Monday, February 26, 2007

'Vertigo' by Red Shift

26 February 2007

Last weekend we were at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, to see a new stage production of the psychological thriller 'Vertigo' by the Red Shift Theatre Company. This was adapted and directed by Jonathan Holloway from the story by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac that inspired the famous Hitchcock film. Set in a French sanatorium in 1947, the play tells the story in flashback - a framing device that creates a logic to actors playing multiple characters as the Doctor helps his patient, Roger Flaviere, to remember the events that led to his current state of mind by acting them out. I wonder, however, whether this framing of the story removed some of the tension by making it clear where Roger was headed. Nevertheless the play nicely captured the feeling of increasing bewilderment, paranoia and panic common to so many Hitchcock leading men. It reminded me of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel 'When We Were Orphans' where we are similarly asked to sympathise with a protagonist who becomes gradually more and more desperate and hysterical to the point where we begin to wonder how reliable his narration is. 'Vertigo' was well acted and directed and enjoyably dark though it requires you to go along with the dated gender politics and the familiar obsession with the 'Hitchcock blonde'. And if you are not familiar with the film don't let anyone spoil it by telling you the twist!

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'Guys and Dolls' by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows

26 February 2007

I still treasure the memory of seeing the National Theatre production of 'Guys and Dolls' in the early 1980s (with Lulu as Miss Adelaide) and I'd been really looking forward to the Donmar production which we saw at Milton Keynes Theatre last Friday. Inevitably, coming to it with raised expectations, I was a bit disappointed. There was little to fault in the production and there was some fine singing (particularly from Louise Dearman as Sarah Brown - a great performance of 'If I Were A Bell') but it lacked the special sparkle I'd been hoping for. Having said that I still think 'Guys and Dolls' has some of the best songs of any musical and my head has been filled with the tunes all week. And the evening was substantially redeemed by a fantastic rendition of the show stopper 'Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat' by understudy 'Neil Clench' - very nicely done!

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Friday, February 23, 2007

‘The Last Laugh’ adapted by Richard Harris from a play by Koki Mitani

23 February 2007

I’ve always liked the idea of setting a story in a non-specific location and time without the baggage of current local cultural references – giving it a universality and avoiding the danger of it quickly becoming dated. In practice, however, I have to admit that this approach can make the resulting play, novel etc. feel a bit flat and lifeless. We were at Milton Keynes Theatre last Friday to see ‘The Last Laugh’, a two-hander with Martin Freeman and Roger Lloyd Pack adapted by Richard Harris from a play by Koki Mitani. In an undetermined country during an unspecified war a writer is trying to persuade the military censor to approve his new comedy for performance. The censor is preoccupied with the seriousness of war and cannot understand what role comedy could possibly play at such a time. This sets the scene for a dissection of what comedy is, how it works and why it is important – particularly during such difficult times. There are some lovely set-ups where the two protagonists are discussing an aspect of comedy while inadvertently simultaneously demonstrating it. (I particularly liked the censor’s incredulity at the comedy of catch-phrases: “So you are telling me that people find it funny when a character keeps repeating the same phrase for no apparent reason? I don’t believe it! I do not believe it!”.) But this is essentially a serious play about comedy and I think it suffered a little from the expectations created by its title, cast and venue. The sombre, poignant nature of the story seemed to surprise many in the audience and some of the subtle, clever comic moments fell a bit flat. I wonder whether it would have worked more effectively in a smaller theatre with less well-known actors – or whether the neutrality of the story’s setting made it less accessible than it might have been. Nevertheless it was a thoughtful and interesting work.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

'The Good, The Bad and The Queen'

15 February 2007

Damon Albarn has, for many years, been the subject of one of my few claims to fame - namely that I know Damon's Auntie. Admittedly this claim has always been slightly let down by the fact that I've never actually listened to anything by Blur. (The 1990s are my popular music blind-spot.) Even Damon's excursion into West Africa, 'Mali Music' came just before my own discovery of, and enthusiasm for, 'world music'. But finally, last year, I got a copy of 'Demon Days', the second album by Damon's 'cartoon band' Gorillaz. I didn't expect this mixture of laid-back dance music and rap to be my kind of thing but I found it incredibly infectious and was quickly hooked. This week I've been listening to Damon's latest project - the eponymous album from his 'supergroup', 'The Good, The Bad and The Queen'. The line-up includes the bass player from The Clash, Paul Simonon, the guitarist from The Verve, Simon Tong, and Fela Kuti's drummer and Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer, Tony Allen. The result is a diverse, eclectic collection of songs. Much of it sounds very like Gorillaz, though without the rapping (or indeed the wrapping of Jamie Hewlett's cartoons). Damon presents a strong anti-Iraq war message in an extremely laid-back, hip and cool way while managing, bizarrely, to include Beach Boys-style falsetto harmonies, violin harmonics and whistling and backing vocals from Harry Christophers' The Sixteen. It's really growing on me. I understand that Damon is now working on a musical at the National Theatre and writing the score for a Chinese circus-opera. I've also been impressed by the good work he has been doing through his record label, Honest Jon's, particularly the archive compilations, 'London is the Place for Me'. Damon has become an extremely interesting, significant and important creative figure in the music world. His Auntie should be proud.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

'Twelfth Night' by William Shakespeare

13 February 2007

"If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it ..." In 1884 Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' was the first production at the new Royal Theatre in Northampton. 123 years later it is the latest offering from Laurie Sansom in his first season as Artistic Director of the newly refurbished Royal Theatre - now restored to its Victorian splendour. Sansom's 'Twelfth Night' opens the Royal's 'Love & Madness' season, emphasising the fine line between the two by having Malvolio incarcerated in a straitjacket. It is a solid, straightforward production including some well-choreographed physical comedy and movement and some fine performances from the women - Rebecca Grant, Lucy Speed and particularly Natalie Walter as Olivia. But it lacks the stunning innovations we have come to expect from the Royal - especially in the sets and design. "... For the rain it raineth every day."

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Monday, February 05, 2007

'Memento' by Christopher Nolan

5 February 2007

Many years ago we went to see the film 'An Awfully Big Adventure' based on the novel by Beryl Bainbridge. After about twenty minutes, what had been a relatively straightforward story became much more intriguing as the plot seemed to suddenly jump forward in time. All was revealed a little later as a character who had just broken his leg walked into the next scene and we realised the cinema had shown two reels in the wrong order! It still amazes me that of all the people in the cinema only four of us stayed behind at the end to get our money back. "Are you sure it wasn't just a flashback?" the manager asked us. We were sure. "Well we've been showing it for a week and you're the first people to complain."

I was reminded of this the other day watching Christopher Nolan's 2000 film 'Memento'. Guy Pearce plays Leonard, an insurance claim investigator who has severe short-term memory loss as the result of the traumatic rape and murder of his wife. His memories before 'the incident' are intact but he has lost the ability to form any new memories since and forgets, within minutes, what people have said to him and even whether he has met them before. Leonard survives by taking Polaroid pictures of significant people and places, which he keeps in his pocket to refer to, and tattooing key facts onto his body. Through these methods he is gradually trying to track down his wife's killer but he is beset by not knowing who he can trust or who might be taking advantage of 'his condition'.

Leonard's story reveals itself to us in reverse, through a series of short scenes with each scene ending at the start of the previous one. As in Pinter's play 'Betrayal' or the reverse recipes of Jack Argener we gradually begin to understand the significance of the earlier (later) scenes but here there is the added complication that the lead character remembers nothing of any of the scenes and could be playing them in any order - the analysis of which could keep film studies students busy for months!

Leonard's sudden 'awakenings' - finding himself in a strange hotel room or being chased down a busy street or in bed with a woman he doesn't remember - reminded me of Henry's similar predicaments in Audrey Niffenegger's 'The Time Traveller's Wife'. Though satisfyingly, in terms of the theme of reverse narratives, Niffenegger's novel was published three years after 'Memento' came out.

The film ends with plenty of ambiguity and many loose ends untied but still manages to create a satisfying final twist. How often can you say that about a film which starts at the end, flashes back to the beginning and finishes in the middle?! A tour-de-force of narrative structure.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

'Jarvis' by Jarvis Cocker

2 February 2007

I largely missed 'Britpop' and only discovered Pulp through 'We Love Life', their wonderful 2001 album produced by Scott Walker. A late convert to the cause, I was looking forward to Jarvis Cocker's first solo album, 'Jarvis', and I haven't been disappointed. He seems to have been primarily lauded for his abilities as a wordsmith but I think he writes great tunes - with fantastic choruses. His distinctive resonant baritone voice dominates the album - though there are times when he sounds uncannily like Elvis Costello. Jarvis's lyrics are not as laugh-out-loud funny as Neil Hannon or Jim Halstain but always intelligent and thought-provoking - and, on the gentle ballad 'I will kill again', chillingly menacing. 'Jarvis' is clever, catchy, loveable rock - turn up the volume and enjoy.

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