Month: September 2014

Hamlet

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Royal Exchange, Manchester

29/09/14

Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, Hamlet is surely the most daunting for any actor. The Royal Exchange’s version runs for a bum-numbing three and a half hours and incorporates so many famous soliloquies and one-liners, that even the most accomplished actor must work overtime to maintain concentration. Thankfully, that’s not a problem here, because this is one of the most compelling and satisfying Shakespearian adaptations I’ve ever seen. It might seem a novelty featuring a female actor in the lead role but it’s by no means a new idea. Sarah Siddons was the first to do it in 1777 (in Manchester, appropriately enough, though its reported that she had to drape herself in a long dark shawl to ‘preserve her modesty.’) and there have been a whole string of female actors who have followed in her footsteps over the years though, interestingly, nobody has attempted it since Frances De La Tour in 1979.

Sarah Frankom’s gutsy modern day retelling of the story features some brilliant touches. I loved the fact that Claudius and The Ghost were played by the same actor (the ever brilliant John Shrapnel) and I loved that Polonius had become Polonia – Gillian Bevan’s assured performance turning the character into an overreaching Mother. Her constant attempts to wheel and deal a marriage for her shy daughter, Ophelia (Katie West) provided the biggest laughs of the evening. And best of all, finally – FINALLY, here was a production that made good use of those two perennial encumbrances, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, characters that many modern productions skip completely. Here they were portrayed as two punky slackers from Hamlet’s youth, always ready with a quip and a packet of crack cocaine, their cheery natures only making their ultimate betrayal all the more affecting.

But of course no production of Hamlet can succeed without a charismatic lead player and I’m happy to report that Maxine Peake is simply astonishing in the role, by turns melancholic, sarcastic, brash and (why not say it?) macho. Make no mistake, this is an ensemble production in every sense of the word, yet pity the poor actor that must compete for the audience’s attention whenever she swaggers onto the stage. Even the climactic sword fight (an element on which many a production has foundered) is fast, furious and nail-biting right up to the final moment. The final applause threatened to take the roof off the building.

Due to its unprecedented popularity, the Exchange has added another week to the run. Get hold of a ticket by any means you can, because this is Shakespeare at its very best. A triumph.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Billy Elliot: The Musical – Live

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28/09/14

Live cinema linkups may not be quite the same thing as actually being there, but when the reality of seeing a show involves a return trip to London and a night in a hotel, it clearly make commercial sense to nip down to the nearest multiplex. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of musicals but I saw Billy Elliot at the Victoria theatre in 2007 and thought it one of the best stage shows I’d ever seen, so here was an opportunity to revisit it, some ten years later.

Based on Stephen Daldry’s superb movie (released in 2000) this is a canny adaptation that incorporates many of the film’s best moments and throws in some ideas of its own. It’s 1984 and the men of a small County Durham mining town are out on strike. Teenager Billy (played in this performance by Elliott Hanna, but the role is shared with three other young actors) is coping with the recent death of his mother. Dad (Deka Walmsley) is struggling to hold the family together, while Billy’s older brother, Tony (Chris Grahamson) is a committed militant, and Grandma (Ann Emery) is rapidly succumbing to dementia. Sent to the local gym for boxing lessons, Billy finds himself much more interested in the ballet classes run by local dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (Ruthie Henshall), but he knows that Dad won’t approve of him swapping one class for another…

It has to be said that the musical version has a somewhat unsteady start, featuring overheated jokes about meat pasties and a kitchen invasion by striking miners, that are both clumsily handled, but it quickly settles into its stride and once Billy reports for boxing training, it becomes truly engaging. There are some superbly staged routines – a scene where a ballet class becomes entangled with a face-off between striking miners and truncheon-wielding police is a particular highlight, as is Billy’s anger-fuelled tap-freakout in front of a row of riot shields. Only the stoniest hearts will resist shedding tears in several scenes here, particularly the one where Billy and Mrs Wilkinson share a reading/singing of his Mother’s last letter. Young Elliot Hanna demonstrates such breathtaking talent that you cannot take your eyes off him. When a seasoned trouper like Ruthie Hensall pales in comparison alongside him, you know he surely must have a bright future ahead.

The figures speak volumes of the show’s success. It’s run continuously in the West End since 2005, has toured worldwide and has been seen by a total audience of more than 9.5 million. People love this show and I am no exception.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Butler

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26/9/14

I put off watching this for quite some time, thinking that I probably wouldn’t like it that much and I have to say, that having finally bitten the bullet, I was correct in my assumptions. Lee Daniel’s saga is a probably well-intentioned attempt to portray the way in which black people have worked in the wings throughout history to service their white employers; in this case, in the wings of the White House.

The story follows Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker) the son of a plantation worker who witnesses the murder of his father and the (off screen) rape of his mother,  before running away to find a better life for himself. He eventually finds employment at a Washington hotel and is then invited to work at the White House himself. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and he have a couple of sons, and when the oldest becomes involved in the Black Power movement, it puts a rift between father and son, that takes a long time healing. Meanwhile, a string of Presidents, all played by major actors, comes and goes while Cecil attends to their needs. Robin Williams is Eisenhower, James Marsden is Kennedy, John Cusack is Nixon. Curiously the only who really nails it is Alan Rickman as Reagan. It’s an oddly sanitised affair and it’s hampered by the fact that both Whitaker and Winfrey are too old to play their younger selves and have to be plastered with latex to embody the latter stages of their lives. If this was a biopic, it might have been more satisfying but Gaines is a composite, based on various real life butlers and too much of the film has Whitaker standing around serving drinks, while world-changing events unfold all around him.

It’s nicely mounted and for the most part, well acted, but his feels like a decidedly chocolate box approach to an important subject.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Virginmarys – The Ritz, Manchester

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27/09/14

It’s a brave band that begins a set with a brand new song, but the Virginmarys, Push The Pedal and Drive is just one of a whole crop of new songs that ticks all the boxes – something that bodes well for their much anticipated second album.  Just to ensure there’s no loss of enthusiasm, it’s followed by perennial crowd pleaser, Just A Ride, which had the packed-to-the-roof audience at the Ritz, leaping and flailing with sheer unadulterated joy. The Virginmarys ended their short UK tour at Manchester’s most iconic venue and that famous sprung dance floor was certainly taking some punishment on this rowdy, sweaty, Saturday night.

There’s much talk about power trios, but a band like the VM’s makes you truly appreciate what the term actually means – it’s sometimes inconceivable that three musicians can dole out such a blitzkrieg of sound. Singer/guitarist Ally Dickaty has developed into a consummate frontman, able to deliver caustic lyrics and blistering guitar solos with apparent ease, while force-of-nature drummer, Danny Dolan, combines raw power with dazzling precision, his primal rhythms interlocking with Matt Rose’s sinewy bass lines to create a solid foundation over which Ally can weave his magic.

It’s hard to single out highlights in what was a swaggeringly good set, but here goes: Motherless Land, another new song has a fabulous transatlantic vibe that wouldn’t have shamed Springsteen in his heyday. Running For My Life has that insanely good riff that you just can’t help moving to. And the ultimate song, Bang! Bang! Bang! had the crowd bellowing the lyrics back to the stage (little wonder the song’s been picked to accompany the trailer for new HBO TV series, Manhattan). The VM’s left the stage having given everything they had and we were still yelling for more.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Maps To The Stars

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26/09/14

David Cronenberg takes us on a guided tour to the dark heart of Hollywood, showing us elements of that city that the tour guides would certainly want to steer clear of. Along the way, we are introduced to a set of characters who are all pretty repellent in one way or another. Indeed, in the hands of a lesser director, this film would have struggled to hold the attention of an audience. But Cronenberg guides it all so expertly, the result is horribly compelling.

Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) has been badly burned in a fire in her childhood, but arrives in Hollywood full of hope for the future and looking for work. She hooks up with handsome limousine driver, Jerome (Robert Pattison), telling him that she has ‘become friends on the internet’ with Carrie Fisher (bizarrely playing herself). Fisher recommends Agatha as personal assistant to Havana Segrand, (Julianne Moore) a shallow, self-obsessed actress, currently chasing a role in what she hopes will be her ‘comeback’ movie, playing her own mother (herself a famous actress who died in a drowning) in a biopic of her life. (Weird enough yet? Stay tuned, it gets even stranger).

Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is a teenage phenomenon, star of the ‘Bad Babysitter’ franchise (think McCaulay Culkin, but with much more attitude) who has experienced a few problems in his childhood, while his father, Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a celebrity therapist, whose patients include Havana Segrand. And Benjies Mother, Christina (Olivia Williams) is just a strung-out mess.

It’s evident from the very beginning that this isn’t going to end particularly well for anybody and Cronenberg doesn’t disappoint. Moore’s creation is a particular delight – snide, venal, happy to issue orders to Agatha whilst taking a dump, she is gloriously repulsive and must be a contender for yet another Oscar nomination with this. While it might not be quite up there with the director’s best efforts, it’s nonetheless entertaining stuff, well worth seeking out.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Stand Up With Labour

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22/09/14

Opera House Manchester

On the face of it, this Labour Conference tub-thumper looked like a win-win situation. Watch five top comics for an all-in price of around thirty pounds and support your chosen political party at the same time. But perched in the vertiginous gallery of the Manchester Opera House, I began to wonder if comedy was ever designed to work in a venue like this.

Our host was Stephen K. Amos. I’ve seen and heard him before and have been left somewhat unimpressed, but he proved an intelligent choice to compere tonight’s proceedings and performing live, he’s much edgier than he’s allowed to be on TV and radio. He generated genuine laughs and established a lively rapport with the audience down in the stalls, though from our perch in the gods, we couldn’t actually see any of that.

First up was Ian Stone, who I confess I hadn’t previously heard of. He ambled out and delivered a confident and sometimes hilarious set of observational comedy, though a piece about the situation in Gaza (he’s Jewish) was perhaps the most ‘political’ comedy of the evening. By the time he’d finished, I had laughed heartily and I marked him down as ‘one to watch.’

Phill Jupitus is of of course a familiar name from TV panel shows. Here he was, performing stand up for the first time in years, mostly because Eddie Izzard invited him to this event (or so Phill told us). To be honest, he looked like he didn’t really want to be there and gave us a diffident, overly intellectual routine, reading from his collection of (decent) poems and occasionally glancing at his watch. The ‘highlight’ of his routine was a poem about Jeremy Clarkson, hardly the most original of targets and the only laughter that he managed to raise was muted and sporadic. Maybe he’s been too long away from the game, but this was definitely the most disappointing act of the evening.

Sarah Pascoe on the other hand, is a brilliant stand up, but her set was somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the auditorium and it didn’t help that it was word-for-word the same act I’d seen at the Edinburgh fringe in August where she played a much smaller venue and managed to make every line a zinger. Nevertheless, for my money, this was still the best material of the evening and I believe that Pascoe has a bright future ahead of her.

Top of the bill, Eddie Izzard strode out and was… well, uniquely Eddie Izzard. We were treated to the usual surreal stream-of-consciouness shtick, ranging from the origins of human sacrifice to something that strayed dangerously close to Monty Python’s ‘What Have The Romans Ever Done for Us?’ routine. He wasn’t remotely phased by the size of the venue but his set reminded me of one of those budget bumper boxers of cheap fireworks. Throw in a match and you’ll discover a few dazzling beauties in there, but you’ll also find several damp squibs that don’t quite go off. Izzard really needs a longer time slot in order for his irrational nonsense to bear any kind of fruit and there simply wasn’t space for it here.

All-in-all, an interesting night but one that didn’t really live up to expectations. For one thing, given that this was a fund raiser for the Labour party, I would have expected to see more comedy with a political edge. But Ian Stone aside, there wasn’t much and he only flirted with it, before moving on to more general humour. And then there’s the Opera House itself… hmm. The moral of the story is, I think that comedy works best in smaller, more intimate venues, where the comics really can reach out and work their strange chemistry on an audience. Had we managed to procure seats down in the stalls, this might have been a more positive review. But the stars reflect the show as a whole.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

The Riot Club

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20/09/14

The Riot Club’s theatrical roots are apparent in the film’s structure: most of the action centres on a single dinner, conforming loosely to the unities of time, action and place that are not so common in cinema. That said, Laura Wade’s adaptation of her play (Posh) works very well on the big screen, its cast of loathsome characters proving queasily engaging.

The Riot Club is fictional, but it is based – not very obliquely – on the real-life Bullingdon Club, whose famous alumni include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson. If even half of what the film suggests is true, then it is terrifying to think that we are being governed by such a group of louche, hedonistic, over-privileged thugs.

We see the Riot Club through the eyes of Miles (Max Irons), whose instinctive good nature is compromised when he joins the group. He is flattered to be asked; as Harry (Douglas Booth) boasts, there are twenty-thousand students at Oxford, but only the finest ten can join the Riot Club. Their definition of ‘finest’ is rather narrow: members must be male (of course), and have attended a good school (“Eton, St Paul’s, Westminster… Harrow if you absolutely must”); furthermore, they need the right connections and the willingness to endure a series of bizarre initiation rites. Miles appears to fit the bill, although his fellow club members are bemused and appalled by his choice of girlfriend, a state-educated northerner called Lauren (Holliday Granger). But what starts as fun and silly snobbery soon reveals a darker side: the boys have such a strong sense of entitlement that they cannot empathise with anyone outside their set. They cause mayhem and destruction and do not care; they know that they can pay their way out of trouble.

Parts of this polemical film are genuinely difficult to watch. Life is just a game to the Riot Club boys; they commit atrocious deeds in the full knowledge that they will not just get away with them, but will go on to work in positions of incredible power. They really can do what they like.

I’m scared.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield