Archive for December, 2010

Season’s Greetings

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on December 22, 2010 by alexlarman

Ah, Christmas. Season of peace, prosperity and goodwill to all men, right? Hardly. My own experience of the days between 24th and 31st December tend to be a mixture of extreme mind-numbing boredom, interspersed with too much eating and drinking (cue hangovers and indigestion), and, if you’re very unlucky, some apocalyptic family rows to shake things up in between the endless repeats of old films and unfunny festive specials of ‘comedies’.

Thankfully, the National’s top-flight staging of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1980 comedy Season’s Greetings comes as a pleasant alternative to pantomimes. Superbly directed by Marianne Elliott (whose 2006 RSC Much Ado About Nothing was a particular favourite of mine), the top-flight cast raises what would otherwise be an enjoyable but unexceptional piece of festive biliousness into the realms of comic bliss.

The set-up is straightforward. Neville and Belinda Bunker (Neil Stuke and Catherine Tate) are holding a festive party for people including Neville’s former colleague Eddie (Marc Wootton) and his pregnant wife Pattie (Katherine Parkinson). Meanwhile, incompetent doctor Bernard (Mark Gatiss) is preparing his annual puppet show, much to everyone’s dread, his drunken wife Phyllis (Jenna Russell) is on the sauce and a young novelist (Oliver Chris) is getting hormones flying. Oh, and psychotic Uncle Harvey (David Troughton) has a gun and a knife strapped to his leg…

Obviously, things go very, very badly wrong indeed, to frequently hilarious effect. The scene that made me laugh hardest was when Chris’ earnest young novelist tries to explain to Phyllis that he isn’t gay, and that novelists are no more likely to be homosexual ‘than train drivers, for instance’, which leads to much beautifully acted and articulated confusion. There’s an undercurrent of pain, rejection and suffering that makes this a far more enticing prospect than many similar works, as when Parkinson’s character looks down at her drunken husband, passed out, and says ‘I had to fight for that’, but most of the appeal comes from very talented comic actors bringing splendid nuance to their roles, even if Gatiss’ hapless simpering does seem to recall The League Of Gentlemen’s Dr Chinnery slightly too much for comfort.

Nevertheless, a highly enjoyable evening, and one that will hopefully retain its mix of punch and poignancy until the end of its run in March.

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The King’s Speech

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on December 19, 2010 by alexlarman

As with this year’s other hotly tipped Oscar contender, The Social Network, the plot of The King’s Speech sounds so dull it’s almost comic. ‘English prince with speech defect becomes king due to brother’s abdication, conquers said defect with help from eccentric Australian, rallies country for WWII’. Actually put like that it doesn’t sound quite so bad, does it? And so it proves in Tom Hooper’s compelling film, which takes a topic which could easily have turned into BBC2 Sunday afternoon middlebrow filler and makes it altogether more cinematic and vital, aided by two magnificent central performances.

The action begins in 1925, with Prince Albert, aka ‘Bertie’ (Colin Firth) delivering a miserably fated speech, made unintelligible by his appalling stammer. It then moves to 1935, with the ageing George V (Michael Gambon) past his peak, and his playboy eldest son David (Guy Pearce) expecting to inherit the throne, even as he dallied with the wildly unsuitable Wallis Simpson. Bertie is no better, despite years of ineffectual treatments. In despair, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) enlists the help of failed Shakespearean actor and speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose unorthodox treatment leads to a good deal of witty back-and-forth between the two men, courtesy of David Seidler’s’ amusing script, before the predictable beats of this kind of film are hit – a disagreement leading to an estrangement, a reconciliation, and then the final build-up before the uplifting climax and triumph. It’s familiar from any number of sports movies (and actually not that dissimilar to Good Will Hunting, in its near-constant mining of Bertie’s grim childhood as the source for his current predicament), but done with style and verve.

Both Firth and Rush are given marvellously compelling parts to play, and do so with elan. Firth, in his second great performance of the year after A Single Man, beautifully captures the fear and shame of a man for whom greatness has very much been thrust upon him, especially when he is forced to become king after his brother’s abdication, but also his wry wit and ever-so-English stoicism at his plight. Rush, in the showier role, is marvellously entertaining as the useless actor but ahead-of-his-time therapist, exploring Bertie’s plight with unconventional therapies including orgies of swearing. They’re backed up by a fine supporting cast of great British character actors (and Pearce), mainly playing types rather than people, but it’s good to see the likes of Anthony Andrews and David Bamber (as, respectively, Stanley Baldwin and a dismissive theatre director).

If the ending’s move from a personal, private drama to something more sweeping and universal does feel like a change of tone, it’s at least accomplished elegantly and movingly – indeed, only the inclusion of Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’ could make it more obvious that it’s supposed to be an uplifting climax. Never mind that it’s almost entirely fudged for dramatic purposes, there’s no denying that it works as a piece of audience-pleasing tub-thumpery, as does the entire film. Oscars have gone to worse pieces of cinema.

A Flea In Her Ear

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on December 17, 2010 by alexlarman

Farce is a comic form uniquely difficult to pull off on stage. From one of its most famous early examples in English theatre – the gulling of Malvolio in Twelfth Night – its success on stage (it’s very seldom particularly entertaining to read) depends entirely on timing, performance and staging. I’ve done everything from wept with laughter at particularly well-handled situations to sat stony-faced at productions that just fail to ignite at all.

Unfortunately and disappointingly, Richard Eyre’s new production of Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear falls closer to the second category than the first. It isn’t a complete waste of time by any means, but alarm bells were ringing when I took my seat at the Old Vic to see that the normally packed auditorium was about half full – and this with the estimable Tom Hollander, fresh from his enormous success in Rev, and a fine supporting cast including the likes of Lisa Dillon, Jonathan Cake and Tim McMullan.

The main problem with this production is that Feydeau’s play now seems horrendously dated. Revolving around a stuffy businessman who’s having difficulties satisfying his wife, who believes he’s an adulterer and constructs an elaborate trap for him as a result, it has a slowly paced first act, a frenetic second act where farcical momentum is at last gathered and then a rather perfunctory third act where the comic complications of the second are replayed in less enjoyable fashion. It also doesn’t help that many of the running jokes – a young man whose cleft palate can only be solved by the application of a silver palate which keeps getting lost; a ludicrously jealous Spaniard; a manic hotel proprietor with a touch of the Basil Fawltys – are pitched on such a level that their reappearance bores rather than amuses.

Personally speaking, I always prefer farce when there’s something darker and more bleak at stake than just a couple of marital relationships, and so this all seems very vanilla, up to the predictable resolution. Hollander, doing manful duty in a dual role as the businessman and his lookalike, a drunken hotel valet, is superb, perhaps predictably, but it’s a great shame that he’s more or less stranded in a rather dry affair. The Old Vic has been producing some genuinely great work recently, and I look forward to Anne-Marie Duff in Rattigan’s Cause Celebre and Kevin Spacey in Sam Mendes’ Richard III next year. This, however, has to be seen as a bit of a let-down.

 

Patrick Wolf – ‘Time Of My Life’

Posted in Music with tags , on December 10, 2010 by alexlarman

Patrick Wolf has been occupying a rather strange position in modern pop for a little while now. His blend of flamboyant orchestral pop with a charismatic stage presence and a fine baritone singing voice has been slightly undercut by a near-complete lack of mainstream success and an unfortunate tendency, mid-gig, to move from Ziggy-era Bowie to blushing schoolboy between songs.

It’s fascinating watching someone so clearly talented who’s been on the verge of greatness for some time achieve it, and finally, in the shape of his new single ‘Time Of My Life’,  Wolf attains it. Allusions to the Dirty Dancing theme song might be half-intentional, but this is an altogether more elegant beast. Beginning with soaring strings that feel like a more complete and stirring revisitation of his earlier song ‘Overture’, it sees Wolf, recently split from his lover, contemplating ‘new days of doubt without you’ and anticipating, Morrissey-like, that he will be ‘a slave to my early grave’.

Yet, unlike Morrissey, the stirring bridge declares, over a quite exquisite arrangement, ‘It won’t be long til I grow through this struggle’, and then, halfway through, it becomes utterly transcendent, as elements of electronica, acoustic melancholy and great, fist-pumping euphoria all come together, as Wolf declaims ‘Thanks for the time…time of my life….happy without you’, beautifully capturing the mixed wistfulness and optimism of a break up. In some respects, it’s a sister song to Beck’s glorious ‘Ramona’ of earlier in the year, but that, for all its brilliance, was never quite as uplifting as this.

The first single that we’ve heard from Wolf’s new album The Conqueror, expected in May 2011, it’s an intriguing trailer for what promises to be his first entry into the mainstream. But don’t just take my word for it, listen to it below:

Arcade Fire @ The 02

Posted in Music with tags , , , on December 2, 2010 by alexlarman

‘O come, let us sing unto the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation’.

If I had to think of two ways to describe the remarkable rise and rise of the Arcade Fire, ‘joyful noise’ and ‘the rock of our salvation’ would both seem fairly apposite. Since the release of their debut album, Funeral, they have acquired a significant reputation both as a trendsetting and innovative album band – with comparisons to acts as eclectic and significant as Radiohead, Talking Heads and U2 all seeming deserved – and, perhaps most of all, as a live act. I’ve seen several of their shows over the years, beginning with a still unforgettable night at St John’s Smith’s Square, which ended with the band taking to the outside of the church to busk Wake Up acoustically, surrounded by their adoring fans and creating a synergy between performers and audience that I’ve never seen before or since.

On the first night of their long-awaited return to the UK proper (after summer gigs at Reading, Leeds and at the Hackney Empire), they managed to make the cavernous 02 arena seem intimate, almost welcoming. (Approving comments were heard afterwards comparing it favourably to their previous gigs at the Brixton Academy and Ally Pally). An immaculately chosen set list combined around half a dozen of the most immediately accessible songs from The Suburbs (including disco-like stomper Mountains Beyond Mountains and the instant classic We Used To Wait, almost certainly the most stirring song ever written about sending letters) along with some of their most famous earlier tracks.

It’s fascinating to listen to the difference between the songs from Neon Bible (my own favourite album by the band so far), which tend to be portentous and slow-building epics that climax in chest-beating, heart-pounding crescendos of noise, and those from Funeral, which still have the beguilingly offbeat and exhilarating qualities that made so many people love the band from the first time they heard them. Whether it’s the Scott Walker-meets-dance stomp of Crown Of Love, the thrilling meshing of Power Out and Rebellion, and of course the mighty singalong finale of Wake Up, there’s no doubt, watching this magnificent, wonderful band, that they’re very much in it for the long haul. O come, let us sing unto the band, for theirs is indeed a joyful noise.

Incidentally – on a purely personal note, can I mention in passing that the ever-charming and increasingly glamorous Regine Chassagne is coming to seem more and more the heart and soul of the band?