Wednesday, November 15, 2017

NETWORK at the Lyttelton, National Theatre: Fake news....

Sidney Lumet's 1976 film NETWORK was a success when released, going on to win four top Academy Awards - but when was the last time you ever saw it on tv or re-released in cinemas?  I suspect it has not aged as well as some other 'classics' although in 2007 it was ranked 64th in a list of 100 Great American Films by the AFI.  I admired it at the time for the barnstorming performances of Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway and the savage satire of Paddy Chayevsky's script but now I suspect I would find it's underlying misogyny a pain.

However here we are, 40 years beyond Chayevsky's ideas on the state of television and the vision  seems all too real - the race-to-the-bottom of tv planners chasing an ever dwindling audience, reality shows of every description and, in particular, the movement from straight news to 'opinion news'.  The pin-up boy of high-concept, director theatre Ivo van Hove now brings us his take on it - and a fairly maddening experience it is.

Okay let's get the most annoying thing out of the way first, what's a bloody restaurant doing onstage?  Van Hove and his partner-cum-designer Jan Versweyveld have taken over all of the massive Lyttelton stage and turned it into a vast television studio with a glass production booth, mirrored make-up desks glimpsed at the back, the now-standard shiny mirrored studio floor and dwarfing all else, a huge video screen to get you up close and personal to the characters thanks to the prowling stedicam operators.

All well and good I guess, all within the world of the piece... so why make one third of the stage into an onstage restaurant with punters having a three-course meal within the running time of the show?  Van Hove would no doubt say because there are a few bar/restaurant scenes.. but there are also about the same amount set in Max's apartment so why not have that there instead?  It was profoundly irritating to be distracted from the play by kitchen porters wandering at the back or waiters walking around dispensing drinks.  NETWORK runs 2 hours with no interval - is it just a cunning ploy to make up for what they lose in the bars between acts?  If they were so keen to make it an immersive experience within the world of the play, why not have the Gogglebox alumni sat at the side of the stage commenting on Howard Beale's onscreen rants?  Oh and don't get me started on the four dj blokes sitting like Kraftwerk high above the large screen...

Oh and another thing Mr van Hove... was all the filmed footage projected onto the large screen meant to be about 2 seconds delayed so the close-ups didn't match what was being said?  Profoundly annoying and unnecessary.

Apart from all the distractions there was an actual play going on, but what on screen worked as a concerted satirical pummelling of the television world, scaled down to human form onstage it all just seemed a little obvious, a little forced, and definitely preaching to the converted about the heartless bastards who run television networks.

Howard Beale has been a tv news anchorman for many years but his audience is dwindling and he is eventually told by his old friend Max Schumacher that he is to be replaced, which Howard appears to be resigned to.  However when he announces this on the air the following evening, he also says that he will blow his brains out on his last day on-air.  The network bosses go ballistic but Max manages to persuade them to let Howard atone for his outburst but when next-on-air Howard again goes into a meltdown resulting in a huge jump in the viewing figures.

This arouses the attention of Diana Christensen, a TV producer who is in charge of programming, who offers to take the news department under her wing, and make "The Howard Beale Show" an even bigger audience favourite with shock-opinion reporting and Howard as it's centre-piece.  The execs override Max's protests of dumbing-down the news and replace him with Diana; despite this they start an extra-marital affair.  Howard does not disappoint and becomes a ratings smash with such direct appeals to his audience to open their windows and scream "I'm mad as Hell and I'm not going to take it anymore".

However Howard oversteps the mark when he urges his viewers to write to the White House to stop a secret take-over of the network by an Arab conglomerate.  Despite the huge reaction, the head of the network reveals to Howard that without the Arab's cash the network will go under and that he views television as just a commodity to channel the views of politicians and capitalism.

Howard tries to preach this to his audience but his new message alienates the viewers and he faces rating disaster.  Diana also realizes that she needs a new controversy to kick-start the show's ratings - and to get interest in her new tv show: a reality programme 'starring' a terrorist organization...

Ok I will admit that I was never bored during NETWORK but mostly that was down to the charismatic performance by Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale.  Unlike Peter Finch's scenery-chewing in the film, Cranston played the character as a man who dares to say what he feels and what he sees in the mad world around him, his Howard knows all too well what he is saying and what the desired effect will be; which makes him a truly tragic figure at the end of the piece when he gets lost in the machinations of the powers that he once tried to put an end to.

Cranston's magnetic, seductive performance was not matched by the surprisingly dour performances from Douglas Henshall as Max and Michelle Dockery as Diana.  Lee Hall's adaptation seems to pull it's punches in making his Diana the icy villainess that won Faye Dunaway her Best Actress Academy Award so the role seems to have no inner conviction nor does Henshall who is possibly too young for the role.  For you van Hove fans, Dochery does get to fly into a rage and throw papers around for no better reason that Ruth Wilson did it in HEDDA GABLER.

The supporting performances are all fairly one-note; NETWORK famously won Beatrice Straight a Supporting Actress Academy Award even though she only appeared on screen for just over 5 minutes. However those 5 minutes are magnificent as she reacts with shock, anger, hysteria then a rueful knowingness when William Holden's Max tells her he is leaving her for Diana (you can see the whole scene on YouTube).  The role was played here by Caroline Faber on a very low-light.

I will briefly mention Tunji Kasim who, as the venal network boss Frank Hackett, gave such a laughably 2-dimensional 'baddie' performance I expected every new appearance to be accompanied by a swirling cape and a twirled moustache.

The amusing thing was to see the audience being used as much as Howard Beale's unseen tv audience - during the scenes involving his crass news show the audience are exhorted to shout out three times "I'm Mad As Hell And I'm Not Going To Take It Anymore" and clap wildly, and at the end of the show, in an outrageous moment of preaching to the converted Pavlovian dogs, van Hove has video footage played on the big screen of the US presidential inaugerations from Gerald Ford to this day... cue mad cheering in the audience when Barrack Obama appeared, cue mad booing when Donald Trump appeared...

Thanks to Bryan Cranston, NETWORK is sold out for it's entire run but the National Theatre always has a number of seats sold on the day as well as it's Friday Rush for tickets on sale for the following weeks performances, see the website for more details.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Dvd/150: 21 DAYS (Basil Dean, 1940)

Larry Durrant has failed in business but made good with his girlfriend Wanda, but one night her past reappears in the shape of her slimy husband.  He pulls a knife on them and in the struggle Larry accidentally kills him. 

Larry dumps the body but loses incriminating gloves which are found by a tramp, a lapsed priest. Larry visits his older brother Keith, a successful barrister, who is shocked at Larry's dilemma but reveals that the tramp has been arrested for the murder.

Larry is consumed with guilt but, at Keith's suggestion, enjoys the three weeks until the trial and marries Wanda.  Larry decides that he will confess his guilt when the trial ends - but the priest is found guilty...

The hero's guilt shows Graham Greene's involvement and Basil Dean's taut direction just survives the vicissitudes of time.  Of the leads, Leslie Banks outshines stagey Olivier and under-used Vivien.

Shelf or charity shop?  One for the Vivien archive - by the way, the film was shot in 1937 but was held back from distribution until 1940 to capitalize on Vivien's sudden star power thanks to GONE WITH THE WIND...

Sunday, November 05, 2017

KENNETH MACMILLAN Triple Bill at Covent Garden: 25 years on, the passion remains...

It's now 25 years since the choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan suffered a fatal heart-attack backstage at Covent Garden during a revival of his production MAYERLING and since that tragic event his ballets such as ROMEO AND JULIET, MANON, ANASTASIA, MAYERLING etc. have been revived and re-interpreted by a new generation of dancers in many different companies.  So when Kevin O'Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, saw the Northern Ballet production of ROMEO AND JULIET, it struck him how the upcoming 25th anniversary of his death should be on a wider scale than just his company.

With the agreement of MacMillan's widow Deborah, the season included the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Northern Ballet, Scottish Ballet and the Yorke Dance Project coming together to give a nationwide appreciation of his enduring legacy.

Of the five events we selected the one which showed the range of MacMillan's choreography: the elegiac GLORIA, the thrilling and disturbing THE JUDAS TREE and the playful, colourful world of ELITE SYNCOPATIONS.

The first of the one-act ballets was MacMillan's GLORIA, premiered in 1980, which was danced by Northern Ballet.  It had been inspired the previous year when MacMillan watched the BBC series TESTAMENT OF YOUTH based on Vera Brittan's memoir of her experiences as a field nurse in World War I and in particular, the loss of her fiancée, her brother and their two best friends.  MacMillan was moved by her story and also by the memory of his father's involvement in the battle of The Somme which his father refused to talk about in the years after. 

He chose Francis Poulenc's Gloria in G Major as his music and the abstract choreography of the male and female dancers in a barren desolate landscape is counterpoint to the music's glorifying of God; it makes for a good distillation of the sacrifice of life against the vaunted ideals of what they were doing it for.  It was well danced but with no particular stand-out performances.

The second ballet was MacMillan's controversial THE JUDAS TREE from 1992, the last ballet that he completed for the Royal Ballet.  Set to an unsettling score by Brian Ellis, the ballet concerns the mysterious appearance of a scantily-clad woman on a London building site where a group of builders work like a dangerous, suspicious pack of animals. MacMillan's thrilling and highly-charged choreography is constantly shifting the power balance: one minute the woman is, literally, walking all over them as she delights in her female power over them but that changes on a toe-twirl to her being victimized by the men, the brutish foreman and his two young friends. 

One is always gentler with her and this ultimately leads to an explosion of violence in which the woman is beaten then gang-raped by the gang then murdered.  The quieter man, who did not take part in the wilding, tries to assimilate with the others but is rejected violently. In a sudden volte-face the foreman crawls along a crane arm and hangs himself where he is observed by the woman, her head covered Magdalene-like. The curtain-call felt like an almost grudging, muted ovation.  However it's power to rivet the attention cannot be denied and the committed performances by Thiago Soares as the Foreman, the remarkable Edward Watson as his gentle friend and, above all, the extraordinary Lauren Cuthbertson as the woman.

The final ballet was MacMillan's 1974 souffle ELITE SYNCOPATIONS, a set of party-piece routines danced to Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers.  With eye-popping costume designs and the relaxed air of a cast party onstage, it was a delightful way to end the show and included guest soloists from Birmingham, Northern and Scottish ballets, with delightful turns from Laura Morera, Yasmine Naghdi, Ryoichi Hirano and Kevin Poeung.

But the troubled shadows of THE JUDAS TREE continued to linger in my mind and, although ELITE SYNCOPATIONS was a fine example of the lighter side of MacMillan's talent, THE JUDAS TREE is the one that will stay with me.  The 25th Anniversary season is over now but MacMillan's MANON will be at the Opera House next year.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Dvd/150: The LAST OF SHEILA (Herbert Ross, 1973)

I first saw SHEILA in 1973 and immediately loved it's bitchy dialogue, intricate plot and in particular, the fabulous performances of Dyan Cannon and James Mason.

The thriller was written by friends, actor Anthony Perkins and composer Stephen Sondheim, both keen parlour game fans which reflects in the twisting plot and betrays a heavy gay aesthetic too.

Gossip columnist Sheila Greene leaves a Hollywood party after a fight with her producer husband Clinton but is killed by a hit-and-run driver.

A year later, Clinton invites six friends for a Riviera cruise on his yacht named 'Sheila'; scriptwriter Tom and his socialite wife Lee (Richard Benjamin, Joan Hackett), agent Christine (Dyan Cannon), director Philip (James Mason) and actress Alice with her manager-husband Anthony (Raquel Welch, Ian McShane).

Clinton devises nightly scavenger hunts but is his motive to discover Sheila's killer?

44 years on and I still love it...

Shelf or charity shop?  One of my all-time favourites... what do YOU think?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND at Covent Garden - The Wonder of Wheeldon

It's four months since we last saw the Royal Ballet company at Covent Garden - yes, we saw LA BAYADERE in August but that was the Marinsky company so it was a welcome joy to be back in the Amphitheatre, pushing past the throng to get to our front row seats to Christopher Wheeldon's acclaimed version of ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND.

I will admit to some trepidation going in as the last time I saw a theatrical production based on Lewis Carroll's evergreen children's story was the truly ghastly WONDER.LAND at the National Theatre, one of the most hideous experiences I have ever had in a theatre - click here to see my blog lynching here - but I really need not have worried.  Christopher Wheeldon's inventive choreography dazzled where WONDER.LAND embarrassed, the set invoked real wonder where WONDER.LAND just created clunking ugliness and Nicholas Wright adaptation managed to evoke the surreal atmosphere of Wonderland that Fiona Buffini's buffooonity didn't.

Christopher Wheeldon's ballet of ALICE premiered in 2011 to great success - which was probably matched by a collective sigh of relief from the Royal Ballet as, amazingly, it was that company's first full-length original work in 16 years.  Joby Talbot's score was also the first original ballet score for the company in 25 years - so as you cans see, a lot was riding on this production.  Wheeldon and Talbot have since rejigged the original two-act structure to a more traditional three-act form with added choreography for Alice and her romantic hero, the Knave of Hearts.

I was also vaguely dreading the 12am start matinee, expecting an auditorium crammed with whingeing Jeremy and Jemimas but they were all on their best behaviour and any worries were soon carried off by Talbot's exhilarating score and Wheeldon's inventive and witty choreography - he is a real story-teller in dance as was shown a few years later with his wonderful version of THE WINTER'S TALE.

A major reason for the production's success is Bob Crowley's outlandish but always on-the-money set and costume designs which again fill the stage with colour but always stay true to Nicholas Wright's version of the tale.  Crowley's design fills the stage with invention and the sheer joy of visual story-telling: his Cheshire Cat looms large over with limbs that fly away to reform as the cat moves around - and his tail has a life of it's own, snaking around Alice keeping her in her place, while the Caterpillar is a sinuous Indian dancer with a retinue of dancers following behind him on point.

Crowley's costumes also hit the right witty note, from the crazed dandy of The Mad Hatter to the eye-popping red of the Queen of Hearts' outfit - I also liked the idea of her being transported everywhere in a heart-shaped cabinet by minions which, when finally opened revealed a quaking King of Hearts at her feet!  Alice's topsy-turvy adventure is also brought to vivid life by Natasha Katz's lighting and the video projections of Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington which instantly conjures up a world of vertiginous rabbit holes and halls of endless doors.

Nicholas Wright establishes a framing device which ends with a neat twist: Alice and her sisters are being read to by Lewis Carroll at a garden party, she then dances with her friend Jack, a young gardener, but her imperious mother castigates him for having a red rose in a bunch of white ones.  Jack gives Alice the offending rose and she gives him a jam tart from the party spread but her mother suspects he stole it and dismisses him on the spot.  Lewis Carroll tries to cheer the distraught Alice by taking her photograph; he puts the camera cloth over his head but he sprouts a bunny-tale and emerges as the White Rabbit... the chaos begins.  But don't worry... Alice and Jack are reunited at the end but not in the Victorian era...

Needless to say the cast were flawless: Anna Rose O'Sullivan was a delightfully feisty Alice, establishing a lively character from the start which continued through the Wonderland scenes.  Steven McRae originated the role of The Mad Hatter in 2011 as Wheeldon was impressed with his tap skills as the role consists of a long tap solo during the tea party scene but at our performance he played the roles of Alice's gardener friend Jack and the Jack of Hearts whose stealing of the Queen's jam tarts threads through the show until it climaxes with the anarchy of his trial.  I was disappointed not to see him as the Mad Hatter but it would have meant getting about 5 minutes of seeing him onstage so I happily settled for seeing him throughout the production instead.

Laura Morera was huge fun as the nasty Queen of Hearts, none more so than in her dance with three petrified courtiers, all too aware what will happen if they go wrong.  Based around the Rose Adagio from SLEEPING BEAUTY, Morera was hilarious as she twisted herself into grotesque ballerina positions clinging to her hapless partners for support.

There was also fine support from Alexander Campbell as Lewis Carroll and The White Rabbit, Joseph Sissens as the tapping Mad Hatter - but missed the charisma that McRae would naturally bring to the role - and Nicol Edmonds as the sinuous Caterpillar.

Sadly the performances are all over for this run but it was screened in cinemas last week and I am sure this new classic will be back in the repertoire soon, as Owen said it really would make a great Christmas show.

Monday, October 16, 2017

42nd STREET at Drury Lane - Nostalgia isn't what it used to be...

33 years: a long time ago but, as is often the case, it also seems like no time at all especially if you are experiencing the same show in the same theatre.  In 1984 I saw a preview of "42nd STREET" at Drury Lane and was swept away by Gower Champion's propulsive choreography, Theoni V. Aldredge's lavish costumes and the larger-than-life performances of Georgia Brown as 'Dorothy Brock', Claire Leach as 'Peggy Sawyer' and Carol Ball as 'Anytime Annie'.  I knew Carol from Richard Eyre's company at the National Theatre so eventually her dressing room became a second home!  So there I was and here I am, sitting in the same theatre seeing a revival of the same show...

I had been in two minds about seeing the revival; with such fond memories of the original, how could it compete?  However last week, Owen surprised me with tickets - even better was the fact that when O picked up the tickets, he asked was there any chance of an upgrade from the Upper Circle to the Dress Circle?  Constant Reader, you can't go wrong in the second row of the Dress Circle - £35 tickets upgraded to £125 seating! Well, you don't get if you don't ask eh?

The production is directed by Mark Bramble, who co-wrote the original production with the late Michael Stewart, and the show has been made bigger and better with Champion's routines added to by choreographer Randy Skinner.  Oddly enough, the book has been the last thing to be revised so is still as thin as ever - 42nd STREET is definitely the last musical to go to if you want 3-dimensional characters -and the book literally jumps from song to song like a tapping mountain goat.

But the show knows it's strengths and the songs - and the thrilling dance routines that accompany them - just keep on coming.  The Harry Warren and Al Dubin songs might not be the best songs of the 1930s but boy, they have tunes and Bramble has inserted three extra ones into the original score - remarkable to think that the original 1933 musical film only had five songs!

From the famous opening moments - when the curtain rises and pauses so you can focus on the ensemble's furious tapping feet - the show just picks you up and whirls you through it's classic backstage tale of Broadway director Julian Marsh, desperate for a hit to put him back on top, having to rely on untried chorus girl Peggy Sawyer to take over the lead role when his temperamental star Dorothy Brock breaks her ankle.

The show's genesis is now Broadway legend: producer David Merrick, trying to reclaim his King of Broadway crown, decided on produce 42nd STREET that was adapted by Bramble - his ex-office boy - and Stewart.  Michael Stewart had written the lacklustre book for MACK AND MABEL which Merrick produced and Gower Champion directed.  The show flopped and Champion swore he would never work with Merrick again.  But six years later, and with two more flops to his name, Champion agreed to work on 42nd STREET but again producer and director clashed during pre-production.  Aware that word was reaching New York that the production had problems in it's tryout in Washington, the paranoid Merrick cancelled all the Broadway previews to stop the press sneaking in but insisted the actors still perform to the empty auditorium.  One of them even suggested that they all bring in any cuddly toys they had one night and played the show to them sitting in the front rows!

The non-previews also covered up the sudden absence of Champion, but he was in hospital having succumbed to a blood disease that he had been fighting.  Opening night finally arrived and Merrick had to let the press and public in - but that morning, Gower Champion died.  Merrick only told a couple of people and, after acknowledging the standing ovation at the end of the show, announced to the stunned cast and audience that Champion had died.  The next morning 42nd STREET was front-page news and Merrick had his hit.  There is still conjecture that he made the announcement this way knowing it would make any bad reviews redundant.

It's a show where the ensemble is the real star - the leads are played pleasantly enough but some of the supporting performances are pitched so high as to be like fingernails on a blackboard. Sheena Easton - Sheena Easton!! - can never be accused of being an actress but she sang well enough - it's not her fault that she does not have the pure star heft of the late and great Georgia Brown.  Tom Lister as Julian Marsh was a surprise as I felt he had a real presence on stage, but the one who dazzled - as she should - was Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer.

Halse twirled, whirled and fired off machine-gun tapping riffs and, in particular, in two interpolated numbers - WITH PLENTY OF MONEY AND YOU and an extended finale with just her and the chorus - she resembled a young Debbie Reynolds.  Julian Marsh famously sends Peggy out on the opening night of PRETTY LADY with the phrase "You are going out there a youngster but you've got to come back a star" - suffice to say, Halse is one now!

Oddly enough, what stuck me with this version is the desperation behind it all, Marsh faces a bleak future with no hit shows, Peggy has only her no-hope existence in Allentown if she fails, the dancers all face the breadline and the score is peppered with songs like WE'RE IN THE MONEY, WITH PLENTY OF MONEY AND YOU and THERE'S A SUNNY SIDE TO EVERY SITUATION (the pithy lyrics are courtesy of Johnny Mercer) which make light of the lack of money.  It's odd that I never really noticed it in the 1980s.

As I said I was in two minds about seeing 42nd STREET but I'm glad I did, there is really no other show like it at the moment which is so resoundingly optimistic about the joy that a Broadway musical can bring and puts all that money on the stage.  Randy Skinner's additional choreography really works, fleshing out the title number with the ensemble thundering down a huge staircase - a reference to the original staging of "Lullaby of Broadway" in the film GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 - and the joyous extended finale danced by Clare Halse and the chorus.

Oh and on the subject of money...

Here is the reverse of the 42nd STREET flyer that I picked up at that preview all those years ago - bear in mind Owen's £35 Grand Circle tickets was upgraded to Royal Circle seats that ordinarily would have cost £125...

I guess it was 33 years ago...

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Dvd/150: ENTRE TINIEBLAS (DARK HABITS, Pedro Almodóvar, 1983)

Almodóvar's third film was made with proper film company funding which shows in the look of the film: finally Pedro finds a visual language and, although set in a convent, his use of shadows and colour make it a visual pleasure.

DARK HABITS is hampered by the dull central performance of Cristina Sánchez Pascual.  Pascual, while fine in a supporting role in LABYRINTH OF PASSION, was the film company boss' lover and her involvement was non-negotiable.

Luckily, Pedro surrounds her with sublime actresses who became his Almodóvar regulars.
Julieta Serrano is wonderful as the drug-taking, lesbian Mother Superior who gives sanctuary to singer Pascual who is implicated in her lover's death; Serano turns a cartoon character into a piercing study of lonely despair.

Memorable too are three zany nuns - masochistic Marisa Paredes, Carmen Maura (playing bongos to her pet tiger!), secret novelist Chus Lampreave - and Cecilia Roth too.

Shelf or charity shop? Despite Pascual's charisma bypass, Sisters Julieta, Carmen, Marisa and Chus make it a keeper...