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Saturday, 25 September 2010

Books - The White Queen - Phillippa Gregory


Star rating 6/10

Historical fiction is not the sort of book that I usually read. To own up, I used to love Jean Plaidy’s bodice rippers as a young girl, particularly the Tudor stories. But I thought I would give the genre another try following a glowing personal recommendation. And it is a breath of fresh air to have to focus of attention moved away by Phillippa Gregory from the Tudors themselves, this time to their immediate predecessors, the Plantagenets.

Elizabeth Woodville is not a widely known historical figure. She was born a commoner and on the Lancastrian side of the Wars of the Roses, but fell in love with the young and dashing Yorkist King Edward IV. They seemed to be equally enchanted with each other, although she, in this version at least, lures him into her beautiful clutches by witchcraft and spells. It is nice to have a feisty heroine – Elizabeth turns Edward’s dagger back on himself when he tries to seduce her out of wedlock. There is no evidence that this cheeky maneouvre actually happened, but it is a pleasing, if somewhat far fetched thought that this attack on the battle hardy King actually flamed the fires of his passion even further.

Elizabeth doesn’t have an easy time of being queen, and is seemingly pregnant again at every turn of the page. Her enemies are constantly plotting against her. Edward’s brothers are plotting against him for the crown. Her husband is lucky in battle, but eventually succumbs to illness and she is left to battle on alone for the sake of her children. She is of course the mother of the ill fated princes in the Tower.

Gregory’s attention to detail is second to none, and the bits of the story that she makes up are perfectly enjoyable. But I didn’t feel the need to be so signposted to what was to come. For example, her unexplained dread of the Tower, and her fears for her sons are all too obvious, and unnecessary nods to the tragedy that we know is to come. And in the main Gregory gets the language right. One notable exception is when she says to her daughter, also Elizabeth, ‘Nobody gets to be Queen of England by being loveable. You will have to play your cards right.’ That sounds to me to be more Bruce Forsyth than Plantagenet England, but maybe that’s just me being picky.

I enjoyed the romp, but I felt the witchcraft theme to be a bit overplayed. I liked the way Elizabeth is portrayed as strong, determined and beautiful, but I didn’t really buy all the spells. So in places it was a page turner, but like a Chinese take away, it left me feeling a bit empty when I had finished it. Time for more substantial fare for a while I think.

Theatre - Aspects of Love - Mernier Chocolate Factory


Star rating – 5/10


I really wanted to like this Trevor Nunn revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber 1989 musical, partly because I want to be positive about a Mernier production following their disastrous previous production of ‘Paradise Found’ this summer (see review from June for the ghastly details); and partly because I don’t want to annoy the armies of ALW fans in cyberspace any more than I have done recently (see my review of ‘Love Never Dies’ earlier this month and subsequent post rage). But I can’t say that it was fantastic sadly, mainly due to the lack of a credible storyline.

The music is lovely, ALW at his best, including the smash hit ‘Love changes everything’ which features at the start and throughout the production. And the singing and performances are themselves very good. Young student Alex (Michael Arden) falls in love with actress Rose (Katherine Kingsley) as he travels across France. He takes her to his uncle’s holiday bolt hole but she ends up falling in love with Uncle George instead. George himself is romantically entangled with an Italian sculpture, Giulietta, who herself is also very partial to Rose. Are you still with me? The story hurtles through the subsequent years to where Rose and George’s daughter herself falls an attachment to Alex, whom Rose has not quite given up.


This tangled web of relationships, while complex, does not particularly surprise, as each development is so heavily signposted that the feel is more of cliché than climax. Katherine Kingsley is outstanding as Rose, and the cast are clearly talented. But in the end, the story line just does not carry the tunes, which for a musical is a fairly basic flaw. So for me the outstandingly talented ALW is just miles better when he is retelling stories such as in Evita, Joseph, or Jesus Christ Superstar, than when he is creating a story line for himself.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Gigs - Joanna Newsom - Palace Theatre


Star rating – 5/10

The last time I went to a gig at the Palace Theatre was to see Spandau Ballet in around 1981. So I was intrigued at the prospect of seeing a concert in this lovely venue again. I need to own up to the fact right away that I knew next to nothing about the Californian harpist Joanna Newsom before I went along. I was a late substitute for my friend Colin, who was away doing a wonderful job at raising money for the Red Cross in the Great North Run (well done Colin!). So I didn’t know quite what to expect but I was warned that she might not be quite to my taste.

Newsom is undoubtedly a very talented musician, excelling as she does at both the harp and the piano. At 27 years old she is an accomplished performer and a stylish young woman, constantly battling with her long blond hair and black designer tassled dress. She is also obviously very quirky, eccentric even, with her distinctive shrill voice and little girl wave to her adoring fans. The audience was a lot more mixed than I had imagined – both in terms of ages and types of fans – she is obviously a hot ticket.

She interacted very freely with her audience, a little too freely for my tastes, as it seemed to encourage disruptive, possibly alcohol fuelled, shouts which she tried to respond to when she could make out what they were shouting about. And some of the songs were beautiful, with very melodic tunes. But I’m afraid to say that I couldn’t really get on with her voice – which to me was an odd mix of Björk, Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush. The screeching, and strange faces which she pulls to achieve it, were just a little too eccentric for me. So sorry to be so unappreciative, but Joanna just isn't for me.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Theatre - Doctor Faustus - Royal Exchange


Star rating – 9/10

Hell has come to the heavenly city of Manchester – or at least it has in the shape of the latest thrilling and unsettling offering from the Royal Exchange. This stunning production of Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ features Patrick O’Kane in the title role giving a massively impressive performance which is exhausting to watch so heaven (or should that be hell?) knows what it feels like to perform.

This is the cautionary sixteenth century tale of a German scholar who is not satisfied with his usual scholarly pursuits of a more traditional kind, and instead thirsts for knowledge of the magical kind. To do this he summons up Mephastophilis, who is a devil in the guise of Ian Redford’s respectable dog collared vicar. But in order to get the darker knowledge he so desperately seeks, Faustus has to make a pact with the devil, never a good idea you might think. He exchanges his soul for the services of Mephastophilis for 24 years, despite the latter’s warnings of the serious nature of the consequences of the bargain. But Faustus is determined, and so Mephastophilis informs his master, Lucifer, of the deal, and Faustus’ fate is sealed.

I was hoping for some spectacular staging and special effects from this production, and was absolutely not disappointed. I won’t give away what the y are so as not to lessen their effect, but you are guaranteed to be surprised and shocked. This is the most spectacular play I have seen at the Royal Exchange since the wonderful ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ earlier in the year, with the director Toby Frow and set designer Ben Stones making optimum use of the beautiful theatre space. The cast is seemingly never ending in number, as the ensemble in turn play the creatures from hell, as well as beautiful bright young party goers. The play is a long one at just under three hours, but the action and horrors as they unfold are so engrossing that it doesn’t feel like that at all.

This language and form of the play feels very Shakespearean, Marlowe actually being a forerunner of the bard. It is a play of some complex and deep concepts, but this production makes it easy to follow. The more serious action is interspersed with comic interludes by a couple of clowns played wonderfully by Rory Murphy and Dyfrig Morris. The ending of the play is not surprising, as Faustus must face up to the terrible consequences of his pact. And you are almost relieved for Patrick O’Kane when the end comes. This is a wonderful and stunning play, with an impressive cast, a marvelous set and a fantastic central performance.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Theatre - Love Never Dies - Adelphi Theatre


Star rating – 5/10

Well I do love a good musical, and although I would not say that The Phantom of the Opera is one of my all time favourites, I did really enjoy its memorable score and dramatic special effects when I finally got round to seeing it a couple of years ago. So I didn’t go along now to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel, Love Never Dies, with tremendous trepidation, wondering if would desecrate a holy thing, as some of the more avid Phantom fans apparently have. And I do think that Lloyd Webber is tremendously talented at what he does, even though his recent forays into the world of the TV talent shows leave me stone cold.

The story has moved on 10 years since the previous murderous antics. The Phantom is now transformed into Mister Y, an amusement park owner in Coney Island. He seeks to get his beloved Christine to cross the Atlantic to sing for him one more time, and what do you know, she dutifully arrives, complete with her loser husband and 10 year old son in tow. The massive signpost is in the boy’s age – and the Phantom is totally moved when he finds out he has a son, as you would be.

The central plot device is whether or not Christine will agree to sing. It didn’t seem to me to be in much doubt really, and a good job too as the vocal performance given by Sierra Boggess in the central role is fantastic, particularly when singing the title song. Not one to be a party pooper, but that song aside, the plot is really wafer thin, and aside from some great musical numbers, the piece seems very contrived. It lacks the stunning special effects of the original, no crashing chandeliers here then. But credit also to Ramin Karimloo in the phantasmic role. So I had good night out with friends, but not a particularly moving or memorable musical Mr Lloyd Webber. You have done, and doubtless will again, do much better.

Film - The Secret in Their Eyes - directed by Juan Jose Campanella



Star rating – 9/10

As readers of this blog will know, I confidently and correctly predicted that The Hurt Locker would win the best picture Oscar last year. But I had not had the chance to see this Argentinean film noir, which has only now been released in the UK, to be able to tell whether or not it justified its best foreign picture award over the two front runners The White Ribbon (definitely as I wasn’t impressed by that one at all), or A Prophet (a harder call for me as I thought Jacques Audiard's prison drama was brilliant).

But after being dazzled, thrilled, and entertained by its clever mix of crime puzzle and romance, which span across three decades, and take in flashbacks to the political backdrop of 1970s Argentina where people routinely ‘disappeared’ if the ruling military wanted them too, I admit I am a convert. The film stars Ricardo Darín as retired court prosecutor Benjamin Esposito, who is bored and dissatisfied with the way his life has ended up, and hopes to distract himself by writing a novel based on a murder case he was involved in some 25 years previously, and which has haunted him ever since.

The case in question was the brutal rape and murder of a young woman married to a quiet bank clerk, whose tragic loss dominates his life as he proves to be incapable of truly moving on afterwards. Esposito takes his draft story to show to his old boss and senior prosecutor, who also happens to be a beautiful woman with whom he has been in love ever since he worked with her all those years before. The on screen chemistry between Darín and Irene Menéndez Hastings, played by Soledad Villamil, is entirely convincing and very moving. But the strong emotions between the pair are beautifully understated, as indeed are the other bonds of passion, including the lost love that the young widow, played by Pablo Rago, has for his murdered wife; and also the fierce friendship between Esposito and his ineffective colleague Sandoval, played by Guillermo Francella. Sandoval has to be pulled out of drunken bar room brawls by Esposito, and put up on his sofa when his wife won’t take him in.

Soledad Villamil is gutsy and determined in her interrogation of a murder suspect, knowing exactly how to find his Achilles heel. This follows on from maybe the most impressive scenes in the film, whereby the suspect is chased down from the crowd in a packed football stadium. Esposito ages wonderfully for the modern day scenes, but I must say that the youthful beauty of Villamil after 25 years is stretching credulity a tad. But this is only a small niggle. This film is smart, beautiful, with clever twists, and the director shows great skill in melding the murky past with the present day Argentina. It is certainly, for my money, a class above The White Ribbon, and at least on a par with A Prophet, if not a nose ahead. Good call again Oscars.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Books - The Snowman - Jo Nesbo


Star rating – 8/10

It wasn’t because of all the adverts at every turn at train and tube stations that I gave this book a go – if anything the claim to be the ‘next Stieg Larrson’ is a bit off putting, and seems to be setting the author up to fail somewhat. But when I looked it over while idling away a few moments in a little bookshop I like to frequent, I was intrigued enough to want to read on.

Jo Nesbo is a Norwegian author, and so fits nicely into the current mania for all things Scandinavian. This is not his first book, he has been publishing crime novels for well over ten years, and this one is not the first to feature his detective Harry Hole either. But it has certainly brought him to the attention of a much wider audience, possibly fortuitously, but on reading this gripping page turner, the attention is thoroughly deserved.

Hole has all the archetypal features in his personal life that we have come to expect from our favourite super sleuths – disastrous romantic relationships; a propensity to drink copious amounts of alcohol at inappropriate moments; an inability to play by the rules or respect his superiors at work; and a work life balance that is seriously not to be emulated. So with all the usual crime clichés in place, why is this one such an exciting read?

Hole is on the trail of a serial killer, whose disturbing crimes are macabre and unsettling. Women are the victims, and only women with young children who are scooped from their homes by the killer , leaving a snowman as a calling card in the garden. The plot is very clever – with just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing to the end. Hole inevitably gets his personal life mixed up in the case, and his physical and mental health obviously suffer as a result.

The writing is taut and pacey, and did really keep me reading on into the small hours as all excellent crime writing should. So is Nesbo the next Larrson? I would say no. No-one can fill those incredibly big shoes. But he is still a writer to watch, and maybe even to curl up with a few past cases with Harry Hole in his previous novels, before the next one, The Leopard, comes out later this year. Totally recommended.

Theatre - Welcome to Thebes - National Theatre


Star rating – 8/10

I didn’t know what to expect from this production at the National Theatre. I bought the ticket ages ago so I must have thought it looked interesting at the time, but couldn’t remember for the life of me what it was about. I was just hoping that it would be better than my last foray there to see the terrible Danton’s Death. I needn’t have worried.

This clever new play by Moira Buffini is a very interesting fusion of ancient Greek mythology, blended with her take on lessons from modern politics, democracy and leadership. It is set in Thebes in the 21st century, which is a state emerging from political dictatorship into a new dawn of democracy, led by a mainly female government. The new President is Eurydice, played with just the right amount of strength, humility, and terror at the task before her by the wonderful Nikki Amuka-Bird. She has called on her friendly neighbourhood superpower, Athens, to come and help out her war torn country. And help of sorts arrives in the shape of a swaggering visit from Theseus, the first citizen of Athens, played brilliantly by David Harewood, and his entourage.

The two leads are very convincing, and interact wonderfully as the state visit descends into sleazy half propositions, promises of aid unfulfilled, and the resulting recriminations. Thebes is trying desperately to emerge from its bloody past, but violence is never far from the surface, including the disturbing participation of children in the aggression. This struggle is cleverly interwoven with a modern day twist on the story of Antigone, daughter of the doomed king Oedipus.

It feels churlish to pick out Amuka-Bird and Harewood for their acting, as the whole cast is very impressive, and the production feels rounded, with vivid colour and music. It is clever, thought provoking, funny, and above all a very moving play. Obviously a great choice by me then…