly with local folks’ intolerance of Lulu’s sexuality, the older man frequently referring to beatings he has suffered. Hew too has a difficult upbringing leading to a chilling description of having been raped amongst the riverbank reeds whilst an adolescent. Peterborough, the place, is not flattered by this play and whilst the City Council is credited with having provided public funds to support the work, it is a disappointment that the picture created of this historic city is so two-dimensional.

Milo Twomey and Jay Taylor as father and son provide outstanding performances of commitment and energy. Twomey’s poise, timing and movement is as perceptive an impersonation of a female as could be wished for and Taylor effortlessly voices a multitude of characters that the pair encounter, as well as portraying the damaged young man. The two perform snatches of classic 80’s songs throughout the single act that serve to define the period well.

Whilst the play has rare moments of genuine humour, (a mimed karaoke session is technically brilliant) and may indeed be imitating life as its arc frequently switches between moments of frivolity and misery, it struggles to be more than an extremely well-acted but nonetheless confused and ultimately unsatisfying, portrayal of East Anglian life.

Runs until 20th October

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Cross Purpose - Review

Kings Head Theatre, London


Written by Albert Camus
Directed by Stephen Whitson

Jamie Birkett as Martha

Every now and then, a performance and a production come along, that astound. Cross Purpose, a little known play by Albert Camus is such an event.
Conveniently staged in the now traditional October run-up to Halloween, the premise of the play is a troubling horror story that is at once both visual and psychological. Jamie Birkett is Martha, a woman who together with her mother has run a guest house in the rural wilds of some landlocked European nation. We are told that over the years occasional guests have been robbed and routinely murdered by the couple and how Jan, a handsome young man who has checked in that day, looks like a suitable case for slaughter. Unbeknownst to the hosts, Jan is their long lost son and brother, keen to re-acquaint himself with his family. To say more of the plot would be to spoil, but the understated menace that surrounds the exchanges between man and women, is chillingly played.
Understatement is the watchword of this carefully crafted tale that has been expertly translated by Stuart Gilbert. Birkett is a callow harridan, aged before her time, made up with pale drawn features that are shocking to look at. Her face is that of a woman deprived of the sunlight of love and happiness and when late in the play she says “ No one has kissed my mouth or seen me naked…. and that must be paid for” we get a glimpse in to the hellish furnaces of contempt and jealousy of compassionate humankind that burn within her.  Where Martha is grey faced, Jan’s complexion is tanned and attractive. Early in the story, we see Martha possibly attracted to the visitor ( unaware at that stage that he is a sibling ) , leaving the audience alarmed that a possibly incestuous love could yet unfold in addition to any potentially murderous horrors. In a coincidental echo of Sondheim’s Mrs Lovett from Sweeney Todd, Martha longs to leave her landlocked misery for a life by the sea and indeed this tale chimes with that musical on several occasions, serial killing being undertaken by those angry with a world and a society that has forsaken them.
Horror is challenging enough to portray on screen, requiring the audience’s disbelief to be suspended sufficiently enough to allow natural emotions of fear and anxiety to be stimulated. The requirements for on stage horror to succeed are identical, but even more challenging as the performers are forced to rely almost entirely upon the strengths of their own abilities, rather than gruesome props or special effects. Birkett’s ability to take us on this grim journey is a tour de force, reminiscent of a young Fiona Shaw. The play is entirely dark, though occasional glimmers of wry irony are allowed to pierce the misery and in these moments Birkett’s hotelier performance evokes an infernal concoction of Basil Fawlty, Psycho’s Norman Bates, with just a hint of Les Miserables’ M. Thenadier. An accomplished musical theatre performer to date, this role defines Birkett as a dramatic star of her generation.
The supporting cast are a treat to watch. Christina Thornton delivers an ageing Mother weary of her murderous life and deeply troubled. Like Sondheim’s barber, she evokes both our loathing and also at times our sympathy for her miserable plight. David Lomax is a convincing Jan, wholesome and attractive, with a sincere compassion towards his mother and sister. Making a marvellous cameo as the house’s wise and all seeing Manservant is 86 year-old Leonard Fenton. Famed as EastEnders’ Dr Legg, this veteran actor proves that there is life after Albert Square, just. Mute, until the play’s final scene, his ability to act through an authentically doddery movement and a gimlet eye is a masterclass in performance that adds to the disquieting aura of the isolated setting of the tale.
Stephen Whitson has helmed a well-crafted production. The Kings Head’s stage is small with limited scope for props and scenery and as has been well documented, a convincing horror story depends on skilfully crafted sound. Designer Tim Adnitt achieves ambience and setting, as well as background noise, in a way that is chilling and convincing, but never melodramatic.
This production only runs for ten performances but undoubtedly deserves a larger venue and a longer residency. Dramatic performances rarely come better than this.

Runs until November 11

Monday 8 October 2012

Release Me - Barbra Streisand - CD review

Produced by Barbra Streisand and Jay Lander

Release Me is a collection of songs from Barbra Streisand, previously un-released and amassed over the remarkable six decades of her career and none of which have been heard before. The singer’s archives contain her original master tapes dating back to 1962, and it is from these authentically aged recordings that the album has been compiled.

The oldest song in the selection Lost in Wonderland is a lilting bossa nova penned by Antonio Jobim who several years earlier had written the global hit The Girl from Ipanema. Streisand admired Jobim’s work, but in the shadow of the Ipanema classic, deliberately wanted to explore a lesser-known title. The resulting youthful treatment of the Brazilian sound is a delight, her voice seductively snaking around the South American rhythm.
From the oldest to the most recent, If Its Meant To Be is the freshest of the album’s recordings. Written by Brian Byrne with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, it was originally intended for Streisand’s 2011 CD release What Matters Most, but failed to make the final tracklist. Listening to this song, recorded when the singer was approaching 70 and contrasting it with her sound from nearly 50 years earlier, one can truly gauge the vocal stature of the woman. Whilst the timbre of her voice may have matured with the years, her ability to sweetly hit the perfect note and hold it with measured strength for as long as the song demands has not faltered.

A Streisand album would not be complete without a generous dollop of moist eyed schmaltz and Mother and Child, albeit an acoustic delight from 1973, is a touching song that perhaps a little mawkishly grabs the heartstrings.
Streisand includes With One More Look At You from the movie her 1970s movie A Star is Born. The wonderfully detailed liner notes, prepared by Jay Lander, Release Me’s co-producer, state that the film and its soundtrack album featured the version of the song that was  performed live on camera as the picture was shot and that the recording included on the album is therefore the first stand-alone studio recording of the song to be distributed. Streisand taped the number at the time of the films release and listening to it today brings a fresh re-interpretation of memories of the movie, but with the familiar sound of a younger Streisand voice providing one more look , albeit from a slightly different perspective, at one of her classics.
It is no surprise that the album’s release is shrewdly timed with the festive season approaching, however whether one is a devotee of the diva, or simply curious to hear one of the finest singers of recent years, this collection of songs demands to be purchased. Streisand’s reputation is deservedly that of a living legend and this album proves why.

Thursday 4 October 2012

Finding Neverland - Review

Curve Theatre, Leicester
Music: Scott Frankel
Lyrics: Michael Korie
Book: Allan Knee
Director & choreographer: Rob Ashford
J M Barrie (Julian Ovenden) confronts his alter-ego played by Oliver Boot

Finding Neverland, is an exquisite piece of theatre. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has taken the movie that he produced some 8 years ago, hired some accomplished American talent to give the tale a musical theatre treatment and then ingeniously selected Leicester’s stunning Curve Theatre to premiere the work, before it hopefully transfers to the West End and ultimately Broadway.
The semi-biographical story opens with author J M Barrie’s latest play being trashed by the critics and how rebounding from that rejection, he finds inspiration from the 4 boys in the Llewellyn-Davies family whom he befriends in Kensington Gardens, to then ultimately go on and write Peter Pan. Married to wife Mary, in what is revealed to be a well-intentioned but nevertheless loveless union, Barrie is irresistibly drawn to the boys’ widowed mother Sylvia. The relationship between these two, whilst platonic throughout, is the fulcrum of the show’s story, charting moments of both joy and tragedy that the writer shares with the young family as the couple’s love for each other develops. Writing Peter Pan, he transforms his sternest real-life theatre critic into the fictional Captain Hook, with one of the production’s most interesting musical numbers, The Pirate Inside, cleverly suggesting that the buccaneer James Hook is really the darker alter ego of James Barrie.
The cast, to a person, excel. The performances, including that of a delightful St Bernard dog are all flawlessly perfect. Julian Ovenden plays the writer, who like his famous literary creation, struggles to grow up, displaying a youthful and infectious sense of fun and irresponsibility. Ovenden captures the beautifully voiced essence of Barrie’s character within his performance, every inch more boy than man and yet possessing the personality that Sylvia is drawn too. Rosalie Craig as Sylvia similarly shines. Whilst her elegant figure fails to convince that she has borne 4 sons , her poise and presence are captivating. Vocally enchanting, her duet with Clare Foster (Mary), James Never Mentioned, in which each woman’s self-doubts and mutual envies are painfully played out, is a haunting study on a failing marriage and a nascent love affair. Oliver Boot as the critic/Hook character is a convincing villain who both in Peter Pan and as a London critic, torments Barrie. He is every inch the swashbuckling cad and Boot’s energetic delivery is a treat to watch ( and boo!). Liz Robertson, as Sylvia’s disapproving mother also delivers a sterling supporting role, combining compassionate loving mother and grandmother, with being a fearsome protector of her brood. The four talented young boys were led, on press night, by Harry Polden. Already an accomplished child actor Polden held the stage well, displaying his admiration for Barrie, along with his disdain and at times, contempt for the writer, convincingly.
Without doubt, this show is a beautiful piece of theatre, but it requires sharpening. Billed as “The New Musical Comedy”, the laughter points were infrequent and often weak. When Barrie’s cricketing contemporaries sing after a lost game, Crushed Again, the number resembles a clich├ęd attempt to portray a self-deprecating view of stiff upper lip British sportsmanship and whilst that may well be how we are viewed by our American cousins, such stereotyping should have ended with Mary Poppins (the film). Weinstein has spent a fortune on Finding Neverland and it shows in set design, casting and a beautifully rehearsed full orchestra, ably led by David Charles Abell. The producer has also sensibly avoided gimmickry, allowing a wonderfully strong story to tell itself. But the show needs more flying. There is a passing nod to flight in the prologue and again in the closing scene, but that is all. In much the same way as stage blood can make an audience wince at a moment of violence, so on-stage flight can provide moments of sheer breathtaking emotion. At one point in the show, a kite is flown above the heads of the Stalls, almost reaching the Circle. A sweet effect yes, but if that had instead been a Tinkerbell or Pan, sparingly deployed and truly flying within the theatre, the effect would have been profound and with Weinstein’s eye for telling a good story, probably tear-inducing. In a similar vein, the performance of Peter Pan that is put on in the home of the dying Sylvia, is performed upstage, with the spectating family sat front, backs to the audience, impeding the view of the action and distancing the audience from the production. With some minor tweaking this staging should be re-arranged as it currently detracts from the real beauty that the cast create.
This enchanting show deserves a successful run and its evolution on to a major London stage should be eagerly anticipated. Harvey Weinstein needs to invest just a little bit more, to make the funny parts of his show funnier and to deepen the poignancy of some magical moments in a wonderful story.
Runs to October 18