Thursday, 31 January 2013

An Evening With Lorna Luft

Crazy Coqs, London


****



Lorna Luft
The Crazy Coqs have a canny eye for a cabaret crowd puller. The intimate art deco venue is fast establishing itself as a stage for both discerning performers and audiences and was again a sell out as Hollywood's Lorna Luft took up her week’s residency in this elegant London haunt.

Judy Garland’s younger daughter, Miss Luft's showbiz pedigree is impeccable and accompanied by her English husband, talented pianist Colin Freeman, expectations were high as she introduced her set describing it as a journey through the American songbook. With just a couple of diversions along the way, Luft provided a polished whirl through some of the finest numbers to emerge from Hollywood and Broadway over the course of the 20th century.

Luft has a vocal presence that reminds one of a beautifully maintained 1980’s Cadillac. Impressive, American, bold, luxurious, with just a hint from time to time of needing maintenance, but above all, providing an absolutely luxurious ride. Hers is a beautifully large sound and though she hails from and speaks of her heritage as being from Los Angeles and California, to this untrained ear at least there is more than a hint of New York Bronx in her voice. This lady’s vocal strength though is in her belt. Whilst as a glamorous and beautiful woman she is of course ageless, her ability to deliver powerful melodies and hold a note for an unbelieveable number of bars was inspiring. The Crazy Coqs though is nothing if not close-up and private and there were moments when Luft's sound was perhaps a little too overbearing for the room.

Luft has lived a rich life amongst some of the most colourful and creative characters of post-war America and when she speaks one listens. Her name-dropping of performers and composers was as authentic as it was fascinating and her warm reference to Jerry Herman, composer of the comedy musical Mame, as being one of the few people to recognise her mother as being a woman with a capacity for humour even in her troubled final years and of being one of the few men to then see in Judy Garland so much more than just tragedy, was an anecdote that it felt a privilege to have listened to. As she introduced the plaintive Time Heals Everything from Herman’s Mack & Mabel, a song that the composer had told her, was now “her song”,we saw a momentary glimpse of the mutual closeness and affection that Luft enjoys with many iconic individuals. That it would be easy to listen to Luft's tales for hours is the hallmark of a fascinating cabaret performance.

Herman’s work popped up from time to time through Luft’s set, which also included an extensive nod to Burt Bacharach and Hal David, as well as Rodgers and Hart, before closing with a compilation, this being the movies awards season, brilliantly stitched together of numerous Songbook classics from the pictures, that had NOT gone on to achieve Oscar recognition. There were some surprising inclusions.

With an appreciative audience on the night, predominatly sexa- and septuagenarians, Luft’s routine garnered rapturous applause with some of the crowd making the not insignificant effort to stand and cheer. The singer's message though is for all, and not just society's seniors. Both her connection with and her interpretation of, some of America's most recognisable show tunes is a rare treat on this side of the pond, and if you love the numbers then go see the show.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Thriller Live - Celebrating 1,000,000 tickets sold

Lyric Theatre, London


****

Conceived by Adrian Grant
Directed and choreographed by Gary Lloyd




The Thriller Live company re-create a famous Jackson moment

Celebrating the sale of its millionth ticket to a delighted 6 year old Chantelle, Thriller Live this week staged a gala performance that also marked the 5th anniversary of its residency at London's Lyric Theatre. Drawing its title from Michael Jackson's album of the same name, the show premiered during the singer's lifetime receiving his endorsement and continues to be a celebration of the works of arguably the world's greatest entertainer.

Commencing with The Jackson 5 era, the production then showcases a selection of songs from Jackson’s subsequent albums with a cast and creative team who are West End professionals at the top of their game. Identified only in the programme as Lead Singers or Dancers, the songs are shared between the 5 leads throughout the evening, men and women as the producers think appropriate and performers who are either, in the words of the song, Black Or White. Of these lead performers, David Jordan dons the suit and hat for the most recognisable recent-day evocation of Jackson the consummate performer, and his incarnation of the man is uncanny. Mannerism and the famous moonwalk are spectacularly nailed by this talented performer but whilst Jordan has responsibility for singing some of the show’s biggest hits including Thriller and Billie Jean, amongst his co-lead singers, Trenyce Cobbins, Haydon Eshun and Alex Buchanan (who does not even get a mention in the programme, but sings a fine She’s Out Of My Life) are also excellent. Eshan Gopal is the little kid in the afro wig who gives a fun and energetic interpretation of the young Jackson performing with his elder brothers.

The choreography from Gary Lloyd, who also directs, is a combination of classic Jackson moves and situations, scaled down from the stadium arena, where most of Jackson’s magic was conceived for, to the tighter confines of  a London stage. Thankfully Lloyd’s dance work builds in impact through the show as the first act’s routines, particularly when the Jackson 5 are performing, could be tighter. After the interval however, the performers move through the gears towards a dynamism that is well drilled and at times breathtaking. Man In The Mirror in particular was an exciting routine and the zombie backing work in Thriller is another piece of meticulously planned company dance, that also serves as effective tribute to the inspired vision of John Landis director of the song’s video from nearly 30 years ago.

The music on the night is excellent. John Maher who has arranged the melodies, has been with the show since its inception and his understanding of the rhythm and pulse of the Jackson sound is clearly second nature. His 6 piece band is another fine example of the production’s overall commitment to excellent production values.

In an era of juke-box musicals, Thriller Live takes the genre one step closer to pure juke-box. Eschewing any aspect of plot or story whatsoever, and subject to occasional words of introduction it unpretentiously segues from one hit to the next. The show may well be little more than a slick tribute act, but it packs a punch of perfect professionalism that Jackson himself would surely approve of.

Now booking to September 2013

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Bodyguard - A New Musical

Adelphi Theatre, London

****

Based on the Warner Bros. Film
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Directed by Thea Sharrock


Mark Letheren as Rachel Marron's stalker

The Bodyguard at London’s Adelphi Theatre has been around for almost three months and played this week to a reassuringly packed house on a wintry Thursday night. Alexander Dinelarishas has taken Lawrence Kasdan’s twenty year old screenplay that was embellished with the starring roles of singer Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner as the gun hired to protect her and filleted it down to a staged tale, taking not only a few (modest) liberties with the storyline but also cannily identifying moments along his story’s journey to liberally add in Houston’s hits at any available opportunity. And do you know what? It's a little corny, but it works!
The story broadly follows fictional singer Rachel Marron and her family and entourage and how following the receipt of crazed threats, a skilled bodyguard is hired for the close protection of the star. Any more detail would spoil a good show. If you know the film, expect a few surprises and if you are new to the tale then expect an entertaining ride with a few thrills and spills and the occasional tear too.
The American actress Heather Headley is headlined as starring as Marron. Not so well known in the UK, her Broadway credentials are impeccable. However, it was with a little initial (and short lived) disappointment that we learned that Gloria Onitiri was to take the lead at the performance reviewed here. The cast list states Onitiri as an Ensemble member, yet her detailed bio in the programme describes her as Alternate Rachel Marron. We subsequently learned that she regularly covers for Headley in what is clearly a demanding role. Note to producers : If you regularly have an alternate playing a lead role, then do what Phantom Of The Opera have done for the last 25 years and own up to the fact on your posters and publicity. The honesty does you no harm. Rant over, back to the talent.
Onitiri is quite frankly an unexpected diamond in a glittering show. Her take on Houston’s hits that are sung exquisitely. She was all of rock star, diva, mom and woman-in-love, performed with a gorgeous sound. Her climactic number, Houston's signature hit I Will Always Love You that is an absolute roller-coaster of a song soaring from intimate to epic, was spine tingling. Lloyd Owen as bodyguard Frank Farmer is a turn that is strong and credible. The professional demands of his character demand modest understatement and a performance that is mostly sardonic and laconic. Farmer is allocated few songs in the show (a wise call as a singing bodyguard could well send an audience’s suspended disbelief crashing to the ground) but his rare tuneful moment raises a knowing smile amongst an audience familiar with the tale. The other stunning chanteuse of the night is Debbie Kurup, playing Marron’s sister Nicki. Her delivery of Saving All My Love is exquisite and when she duets with Onitiri, the close harmony work is West End vocal perfection.
Thea Sharrock directs on Tim Hatley’s imaginatively designed set. I suspect the producers have not only an eye on a Broadway opening for the show, but Vegas too, as the classic hits, glitzy sets and not too demanding storyline, will go down well in Nevada’s Sin City. Richard Beadle’s band deliver a very polished and authentic sound ( the delicate guitar lead in to I Will Always Love You was a joy) and for a night of top production values in song and dance, The Bodyguard is another shining example of what makes London the theatre capital of the world.
 

Booking until September 2013
 
 

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Janie Dee - Satin Doll Cabaret

Crazy Coqs, London

****


Janie Dee in cabaret
The lights dim in the art deco Crazy Coqs, and slinking her way through the cabaret tables of the venue, Janie Dee eases into Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll, a song title also used to headline her week’s residency at Brasserie Zedel's wonderful basement setting.
Barely 72 hours out of her celebrated stint as the star turn in Leicester’s Curve Theatre production of Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! , Miss Dee loses the brash New York/Yonkers accent that is one of the defining components of the outstanding Dolly Levi that she delivered, adopting instead a seductively smooth sound for a collection of predominantly American numbers. Acknowledging the great chanteuses, her delivery of Diana Ross' Touch Me In The Morning was a wonderfully heartfelt interpretation of that plaintive song whilst her take on Minelli’s There Goes The Ball Game early in her set was cute and enchanting.
Dressed in a strapless ballgown, fishnets, with eyes sparkling throughout and striking red heels that would grace a grown up Dorothy Gale, Miss Dee looks as good as she sounds. Later, in the Dreamgirls song, I Am Changing, Dee goes on to do precisely that, stripping down to her basque and re-dressing as a gamine coquette, complete with cocked hat and bow tie draped around her neck and all whilst performing the number with her allure, confidence and poise, perfect throughout.
Dee’s delivery of reflective anecdotes is warm and sincere, drawing the audience into some brief intimate recollections, making a thoroughly professional performance incredibly up-close and personal too. There is clearly a sound understanding between the singer and Ben Atkinson, her youthful but talented pianist that reflects a well drilled rehearsal routine, itself a fortunate spin off of his having been her musical director at Leicester.
The highlight (for this reviewer at least, though of course everyone will have their own favourite) was her inclusion of Misty. Scaling the complex chords and melodies of Errol Garner’s classic with an apparently effortless mastery, it was a spine-tingling privilege to hear the song given such a fine interpretation. Closing her set with a nod to Dolly, and the appropriately selected So Long Dearie, Dee's accomplished delivery was that of a relaxed and skilled performer who knows a song inside out. Here for 5 nights only, Dee’s Satin Doll routine is an evening of classy cabaret from one of this country’s finest artistes.
In cabaret until Saturday 26th January 2013

My profile of Janie Dee can be found here.

Hello, Dolly! at the Leicester Curve, review can be found here.


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Hello, Janie! A profile of Janie Dee

Janie Dee

Janie Dee is one of this country’s treasures of the stage who this week makes a fleeting dash from Leicester’s Curve Theatre, where she has been playing Dolly Levi to rave reviews for the last few weeks, to a brief residence at one of the new London cabaret venues, the Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel. I caught up with Janie shortly before she headed up the M1 for her final week in Leicester.

Dashing from gig to gig seems to be the current hallmark of this busy actress. Hello, Dolly! followed hard on the heels of her appearance in NSFW at the Royal Court, and whether it be in Shakespeare, modern drama or musical theatre, for more than twenty years, Dee has been delivering excellence in all of her stagecraft. Gaining a Best Supporting Actress Olivier Award as a sparkling and truly memorable Carrie Pipperidge in Nicholas Hytner’s 1992 Carousel at the National Theatre, a performance that is even today described by Wikipedia as amongst the top three ever to have been played of that role globally, defined her starry potential and also introduced her to Cameron Mackintosh who with a canny eye for transfer potential, was at that time adopting a wonderfully philanthropic approach to the National’s musicals. Mackintosh wanted Dee to transfer across the river with the box office smash that the show had become, but a combination of commitment and also professional choice, led her to decline the producer’s advances. Nonetheless, she speaks glowingly of Mackintosh’s commitment to the musical theatre genre and has nothing but sincere and considered praise for his recently released film of Les Miserables.
Dee is also a member of that select group of UK performers who has achieved recognised success on Broadway  (make it there and you can make it anywhere, so it is sung) with her creation of Jacie Triplethree (android JC 333)  in Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential, a multi-award winning performance in London that went on to achieve numerous New York nominations. She  has garnered critical acclaim for roles in regional theatre as well as London, with particularly strong working relationships being established with Paul Kerryson in Leicester (who also directed the most recent ‘ Dolly!)  and Jonathan Kent at Chichester.

Dee as Dolly Levi in Leicester Curve's recent Hello, Dolly!
When the role of Dolly Levi was offered to Dee she was hesitant, mindful not only of Streisand’s giant shadow but also of Samantha Spiro’s successful 2009 London turn in the role and initially was inclined to decline. Fate, however, had fortuitously intervened, with the complete coincidence of her father, for whom the show is a personal favourite, asking her  “So when are you going to play Dolly, Janie?”, just a week or so before Kerryson actually approached her with the part. Her father’s plea convinced the leading lady to accept and all who have seen the Leicester show are the richer for it.

Dee was already familiar with the work of ‘Dolly’s composer, Jerry Herman, having played the female lead in the most recent West End production of his Mack and Mabel. Herman made the trip to London to see the show for himself, establishing a distinct bond of mutual admiration between writer and performer and sharing with her his underlying philosophy of a strong musical theatre plot, that “people need to love and to be loved”, a writer’s note that Dee has evidently absorbed into her recent hilarious yet sensitive and intuitive performance as New York's professional matchmaker. Showbiz is of course not without its knocks and Dee, who made her Hello, Dolly! entry each night from a seat in row 8 of the stalls, talks anecdotally of an audience member in her 80’s, not recognising that the show's star was sat in front of her, commenting quietly to the actress that a friend (also elderly)  who had already seen the show thought it “really wasn’t very good at all“ ! With those words of criticism ringing in her ears, Dee then had to take the stage and launch into the show’s wonderful opening number Call on Dolly. Suffice to say, Dee was the consummate trouper and by the end of the performance, the 80 year old buttonholed her, to say how wonderful it all had been!

And thus to the West End, where today Miss Dee commences her residency. With pianist  Ben Atkinson who is fresh from musically directing her in Leicester, the two have had plenty of time to rehearse together and polish the set. She talks of a song list including a smattering of Fats Waller combined with other numbers from era and her take on some of the classics of the American Songbook is eagerly awaited. If you like your music like your bourbon, long slow and smooth with moments of dancing liveliness, then an evening in the intimate cabaret company of  this sublimely talented actress is likely to prove time wisely and wonderfully spent.

My review of Hello, Dolly! at Leicester's Curve can be found here.
Janie appears in cabaret at the Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel until Saturday January 26th 2013, reviewed here.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Feature : Jen and Sylvia Soska - Canada's Twisted Twins



Jen and Sylvia Soska in a cameo appearance from their latest movie American Mary





Meeting Jen and Sylvia Soska (who are the founders and driving force of Twisted Twins Productions) one is quickly struck by their energy and ability to create a rapport. You feel that their directing of a film unit is likely to be as invigorating for their crew members, as watching their movies is for the audience. So it was as I arrived at London's Soho Hotel for my interview with these talented identical twins, in town to promote their newest feature American Mary, which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures (UK) on 21st January 2013.

By the time of the interview my advance copy of American Mary had not yet arrived so in that regard I was interviewing blind, however this was not to prove a problem. The twins, together with the movie’s star, Katharine Isabelle who was touring with them, were delighted that my first viewing of the film was to be later that evening on a big screen in central London and so the conversation flowed around the Soskas’ first feature, Dead Hooker In A Trunk, as well as their background and their philosophy in filmmaking.

The twin’s have long shared a passion in horror film and they speak warmly of the influence and guidance of established director Eli Roth, in working with them and mentoring the pair. They shot Dead Hooker on the infinitesimally micro-budget of C$2,500 ( approximately £1,750!) and of this, most was spent on prosthetics. A look down the cast and credits of that picture at movie database IMDb, reveals that nearly all the main performers (as well as the twins themselves who starred in that oeuvre) often had several roles behind the camera, ranging from electrician to stunt-driver. Only once completed was a copy sent to Roth, already then a giant of horror production with Cabin Fever and Hostels 1 & 2 to his credit and who was bowled over by what he saw. With his input and supportive promotion, the picture went on to achieve global recognition and allowed the twins to command a (still tiny) budget of closer to C$1M for American Mary. The sisters refer to Roth as their “favourite Jew since Jesus”. American Mary is dedicated to him and the guidance that he has passed on to the sisters – one of his most helpful notes being that if a movie cannot be pitched in two sentences, don’t shoot it – echoes the mentoring and support that he himself received from Quentin Tarantino who came on board to produce the two Hostel pictures.

Dead Hooker is a quirky, left of field picture that follows a group of young people, (think of a parody of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five), discovering the body of a hooker in their car’s trunk and setting off on a blood spattered mystery, to uncover the truth behind her murder. Their journey takes them on a bizarre tour of the twins’ native Vancouver and the movies denouement, without too much spoiling, hilariously/horrifically touches upon a Jewish guy whose circumcision as a child had gone a little awry. The glee with which the Soskas’ take such recognised urban anxieties and nightmares and project them on screen as brash innovative statements, is a hallmark of their writing. In American Mary they have defined some of their most evil male characters as eminent teaching doctors.

Another common Soska thread is their desire to overturn the historic exploitation of women on screen. Their refreshing and honest empowerment of their heroines has so far given rise to stories and chapters that are often best described as emasculatory, at the very least! It is a mark of the respect that these filmmakers engender from their performers that during the filming of Dead Hooker, when the staged beating of actress Tasha Moth by the movie’s mysoginist bad-guy was being filmed, even under the expert eye of a stunt co-ordinator a baseball bat blow went off target and Moth took a swipe to the kidneys. Such was her devotion to the movie and the twins’ vision that she didn’t complain, even when the next day she was passing blood. Needless to say, the Soskas were mortified on learning of this mishap and happily the actress went on to make a full recovery.

Jen and Sylvia work well together throughout the development process of their stories. They talk of how as one creates, the other plays video games before, in the tradition of all good siblings, they dutifully trash and pull apart the other’s efforts. Yet from this process emerge well-argued storylines and intelligent plots. Music and excellent sound feature heavily in  Twisted Twins productions. They talk of how when they write a script that every camera angle, sound effect and background detail is documented right at the very commencement of the creative process. The baseball battering referred to above is set to the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen and incredibly the combination of refined beauty in music being juxtaposed against distressing violence ( think of Beethoven in Kubrick’s The Clockwork Orange) is effective. The twins speak warmly of having been immersed in culture from a very young age by their parents and in a novel gesture of appreciation have had their real-life father perform minor comic cameos in each of the movies.

Meeting the Soska sisters (and my review of American Mary can be found here) confirms my perception that these striking, talented young artists represent a distinctive and refreshing take on the horror genre. Their films are graphic and wildly imaginative, but where Mary Shelley once shocked a world with Frankenstein, so are these two women reaching out to leave their mark on Tinseltown as an invigorating and formidable force. They also shoot damn good pictures.


American Mary, which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures (UK) on 21st January 2013 and will open at UK cinemas on 11th January 2013 (FrightFest)

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Helpers - DVD

Certificate 18, available on DVD and Blu-ray from January 21 2013


***

Directed by Chris Stokes



Christopher Jones, tied to a chair
In a flurry of life imitating art imitating life, The Helpers DVD and Blu-ray launches on January 21st amidst a publicity spurt rarely seen for a “straight to DVD” release. Achieving coverage in the national press and on ITV’s Daybreak, a cleverly assembled pop up shop in the heart of London’s East End displayed several tableaux in which some of this horror film’s most gruesome moments had been painstakingly recreated  in cake, marzipan and spun sugar creations  ( see the delicious lemon drizzle severed head below ) .
So, given the cake promotion theme, is The Helpers more than just a storm in a tea cup ? Well, the answer is just, probably. Based upon some apparently true events, the tale tells of a Jeep laden with 7 of America’s finest young people heading for a weekend in Las Vegas, breaking down in the desert. This reviewer has experience of a tyre blow-out in Death Valley followed by a nine hour wait for assistance (long story but our car renter – a massive global brand – had failed to supply the (tiny) lockable wheel nut key - believe me, it cost them!) and the anxiety that the group of friends experience on being stranded is authentically scripted.
Conveniently, there turns out to be a gas station and motel within a short walk of the breakdown, run by an apparently cool and hip bunch of young people who are keen to help the travellers. The alcohol flows and all retire to bed, intoxicated. Of course, come the morning, some of our protagonists wake to find that they have been tied to various implements of bondage and pain and shortly thereafter a series of torturous or decapitating or even shocking events befall them in turn and the body count inevitably starts to rise. As the story winds out there is an inevitable fight back against the bad guys, before a final sequence that is a little predictable.
The acting is good, the desert photography is well assembled and the film’s $4M budget has been wisely spent. The special effects were almost as disgusting to look at as the cakes at the movie’s launch and as stay-at-home movies go, The Helpers is worth a purchase or a download, making a refreshing change from the norm in that it presents both predator AND preyed-upon as young Americans of both sexes. The soundtrack is not too bad either and if like a good steak, you enjoy your horror bloody, you will not be disappointed.

( To see a full picture gallery of the delicious cakes that promoted the DVD launch click here)


Naughty but nice. This shocking decapitated head is in fact a delicious Lemon Drizzle Cake + wig!

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Impotent

Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London


****

Written by Matt Reed

Directed [edited and with additional text] by Graham Hubbard



Helena Blackman and Rebecca Crookshank
Britain has always had a love affair with the comic potential of the knob-gag and as a nation we have long found the penis to be an irresistible subject of humour. In a play that could easily have been re-titled Carry On *** ( for *** insert anything at all to do with erectile dysfunction), Matt Reed’s Impotent (stop sniggering) is at times a hilarious but always provocative discourse on this most private and personal of conditions.
Set mainly in the NHS consulting room of elegant female therapist Dr Lane, the first act follows five men through their individual sessions with the doctor, whilst act two sees all the patients assembled for a group therapy session. Reed introduces most of the men’s individual sessions with a brief soliloquy to the audience from the woman in their lives who was their partner at the time of the sexual failure. All of these different women are played hilariously by the talented Jessie May, in a range that stretches from a refined country lady, through to a Serbian prostitute and May's mastery of accent and poise is one of the play’s highlights. Making further occasional interjections into the narrative are the clinic’s receptionist Kelly and her brutish alpha male of a carpet-fitter boyfriend, Tommy. Kelly is performed by Rebecca Crookshank (who boasts an astonishing career in the RAF before taking up acting) and who is another of the production’s star turns. Her scouse character who dreams of setting up her own beauty salon, delightfully totters across the stage displaying a calculated cocktail of thinly veiled contempt for the patients that she has to deal with 9-5, whilst managing her own desperate domestic insecurity that stallion Tommy, played by Randall Lyon, might stray. Lyon is another cracking performer. Whilst his character may not be an intellectual, his physical presence is as eloquent as his words and the frequent frantic (offstage) copulation of this pair is a neat contrast to the frustrations of the suffering five.
First of the flaccids is Don Cotter’s Keith, playing a guy in his late fifties, whose marriage along with his performance, has wilted. Cotter is a master of the mundane, representing perhaps the man that Frank Spencer (if you can remember Michael Crawford’s comic creation) may have grown into. When whilst being asked by Dr Lane about what arouses him sexually, specifically as to what he uses to masturbate over and Cotter replies with the words: “my pyjamas”, he also demonstrates a mastery of comic timing and delivery.

The story’s second struggler is actuary Gareth. Tom Durant-Pritchard’s portrayal of the unfortunate young professional is a masterclass in characterisation. He nails the bumbling awkward sexual inadequacy of a gauche young man with such pinpoint precision that if Durant-Pritchard has any buddies working in the City, they should be looking to themselves to check that this portrayal was not inspired by them!
The one gay patient is Joe with another perceptive performance that is delivered by Paul Harnett. His delivery is probably the smuttiest of the quintet, but his perfunctory descriptions of his struggles as a young gay man also bear a ring of touching credibility.
Nik Drake is Saul, an assertive young man and an interestingly created character, not lacking in self confidence. His eloquence is perhaps the most realistic of all five, with Reed giving Saul very little comedy to hide behind. Drake’s sensitive portrayal of this challenging yet frustrated young man defines some of the play’s more troubling arguments.
The final patient is Gordon played by established actor Neil Stewart. A larger than life, loudly spoken Guardianista, Gordon is the epitome of the clichéd man who is large mouthed but nonetheless modestly endowed. His character is the most angry of the bunch and Stewart delivers him well as a toothless tiger, angry with the world yet struggling, if barely able, to accept his own flaws.
As Dr Lane, Helena Blackman has a marathon role. On stage throughout and with a part that is mammoth in length, her elegance and sophistication shine as she struggles to chart a course of compassionately listening to and caring for her patients whilst at the same time maintaining professional boundaries. When the storyline suggests that these boundaries may become blurred, Blackman’s portrayal of a woman caught between desire and duty is masterful. She, along with the entire troupe, has been superbly cast.
Reed’s writing is perceptive and unforgiving and through most of the play he sharply cuts to the bone of social and sexual mores as well as good old fashioned gags, with Graham Hubbard directing his writing well. The second act therapy session however stretches a good idea too far. In the creation of therapist Dominique, Reed gives Jessie May her one character of the evening who through no fault of the actress whatsoever, is the least credible.
Producers Oliver Taheri and Michael James-Cox have delivered a production based upon sound values, with particular credit to Taheri who has performed a gruelling pantomime schedule throughout the weeks leading up to and beyond this show's opening night. Impotent is a play that is above all a delightful, funny and sometimes very poignant look at one aspect of how some of life’s modern challenges are tackled.

Runs until Saturday January 26

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

American Mary - Review - Girl Power As It Should Be!

Certificate 18, available on Blu-ray and DVD from January 21st 2013
****
Written and directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska

( ALERT: Some of this review may not be for the faint-hearted)
Katharine Isabelle is Mary Mason
American Mary, which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures (UK) on 21st January 2013 is the second feature from Canadian twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, and their appropriately named production company, Twisted Twins.

Mary Mason is a conventional medical student. Hard working and committed (we encounter her as she practises suturing a raw turkey at home), she is nonetheless broke. Barely have the titles rolled than she is reluctantly drawn to the sleazy world of massage and table-dancing to raise cash. As with most good horror, some aspect of disbelief has to be suspended for this scary tale to work and so Mary, whilst auditioning as a dancer, is called upon at the club to perform unorthodox and illegal emergency life-saving surgery upon a gang member who has been knifed. Her skills are evident, cash is swiftly earned and within days word spreads within the underground community of body modification devotees, of a surgeon prepared to operate illegally. The Soskas’ story then takes their protagonist on two journeys. One is the odyssey into the freakish world of body modification, the other commencing with her attending a party thrown by her senior teaching doctors where she is callously drugged and raped and from whence her trajectory is an arc of calculated revenge.
Katharine Isabelle, possibly most widely known in this country for Ginger Snaps and Freddy v Jason, is Mary, combines the striking beauty that her character demands, with a plausible but realistically flawed naivete. On screen throughout almost the entire picture, her reluctant bravura on entering the table-dancing bar that swiftly evolves into calculated exploitation as she performs her first procedure and thus taints herself with both illegality and amorality, is convincingly evoked. Whilst at times some of the procedures she is asked to perform are shocking ( the Soskas assure that nearly all their medical research is accurate) , her violation at the hands of her teachers is all the more harrowing through a combination of her physical performance and a refreshing avoidance by the twins of any aspect of gratuitous nudity or violence whatsoever.
In the cinematic world of the Twisted Twins, with few exceptions, men are without virtue. They either run seedy strip joints, or teach medicine or, in an amusing cameo performed by the twins’ real life father, are a drunken dis-credited backstreet German surgeon. The sisters’ message is clear. If you possess a dick, you more than likely use it to think with, in place of your brain. Even the cop who investigates the growing pattern of disappearing eminent male surgeons, is suggested to have motives towards Mary that are more than professional. Whereas in years gone by, and to some extent even today,  women have been exploited both by Hollywood and the horror genre, the Soska sisters who are unquestionably talented young filmmakers with balls, are with this picture likely to have their male audiences and film-making competitors checking that theirs are still intact.
Mary’s surgery upon the body-mod community and within the revenge she wreaks upon one of her teachers, is surprisingly tastefully filmed. Whilst extreme gore is often suggested, it is rarely displayed, further evidence of the twins desire to avoid the cheap gratuitous shock. Notwithstanding, some scenes are of course hard on the eye and even with unnecessary horror avoided, the film is not suitable for those of a sensitive disposition. A brief appearance is provided by the twins themselves as identical siblings seeking to trade limbs, in pursuit of a "more complete union". Whilst in a (rare) production flaw, the prosthetics of the limb swap disappoint, as if to compensate, the black leather stitches that are apparently woven into the flesh of the twins’ backs are an outstanding body modification effect and perhaps one of the finest examples of horror make-up seen in recent years. Technically, the film is excellent and reflects a refreshing commitment to production values that are as high as the budget will allow. With nods to, amongst others, the Hannibal Lecter movies and I Spit On Your Grave, the twins have produced a compelling saga.
In a story that is written and directed by the twins, it is the chilling familiarity of aspects of Mary’s world: the doctors, the guys at the strip club, that are almost more terrifying than the horror on screen. American Mary has already garnered critical acclaim at festivals worldwide and makes compelling viewing for anyone interested in the evolution of the modern horror genre.


My interview with Jen and Sylvia Soska can be found here.

American Mary, which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures (UK) on 21st January 2013 and will open at UK cinemars on 11th January 2013 (Frightfest)

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Les Miserables - Movie

Certificate 12A - On general release

***
Screenplay by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and William Nicholson
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Music by  Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Directed by Tom Hooper

Samntha Barks as Eponine
Evolving from 27 years of spectacular live performance, Tom Hooper has taken Boublil, Schonberg and Kretzmer’s Les Miserables and  transplanted  their masterpiece from stage to screen.
As an exercise in pushing the technical boundaries of some aspects of musical performance in cinema, the film is an unqualified success, but as an adaptation of one of the most celebrated works in the musical theatre canon, it fails to satisfy.
In the Prologue, an impressive blend of performance and CGI, we first encounter Jean Valjean the convict amongst a team of prisoners hauling in a massive shipwreck. The scenery is breathtakingly vast, but the vocal work is intimate and up close and thereby hangs the movie's flaw. Boublil and Schonbergs' compositions are grand and beautiful and do not lend themselves well to the repeated scrutiny of solo close up that is Hooper's signature. His directorial style worked well in The King's Speech, and also in television's EastEnders, where individual intimacy is crucial to the flowing of the story. Few canvases however are as vast as that of Victor Hugo's french classic and an enormous tale demands a similarly proportioned sense of perspective from the director and not just in the rumbustious ensemble numbers.

Hugh Jackman as Valjean is not only an actor of global presence but also possesses a fine pedigree in musical theatre. His performance of Valjean, that has already garnered a Golden Globe, is a noble depiction of a heroic journey. But where cinema has permitted the “zooming out” of the visual experience of this story,  the decision to “zoom in” on the vocal work robs these songs of the impressive majesty that the writers conceived some thirty odd years ago. In One Day More, arguably one of the finest “Act One Closers” ever written, the fragmented camerawork, with Jackman making Valjean’s contribution whilst fleeing in a stagecoach, robs a fantastic number of its impact. This is a song written for the stage, not the screen and Hooper’s adaptation has stripped the number of both magic and also of its gut-wrenching power. On stage this song is pivotal but on screen it is reduced to not much more than an inventory of different character's perspectives, adding little value to the tale.  All too often in this film, wonderful songs are reduced to simply rhyming dialogue with a muslcal background.
Jackman’s fellow antipodean Russell Crowe is Javert, Valjean’s nemesis, and the face of authority that pursues him throughout the story. Thankfully, Crowe is a masterful actor because his singing disappoints. His big number Stars, a song that has a beautiful poetic lilt to its construction is terribly mauled in his rendition, sung as it is from a high rooftop parapet looking out across a Parisian backdrop in a setting that suggests the singing gargoyles from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Much has been made of the use of live singing to camera, rather than the miming to a previously recorded soundtrack, that this movie espouses. Technically, this is impressive, and it is generally pleasing to see voice so well linked to face.  Perfect musical theatre (or musical cinema) however is a trinity  of voice, physical movement and music and whilst in earlier filmed musicals the pre-recorded vocals may have been disconnected from the on-screen acting, in Les Miserables, the performers' acting has been severed from the orchestral accompaniment that plays through almost the entire length of the film. This was of course not the intention when these songs were first written and whilst the score has by its nature required adaptation from stage to screen, the adaptive process has diluted much of the brilliance of Boublil and Schonberg's composition. It is of no small significance that on the website of Working Title, who co-produced the movie, writing credits are displayed but no credit at all is shown for the composers of the music.
Where scenes and structure do permit, then the ensemble performances in the film are glorious. Sasha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Thenardiers lead a wonderful Master Of The House, whilst the students'  Red & Black also stirs. Up close, Ann Hathaway’s I Dreamed a Dream and Come to Me reach out to touch the emotions alongside Eddie Redmayne’s Empty Chairs At Empty Tables that is equally a performance of powerful poignance. But when Samantha Barks performs On My Own and A Little Fall of Rain, the barrier of the screen between audience and actor descends and whilst her singing is exquisite, she fails to tug those same heartstrings that Boublil, Schonberg and Kretzmer so cunningly detected all those years ago in composing these tragic blockbusters.
It is impossible not to compare this film with the stage show. It is certainly as long as what one will find in the West End, albeit without the interval, although at least one advantage of the inevitable DVD release will be the ability to pause the movie after One Day More to take a comfort break. Stripped of its on-stage majesty, whilst the acting is magnificent throughout, the adaptation as a whole is a somewhat castrated version of the original work.   Some of the singing is wonderful and many of the visuals are magnificent. The credits list a vast team of talented and crafted folk who have laboured hard to deliver this film, which does deserve to be seen. Just don’t set your expectations too high.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Taboo - 2013 cast

Brixton Club House, London

****

Book: Mark Davies Markham
Music & lyrics : Boy George
Director: Christopher Renshaw


Jordan-Luke Gage as Marilyn
Chris Renshawe’s site specific revival of Taboo at the Brixton Club House, set an ambitious aim for an off West End production even with its initial longer than usual performance run of three months. That run has itself now been extended to six months, with some cast changes, which speaks volumes for the foresight of producers Danielle Tarento and Bronia Buchanan in staging this still provocative even if mildly, but nonetheless deliciously, dated show. It is thus a delight to re-visit the production to witness not only seasoned performers three months in, but also to observe the latest cohort of freaks to join this outlandish troupe as they perform The Boy George Musical.
The book traces photographer Billy from teenage to adulthood as he discovers his sexuality within the ambivalent and decadent world of the 1980’s London club scene. Billy, his parents and girlfriend Kim are fictional creations, but the people and freaks that they encounter were living cultural icons of their time.  Amongst these real life caricatures, Leigh Bowery was a flamboyant inspiration of the mid 1980’s London club scene. An obese Australian, whose outlandishly made-up visage contributed to the Punk/New Romantic cultural crossover of the times, he is played in the show by Sam Buttery, a finalist from TVs The Voice. A flamboyant Oscar Wilde like creation, we encounter Bowery whilst he cottages and his character’s arc through to an early HIV-AIDS related death, leads to one of the show’s moments of poignant tragedy. With I’ll Have You All, Bowery shocks and laughs as he touches upon the men from all reaches of society who have rented his sexual services, yet with Ich Bin Kunst, (transl “I Am Art”)  he sings honestly and powerfully of his impact upon the world. Bowery’s closest friend of the time was (Big) Sue Tilley, played by Katie Kerr who like Buttery, has been with the run since commencement. Sue’s love and support for Bowery deepens through the story and as her friend finally succumbs, Kerr’s stunning rendition of Il Adore reduced much of the house to sobs.
Phillip Sallon, another key pillar of the gay/club (anti) establishment, continues to be played deliciously and flamboyantly by the talented Paul Baker. Equally at ease in leading the line as he is in engaging with provocative ad-lib banter, Baker is a consummate professional and a talented singer. Petrified, sung prone following a homophobic beating provides another moment of raw human grief that Mark Davies Markham draws into the spotlight of his book.
Amongst the new cast members, Julia Worsley’s Josie, Billy’s mother, gives a powerful performance as a woman ridiculed by her ignorant abusive husband before eventually and very publicly being confronted with her son’s homosexuality. Worsley digs deep for her character and her gut-wrenching Talk Amongst Yourselves proves a highlight of act one. Josie’s self-discovery and re-working of family relationships in the second act are further displays of both the depth and breadth of Worsley’s craft.
Boy George and Billy are played by debutants Paul Treacy and Alex Jordan-Mills. Both performers shine, yet both also suggest that they have more in the tank to offer. Boy George in particular was a keystone character of his era and represents a challenge to any performer. Both these young actors are likely to grow in both confidence and stature as the run continues. Devon-Elise Johnson brings an innocent fragility to Kim, at heart a sweet and innocent naïve thrust into a harsh and freakish world. As she discovers Billy’s betrayal of her and sings Pretty Lies, she displays a set of pipes that belie her age. She is without doubt an actress to look out for.  
Owain Williams’ Steve Strange, a portrayal of yet another ancient icon who was in fact amongst the press night audience, is a small role wonderfully delivered. Williams, who also originated the role in this production, has matured wonderfully over the run and his interaction with his character’s real life counterpart was a delight. Jordan-Luke Gage’s new boy interpretation of Marilyn is an entertaining and accurate depiction that chimed well with those of the audience able to recollect the era.
The show is a technical treat, performed on a catwalk that runs through the Club House bar, with every available inch of space used to tell its tale. It remains a highlight of the capital’s fringe and with its intoxicating blend of outrage, tragedy and biting satirical comedy, continues to be a grand night out in Brixton.
 
Runs to March 31 2013

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Piranhaconda - Review

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray , certificate 15

*

Directed by Jim Wynorski



The CGI star of the show!
If there were Oscars for truly trashy B-movies, then the team behind Piranhaconda would be walking away with a fistful of statuettes. These would be more than deserved as Roger Corman, the acknowledged genius of the B-movie horror genre, is credited as executive producer on the film.

However, where Corman’s talent has previously led to iconic movie gems such as Little Shop of Horrors, this movie is unfortunately, not in that league. Corman made films in an era when the sloppy corner-cutting luxury of CGI was simply not available to filmmakers and special effects, even cranky ones, required love and effort, however corny the plot-line. Piranhaconda is barely an affectionate nod to its namesakes Piranha and Anaconda, the first of which, certainly in Alexandre Aja’s recent 3D remake, was actually a very well made horror movie, with outstanding visuals and suspense and genuine, as well as tacky, tongue in cheek gory humour.


Set on Hawaii, where the DVD’s publicity enticingly states that Michael Madsen leads the cast, three  groups of characters a naturalist unit (led by a Professor, Madsen), a low-budget horror film crew and a gang of vicious kidnappers find their paths fatefully crossing at just the same time as the legendary creature of the film’s title, is making an unwelcome re-appearance. To make sure that there is no chance whatsoever of suspense creation, director Jim Wynorski helpfully introduces his gargantuan reptile during the opening credits sequence. So atrocious is the 100m long snake,  that one hopes the CGI  creation might, just might, be a sub plot arising from the low-budget “film within a film”.  Sadly this is not the case, as it turns out that the full extent of that movie’s horror extends to an actor jumping out from behind jungle vegetation with a mask on his head. No, the Piranhaconda as a python is more akin to the Monty family as opposed to predatory reptiles. The only fearsome maneater in this tale is Rod Stewarts ex-wife Rachel Hunter and even she does little more than raise the average age of the female cast members.

To its credit the film presents some beautiful panoramas of Hawaii and at times the dialogue is so cheesy, that it merits a pantomime-style laugh. When the piranhaconda looms up behind its next unsuspecting victim, the temptation to shout out “ It’s behind you” can sometimes be overwhelming.

If you enjoy low-cost special effects, corny gags, and numerous bikini clad young actresses, then this movie is for you, ideally washed down with copious amounts of alcohol.  Otherwise, stay out of the water.