Archive for October, 2012

Skyfall*****

Posted: October 29, 2012 in Cinema

Most of the previous 22 Bond films have been little more than tongue-in-cheek variations of their predecessors and they have become British cinema’s equivalent to the Christmas panto – grotesque villains, exotic “dames”, familiar plots, etc. – but the last one, “Quantum of Solace”, was so abysmal that the continuation of the series seemed threatened. At first, the choice of Sam Mendes, whose cv suggests he would be more at ease with Shakespeare than Fleming, as director of the 23rd came as a surprise, but it is a choice that now seems inspired. Mr Mendes has done for 007 what Christopher Nolan did for Batman, infusing intelligence and humanity and, in so doing, he has not ditched the action thrills, visual spectacle or old traditions; he has simply made them all bigger and better to produce a multi-layered epic. A great cast of top drawer British thespians is joined by Javier Bardem, already the nastiest screen villain of this Century so far, now even nastier. The best Bond at least since “Goldfinger”, maybe the best of them all.

The trend for down sizing big musicals to fit into tiny spaces has been led by the Menier Chocolate Factory, but now its near neighbour is threatening to take over. After the stunning revival of “Mack & Mabel” in the Summer, the same Vault space is taken over by this gender bending piece. Underneath railway arches with trains rumbling overhead as they approach or leave London Bridge station, some of the best singers and dancers around give everything, all within touching distance of almost every member of the audience. The show is a so-so musical, not from Broadways’s top drawer, making it little short of miraculous that the performers and production team have transformed it into what we see here. Anna Francolini is wonderful in the title role, leading a superb company. Great entertainment!

A rarely-seen 1924 Eugene O’Neill play, written before the familiar masterpieces but after “Anna Christie” which was performed so successfully at the Donmar last year. Most of the writer’s trademarks are here, a tight dysfunctional family unit, characters yearning for better lives, but the key element that is missing is believability with the result that the play comes across more like Victorian melodrama than serious theatre. The acting is strong, overlooking some dodgy accents, so it is hard to blame the actors for failing to make their characters’ words and actions credible. Also the production is fluid and creates several haunting images, but however worthy the efforts of all involved, the task of making this play relevant to a 21st century audience ultimately proves beyond them.

With the Cottesloe configured to resemble the House of Commons, the audience seated on the Members’ benches, James Graham’s new play examines the turbulent proceedings during the hung Parliaments of 1974-79 from the perspectives of the Whips’ offices of the two main parties. In an age when all politicians appear to be University-educated, “middle class” and pre-occupied solely with media spin, it jolts to be reminded of days when party politics reflected genuine class warfare and events in the House were seen to be of life and death importance. And so, with every vote counting, we see members wheeled into the Chamber on hospital trollies wearing oxygen masks and we are left in no doubt that this was a battlefield, as scenes are performed in the manner of conflicts in Shakespeare’s history plays. The ensemble cast is top class, the writing is crisp, at times bitingly funny and the direction is fluid, peppered with deft touches. A memorable evening.

Cabaret*** (Savoy, 10 Oct 2012)

Posted: October 17, 2012 in Theatre

Any musical that is staged as a star vehicle for a pop singer and a soap actor needs to be approached with caution, but this revival of Rufus Norris’ 2006 production of the Kander & Ebb classic dispels most doubts. Will Young as Emcee first appears as a hideous demented clown and then becomes exposed (even literally) to varying degrees of ridicule which he carries through with assurance; he takes risks which could explain why his career has already outlasted most of the reality tv winners who succeeded him. However, Michelle Ryan, although not technically deficient, gives us a one dimensional Sally Bowles which alters the balance of the show; normally her relationship with Clifford (Matt Rawle) would be at the heart of the narrative but, here, the older couple take centre stage. Fortunately, Linal Haft and the wonderful Sian Phillips are on hand to grasp the opportunity with relish. If anything, the production over-emphasises the already obvious dark political undertones, particularly in a shocking finale but, overall it packs a real punch.

The Donmar has received great acclaim for re-discovering many rarely-performed European classics, giving high hopes for this 17th Century French play by Jean Racine. Sadly these hopes are quickly dashed. The scenario of thwarted love is established within 5 minutes and, thereafter there are virtually no plot developments and no dramatic tensions as the play rambles aimlessly towards a climax that never arrives. Maybe the verse of the French original was its justification but, here, lifeless prose offers no compensation. There are just three redeeming features: firstly the set consisting of a magnificent staircase spiraling down to a sand dune is a visual treat (although it’s relevance to the play remains unclear); secondly Anne Marie Duff in the title role is always worth seeing, she stands out in a cast that otherwise lacks sparkle; and thirdly, at 95 minutes without an interval, it is mercifully short.  Josie Rourke directs. As she nears the end of her first year as the Donmar’s Artistic Director, she needs to understand that this is just not good enough.

Pre-conceptions were of a fossil of a play, a low brow farce by Brandon Thomas resembling Oscar Wilde but filleted of verbal wit and possibly  more fitted to be seen on a seaside pier than in a major London venue. That someone has different ideas becomes clear as soon as the enormous set, occupying almost half of the Menier’s space comes into sight. Thereafter, a top notch cast takes over and delivers an evening of unbroken hilarity. Matthew Horne gleefully gives us his “Gavin” in drag, making no concessions to femininity, and Jane Asher is suitably regal as the real aunt, but the entire company displays exuberance, superb comic timing and, as they hare around chasing each other, considerable athleticism. For those of us who aspire to more sophisticated tastes, there is no need to apologise for laughing so much; this is simply an occasion to sit back and go with the flow.