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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Gigs - Take That - Villa Park

Star rating – 9/10

Well, after the mad scramble to get my hands on tickets for the Progress tour from the TT boys, and the fantastic reviews of the tour so far, not to mention the reunion of Robbie and the now arguably more successful band, it’s fair to say I was really looking forward to this gig.

And, as was the case with their last Circus tour, you would be hard pressed to beat TT for a fantastic show. Among the crowd of women of a certain age, many with their young daughters in tow, TT are hard pressed to do any wrong. Even the attendees of the non adoring persuasion could not failed to be wowed by the magnificent light display; dancing troupe; breadth of material covered; and the infectious enthusiasm of Take That. They are endearing as they really do seem to be truly grateful to the fans for putting them back on top of the entertainment tree. And it is a tribute to their comeback that is was a long way into the show that they played any of their crowd delighting older hits.

But this time they were accompanied by a certain Mr. Williams. He came on first for a solo spot after the band had opened the show. And I have to say, unexpectedly actually, that his performance was something of a disappointment. He looked arrogant and fragile in his rendition of some of his solo hits. I did love Angels of course, but could have done without his crotch grabbing antics and references to his popularity with the women. He even invited members of the audience to be his super injunction for the night whilst his wife was away – nice touch Robbie. The overwhelming feeling I had for him was sadness at his desperation to be adored by the crowd. That is the difference between Robbie and the rest of the band – they love it – he really needs it. And possibly a tad more therapy besides.

But when the TT boys came back and they all sung together as a five piece it was fantastic. They are self deprecating, comfortable with each other, funny, and just all round great entertainers. They all looked in fabulous shape, especially the wonderful Jason Orange, clearly revelling in his stage, and undoubtedly staged, reputation for being a ladies’ man.

The special effects were thrilling, and the music fabulous. It was definitely worth all the aggravation to get hold of the tickets, and I would go and see them again anytime I wanted to be uplifted and thoroughly entertained, with or without Robbie. Gary, Howard, Mark, and of course the beautiful Mr Orange are bigger than that now.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Film - Bridesmaids - directed by Paul Feig

Star rating – 8/10

It’s fair to say that I’m not usually a romcom sort of person, but this is not your average romcom at all, in fact it is one of the funniest films I have seen for a good while. And with it a star is born, at least in Britain, for American audiences of Saturday Night Live have know just how hilarious its star Kristen Wiig is for some time now.

Wiig, who also co-wrote the film, plays likeable but down on her luck Annie. She had a cake shop called Cake Baby, and ran it with her boyfriend, until it went bust and she lost both the business and the guy. Now she has little better to do than tell couples looking for engagement rings in the down market jewellery store that she works in, how their love bubble will inevitably burst, which is obviously not great for custom.

Her best friend Lillian is getting married, and she wants Annie to be her maid of honour. Annie is prepared to put her cynicism about romance to one side and make all the necessary joyous preparations that the role requires, that is until she meets to horrendous Helen. Helen is married to Lillian’s fiancé’s boss. She is glamorous, rich, beautiful, and totally on a mission to take over the whole thing and to become Lillian’s new best friend.

Annie gets increasingly cheesed off with being edged out by Helen, and starts to unwittingly sabotage the whole affair. Annie’s drunken behaviour on the plane to Las Vegas for the Bachelorette Party is particularly hilarious. Her personal life is also in ruins. She has a horrible fuck buddy, played by Jon Hamm from Mad Men, who makes her feel downright miserable and more worthless with each passing encounter. She runs into a cop, played by Chris O’Dowd, who takes pity on her and lets her off with a warning for faulty brake lights. But she is too messed up to know a good thing when she sees it, or in this case him.

There are some tacky moments, such as when they all get food poisoning whilst trying on dresses in a very upmarket wedding shop, and end up ‘doing a Paula Radcliffe’ in the street. But overall this is a smart and very funny film that is much more than a cut above the usual dirge churned out it the romcom genre. And Kristen Wiig is simply wonderful as Annie, whether sticking to her principles, falling apart or getting herself back together again.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Film - Potiche - directed by Francois Ozon

Star rating – 7/10

Catherine Deneuve sparkles in this gentle, slightly odd-ball comedy about a 1970’s French trophy wife. Her faithless husband owns an umbrella factory, and let’s just says his industrial relations leave a lot to be desired. When he falls ill, and their two children want nothing to do with the factory, his wife Suzanne steps in to save the day.

Needless to say she runs it much more successfully than her husband, in a very amusing and motherly fashion. Business booms, and Suzanne even has time to spend with her old, if by now very portly, flame Gerard Depardieu. One scene which has them disco dancing in a comic Saturday Night Fever type routine is very amusing indeed. She then ventures into the world of politics to complete her transformation.

This film won’t change your life, it might not even change your outlook on anything much at all, but it will certainly make you smile for a while and feel jolly in a whimsical sort of way, and remind you of what a star Deneuve really is.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Books - Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson

Star rating - 7/10

Emma Henderson’s début novel is fresh and very original in its subject matter and narrator, Grace Williams. Born in 1947, and Grace is labelled as a ‘spastic’ and treated as if she has no mental faculties of her own to speak of. But speak she clearly does throughout the book, although her actual spoken dialogue is minimal. She tells the tale as if in flashback to the events and people that shape her life for good and ill.

There are no harsh judgement made of the parents who couldn’t cope and so put Grace in the Briar Mental Institution. Her little sister Sarah is particularly cruel, although in a naive and childish way, although later on in the story she comes to relate to Grace in a very positive and touching manner. Grace suffers appalling sexual abuse at the hands of the Briar’s resident dentist, but she does not define herself by the experience, simply states it as a matter of fact.

The real focus of her story is her love for Daniel, who lost both his arms in an accident, and is also a resident at the Briar. They fall in love and get up to all sorts of mischief. Daniel is an exotic person in that world, with his knowledge of French and his ability to type with his feet, and most of all, his longing to break away from the institution with all its rules and limitations.

In its way this book reminded me of Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’. Grace is a great heroine, who has clear insight into the events that unfold in her life, and an ability to make sense of them in a profound way, despite the extremely low expectations which many other people have of her. She won’t be written off, and her defiance is often very endearing. Henderson has written a clever and refreshing book. It gives a disabled heroine a great part and a loud voice for the reader to hear, even though she is unable to always communicate it as she would like in her life. The pace of the story is perhaps a little uneven in places, but this is a début to take note of, with a very powerful message.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Theatre - Hard Times - Library Theatre

Star rating – 8/10

The Library Theatre are taking the opportunity, in their current homeless state, to create exciting projects in interesting locations, the first of which is this classic Dickens tale of life for both workers and masters in the grim industrial setting of Coketown. The venue for the play is fabulous in itself, Murray’ Mills in the heart of Ancoats. It is a buried gem, which was a fully working mill from the late eighteenth century right up until it closed it doors in the late 1950s. I wasn’t aware of its existence before the Library Theatre temporarily took it over, and there really could not be a more apt setting for Hard Times.

The action starts with a staggered entrance to the ground floor of the mill by the audience. The series of tableaus and scenes presented which I presume act merely as scene setters, here are a bit confusing and the production could really have done without them. But then the audience is taken up to the first floor of the mill, and it is obvious that this is going to be a bit special. The director Chris Honer, and designer Judith Croft have done a wonderful job of using the unique location to great effect.

Dickens tale is of Thomas Gradgrind, who brings his two children, Tom and Louisa, up to appreciate the accumulation of facts and knowledge, and the power of rational thinking, to the exclusion of matters of the heart, soul, and imagination. His friend Josiah Bounderby delights in telling how he was dragged up from a gutter and raised himself to be a successful businessman. He is loud and coarse, and has designs on Louisa. Her father is pleased with the sense and rationality of the marriage proposal made to his daughter by Bounderby, never considering what her sentiments may really be. Sissy Jupe is a poor girl from a circus who is taken pity on by Gradgrind, and used as another way to demonstrate how his successful his educational methods are. But she becomes a counterbalance to his methods, and a reminder of how emotions and feelings cannot be ignored. Dickens also shows the differing lives of the classes in sharp relief, with one of Bounderby’s mill workers, Stephen Blackpool, having a particularly hard and unfair time.

All the actors do an amazing job of being able to block out the audience all around and among them, and concentrating faultlessly on their performances. It is really worthy of great praise all round. But there are particularly stand out contributions from Richard Heap as the larger than life and very amusing Josiah Bounderby; from Lynda Rooke as his housekeeper and general busybody Mrs Sparsit; and from David Crellin as both the unfortunate Stephen Blackpool, and the circus master Mr Sleary.

The audience has to move quickly as the scene change, sometimes a little too quickly really, as it takes longer than expected to move the whole audience about, and so they sometimes miss out on some of the action. There is some seating, although not always enough for everyone, and the mill is not the warmest of places. But the production is a delight, and well worth braving the joy of chemical toilets and a bit of standing about for.