Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Theatre and corporate sponsorship

Natasha Tripney has done a Guardian blog about the National's production of Much Ado About Nothing being sponsored by Shell. It's a tough one - the Travelex £10 season was generally seen as a triumph in the push towards a more democratised theatre (I could have just written 'cheap seats'...!) and a perfect partnership between business and the arts. The reason *this* feels worse, of course, is that it's Shell, it's oil, it all feels a bit dirty. But if we're ok with Travelex, and not with Shell, then there has to be a line somewhere between the two, which is always going to be tricky.

My gut reaction is to praise the National for being at the forefront of 'taking the bull by the horns' rather than putting their efforts into moaning about cuts in arts funding. But then, maybe they *should* be moaning about it... clearly, there's no easy answer.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The West End Whingers are a bit too good...

Found them via Interval Drinks and they are brilliant. Too good, in fact. Please don't all defect and leave me blathering on to myself...

Wicked: Apollo Victoria, 25 July

You can't get much further away from the quiet magic of Elling than going to see Wicked the very next day. In the Trafalgar Studios you can catch John Simm's eye during the bow (or convince yourself you did, at least) - at the Apollo Victoria you have to fight just to squeeze through the doors. I haven't been to a massive West End musical in a long time, and the whole experience came as a bit of a shock. This isn't just theatre, it's also a slick marketing machine. In the foyer alone there were four merchandise and concessions stands selling everything from popcorn to jewellery to snowstorms, and then there were another couple of stands at the back of the auditorium. At first, this all depressed me slightly (I'm becoming a snob, clearly) but then I saw hundreds of kids excited about the fact that they were going to the theatre, and I realised that it was very possibly a good thing. There was certainly a buzz in that big old barn, and it's hard to not get involved when a cheer erupts simply because the lights are going down.

And it has to be said, every pound that is made out of the merchandise certainly shows on stage. This production oozes class and attention to detail; the costumes are as exquisite and interesting for the chorus as for the main characters, and the set and lighting are spectacular - more impressive than anything I've seen, certainly. But what is even more impressive is that the production values are easily matched by the quality of the cast. The two lead roles of Elphaba (who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda (the Good Witch) are taken by Kerry Ellis and Dianne Pilkington respectively, both of whom have superb voices, though both completely different, as they need to be. Ellis's voice especially has real depth, and her solo songs, I'm Not That Girl and Defying Gravity in particular, deservedly received the biggest cheers.

But while it is almost impossible to find fault with the production, I had issues with the musical itself. The plot follows Gregory Maguire's novel 'Wicked: The Life And Times of the Wicked Witch Of The West', and so tells of how Elphaba becomes the most hated figure in Oz, and Glinda the most beloved. It starts off pretty much like a combination of every high-school romantic comedy you've ever seen - just take the weird-but-pretty-on-the-inside girl and paint her green. This works well; Glinda is the bitchy and sickeningly pretty prom queen who eventually takes a shine to Elphaba and makes her her new 'project' (leading to one of the show's best songs 'Popular'), and they both learn things from each other. So far, so Clueless, but as I say, it works. Then, when the plot starts to interact more directly with the story we know, there are some fine cross-over moments: we find out how the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow end up as they are, and why Elphaba turns from sweet-natured outcast to public enemy number one. It's when the story starts to run alongside the film that I had issues - it's a personal thing really, but liberties are taken with that most magical of movies that, to me, border on sacrilege. [Highlight for spoiler: The Wicked Witch of the West doesn't die - she's set up by the Scarecrow to throw water over her where there's a trapdoor. And she ends up with the Scarecrow. I mean really.] Wicked starts off being a fun and inventive backstory for the witches, but ends up clashing awkwardly with the movie.

But that's probably just me thinking about things too deeply, and I really did enjoy this as a spectacle. It took me a good ten years to get from Starlight Express (in this very theatre) to Elling - I just hope that some of the kids who enjoyed this so much can make the same journey, while still finding time to savour the sheer magnitude of a production like this.

Paul Fuzz on Clerks

A homage to Grunge Noir...

Elling: Trafalgar Studios, 24 July

When John Simm says that this play is 'sweet' - as he has during every single interview he's had to squirm his way through these last few weeks - you'd better believe him. Elling radiates warmth, and revels in the joy to be found in being different. But sweet can turn to saccharine when there is a complete lack of a villain, as there is here - unless, of course, you are provided with real belly laughs, along with that warm glow.

Elling, as we receive it, is an adaptation of a Norwegian play, which is based on an Oscar-nominated film, which in turn is based on a trilogy of books by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, and if anything has been lost in translation, then the original must have been a rare masterpiece. It follows Elling and Kjell Bjarne as they learn to live in a city-centre apartment given to them by social services - their first steps into The Real World, after being cocooned and contained within an institution. Elling is a poet, a theologian and a philosopher, but he also likes to sleep in the cupboard, and proclaims that neither public conveniences nor 'going out' are his forte. Obsessed with his mother, he has never got over, or even accepted her death. While Elling must cope with the angst of genius, Kjell Bjarne is driven by more mundane forces - the desire to 'get some chicks' and to eat. He may be less refined than Elling in his speech, but it soon becomes clear that his problems are not as severe, and his good heart slowly, gently coaxes Elling to do things he would never have been able to do his own.

This relationship is the classic odd couple set up, and none the less beautiful for it. Outside may be a world of crowds and friends and dangers - all of them new and scary - but they can at least start to face them together. The most gorgeous scene in the play comes at Christmas, when the two exchange gifts. As Kjell Bjarne hands over his present, Elling tentatively takes it in his hands and examines it with the look of someone who has just been presented the Holy Grail, glittering and sacred. The gift is stunning, a model of their apartment block made out of matchsticks, but Elling looks just as happy and grateful when it is still wrapped up, such is the importance of receiving a gift from his friend Kjell Bjarne - who, by the way, is equally thrilled with a pen containing a lady whose clothes come off when you turn it upside down.

The source material may have been wonderful, but the writing is here pitched absolutely perfectly, credit to adaptor Simon Bent. Many of the laughs he laughs do come from the ridiculous things that Elling and Kjell Bjarne say and do, but it can never be mean-spirited in the context of a play which imbues them with such humanity, and champions their daily triumphs, no matter how small. The quality of the writing is also evident in the gradual nature of the progress of the two. At first, Elling announces 'Mother did all the cooking - I was in charge of ideology' (one of the play's very best lines) but by the end they are functioning much more 'normally'; facing life's problems without being overwhelmed by them.

Let's move onto the performances, then, something I've been saving up until last. John Simm as Elling is, well, ridiculous. He puts on a silly voice, gesticulates wildly and contorts his face with every line. But it is amazing. Ridiculously amazing, without doubt one the finest central performances, comic or otherwise, I've seen. His timing is impeccable, knows exactly when to change from over-the-top to small and poignant, and inhabits the character (a gift for any actor, admitedly) to such an extent that John Simm disappears almost entirely. Did I spend the first few minutes looking for little glimpses of Sam Tyler, or listening out for a tiny Mancunian twang? Yes, of course, but he gave away nothing, and I'm glad. If anything, this huge strength of the production is almost a failing - Simm's performance is so odd and so impressive that it threatens to overwhelm the whole thing. It is to the credit of the other actors that he simply dominates it.

This play could just be an enjoyable two-hours' entertainment and nothing more, but thanks to the strength of the writing, and a central performance you won't forget in a hurry, you come out of the theatre feeling you've actually seen something incredibly special.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mercury Prize shortlist - is it that time already?

Apparently. It's become a tradition for me to have a look at the nominations so I'd better keep it up, eh?

The Young Knives: Voices Of Animals And Men
You know these guys - three of them. Large, geeky looking fellows. One of them calls himself The House Of Lords (of course). Quirky, spiky and terribly English, they give the impression of being more interesting than they actually are. Which is not at all.

Arctic Monkeys: Favourite Worst Nightmare
Yes I got them wrong, we all know that. Everyone kept going on about their lyrics, so that's what I listened to, and I didn't like them, because they slagged off The Thrills ("You're not from New York city, you're from Rotherham"). But then I started listening to the tunes and I realised that they're actually pretty special. This album is hard to get into, but when they concentrate on those melodies and lighten up a bit (Brianstorm, Flourescent Adolescent, 505) they show why we should believe the hype.

Bat For Lashes: Fur And Gold
I've heard a couple of songs by this Bjork-ish singer-songwriter (if indeed anyone can be Bjork-ish, even Bjork herself) and it's certainly interesting, atmospheric stuff. But I've yet to really click with it...

Basquiat Strings: Basquiat Strings with Seb Rochford
The obligatory jazz entry; I'm not going to pretend to know a thing about them.

Amy Winehouse: Back To Black
Think what you like about Mark Ronson butchering The Smiths, he did a damn good job of producing this album. While his work with Candie Payne sounds glossy, fake, and just too much, this sounds earthy and dirty in the very best way. There are some great songs on here (the singles, really), but there's also a hell of a lot of filler.

New Young Pony Club: Fantastic Playroom
Ah nu-rave. Because the panellists are down with the kids, yeah? Glo-sticks, yeah? I've heard a couple of songs from this band, but it all sounds dull and detached to me. They should learn from their lords and masters...

Kalxons: Myths Of The Near Future
...who are Klaxons. I suffered Arctic Syndrome with these guys for a long, long time, but, as with the Monkeys, I relented eventually. My problem was that there was a big difference between what I'd heard about them, and what I'd heard of them. I was told they were all bleeps and whistles, but all I heard was Hard-Fi (Golden Skans). But of course they're better than both of these assessments, and will outlive the nu-rave fad they created because they've actually got some tunes.

Fionn Regan: The End Of History
Yet another new Bob Dylan who's all angst and acoustics. To be honest, I've become so bored of dreary troubadours that I've pretty much actively avoided him, so you'll have to go elsewhere to find out more.

Maps: We Can Create
I've heard plenty about these, and nothing by them. But I'm told by NME that it's "ambient, dreamy pop music akin to Kraftwerk or Spiritualized, with a touch of My Bloody Valentine-style indie." While all of those references are genius, I bet they *really* suck.

Dizzee Rascal: Maths And English
Can the Boy In Da Corner make it a double? I doubt it.

Jamie T: Panic Prevention
Oh dear, The Streets certainly has a lot to answer for, doesn't he? I'm sure that Jamie T's lyrics speak volumes to some people - probably to a lot of people - but they don't even whisper to me, and so all I'm left with is the tunes. And they ain't that great.

The View: Hats Off To The Buskers
I know what I should say about these Glaswegian toddlers; I should say that they're derivative, sub-Libertines ramshakle chancers. And that, of course, is mostly true. And yet something about these guys works. They've got some great songs, have a real feel for authentic, old-fashioned rock and roll, and certainly live the lifestyle. Much better than they have any right to be.

So, who do we expect will win, and who do we want to win? Well, I'd put a few quid on Klaxons, while quietly whistling about these Same Jeans that I've had on for four days now...

Voting open for National Television Awards

Already?! But the awards aren't 'til October! Yessir. Let's give Life On Mars the credit it deserves (and didn't get at the Baftas, Audience Award aside...)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

What Thursday Next did... next

How did I miss that Jasper Fforde was bringing out a new Thursday Next novel?! For the uninitiated, firstly you're a fool, and secondly, these novels star Thursday Next, a (now ex-) Literary Detective from a parallel Swindon, where croquet is the Beautiful Game, and Neanderthals and dodos are commonplace. In the first (and best) book, The Eyre Affair, Next realises she can jump into, and between books, and I'd say it's there that Fforde's brilliantly bizarre imagination really cuts loose.

In fact, it all gets a bit complicated, but it's also rather wonderful. Books are controlled from the inside, by Jurisfiction and the Council of Genres among others; characters are 'generics' until given personality; discarded ideas float around in the Well Of Lost Plots to be reused elsewhere; plot devices can be bought and sold (the more complicated and original, the more expensive); characters can hang out in back-stories when they're not being read; Jurisfiction agents communicate by Footnoterphone... and they're just the aspects I understand.

Fforde packs in so many brilliant ideas per page that it can all get a bit much at times, but it also means that you're constantly amazed, constantly entertained. And he mixes terribly high-brow literary allusions with characters called Landen Park-Laine and Jack Schitt. To be quite honest, the books bristle with imagination to the extent that they can end up just a tad messy, but they're the only glimpses into such an amazing mind that us mere mortals get, so they're worth cherishing. And when you're done reading, you can enjoy the books as beautiful, interesting objects in themselves, and then head over to www.jasperfforde.com to get the latest upgrades (corrections) and extra scenes.

Friday, July 06, 2007

More cool casting news

After hearing about Ewan McGregor, and John Lithgow taking to the stage, it seems the RSC want our DT to play Hamlet. It's not definite, because it would clash with Doctor Who series 5, but I reckon we're all thinking he'll want to move on by then.

Would I brave the Stage Door scrum? Of course. Certainly will be doing so for this guy...

Oh, and I was thinking, I should do a 'Is celebrity casting a good thing?' sort of post at some point. Remind me. :)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Who's booked up to see DCI Sam Tyler at the end of the month?

Here's a pic to enhance your envy.

By the way, is there any way we can get the Beeb to bring Men Of The World out on DVD? I remember liking that... and I was 10 at the time. My parents were really quite liberal about me watching comedy, but strict on drama... I reckon this is A Good Thing on both counts. I was definitely watching Father Ted, The High Life and Alexei Sayle at the same age, and Bottom and repeats of The Young Ones and stuff. And it all made me the person I am today, I tell ya!

Catherine Tate - my two cents

It's pretty much a thumbs up from me. I like the idea of an older companion who'll stand up to the Doctor, and is absolutely not in awe of him (a little scared of what he can do, maybe, but not over-awed by him as a person). Donna will be good for Doc, I reckon.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Doctor Who Series 3: Why it was the least enjoyable so far

Both Rob and Lisa have suggested that this series of Doctor Who was the best so far (new-Who only), and my instant, gut reaction is, roughly: WHAT?! Rob's given an episode by episode justification for this, and while I did start it, I'm now going to be contrary and say that looking at things like this misses the bigger picture.

And so what is that bigger picture that makes this series the worst so far (from a completey un-objective viewpoint, admittedly!!)? The reasons are threefold...
1) Half of it was a bit rubbish
2) The other half featured a Doctor who could pretty much be officially classed as MIA
3) A crappy assistant throughout

Number one, I don't think I really need to explain - we all know that this series got off to a decidedly dodgy start. After Smith and Jones, which I really did enjoy (sparky writing and so much promise from Ms. Jones), we had two poor episodes, two which were the worst new-Who episodes so far, and two which were a relief, but nothing special (I think I was a bit over-complimentary of both Lazarus and 42 at the time - blame the relief). That's six episodes out of 13 which range from really awful to just-above-average. And the fact that they were all lumped together *does* make a difference when you're looking at a series as a whole, because it affected how we judged everything else. By Evolution of the Daleks, I was seriously disillusioned. Doctor Who has never left me feeling disillusioned! I wasn't excited about the next episode, and that's just plain wrong.

Ok, onto the MIA Doctor. Just as the writing picked up massively (all hail Mr. Cornell) the Doctor became a bit-part in his own show. Human Nature/Family of Blood: John Smith. Blink: Doctor-lite. Utopia: The Jack Hartness Show. Sound of Drums: The Master Show. Last of the Time Lords: The Martha Show. The Doctor has ben subdued and underwritten this series, and while RTD would explain that as his grief at losing Rose, it's been totally unsatisfying to watch. I miss the Doctor, dammit! The Doctor who accidently quotes The Lion King, who beats out a samba, who snogs the Madame du Pompadour. As I say, I understand *why* the Doctor was low-key... I just didn't like it, not for a whole series. Maybe Kylie will bring him round.

And the crappy assistant. Yeah, let's do this! Among the Livejournal new-Who fangirls, it's perfectly normal to say 'I miss Rose; Rose was a better assistant', and today I align myself with them. I *do* miss Rose, I *do* think she was a better assistant and, for me, her departure has left a gaping hole in the show. Rose cracked jokes, was fiercely loyal, she looked into the heart of the TARDIS, she was literally the golden girl, she had something of the wolf about her. Rose was an amazing character; given masses to do (handled brilliantly by Piper) and acted as the emotional heart of the series - the very reason why Doctor Who has gained all these new fans. Martha is not a great character. And I've gotta reiterate, Freema is *not* the problem, because we've seen what she can do, and I'll actually look forward to her popping into the next series now. It's just that Martha's story was ill-judged, and hard to support.

Of course, I could do a whole post about what I enjoyed about this series - loved the range that David Tennant showed, the Human Nature/Family of Blood double-bill was gorgeous, and the Master was inspired. But there were overriding problems that mean that I don't look back on this series particularly fondly... and that's a shame.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Doctor Who - The Last Of The Time Lords

Well, this episode certainly proved once again what we all know - that when you want subtlety, you go to Paul Cornell or Steven Moffat, and when you want a proper finale, it just has to be RTD. His particular brand of wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am writing doesn't always leave you satisfied in a mid-season episode, but no-one else could do the season closer. Only RTD would have the whole world more-than-decimated, only RTD would juxtapose that with a musical number featuring deep humiliation of the Doctor. This episode didn't *do* shades of grey, but hey, we've got other writers for that. I've gotta say though, that at one point, this black-and-white approach prompted me to have a little wobble. When the Master made the Doctor's 900 years show, and the Toclafane sphere was opened to reveal the mutilated human face, in that moment, it entered my mind that perhaps they'd gone too dark. On Confidential they've always said that they'll go as dark as they can, they'll just take out the gore. But I wasn't sure... I knew that RTD would balance out this low with an amzing high, but would little kids, faced with that horrific machine-head thing?! It freaked me out enough.

But what a bit of plotting. We'd assumed that Utopia would have to come back into it, but I can't imagine anyone had worked out exactly what was going on - the human race, coming back to kill their ancestors, and the inherent paradox of that stabilised by the Tardis. Just like the brilliant revelation that the Genesis Ark was a bigger-on-the-inside prison ship, this was one of those hugely satisfying moments that we all had faith would turn up, after last week's rather plodding affair, Master aside. Talking of the Master, John Simm continued to be brilliant - finding an actor that can equal Mr. Tennant's charisma must have been a difficult task, but they did it. Taking the Doctor out of the equation by aging him so dramatically was brave, given that he's the heart(s) of the show, but the team's faith in Simm to temporarily take over that role was thoroughly rewarded. Of course, it's only disappointing that Simm can never be our central hero... and that it appears that the next Master will be a woman, kinda ruling him out. (EDIT: Ok, I may have slightly misunderstood that... haha)

This wasn't The Master Show like last week, though; this was Martha's story. And yes, she was great. Strong, loyal, and self-reliant, Martha finally came into her own - she even became a myth, just like The Doctor himself. She saved the world. And Freema? We all know that when she's given something to do, she does it well, and this was undoubtedly her finest moment. I still don't believe that I've been unduly harsh on her before - I honestly don't think that there is anything special about her as an actress - but she has, undoubtedly, been ill-served by the writers. She has *not* gone on a journey, until last night, and a whole series of chilly relations between Doctor and assistant is not terribly enjoyable to watch, and, importantly, did not endear us towards her. Was Martha's ultimate victory enough of a pay-off for all of that? I'm not sure. I get the feeling that she'll be a different woman when she pops back into the show next season; the Martha Mark II version we saw last night, and the woman we'd have rather she had been from the beginning.

And the ending? Well, yes, the high did balance out that crashing low. The moment when the human race brought back our Doctor brought a little tear to my eye, and the Master's reaction - stop it, don't you dare - actually made me laugh out loud. But 'I forgive you'? Where's the 'no second chances, I'm that kind of a man' Doctor? Well, just as Martha is now a different woman, the Doctor is a different man. Rose made him feel less alone, and he lost her. The Master made him feel less alone, and he can't bear to lose him too. But he does - the Master wins. Not after another bit of pitch-perfect acting from DT, though - he has given superlative performaces throughout this series.

All of this should have been enough, but RTD had that final revelation... that Captain Jack is very slowly aging... that he used to be a poster boy... that they called him the Face of Boe. My jaw quite literally dropped. A twist of that much brilliance... well, it almost makes you forget those early dodgy episodes.

EDIT - Oh, and to be clear.... I thought it was excellent!