Thursday, 29 January 2015

'My Night With Reg' at the Apollo Theatre

We went to see 'My Night With Reg' at the Apollo Theatre, the West End transfer of the revival of the play from the Donmar Warehouse. We saw it twice last summer and loved it so were due a top-up on the joy and frivolity and sadness. I first blogged about it last year and it won a 2014 Plastic Bag Award so it must be worth seeing.

The play has recently been noticed for the poster which was turned down by the Transport for London authorities for showing a bit of bum (see right). The poster that's been published uses 'Ziggy Stardust' to cover the bum entirely and most demurely except we all know he's naked behind that record sleeve. I've no idea why Kevin Elyot chose Ziggy to embody his characters but we get a fun version of 'Starman' during the play.

Anyway, you know the story, right? If not then read my previous blog. It's the same story and the same cast just played a bit bigger to fill the Apollo Theatre as opposed to the more bijou Donmar Warehouse.

We never meet Reg but he's referred to constantly. He's Daniel's lover and, seemingly, everyone's slept with him apart from Guy but Daniel doesn't know. The play opens in 1985 with Guy's flat-warming party when three gay friends from university fifteen years earlier get together again. We have Guy, a copywriter who's just bought his first flat, Daniel, a flamboyant art dealer and John who lives off family money but who Guy fell in love with at university but has never told him.

There's Eric who's finishing off painting the conservatory while listening to the Police on a walkman (how novel - I probably listened to my first walkman at about the same time). There's also Bernie and Benny, the mis-matched gay couple who frequent the pub Eric is a part-time barman at.

 Three acts introduce us to the characters and let us see what happens to them in the short-term.  All scenes take place in Guy's flat with its nice, big sofa and conservatory. The first act introduces us to the characters and the second takes place at the wake after Reg's death that Guy hosts and the tales about Reg start spreading. The third act takes place after Guy dies and leaves his flat to John. There's a lot of death in the play but it's really funny - even I laughed out loud a few times.

There's a difference between a Donmar theatre audience and a West End audience. The Donmar audience was middle-aged male dominated but the Apollo was more representative, particularly with some older couples who possibly saw the original production in the '90s. I liked the couple in their 70s in front of me laughing along to the rude jokes and the old folks discussing the 'gay plague' and people they knew at the end as we all left. The play brings people together. It's a shared history in some ways.

It was nice that we saw the same cast as at the Donmar. Jonathan Broadbent as Guy, everyone's friend but no-one's lover, Julian Ovenden as John the rich kid and Geoffrey Streatfield as Daniel, Reg's lover and art dealer with a jet-set lifestyle. Then we have Matt Bardock and Richard Cant as the mis-matched gay couple Benny and Bernie and, of course, Lewis Reeves from the poster as Eric, the painter, decorator and part-time barman.

It's a play of secrets and lies, of infidelity, of friendships, sexual mores and unknown consequences. What will happen to me?

I laughed on and off throughout the play, laughter alternating with moist eyes. The final scene between John and Daniel was particularly thought-provoking when Daniel said he had to leave because he was tired after a night of cruising on Hampstead Heath in the rain. John agrees that he can't sleep and that he's tired too but with yearning eyes that say there's more.  Is this John saying yes I'm tired so you can go so I can go to bed? or John saying I'm tired, join me in bed? Or John saying I'm tired, I think I've got it as well? I think it's the latter and that's sad. The 'plague' continues.

Perhaps Eric is the future? The young man who doesn't sleep around and won't let John seduce him. But he's also been seduced by Reg. So what happens next?

Go and see this play if you can - it's very thought provoking, particularly to anyone who lived through the 80s.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

'A Little Night Music' at the Palace Theatre

On Monday we went to the Palace Theatre to see a staged concert version of Sondheim's 'A Little Night Music' to celebrate the show's 40th anniversary in London. I've seen the show twice before and enjoyed it both times, firstly the revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2008 and then the same production on Broadway in 2010 with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and with Alexander Hanson playing Frederick in both shows.

This is possibly one of my favourite Sondheim's, not too challenging but quite delightful with great songs and roles for three generations of actors. It's nice and there's nothing wrong with nice. It's a tale of love, of ageing and still loving, of finding your true love and all of the characters find their lovers eventually (apart from Desiree's daughter, who has her life ahead of her). With some people it just takes a bit longer but it will come, don't worry...

There's a great score and some great songs - and not just 'Send In The Clowns' - with a lot of scope to make this show your own. I left this show wanting the concert cast to do a full on stage version - and a cast recording, obv - and I'd like it to open next weekend please. Can you arrange it?

It was the women who ruled this concert version, with Janie Dee as Desiree, Anne Reid as Mme Armfeldt (her mother), Joanna Riding as an incredibly deadpan Countess and Laura Pitt-Pulford as the earthy servant girl. They were all excellent and the sequence of Janie's 'Send In The Clowns', sitting at the front of the stage followed by Laura's feisty 'Millers Son' was marvellous. Anne Reid was great as the woman who's seen it all and Joanna was great fun as the disillusioned wife of the count who's having an affair with Desiree - such great one-liners! And kudos to Bibi Jay as Desiree's young daughter, Fredrika.

In the final moments of the show during the reprise of 'Send in the Clowns' Janie seemed to forget the lines of the song. Is that possible? So the orchestra stopped and started again so she and David Birrell (as Fredrick) could start again. Did she really forget the lines or was it an opportunity for her to milk the applause when she sang 'was that a farce' - I'm in two minds!

It was a great evening, lovely to hear that music and those songs again and to see those people on the stage. I'd say 'go if you can' but it was a one-off event. I hope there's another revival in the works since this is definitely a show worth seeing.

Monday, 26 January 2015

'The Scottsboro Boys' at the Garrick Theatre

I saw 'The Scottsboro Boys' at the Young Vic in 2013 and, after a bit of a gap, it transferred into the West End to the venerable and ornate Garrick late last year and it's got another month or so to run. I thoroughly enjoyed the first viewing and blogged about it at the time so wanted to see it again.

The production is the same and the cast is almost the same with a  few changes, like the inclusion of Brandon Victor Dixon as lead lad, Haywood, who originated the roll on Broadway in 2010. It's still staged within an old time minstrel format with Mr Tambo and Mr Bones, still has an imaginative use of chairs and the silent woman who eases her way into scenes and never speaks until the very end. It's the final Kander & Ebb musical and it does them proud, telling a little known story from the deep south, of injustice and unthinking racism because that's just the way it was. But it doesn't have to be that way.

It's the story of nine young black men and boys seeking work by heading north, full of enthusiasm and hope for a new life when the train pulls into Scottsboro in Alabama. Two white women are also riding the rails and they accuse the boys of raping them. No evidence is needed since white women wouldn't lie about such a thing.

That's the start of the real story of the Scottsboro Boys and their endless trials, always found guilty even when one of the women changes her story and admits that they weren't raped. But the south can't admit it got it wrong when black men are concerned. We follow the boys as they grow old and some are released, then others are, but Haywood dies in prison. They were all pardoned by the Governor of Alabama in 2013.

Despite the rather dour story the play zips along between comedy and tragedy at a nice pace so it keeps moving and we learn more about the leading characters. The white women are played by two of the boys with the addition of hats and shawls and Mr Tambo and Mr Bones play the sheriff and his deputy and various other white characters simply by saying they're white. They bring the comedy but, at the same time, the terror of a system that doesn't believe you have rights if you're not white. The only white man in the play is Julian Glover who plays the Interlocuter and the judge (and later, a bus driver), which is quite telling, wanting the lads to sing happy songs.

It's a song and dance spectacular and the staging is excellent. The props are minimal, a set of 12 chairs that are used with some planks of wood on top to depict the train rumbling through Alabama and are constructed to resemble their prison cell and as solitary confinement for Haywood. Some tambourines and a couple of clothing changes and that's it. Most of the play is set with the lads wearing a white prison uniform, every now and then re-assembling the chairs into a semi-circle to represent the court.

The main difference between this show and the one I saw back in 2013 - which is, otherwise, the same production - was that Brandon Victor Dixon took the lead role as Haywood Patterson, the lead lad of the Scottsboro Boys who wrote their tale in prison and died there. Brandon was excellent, a definite presence on stage and with a voice to match. He seemed to play it more angry and determined and pulled it off. He plays a formidable character who will not lie - even to get his own freedom - since he's suffered for the consequences of a tiny white lie for most of his life. It was a powerful performance.

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon played Bones and Tambo and James T Lane played one of the lads and also Ruby Bates, one of the white women (with a shawl and hat, of course). Dawn Hope played the mysterious lady who appeared now and then and finally had a speaking line at the end of the play when she said 'no' to moving seats on a bus.

It's a grand play and a great production. Pop along to the Garrick if you can and see something very unusual - a musical with a serious and powerful message. And these are the real Scottsboro boys:

Sunday, 25 January 2015

'Widowers' Houses' at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Last week Chris took me to see a George Bernard Shaw play I've never heard of (one of many I've never heard of) at the Orange Tree Theatre in deepest, darkest Richmond upon Thames. I've not only not heard of the play, I've not heard of the theatre either and that was part of the impetus for going - a rarely performed play in a theatre neither of us had been to before. So ok, let's go.

The theatre is only a few minutes from the station on the main road and it's partially painted orange so you can't really miss it. It's been there for donkeys years and seems to have been recently renovated but there's an awful lot of steps to get anywhere in the building. It also prides itself in putting on rarely performed plays, hence Mr Shaw. This play is from 1892 so relatively early in the Shaw cannon and it reeks of the late Victorian-ness that I always have a problem with.

The play opens with two English gentlemen on a tour down the Rhine, one of whom falls for a young heiress travelling with her father while the other gentleman is an unspeakable prig and snob and, for all that, great fun (in a kind of poking fun at and laughing at rather than with, if you see what I mean). They agree to marry and the father agrees subject to his beloved daughter being accepted by the posh gent's titled relatives. Only when they get back to London do they find out that the father's vast fortune that he'll settle on his daughter is based on being a slum landlord (he's the widower in the title). The righteous gentleman, who is a doctor and sees folks from the slums every day, can't accept this and takes it even worse when he finds out that his entire income is raised from the slum landlord's mortgage on the property that has been in his family for a long time.

The second half gets even murkier when it seems there's a new scam in London town as the municipal councils seek to build new roads and spruce the place up a bit by getting rid of the slums. The scam is to do up the slums and then claim huge compensation when they're pulled down. Will the good doctor resist this temptation? will he win back his love? will he ever hold his head high again? That's for me to know and for you to guess.

After my initial 'o no, what have I let myself in for' worries, I actually started to enjoy the play. It's performed in the round and I was sitting at the end of the row so I often had actors coming up behind me and starting to act as they approached the stage which made me jump a few times (particularly when the waiter rang a huge bell behind me to announce dinner) but it was good fun, a bit wordy in places but fun nonetheless. The only thing that drew attention away from the play were the oddly Dickensian poses of Simon Gregor as Lickcheese which were a bit over the top.

Stefan Adegbola was great fun as the camp snob Cokane who is only concerned with how things look and our young lovers were both good value with Alex Waldmann as Doctor Trench and Rebecca Collingwood as Blanche, the particularly violent and demure young lady. It was nice to see Rebecca in her first professional play since I saw her in the final year student's performance at the Guildhall last year when she played Flaemmchen in 'Grand Hotel'. I noted in that blog that she had the best voice on stage and, although this was a non-singing role, it was still nice to see her (and I went up to her afterwards to say 'well done').

The play is sold out for the rest of its run but I'm pleased I've seen it and visited the theatre. I suspect we'll be returning!

Two Lates - Rembrandt and Turner

I went to see two 'big' exhibitions in January - 'Late Rembrandt' at the National Gallery and 'Late Turner - Painting Set Free' at Tate Britain. The Turner exhibition closes this weekend so I popped along after work on Friday since Tate Britain is only 10 minutes from where I work - so why did it take me so long to go and leave it until the last few days?

I was lucky enough to get a ticket to a private members viewing of the 'Late Rembrandt' exhibition at the National Gallery. The Gallery had only opened it's membership scheme in the autumn last year and this was only it's second members evening and I was looking forward to going. But it didn't start well. Firstly, we were kept out in the cold in the street rather than being allowed into the foyer to buy a glass of wine while we waited. Secondly, the woman I handed my email ticket to didn't look at me or smile or act remotely welcoming while she crossed my name off the list and handed the ticket back to me, all without looking at me or speaking. Thirdly, the cloakroom staff were brusque in the extreme - 'move along move along'. The human element of the evening was a complete failure.

But then there's the art and that's what it's all about. The art, yes, the reason for being there in the first place. I've never been a big fan of Rembrandt and this was a great opportunity to be surrounded by his works and see what he's all about.

Sadly, this exhibition did nothing to change my mind about Rembrandt and it only reinforced my prejudices. Black on brown with another hint of brown and some deadly nightshade black with a hint of a white collar somewhere. Repeated again and again. Was colour illegal back then or something? Some finely marked faces with incredibly fine lines etched into them doesn't make a great painting for me when 90% of it is just swathes of black or brown.

I did like a few of the paintings, such as this one, 'Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaert' who was about aged 50 when this portrait was made despite looking like 70. I also liked the parrot on the left which doesn't show up at all in this picture (but it's there, honest). I also liked some of the drawings and etchings, like the lovely 'Recumbent Lion, facing right' in, I think, pen and ink - doesn't that mane just make you want to stroke it?

'Late Turner - Painting Set Free' has been the big exhibition at Tate Britain over the last few months and it's closing weekend was bound to be very busy so I popped along late on Friday afternoon. As with Rembrandt, I've never been a big fan of Turner and generally just glance at his paintings as I walk past them in galleries. As with the Rembrandt, it was an opportunity to be immersed in his works and see whether that would change my mind. And it did.

As expected, it was incredibly busy, especially the first couple of rooms, with people milling around, forgetting they're wearing back-packs and carrying big coats against the January weather (there was a huge queue at the cloakroom so I did the same and just carried my coat).

People listening to the audio guide and peering at the paintings, chatting quietly and gesturing at different paintings, and me just wandering round and glancing right and left like a magpie hunting for shiny things but nothing attracted my attention. And then a painting did, 'Dawn of Christianity' in an ornate frame. I'm not sure what attracted me to the painting but it was the first one I stopped at, waited for people to move on and then took a closer look, seeing the holy family on their trek into Egypt on the right bank and the serpent in the river to bottom left. I like the palm tree outlined against the clouds and the deep blue sky. There was something very harmonious and relaxing about the painting, with an element in intrigue as to what was going on.

Wandering deeper into the exhibition, and paying a bit more attention now, brought me to some grand panoramic scenes that made me yearn for some lightening flashes and wild glare from a John Martin 'end of the world' scene. No such drama from Mr Turner, but he brings his own kind of drama such as this lovely small watercolour (I think) titled 'Bamborough Castle' from 1837 (properly spelled Bamburgh).  The storm and the wild, mad waves with little boats bouncing around and the majestic castle on the headland… o yes, I want this one. It's made up of course, since the castle isn't that high above the sea and it's not based on any particular event but the drama and storytelling are marvellous.

Other paintings made me stop and look twice, like 'Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello' and 'Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas', a few paintings here and there. A painting I crossed a room to look at was another small watercolour 'Lake of Zug' from his travels in the Swiss Alps. The blue on blue and the sun peeping out behind the mountains, the misty depth and people in the foreground. I just had to take a look and wonder what was going on.

Being surrounded on all sides by an artists' works can change your mind about them and see things to appreciate that you haven't thought about before. And this exhibition did just that for me. I'm not a convert or a fan, but perhaps I just don't know how to look at Turner's paintings? And that's part of the problem of only seeing the exhibition on it's closing weekend. If I'd gone a couple of months ago and felt this way then I could've read a book or two and gone back to see if I'd learned how to look and see. Unfortunately I can't do that and that's my own fault. But I'll certainly look at any Turner painting differently and maybe, just maybe, I'll see them in a new light.

I learned something at this exhibition. Thank you Tate Britain and, of course, Mr Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

A Diary

For donkeys years I've had an electronic diary, firstly on my lovely Palm gizmo and then on my phone. I still use the phone diary (obv) but I've gone back to paper as well.

I have fond memories of leafing through my old filofax, the diary section and all the other sections that set the tone for our lives during the 1980s and '90s. And then came along digital stuff in the 2000s that relegated paper to the waste bin of technological change.

I loved my little pocket-sized Palm with a stylus to write on the screen, with addresses and photos and even music. So much more versatile than a paper diary. But the stylus was that transitional thing where I could still write on the screen as well as type stuff into it. And then phones started to emerge with internal diaries and address books and suchlike and it was probably when I got my iPhone that I said farewell to the Palm and had everything in one place.

That was all terribly convenient, having everything together with photos and music and a camera in a single gizmo that was also a phone, but over the years I yearned for pen and paper.

And then I discovered the joys of Moleskine notebooks and started carrying one round for odd notes, lists, random thoughts, gig set lists, odd quotes that tickled my fancy and whatever else seemed reasonable to write down. It's nice to see the difference in my handwriting and I can easily tell when I'm at home making a list or copying down a quote as opposed to when I was on a train in New York noting down my favourite paintings from MoMA with more jagged and jerky writing. The shape and condition of the writing says something as well as the content itself. I started a new green Moleskine notebook last year and I think this habit will continue.

Then, last year, I bought a red Moleskine diary, my first physical paper diary in lots of years. And I wrote in it. Theatre visits and gigs, days out, appointments, holidays, reminders, birthdays and anniversaries. O yes, all of these were also in my phone but it's nice to write them down as well, Writing with pen and ink on paper makes them real as opposed to tapping a screen and creating digital letters and times. Sometimes scrawled and sometimes carefully written, it all says something about me and when I made that particular entry.

I got another diary for this year, this time an orange one with a blue elasticated strap with cream paper from Paperchase, almost square - not a normal diary shape at all and that's why I like it. Apparently it was made in Italy. I haven't filled in the address section yet and probably won't - I've got addresses I might need while out and about in my phone and my green Moleskine notebook so why would I need them a third time?

But writing down my future appointments is important. It makes them real and means I must attend on time. That's what diaries are for. I don't know about you but I find it terribly easy to ignore what the 'machine' tells me to do (including my work phone/calendar).

Do you have a paper diary?

Bum Cleavage and TfL

I couldn't believe it when I was told today that Transport for London had banned a poster for the play  'My Night With Reg' for a bit of bum cleavage. Really? So I had to look it up and here's the offending image.

'My Night With Reg' has just opened at the Apollo Theatre and I'm seeing it next week (I saw it's run at the Donmar last year and am going back for more).  The poster is of Lewis Reeves who plays the painter-cum-barman in the play who Julian Ovenden tries to seduce in the later stages of the play (and we see a lot more of Mr Ovenden).

OK, there's some bum cleavage in the poster but we've all got a bum and we all know what bums look like so what's the problem? It's not as if it's sexualised in some way (unlike many posters of scantily clad and suggestive images of women). Apparently, the version of the poster that's been approved has the 'Ziggy Stardust' album cover slightly further back to cover the bum entirely. Does that make it a bit more suggestive?

At least it's nice to know that Transport for London appears to have no problem with male nudity by allowing these posters for Bulk Powders with the hashtag #revealyourself. The man in question is clearly naked but his crotch is pixelated and there's a man and a woman looking at him askance as he gets off the train. But is there any real difference between the two posters? Which one - if either - is more sexualised or suggestive?

I find the #revealyourself poster more irritating by imposing an image of 'male perfection' on tube travellers, the vast majority of whom share little with the model used in the poster (I speak from personal experience here). A hairless musculature that bears little resemblance to most men probably isn't a good look or a good message in overall health terms.

This Sunday also appears to be the annual 'take your trousers off on the tube' day which TfL does nothing to stop. If you take your trousers off then you're supposed to wear underpants of whatever sort you prefer so long as they're not too tight or revealing. It's odd what turns up when you search for a poster being used on the tube network. It's also odd to think about who makes decisions on images on the tube network.

Anyway I'm looking forward to seeing 'My Night With Reg' next week - it's what the term 'bittersweet' was invented for and will have special meaning to anyone who lived through the '80s. I did.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Suzanne Vega on Twitter

Don't you just lurve Twitter? It's an opportunity to engage with people in real time and, sometimes those people are heroes.

Suzanne Vega tweeted a photo of Big Ben today saying she was here (ie, just round the corner from my office) so I tweeted 'what are you doing in London? any surprise shows?'. And, y'know what? Ms Vega answered by saying she was here for a party and there would be gigs in June. And here's the party photo she posted on Facebook.

So, that's Suzanne Vega pencilled in for June. Now, who else?

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Birthday Prosecco in Firenze

Four years ago we decided to head for Florence for my birthday treat and we chose the Hotel degli Orafi beside the green Arno and the Ponte Vecchio as the place to rest our weary heads after days full of exploring and art. On checking in we found out we'd been upgraded to a suite in one of the towers (like many hotels, it is a converted palace) but I didn't know why - I assumed it was simply that it wasn't terribly busy at that point in the down season.

The next morning was my birthday so we headed down to the breakfast room to fill up against the rigours of the day and what a wonderful breakfast room it was - it wins hands down for its painted ceiling and chandeliers, views over the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio (about 20 yards away) and the amazing array of foodstuffs waiting to be sampled.  Then out into the chilly Firenze morning, with strangely empty streets but with the ice cream shops still open (what a sensible city). Fifteen minutes later and we were outside San Marco, the motherlode for Fra Angelico works since he painted each of the monks cells with different frescoes to help their meditations and help them focus on their god and heaven.

Then it was time for lunch and a sit down and we wandered down a side street beside the Medici Palace to a lovely little restaurant that was full of workers having their (long) lunches with lovely food and bottles of Moretti beer. I was honoured to join them and scoff some lovely food with a couple of glasses of Moretti.

After a long lunch it was time to slowly meander back to the hotel via il Duomo (obv) and exploring more side streets to see what was there. Ten minutes after we got back to the suite there was a knock on the door and a waiter was waiting with a heavy silver-plated tray with a bottle of prosecco, lemon cake and a small bowl of salted peanuts. Eh? Sorry, I haven't ordered anything I say, but in he walks and puts the tray on the kitchen table before bowing and leaving.  I look at the shiny offerings on the silver tray, with delicate flute glasses and thinking that 'cake looks nice', when I notice a little envelope with my name written on the front. I open it and there was a little card that said 'happy birthday and we hope you enjoy your stay'.

I've stayed in loads of hotels around the world on my birthday but never have I had this kind of service or attention to detail. That explains the room upgrade and now the gift of prosecco and cake. What a lovely touch and such great attention to detail. That's what you want from a hotel and here is a hotel that proves that it really does happen. I hope I wasn't too gushing in my thanks at reception when we left to go to dinner that evening.

This does, of course, mean that I have a preferred hotel for my next trips to Florence. It's such a lovely and convenient hotel that it would be a favourite anyway. A mere 20 yards to the Ponte Vecchio one way and 20 yards to the Ufizzi gallery the other way, 15 minutes walk to San Marco and 20 minutes to Santa Croce and the glory of Giotto - what more could you want? And on the banks of the green Arno too.

My mother visited Florence in about 1950. I have one photo of her there, smiling and proud beside the statue of the wild boar fountain outside the covered market.  Dip your fingers in the water of the small fountain and you will return to Florence. I sought out that fountain on my first trip to Florence. His snout has gone all shiny with people rubbing it for luck. My mother didn't return but I did. And I will again and I fully intend staying in the Hotel degli Orafi.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

'Memento Mori' at the BFI/National Film Theatre

The current National Film Theatre Maggie Smith season is unearthing some lovely old films with the Dame and today's was 'Memento Mori' from 1991. I don't think I've ever heard of the film or the book it's based on (a Muriel Spark book from 1959) but I'm pleased I've heard of it now.

It's the story of a group of literary friends in London who, by the time of the story in the 1950s, find themselves old and infirm, most of them are monied and used to having servants, others have fallen on harder times and only have their memories of their former reputations to keep them going. Their rivalries and their loves continue, of course. And then one of them starts getting disturbing telephone calls to remind her that she will die, and then others in the group start receiving the same calls, even when visiting friends. What's going on?

You find out in the end, but I'm not going to spoil it for you.

Maggie Smith plays Mrs Pettigrew, ladies companion and all-round bad egg bumping off employers for rewards in their wills and a nasty piece of work she is. Michael Hordern and Renee Asherson play husband and wife Godfrey and Charmian Colston, with Charmian being a famous and successful author of yesteryear, now infirm and borderline senile. Except she's not, that's simply what being over-protected in old age has done to her. We also have Stephanie Cole as the perennial oldster who dies first (has she ever played anyone even vaguely young?) and Zoe Wanamaker as one of the old folks' grand-daughters who teases Godfrey for a pound a glimpse of her thighs.

The star turn in this film for me was Thora Hird as Charmian's former servant and erstwhile friend who is in a hospital for the infirm but keeps track of her old family as best she can and, in the end, joins Charmian in her posh old folks home in Sussex. Thora was excellent and heart-breaking in her total honesty about age and her fellow inmates at the hospital who are treated as being infirm and become more infirm as a result.

Although there's a lot of craftiness in this film, there's also a lot of honesty and it's that that I really respond to. There were some lovely performances and the ending isn't what you expect at all. It's well worth seeing so, the next time you have the opportunity to see it on the big screen, make sure you see it.  I will.

'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown' - The Playhouse Theatre

On Saturday night we went to see 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown', the stage musical version of the Pedro Almodovar film of the same name form the '80s. It's been staged in New York before but this seems to be a 'new' version of the play, learning from what didn't quite work in America. Now, the first thing that I was surprised at was that it was a musical - I didn't realise that at all, and obviously haven't been paying attention to the posters that clearly state it's a musical. So that was a surprise.

The story is the same as in the film with Pepa, an actress entering middle age, getting an answer-phone message from her longterm lover saying he's leaving her and that starts off the confusion. It only gets worse from Pepa's point of view, finding out she's pregnant and that her lover has traded her in for the younger lawyer who is representing his former wife in a court case against him. The former wife is terribly disturbed and distraught, living in the past and running amok with a gun in the later scenes. Of course, there's a lot more going on with the grown-up being railroaded into a marriage, a terrorist plot and, as you'd expect if you know the film, gazpacho soup laced with valium. It's all in there somewhere.

Tamsin Greig takes the central role of Pepa and is surrounded by a large cast of women with Hayden Gwynne as Lucia, the wronged wife of Pepa's lover. Men play a minor role in this play so it's a great opportunity to see an ensemble cast of women working together. The real surprise for me was Hayden's singing voice which is excellent - I never knew she could sing but she certainly can and not just belting out the songs, but interpreting them and telling the story through her delivery as well as the words. I was very pleasantly surprised!

The set reflected the primary colours from the film - and from the late '80s. Pepa's top-floor flat in Madrid is the primary setting for the play, with it changing to a courtroom and recording studio with a few props. Clothes are clearly important and, while there aren't a lot of costume changes, you certainly notice them, particularly Lucia's '60s-style clothes (since she lives in the past).

The interesting thing about seeing the play on Saturday was that it was followed by a half-hour Q&A with the director, former actress from the film and Tamsin along with pride of place going to Pedro Almodovar himself. The Q&A was broadcast to cinemas around the country in the Playhouse chain.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

'Into The Woods' at Brixton Ritzy

I've been lucky enough to see two very different stage productions of Sondheim's 'Into The Woods'. Firstly at a small pub theatre in Clapham and then on a big stage at Regent's Park open air theatre which was, in effect, in the woods. That was a bit of a thrill and was the ideal place to stage the show amongst the tall trees blowing in the breeze of a summers night. The productions were very different and, I suppose, that prepared me to see something different in the film, a who-knows-what kind of scenario.

Of course, it's all doubly confusing when so many 'names' are associated with the film - Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Simon Russell-Beale, Frances de la Tour, Tracey Ullman, Annette Crosby and a host of others. With so many 'names' then they've all got to have their own bit of the film and that can be the downfall of a star-laden film but this one really worked. It did (I'm surprised to say!). It was a particular surprise to see Tracey Ullman since I haven't seen (or heard of) her for years, but there she was, right as rain as Jack's mum.

The story takes place beside and inside a deep, dark wood, one of those ancient woods that anything can happen in. And it brings to life all those fairy tales we all know - Cinderella and her cruel step-mother, Jack who sells his cow for beans, the Baker and his wife who want to have children, Rapunzel with her long braids of hair and, of course, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. And, of course, the Witch - there's always a witch. The  Wood is almost a character itself, always there waiting to be discovered again by a new set of characters. It's still waiting.

We see these tales played out in front of us as we follow the tales to the end, or at least the end we know. But the show takes us further and deeper and lets us see what happens after the ending we know. Is Cinderella happy in her new palace and does the Prince still love her? What about the Giant's wife after Jack kills her husband? O yes, tales go on y'know, they don't just stop. Something has to happen next, and that's when the story gets darker. The characters are still wishing and hoping, but for different dreams as they've learned something along their journey. But the Wood is still the mysterious and magical place it's always been. It's still there.

There is joy and tragedy in the film, laughter and tears, mystery and suspense. Will they, won't they? Well, they might. And it's a proper film version of the stage show with no real dialogue, telling the take through the songs and it's really easy to follow.

Meryl Streep is really good as the Witch, both as hag and beauty, and delivered her songs excellently. I wouldn't want to live door to her! Emily Blunt was quite lovely as the Baker's Wife, with a nice presence and a lovely singing voice. The big surprise for me was James Corden as the Baker (who's also the narrator throughout since it's his tale) - I haven't liked anything he's done up to now, but he shone in this film. He's no singer but he did far better than just getting away with it - he made it work for him. It would be good to see him on stage in a musical role after this.

Other pleasing performances were from Anna Kendrick as a feisty Cinderella who talks to birds (I loved those scenes with her talking to the blackbirds) and has a good voice; Tracey Ullman as Jack's mother and salt of the earth; Christine Baranski as Cinderella's step-mother who takes the knife to her daughters' feet while trying on the golden slipper (I don't think I've seen a bad performance from Christine, who's looking good); and, of course, Johnny Depp as the Wolf. Annette Crosby had a small part (and a line) as the Grandmother but it was nice to see her.

Of the younger members of the cast, Lilla Crawford was perfectly feisty (as she's meant to be) as Little Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone was well cast as a very active Jack scrambling up and down beanstalks and trees and causing trouble. Lilla's speaking and singing accent did rather stand out as blatantly American compared to the other actors but that just emphasises her difference I suppose.

It took a little while to get going (and that's usually the case) but it carried me along nicely through the ups and downs of the characters' adventures. I loved it. Go and see it on the big screen while you can.

Be careful what you wish for… and take care in the woods...

My one disappointment was at the very when I looked at the credits and it said 'special effects by' - it should've said 'magic by' and listed the witches and magicians...

Monday, 5 January 2015

Kate Pierson - 'Mister Sister'

Here's the video for Kate Pierson's lead single - 'Mister Sister' - from her first solo album due out in February. Yes, you read that right, Kate Pierson (*that* Kate Pierson from the glorious The B-52's). She has one of the loveliest pop voices in the past 35 years and she's still going strong. At last she's chosen to release a solo record!

I think this is a great, catchy, poppy song that could help to normalise transitioning from one gender to another. It's not a treatise on transgender politics, it's a fun song with a message about individual empowerment and what's wrong with that?

If you look at the comments underneath the video on YouTube Kate now seems to be embroiled in a transgender political correctness argument much like the arguments last year about the word 'trannie'. I recall reading posts from people like Kate Bornstein and Justin Vivian Bond about how 'trannie' was part of their collective history and was a badge of honour rather than an insult.

I'm particularly puzzled by the comments about Kate singing 'you are a beautiful girl' - I don't hear that as supporting the 'norm' about who and what beautiful people are and should be, I hear it as saying 'now you're really yourself you're beautiful and don't listen to anyone else'. You don't have to be traditionally beautiful to be beautiful, just have the confidence that comes with knowing who you really are and that makes you beautiful.

I'm beautiful (in my own way) and so are you. Just because I'll never feature on the cover of 'Vogue' or any of those glossy magazines doesn't mean I'm not.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

'Travels With My Aunt' at the British Film Institute Southbank

New Years Day afternoon saw my first cultural outing of 2015 to see the film, 'Travels With My Aunt' at the BFI Southbank (or National Film Theatre as it is) starring Maggie Smith. The film's from 1972 and won Maggie an Oscar nomination.

Needless to say, I've never seen the film before or read the book so it all came as a delightful surprise. Maggie Smith plays Augusta - the Aunt - who is trying to raise money to free her old lover, Mr Visconti, who has been kidnapped and is being held somewhere in North Africa (i.e. Morocco). To complicate matters, Augusta's sister has just died and the film opens with Augusta attending her funeral and meeting her nephew. She soon reveals that he isn't her nephew since his mother adopted him but she still takes control and they're soon on a train from London to Paris to change sterling into dollars and then another train to Istanbul. All of this is to raise money to save Mr Visconti.

Of course, it all goes horribly wrong and they're caught by the Turkish secret police and put back on a train to the west with other undesirables. Poor Augusta, what is to become of her Mr Visconti?

The tale is told partly through an ongoing present-day narrative and flashbacks to Augusta's youth as a schoolgirl, a young woman and then a more mature woman that tell us how she became the woman she is in the film. It's in these scenes that we see Maggie as she was, not the heavily made-up - and quite convincing - elderly lady. Augusta is one of those magical creatures that seem to have had it all their own way throughout their life and can't even contemplate not getting what they want.  Of course, she is totally over the top and exactly right for this role.

She is supported by Alec McCowen as her assistant bank manager nephew, and Lou Gossett as Wordsworth her lover as well as being a pimp and drug pusher. Robert Stephens plays the cad and downright nasty Mr Visconti (you need to watch until the end to see his true colours, the bounder!) and there's a small part for the lovely Cindy Williams who introduces Henry to the joys of smoking pot on the Orient Express to Istanbul. As soon as I saw Cindy I thought, 'I know that face' and indeed, she played Shirley in 'Laverne and Shirley' a few years later.

All in all it's a delightful film, very of it's time with the colours and themes going on in the background, the travelling across Europe (and, from the credits, it was filmed all over the place) and the nod to a bygone age with characters we won't see anymore. The only thing missing was a druggy dream sequence (for which I am thankful)! Well done Mr Cukor. And Miss Smith.

I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Plastic Bag Awards 2014

The annual awards season kicks off with the Plastic Bag Awards 2014. Some years feature one form of art more than others and this year has seen a deluge of theatrical experiences and very little new music or gigs - that's just how it goes sometimes. The judging panel has had some heated discussions  and has decided on the following awards.

Ladies and gentlemen and readers of all ages, I give you the Baggies 2014!

Best Theatre - Shakespeare Production

This is a new category to celebrate Shakespeare and the new productions of his plays put on last year. There was a great series of his Roman plays staged at The Globe over the summer, none of which I'd previously seen, and all are nominated. The nominations are:

'Henry V' at the Noel Coward Theatre
'King Lear' at the National Theatre
'Titus Andronicus' at Shakespeare's Globe
'Anthony & Cleopatra' at Shakespeare's Globe
'Julius Caesar' at Shakespeare's Globe.

Jude Law was my king in 'Henry V' with his stirring speeches and Simon Russell-Beale was suitably grumpy and despondent as Lear but it was the Roman plays at the Globe that really gripped me. The violence and blood of 'Titus' and the faded grandeur of Cleopatra but the glory belongs to 'Julius Caesar' with a great production matching that magnificent play with poetry to make you gasp and weep at its power and beauty.

Best Theatre - Drama

Taking Shakespeare out of this category makes it look, at first glance, a bit lightweight but here we have three revivals and two brand new plays being staged for the first time, both at the National Theatre. No-one can call 'Medea' lightweight. The nominations are:

'Skylight' at Wyndham's Theatre
'Medea' at the National Theatre
'My Night With Reg' at the Donmar Warehouse
'Behind The Beautiful Forevers' at the National Theatre
'Treasure Island' at the National Theatre

'Skylight' was a trip back to the '80s with Bill Nighy being Bill Nighy and we went back to another '80s with 'My Night With Reg'. 'Medea' is a millenia-old desolate play of extremes and can't help but be powerful. 'Behind The Beautiful Forevers' took us to an India few of us will ever see and 'Treasure Island' took us on a rollicking adventure to the Caribbean to find pirate treasure. They're all excellent plays but the Baggie must go to 'My Night With Reg' for evoking those lost days of the '80s when HIV first reared its ugly head and changed lives, and this play gently and evocatively illustrates the horror and pain so many people lived and died with back then.

Best Theatre - Musical

It's been a grand year for musicals, old and new. I saw lots of musicals last year and could so easily have nominated 'Amadeus' at Chichester, '20th Century Boy' at Wimbledon or the lovely Guildhall production of 'Grand Hotel' at the Barbican. But I must stick by the rules and nominate no more than five for the judges to assess and these are:

'Sunny Afternoon' at Hampstead Theatre
'Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be' at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East
'Guys & Dolls' at Chichester Festival Theatre
'Gypsy' at Chichester Festival Theatre
'Here Lies Love' at the National Theatre

This is a very difficult category and all five nominees deserve to be in the last five - they all have different qualities that bring them alive but the judges have awarded the Baggie to 'Sunny Afternoon' for being a joyous recreation of the music of the Kinks. It's currently running in the West End and raises the roof every night. Well done people!

Best Entertainment

An 'entertainment' in my book is something that is performed on stage short of it being a play or a musical, so can include readings, cabaret, circus and just about anything else.

'Ellen Terry With Eileen Atkins' at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre
'La Soiree' at the Southbank Spielgeltent
'Shakespeare's Sonnets' at the Royal Festival Hall
'Lord of the Flies' at Sadler's Wells
'A Christmas Carol' at Queen Elizabeth Hall

I loved the acrobatic rudeness of 'La Soiree' and the mammoth reading of all of Shakespeare's sonnets one after another by a set of actors. I loved 'Lord of the Flies', the new Matthew Bourne production, and listening to an ensemble reading of 'A Christmas Carol' just a couple of weeks before Christmas is magical. But the Baggie goes to Eileen Atkins for her one-woman show of 'Ellen Terry With Eileen Atkins'. Eileen turned into different people in front of our eyes as she played some of Ellen Terry's big roles, giving us a glimpse into what true acting can be like. Most impressive.

Best Film

A strange mix of nominations this year - a music documentary, a tale of gay solidarity with the miners strike in the '80s, a silent movie masterpiece with Buster Keaton and a strange American take on a Noel Coward play. The nominees are:

'20 Feet From Stardom'
'The General'
'Design For Living'

The judges picked the winner with little discussion - the Baggie goes to 'Pride' for being the best film in many years. The tale of those brave souls behind Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and the miners they supported in South Wales during the 1985 miners strike. The miners might not have won but this film has winner written all over it from the touching and funny acting, a great soundtrack and jumpers tucked into jeans for added reality. Well done!

Best Gig

I didn't go to many gigs last year, mainly because artists I want to see didn't seem to be on tour, but there were still sufficient to make a top five. The nominees are:

Suzanne Vega at the Barbican
McAlmont & Butler at Islington Assembly Hall
Kate Bush at Hammersmith Apollo
Marianne Faithfull at the Royal Festival Hall
The Human League at Hammersmith Apollo

Suzanne Vega gave us songs from her latest album ('Queen of Pentacles') and McAlmont & Butler got together for a two-night reunion for charity while Marianne and the Human League, old troupers both, gave us solid professional shows, giving us exactly what we wanted. But the Baggie must go to Kate Bush for her return to the stage after 35 years and me being in the fourth row from the stage. That was a thrill and a half and you could feel the excitement grow in the crowd as starting time approached. And then there she was...

Best Live Performance

This category is for the individual performance of a song on stage, a performance that rips you out of the audience and transcends all barriers to take you to a different place. There are only three monitions this year:

'Running Up That Hill' by Kate Bush
'Everything's Coming Up Roses' by Imelda Staunton ('Gypsy')
'Mother Wolf' by Marianne Faithfull

Imelda's performance of one of the big songs from 'Gypsy' was astonishing in it's intensity as was the ferocity of Marianne's 'Mother Wolf' in which she spits out the words and despises the modern world. But It's Kate's song from the '80s, 'Running Up That Hill' that stays with me for the sheer majesty of the performance making me think we could, indeed, do a deal with God. Well done Kate!

Best Exhibition

I've been to quite a few exhibitions this year, mainly courtesy of membership of the Tate and the British Museum but I found it quite easy to narrow down the nominees, which are:

'Heaven In A Hell Of War' - Stanley Spencer at Somerset House
'Making Visible' - Paul Klee at the Tate Modern
'The Cut-Outs' - Henri Matisse at the Tate Modern
'Revolutionary of Russian Art' - Kazimir Malevitch at the Tate Modern
'Virginia Woolf - Art, Life & Vision' at the National Portrait Gallery

The Stanley Spencer exhibition was marvellous and, astonishingly, free to get in, and it reproduced his sequence of large paintings about his experience of the First World War and after. The colours, textures and patterns Paul Klee explored were delightful and uplifting by turns and the cut-outs of the Old Magician, Matisse, were joyful. Malevitch was more intellectual and hard to take in fully and the assembled objects at the Virginia Woolf exhibition were touching, particularly the little black book kept by the Nazi's with her name in for immediate arrest following a Nazi invasion. I learnt something from all these exhibitions (as one should) and left them wiser and with a greater understanding of their work. It was very difficult for the judges who eventually decided to award the Baggie to M. Matisse for his glorious and joyful cut-outs that got bigger and bigger as he got older. *Bows*.

Best Book

There isn't usually a book category in the Baggies so this is another new one simply because I read four great rock books over the summer and all deserve to be mentioned.

'Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys' - Viv Albertine
'Buffy Sainte-Marie: It's My Way' - Blair Stonechild
'Look Wot I Dun: My Life In SLADE' - Don Powell & Lise Lyng Falkenberg
'Bedsit Disco Queen' - Tracey Thorn

Blair's book about Buffy successfully pulls together existing material about Buffy, Don's books sheds new light on his time with SLADE and Tracey's book was doubly entertaining and illuminating since it's the tale of the growth of a contemporary into a pop star so I could recognise and relive many of the allusions she makes. Great and as entertaining as these books are, it's hats off to Viv Albertine for her astonishingly honest memoir, 'Clothes…Music…Boys'. Books are too often called "brutally honest" but none so honest as Viv's book where she holds nothing back. It's intensity and honesty are painful and that's the mark of great writing and great story-telling. She discovered her own narrative voice while writing this book and I'm sure that'll provide dividends for future songs as well as books. Well done Viv!

And there you have them, the Baggies 2014! Let's see what 2015 brings, shall we?