Category Archives: understudies my arse

“I’m a woman and proud of it..”

If I haven’t mentioned it before, let me say it now… I love the Donmar. Not just because of its original and often groundbreaking productions, but the vibe of the place itself. It’s like watching a play in a classier, upscale version of your primary school gym hall.

Some of the biggest names in theatre, film or television will perform in a setting so intimate you can see the cracks in their greasepaint and the sweatmarks on their dresses. A few months ago I saw a fantastically raw production of Piaf with Elena Roger and this Saturday gone it was Gillian Anderson’s turn to wow me.

Happily, my original TV girlfriend did not disappoint.  One thing we remarked on at the interval is that although she’ll forever be known for the X-Files, as the attendant there-but-for-the-Grace-of-God Society proved, she has the poise and discipline of a quite marvellous stage actress.  I’ve always thought the best performances I’ve seen have been like watching someone try to cross a canyon on a tightrope: they weave hapharzardly from charming to irritating, never falling into one or the other, always keeping you enthralled.

Nora isn’t perhaps the most likeable character in literature, but she is sympathetic.  You root for her to save her marriage in one moment, the next you’re cheering her sad but clinical decision to end it.  Like the great heroines, she is as strong as she is weak, locked in a continual battle between what she is, what she was, and what she ought to be.  When the entire theatre is hanging on your every word, you must be doing something right, so brava Ms Anderson.

The rest of the cast was actually quite enticing from the programme – Christopher Eccleston being the only thing I’ve ever liked about Doctor Who, Toby Stephens a magnificent actor who used to rehearse his sword-fighting in leather trousers every night when I worked Front of House at the Haymarket.  While the former disappointed with his shouty acting and awkward stage presence, the son of Maggie Smith did the family dynasty proud.  At the play’s dénouement, I felt compelled to look away from his raw tears, but only because they were so painful that they were too close to real.  It takes a lot to make me do that, and his turn as the favour-seeking politician was the perfect counterpoint to Nora’s moral journey from start to finish.

The supporting cast were capable, and even the child actors managed to stay on the right side of grating.  A restrained but beautiful production, and thankfully, the perfect birthday present.

A Doll’s House plays at the Donmar Warehouse, London until Juy 18th

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Now playing: Aimee Mann – Nothing is Good Enough
via FoxyTunes

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The Taming of the Shrew, or, Bitches Ain’t Shit

I’ve never seen a live production of this particular play before, and I’ll admit that my familiarity with it is largely through the camp and slick musical adaptation ‘Kiss Me Kate’ rather than the original text.  Sure, the title implies that women may not exactly be portrayed in the best light, but it’s almost enough to make an apathetic quasi-equalist like me be out there burning bras.

The real problem is that the play hasn’t stood the test of time, in that the ‘comedy’ is wildly unfunny and the inequality between the sexes veers from historically appropriate to psychologically damaging.  I was ambivalent at the interval but in shock by the final curtain. I waited with baited breath for Kate’s final monologue, tensing for the glorious sarcastic revenge that was no doubt to come as a response to Petruchio’s intolerable cruelty.  Instead, there was misty-eyed supplication, the speech of a downtrodden wife who had been beaten, starved and tortured into submission.  There was no dramatic relief as a result, but I can’t help feeling that these directorial and acting choices have merely exposed the play for what it is: a dark and disturbing tale of misogyny and viciousness, certainly not one that should be celebrated.

After all, Shakespeare can do the whole ‘spiteful banter as foreplay’ thing so well – look at Much Ado About Nothing (my definitive Beatrice and Benedick being Harriet Walter and Nic Le Provost at the Haymarket a few years back).  Hell, it’s one of the most used romantic storylines even to this day: House and Cuddy, Mulder and Scully, the list goes on.  This just fails on a number of levels and instead of stooping to save the material, they lay it bare in all its distasteful glory.

Michelle Gomez does a fantastic job within the considerable limitations of the role.  It’s so un-modern, so contrary to the image of women that I’ve grown up with that I almost couldn’t believe what I was watching.  I could have done with her being a little less screechy at first, but girl’s got to show she’s off her rocker somehow.  It set up as such a delightful sparring match, but even though her physical comedy was impeccable, watching a man hit a woman (even while she gave something back) was the first arse-shifting uncomfortable moment.  I knew she could do bonkers, loud and pretty funny, but after the interval she came into her own as a dramatic force.

There’s no two ways about it, Petruchio (an entirely unsympathetic character I found) absolutely destroys Kate.  There’s no spark left, and watching her decline is as frustrating as it is unsettling.  It’s a portrayal of domestic abuse, in its own way, of how one human being can claim another through ‘love’ and leave them as nothing.  By the time we get to marital rape of a sorts, the  play within the play is over and the tinker is just another bum left there naked and shamed.  Gomez must have been drawing from somewhere pretty deep though, because for the terrible short bows she looked somewhere between collapse and floods of tears.  I can’t imagine how draining that must be on a nightly basis.  Still, it’s the nation’s second-favourite Shakespeare, so clearly we’re a nation of theatre-going wifebeaters.  Give me Julius Caesar any day.

Which brings me to my more general problem with the RSC and its countless ‘re-invention’ of the same plays over and over again.  Once in a generation perhaps there is a new definitive production of Hamlet, or Othello, but for the most part it’s simply good actors rehashing durable material with an ‘angle’ that makes it somehow edgy or relevant.  We’ve been through the permutations: set it in Nazi Germany, a nightclub, its original era, or as in the case of last night’s show – a 2008 stag do and 16th century Padua.  It’s interesting for a few moments but ultimately the words are the same and the characters have the same limitations, so we’re essentially paying £50 to watch someone reinvent the wheel.  Not that I’ve paid full-price for a theatre ticket in years, but plenty of other people still have to. If I never have to watch another disguise/mistaken identity/fool the young maiden storyline again, it will be too soon quite frankly.  The rest of this play is merely a distraction from the main misogynistic event and I can’t really bring myself to review the camp prancing and falling-to-knees that constitutes RSC comedy routines.

I slipped out of the Novello stunned, updating Twitter as I fumbled to get my mind back on track for the journey home.  It was certainly harrowing, and Michelle Gomez is a tour de force who deserves a better vehicle for her considerable talent next time.  Should you wish to subject yourself to it, the play is on until 7th March at the Novello Theatre, Aldwych, London.  In the meantime, they should provide some sort of in-foyer counselling service, or at the very least a trauma helpline like after they deal with ‘issues’ in Eastenders.

“she won’t help the hungry once a month at your tombolas”

I never got around to doing a review of Evita (2006 London revival), save a few hastily typed thoughts on Livejournal immediately after the fact.  For those who’ve been wondering about the whole ‘West End Bitch’ thing, especially since I rarely write about the theatre anymore, well rest assured that my love for all things theatrical hasn’t waned just because I don’t get to go quite so often.  Evita was a watershed moment for me, I fell in love with musicals because of the original London cast, and I still have a well-thumbed libretto taking pride of place in the crates full of theatre memorabilia.  When there finally was a revival it was a mixed bag of emotions for me, something I loved so much, but not in its original form.  I booked the tickets as an anniversary outing for the missus and me, but didn’t relax until the interval; to quote the Sopranos: I sat on one ass cheek for the entire first hour or so. 

My emotions about the event contrast strongly with my critical thoughts on the production, but time has faded the fervour and I won’t bore you with it now.  All you need to know is that in Elena Roger, the West End finally has a worthy successor to Elaine Paige, and fittingly she seems to be bouncing around the roles that made the original First Lady quite so renowned.

You might be able to imagine my barely contained joy at the prospect of seeing Elena in Pam Gems’ Piaf.  At the Donmar no less, home to some of the most kickass productions in my lifetime.  So excited am I at the prospect, that I’m going to do that which I never do: recommend that you see it before I’ve seen it myself.  I’m sure most of you seeing this here are too far away to consider it, but I’m doing my own limited bit to promote something that’s likely to make my year. 

In other theatrical news, my latest foray was a trip to see Under the Blue Sky aka “The Catherine Tate play”.  My initial reaction after stumbling out of the Duke of York’s can best be summed up by one of La Tate’s most notorious characters, Nan: “Worra load of old shit.”  I hasten to add that Ms Tate was one of the few good things about the evening, alongside Francesca Annis (who looks about 30 years younger in that promo shot!) and Nigel Lindsay.    My main problem, the one that had me clenching my toes in a weird combination of anger and embarrassment, was the writing.   Since this is a revival/transfer of a 8 year olf Royal Court Production, it came with superlative-lashed reviews about the ‘quality’ of the new writing.  New writing IS desperately important, the lifeblood of the real West End being strangled by tribute-show-musicals and yet another TV-spinoff-revivial.  This, however, was no sterling example of it.

It was awkward, is the best way I can describe it.  Shoehorned references, like the IRA attack on Canary Wharf, that serve absolutely no purpose.  You know those middle-class awkward sitcoms, like Hugh Laurie’s fortysomething, it was that sort of ‘oh God, people don’t talk like THAT’ feeling.  The play itself is actually three short plays with interwoven stories.  Each is presented with two actors, but each new play references the last one heavily.  The idea is sound, but the writing just didn’t carry it off.  The first play was utterly forgettable, with bland acting and ambiguous accents doing nothing to save it.  The second showed more promise, and the anticipation of seeing Catherine Tate in full-blown harridan mode was clearly what a fair percentage of the audience had come to see.  In this I felt the writing was closer to what you’d hope for, though a little reliant on shock value.  I felt Tate ably resisted the temptation to turn her shrewish character into something from one of her sketches, and the imposing nature of her performance showed that she does fit just as well on the stage as the telly.  

The last section had the two best acting performances, and genuine chemistry, perhaps a decent counterpoint to the one-sided desperation of the first two ‘couples’.  It was let down, however, by some of the clunkiest speechifying I’ve ever seen.  Similar to the difference on the West Wing once Aaron Sorkin left, in that you could see how clever they were trying to be, but it just sounded trite when spoken aloud.  I’ve never heard so much numbed-bumb shifting as I did during the tedious story about an old lady’s war-hero boyfriend.  Absolutely tedious, in fact. 

Suffice to say, I’m not suggesting you rush out and catch it during the limited 10-week run, and I’ll just hope that next time I see Catherine Tate or Francesca Annis, it’s in material more deserving of their talents.

“I’m done chasing monsters in the dark”

I should warn you, the following content is SPOILERRIFFIC and will completely ruin the movie for you, so don’t click if you haven’t seen it, mmkay?

I could wax lyrical about the cultural and emotional significance of getting to see the return of The X-Files in my favourite city with my bezzer, but she already did it so well I have nothing more to add on that front. Suffice to say my ‘oh it’s just like press night’ nonchalance evaporated right about the time my foot first made contact with the red carpet.

Sure, there may have been some head-shaking and muttering about the ‘There But for the Grace of God Society” on my part, but my crippling self-consciousness about seeming over-excited was thrown by the wayside when I stood in a room full of screaming fans seeing David and Gilly right in front of us. They thanked us for coming, like there was ever any doubt we would. I would have broken into the cinema and camped out if I had to.

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“It feels like I’m shitting a knife”

Hot ladies WHO ARE FUNNY

Hot ladies WHO ARE FUNNY

I love you Tina Fey. But I sort of want to cheat on you with Amy Poehler, if that’s cool with you?

So we may have been too impatient to wait and see Baby Mama in the cinema. I can’t say I have any regrets, because with 30 Rock pretty much the only outright funny thing on TV these days, damned if I’m waiting when I know the interwebs can give me a Fey fix. Since her reunion with Amy was so hysterical on SNL earlier this year (“bitch is the new black“), I must admit that the word “squee” may have passed my lips as the download completed.

This is what a chick flick should be. There’s actual *gasp* intelligence at work here, but with enough spit-take funnies to make it effortless watching. We all know by now that these girls work bloody well as a comedy duo, and the zing zing timing is delightful. Sigourney Weaver is perfect as the surrogate finder, and while I dislike Greg Kinnear at the best of times, you do see him as the sort of crinkly-eyed ‘good guy’ that Tina Fey’s Kate is supposed to be interested in. Actually, a caveat to my Sigourney Weaver comments, as soon as you think of her and pregnancy there’s an automatic “ruh roh BURSTING OUT THE STOMACH” moment; don’t worry, it soon passes.

Even if it’s not your cup of tea, stick with it (or fast forward) to the eventual hospital scene. I nearly laughed myself into an aneurysm at Poehler’s delivery of um, the delivery. This film at least tries to remove itself from the conventional, but keeps a little just for the feelgood factor. That the plot actually attempts a twist or two is commendable, and what’s not to love about the dorkalicious Tina doing a DJ set? It has to be seen to be believed.

I seem to be on a girly film roll, but trust me, if you have a uterus and only enough money for one cinema ticket, splash out on this before Mamma Mia or Sex and the City.

“I’ve been cheated by you, Meryl Streep”

I love Meryl Streep.  I love ABBA.  I love musicals.  I secretly love cinema visits where singing along is positively encouraged.  In essence, I AM the target demographic for the Mamma Mia film.  So why did I walk out of Cineworld this evening like I was suffering from shell-shock?

Suspending disbelief is not an issue for me, I can happily accept people bursting into song left, right and centre.  This was just utter tripe, like a Comic Relief sketch gone on 90 minutes too long.  Darlings, I adore a bit of hamming it up as much as the next musical-loving homo, but this was like a really bad pantomime.   At one point, I snarked to Kaite that the woman pouting to Money, Money, Money was the most Oscar-nominated actress of all time.   Sure, after decades of frosty heartbreak, maybe Meryl’s entitled to blow off some acting steam but holy mother of crap I cringed so hard for the first hour that I now have cramp in my shoulders.

This wasn’t a good film, not even a ‘feelgood blockbuster’.  This was like your watching your mum (and her drunken friends) hammer the karaoke.  I hate the premise, the book is amateur crap.  I may not be any kind of a real writer, but this cliché-ridden claptrap is up there with the play I wrote at nine years old, in which ‘naughty’ teenagers get drunk on Babycham.

Not entirely without merit I suppose, Christine Baranski was underused but completely nailed ‘Does Your Mother Know’.  The ‘oops, how do we fit in Waterloo’ non-problem (by remembering it’s not about the actual Battle of Waterloo, duh) was solved by the faux-music video bit over the credits.  Had it just been the bit at the start of the credits, I might have felt it was worth the ticket price.  It might have been when you factor in Colin Firth frolicking like he was at a G-A-Y foam party, but it was really beyond redemption at that point. 

Oh I know, what kind of misery guts criticises a film which is basically a fluff piece?  It’s just that I like talented people doing stupid things for a laugh – for example the splendiferous Judi Dench doing a spoof of “I Am Sixteen, Going On Seventeen”.  This was just a waste.  Meryl almost pulled it out of the mire by attacking “The Winner Takes It All” like the pro that she is.  It wasn’t enough though, and anything that makes me question Pierce Brosnan’s sheer awesomeness is best left alone. 

Meh.

“something so right has got no chance to live”

It’s taken me a frighteningly long time to get around to watching Dreamgirls.  Before I can even begin to review it, can I simply state that I completely freakin’ LOVE Loretta Devine, and you should too!

So why the delay, Lola?  It’s a musical, it’s a film, and people were actually going to see it because there were big names in the cast.  Surely ample reason to be swept along in the cinema-going tides?  Well, for whatever reason, I didn’t.  But I do have a lovely friend R, obsessed with it and determined that I should be too.  Little did R know that I have the original soundtrack with Jennifer Holliday and the aforementioned Loretta “bloody fabulous” Devine, so I at least had an idea what to expect.  I just didn’t know if I could be bothered, or if I could resist the urge to slap Beyoncé for two whole hours. 

Turns out I could.  It was in fact possible to forget that Beyoncé was Beyoncé for much of the film, proving that she must have been doing some real proper acting.  Or perhaps it was the case that when Jennifer Hudson is on screen, why would you waste your time looking at or listening to anyone else?  It’s such a shame that Lorrell is the weakest of the three parts, because Anika Noni Rose is the very definition of a tour de force.  Yes, I’m a theatrical snob who thinks paying your dues by treading the boards makes you a better actor, and by extension a better person, but if you listen to the Caroline, or Change soundtrack a couple of dozen times you’ll be smitten too.   Hell, if the woman can even get noticed when you consider my unquenchable love and respect for Chandra Wilson, she must have been doing something right (and the Tony judges agree with me!).

Eddie Murphy was (surprisingly) perfect in the role of Jimmy Thunders, I suppose it needed an OTT personality, but he didn’t turn it into a comedic role, which had to at least be tempting for him.  Jamie Foxx is sort of okay, but I find him almost devoid of charisma.  Not what you want in a leading man really, even when the character is supposed to be a megalomaniac ass. 

The direction is wonderful for the most part, maintaining the slight breathlessness that gives the feeling of a live performance.  A dazzling vibrancy in the colours, full cinematic treatment of the score and enough retro kitsch to keep me happy.  If you can watch it and not spend the evening singing “One Night Only”, well then, you’re a better woman than me. 

There’s a rawness to the performances, particularly Jennifer Hudson’s superlative-inducing assault on the mother of all ‘end of act one’ numbers – And I Am Telling You.  It’s the sort of song that you can easily stick Whitney Houston-esque pyrotechnics on, but without the pain it’s pointless.  A song that’s basically grovelling on your knees to the man who’s leaving you, all the while trying to hold on to the dignity you’d die to keep.  That bleeding into the orchestra pit level of pure emotion isn’t easy to come by, but the collective goosebumps of the viewing audience seem to suggest that Ms Hudson nailed it.

Not necessarily the ultimate classic, and it’s not bumping Funny Girl from the top of my musical list, but it deserves its place on there at the very least.