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Monday, 28 June 2010

Theatre - Sucker Punch - Royal Court Theatre


Star rating – 8/10

The Royal Court is radically transformed into a 1980’s boxing ring in this play by Roy Williams. And the set design by Miriam Buether really works. You really do feel that you are in a ring side seat for all the action.

This is the story of two young black boys who fall into boxing by accident, and end up taking very different routes to success. But their success is bitter sweet. One, Leon, ends up the product of a racist trainer, derided by the local black community, and even his own family, for being an Uncle Tom. The other, Troy, is a similar pawn in the game, this time with a black American trainer, but equally powerless to decide his own future.

Under the direction of Sacha Wares the thrilling fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed, with not an actual punch being thrown but the resulting sweat drenched violence feeling no less real for that. Daniel Kaluuya stands out as an exceptional young talent in the part of Leon, his arrogant bravado and confidence mixed with naivety and loneliness.

The biggest laugh of the night came when Troy’s trainer, Ray, tells Leon to take his whooping like a man ‘You British should be used to that’. That line stung after the England team’s fiasco of a performance only the night before. But Sucker Punch is no laughing matter. It is a powerful play with a depressing message about the way all sections of society can abuse the dreams of young black people, and lure them with the promise of riches, only to dash those dreams in the process. Very well acted all round with many young cast members more than holding their own in this particular ring.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Theatre - Charley's Aunt - Royal Exchange


Star rating – 9/10

This hilarious production, directed by Braham Murray, of the ever popular farce, Charley’s Aunt, at the Royal Exchange is the funniest thing I have seen at the theatre all year. I recall a very funny version I saw as a twelve year old in 1976 at the Young Vic with Nicky Henson as the impostor aunt on that occasion, so this new adaptation had a lot to live up to for me. And I am pleased to report that it delivers in spades.

The basic plot line of Brandon Thomas’s play, successfully delighting audiences since its first performance in 1892, is that Oxford undergraduates Charley Wykeham and Jack Chesney are in love respectively with Amy and Kitty, but according to the social niceties of the time, cannot arrange to meet them to declare their undying affection before they leave for a family holiday in Scotland the next day without a female chaperone. So when Charley’s long lost aunt telegrams to say she is arriving from Brazil to meet her nephew for the first time, they think that their luck is in, and promptly arrange a lunch to which the girls are invited, and only too happy to accept.

But the course of true love or farce never runs smooth, and so when the aunt is delayed on business for a few days, the young men trick their friend, Lord Fancourt Babberley, into dressing up as the aunt to make sure that the rendezvous can still take place. And then of course, the real aunt duly arrives to add to the mix.

The whole cast are excellent, but Oliver Gomm is absolutely superb as Lord Fancourt Babberley when disguised as the aunt. He is side splittingly funny from start to finish, and has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. The piano playing scene was my particular favourite. I wish I could bottle up this mirth for when I am feeling a bit down. This is a comedy triumph for the Royal Exchange – and an excellent way to end was has been a truly exceptional season – thanks to one and all – and especially to the wonderful Mr. Gomm. Definitely a star in the making.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Film - Please Give - directed by Nicole Holofcener


Star rating – 7/10


This new offering from Nicole Holofcener centres around the guilt of New York liberals at being so comfortable, and their resulting need to ‘do good’. Catherine Keener plays Kate, who runs a successful vintage furniture store with her husband Alex. Most of their stock comes from buying up the contents of the homes of people who have died, mostly helping out families who want to get rid of the remnants of their loved ones with some haste.


Another such arrangement that Kate and Alex have come to is to buy the apartment next door to their own, and allow the elderly and somewhat cantankerous inhabitant, Andra, to live their until she dies, at which time the couple will knock through to create a fabulous master bedroom and a laundry room, something of a luxury in New York. This brings them into contact with Andra’s grand daughters, who come to make sure she is ok and to walk her dog for her. Rebecca Hall gives a great performance as the younger of the two, Rebecca, who takes her grand daughterly duties very seriously, and puts her own happiness on hold somewhat in the process. Her elder sister Mary is not so self sacrificing, preferring instead to make sure that her tan is regularly topped up, to entertaining Andra, who she honestly says is just not very nice.


Kate is racked with guilt at her good fortune in life, and cannot pass by a homeless person without giving them a $20 bill and a few kind words. This is ironic as her own life is not so perfect at it might seem, as husband Alex embarks on an affair with the sexy and, of course, beautifully tanned Mary; and teenage daughter Abby goes through the usual but horrendous hormonal moods swings and skin breakouts that accompany that age.


The film is pleasant enough. There are a few funny and touching moments, such as when Rebecca and Abby are walking their dogs one evening and musing on the uncoolness of carrying around dog poo. But it left me wondering what the message really was. Kate so wants to be charitable, but just ends up crying and being negative when faced with anyone with a disability or other circumstances that induce her pity. Rebecca is the most attractive of the characters, who finally sees what all the fuss is about when the leaves change colour with her new boyfriend. A pleasant enough film but I couldn’t help concluding that if there was less liberal angst and more appreciation of what they had in the first place, then all involved would be much happier without a whole lot of effort.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Theatre - After the Dance - National Theatre


Star rating – 8/10

This superb production by Thea Sharrock of a ‘lost’ Terence Rattigan play about the former bright young things between the wars is an absolute gem. The three acts start off with the aftermath of the previous night’s hard drinking in the Mayfair flat of Joan and David Scott-Fowler. David is a rich would be historian who it seems would rather drink himself into an early grave rather than face anything resembling reality. His wife Nancy, the life and soul of the party that is their lives, is happy to sit back and amusedly watch the seemingly innocent infatuation that Helen, the young girlfriend of David’s cousin and assistant Peter, has for her husband.

Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as David, anaesthetising his true emotions with copious quantities of whisky and soda. Nancy Carroll is magnificent as Joan, beautiful and strong on the surface, but vulnerable and fatally wounded by her husband’s infidelity. As the play unfolds, it becomes obvious that beneath the hedonistic party lifestyle there is a deep sadness in the main characters, indeed that David and Joan are deeply in love with each other. Neither is able to reveal this deep affection to the other, after twelve years of a perfectly friendly marriage. Repressed emotion is the order of the day all round.

Light relief is provided excellently by their corpulent houseguest John, as portrayed by Adrian Scarborough. He understands perfectly that is role is to provide constant amusement for David. I can even forgive him the very mean and scathing dismissal of the sooty city of Manchester, as he is so funny and charming, but ultimately wise to what is really going on in the lives of his hosts.

The character of Helen is bent on saving David from himself, and he falls for her somewhat annoying charms as the whole charade comes tumbling down around him. The party scenes are very effective, the costumes beautiful, as they evoke perfectly the style of the period. All in all this is a delight of a play - stylish, and funny yet hauntingly sad and totally evocative of the period. This excellent production is well worth your attention.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Theatre - Henry IV Part 1 - The Globe


Star rating – 9/10

I was not familiar with this Shakespearean historical play before tonight, and consequently did not appreciate just how funny it was going to be. This is a comic gem of a drama, combined with a bit of treason, treachery and a bloody good fight – now what more can a girl ask for?

Roger Allam as Falstaff, the bloated, cheating, lazy, lying side kick of the wayward Prince Henry, is outstandingly funny. For avid fans of ‘The Thick of It’ like yours truly, it was a treat to see him out of his role of Shadow Minister Peter Mannion. And he has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand as he leads the prince, played by Jamie Parker, to a life of debauchery, much to the annoyance of his father the King. This is not the hero of Agincourt, at least not until later in the play when Henry realises the error of his ways, returns the money he has helped to steal to its rightful owners, and generally got his act together as the heir to the throne.

This is a long play – three hours of laughter and high drama, including the interval. But the Globe audience were not weary by the end of the evening. In fact they were looking forward to the second instalment of the story when Part 2 is staged as part of this great Globe summer season. This is the third play I have seen here in a few weeks, and good as Henry VIII, and great as Macbeth were, Henry IV Part 1 triumphs over them both.

Full marks of course to the bard for the wonderful writing, to director Dominic Dromgoole for a superb production, but really the star of tonight’s show was the wonderful Roger Allam. Roll on Part 2...

Theatre - The Crucible - Open Air Theatre, Regents Park


Star rating – 8/10

If you have never been to the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park then I thoroughly recommend it as a highly enjoyable summer dramatic experience. Ok so you need a nice dry evening and not the usual British summer downpours, but luckily for me the rain stayed away. And the open air atmosphere amongst the trees and as the night drew in, was made for the staging of this classic by Arthur Miller.

The story of the Salem witch trials, doubling as it does for the MaCarthyite witch hunts of Communists in 1950s America, is shocking and a salutary lesson in the dangers of giving false testimony. Timothy Sheader used the girls of Salem, who hysterically denounce so many of their fellow women as witches, as a pervasive and powerful silent presence on the outskirts of the stage at all times during the play, like a modern day Greek chorus.

Patrick O’Kane is physically and dramatically impressive as the repentant adulterer John Proctor. And he pays a very high price for his sin, as his powerful and moving performance culminates in a torrent of rage against the authorities who are so judging him and his wife. The traditional costumes and stripped down set let the performances speak for them selves. The terrifying judge in chief Danforth is played very convincingly and menacingly by Oliver Ford Davies.

This is a totally absorbing and shocking play, acted out to great effective in this perfect environment for its claustrophobic and whipped up hysteria. Well worth the slight evening chill to experience such a treasure.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Theatre - The Importance of Being Earnest - Library Theatre


Star rating – 9/10

So it’s farewell to the Library Theatre after 50 years of entertaining the good folk of Manchester. And they have chosen to bow out with the same play that was the first one to be produced here, in this iconic building that is small but perfectly formed, in the basement of the splendid Central Reference Library.

And what a great choice of play, with every line of Oscar Wilde’s theatre classic rippling with comedy, irony and biting social satire. It is still something of a miracle to me that one man could write such a gem of a play, alongside the beautifully moving classic children’s tale ‘The Selfish Giant’, and such a stirring and disturbing novel as ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ from the same pen. What a dazzlingly clever man.

And Chris Honer’s production does full justice both to the occasion, and to the brilliant play. Russell Dixon is hilarious as the pantomime dame style Lady Bracknell, with so many classic lines it is difficult to pick out favourites. He chooses to down play the classic ‘hand bag’ line, which is my only nit pick of the night, but delivers all the rest to bring the house down. Her /his reaction to Earnest’s revelations about the nature of his being found at Victoria Station (on the Brighton line) are as funny as anything I have ever heard. One favourite of mine is: "I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” This typifies Wilde’s commentary on social class which is still as relevant today as when he wrote the play. Certainly the line about a Liberal-Unionist being the same as a Tory caused great audience mirth and took on a renewed significance in these coalition government times.

And Natalie Grady's determined and feisty heroine Gwendolen Fairfax is also worth special mention, hilarious as she reveals how much in love she has been with Earnest from just hearing his name. Meeting him in the flesh confirms her affection. The two hander between Gwendolen and the pretty young ward Cecily is a classic scene.

Even the more minor players deliver killer lines here, such as the interchange between the straight laced governess Miss Prism, and the slightly amorous and in demand, for baptism services anyway with so much name changing on the cards, vicar Rev Chasuble.

So it’s a sad farewell to the Library Theatre, at least in its current home. I have many, many fond memories of this little theatre, from countless magic of children’s’ pantomimes over the past twenty years, to the surreal experience of seeing the powerful Greek tragedy ‘Medea’ here on the same day as the 9/11 attacks. Hopefully the four years during which the company will have a peripatetic existence between The Lowry and various other venues, will pass quickly, and they will be safely and elegantly rehoused in the refurbished nearby Theatre Royal. For now it’s thanks for the memories, as they bow out in terrific and outrageous comic style. I think Wilde would have approved.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Theatre - Paradise Found - Mernier Chocolate Factory


Star rating – 2/10

This was my first ever visit to the Mernier Chocolate Factory, and despite the poor reviews, I was sure that this new musical could not be as bad as all that, bearing in mind the string of successful shows that the venue has churned out recently. But I’m afraid that sometimes poor reviews are entirely accurate, and this was just one such occasion.

The story, acting, singing, and whole concept were pants – to use a technical term. The only redeeming features were the vibrant sets, and the music of Strauss. But I cannot think of a more inappropriately used piece of music than to have The Blue Danube playing against the backdrop of a ridiculous brothel scene. I am not sure who can have thought that this production was a good idea. The bizarre concept of the Shah of Persia trying to rekindle his sex drive on a trip to Vienna at the turn of the last century is frankly ludicrous. And I won’t waste any more of my time on reviewing it – you have been warned.

Theatre - Young Vic - Sus


Star rating – 9/10

It’s election night in 1979, and two police officers, DS Karn and his junior, DC Wilby, are very excited at the prospect of a Thatcher landslide. This powerful, explosive study of racism in the police force by Barrie Keeffe was also written in 1979, along with his more famous, ‘The Long Good Friday’.

It is so difficult to watch I hesitate to call it entertainment. The action takes place over a single night in a sparse police interview room, as Karn and Wilby pick up a black guy, Delroy, under the notorious Stop and Search (Sus) law. This allowed the police to pick up anyone on suspicion that they might commit a crime, and was notoriously used against black people before it was repealed in 1981. Delroy is unaware that they suspect him of having murdered his wife, he doesn’t even know she is dead as he was too busy getting stoned and drunk in his local pub.

Karn and Wilby proceed to taunt and humiliate Delroy over an excruciating 80 minutes of tense and violent drama. The tiny space of the Clare Theatre at the Young Vic, where the audience are almost in the interview room with the actors, only heightens the sense of horror. The attitudes of the police are shocking, and as the realisation of what has happened hits Delroy, they only serve to taunt and mock him more.

The violence is so real it feels like Clint Dyer, who excels as Delroy, is really having the living daylights beaten out of him in an era long before CCTV and taped interviews. And Simon Armstrong is chillingly convincing as the bigoted racist Karn, who is not painted as a thick copper, but as an educated man who simply chooses to hate black people.

‘Sus’ is not easy watching by any means, but it is powerful, raw, and tragically, still as relevant now as it was in 1979, with our current prevailing attitudes towards terrorist suspects. Well worth catching for a thought provoking night out.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Books - Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada


Star rating - 9/10

I had never heard of this novel until a few weeks ago, but it is taking book lovers by storm across the world. It is not a new book, it was published in 1947, tragically just after the author’s death. But it was translated again into English last year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The events, based on a true story, take place in Berlin under the grip of Nazi rule. One elderly couple, Otto and Anna Quangle, learn of the death of their only son fighting in the German army, and the futility of this ending changes something inside Otto. He starts to resist the Nazi regime in a very low level but profound way. He writes postcards with subversive messages on them, asking people to question what the Nazi’s are doing and what they are telling the people. He leaves them in apartment blocks and offices on stairwells for random strangers to find. He performs this task alone at first, but later his wife Anna finds out and joins him in his mission.


The Gestapo are infuriated by this postcard campaign, which goes on for over two years, and leaves them floundering in the dark looking for the culprit. The novel is a great thriller as the police try to track down who is daring to oppose the Nazi regime in such an infuriating way, and their inept attempts at investigating the crime make both gripping and amusing reading.

What is remarkable for me about this book is that is shows just what a chilling effect the terrifying Nazi dictatorship had on ordinary people, who had a range of reactions to it, from enthusiastic embrace, to indifference, to resistance and defiance. And the patchwork quilt of characters that Fallada weaves into the story is rich and extensive. The tentacles of fear reach into the hearts of families and communities, making people react in gross and frightening ways.

This book exposes what ordinary people suffer under brutal dictatorships, and how their behaviour is warped by their experiences, far more than any historical account could do. It is a page turner of a thriller. It is a history lesson. It is a tragedy.

And Fallada himself was a tragic figure. His real name was Rudolph Ditzen, and he died of a morphine overdose before this book was published, which was something of an accurate reflection of a life plagued as it was by mental illness and addiction. But his gem of a novel captures the terror of what it was for ordinary people to life under the shadow of the Nazis like nothing else has for me. Superb.