Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Hancock and Joan" from 31.3.2008

This piece is taken from my reviewblog
The excellent four part Curse of Comedy series continued with Hancock and Joan with Ken Stott and Maxine Peake in the title roles. The play charts the final year in the life of Tony Hancock and his affair with Joan, the new wife of his close friend John Le Mesurier.  
   
As with the opener, The Curse of Steptoe, the writing, production values and performances were impeccable and combined to move, appal and intrigue. Written by Richard Cottan, Hancock and Joan is a powerful and authentic study of passionate love, guilt and despair; it is brilliantly and truthfully dark. 
  
At the core of the play is the genius of Tony Hancock. He is driven by powerful demons. We know that in his work Hancock was wildly successful and almost a national institution. However, he never rested on his laurels and, perhaps unwisely, was always dissatisfied and seeking ways to improve his performance, scripts and casting. This compulsion led him to dispense with colleagues such as Sid James and Kenneth Williams and disastrously with his gifted writers, Galton and Simpson, freeing them up to leave him behind and move on to Steptoe and Son
 
At this point in his life Hancock’s career is on the downturn. His recent shows on ATV had not matched his previous successes and his films had been poorly reviewed in this country and made negligible impact overseas.  
  
This deterioration professionally was matched by a chaotic private life. He had left his first wife Cicely and married his agent Freddie Ross, but parted from her as his alcoholism and violent and depressive interludes increased.  
  
At this low ebb Hancock met Joan. Although they both resist at first, their mutual attraction is immediate and intense. They are both constrained by love and respect for the trusting and amiable John Le Mesurier (Alex Jennings) but ultimately are both powerless to resist a mutual obsessive passion.   
  
The attraction between the two is passionately physical. They also seem to satisfy other needs. As well as being sexual, Joan is caring, compassionate and tolerant. In some ways she is like a mother.   
  
When sober, Hancock is brilliant, lovable and vulnerable. He is also freer and more impulsive than the restrained and fastidious John, which may also be part of his attraction to Joan. One could never imagine Hancock telling Joan I love you more than somewhat.   
   
From the outset we see that both Hancock and Joan love John and regret the pain their liaison causes him; despite their genuine shared guilt, they really cannot help themselves.    
  
Another link between the two lovers is humour. They lose themselves in fits of giggles at the drop of a hat, as when Hancock’s mother catches them in flagrante delicto and he calls out “I’m coming mother.”  
  
Similarly, the extended comic scene with the Pythonesque landlady in Ramsgate is hilarious from the moment the bell push drops off until she sniffily describes in detail how she prefers gentlemen to use the lavatory.   
  
When first together, Hancock and Joan are blissfully happy. They laugh all the time and Hancock enjoys the warmth of acceptance within Joan’s family and playing with her son.   
  
Sadly, before long, professional pressures mount. We see nerves before his Festival Hall performance send him rushing to the bathroom, but Joan is able to face it all and comfort him - like a mother.    
  
This stress eventually pushes Hancock to seek the solace of alcohol and we realise how extreme his alcoholism is. Hancock gulps down brandy and becomes depressed and ultimately violent and abusive.  
  
In this state he wrecks a family supper, calling Joan’s mother a four letter Anglo Saxon expletive – and a provincial Mancunian one at that - for which she never, ever forgave him. He later careered around his new home in Kent brandishing a coffee table and applied the same sobriquet to his adopted home county.   
   
In this period Hancock is admitted to clinics to dry out. One doctor explains the grim truths of his condition to Joan, including that Hancock’s first wife loyally tried to keep him company in his drinking and paid for this by herself becoming a hopeless alcoholic.    
   
This is echoed by a shocking scene in which Joan tries to persuade Tony to stop by drinking glass after glass full of brandy before collapsing in tears, taking an overdose and herself ending up in hospital. Hancock’s addiction is so severe that he carries on regardless and only appears mortified when he comes round.   
    
Two figures seem to play a significant part in making Hancock what he has become. To Joan’s disgust his long-standing chauffeur aids and abets his quest for drink and is portrayed as seeming jealously to resent Joan’s intrusion into Hancock’s life.   
    
Hancock’s mother Lil is also a huge influence. Hancock’s bashful, pained and almost quizzical smile to Joan at times of stress is very much that of a little boy wistfully seeking comfort or reassurance from his mother. He demonstrates this in the joke about memories of the mother pointing out the choo-choo, puff-puff to her son on a day out long ago. The trouble was he was 32. Hancock was needy and Joan was in many ways a mother-substitute.  
   
The horror of life with advanced alcoholism is graphically presented. Only a person who has been obliged to live with someone with this condition can really appreciate its corrosive daily impact. On days when drink is not in control, sheer relief heightens the pleasures of normal life but the underlying anxiety about when the next cruel incident will take place is always there. In some ways this nervous anticipation of suffering to come during the good sober days is as cruel as the actual trauma endured on the bad drunk days; the stress involved is almost unimaginable.   
    
After herself being hospitalized, Joan gives up on the fight for a while and returns to the forgiving John. She cannot, however, let go entirely and still loves Tony. Following his return from Australia, Joan and Tony meet clandestinely for a time. After months of turmoil, she eventually agrees that if he makes a go of his next trip for a series in Australia and keeps off the booze for a year, she would leave John and marry him.     
    
In Australia we see the pressure again mount on Hancock. He copes with the work on his new TV show, but is undermined by news of adverse press coverage of the affair back in the UK. His vital life-line of letters form Joan is cut – either by Joan ceasing to write or a postal strike or both - and the fragile Tony cannot cope.    
   
We see Joan try unsuccessfully to speak to him on the telephone. Prompted by a desperate Tony, his mother Lil tries to 'phone Joan at her parent’s house, but is dismissed by her mother who is still bitter about his drunken insults to her.     
  
Following this, alone half a world away in his lower floor apartment in the rented house shared with his director Eddie Joffe, Tony Hancock is drunk and hallucinating, depressed over professional and personal failure. He takes an overdose and dies.      
    
The death scene in the lonely bedroom is bleak, but we are left with one ray of hope. As he commits suicide, Hancock sees his comic self in his trademark astrakhan coat and Homburg. They shyly hug each other, perhaps for the first time; it is an embrace seemingly signifying acceptance, understanding and – hopefully - peace.    
   
In the penultimate scene Joan visits Lil, whilst John waits outside. Devastated, Joan feels if she had gone to Australia, Tony would still be alive.    
  
In an effort to make her feel better, Lil confides that Tony left two notes. The second, barely legible, was to Lil. After apologising for causing her yet more grief, Tony wanted a message passed on to her: "he now knew that the soul was everlasting and that Lil would understand. "   
  
Lil believed Tony recognised in the end that "his soul was his gift and that he would never die." Lil had tried to make him understand this: "but he he could never see it; all he could see was an empty hole, that he tried to fill with drink."   
   
Racked with guilt, Joan admitted that she had wished it was John that had gone and not Tony. Lil reminded her : "John is a good man. Don't hurt him any more. Tony never wanted that; he loved John. Get on with your life."    
   
In the closing flashback, Hancock told an interviewer: "I don't regret it, but I wouldn't want to go through it again. I've tried to do the very best that I can. There's nothing worse than to come off and disappoint them. But sometimes, maybe the the audience asks a little too much. You just try to give as much as possible."    
  
This brings to mind the perceptive tribute to Tony Hancock, the performer, by the late Sir Harry Secombe: "The demands of his profession shaped him, destroyed him and eventually killed him. If anyone paid dearly for laughs it was the lad himself. May he lie sweetly at rest".   
  
Over the final credits Ella Fitzgerald sang the Rogers and Hart classic of love that just won't go away, Where or When. It's air of wistful romance suited the star-crossed love story of Tony and Joan and was fully in keeping with Joan's absorbing book on which the play was largely based, Lady Don't Fall Backwards.     
  
Given that the real climax of the play was Hancock's confrontation and embrace with himself as the artist in trade-mark Homburg and astrakhan at the moment of his death, I wondered whether the tribute of another Brummie, Harvey Andrews from his song Mr Homburg Hat might have been even more apt:


And when we laughed, you cried
And when we sat in silence,
You tried all you knew
But when we came to say
That we'd really like to see you play
Because we love you
We love you
You only turned and took the bottle down
It served to help you through another town
And the papers said
That all the laughs were dead
Another broken clown.
Now there's no more Homburg hat and astrakhan
Just empty places on the seating plan
But now they flock to say
The greatest of his day
That funny man -
How sad he ran.

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Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "The Curse of Steptoe" from 26.3.2008

Thi review is taken fron my reviewblog

After reviewing two excellent American dramas, it makes a change to write about a very English bio-pic, The Curse of Steptoe on BBC 4. It was written by Brian Fillis whose Fear of Fanny, based on the life of Fanny Craddock, absorbed and entertained.

The programme told the story of the creation of Steptoe and Son, a landmark series considered by many to have given birth to the modern TV sitcom. Created by the brilliant Ray Galton (Burn Gorman) and Alan Simpson (Rory Kinnear) at the instigation of Tom Sloane (Roger Allam), Steptoe and Son offered an innovative combination of laughter and deepest pathos. Success stemmed from subtle development of character and plausible situations set against the downbeat backdrop of the home and scrap-yard in Oil Drum Lane in Shepherd’s Bush. Steptoe and Son was strikingly different from the lightweight fare previously on offer under the banner of situation comedy.

As one has come to expect with recent gems such as Fantabulosa which depicted the rather sad life of Kenneth Williams, the production featured a coherent and many-layered script, convincing individual and ensemble performances and an accurate sense of period from the monochrome early 1960's on.

The Curse of Steptoe focused mainly upon Harold Steptoe played by Harry H Corbett (Jason Isaacs) and father Albert played by Wilfrid Brambell (Phil Davies). The measured and insightful performances of Isaacs and Davies were superb.

At the most obvious level, the extreme differences between both actors were bluntly presented. Corbett was a rather pretentious and egocentric left-wing, method actor, spoken of as the English Brando, whilst Brambell was a complete opposite and of the old school, inclined to say, “I just put on the costume and act.

Corbett was compulsive in his preparation and came to the first read-through having thoroughly learned the script, whilst Brambell was invariably late, unable to learn lines and sometimes lacking in focus.

Corbett was an uninhibited and rampant heterosexual, whilst Brambell was a repressed homosexual, bitterly ill-at-ease in his own skin and full of self-loathing.

Paradoxically, both principals had even more in common. Each loathed the other and only spoke when necessary. Noticeably, neither went for a drink with colleagues after the recording before a live audience if the other was to be there. Both drank and smoked to excess, although Brambell’s dependency amounted to alcoholism. Both were socially ill at ease.

It emerged that both suffered major perceived rejections with Corbett never knowing his father and losing his mother at birth. Brambell was humiliated and embittered by a divorce from his wife, who bore a child by a 24 year old lodger. Reminding a smug Corbett that he was a Lothario bedding everything in sight, his perceptive partner Sheila remarked: No wonder he doesn’t like you too much.

At the beginning, we see that Corbett had a considerable stage career ahead of him. Joan Littlewood enthused that Corbett had performed a Richard for the masses and knocked Geilgud and his cronies into a cocked hat. She sketched out his next career moves: the Histories, Macbeth and then the Danish ditherer. As the story progressed, we saw Corbett’s mounting angst at hearing Albert Finney had been cast as Macbeth or scored a personal triumph as Hamlet. He was not even auditioned for Uncle Vanya in Liverpool. Later, he was losing out to Bernard Breslaw for parts in Carry On films.

When he later bumped into Joan Littlewood after receiving a Variety club Award for Steptoe, she was dismissive and ignored Corbett’s unconvincing remarks on its political significance. He was crushed by her indifference.

Corbett’s anxiety over his loss of a brilliant career in legitimate theatre was compounded by his tepid film work. He wanted to act in films on his merits, but found directors only required a re-hashed version of Harold with the same accent and vocal inflections. He knew that this was not worthy of his talents and made tame excuses, such as that the film had been released at the wrong time.

We also see that Corbett’s professional self-absorption and selfishness was paralleled in his treatment of his partner. He was dismissive of Sheila's acting career and a bully, as demonstrated in ordering her to dress less revealingly if they were to go out. He seemed to accept further series of Steptoe and Son in part to assert himself and punish her. She stoically accepted this until eventually leaving him.

Brambell’s private life was at least as dysfunctional as Corbett’s. Despite previously being married, he was homosexual. He was drawn to public lavatories and suffered immense self-loathing in consequence. He felt humiliated in gay pubs and guiltily paid for muscular young men to visit him. He was ultimately arrested for soliciting for immoral purposes with harrowing press coverage. We see Corbett laughing insensitively at newspaper reports of the case.

After the hearing, Brambell sought work (any part, however small) abroad to escape Steptoe and Son and this publicity. Even this failed, when the Broadway Show Kelly the Musical folded after one performance.

In truth, Corbett had been delighted when Brambell declined to do a further series of Steptoe to go to Broadway. He was pleased at the prospect of a new series with Albert killed-off and Harold’s new-found son appearing to join him. The sitcom could move on a generation and could still properly be called Steptoe and Son.

It is unclear whether Corbett’s joy at the prospect of this change was for the new direction of the plot or the departure of the loathed Brambell. He was shattered on Brambell's return and the continued status quo.

Towards the end of the play, we saw more of the almost Macchiavellian role of the producer and writers. When the writers considered they had exhausted all possibilities for comedy, Tom Sloane he made sure that they continued with what was, after all, an established ratings-winner. After many series, Galton and Simpson knowingly began to mine an increasingly sensitive seam of material which became classic comedy, but was very personal to the performers.

This was particularly demonstrated when Harold wished to become an actor and in scenes such as his Marlon Brando “I could have been a contender” speech in the taxi from On the Waterfront. This was capped by Brambell’s insensitive: “Is it me?” and Corbett’s anguished response: “It’s always going to be you.”

The exchange of glances between Galton and Simpson during this scene showed that all concerned were well aware how much it touched upon open wounds. In this instance the adjective “visceral” could accurately be applied to the outwardly comic exchanges they had written.

We also saw Harold leaving the local theatre being asked by a young boy brandishing an autograph book if he was an actor. Harold replied desolately that he will only ever be a rag and bone man. That one line encapsulated Harry H Corbett’s fate as a performer and perhaps the true meaning of the Curse of Steptoe. Corbett had entered into a Faustian pact; he had achieved huge international fame overnight at the cost of, what he considered, his artistic soul. Tragically, he never really seemed fully to enjoy the upside.

A couple of small moments in the piece demonstrate subtle writing. Brambell was asked if he enjoyed his holiday in Hong Kong. He confirmed he did bring back some pretty little things for the flat. Again looks were exchanged between the knowing Galton and Simpson. In the brief wordless penultimate scene we saw Brambell returning to his flat where the door was opened and he was kissed and handed a gin and tonic by a Chinese male.

Similarly, when Corbett was walking down a BBC corridor, on his way to bring the purgatory of Steptoe and Son to an end for good, he glanced at a large framed photograph on the wall of Geilgud as Hamlet, the embodiment of what his career might have been.

His subsequent terse but gentle conversation with Brambell was perfect in the way it conveyed sincere and tired resignation: “Let’s not do this anymore” to which Wilfrid simply replied “Alright”. Brambell responded to Corbett’s final “Good-bye, father” spoken in Harold’s voice with “Fuck ‘orf”, which he managed to say with a good-natured warmth entirely absent from every single one of their earlier dealings.

Although the tone of the piece was consistently bleak, one wonders if Corbett’s late fatherhood and Brambell’s companion, possibly from Hong Kong, brought happiness and contentment that was only hinted at.

Our parting impression of Harry H Corbett was a 'phone call to his agent. Neither actor had worked much since the last series. After panto’, all that was on offer was a stage version of Steptoe and Son touring Australia and they already had Wilfrid on board.

Corbett’s eyes conveyed the abject realisation that, like Harold and Albert, he and Brambell would be trapped, shackled together for all eternity. As he commented when waiting for the tardy Wilfrid to arrive at the very first read-through for the Comedy Playhouse pilot all those years ago, it was just like "Waiting for Godot".

In the end it seemed that Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell were destined to continue to play their own desperate version of Vladimir and Estragon until the final curtain came down. 

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Mad Men" from 12.3.2008

This review was originally on my reviewblog
Unusually, another of my favourite dramas just now comes from America; it is Mad Men showing on BBC4 on Sundays and repeated on Wednesday on BBC2.

The programme is set in New York’s Madison Avenue in 1960 just before Kennedy beat Nixon and the short-lived Camelot period began. It was to end within three years with the sound of gunshots in Dallas.

The initial appeal of Mad Men lies in its slick, cinematic depiction of the fresh self-confidence of its time. It is a period drama with production values to die for. The sky scrapers in the Big Apple are tall and shiny, the clothes are sharp and appealing and the advertising executives are creative, forward-looking Masters of the Universe.

When I walk around New York my head is always full of Rhapsody in Blue or the theme from the Odd Couple. I expect to see Holly Golightly fresh from Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Jack Lemon on his way to The Apartment. My mental New York is all about lunch with dry martinis in a buttoned booth at Sardis or The Four Seasons.

In this respect, Mad Men delivers in spades. The production values are delicious and it’s as much of a costume drama as Cranford or Pride and Prejudice. The suits are sharp and somehow of the moment, the dresses and hair are stylish and the sets are authentic from offices to restaurants to suburban homes. Visually it is a delight and a triumph.

As well as capturing the look of the times, Mad Men reflects its mores. Against a background of unlimited chutzpah, political incorrectness and rampant consumerism, we are presented with grotesque displays of sexism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-semitism, racism, bigotry, hypocrisy, immorality and greed.

A general inclination towards excess and self-gratification is reflected in patronising rudeness to black waiters, endemic treatment of female staff as sex objects and virtually compulsory infidelity and drinking.

Strikingly, everyone seems to smoke at all times whether in the office, restaurant or on the psychiatrist’s couch. Smoking in many ways is the leitmotif of this whole story. It is an essential element of the picture of the time; it reflects the bravado and ultimate weakness of the characters and demonstrates the essence of the ad man’s role and mentality.

In the first episode our hero/antihero, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is confronted with the problem of advertising Lucky Strike cigarettes after the link with lung cancer had been established and the advertiser's palette of misinformation had been limited. His solution “It’s toasted” encapsulated the essence of the man and his job. Advertising is not about informing or explaining. Most politely, it’s about comfortable illusion or distraction. More accurately it’s often about misleading or lying for money.

The cigarette advertising dilemma flags up the basic issue about this world. It is glossy, slick and glamorous but basically e-moral, exploitative and corrupt. Its reality is much more desolate Edward Hopper than cosy Norman Rockwell.

Later he comes up with the slogan “Any excuse to get closer” to promote Right Guard. The skill or evil genius involved in arriving at this brilliant commercial solution impresses and terrifies at the same time. This new breed of canny ad man is sensitive and insightful and well as cynical and exploitative. From then on, the innocent consumer didn’t stand a chance.

The world of advertising men is also corrupting. It will be intriguing to see what becomes of the new secretary from the sticks who seems destined to join the rank of abused victims sobbing in the ladies' washroom at the office.

Don Draper himself embodies this moral vacuum of the ad business. He is attractive and intelligent. He seems to reflect a great deal and is not entirely insensitive. He knows the power he wields, but we do not yet know if he feels this should bring with it any responsibilities. He is capable of flashes of insight and we note in the opening episode that he has a purple heart decoration in the drawer of his desk in his office. This may be clarified later.

He is more appealing than some of his more boorish and vicious subordinates, yet he is regularly unfaithful with his girlfriend in the city whilst outwardly devoted to his pretty wife and two children out in comfortable Westchester suburbia.

We do not know if Draper’s occasional reflective moments demonstrate any awareness or concerns about his cynical existence in a moral vacuum. In the real world sleeping in the office in the afternoon is usually just that - and not a manifestation of intense thought, inner conflict or mental anguish. Just because they are still, waters don't have to be deep -still waters can be very shallow.

This uncertainty sums up the point and fascination of the drama. The merit of Mad Men is not just its sumptuous production values that mean one can almost taste the vodka gimlets and smell the Lucky Strikes.

It intrigues because it flags up such unanswered contradictions. Draper, who seems personable enough, can live with a job which is, at best, misinforming his fellow Americans. He can also live through adultery and lies as a matter of routine.

Viewers want to know why and how he can do this. More broadly, we want to know how his whole industry flourished on a foundation of the illusory and misleading. Also, what does it signify for us now when we know full well that spin and deceit dominate what we consume and think and how we are governed?

Mad Men is more than costume drama; it illuminates 1960 and maybe today.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Damages" from 28.2.2008

My must-see programme just now is the dark American legal drama Damages on Monday evening on BBC1. 


Its tortuous plot is slickly edited and embellished with quick-fire flashbacks and grainy leaps forward contrived to create a strange and unsettling e-moral atmosphere – not entirely unlike most systems of civil litigation. The viewer feels a detachment similar to the weird, almost out-of-body frisson of rural Americana in Twin Peaks.

It’s difficult to sum up the complex plot of Damages. The story is set in New York and follows Ellen Parsons, a newly-appointed associate in a leading litigation practice, portrayed by Rose Byrne.

The firm is headed by charismatic Patty Hewes played by Glenn Close – for which she won a Golden Globe. Her firm is involved in a mega-bucks class suit by workers against billionaire baddie Arthur Frobisher, who made a fortune selling his stock in his company before it went bust leaving thousands of his employees facing poverty. In the role of the villain, Ted Danson is about as far away from Sam Malone in Cheers as is possible.

Much of the pleasure in watching the show derives from the icy Patty who is glamorously successful, ruthless and fascinating. Glenn Close avoids histrionics and any vulgar large acting. Her iconic performance is subtle, understatedly mannered and almost painfully quiet – not dissimilar to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.

It is difficult to imagine so deadly an operator, who is capable of having a pet dog killed to advance her case, having the emotions to sustain motherhood and marriage – unless perhaps the husband is killed and eaten after mating. Patty’s dysfunctional relationship with her Mephistophelean son makes an intriguing subplot that may assume even greater significance later in the proceedings.

If Damages is primarily the story of Ellen, it serves mainly to tell the story of the corruption of youthful decency or more particularly of a Faustian pact.

From the outset, it seems Ellen increasingly risks loss of her integrity and is fated to sell her soul for the largesse Patty can bestow – a smart Manhattan apartment, large salary, professional prestige and most tellingly of all, Patty’s approval.

Ellen’s journey away from the light is crystallised in her firing of her incompetent assistant which was prompted by Patty. Much of the series is spent wondering whether this journey will climax with blame for the gory murder of her fiancé.

The theme of selling one’s soul is repeated by other characters such as the double-dealing elderly former employee, the sister of Ellen’s fiancé, a key witness and even Frobisher’s lawyer. Each is tainted and somehow damned by their dealings with the satanic Frobisher.

Ted Danson’s performance is intricate and multi-layered. His character ranges from the warm family man by the pool to the degenerate high on cocaine in his car with a hooker and the violent bully assaulting his insufficiently sycophantic ghost-writer. He exudes an unbalanced feral quality all the more difficult to deal with since he seems to have convinced himself of the truth of his own lies. He embodies the devil and is entirely corrupt and corrupting.

I am writing this after four episodes and have not yet seen Patty and Frobisher in the same scene. Their characters are charismatic and repulsive at the same time. It will be interesting to see the chemistry if they appear on screen together: there may be spontaneous combustion.

As well as exploring the Faustian pact, Damages paints a savage picture of a system of civil litigation rife with cynicism, greed, lies, corruption, brutality and any number of character defects most useful in constructing compelling drama. It is not genteel. Eminent but hugely flawed lawyers seek the massive fruits of victory at any cost.

The sub-plot of the crossing lady’s suit against Ellen’s under-insured father shows how corrosive and potentially ruinous even cases much smaller than class actions can be. Ellen’s father’s decency seems a potentially disastrous delusion in a system that can often be vicious in effect.

I recommend Damages for its accomplished leading performances, thought-provoking writing and pacy editing. It intrigues, entertains and occasionally shocks. I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Masterchef" ~ from 16.2.2008

The Mem and I have always enjoyed watching Masterchef from it's original incarnation with Loyd Grossman to its current four nights a week with John Torode and his sidekick Gregg Wallace - who seems to have morphed from a vegetable guru to an ingedients expert. Anyway, we find the gastro-porn laced with tough competition and human interest compelling and relaxing with a gin and tonic of an evening. Other than the fact that the current 8.30 slot is less convenient than 6.30, a few things strike one about the current format:

  • It's a shame that every programme starts with clips of several contestants inadvisably asserting that they have come to win the whole competition and that it will change their lives. Few seem to realise how demanding the job would be. Many should be afraid of achieving what they say they wish.
  • Sometimes when the verdict between contestants is close, it is possible to predict who will win and live to fight another day. Basically, the contestant who is good TV seems more likely to survive - there is an advantage in being telegenic - cute, attractive or appealingly quirky. We usually win our imaginary bets between ourselves on the outcome
  • It seems sad that a contestant who has survived the tough first round can be sent home after the ingredients and passion test in the quarter final without even cooking
  • the passion test itself now looks a little unconvincing, tired and formulaic - it needs a revamp
  • the endurance test seems a little over the top. It's not too entertaining to see amateurs struggle over breakfast service which they could probably master with reasonable practice and then decide they don't really want to spend their lives being a short order cook - it doesn't seem to represent what contestants aspire to. The dinner service of their own creations is a more useful indicator of potential excellence and makes more interesting viewing - it can also test stamina sufficiently.
  • more contestants now seem canny enough to play to the judge's admitted tastes and personalities -from a love of certain puddings and cuisines to the promotion of the underdog. Viewers can detect what may not be entirely genuine and it detracts from the programme

Despite these few issues, Masterchef is still compulsive viewing for foodies. The next series might be even better if these points were addressed. Bon appetit!

Postscript 29~2~2008  : the 2008 series ended last night with James a worthy winner. What a talented group of finalists and what daunting tasks they overcame in the final. With their exceptional but different talents Jonny, Emily or James might have won. It's difficult to imagine how they managed to hold their nerve to cook such a complex dinner for that table of Michelin-starred chefs at the Dorchester, let alone to recreate those signature dishes for the likes of Pierre Gagnaire in France. The latter stages of the series were fascinating. It couldn't get much better than this next year - or could it?

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Parade : A New Musical" ~ from 27.10.2007

This review is taken from my reviewblog or 27 October 2007
We celebrated my recent birthday with tickets for Parade at the intimate Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. Although Parade is still subtitled A New Musical it’s now nine years since its Broadway premiere in 1998 when, despite winning Tony’s for best original score and best book, it ran for only 84 performances at the Lincoln Centre.

Set in Georgia in the Deepest South, the musical concerns the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen year old white girl in the Marietta pencil factory where she worked on Confederate Memorial Day in 1913 and the trial of her college-educated, Brooklyn-born Jewish supervisor Leo Frank. He was convicted on the basis of largely trumped-up evidence following a hysterical political, religious and press witch-hunt.

Parade addresses a life and death story-line with other issues: there is a not-very-sub-subtext of the ongoing bitterness of the South fifty years after the Civil War, Northern economic exploitation, anti-Semitism, philistinism and the repression of blacks and women - Mame, clearly it ‘aint.

Interestingly, the book writer Alfred Uhry -who won a Pulitzer Prize for his first play, Driving Miss Daisy - had a direct connection to this true story in that the pencil factory was owned by his mother’s uncle.

The show’s composer Jason Robert Brown has put together a powerful score exploring a range of musical Americana including gospel, ragtime, hymns, country and a chain-gang blues. This is partly in the manner of Sondheim’s dipping into the American songbook in Assassins. There is also some undisguised use of items from the musical writer’s now standard repertoire that I imagine is taught to promising author/composers at universities nowadays.

Christopher Oram’s monochrome set serves the production well providing a blank canvass for the factory, courtroom and governor’s mansion with a balcony even serving as the river bank. All is overseen by a sepia backcloth of haunting faces bearing witness. The stage is smokily lit and manages to evoke the steamy South.

Lately I have increasingly appreciated how much the choreographer can create not only atmosphere but accelerate the drama- as Xavier de Frutos did in Cabaret.

Rob Ashford directs and cleverly choreographs Parade and creates several scenes summing up the atmosphere and ethos of the time such as Memorial Day in Marietta, drama at the court house and bitter scenes at Mary’s funeral.

My strongest memory of the entire production is Leo and Lucille clinging pitifully together after the guilty verdict is announced whilst the mob circle around wildly stamping out their merciless animalistic celebration in a cakewalk of hatred. It conveyed a vicious and bigoted triumphalism many times worse than the coarsest football crowd and made my flesh crawl.

As well as superb ensemble work, Parade is illuminated by brilliant individual performances. I would single out newcomer Stuart Matthew Price trebling up as the young soldier who opens the proceedings, a guard and Frankie Epps who embodies youthful Georgian lust for vengeance. Also Jayne Fisher doubles as the young victim Mary Phagan and the porcelain-complexioned southern belle Lila haunting in a white dress and parasol representing the lost and vanquished South.

Shaun Escoffery is consistently excellent as Newt Lee, Riley and Jim Conley, the perjuring witness and possible actual murderer: his acting and singing are of the highest standard. Similarly, Mark Bonnar and Gary Milner are faultless as the ambitious prosecutor and governor.

Necessarily, the drama relies most upon its central characters Leo Franks and his wife Lucille. As Leo, Bertie Carvel constructs a complex and ultimately convincing character. He begins as an un-likable uptight pedant, finicky and cold: all ticks and twitches with the manner and voice of an autistic Woody Allen. One gets the impression that the small town rednecks disliked him as much for his college education and lack of down-home clubability as for being Jewish.

With continuous anxiety and adversity, he mellows and we see a more human and vulnerable side. He achieves this by a combination of meticulous acting and impeccable delivery of well-constructed, tour de force numbers such as It’s Hard to Speak my Heart.

Lara Pulver conveys the development of Lucille Franks from housewife to doughty campaigner entirely convincingly. Seemingly against the whole world her unconditional loyalty and commitment-as reflected in Do It Alone- ultimately help win over the governor.

Leo’s belated recognition and appreciation of his wife’s devotion and achievement are touching. Their journey alone and ultimately together is perfectly reflected in their glorious duets This is Not Over Yet and All the Wasted Time.

We were settling back into our seats after the interval and chatting to our neighbours about the performance. All agreed it had been powerful and absorbing theatre but the question arose as to whether the story could have been better addressed in a play.

It is undeniable that the musical necessarily simplifies events – such as omitting reference to the powerful groundswell of support for Leo Franks from the more liberal North. Also the format imposes requirements of scene setting, establishment and development of characters and storyline, plus musical and thematic light and shade that the seasoned viewer can see coming. The same applies to an approach to songs based on an intention to cast its net widely across indigenous American song from hymn and march to the blues.

The gloriously catchy and uplifting opening and closing The Old Red Hills of Home is a good example of the problems this creates. The song speaks of the land where honor lives and breathes and glorifies the Old South. Oversimplified though it may be, the point of Parade is that what the South has endured by way of defeat, humiliation and economic exploitation magnified its bitterness, bigotry and philistinism to an extent that it could be easily manipulated by political, religious or press shysters to do truly terrible things - as witness the cruel fate of Leo Franks.

To end the show with a reprise of this tired hymn to the red hills – perhaps red with blood of the different or the outsider- is ironic and leaves one feeling frustrated and depressed that, yet again, the bad guys have won.

These painful issues do not lend themselves particularly easily to the musical. On the other hand, there are moments when the story takes flight. These include Leo Franks witty exposition of the point of view of a Brooklyn Jew in Georgia in How Can I Call This Home and Lucille’s loving defence of her husband in both You Don’t know this Man and Do It Alone. Emotion is heightened and the drama is intensified and expedited by tour de force duets such as This is Not Over Yet and set piece numbers involving most of the cast such as That’s What He Said.

Occasionally references to musicals past grate a little such as when Mrs Phagan’s heartbreaking song of loss at her daughter’s funeral concludes with the shocking And so I forgive you….Jew. The anti-semitism is validly presented but the shock value dissipated somewhat by the use of the same device at the end of If you could see her in Cabaret.

On the whole however I felt that the combination of well-crafted lyrics, diversity of music and dramatic effects meant that the musical form brought much more to this story than a straight play could have done. Despite the contraints and occasional crassness of the musical format, this production includes touching moments of real beauty; it also manages to move, appal, outrage and depress. Above all, it involves its audience.

As a story of bigotry and scapegoating the outsider Parade is relevant; in the light of the McCann case, its depiction of the influence and power-for-ill of the popular press is also timely

The poster for Parade quotes the Sunday Telegraph review “This production ranks as one of the Donmar’s best”. I don’t think Parade is the quite best musical ever staged at the Donmar, but given how it engages its audience it must rank as one of its best productions.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review : Colonel Moseley reviews "Follies in Concert"

This was written in February 2007 and is taken from my reviewblog


There’s no denying it, the first two months of the year are grim. No amount of reality television or celebrity ice skating can lift the post-Christmas gloom. I was thinking that the Mem and I needed a lift when I spotted the advert for Follies in Concert at the London Palladium on Sunday 4th. February; it was to be one evening performance and would benefit the very worthwhile Starlight Children's Foundation and Kingston Hospital Cancer Unit Appeal.

The Mem and I admire Stephen Sondheim’s work and love Follies most. It depicts a reunion of several decades’ of performers from Weismann’s Follies on the stage of his theatre, just before its demolition.

The show has everything: humour, success, failure, delusion, love and regret…the lot. Its songs reflect the history of musical theatre from Lehar to Rogers and from burlesque to torch song. It addresses time passing, the reality and illusion of past and present, sanity, disappointment and the way we mislead others and ourselves. It epitomises the term bittersweet.

We have seen the show several times: a glitzy all-star version at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, Paul Kerryson’s absorbingly understandable interpretation at Leicester’s Haymarket and a truly authentic production in the run–down Belasco Theatre on Broadway.

We have the CD of most Sondheim productions, but our favourite remains the gala production of Follies in Concert at the Lincoln Centre in New York starring the legendary Barbara Cook and the divine Lee Remick. The concert featured some truly marvellous moments, including Elaine Stritch bringing down the house with the definitive performance of Broadway Baby.

Our seats at the Palladium were in the third row centre of the royal circle with an excellent view of the stage. The audience was a mixture of those that attend glitzy charity galas, friends of the musical – and many of Dorothy – and Sondheim aficionados (which other, more worldly, bloggers call anoraks). Whatever their origins, they made an appreciative audience that helped the evening go with a swing.

The staging was simple and effective. A runway crossed the back of the set, leading down one side to stage centre with a flight of ten or so red-carpeted steps. To the rear was the orchestra with a clear performance area at stage-front. Another runway went into the audience around the edge of the empty orchestra pit.

During the overture, the cast sauntered into the reunion, meeting and greeting and forming excited little groups.Trevor McDonald set the scene authoritatively as the radio announcer and Patrick Mower took control as a larger than life –and dare-one-say, a tad hammy – Dimitri Weismann. He soon called on Roscoe to welcome the Weismann Girls in his inimitable manner. Bonaventura Bottone set the standard for the evening’s singing with a crystal clear rendition of Beautiful Girls.

To my delight the audience responded by loudly applauding each of the former follies girls as they processed down the stairs to centre stage, reaching a glorious climax involving the entire company.

Once the cast was assembled, relationships were revisited and old illusions explored, particularly as between the four principals: Buddy, Ben, Phyllis and Sally.

Maria Friedman was a plausible Sally Durant Plummer, gauche and provincial and still manifesting the thwarted passion of decades before. As Benjamin Stone, Philip Quast was credible as materially successful but ultimately exploitative and shallow. Liz Robertson was a cool and sarcastic Phyllis. Tim Flavin's Buddy was a convincingly seedy salesman seeking comfort in the arms of his mistress.

Sally and Ben’s first duet Don’t Look at Me was crisp and lucid and set the scene perfectly. The same applies for the Waiting for the Girls Upstairs involving the principal quartet and their younger selves, excellently played by Neil McDermott, Adam-Jon Fiorentino, Summer Strallen and Rachel Barrell.This first half was given even greater impetus by the montage of follies songs performed by “old girls.

Wendi Peters and Richard Calkin got this segment on the road as the Whitmans with a spirited version of Rain on the Roof, including a very accomplished soft shoe shuffle. It evoked Comden and Green’s classic version at Lincoln Centre, but was better phrased – which is high praise.

This was followed by a saucy Ah, Paris! by the ageless, indomitable - and scene stealing - Liliane Montevecchi, reprising her Solange. It was sassy, camp and a huge success with the audience, which was by now fully warmed-up.

Then came Broadway Baby – to this show what the soliloquy is to Hamlet. Imelda Staunton, in a fetching new-wave, mid-calf gown, carried a great burden of anticipation, not least because La Stritch herself had been advertised initially to appear in this production, albeit as Carlotta rather than Hattie.

Given Miss Staunton’s talent, no-one had cause to worry. She carried it off with aplomb. Her version wasn’t all pauses and deadpan a la Stritch, but a feisty driving number more suited to a pocket battleship. It roared to a climax that merged with the reprises from the two other songs.

I always think this is a shame since Hattie loses the opportunity to bask alone in the glory of a really great moment of musical theatre. I guess there’s a moral in that somewhere…even if I’m not sure exactly where.

After the wham-bam of the montage comes a more reflective section with a stunning The Road You Didn’t Take from Ben. Philip Quast’s precise diction and tasteful phrasing gave the lyric even greater clarity and relevance. The flooding orchestration always reminds me of Debussy at his most lyrical. Here, I commend the orchestra and particularly its woodwind section.

There followed a touching and real In Buddy’s Eyes from Maria Friedman. The aching void of Sally’s suburban existence was painted as vividly as the flowers in her garden. I loved Maria's interpretation of the song; it moved me as much as Barbara Cook's.

The contrast of light and shade continued with a show-stopping Who’s that Woman (the Mirror Song) led with drive by Meg Johnson as Stella Deems. The line of mature hoofers was joined by most of the company and danced and sang their hearts out to a joyous, if exhausted, climax and tumultuous applause. Who said you could never remember the tunes in Sondheim shows?

The first half ended with a tour de force I’m Still Here from Kim Criswell as Carlotta Campion. I remember years ago sitting in the front row of the Shaftesbury listening in awe as Dolores Grey triumphantly sold this number, sitting nonchalantly on a bar stool following a leg injury.

On this evening Kim Crisswell was more mobile and built the number to a massive crescendo and thoroughly deserved the huge ovation that followed.

Act II began with the exotic Bolero D’Amore superbly performed by Paul Killick and Alison Epsom. The Mem still speaks fondly and distractedly of his shirtless paso from Strictly Come Dancing.

They were joined by Angela Rippon with dress slashed to the thigh. She danced very expressively in Mr Killick’s safe and expert hands and her marvellous legs went on as far as they did in that Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show all those years ago.

Ben and Sally’s Too Many Mornings was, for me, the highlight of the concert. The song is complex and seems part conversational and part thought process. Here Maria Friedman and Philip Quast seemed to have a telepathic synchronicity which gave the duet a real pace and fluidity, as though it was one voice. This allowed the emotion to flow with a rapture that captured the fleeting magic of transitory passionate love. This quality is difficult to set to music and sing - or even describe.

Buddy’s opportunity to describe and justify his attitudes and behaviour came with The Right Girl. Tim Flavin attacked the song with the requisite American macho drive. This rollicking exposition of men’s needs was counterbalanced with a delicate duet, One More Kiss between Heidi Schiller and her young self, which evoked the fragility of old age and vigour of youth. The older soprano looks on as the ravishing voice of her twenties soars exquisitely; she is proud yet wistfully concludes “never look back”. This was a touching and apt duet, beautifully performed by Josephine Barstow and Charlotte Page.

The bittersweet of One More Kiss was followed by the bitterness of Could I Leave You?  in which Phyllis, tired of Ben’s philandering, explains a few home truths. She adroitly outlines the futility of their existence together and ultimately leaves him hanging as to whether she will or will not take him for every cent he has - in the American way of divorce.

Liz Robertson handles a very convoluted and very Sondheim lyric masterfully: her breath control and phrasing were superb.

The final Follies section of the show follows the high camp Loveland sequence. The young Ben, Phyllis, Buddy and Sally scampered through You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow and Love will see Us Through. Their singing, acting and movement were of a high order.

Similarly, Tim Flavin attacked The God-Why-Don’t-You- Love-Me Blues with élan, ably assisted by Emma Cannon as Margie and Charlie Bull as Sally. The combination of verbal gymnastics and hoofing, making full use of the runway at the front of the stage, worked well.

The ribaldry of Buddy’s Folly was followed immediately by the quiet madness of Sally’s. Maria Friedman walked demurely to the top of the staircase and sang what is perhaps the ultimate torch song Losing My Mind with aching poignancy. The number was moodily staged and lit and created a lasting memory.

Piling one contrast after another, Phyllis’s Folly took the form of an upbeat vaudeville number telling the Story of Lucy and Jessie with male dancers. Liz Robertson managed yet more tongue twisting lyrics in breathlessly long phrases admirably and the audience roared.

The Follies concluded with Ben’s Live Laugh and Love. Again, Philip Quast mastered a difficult lyric with some high kicking and suffered the mental breakdown that brings the proceedings to a close.

Ben, Phyllis, Buddy and Sally return home with their spouses crushed and numbed by the experience of being confronted with their past and the cold reality of the present: it wasn’t pretty.

At the end of the show the audience gave the cast a deserved standing ovation. The quality of singing, acting and dance was consistently high and the story-line was clearly presented. With relatively little rehearsal, the performers had been able to provide a thrilling evening.

I always think Follies is like the best work of Dennis Potter such as Pennies from Heaven or The Singing Detective. Memories are powerfully evoked by songs or what Noel Coward called cheap music. Such songs can often help us block-out or distort what actually went on.

Paradoxically, they can also trigger memories which help us recollect or work out the past.The truth about the past isn’t always pleasant, particularly when the sugar-coating is removed, but it’s still the truth and that’s what we are ultimately searching for. Quite often the discovery is painful or traumatic. We are left dazed and have to lick our wounds and work out how to deal with tomorrow – just like Ben, Phyllis, Buddy and Sally at the end of Follies.

Follies deals with some big issues and yet still moves and entertains; that’s why it is my favourite musical.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews Merry Wives: the Musical ... and reviews the reviews

From my reviewblog, written in 2006....
Unlike some politicians, before proceeding further, I feel I should declare a personal interest. In common with a good proportion of the British public, I am devoted to Dame Judi Dench. She has been my favourite actress ever since I first saw her Portia in The Merchant of Venice at Stratford in the early 1970's.

Apart from the intelligence and insight of her characterisation, she has a beautiful voice. Listening to her speak, sing or even laugh is pleasurable.

Over the years I have enjoyed her in musicals starting with Sally Bowles in Cabaret and latterly Desiree in A Little Night Music and in plays ranging from Absolute Hell to her comedy master class in Hay Fever. In every one Dame Judi illuminated the stage and wove a special magic.

You can imagine that I was pleased to obtain tickets for Greg Doran’s production of Merry Wives: The Musical shortly after its opening in the main house at Stratford before Christmas.

Visiting the RSC is interesting nowadays. The crowded foyer reminded me of Lourdes. I don’t think I have ever seen such an assembly of the elderly - not that I can talk! Perhaps they anticipated that sight of the blessed Dame during Advent would have miraculous properties.

I hear that in Leeds many a pensioner has been able to dismantle the stair-lift after seeing Carol Vorderman during Lent; nowadays such is the true power of celebrity.

The few below retirement age seemed to be made up of teachers and social workers: the look was unsmiling and the mot du jour, earnest.

Merry Wives: the Musical is such a huge undertaking that it’s difficult to know quite where to begin. One’s view of the success of the production depends entirely on the marriage of a quirky and complex comedy with the musical form.

The brilliant Greg Doran adapted the play and made judicious decisions on cutting sundry sub plots. He also magnified the role of Mistress Quickly. This simplification and lightening works well without amounting to dumbing down.

I also had no problem with the musical format. The transitions to song and dance are never unduly strained or silly.

From the outset it is plain that the composer Paul Englishby has painted from an enormous palette and produces an eclectic score. Depending on one’s stance, this could be regarded as pastiche, homage or simple referencing of styles which ranged from Lloyd Webber to Weill and from hoe-down to madrigal.

I liked the hoe-down number where pots and pans are beaten with gusto, just as they were in the show-stopping I Got Rhythm in Crazy for You.

Cutting to the chase, the first of my two criticisms of the production relates to the score. Not enough of the tunes were sufficiently memorable or whistle-able to make this a great musical. They were adequate for a good entertainment but a musical can only take wings when the music transports.

My second concern is Ranjit Bolt’s lyrics, as exemplified by the wives' oft-quoted description of Falstaff: “He stinks of urine/And thinks he’s so alluring”. This wasn’t quite Sondheim and didn’t quite do it for me, even though I was willing to be amused.

The designer, Stephen Brimson Lewis delivers the goods across the board with Tudorbethan sets which were striking and upbeat. There is a lovely moment when Judi Dench halts upstage - destroying the fake perspective - and peers with bafflement at the model half-timbered houses. The audience roared.

There is also hilarity when Simon Callow as Falstaff takes a bath in his fat suit echoing Bubbles de Vere in Little Britain. Falstaff also gets to lark around in hampers and get covered in soot from the chimney. It’s pantomime with tongue firmly in cheek and better for it.

The range of costumes is also appealing. I particularly liked the chic 1590’s meets 1950’s ensembles of the wives and the contemporary references in the costumes for Bardolph, Nym and Pistol who resembled Russ Abbott’s Scots Wee Jimmy, Kenny Everett’s eternal punk , Sid Snot and a black-clad Russell Brand.

These adroitly played caricatures were fun. They each owed something to the tradition of topical references in panto – but why not?

As one would expect from the RSC, the show featured numerous excellent individual performances. Simon Trinder was outstanding as the gormless love-struck Slender and must go on to even greater things. Paul Chahidi and Ian Hughes were extremely funny as Dr Caius and Sir Hugh Evans with marvellous accents and physical business: ‘Allo ‘Allo meets Hi de Hi.

With hats and handbags to the fore, Haydn Gwynne and Alexandra Gilbreath were convincingly pert as the elegant and comely wives, whilst Alistair McGowan handled his comic scenes as the jealous husband coherently and well.

Like many, I had been looking forward to Desmond Barrit’s Falstaff. I shall never forget his Malvolio at the RSC which managed heartrending pathos and hilarity in quick succession. He held the audience in the palm of his hand with some Charles Laughton and a touch of Ken Dodd.

I understand that Simon Callow bravely took on the role of Falstaff relatively late-on. He delivered the part with great authority and presence and handled the knockabout expertly.

Some difficult songs were delivered with aplomb. His bluff and blustering Falstaff had gravitas and was presented con brio. His performance was that of a very good actor at work but lacked genuine pathos. Even in his ultimate humiliation the audience was never really forced to care.

As ever, Judi Dench was a delight. Her slatternly Mistress Quickly, all red hair and racy past, was saucy and touching in equal measure.

For me the highlight of the show was her poignant rendition of Honeysuckle Villain when considering whether to reignite old flames with Falstaff. Her tavern-smoked voice conveyed all the world-weariness and regret of a lifetime. It was moving, wistful and so utterly convincing that one was brought back to earth with a bump when she then waltzed off arm-in-arm with young Pistol instead.

Dame Judi also astonished during another number by appearing to execute several very athletic somersaults across the stage. At the critical moment, however, the acrobat’s wig slipped, somewhat spoiling the illusion. Dame Judi saved the gag and brought the house down by “returning” to the stage adjusting her own wig: what a pro!

My other favourite comic moment - which says much of my sense of humour - is during the fairy sequence when a small child with a pumpkin on his head walked into the set.

On reading some of the reviews, I did wonder if I had seen the same production. Several critics were scathing about the quality of singing. Perhaps on press night nerves took hold, but a day or so later the singing was solid; Alistair McGowan did not “shout” nor was Simon Callow out of tune.

To call it “laugh free” was just plain wrong. Several critics also found the simplified characters and range of styles and references difficult. They appeared embarrassed by the energetic jollity and hectic frivolity of the production. Basically, they need to lighten up and be more prepared to be entertained. It certainly wasn’t Les Mis but then it didn’t set out to be.

So what was my conclusion about Merry Wives: the Musical? It was a happy pre-Christmas evening. In my view Shakespeare’s plays, especially the comedies, deserve to be treated with respect but not reverence. In putting this piece together, Greg Doran certainly showed respect. The cutting was judicious, sets and costumes witty and the individual and ensemble performances of a high order. As ever, Dame Judi Dench was a joy.

Many of the diverse range of songs, however, were not sufficiently memorable and a more comic, less “actory” Falstaff might have lifted the show to greater heights. All in all Merry Wives: the Entertainment might have been more apt.

Written in December 2006

Merry Wives: The Musical, RSC Stratford until 10th February 2007

*this review also appeared in Birmingham 13

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review : Colonel Moseley on "CABARET" from 27.10.2007

This old review is taken from my Reviewblog in 2007....

The Mem and I visited London again to celebrate my birthday and decided on an evening at the theatre. Several musicals were due to premier in the autumn including Spamalot and Wicked over from Broadway, but my decision was made for me when I saw a new production of Cabaret was previewing at the Lyric.

I worried whether to write about a preview, but decided it was fair since I’m not a professional reviewer and, in any event, my comments are very positive and should not deter paying customers.

Many musicals are only right for their time and do not age well. Cabaret manages to be much more. Like a good drama, it addresses important issues and can be dusted off and revived with a new interpretation which casts further light on our past.

Cabaret is capable of different forms of presentation; it must be set in Weimar Germany in 1931, but much else is left up for grabs. The world that is the Kit Kat Club, Berlin and its inhabitants is hugely variable; it accomodates the shabby, chic, straight, gay, vaudevillian, addict, aspirant, failure and any number of lost souls.

My chief image of Cabaret is the 1972 film with Liza Minnelli in black tights and bowler, astride a cane chair in the style of Bob Fosse. As well as this American jazz-hands classic, I recall Judi Dench in 1968, an English coquette with full orchestra in a tuneful show biz version.

There followed Sam Mendes' milestone pared-down Cabaret at the Donmar in 1993 with a mannered Alan Cummings and Jane Horrocks and a memorable Sara Kestelman.

Following his direction of Festen and Market Boy, I was intrigued as to what Rufus Norris would do with Cabaret and did not anticipate a spangly Shaftsbury Avenue extravaganza.

With high expectations, we took our seats for a 7.45 start on a warm evening. By eight the audience was growing a little restless and, sure enough, a stage manager appeared to apologise for the delay.

Ten minutes later Rufus Norris himself ambled on and explained something had been spilled on the stage and was having to be carefully cleaned off to ensure it was safe for the dancers. He shuffled off with a backwards glance and shrug reminiscent of Julie Andrews misbehaving at the end of the Charlot chorus line in Star - to a tumult of good-natured applause.

The Mem commented that she hoped Sir Cliff was not in the audience tonight; the delay was tolerable but a forty minute Wimbledon-rain-delay-medley of Summer Holiday and Livin' Doll would have been too much to bear.

The performance soon began and it was clear that the show had moved on. The set was dark and sparse, featuring grey and black angular wood and lettering that more than hinted of the concentration camp.

Six basic bed frames were moved and used imaginatively in different contexts, as were vertical ladders sliding across the stage. Sets were simple leaving one to create the railway station, Kit Kat Club and boarding house in Berlin in the imagination.

At the rear of the stage was the band, dressed as raffishly as the dancers: their brassy sound of the jazz age was brash and authentic, but not lush.

James Dreyfus as the Emcee began the show wearing clown’s white make-up on the lower half of his face, incorporating a topical reference to the evening’s delay. He sang well and held the show together with a lugubrious, malign presence.

His numbers, including Two Ladies and The Money Song, were crisp and clever with no comic opportunities missed.  Dreyfus maximised a heavy-handed, Germanic humour, mirroring what was developing on the streets. One could find no shred of warmth or decency in the Emcee, culminating in the spiteful anti-semitic ending of If you could See Her. This Emcee made the part his own and was no pale imitation either Joel Grey or Alan Cummings.

Like many in the audience, I was fascinated to see what Anna Maxwell Martin would bring to Sally Bowles. She turned out to be a blonde waif from the London suburbs, a charmingly frivolous hedonist interested only in the moment and ignoring the world.

Anna’s Sally with Marcel-waived hair and slinky clothes of the Weimar inhabited the loucher side of decadent. Her novice nun suspended from an inverted bed during Don’t Tell Mama was deliciously naughty.

After Wilcommen this was the first number featuring dancers choreographed by Javier de Frutos, the London-based Venezuelan, recently-appointed director of the Pheonix Dance Theatre.

Without a bowler or jazz hand in sight, de Frutos has put together an ensemble that embodies the dark eroticism, excess and hedonism of Weimar Berlin, full of sexual ambiguity and abandon. The look is a mixture of sado-masochism, fur, leather and skin; it is drug-fuelled and desolate. The feel is of the kind of spiritual void depicted more genteelly in Ackland’s Absolute Hell - although Trainspotting might be a closer fit. Whatever the influences, the dancing is raunchy, stylish and striking with groupings and glassy-eyed poses straight from the paintings of George Grosz.

Sex and drugs are more than hinted at in this Kit Kat Club. There is some light- hearted nudity with a capering sailor at Fraulein Schneider’s guesthouse and at the Kit Kat, none of it gratuitous. It might be argued that a divinely decadent Mein Herr is a paean in praise of cocaine, rather than a departing lover.

One of the revelations of this production is Sheila Hancock as Fraulein Schneider. I have always thought that performance of Sara Kestelman in the role at the Donmar could not be equalled, but here Sheila Hancock produces a multi-layered characterisation: she is sharp, funny, bitter, hopeful, vulnerable, pragmatic and ultimately resigned.

In addition to subtle and sensitive acting, she sings beautifully.  Her Fraulein Schneider is complimented by a wholly convincing Herr Schultz by Geoffrey Hutchings. Herr Schultz does not have the comedic scope given to Peter Sallis in the Harold Prince version with a novelty number such as Meeskite. This would have been off-message in the more oppressive atmosphere of this production, but Geoffrey Hutchings still succeeds in giving a memorable performance and he and Sheila Hancock combine perfectly.

Michael Hayden carries off the difficult central role of Clifford Bradshaw capably, but does not have the benefit of a beautiful showstopper like Why should I wake up given to Kevin Colson in the 1968 production.

Cliff’s bi-sexuality is reflected more graphically in this production than others and his somewhat implausible relationship with Sally is presented as convincingly as possible.

This brings us back to Sally. In the first half, Anna Maxwell Martin carries off the production numbers with aplomb. After Don’t tell Mama and Mein Herr, her duet with Cliff in Perfectly Marvellous lived up to its name.

Maybe my hopes for Maybe This Time were too high or too much based on previous interpretations, but it was the only song of the evening that I found did not quite exceed my expectations. It was well-sung but delivered in a controlled and almost contemplative, very English, way that was almost too reserved to go on to develop into the torch-singing belter that one might expect from Ms Minnelli - or her mother. Maybe this English Sally actually knew, deep down, that she wasn't going to win and wasn't going to make too much fuss about it.

For me, Sally had two truly magical moments in the second half. First, when she greeted Cliff after having the abortion and stood, arms clutched around herself, utterly lost and the epitome of vulnerability and desolation and secondly, her performance of Cabaret. This is a song to which I have never really related: rhyming “Elsie” with “Chelsea”, it was a little too vaudeville to be moving. Anna Maxwell Martin however overcame this and imbued the song with a mindless defiance that made sense in Sally’s own limited world. It was very special and made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

At the finale Cliff’s words echo about a cabaret in a city called Berlin and dancing with Sally Bowles… “and we were both fast asleep”. The refrains of the principal characters resonate ironically as they cross the stage. Then the Emcee and dancers undress and retire in a line facing the back of the stage. They form a grim tableau, pale and shadowy, predicting the inmates of the camps so soon to be herded naked and dehumanised into gas chambers.

That chilling moment embodies the message of Cabaret and explains why it is more than just another musical: we should not ignore or waive responsibility for what is going on in the world and, if we do, a terrible price may be paid - from Dachau to Darfur. So I recommend Cabaret; it’s pretty well all that a musical can hope to be.



"Cabaret" at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1

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Sunday, July 01, 2012

Pet Tales : Walter, racing pigeon



         To enlarge article, please just click on it,

It took me three days to notice him. Each morning in the livery yard, as I mucked out my horse’s stable, a pigeon stood outside, pecking at the ground and quizzically tilting his head to one side with a fixed gaze. He took particular interest when I was preparing feeds. Eventually I got the message and threw him a handful of tiger oats. He ate voraciously, methodically picking up every last grain.  

His visits for tiger oats turned into a daily routine and he roosted each night in the eaves of the barn nearby. As a long-term visitor, I felt he should have a name. He had a ring on his leg marked “GB 12 A” and five digits. Though I was tempted to steal Noel Coward’s line to T.E.Lawrence and call him “GB12A,” I chose “Walter” instead.

Each morning and evening, Walter would keep me company, exploring the stable and standing in feed bowls eating any leftovers. He particularly liked to stand underneath my sixteen hands cob, enjoying his companionship, but was never trodden-on.


My fellow liveries liked him, although there was the odd complaint about droppings in water buckets or on newly-cleaned tack. Any inconvenience caused by his presence did not however exactly amount to a reign of terror.

After checking with the website http://www.homingpigeons.co.uk/straypigeons.htm I realised that Walter’s ring prefix meant that he was registered with the Royal Racing Pigeon Association and that, much as I enjoyed having him around, he should be captured and returned to his rightful owner. I was also concerned that I was about to go away on holiday and couldn’t help but notice that several dogs on the yard were regularly stalking their new neighbour who needed to keep his wits about him to avoid their attention.

It proved straightforward to capture Walter using a trail of his favourite tiger oats and an old bird cage. A local animal sanctuary kindly agreed to take care of him until he was reunited with his owner and I put his cage on the front seat of my car to take him there. During the journey Walter alternated between grooming himself and taking an intelligent interest in the Warwickshire countryside and the road ahead.

I was sad to part with Walter, but knew it was the right thing to do. Shortly after, I learned that he had been returned to his owner in Walsall and had resumed his racing career. Each time I see a pigeon overhead I still can’t help but wonder if Walter has come back to visit.

LIKES: tiger oats, exploring stables and socialising with cobs

DISLIKES: being stalked by dogs

FINEST HOUR: standing in feed bowls and stealing the contents

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