Wednesday 28 March 2012

Theatre Review: The Duchess of Malfi (Old Vic)

Among the wittier touches in Shakespeare in Love (1998) were the scenes featuring the child John Webster. First seen  squatting in a gutter, poking at some mice with a stick, the young Webster later shared his favourite moment in Romeo and Juliet: "I liked it when she stabbed herself."  The comedy of these scenes came from Webster’s status as playwright of the macabre and the gruesome,  a reputation that’s justified by his tragedies The White Devil (1612), and The Duchess of Malfi (1613). The latter gets a flawed-but-interesting new production at the Old Vic, directed by the very-in-demand Jamie Lloyd.

When that other directing Lloyd - Phyllida - staged Webster’s play at the National Theatre nine years ago, it was with a bold modern flourish: a noir-ish 1950s ambience, and the Duchess strapped to a chair and tormented, Clockwork Orange-style, by grisly video images. Not all of it worked but the production certainly had its excitements, as well as great performances from Janet McTeer as the D of M, from Charles Edwards as Antonio, the steward whose clandestine marriage to the Duchess sets the tragedy in motion, and from Eleanor David in the small but pivotal role of the duplicitous Julia. (Note to directors: cast Ms. David in something soon!)

Despite the occasional (feeble) attempt to sex the proceedings up - Iris Roberts’s Julia is introduced here vigorously humping the Cardinal (Finbar Lynch), and there’s a spot of fingering to follow - Jamie Lloyd’s production keeps things traditional, by contrast, in terms of costume and set. With low-key lighting that makes you peer into the gloom and an impressive yet inelegant design by Soutra Gilmour that cramps and crowds the action, the pace is sometimes sluggish, and there are some strange notions. The Duchess’s first  appearance, for example – flanked by flunkies who look like they might be warming up for a turn in a Michael Jackson video – is risible.

Still, the power of the piece comes through. For all the play's odd time shifts and structural wobbles,  Webster’s pungent, poetic language ("Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle") delivers in performance, and by the production’s end I was reminded that this is a play that I'm really rather fond of. And while some of Lloyd’s decisions are questionable others prove rather successful. It’s easy for the mounting body-count to tilt into full-blown absurdity by the climax but the adroit staging of the murders silenced potential sniggerers at Saturday's performance. Painfully prolonged here, the scene in which the Duchess meets her fate is unusually upsetting.

The performances are not all up to scratch yet (and in a couple of cases seem unlikely to ever get there), but some of the actors come through. In particular, as Ferdinand, the Duchess’s incestuously-inclined brother, Harry Lloyd charts the character’s journey from possessiveness to full-tilt lyncanthropic lunacy rather well. Still, once again, it’s Best that’s best, and in the title role The Lady Eve delivers an elegant, involving performance that anchors the production. There’s not a great deal of chemistry between her and Tom Bateman's somewhat colourless Antonio and Best could perhaps bring a trace more sensuality to the role. But there’s no denying her power, both in the quieter moments and the big scenes: from the emphasis of her declaration that “I am Duchess of Malfi, still” to her hushed delivery on the most beautiful, most haunting of last lines. Lloyd’s production fumbles some key elements, and occasionally loses its dramatic pulse. But, making its way to "the ancient truth/That kindred do commonly worse agree than remote strangers,"  it grips and moves at its strongest.

The production is booking until 9th June. Further information at the Old Vic website.

Top 25 Tori Amos Cover Versions

I had great fun writing about Tori Amos’s cover versions in a blog post last year. Now, the venerable Daniel Boudreaux is polling Toriphiles for their favourite Tori covers in order to construct a definitive list. Voting closes in a couple of days. Here’s my selection, accompanied by a few musings. Click on the titles for links to the performances.

1. New Age (by The Velvet Underground) 
Tense and dramatic, stirring and cathartic; chills and liberates at once. It’s the moment when the girl takes her glasses off. All your tomorrows start here.

2. Daniel (by Elton John)
A lot of loss. A trace of envy. A burst of anger. A renunciation. And redemption, perhaps.

3. Angie (by The Rolling Stones)
The clouds all disappear.

4. Running To Stand Still (by U2)
Nobody’s favourite track from The Joshua Tree. But somehow, this song makes a great deal more sense to me with Tori singing it.

5. Real Men (by Joe Jackson)
Some of the girls were boys.

6. Smells Like Teen Spirit (by Nirvana)
Well, duh.

7. Do It Again (by Steely Dan)
Echoey, rumbling processed drums, fuzzed-up bass, skittish, jazzy piano and a dizzyingly unpredictable vocal performance transform the silky-smooth “Do It Again” into a more unsettling item than we could have ever imagined. Wheel turning round. Beautifully.

8. Famous Blue Raincoat (by Leonard Cohen)
So it was May 2009. I got off a plane from Canada and went to see Tori perform. This was the first song she played.

9. ’97 Bonnie and Clyde (by Eminem)
The view from inside the trunk.

10. I’m On Fire (by Bruce Springsteen)
Per Christie Keith :“Bruce Springsteen may be an honorary lesbian just for writing so many love songs that become even hotter when sung by a woman.”

11. London Girls (by Chas & Dave)
Jolly times around the ol' Joanna.

12. Time (by Tom Waits)
So who knew Death could sound this beautiful?

13. Operator (by Jim Croce)
That is the way it feels.

14. Raining Blood (by Slayer)
Metal and classical, going steady.

15. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Martin/Blane)
The highest bough.

16. Rattlesnakes (by Lloyd Cole)
The lyric goes: "All you need is love, is all you need." I hear: "All you need is Elvis on your knee."

17. I Ran (by A Flock of Seagulls)
“This could really be crap.” Well, no chance, as it happens.

18. After All (by David Bowie)
By jingo!

19. Dream On (by Aerosmith)
Live and learn. From fools and from sages.

20. All Through The Night (by Jules Shear)
Sometimes, when it goes wrong, it goes so very right. (3:09)

21. If 6 Was 9 (by Jimi Hendrix)
When pianos try to be guitars… they very often succeed.

22. Livin’ On A Prayer (by Bon Jovi)
So, in the 80s, songs with stories and characters in them could still be great big hits.

23. Father Figure (by George Michael)
Sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime.

24. Heart of Gold (by Neil Young)
Neil's placid ballad bares its teeth.

25. Let It Be (by The Beatles)
When you find yourself in times of trouble.

Theatre Review: Filumena (Almeida)

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Eduardo de Filippo’s 1946 play Filumena is a slight wee thing but fairly charming: a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that pits female resourcefulness against male vanity and pride. Its eponymous heroine is a former prostitute who pretends to be dying in order to persuade her long-time lover Domenico, a wealthy businessman, into marriage. The play opens after the revelation of Filumena’s successful deception, which sets the scene for yet more revelations from the character's past and an eye-opening day or two for Domenico, who finds his sense of power and privilege thoroughly tested.

Filumena was last seen in London in 1998, in a production starring Judi Dench and Michael Pennington (that apparently featured a classic Dench first night faux pas). Michael Attenborough’s new production at the Almeida gives off pleasing, sunny vibes. Unfolding on an attractive courtyard set by Robert Jones, and warmly lit by Tim Mitchell, the production begins strongly, with a punchy first Act, but then dampens down, dramatically, as it progresses. (An unnecessary interval doesn’t help.) There’s plenty of pain and complex feelings underpinning the premise, which touches on Filumena’s impoverished background, the sorrow of mother/child separation, and the deceptions made necessary for women under patriarchy. Such issues surface here at moments, cutting through the comedy, and Tanya Ronder’s translation strives for vulgar life. But the tone is mostly light and cosy, and by not going further the play ultimately seems trivial.

Still, the evening remains quite enjoyable, sparked by some spirited, entertaining performances. As Filumena, Samantha Spiro mixes toughness and tenderness to highly engaging effect: she starts out stridently - confronting Domenico with her grievances, we feel the weight of many years of repressed emotion - but softens into serenity (and beauty) in a graced final scene. Clive Wood partners her well as the vain, philandering Domenico, nicely conveying the character’s anger and surprise as his sense of security is undermined. And the venerable Sheila Reid - so brilliant, currently, as the monstrous Madge in my favourite TV guilty pleasure, Benidorm - is a wonderfully warm and watchful presence here as Filumena’s long-time maid and companion, with her own painful history that parallels her mistress’s.

There’s more bite (and better gags) in the average episode of Benidorm, it must be said, and Attenborough’s production certainly isn’t one to go to with huge expectations. But it makes for a pleasant diversion overall.

The production runs until 12th May. Further information at the Almeida website.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Theatre Review: The Taming of the Shrew (RSC, Richmond Theatre)

Lucy Bailey's roughhousing RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew swaggers up to the play, with a leer. Setting the action in the 1940s, and (none-too-subtly) emphasising its lusty undertones by transforming the stage into a giant bed, Bailey's take on one of Shakespeare's most problematic comedies tries hard to make the play into a riotous romp: ribald, frisky and, God knows, "sexy."

It tries too hard, in fact. Now touring, the production was well-received when it opened at Stratford in January, and was generally deemed to be a fresh and exciting take on a play dismissed by one early 20th Century critic as "an ugly and barbarous as well as a very confused, prosaic and tedious affair." But for me Bailey's production seems not so much to solve the play's confusions as to create some new ones, and to come off, ultimately, as less spry than strained.

The story of Petruchio's wooing, wedding and winning of the "curst and froward" Kate has been played as a rollicking farce or as a social satire; as endorsing its title or ironising it. Bailey's production opts for farce in the main, taking a broad, rough-and-tumble approach that's sometimes reminiscent of that of Ed Hall's Propeller but without the subtler tones and the inventiveness that define that company's work. The production retains and (our cup runneth over) actually elaborates on the tedious Christopher Sly Induction scenes, with Nick Holder's drunken, corpulent Sly remaining a presence throughout the action. How you feel about this decision will depend, largely, upon how hilarious you find the spectacle of a man running around with no pants on. But, as presented and developed here, these scenes seem like filler, and they fail to illuminate the main business in any especially interesting way.

A Shrew that, though flawed, still offers us an engaging Kate and Petruchio with great chemistry can be forgiven its shortcomings. But this production's problems aren't so much mitigated by the central performances as exacerbated by them. Like many other directors, Bailey claims to see Kate and Petruchio as rebellious "misfits" who are challenging "the small-minded people around them." But what we actually see, here, is a pair of obnoxious figures engaged in shrill and silly game-playing on their way to, in Bailey's terms, "the best sex ever."

Lisa Dillon's Kate - variously writhing and weeing, smoking and spitting - is certainly a forceful presence. But Dillon's performance is undermined by her extremely irritating vocal delivery: almost everything she says sounds affected. David Caves's strutting, bare-chested Petruchio is scarcely more appealing, and the trajectory of the pair's relationship is neither clearly nor compellingly charted here. (In a pushy production that overdoes almost everything, the taming scenes themselves seem oddly, well, tame.) I'm not sure what Dillon is attempting to do with the final submission speech, but her highly-strung delivery makes Kate seem just as screwed-up at the end as she was at the beginning.

Some competent turns fill out the background: there's amusing work from Terence Wilton as Baptista (with whom you may find yourself sympathising), from John Marquez as a preening Tranio, and from Sam Swainsbury and David Rintoul as Bianca's suitors. But everyone seems to have been directed to overdo it, and the manic gesticulating indulged in by most of the cast is one of several unappealing elements in a forced and charmless production that becomes increasingly tiresome as it progresses.

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Theatre Review: Sweeney Todd (Adelphi)

Jonathan’s Kent’s fluid, lively production of Stephen Sondheim’s bloodthirsty 1979 musical transfers snugly into London’s Adelphi Theatre following its sell-out run at Chichester last year. With Sondheim’s reputation at its peak following the recent spate of productions to celebrate his 80th birthday, and doubtless also boosted by the success of Tim Burton’s film version (still unseen by me), this is a show that has generated an incredible amount of audience goodwill, judging by the palpable sense of pre-show excitement in the theatre and the rapturous response that it received. That response is, for the most part, deserved, for this is a highly entertaining evening that succeeds in beguiling even those of us who are far from being dedicated Sondheim-ites.

One of the production’s principal pleasures is the opportunity it offers to see Michael Ball bleaching every trace of cuddly geniality out of his stage persona as he takes on the title role of the vengeful barber. A glowering, menacing presence, Ball is in commanding form - and superb voice - throughout, and he’s partnered superbly by Imelda Staunton (last seen seductively wrapping her arm around an accordion in A Delicate Balance) who, benefitting from most of Sondheim's best lyrics, brings Mrs. Lovett to gleaming comic life: when she comes up with the notorious pie-filling scheme you practically see the light-bulb go on over her head. The pair’s interactions on the standout songs - "The Worst Pies in London,” "A Little Priest" and "By the Sea" - are the evening’s highlights. In support, there’s distinguished work from John Bowe as Todd's antagonist Judge Turpin, from Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford and from James McConville as Tobias, while Mark Henderson’s lighting and Anthony Ward’s clever set design contribute a bracingly moody and brooding ambience to the proceedings.

What I don’t buy, so much, are the emotional elements here. For a work rooted in human pain - Sweeney’s grief at the loss of his family; Mrs. Lovett’s unrequited love for Sweeney - this musical doesn’t generate much of an emotional charge, while the Johanna/Anthony subplot feels undercooked, despite competent turns from Lucy May Barker and Luke Brady in these roles here. But as a ghoulish blackly comic satire of entrepreneurship, Sweeney Todd works, and it’s hard to imagine seeing it more slickly staged than in Kent’s confident production. Not to be missed.

Booking until 22nd September. Website here.

Monday 19 March 2012

Theatre Review: Play House, & Definitely the Bahamas (Orange Tree Theatre)

Lily James in Play House, photo by Robert Day

Directed by its author, the Orange Tree Theatre’s current double-bill pairs an early Martin Crimp play, Definitely the Bahamas, originally produced on BBC radio but staged at the Orange Tree in 1987, with a new work, Play House, that’s been specially commissioned to mark the theatre’s 40th anniversary. A Richmond resident, Crimp’s association with the Orange Tree goes back to his first forays as a dramatist. The theatre staged six of his plays in the 1980s and was therefore instrumental in getting his work seen and noticed. Among the many admirable aspects of the Orange Tree is its loyalty to the playwrights whose work it has put on. And Crimp’s return to the theatre that first produced him has turned the opening of this double-bill into something of an Event.

As dramas focusing upon two couples - one young and energetic, the other ageing and apparently settled - Play House and Definitely the Bahamas chime together quite nicely. Play House presents episodes in the life of Simon (Obi Abili) and Katrina (Lily James) as they set up home together. We witness the pair engaging in domestic duties (fixing a phone; cleaning the grimiest fridge the stage has ever seen) and some odder, more enigmatic escapades as well. Crimp has described the play as being about “the fragility and volatility of a relationship,” and he seems to be getting at the mundaneity and the strangeness of coupledom here - its pleasures and unease - as Katrina gradually reveals a scepticism about “playing house” that rivals that of the little girl in the Tammy Wynette song.

Unfolding in thirteen abrupt and riddling scenes, the drama conceals as much as it discloses. There are striking moments throughout and the scenes are sharply shaped and rhythmed at their best. But an air of wilful obscurity underpins the enterprise, and the piece isn’t especially satisfying dramatically. Rather, it comes out skimpy and sketchy: due to the structure, the characters’ declarations and tirades feel unmotivated and often fail to generate sufficient emotional weight.

This is despite the sterling work of the two performers. Abili and James (a young actress who’s capable of transforming herself utterly; she’s unrecognisable here from Vernon God Little and Othello) bring gusto and great physicality to their performances, especially in an exuberant dancing scene. But, apart from a few scattered insinuations about Katrina’s difficult relationship with her father, you may not feel that you know a great deal more about these characters at the end than you did at the beginning, making Play House a slightly frustrating experience despite its flashes of interest.

Definitely the Bahamas seems to me by far the stronger, more substantial piece of work. The play focuses on an ageing couple, Millicent (Kate Fahy) and Frank (Ian Gelder), as they discuss their beloved son Michael, with their dialogue occasionally interrupted by the appearances of their Dutch student lodger, Marijke (James again, in another excellent turn). What starts out as a comedy of manners and misunderstandings gradually gives way to something far more unsettling, however, for, in Aleks Sierz’s grandiose formulation, this is a play about the ways in which “fascistic attitudes are manifest in everyday life as well as in history.”

Crimp’s production is a tad too self-conscious: the play is staged as the radio drama it originated as, with no props, the actors seated at tables in front of marked-up scripts, and sound equipment visible. It’s hard to see what this conceit contributes beyond a superficial veneer of “baring-the-device” modernism, and it makes the piece feel static. But the conception is transcended, finally, by the strength of the writing and by superbly naturalistic performances. Ambiguities and uncertainties here feel more integrated and meaningful than in Play House, and the play broadens out quite successfully into a critique of an insular world-view that sees violence as perpetrated by those unlike us: the distant, the Other, the foreign.

As the garrulous Millicent, Fahy (last seen on screen as the matriarch in Joanna Hogg’s great Archipelago) delivers a gem of a performance: the character’s Freudian slips and inanities (“Who do we know in a call-box, Frank?”) are deliciously delivered. Gelder partners her wonderfully, their performances achieving a marvellous equilibrium. And James does brilliantly in a long late monologue which offers a new perspective on events, suggesting that, contrary to Millicent’s belief, threat and danger aren’t just something associated with foreign climes, but may in fact be manifest a good deal closer to home.

The double-bill runs until 21st April. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Concert Review: Joan Baez @ Royal Festival Hall (17/03/2012)

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.

Beaming, Joan Baez takes to the Royal Festival Hall stage with a spring in her step and a little high kick, looking for all the world like there’s nowhere else that she’d rather be. “It’s always so good to be back in the land where half of my original repertoire came from,” Baez avers later, by way of introduction to a couple of Ballads. “The songs touched me so much. They were long and sad and beautiful. And, usually, at least one person died. In fact, if no-one died then the song didn’t make it into my repertoire.”

It should be no surprise, really, that Baez seems so comfortable and at ease on stage: she’s spent the greater part of her 71 years on them, after all. Saturday’s show was the second stop at the Royal Festival Hall in her current UK tour. And, as always, the audience seemed just as delighted to have Baez here as she seemed happy to be present. Unlike her last visit in her landmark year of 2008 [review here] Baez has no new album to promote this time around - not that that’s ever stopped her from constructing a wide-ranging set-list that touches as many corners of her voluminous repertoire as possible. Saturday evening’s show moved between old and new material, taking in the aforementioned ballads and songs by the writers Baez has championed and popularised - Dylan, Phil Ochs, Donovan, Steve Earle and (yay!) Richard Shindell - to construct a seamless story rich with the (lightly worn) weight of decades of history and political commitment as only a Baez gig can be.

Opening with Earle’s “God is God” from her last album, Baez took the first three songs solo on guitar, before being joined by her two accompanists: multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and percussionist (and  fils Baez) Gabriel Harris who contributed some fresh textures to the most familiar material and nicely complemented Baez's own ever-distinctive guitar-work. A bluegrass spirit infused a rollicking “Lily of the West” and a supple “Long Black Veil,” while slinky bass invigorated “The House of the Rising Sun” and reeling accordion fleshed out a biting “With God on Our Side.” Indeed, the brace of Bob tracks were received with particular enthusiasm, a gorgeous “Love is Just a Four Letter Word” the standout.

Baez’s deepened, weathered tones - high notes now strictly rationed - also continue to contribute fresh aspects to the music. Her voice seems richer than ever for its creaks and croaks and her ability to turn a song taut and dramatic while keeping it conversational and intimate is superb. “Be Not Too Hard,” “Suzanne,” “There But For Fortune” and Shindell’s “Mary Magdalene” were timelessly restrained and haunting, and as often Baez delighted in putting some twists and reversals on particular lines: those cufflinks in “Diamonds and Rust” were now given to that tricky lover “fifty” not “thirty years ago.” Her quirky humour and playfulness surfaced on an entertaining - if slightly arch - honky tonk rendition of “Stagger Lee,” while various anecdotes - making tea for The Beatles, singing for Havel in Czechoslovakia - also added context, insight and amusement. There was just one duff song selection: a gloopy bit of undistinguished balladry entitled “I Need You Just the Way You Are” that might have strayed in from a Celine Dion set-list. Baez (who seemed oddly sheepish about the track in the introduction) gave it a dignified enough spin, avoiding bombast. But when you consider the classics (or stronger new material) that it’s replacing it seems an unworthy choice.

Baez’s warmth and graciousness as a performer, her ability to make everyone present feel like a vital, valued member of a collective enterprise, are well-known, yet always striking. Once again, she demonstrated her ability to reduce a large venue to coffee-house intimacy, frequently waving up to the audience members in the balcony and often turning to sing directly to those occupying the choir seats behind her. Appropriately, the final section of the show - from “Gracias A La Vida” through to “Blowin’ in the Wind” - became a singalong, infused with 60s spirit.

From the perspective of our current culture, it’s slightly tormenting to think back to a period when songs like “There But For Fortune” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” were massive mainstream hits. Baez’s status as a bridge back to that tumultuous yet perhaps more engaged and more conscientious time clearly constitutes a considerable part of her enduring appeal. And yet her gigs seldom feel like exercises in nostalgia, and that’s due not only to the timeless appeal of the material but also to Baez’s ability to extend a bit of the past into the present, as evidenced by her dedication of a stirring “Joe Hill” to the Occupy movement. How urgently we need the lessons in compassion and empathy - and the calls to action - promoted in these songs, these days. And how heartening it is that, all these years on and as vibrantly as ever, Baez is still out there, delivering them.


God is God
Be Not Too Hard
Farewell Angelina
Lily of the West
Railroad Boy
Scarlet Tide
With God On Our Side
I Need You Just the Way You Are
The Ballad of Mary Magdalene
Catch the Wind
There But For Fortune
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
Joe Hill
The House of the Rising Sun
Love Is Just A Four Letter Word
Long Black Veil
Gracias A La Vida
Diamonds and Rust
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Blowin’ in the Wind

Monday 12 March 2012

Film Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Madden, 2011)

A group of Britishers find themselves variously disturbed, challenged, charmed and changed by a period spent at an establishment in India…? As coincidence would have it, I re-watched Black Narcissus (1947) shortly before seeing The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011). And, well, the contrast between the two movies is marked, to say the least. For what’s turbulent, mysterious, unnerving and - frankly - erotic in Powell and Pressburger’s film comes out fairly safe, benign, comic and cosy in John Madden’s offering. Watching these two films, it’s easy to conclude that British cinema hasn’t so much progressed as regressed within the past 65 years. And yet the new film - indifferently reviewed but number one at the box office - has some elements of appeal.

Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel deposits its group of ageing-to-elderly characters (played by Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup) at the Bangalore hotel of the title, a ramshackle guesthouse presided over by the eager though put-upon Sonny (a game but over-effusive Dev Patel). The group are there for a variety of contrived reasons - landing a job, having a hip replacement, tracking down an old lover, getting laid - and the film puts them through a variety of changes, some less predictable than others, it must be said.

India’s impact upon the English has of course been a popular topic for novelists and filmmakers, but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel can’t be said to add a great deal to the culture-clash theme. At times - notably an unfortunate scene in which Dench’s character advises a group of Indian workers on what constitutes a good telephone manner - the picture acts as though postcolonialism had never happened. It’s not offensive, exactly: just oblivious.

Visually, the movie is mediocre - sallow-looking and poorly lit for the most part - and the script, by Ol Parker, feels under-worked. Wispy plot strands dangle loosely, and the tedious caste-crossing love story that constitutes Patel’s part of the proceedings generates zero interest. Indeed, the treatment of sexual and class issues leaves something to be desired. The melancholy gay character, “sympathetically” presented as he is, achieves a long-awaited moment of fulfilment and redemption - only to keel over dead a few minutes later. And it’s interesting that it’s the working-class character - dropping aitches and “comic” racist epithets - who’s initially made the biggest bigot, all the better to reveal her heart-of-gold by sympathetically connecting with an “untouchable” later in the film.

That The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel remains moderately enjoyable despite its obvious shortcomings is down to its deluxe cast, who contribute some believable human touches to their characterisations. Dench brings her special radiance - emotional transparency with a hint of something secret in reserve - to Evelyn, the cautious widow emerging from her comfort zone to embrace the possibility of change. Walking the teeming streets, she looks both touchingly vulnerable and heroically alert to new experiences. Quavering in Cockney, Maggie Smith reveals Muriel’s skills and sympathy as briskly and unsentimentally as she’s able. Tom Wilkinson underplays beautifully as he suggests the deep regrets that have haunted his character for decades. And Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy sketch a marital history that comes out more nuanced, interesting and authentic than the Tom-and-Gerri love-in in Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010).

Some of the performers aren’t so lucky - though enjoyable enough, Imrie and Pickup get most of the broad comedy bits, while Diana Hardcastle (responsible for one of my favourite moments on stage last year in A Delicate Balance with Wilton) is wasted as Carol, the lonely woman who Pickup finally scores with. Even so, it’s pleasurable to see such a strong British cast together on screen and the film does at least have the wit to play off of the actors’ previous collaborations at times; in particular, there’s a lovely brief exchange between Smith and Dench at the end in which the spirit of their history of film and stage partnerships is felt, ever so lightly.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn’t have the charm of a comparable starry exercise in elderly empowerment such as Franco Zeffirelli's Tea with Mussolini (1999). But through the artistry of its actors, a fairly shallow enterprise gets a little bit of soul.

Theatre Review: The Lady From The Sea (Rose Theatre, Kingston)

The stage curls into a wave; the backdrop suggests a Turner. It’s not every play that’s proved suited to the Rose Theatre auditorium. But Stephen Unwin’s production of Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea—with its clever set design by Simon Higlett—feels right at home. It might be that the unusual contours of the space—the mixture of traditional and modern design—fit the strange contours of a play that shifts restlessly between modes and genres, merging domestic realism and folktale, naturalism and expressionism, as it dramatises a pivotal moment of crisis and decision in the life of its fascinating female protagonist.

There is evidently something about that protagonist, Ellida Wangel, torn between the compromises of her marriage and the danger and excitement offered by the reappearance of an old lover, that greatly appeals to the distaff side of the Redgrave clan. Tony Richardson directed Vanessa Redgrave in the play in the late 1970s, while Natasha Richardson gave a blazingly intense performance in the role in Trevor Nunn’s production at the Almeida in 2003.

In Unwin’s production, it’s the turn of Joely Richardson to wade into the waters previously navigated by her mother and sister. And, returning to the stage for the first time in a while, Richardson acquits herself extremely well throughout, finding plenty of variety in the role, and compellingly communicating the character’s contradictory qualities.

By turns vulnerable and defiant, bewildered and resolved, Richardson truly suggests a creature from another element, while the occasional appearance of her mother’s gestures and inflections—hands to the face; a throaty contralto note—adds an extra level of poetry to the portrayal. The scene in which Ellida reveals the “terrifying attraction” that “The Stranger” holds for her to her husband, Dr. Wangel (a terrifically sympathetic Malcolm Storry), is especially strong.

Unwin’s production, which avails itself of the director’s own supple translation, begins superbly, with all the interest and intensity one could hope for. If the second half doesn’t quite match the opening for impact Unwin nonetheless offers a lucid and engaging account of the play, that is, I think, one of the Rose’s stronger productions so far.

A great part of the play’s interest lies in its exploration of an awkward step-family situation, and Ellida’s difficulties in fulfilling the role of mother to Wangel’s two daughters, Bolette and Hilde; this aspect is powerfully conveyed here. Madeleine Worrall is a poignant Bolette, quietly nursing her own sense of frustration and entrapment, while as Hilde—cutting and contemptuous yet craving her step-mother’s attention—Alexandra Moen contributes a lively, unsentimental characterisation.

A weak element is Gudmundur Thorvaldsson who delivers a sadly stilted performance in the small but pivotal role of The Stranger from Ellida’s past: dapperly-dressed (in a very odd costuming choice), stolid and lacking in mystery or magnetism, he’s more “man at C&A” than man from the sea, with the result that Ellida’s dilemma loses some of its force. But the rest of the cast inhabit their roles vividly, with Sam Crane funny and exasperating as the sickly aspiring sculptor Lyngstrand, and Robert Goodale making pleasingly light work of Ballested, a stammering jack-of-all-trades who intones what turns out to be the play’s affirmative maxim: that, with freedom and responsibility, human beings can indeed “acclimatise themselves.” In sum, it’s worth diving in.

Booking until March 17th.

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Concert Review: Jim Moray @ Twickfolk (26/02/2012)

“I’m starting as I mean to go on - with death and destruction,” quipped Jim Moray following the opening song in his excellent gig at Twickenham Folk Club last Sunday night. It’s a standard - but always-appreciated - folk joke: diffusing the often dire subject matter of traditional song by wryly drawing attention to it. For folk fans, it’s the dire subject matter that we love, of course. The song in question this time was “Hind Etin,” or Child 43, which Moray had seamlessly combined with bits and pieces of other ballads, and which features among its protagonists a “woodland elf rapist.” (Who said folk music was boring, again?)

Moray made TwickFolk the first stop on his tour in support of his beautiful new album Skulk (his best record so far, I’d say), noting that “They say you play Twickenham twice in a career … Once on the way up and then… Well, let’s just say that I’m pleased to be playing here for a third time.” Once variously patronised, praised and pilloried as the “bad boy” of the British folk scene - a guy whose first album, Sweet England (2003) brought classical, electronic and rock influences to bear on trad. material and whose third, Low Culture (2008) featured a collaboration with rapper Bubbz - Moray has proved himself to be one of the most vital and valuable young artists we have: consistently creative in his work on traditional songs, a keen collaborator (in the past year he’s been involved with the Cecil Sharp Project, contributed to the Nic Jones concert at the Royal Festival Hall and played Orpheus to Anais Mitchell’s Eurydice at the UK Hadestown shows) and a musical multi-tasker who’s equally skilled on guitar, drums, piano, banjo, keyboards, concertina, melodeon - and laptop.

He’s still not adverse to the odd marvellously confounding gesture - slipping a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Big Love” in between the traditional songs on Skulk, for example. But he seems to go deeper and deeper with every new release. Sunday’s solo gig found his music at its most stripped-down - and, perhaps, at its most powerful. Wry and warm between songs, and in supple voice, Moray was equal parts folk troubadour and late-night bar-room crooner as he alternated between acoustic guitar and (a wonderfully battered)  piano in a set that drew on songs from across his five studio albums, alongside some new additions.

Highlights included an ineffably chilling “Long Lankin,” a marvellous 'singalongy' “Peg And Awl,” and a beautiful “Sweet England.”  The big ballads (“Hind Etin,” Lord Douglas”) were especially powerful, but the most emotive moments, for me, were the songs performed on piano, with an intense “If It’s True,” (from Hadestown), a dramatic “Lord Bateman,” a soulful “Poverty Knock,” and a gorgeous “Gilderoy”  outstanding. Moray even offered a couple of songs with happy endings - "of sorts" - notably the spry "The Golden Glove," which concludes with its enterprising "nobleman's daughter" heroine pledging - in memorable folk euphemism -  to be "the mistress of your dairy" and to "milk all your cows." Catch him where you can:  concert dates and details here.

Moray’s gig was preceded by an engaging support set by Maz O’Connor, a young Cumbrian singer who accompanied herself on guitar and shruti and performed North East folk-songs, a Dylan cover, and a lovely original song, tentatively titled “Rose Garden.” The romantic content of the latter piece led O’Connor to mention that her parents first met in Twickenham. The chorus of “Aahs” that followed this announcement prompted an additional piece of information that brought the house down. “Yeah, well. They’ve divorced since.” Happy endings. Of sorts.


Hind Etin
Three Black Feathers
Sweet England
Long Lankin
The Captain’s Apprentice
If It’s True
Lord Bateman
Peg and Awl

Horkstow Grange
Poverty Knock
Lord Douglas
The Golden Glove
The Flying Cloud
Billy Don’t You Weep For Me
The Wishfulness Waltz