Month: December 2015

The Sound of Music

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The Lowry Lyric Theatre, Salford Quays

There’s no other option but to own up on this one – I have always hated this musical. I appreciate that I’m in a minority here, because as blockbusters go, it’s one of the most successful of all time, with an ardent following of die hard fans, the kind of people who will happily camp out for weeks in order to secure a ticket – but I’ve always found its uneasy mix of syrupy songs, precocious children and the most unthreatening Nazis ever seen on stage or screen, somewhat hard to stomach. Just a few bars of ‘The Hills Are Alive…’ and I’m a kid again, trapped at home on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, with my parents watching the film on television and commenting on how ‘nice’ Julie Andrews seems.

So naturally, I approached this assignment with some trepidation. The Lyric theatre was packed with eager punters as the overture began and then the curtain rose and we were in a (pretty convincing) nunnery where four ladies in black habits were asking us how they could possibly solve a problem like Maria (The Voice finalist, Lucy O Byrne). The next thing we know, she’s been enlisted as governess to the seven children of war hero Captain Von Trapp (Gray O’ Brian) and is teaching them that doe is a female deer and ray, a drop of golden sun…

It’s pointless to go over the plot because unless you’ve lived as a hermit all your life, you’ll surely already know exactly what happens. And here’s the thing. Though I can appreciate how professionally this production is delivered – perfectly judged harmonies, elaborate sets that glide effortlessly into place, faultless choreography, this isn’t going to change my mind about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest success. It still feels like treacle pudding with extra treacle. But neither can I reasonably criticise the way its been done (other than to observe that Mr O’ Brian was having a bit of a bad night of it in the vocal department) and neither can I deny the warmth of the standing ovation enjoyed by the cast at the end, with a particularly enthusiastic response given to Jan Hartley as the Mother Abbess, whose climactic rendition of Climb Every Mountain was delivered with enough energy to power the National Grid.

So I’ll simply say this. If The Sound of Music is already a favourite of yours, you’re unlikely to feel shortchanged by this production. If you’re coming to it with no expectations whatsoever, you may find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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Inkheart

11/12/15

Home, Manchester

‘Tis the season of theatrical family fayre, when children’s stories are plundered for festive productions, with often mixed results.

Inkheart started life as a novel by Cornelia Funke, evolved into a successful film, and now struts its stuff as a lively Christmas play. It tells the tale of twelve-year-old Meggie (Katherine Carlton) and her father, Mo (Paul McEwan), whose ‘Silvertongue’ status means that, when they read aloud, characters step from the pages of their books, and blunder into the real world. Meggie and Mo embark upon a desperate quest to save the last copy of the eponymous book, protecting it from the villains who wish to destroy it.

The set comprises a mountain of books, with shelves and steps cunningly concealed. It rotates and tips, and is used effectively to represent a home, a library, a beach and a car; it’s really quite a lovely thing. And the production starts well: the narration (provided by Kelly Hotten) is clear and engaging, and the disruption of Meggie’s world by the appearance of the mysterious Dustfinger (Andrew Sheridan) is nicely unsettling. Carlton is uncannily convincing as a twelve-year-old, and Rachel Atkins, as Elinor, is a comic delight.

Overall, it doesn’t quite work for me though. It’s not as light as it needs to be; it’s pedestrian when it needs to fly. The fire-juggling, for example, just  isn’t spectacular enough, and the panto-villain antics of Basta and Flatnose (Darryl Clark and Griffin Stevens), while competently done, seem at odds with the general tone. The magic isn’t… magical enough, the comedy too clumsy and the scary stuff just doesn’t scare.

Of course, as two adults, we are not the target audience. There were a lot of kids watching with us tonight, and they seemed to find it an utter joy. One for the children, then, but without much to commend it to the grown-ups accompanying them…

3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Into The Woods

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09/12/15

Royal Exchange Manchester

As Christmas draws inexorably nearer, the Royal Exchange have indulged themselves in the family-friendly epic that is Into The Woods. As ever, Manchester’s premier theatre aren’t doing things by halves. With a cast of nineteen and a running time of three hours, Stephen Sondheim’s celebrated fairytale mashup is a challenging production in every sense of the word.

I have to put my hand up at this stage and admit that Sondheim isn’t a great favourite in our household. Sure, James Lapine’s lyrics are quirky and clever but sometimes, I find myself wishing that Sondheim would just offer us a couple of great melodies, something to sing in the shower. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this is a superb production and that Sondheim fans (of which there are many) are going to be delighted with what’s on offer here. It’s a big step up too from the recent lacklustre movie version. Certainly the audience on the night we attended were clearly thrilled by what they saw and, little wonder, because choreographing a cast of this size in and around the compact circular stage of the Exchange requires the kind of discipline normally reserved for synchronised swimming events.

ITW is essentially an amalgamation of all your favourite fairytales – Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzle… given a satirical twist. The first half of the show offers a traditional happy ending and the second, gleefully subverts that, pointing out that most situations don’t tend to fit into such a convenient format. In a strong ensemble cast it’s tough to pick out favourites but Gillian Bevan, as The Witch, certainly casts a compelling spell whenever she’s on stage, while Alex Gaumond as The Baker, is a likeable performer with a plaintive singing voice. A shout must also go to young David Moorst as Jack, who’s gormless manner garners much laughter.

There’s plenty here to delight an audience, not least the ingenious staging, which manages to make a convincing forest sprout up right in front of our eyes; and there’s a wolf-evisceration scene that genuinely made the audience gasp in a ‘how did they do that?’sort of way. Oh yes, there’s also a fleeting appearance by a golf buggy… well, why not?

This is a Christmas cracker of a show, suitable for people of all ages, even if you won’t go home singing any of the songs, because they’re just a bit too complicated for that. If you’re planning a seasonal family outing, this could be the perfect  thing to get you into the festive spirit. Book now while the going’s good.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Victor Frankenstein

6/12/15

I promised myself I wouldn’t compare this film to Mary Shelley’s novel, because that way lies discontent. And, if I haven’t quite succeeded in honouring that promise (how could I, really?), I have at least tried to view it on its own terms.

And, on those terms, it really works. It’s a handsome, exciting, rollicking film, where every emotion is heightened and every deed is desperate. Victor (James MacAvoy) is viewed through Igor (Daniel Radcliffe)’s eyes, and so is admirable even at his most flawed. He is, after all, Igor’s saviour, having wrought a bright apprentice  from the unpromising ‘freak’ he encountered at the circus.

It’s not as if the film is even trying to be faithful to the book; it’s not purporting to tell the same story. It’s just a riff on the central premise: a young genius driven mad by obsession, unable to comprehend the consequences of his all-consuming work. MacAvoy’s performance is a delight: exaggerated to the point of mania, his delivery is never less than compelling. And Radcliffe’s comparative understatement makes him the perfect foil: his moral compass compromised by the gratitude he feels.

It all looks suitably fantastic. The circus is a visual confection of grubbiness and glamour, and London’s Victorian streets have a shabby, bright-lit charm. Victor’s laboratory is a magical labyrinth of odd contraptions, where bookshelves stretch beyond all boundaries. It’s visceral too, not least when Victor ‘takes the pus’ out of Igor’s supposed hunch, and the creatures (especially the putative chimp-based horror) are decidedly unpleasant.

For me, though, it’s the creatures that let this down. I know, I know – there’s no point in saying this didn’t happen in the book. But the point (the main point) is surely to explore why Frankenstein’s creation becomes a monster, and this could so easily have been raised here too. Instead, both creatures are murderous from the moment they flex their muscles, and it’s hard to fathom why two such intelligent men would – after their violent encounter with the first – proceed to make another, let alone one so huge and powerful – without considering what makes him who he is.

Still, these are doubtless only quibbles for those who love the book – and this film is certainly not made with us in mind. It’s a fun movie, an enjoyable experience. With that in mind, why not give it a go?

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Lord of the Flies

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05/12/15

The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays

Lord of the Flies is one of my all time favourite novels, so I was excited to see this production, first shown in the open air at London’s Regent’s Park. How, I wondered, would director, Anthony Sheader, stage a story that is set in a variety of locations on a remote jungle-covered island? Well, as it turned out, quite brilliantly.

The set bears some description as it is instrumental to the success of this production. The stage is dominated by the fuselage of a crashed plane. One of its wings forms a ramp along which characters can enter and exit. The tailplane provides an upper level from which characters can stand to survey ‘the island.’ In the foreground, the detritus of the crash extends right to the feet of the audience in the front row of the stalls, almost including them in the scene. As the story unfolds, trapdoors are opened and closed to provide yet more levels in Souvenir Scenic’s ingenious set.

The script has cleverly updated the story to contemporary times – there are aborted selfie-stick moments, and even an allusion to a ‘new war’ from which the children were fleeing. Unlike the source novel, the pupils come from a variety of backgrounds – Jack and his choristers clearly hail from a top flight public school, Ralph from a mid range one and Piggy, a bluff Northerner, from a comprehensive. This all helps to emphasise the cruelty of the bullying suffered by Piggy and the other, weaker boys and makes their ultimate fate all the more compelling.

It’s pointless to single out individual actors for praise as this is a true ensemble piece, but plaudits must go to choreographer, Jonathan Holby, who manages to co-ordinate the movements of his large cast flawlessly, regularly cutting between normal speed and slo-motion to display simultaneous events. The final ‘hunting’ of Ralph, builds steadily to a thrilling climax and the sense of shame at the play’s conclusion is utterly heartbreaking.

This is a superb adaptation of a literary masterpiece. We saw it on it’s final date at the Lowry, but the show will be touring the country in 2016. If it lands anywhere near you, please ensure you grab the opportunity to see it. It’s too good to miss.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Doctor Zhivago

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02/12/15

It’s hard for me to accept but it’s been fifty years since I saw this film. It was in 1965 in a Chinese cinema in Singapore, where the idea of a snowbound landscape seemed an impossible fantasy. I remember, as a boy, being absolutely blown away by the experience. It was one of the first ‘serious’ films I’d ever watched, though I also seem to remember that many of the critics of the time were rather unkind to David Lean’s interpretation of Boris Pasternak’s best-selling novel, accusing it of being a ‘chocolate box’ movie.

So it’s great to be able to reassess it on the big screen and to realise that whole sections of the film have remained with me, imprinted indelibly on my unconscious mind; and to confirm that this really is an ‘old school’ epic of admirable power and grandeur. I didn’t know it then, of course, but Lean had one heck of a struggle to realise his vision. Unable to film in Russia, he had to make do with locations in Madrid, (in summer) his actors sweating under layers of fur. Other shots were secured in Finland, Canada and Portugal. A cavalry charge across a frozen lake was recreated by placing a cast iron sheet across a dry Spanish river bed and sprinkling it with plaster dust.  Not that any of that is evident. You’ll rarely see a more convincing evocation of winter landscapes.

Dr Zhivago is essentially a poignant love story, set against the turbulent events of a changing Russia. It begins with Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) a policeman in the ‘new’ Soviet Union, trying to find the lost daughter of his half brother, celebrated poet, Yuri Zhivago and his lover, Lara. Could it be ‘The Girl’ (Rita Tushingham)? From there, the story cuts back to Yuri’s tragic childhood and then moves on to the tumultuous events of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, where the lives of both Yuri and Lara are forever linked and transformed by the horrors of war.

It’s totally engaging, even at a bum-numbing 193 minutes. (Those with weak bladders will be glad to hear that the film still features its original fifteen minute intermission). In the title role, Omar Sharif, fresh off Lawrence of Arabia, provides a remarkable calm at the centre of the cinematic storm, while as Lara, Julie Christie has never been more radiant. Add a stellar selection of supporting actors – Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson, and you have a powerful film that dazzles as much today as it did in the decade in which it was released.

But it’s the magnificent set pieces that really linger in the memory: a savage cavalry attack on a protest march, with Zhivago’s tortured expression conveying the true horror of the situation unfolding in front of him; a packed railway station, where Zhivago and his family fight to board a train to the Urals; and a remote country house transformed into a gleaming ice palace by the extremes of the Russian winter. What’s even more remarkable is that this was all achieved without the benefits of CGI and other contemporary special effects – Doctor Zhivago is a tribute to all the technicians, set builders and costume designers who toiled to make David Lean’s remarkable vision a reality. Fifty years on, it still stands as a beacon of extraordinary creativity and a tribute to a man’s uncanny ability to film epic stories.

Chocolate box? Well, if that’s the case, tuck in. This is a delicious confection, as tasty now as it ever was.

5 stars

Philip Caveney