Saturday, February 28, 2009

A couple of nights out...

Well hullo there. Just wanted to put down a few notes about a couple of lovely nights out I had last week, those nights being a visit to the Playhouse Theatre for La Cage Aux Folles, and a visit to Brixton Academy for the NME Awards.

On the first count, the most important thing to take from the evening is the fact that everyone who is able to go and see this production should certainly do so. It started life at the Mernier Chocolate Factory, who rarely put a toe, let alone a foot wrong, so it comes as no surprise that this is a triumph - Sunday In The Park With George was utterly wonderful, and Little Shop of Horrors was a whole lot of fun. I've always seen their productions after transferring to the West End, though, so I need to correct that before long... As well as the producing company, there's another pull of course: that saviour of BBC Saturday nights (if you ignore Strictly, I suppose...) Graham Norton. As Albin/Zsa Zsa he is warm, engaging and hugely funny, and the fact that you never quite shake the knowledge that he *is* TV's Graham Norton is somehow not a problem at all. His performance is easily matched by Steven Pacey as Georges, and the production is full of heart, fun and some truly great, athletic dancing from the scantily clad Cagelles. Completely life-affirming stuff.

That's not a phrase one would probably use for the NME Awards, it's safe to say, but also fun in their own, shambolic kinda way. The main reason I went, being the comedy fangirl I am, was to support the host Mark Watson rather than for any specific band, and it was great seeing him hold court in that massive room. Probably not the most attentive audience he's ever had, of course, but he seemed to relish it. It was slightly unfortunate for me that the performance I was most excited about - Elbow's Grounds For Divorce - actually opened the show, but it was cool seeing Renaissance Man Richard Ayoade pick up the award for Best DVD, and Franz Ferdinand's version of Call Me with La Roux came over really well in the venue (less well on telly last night.) I know I was *meant* to be most excited about Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon performing together for the first time since the split, by the way... but the Blur era I identify with the most is full-on Britpop, and suffice to say they didn't play The Universal.

Nothing much terribly exciting in the pipeline, unfortunately, though I hope to see Tim Key and Tom Basden (half of the sketch group Cowards) perform as Freeze! next month, and have tickets for Chris Addison in April. As for theatre, I really need to catch Avenue Q before it closes...!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Here we go then! Othello, West Yorkshire Playhouse


West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 14 February - 14 March 2009
3 stars
There is one name which dominates the cast list for this new production of Othello from Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides, and one figure who physically dominates the stage.

That person is, of course, Lenny Henry in the lead role and we must start with his performance.

In interviews, the affable, ever-smiling Henry has said that it makes sense for a comic to play a tragic role – especially one which ends in a kind of madness – because there is such a fine line between what makes us laugh and what makes us cry.

It is fascinating to note, then, that Henry is actually at his best here not when he is raving at his wife Desdemona under the influence of that “green-eyed monster”, but when he is quiet and contemplative.

Technically this is far from a perfect performance – his diction fails at times, and he stumbles over a few lines – but Henry’s Othello is certainly commanding, authoritarian and engaging throughout. It is the stark contrast against this huge presence which makes his final death-bed speech, understated and calmly resigned to his fate, his most impressive moment.

Away from the headline-grabbing star turn, there are two great performances from Conrad Nelson as a writhing, lizard-like Iago and Maeve Larkin as his wife Emilia. Nelson’s Iago is not a cold calculating plotter, but revels laughingly in the chaos he creates. He impishly darts from victim to victim, pouring pestilence in their ear with a smile on his face and a friendly slap on the arm. He even grins – admittedly menacingly – when the game is up, and his schemes and treachery are uncovered.

Emilia is here the true moral centre of the play, a heroic figure who uncovers her husband’s “villainy”, shouts it to the world without a moment’s hesitation, and fearlessly faces down Othello at the height of his rage. Jessica Harris’s Desdemona, on the other hand, is a tiny, fragile thing. Physically she is a wonderful contrast to Henry, who throws her up in the air in a loving embrace at the start of the play, and about the stage with brutal violence at the end, but her childish mannerisms can sometimes be more irritating than endearing.

Unfortunately, these generally good performances are played out in the distinctly sterile environment of a dull, black stage. The actors are left to create all of the tension and interest for themselves, and there is no need for that to be the case: the set and lighting offer little to the production, and as such the play overall suffers from a strange lack of atmosphere.

Lenny Henry’s debut is solid – genuinely affecting at times - in a solid production. It is just a shame, then, that there is no real spark, no little twist of invention that would transform the play from the professional to the unmissable.

Review to come...

...of Mr Lenny Henry in Othello. It'll be going up on the delightful tonight, so I'll cross-post then :) Obviously, you're all much more interested in whether Dawn French was there, and indeed she was, in a very bright, very conspicuous floral coat.

Monday, February 16, 2009

TwitterTitters - it's the new Shaggy Blog Stories!

Remember the success that was Troubled Diva's Shaggy Blog Stories? Course you do! Well this year's version is "TwitterTitters" arranged by Linda at Passionate Media. Read all about it here and get your submissions in if you so wish. Otherwise, it'll be published by Lulu again, and we can all get involved that way at least. :)

Anyone watch New Town this Saturday? I want to know whodunnit!

I *really* enjoyed it! So much that I've sent out a plea on TV Scoop to get everyone to watch it on iPlayer....
We're big fans of BBC Four here on TV Scoop - loads of great documentaries, the odd cool comedy in the likes of Flight of the Conchords and We Need Answers, and classy drama aplenty. It's also the channel where lots of programmes get their first break, and this weekend a comedy drama (that actually had both comedy AND drama) called New Town sneaked into the schedules to see if anyone would bite. Well I bit, and it was, er, tasty. But this episode set up a murder mystery - and I want to know whodunnit!

The show is written and directed by Annie Griffin, whose work you may have seen in The Book Group or (also set in Edinburgh) the film Festival which starred Chris O'Dowd and Stephen Mangan. In New Town, she has created a beautiful-looking drama which combines humour with tragedy and a whole lot of oddness; in other words, really interesting and precisely the sort of thing we want BBC Four to show.

On Saturday we saw the first episode, and met a few residents of Edinburgh's desirable New Town - a "future-proof" area, even in this economic climate, according to the estate agents. Central to the murder mystery are the Gilbert and George-esque Purves and Pekkala, (spookily played by Mark Gatiss and Max Bremer), two identically-suited architects who dream of leaving kitchens and loft-extensions behind them. They get their break when an investor (Omid Djalili on top form) hires them to transform a listed church in the heart of the New Town into a shopping mall - the only person standing in their way is the head of Scottish Heritage. No prizes, then, for guessing where the finger is pointed when he falls/is pushed off the top of that very church to his death.

There's also a young, free-spirited and naive artist who manages to persuade a lovely old lady that she should be allowed to stay with her while she studies at Edinburgh's art college, Purves and Pekkala's imaginative but lonely son, an aspiring townhouse-owner and a cut-throat estate agent. How are all these people related and connected? At this point, it's hard to tell, and as this episode - the first of a possible six - was shown as a pilot, there's a chance we'll never know.

Hopefully, that won't be the case, because this was genuinely inventive, actually made me laugh out loud on several occasions, and has been made with real care. So please, give me the chance to find out whodunnit by giving it a watch on iPlayer and thereby persuading the powers that be that this series deserves to be seen in its entirety.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

We Need Answers, BBC Four

Just a quick one to say I would be most pleased on the behalf of Mark Watson (thin, funny), Tim Key (Coward, funny) and Alex Horne (Wordwatcher, funny) if you'd all watch We Need Answers on BBC Four, this and next Thursday, and the one from last Thurs on iPlayer.

Having seen two of the episodes filmed, and as a fan of the very idea of putting a late-night Edinburgh Fringe quiz show on the telly (let alone the three hosts themselves), I'm probably not the person to judge how well it transfers to the small screen, but hey, I like it.

The first episode was about reading (ostensibly, to fit in with the Books season on BBC Four) and if you want to find out who's better at reading, men or women, watch the iPlayer episode and see Germaine Greer and Michael Rosen read some sentences while Alex "dangerously decreases the font size." 'Citing, huh?!


You know how the adverts for Oliver! advise ringing on the morning to check whether any production tickets have been released? Well, if you're in the position to do it, you should - me and mum speculatively gave the box office a call on Wednesday and managed to snaffle the producers' tickets, slap bang in the middle of the stalls. Not cheap, it has to be said, but a nice way to celebrate handing in the features portfolio for my course.

Now, I've always loved the songs in Oliver!, and while she wasn't my personal choice to win I'd Do Anything, I accept that Jodie Prenger is a really strong performer. But in reality there was one major reason I was determined to see this show before the summer, and his name is Rowan Atkinson. SQUEEITSBLACKADDERFERCHRISSAKES! Blackadder is probably my desert island TV programme, if such a thing exists, and I couldn't really justify missing him.

Suffice to say, he's a total comedy hero, and the strength of affection towards him manifested itself in a spontaneous cheer the moment he first appeared onstage. Unsurprisingly, he stood out a country mile in every scene as a silly and rather camp Fagin, and Reviewing The Situation was a highlight. What a privilige to see Mr Rowan Atkinson performing on his own, commanding the stage! During the interval, I said to mum that what would *really* top it off, would be for him to say the word 'Bob' - and he does! Well, he sings it which unfortunately counteracts that wonderful affect on the word caused by his old stammer, but hey. I've seen Blackadder say 'Bob'.

While Jodie, Burn Gorman and little Welsh Gwion were great, the performance that came the closest to matching Rowan's certainly came from Robert Madge as the Artful Dodger. Robert, although only 11 years old, is actually no stranger to stage or screen, having appeared in That Mitchell and Webb Look and The Sarah Jane Adventures, and that wealth of experience was obvious. The contrast between Dodger's supreme confidence and Oliver's naivity - no doubt enhanced by the difference in the actors' experience - worked really well.

Away from the lead performances, the complex, ever-changing scenery is another star of the show, as always seems to be the case at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane - it's a cavenous stage, and must be a gift/challenge for designers. The show is loads of fun, though the Dickens snob in me (I did study it for ten weeks straight!) means I would have liked it to be a little darker, or at least hint at menace and threat every now and again. Instead, it's a family show through and through, and to that end it is done very, very well.