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Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Books - The End of the Party - Andrew Rawnsley

Star rating 8/10

As soon as I am finishing one book, my mind turns to what sort of read I will want next. Maybe a classical novel, or a Greek tragedy, or possibly something with a bit more humour. In this fascinating new account of the demise of New Labour by the Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley, I got some of the best elements of all these genres. Very Shakespearean, and also just like watching my favourite TV comedy ‘ The Thick Of It’, complete with weak but power crazed politicians and their malicious spinning side kicks, who battle with each other in a stunningly vicious way. The phrase ‘you couldn’t make it up’ comes to mind again and again during this complete page turner of an account. And lots of pages to turn in it there are too – with the meat of the book taking up nearly 700 pages.

Rawnsley takes us to the heart of the New Labour action, taking up the story from the start of their second term in office in 2001. Predictably, it is the insight into the relationship between Tony Blair, the dashing, charming and media savvy Prime Minister, and his jealous, bitter and resentful Chancellor next door, Gordon Brown, which makes the most compelling reading. Blair obsessed with power and his legacy; and Brown so obsessed with taking that power away and having it for himself that he seemed to completely forget to plan what he would do with it if he got it. Some of the more astonishing revelations have unfortunately already been released to the media and splashed across newspaper front pages. Even so there are some episodes that have not been given so much publicity that seem just too bizarre for words. One such is the apparent anger felt by Brown when he believed that the Blairs kept leaving their young son Leo’s pram outside their flat door deliberately so that it would remind them of the death of their baby daughter Jennifer. That seems frankly preposterous but apparently that is exactly what Gordon thought.

Blair comes across as stymied at every turn by the antics of his rival. Rawnsley claims that Brown stopped him from doing many things during his premiership, just because he could - apparently even refusing on occasion to let Blair know what was going to be his Budget. And the hapless Tony refused to believe that his old pal Gordon could be quite so cruel, and so gave him the benefit of the doubt again and again, until it was too late. In fact the two men seem to have been so unhealthily obsessed with each other that it is a wonder that they managed to achieve anything at all. There is certainly no sense of any political project being undertaken here, just factional infighting; very unprofessional behaviour by themselves and their many followers; and amazing hubris by both.

Apart from the TB-GB issue, as it was fondly referred to by the inner circle, this account charts the journey to war in Iraq that Blair made, and his poodle like behaviour in the face if the war monger Bush. The shameful episode of the ‘sexing up’ of the case for war dossier, and the death of scientist David Kelly is well known to us by now, but it still incredible to peek into the minds of the main protagonists as they played the terrible story out. Alistair Campbell (or should that be Malcolm Tucker?) in particular was obsessed at his own fight with the media, rather than the actual truth. You just would not want to come across any of them in a dark alley at all.

And so when Tony is finally ousted, hoisted on his own petard of the war, it is unbelievable the Brown seems to continue is his bullying manner, only this time not aimed at a single rival, but rather anyone who he sees as vaguely standing his way. It is frankly amazing that his character has not been revealed before. The various crises of his leadership are explored from the credit crunch to the expenses scandal. Brown comes across as a very weak leader, who lacked the charm and charisma of his predecessor, and lamely followed in his footsteps without conviction. For example, in his handling of the continuing war in Afghanistan, Rawnsley says that ‘Brown would never be mistaken for Henry V’, as he read out the few speeches he did make on the war ‘with the passion of a man reading out the weather forecast for Kirkcaldy.’ And the bitter irony of his increasing dependency on old foes to shore up his leadership, such as Prince of Darkness Peter Mandelson, Alistair Campbell, and even his old friend Tony Blair is quite ironic.

Towards the end of the book, as the events Rawnsley is retelling seem more like news than history, the analysis is less compelling. Indeed it is rather a gamble to prophesy to end of the New Labour project when opinion polls are still subject to such fluctuations, giving rise to differing predictions of who will form the next government on a daily basis.

But Rawnsley has given us a riveting account of the dangers of power without conviction, check or morality. And of course of the way an obsessive rivalry can grip a government, and the reader, from the very first page of this fascinating book.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Film - Lourdes - directed by Jessica Hausner

Star rating – 7/10

This would be a frustrating film to watch if you want definite answers about the power of pilgrimage and the existence of miracles. But it is a subtle and beautiful slow-paced insight into the world of faith and devotion, and yet it also has a darkly humorous side which gently pokes fun at the same world.

Christine is a young French woman who has multiple sclerosis, and joins the pilgrimage largely as a way to see the world, as she has also been on a previous similarly organised tour of Rome. She is not particularly devout, as some of her fellow pilgrims observe, but nevertheless takes part in all the organised activities without question or objection. Sylvie Testud gives a mesmerising performance as Christine, who has no real movement from the neck down.

But yes, you guessed it, she is the one who is singled out to receive a miracle, as she realises that the feeling is returning first to her hands, then gradually to the rest of her body, after a trip to take the waters. Most of her fellow pilgrims are ecstatic at the news, but some are doubting Thomases.

This charming film throws a window on the sort of people who need to believe in such miracles, but also on the sort of people who need to ‘help’ these poor people and perform works of great charity. My favourite moment was when three pilgrimage officials are relaxing in an off duty moment one evening and tell each other jokes. But I won’t spoil it by telling the actual joke again here.

A sensitively told story, leaving lots of room for doubt and questioning for those wanting to take that road, with some twists along the way, and with a strangely uplifting message.

Exhibitions - Ron Mueck - Manchester Art Gallery

Star rating – 8/10

There may only be three pieces in this exhibition by Australian born Ron Mueck at Manchester Art Gallery, but what it lacks in quantity it absolutely makes up for in quality. As you enter the room you are hit with the enormous ‘Wild Man’ sitting naked and scared to death, gripping the stool he is on. Although the sculpture is so big, nevertheless the detail and humanity of the work is breathtaking.

The next piece is the ‘Mask III’, a huge face protruding from the wall exuding warmth and humour. The third and last piece is ‘Spooning Couples’ - a very much smaller piece in which a man and woman lie next to each other in bed. They are not really connecting with each other and it feels very much as if the viewer is an uneasy voyeur into a very private moment.

Mueck skilfully portrays honest and true human emotions using resin and silicone. He achieves a remarkable and staggering effect with the scale of his works, either massively oversized, or human form in miniature.

Only three pieces but staggering in their effect – less is definitely more here.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Books - Selected Diaries - Virginia Woolf

Star rating – 9/10

I know I don’t usually review older books without good reason here, but I have been pondering of late what makes a good diary, in this age of blogging and Twitter, and wondered if a celebrated diarist such as Virginia Woolf held any clues for our modern budding writers.

I should also state from the outset that I am not a particular fan of Woolf’s work, having only read a couple of her novels in my teens, and not really been tempted back for more since. But after taking up this edited selection of her copious diaries, I soon discovered that that did not really matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this window on her world, and found it a very good pointer as to what really makes a great diary/tweet/blog.

The first of her secrets is to include the domestic, trivial, and mundane detail that at the time must have seemed fairly inconsequential. But for me it is these small details that add a rich depth to the writing, and often hint at the historical context which is so much more fascinating when viewed from the perspective of someone actually living though it, than reading a historical account after the fact. The relationship Woolf had with her live in cook of 18 years, Nellie, is one of the domestic highlights. Both women seem to comfortably fit the title of ‘drama queen’ - with countless stormings out and promised sackings, followed by inevitable regrets and forgiveness. Woolf does not seem to have been particularly nice to her servants, but then she was an affluent writer living a very comfortable existence once her career had taken off. Her attitude was probably perfectly normal for her time and class, not that that makes it any better.

And the way she recounts the historical detail is superb, interlaced as it is with the minutia of her life. We are taken though the First World War Armistice, the General Strike, the rise of Hitler and the death of King George V followed by her own take on the abdication crisis, all of which make compelling reading.

And of course she lets us in on the world of the Bloomsbury set, with their endless round of lunches, dinners, parties and discussions. It really must have been a fascinating existence to have almost daily conversations and debates with such luminaries as T.S. Eliot (who gave them a reading of his new poem – The Wasteland), E.M. Forster, Vita Sackville West, and Maynard Keynes to name but a few. To have such access to and friendships with writers, politicians, economists must have been very exhilarating. But often Virginia is simply exhausted with the endless social whirl of it all – preferring instead to beat a hasty retreat to her beloved house in the country.

Her relationship with her husband Leonard is obviously central to her being, although she doesn’t go into their more intimate dealings, save to mention once early on in their marriage that ‘some antics ended the day.’ It is clear though that as time goes on she totally relies on his support, and especially his criticism of her literary works as she finishes each one. If Leonard feels they are up to standard then she is palpably relieved.

And the process of writing does seem from these diaries to have been an arduous and exhausting one for Virginia. ‘Few people can be so tortured by writing as I am’ she complains to her diary companion. Each work seems to sap the strength from her literally. She was a very frail creature, beset by nervous breakdown, depression, headaches and influenza throughout the nearly 30 year period which these diaries span.

And you do get the sense that keeping a diary helped her get through many of her trials and tribulations, except of course, it did not save her from committing suicide at the end of the period she was keeping it. Earlier on the diary is witty and light in many places, but as it hurtles towards the inevitable conclusion it becomes a much sadder affair.

She did not reckon much to Manchester when she visited in 1921 with its streets all the same, and dowdy depressed looking women, and not a scrap of romance. I will even forgive her this southern prejudice for having given us such an entertaining, informative and sumptuous peek into her world – with all its highs and lows. If you want to find out the secrets of keeping a great diary – look no further than Virginia – she would have been a keen blogger I am absolutely sure.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Exhibitions - Gallery of Costume - Platt Hall

Star rating 8/10

Manchester’s Gallery of Costume, second only to the V&A in terms of its wonderful collection of fashions through the centuries, has just reopened after two years being refitted and revamped. So I thought it only proper to get along to Platt Hall to check it out with my budding young fashionista expert Ruby.

The exhibition is held in a Grade 2 listed Georgian house in the middle of Platt Fields Park, a lovely setting for the sumptuous displays. It is the legacy of Dr. C.W. Cunnington, who was born in 1878, and became, with his wife Phyllis, a devotee of fashion, and in particular a collector of Victorian dresses. Their collection swelled to over 3,500 garments, which they understandably could no longer house comfortably in the adapted shed at the bottom of their garden, and so in 1947 it the collection was sold and then located in Platt Hall.

The costumes are displayed according to period, and there really are some lovely pieces to see. My particular favourites include a deep red velvet day dress from 1885-6, complete with a rich red satin bodice and trimmed with glass beads; and a chestnut brown Dior satin coat dress from the 1950’s, with its double breasted detail and sharp shaping.

The 1960’s pieces include a lovely Mary Quant orange evening dress, and an Yves Saint Laurent black mini cocktail dress that belonged to a New York socialite who only wore her pieces for a season, and was devoted to couture darling until she died aged 90. The journey goes through 1970’s flowing Biba dresses; to the sharp black Princess Diana style Chanel suits of the 80’s; and Vivienne Westwood mustard yellow evening suit with her distinctive bias cut tailoring in the skirt, and sleek fitted jacket.

And the accessories are to die for too – cabinets full of delicious handbags, shoes and hats. My personal favourites were the 60’s white kid ankle boots and pink velour cap. There is also more buttons than you will ever have seen – in every conceivable shape, size and colour. Button heaven. My only criticism is that some of the space in the Hall is not put to best use – as in the room with the vast button collection around the walls, where the large room was otherwise empty and a missed opportunity – but maybe there are other plans for that space.

There is a tribute to the recently deceased Alexander McQueen, and a lovely fuschia pink cocktail dress that once belonged to Audrey Hepburn. All very lovely and well worth a visit. I just hope that they change the collection around frequently enough for us to get to see the other gems which they must have safely locked away in some very big wardrobes somewhere...

Friday, 19 March 2010

Theatre - The White Guard - National Theatre

Star rating – 6/10

I picked this production for two reasons – firstly the others in the new National season all seemed to be sold out when I could make it, and secondly, to get me in the mood for my impending exciting Russian holiday adventure.

It is the story of a Ukrainian family and friends during the Russian civil war, and adapted here by Andrew Upton from the play by Mikhail Bulgakov. Lena, played by Justine Mitchell, acts as the heartbeat of the domestic scene, and has to endure her beloved brothers preparing to fight for the White Guard, the Tsarist army which is trying to stave off the revolution. They are joined by various friends and hangers on – all united in much vodka consumption and singing before they head off to the conflict.

The various factions and sides in the battle are a little difficult to keep track of in the play, as I imagine they also were at the time. There are lovely humorous moments in the action, particularly by the student Larion (Pip Carter), who just seems to turn up there for no real reason. The cast are all great actually, and churlish though it is to pick out favourites, mine was Paul Higgins as Viktor, (nothing to do with my near obsess ional love for ‘The Thick Of It’ you understand) who turns up with frostbite from the army and leads the singing, not to mention encourages most of the drinking.

The sets are superb – with simply stunning transitions from one act to another before your eyes. The dining room with snow falling outside turns into the scene of conflict in an amazing instant. But I just didn’t really see the point of the piece or what its message is. I couldn’t really engage with the troubles that beset the characters, or care overly about the terrible ending.

Not sure why, so in summary – great sets – great cast – average play.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Theatre - Serenading Louie - Donmar Warehouse

Star rating – 3/10

I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times have failed to finish a book that I have started to read, or that I have walked out halfway through a film or play, but I am sorry to say that the thought of a catch up over beer and food with a friend was enough to tempt me away from the second half of this play. So I can only really review the first half – but honestly I think that should tell you all you need to know about this dreary play.

It is the UK premiere of a 1970’s play by Lanford Wilson, and I really can’t see why the Donmar have chosen to bring it to these shores now. It is the story of two couples and their discontent with their lives, but feels both very dated and very false. Alex is a successful lawyer and up and coming politician whose wife Gaby sounds like a woman on the edge of a breakdown. His friend Carl is an ex football player turned real estate developer, and his wife Mary is having an affair, which he is aware of, but can’t summon up the energy to do anything about.

And that is all I can really tell you, partly because I was not really interested enough in any of them to stay after the interval, and partly because the script felt so lacking that you didn’t really know much more about them , and cared even less. The acting was not particularly bad, featuring some clear talents such as Geraldine Somerville as the unfaithful Mary. They just didn’t have much to work with.

The men explored their inner emotions in a way that felt false, and just not what they would have done in the 1970’s or even today. The characters had several asides to the audience which felt all wrong. The set was a living room doubling up as the home of both couples, which did not work for me.

Sorry I can’t tell you more – just chalk this up as a rare miss for the Donmar and go to the nice Mexican restaurant nearby for a few beers and some enchiladas instead.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Film - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - directed by Niels Arden Oplev

Star rating – 8/10

Admission time - I am one of the international army of adoring fans of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy – and I think whether or not you have read the books will obviously colour your view of this Swedish attempt at bringing it to the big screen. (Not that I am particularly looking forward to the Hollywood version currently in production you understand). And it is a fairly faithful adaptation – save that some of the enormous detail obviously has to be omitted in the film.

The two central characters, Mikael Blomkvist, the left wing campaigning journalist falling foul of the law in his crusading exposés of huge corporations; and Lisbeth Salander, the obviously damaged yet brilliant computer hacker, are played faithfully and totally in keeping with their literary characters by Michael Nyqvist and Nomie Rapace. Both are totally believable, flawed people that draw the viewer into their different worlds.

He answers an unusual plea from a former captain of industry to help him solve the riddle of his niece who went missing, now presumed murdered, over 40 years before. And Lisbeth Salander cannot help herself from getting drawn into the action.

If anything the film fails to get across just how brilliant Salander really is at getting any data she wants from any computer, no matter how well protected the information is. By the same token the principled nature of Blomkvist’s character, and just how much he is prepared to suffer and give up for his principles does not come across in its entirety. In a way though I am perhaps just nit picking., and trying to find fault to prove that I can review this film with an objective eye, having loved the book and its companion volumes so much.

The violence, particularly the sexual violence and many images of murdered women is much harder to take when it is produced in celluloid. But it is not overdone here, just more startling in this different medium., and stays true to the violence in the book.

The cinematography is great, capturing the stark barren Swedish landscapes in winter beautifully. The film is long at over 2 and a half hours, but this is an epic tale, with so many threads hinted at here which are still to be developed in the next two instalments – and I for one can’t wait.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Film - Retorno a Hansala - directed by Chus Gutiérrez

Star rating – 8/10

Another offering in the Cornerhouse’s Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival, this gentle and subtle film nevertheless gives a hard political message. Martin (Jose Luis Garcia Perez) owns a funeral home in Algeciras, Spain, on the Strait of Gibraltar. He gets the call to come and deal with a number of dead bodies which have been washed up on a nearby beach, not a particularly unusual occurrence for the area. He finds a phone number in the hand of one of the bodies - enter Leila (Farah Hamed) who has the heartbreaking task of identifying her younger brother.

There is not much of a back story, but we do know that Martin is struggling financially after recently separating from his unfaithful wife. He therefore accepts Leila’s request for him to help her to return her brother’s body to their village in Morocco, and asks to be paid quite a sum for doing so.

There is no fast paced action in this story, just the gentle unfolding of a terrible tale of people seeking to escape the grinding poverty of their lives in rural Morocco, and risking, and very often losing , their lives in the attempt to escape to the relative wealth and opportunities in nearby Spain. The two leads play their parts very convincingly and with dignity and understated emotion.

The journey that Leila and Martin embark on is a life changing but very unusual road trip. Martin is humbled by the reception he receives from the whole of Leila’s village. Leila is guilty about providing the money for her brother to try to escape in the first place. The unfolding understanding of each other’s situations is very beautifully played. And the tale is told against the backdrop of the haunting tragedy of so many people losing their lives in a bid to make something better of them.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Theatre - Glengarry Glen Ross - Library Theatre

Star rating – 8/10

If you judge a play by its running time then this one would be average. But on the other hand if you judged it by it’s word count this one would come out firmly on top. David Marnet’s Glengarry Glen Ross is one of the productions in the final series of plays at the Library Theatre in its current home. And this one definitely contributes to a sizzling finale.

It is the story of four Chicago real estate salesman who have been told by head office that whoever tops this month’s sales chart drives home a new Cadillac. The runner-up gets a set of steak knives, and the other two get the sack.

Richard Dormer shines as Richard Roma, leading the hard nosed contest and the top salesman in the town. David Fleeshman plays Shelly Levene, who can still talk as fast as the best of them, but his results have been distinctly lacking of late.

The talk is rough and ready, and both very funny, and very poignant in turns. This play exposes the shallow nature of the competitive edge of the capitalist system at the sharp end of the action. This is a very entertaining and thought provoking night out – and highly recommended.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Film - Solo Quiero Caminar - directed by Agustin Diaz Yanes

Star rating 7/10

The annual Viva! Spanish and Latin American film festival at the Cornerhouse kicked off with macho Mexican gangsters crossing swords with four very dangerous Spanish women bent on revenge in this film which feels a bit like Charlie’s Angels made by Tarantino. Action reigns supreme over plot as the four beautiful, feisty females take part in a robbery which goes wrong, and results in one of their number, Aurora (played by Ariadna Gil) ending up in prison.

Luckily her three sisters in blood will stop at nothing, including giving blow jobs to sleazy officials, to reduce her sentence to just four years. And when she is finally released they are sure as hell waiting for her. Trouble is that in the meantime, her sister Ana (Elena Anaya) gets entangled with the Mexican mafia in the shape of their leader Felix (Jose Maria Yazpik), and his baby faced sidekick Gabriel (Diego Luna).

The action is full on as the women dig tunnels, blow safes, abseil in high heels and shoot their way out of and into a lot of trouble. And the characters, although featuring impressive performances notably from Gil and Luna, are not really developed to any extent. But nevertheless it is a roller coaster revenge ride, that is very enjoyable, and easy to watch, if a little improbable in parts to say the least.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Books - The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Star rating – 9/10

This was my first experience of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s work, ventured into after reading glowing reviews in the weekend broadsheets. And what an enthralling and utterly enchanting experience it was. It is the story of rich Turkish playboy Kemal, and his accidental and ultimately all consuming love for his distant cousin Fusun. It is also a fabulously rich description of Istanbul from 1975, and the world that Kemal inhabits, which springs to life from the pages of this book.

He is 30 years old and on an established and respectable course to marriage with an equally well off and respectable woman, Sibel, whom his family and friends totally approve of and expect him to settle down with. But on route to buy Sibel a present, he comes across his beautiful young distant cousin Fusun, and their three lives are never the same. The way that Pamuk, and indirectly his brilliant translator Maureen Freely, lets this tale unfold is so loving and rich and romantic, that it is somewhat surprising coming from a male writer.

Kemal is unusually expressive, and given to living by his heart rather than his head, and what a big heart he has. At first he seems to be wending the familiar path of having his cake and eating it, as he refuses to think that he needs to change anything about his relationship with his girlfriend, soon to be fiancé, Sibel, whilst falling head over heels in love in an all consuming fashion with Fusun.

In hindsight, Kemal, as the narrator of the story, admits that ‘no one recognizes the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it.’ And as he and Fusun spend many an idyllic, erotically charged hour in his family’s spare and unused apartment, he is not aware of how much she really means to him. But Pamuk does not let us simply despise Kemal as a selfish man who wants a beautiful mistress and a respectable wife too. We soon are drawn into Kemal’s world, with all his weakness and failings on show for all to see.

The class difference between Fusun and Kemal is an obvious barrier that he does not want to confront. The position of women in the Turkish society of the day is highlighted in fascinating detail as Kemal strips both Fusun and Sibel of their virginity without marrying either – a very serious breach of the accepted societal norms of his culture and time. The limitations put upon women and what they are and are not allowed to do is one of the themes at the heart of the novel.

Without giving away the plot, suffice it to say that the course of Kemal’s love for Fusun does not run smoothly. He descends into an obsession with her, and all things and people related to her, that results in a mania for collecting objects that draw him ever closer to her – eventually to make up the museum of the book’s title. In the ends he is paralysed by his feelings for her – unable to realise them in full, and unable to move on with his life.

Pamuk has written a beautiful and gripping story. It is so full of minute and engrossing details that it is hard to describe or explain how lovingly and engagingly he lures the reader in. As he himself says at one point, the ‘purpose of a novel … is to relate our memories with such sincerity as to transform individual happiness into happiness that all can share.’ At times it is more like unhappiness that Pamuk is sharing in this book, but he definitely had this reader hooked, and hungry to read much more from him.

Theatre - King Lear - RSC Stratford

Star rating – 8/10

Rightly or wrongly, the success of a King Lear production stands or falls by the person playing the lead role – in this case Greg Hicks. The last time I saw him was in the RSC’s production of ‘Julius Caesar’ in 2009, and I have to say I was glad then that his part was a relatively small one in the scheme of the play, as he was more Mick Jagger than Caesar. So I was hoping not to get a rock and roll version of Lear – and he does not deliver one. But more of this later.

This was the first time I had seen this, considered to be one of the bards greatest, if not the greatest, play. And overall it did not disappoint - but then I do love a good tragedy. The powerful themes of the play of respect for the ruling monarch, no matter whether they have earned it or not; and of the destructive forces that can be unleashed by children who do not respect their parents, are clearly told.

The cast is almost totally impressive, with a complicated plot made easy to follow by the clear direction of David Farr, and the impressive performances of many, including Katy Stephens as Regan, one of Lear’s more disrespectful and scheming daughters; Samantha Young as Cordelia, his wronged and faithful youngest daughter; and Tunji Kasim, as Gloucester’s evil illegitimate son Edmund. I would just question why all the baddies were played by black actors – probably not the most enlightened but of casting ever.

So back to Lear himself – supposed to be a man of 80 – played by the considerably younger than that Greg Hicks. He is undoubtedly a great actor – and I don’t want to find fault – but I do have a major problem with the way he acts and in particular with the way he intonates his words. It is not, as a woman behind me thought ‘like a Dalek’ - not quite as bad as that – but it does sound and feel very unnatural to me.

So maybe not the greatest Lear ever, and there are big shoes to fill in that regard indeed, but a great overall production which I thoroughly enjoyed.