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Thursday 30 January 2014

Putting it Together, Musical Review by Stephen Sondheim, St. James Theatre, London 9* out of 10

Putting It Together is a musical review consisting of songs taken from musicals by Stephen Sondheim and organised around the theme of love relationships among sophisticated urban dwellers at different stages of their lives. The songs run the gamut from hopeful anticipation to painful break-up with a lot joy and crisis in between.

Sondheim’s lyrics are masterful case studies in social psychology delivered in a firework of insight, wit and deep emotional intelligence. As his music serves to make the great lyrics even more effective, it doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves. But he has written some great tunes, too.

It is hard to believe that we had to wait more than 20 years for the London premiere of this gem. Alex Parker’s production matches the quality of the lyrics with the right level of energy and sophistication from an outstanding cast consisting of David Bedella, Daniel Crossley, Janie Dee, Damian Humbley and Caroline Sheen. Jointly and severally the actors get to show the range of interpretation they are capable of – and very capable they are, too. On the evening I saw the show, the rapport with the audience was evident and the energy on stage radiated back only to be picked again by actors and orchestra. Even in such a high quality ensemble, award-winning Janie Dee stands out by the sheer charisma of her performance. Body language and facial expression to match the emotions portrayed was magnetic. I have seen some of the numbers Dee performs here done by show business greats like Patti LuPone and Carol Burnett - but nobody did it better.  

Putting It Together is a thoroughly satisfying and uplifting experience for a delighted London audience, who deserve an extended West End run for this production which, unfortunately for those who do not have tickets is now almost completely sold out for the remainder of its short run.


Saturday 25 January 2014

The Blackest Black, Play by Jeremy Brock, Hampstead Theatre, London, 7* out of 10

Abi (Charity Wakefield), an aspiring English artist has succeeded in obtaining a short residency in an Arizona astronomical observatory. There she meets Martin (John Light), an ambitious American scientist who wants nothing more than a tenure-position as a professor of Astronomy. Martin has a limited number of nights to make actual observations of the portion of the universe he specialises in. Chuck (Ian Bonar), part Native American, is the engineer whose job it is to set up the telescope in accordance with the wishes of his scientist clients. 

For all but the last night reserved for Martin’s observations the weather has been bad. Though married with one child, this has led to the very high-strung, scientific and logical Martin to spend the night with the very chaotic English resident artist, for whom human connections, sexual and otherwise are what life is all about. It seems that hormones generally flow more freely in the cleansing Arizona sunshine. But when passionate Abi draws country-boy and engineer Chuck into her schemes, far-reaching consequences ensue.

The Blackest Black is a play about the clash between two professional worlds across two continents - that of the English artist, who finds the scientific look at the world incredibly limited and pedantic and that of the American scientist, who has no feel for the emotionality and the sweeping metaphors of modern art and feels overwhelmed by it. Sexual attraction between the two lights a dangerous fuse for Chuck who is both practical and a bit of a dreamer but not as ruthless in pursuing his professional goals and carnal inclinations as either of the other two.

BAFTA and Oscar nominated screenwriter Jeremy Brock (Mrs Brown, The Last King of Scotland) has written an interesting play; for me he has left some doubts about the plausibility of the relationship between his two protagonists developing such passion in a relatively short time. Director Michael Longhurst, Charity Wakefield and John Light do their best to make the strength of that relationship believable - and their best is very good. Ian Bonar shines in the role of Chuck, a character strongly written and strongly played.

All in all, The Blackest Back is a very worthwhile and enjoyable new play. The Hampstead Theatre, both upstairs and downstairs has become an ever more interesting venue for quality theatre and great value for money. I’ll be back.

Thursday 16 January 2014

12 Years A Slave, Film (2013), directed by Steve McQueen 9* out of 10

March 1843 Saratoga New York. Salomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is black, a free man, married with a young family, living a bourgeois existence as a musician and farmer. But when he accepts in good faith, a contract to play the violin at circus performances in Washington DC he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Southern states. Suddenly, he enters a world, where in everyday life white people treat black people, as more or less valuable means of production without any rights. Salomon does not know how long it will be before he can regain his status as a free man, if ever, but he is determined to return to his wife and children. So he deploys his considerable skills and intelligence to get to understand the society he finds himself in. He resolves to make himself useful to his masters in order to achieve a position from which he has the chance to escape the cruel fate of being a slave in the American South of the mid 19th century.

Based on Salomon Northup’s biographical account originally published in 1853 (and dedicated to Harriet Beecher-Stowe the author of the fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin), John Ridley (screenplay) and the black British artist Steve McQueen (director) tell an exciting story which is a powerful indictment of the system of slavery.  They are supported by an excellent cast including Hollywood stars (Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giammati, Michael Fassbender) and less known but no less excellent actors notably Chiwetel Ejiofor in the main role and Lupita Nyong’o as the slave girl Patsey. The photography showing the landscape and architecture of the American South is beautiful. The camera often stays on a scene for a long time with only the natural sound as a soundtrack that is as rich as any musical score. 

12 Years a Slave grabs today's film-going audience, as everyone can identify with Salomon Northrup, a free man who is brutally plucked from a comfortable happy working and family life into the existence of a slave. More painfully and reluctantly we can, if we are honest, also identify with potentially good men trying to be “humane slave owners”, whom the system of slavery, of which they are part, has pushed into accepting and defending what, when looked at from the outside, they would know to be indefensible. Most complex and tragic is the role of the attractive woman slave. Separated from her children, she may obtain major privileges by becoming the master’s official “second wife”.  But that in turn brings mortal danger from the master’s first wife, let alone being subject to the master’s own whims and brutality. And in this film brutality is appropriately shown when it is part of the story. Some viewers may find this hard to cope with, but the accusation that director Steve McQueen is presenting “torture porn” is unjustified and disingenuous. Finally, 12 Years A Slave can be seen as an uplifting film as the US has come a long way in emancipating former slaves and their descendants. Yet slavery and slave-like working conditions still exist in many countries around the world. And we are all prone to assert ourselves by thinking that others are less than ourselves. Salomon Northrop’s story remains a powerful wake-up call to our better nature.   

Among the mainstream English language films of 2013, 12 Years A Slave is one of two films that stand out as high quality works of lasting value, (the other being Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine).

Monday 13 January 2014

Like Father Like Son, Film (2013) by Hirokazu Koreeda, 9* out of 10

Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is an ambitious and fast rising executive in the architecture firm he works for. His wife Midori (Machiko Ono) has given up her career to look after their six-year-old son Keita (Keita Nonomiya). Ryota takes his role as provider seriously and his family lives very comfortably from the fruits of his hard work. He loves his son and wants to see him succeed in life. So the family applies to an elite private school and Keita has to take piano lessons although he does not excel as a musician. Ryota is concerned that Keita is not competitive enough. While Midori supports him loyally in his ambitions for Keita she also makes sure that Keita can also have some fun. The boy adores both his parents and particular loves it when he gets his fathers approval. 

The family is thrown into crisis when the provincial hospital where Keita was born informs Ryota and Midori that there may have been exchange of new-borns and Keita might not be their biological child.  As head of the family and in competent management mode Ryota takes the lead in dealing with the situation. If indeed there has been an exchange, his and Midori’s biological has grown up in a provincial family, the Saikis. The father Yudai (Riri Furaki) is a shopkeeper, older and not at all ambitious. He likes to spend any free minute playing with his three children, who delight in his presence and his ability to repair their broken toys. Ryota starts out with wanting to address this issue like one of the challenging management problem he is so successful at handling at work; but the decisions he has to make not only have serious consequences on others but also challenge his own life and world-view. Will he be able to cope with putting himself in question?

Like Father Like Son is a powerful and uplifting tale about relationships between fathers and children and beyond that human relationships within and between families from different social backgrounds. The interplay between adults and children and among the children themselves is finely observed. While we might expect Japanese culture and context to be very different from ours, the issues and feelings that this film so skilfully addresses are universal. Like Father Like Son captures our imagination and emotions. The credibility of Ryota’s development during the period of the events recounted depends on the performances of the other characters both adult and children. They shine with excellent performances.

Like Father Like Son deserves the prizes it has been awarded at the Cannes, London and other festivals; a delight.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Saving Mr. Banks, Film (2013) directed by John Lee Hancock, 8* out of 10

London in the early 1960s. Behind her carapace of irony the English writer P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the Mary Poppins children’s books is faced with a dilemma. For 20 years Mr Walt Disney of the Disney Corporation has been asking for the film rights. For 20 years she has resisted, but now she is running out of money to finance an elegant home in an upmarket London neighbourhood, blossoming cherry trees and all. And so reluctantly, she will travel to America to seriously consider Disney’s offer, which by now includes giving Ms. Travers the final say on every detail of the film he would like Disney studios to make. 

Against this business-like background of the author resisting the "Disneyfication" of her work, “Saving Mr. Banks” tells the story not only of the evolution of Travers’ relationship with the team assigned by Disney to adapt her Mary Poppins books, but also the difficult events in her early childhood in the Australian outback that lie at the heart of the Mary Poppins story and of Travers’ personality.  The flashbacks to Travers’ youth feature her  bank manager father (Colin Farrell) uniquely unsuited to his job, her mother (Ruth Wilson) and the author's younger self (Annie Rose Buckley).  And Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) who is determined to win her over so he can sprinkle the lucrative Disney stardust on the Mary Poppins tale has not only commercial reasons for being so uncharacteristically patient and persistent in his campaign. During her stay in Los Angeles Travers and Walt Disney will cross swords more than once. Will their strong personalities allow them to reach real mutual understanding?

Saving Mr Banks is well written and superbly cast. At its centre are two people who have turned difficult childhoods into engaging fantasies which have entertained children of all ages. The authenticity of the story of the creation of the classic Mary Poppins movie is helped by the fact that Travers insisted that all her meetings with the scriptwriters, lyricists and composers would be taped. 

Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti and Colin Farrell put in strong performances that are true to type. Hanks is the natural leader - serious businesslike charismatic and emotionally intelligent. Thompson is the English lady hiding her inadmissible feelings behind coolness and irony. Paul Giamatti as the driver of the Disney courtesy limousine, a "mensch" who brings slice of real life into the Disney dream machine. Farrell is the irresistible heartthrob and flawed lovably rogue.  

Script and direction set-up emotional highlights are very skilfully within this sentimental and likeable drama, so that even hardened critical film-buffs will have difficulty to stop themselves from welling up. Yes, this is Disney Films placing the Disney product (Disneyland, Disney corporate culture) very effectively within a story in which all things Disney play a major role; this film is also bestowing filmic sainthood on the eponymous Walt, founder of the Disney empire. Yet it cannot be denied that Saving Mr Banks is a very enjoyable film.