Thursday, August 30, 2007

‘Little Me’ by Neil Simon, Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman

30 August 2007

On Wednesday evening I was at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London to see the National Youth Music Theatre production of ‘Little Me’ by Neil Simon, Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman. This musical hasn’t been performed in London for over 20 years but it’s loads of fun – a highly silly cartoon saga telling the tale of Belle, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks striving, over four decades, to attain wealth, culture and social position in order to win the hand of the noble Noble Eggleston. This quest carries her through a host of familiar places and events (the First Word War trenches, the early Hollywood, the doomed ocean liner ‘SS Gigantic’ – you get the idea!) throughout which Belle manages to inadvertently steer the course of history in unfortunate directions and lose a remarkable number of husbands (there is a high fatality count!). Extremely silly, wonderfully funny and energetically performed by a high quality young (aged 10 – 19) cast of 35 actors and a 13-piece band. The two leads, Sarah Hagan and Dom Hodson were very good but there were show-stealing performances by Joe Mott, Alyn Hawke and Sam Hayward (including one of the funniest death bed scenes I can remember!) – all names to watch out for. NYMT is alive and well – I look forward to the next production.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

‘The Bourne Ultimatum’

22 August 2007

We were at the cinema on Sunday to see ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ – the third adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novels, starring Matt Damon and directed by Paul Greengrass. It has been marketed as an ‘intelligent action movie’ and that’s probably a fair description. There is plenty of gritty realism and lots of all-too-believable violence. And it is good to see a Hollywood movie dealing with internal corruption rather than a cartoon-like evil villain. But there was still a fair amount of frustrating unbelievability: if CIA agent Jason Bourne has been trained to speak every European language, to know the layout of the backstreets of every major European city and has memorised all the world’s public transport timetables, how come his female colleague seems to have received no similar training and can only contribute worried looks? There is also something inherently ridiculous about any ‘control-room scene’ where ranks of computer operators tap away at their keyboards while the boss strides up and down looking at masses of text on large screens covering the walls and shouting things like “listen up”, “give me all you’ve got on Bourne”, “let’s get mobile” etc. I think all such scenes remind me too much of ‘Dr Strangelove’. Nevertheless ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ is fast-moving, exciting and clever. Good to see a blockbuster with a key role for a Guardian journalist – and a very tense early scene on the concourse at Waterloo station.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' by J K Rowling

13 August 2007

When I say I have just finished reading 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' by J K Rowling, I guess I am instantly going to divide you into those who groan out loud and those who wonder what took me so long. I've enjoyed all seven Harry Potter books. I can sympathise with those who say the quality of the writing leaves much to be desired and the settings, characters and magical creatures are incredibly derivative, but, by blatantly pinching some of the best elements of classic children's fiction, fantasy and mythology, Rowling has created a cracking good yarn. And I can forgive her much for the wonderful combination of both the broadest scope and the minutest detail in her plotting. It seems to me that the plot drives you through these weighty tomes at a rapid pace - both through the overall story arc of the seven books (written before starting the first novel, apparently) and through impressive attention to detail and consistency. Children can be the most obsessive of all readers and it can be incredibly irritating when the internal logic of a story is broken or an early passing reference is forgotten. I have found all the Harry Potter books incredibly satisfying in how they remember and refer back to the tiniest of details. And none has been so satisfying in this respect as the 'Deathly Hallows' which scrupulously ties up every possible loose end. I came to the book with my own mental checklist of unanswered questions and came away with all items ticked. (I daresay the massive obsessive attention to which this book will be subjected may unearth one or two mistakes or omissions but I was not disappointed.) My main problem with the 'Deathly Hallows' was trying not to read it too quickly. Having lived with these characters for so many years, like many others I was desperate to find out what happens to them - but worried about missing key clues and wanting to prolong the end as long as possible. So I took to reading two or three chapters at a time and then re-reading them before going on - meaning I have now read the whole book twice! (If any of the groaners were still with me I fear I have certainly lost them now!) I can highly recommend this technique: it is amazing how many seemingly insignificant references reveal themselves as invaluable pointers with the benefit of a little hindsight. (Slightly less obsessively, when I have finished a novel I have really enjoyed I am invariably sorry to leave it and sometimes go back and re-read the opening chapter. You would be amazed how fascinating this often proves - try it!) The 'Deathly Hallows' is definitely not a starting point for anyone who has not yet tried the Potter phenomenon: it would make little sense to those who haven't followed the previous books. But for those with at least a passing acquaintance with Harry, Ron, Hermione et al, it is a gripping ride. As with many of the books there are some passages which drag a bit, but when the action takes off it is thrilling - particularly this time as there is no guarantee who, if anyone, will survive. But that would be telling ...


Thursday, August 09, 2007

'The Visit'

9 August 2007

I’ve been enjoying ‘The Visit’ – a new sitcom on BBC3 on Sunday evenings (though only a matter of time before it is repeated on BBC2, I would have thought). All the action takes place during visiting time at a prison with, each week, the same set of prisoners taking their seats at tables opposite the same family members and then sitting there staring at each other with very little to say! Sounds riveting, I know, but the small talk and inane banter is very very funny and there is plenty of gentle, gradual character development. There are no star names dominating – though many of the actors are reasonably familiar faces. The characters are all fairly exaggerated – this is quite an old fashioned sitcom – more ‘Phoenix Nights’ than the cringingly believable comedy of ‘The Office’. Extremely enjoyable and refreshingly subtle such as in its reverential nod to ‘Porridge’ in the use of theme music by Slade.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

WOMAD 2007

1 August 2007

The WOMAD world music festival prides itself on remaining largely sponsor-free but this year you could have been forgiven for thinking a deal had been done with Dunlop - at least in terms of product placement: if there was anyone present not wearing wellingtons it was impossible to tell what, if anything, they did have on their feet, such was the amount of deep, liquid, mud covering the festival site! The unfortunate coincidence of the wettest summer on record combined with WOMAD's move to a new home at Charlton Park near Malmesbury in Wiltshire (after many years in Reading) made for a frustratingly difficult festival experience. First there were horrendous traffic problems on the small country roads around the park: it took me two and a half hours to travel the few miles from the motorway junction when I arrived on Friday afternoon. Then there was the mud: wellingtons were a necessity and walking was very difficult - though standing still had its problems too as you soon found yourself sinking! And just when you decided to give up and call it day there was chaos in the car park: on Saturday evening it took me two hours to get out as tractors towed cars one-by-one up an increasingly muddy slope to the road. By Saturday night I had had enough and opted to head home rather than struggle through Sunday. And I was fortunate not to have been camping: it was a great relief to get back to a comfortable hotel bed each night. I know many people went home before the festival even began and there has been much anger and vitriol on the message boards at - though it was good to see Viscount Andover (whose father owns the Charlton Park estate) going online to respond to comments. Nevertheless, as always, there was some great music. An obvious highlight was the first festival appearance for many years of WOMAD founder Peter Gabriel who played a great set on Friday evening with a host of guest stars. I also enjoyed the desert bagpipes of exuberant Algerian band Marzoug, the beautiful, other-worldly vocals of Norwegian Sami singer Mari Boine and the amazing virtuosity of Malian ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate. It is always nice to see the artists appreciating each other's work: it was lovely to see the mature gentlemen of El Tanbura (Egypt's answer to the Buena Vista Social Club) dancing in front of the stage during a performance by the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani. The Warsaw Village Band were late - a year and 45 minutes late: I had been looking forward to seeing them play at last year's festival when they didn't make it at all - and on Saturday (like many other bands this year) they got stuck in the traffic and the mud and arrived on stage three quarters of an hour later than scheduled. But I did enjoy their 'hardcore Polish folk' - particularly the strident three-part female vocal harmonies which emphasise their musical and geographic positioning somewhere between Bulgaria and Finland. As the rain started to fall on Saturday evening we were cheered up by an upbeat session from English folk star Seth Lakeman and the most energetic performance of the weekend from Asian Dub Foundation. I finished by watching the launch of Simon Emmerson's new project 'The Imagined Village' - a re-imagining of the English folk tradition for the 21st century featuring an all star cast including Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy, Billy Bragg, Benjamin Zephaniah, Johny Kalsi of the Dhol Foundation, Sheema Mukherjee of Transglobal Underground and British Asian singer Sheila Chandra. Fascinating to hear Billy Bragg talking about how it took two Jewish guys from Queens to make him feel English - when hearing Simon & Garfunkel's 'Scarborough Fair' for the first time - and then to realise he was telling us this while standing next to Martin Carthy - the man who taught Paul Simon the tune. There were some great performances at Charlton Park but it was hard work getting from one stage to another and it will be difficult not to remember this year's WOMAD festival primarily for the mud.

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