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Saturday, 31 March 2012

Theatre - She Stoops To Conquer - NT Live

Star rating – 9/10

Oliver Goldsmith's timeless period piece provided another bawdy and brilliant night’s theatre courtesy of National Theatre Live. It is a great, classic, hilarious farce with mistaken identities and class differences making for frolics and fun in frocks. Written in 1773, this delightful play proves that good comedy is ageless, with lots of the jokes seeming as funny today as they must have been to eighteenth century audiences. 
Although the noise levels were a bit loud at first - Steve Pemberton as Mr Hardcastle in particular seemed a bit shouty – most of the acting was simply exemplar. Significant press attention has gone to ex-Corrie star Katherine Kelly as Kate Hardcastle, whose would be suitor mistakes her father’s country house for an inn, leading to uproarious confusion. And she certainly proves she is much more than a soap star ‘has been’. But in truth this play contains stand out performances almost all round.

Sophie Thompson in particular was hilarious as Mrs Hardcastle, who desperately tries to impress her guests with her knowledge of the London fashions, and who has a fantastic array of glorious facial expressions and  voices to match, to more than fulfil the part. There are some great two handed scenes such as those between John Heffernan  as Hastings,  who has some very funny asides to the audience, and David Flynn as Tony Lumpkin, the son who would rather be in the local inn with the rural folk than in his mother's home with his rich step father with pretensions  of grandeur. 

Young director Jamie Lloyd chooses to keep to with period costume for this totally camp and outsize adaptation, which also contains beautiful costumes and a cleverly rotating set. He brings out Goldsmith’s themes of opposites – town v country, class v class - in this highly entertaining, and witty satire. This was another triumph for great theatre on the cinema screen. If you’ve not tried it yet and are still sceptical – then you really should.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Books - The Cove by Ron Rash

Star rating – 9/10

Ron Rash has written a beautiful, moving, and thrilling novel in ‘The Cove’. It strays into the territory of ‘Cold Mountain’ or ‘Winter’s Bone’, as it depicts life in a dark, dank, cove in North Carolina nearing the end of the First World War. 
Laurel and her brother Hank live there alone, their parents having died and now lying in mossy graves nearby.  The local people don’t venture there if they can help it, and they are convinced that Laurel is a witch due to a large red birthmark she has. Hank is due to marry and break up the sibling solitude. And then their hard and simple lives are changed forever by the appearance of a stranger who plays beautiful music on his flute by the banks of the waters. He lets them believe that he cannot speak, but is really hiding a secret, and hiding from others.

Rash skilfully sets up the outcome as a tragic one in the short prologue, but it is not clear exactly to whom the tragedy will befall until the last pages, adding to the tension as the novel reaches its thrilling climax. The parallel narrative of a local army recruiting officer, who is trying to prove his worth without going into action, is skilfully interwoven.

As I was reading the book I was imagining Jennifer Lawrence in the film version as the heroine Laurel, and then I learned that she is about to star in an adaption of another one of his books, ‘Serena’, so I was on the right lines. Rash describes the world of Laurel and Hank in the cold lonely cove in brilliant and transfixing detail. He transports his reader to the poverty of the Appalachian folk in a mesmerising way. And I am certain the film rights to this novel too will be hot property.

I didn’t want this story to end, and will certainly be reading more of Rash’s work. If I read a more beautiful and memorable novel this year it will surely be one to shout about.

Opera - Xerxes - Royal Northern College of Music

Star rating – 6/10

I like my opera passionate and dramatic, so this was a bit of a punt as Handle’s ‘Xerxes’ is a cross between comedy and tragedy. The music, as you would expect from such an esteemed composer, was absolutely beautiful, and really well played and conducted, by Roger Hamilton.
It is set in ancient Persia, with King Xerxes wanting to marry Romilda, but she is in love with his brother Arsamene, and not with Atalanta, who also loves him. So an amusing array of cross dressing and cross purpose, not to mention crossed lovers, ensues. It was a bit too long for me, at over 3 and a half hours. And the plot was just not dramatic or substantial enough for my tastes. Some of it was a bit bonkers, like the opening where Xerxes seems to be in love with a plane tree for some reason. He then spends hours chasing a woman who doesn’t love him, then at the drop of a hat changes his mind and goes back to the woman he said he loved before!!

There was a stand out performance by Gabriella Cassidy as Romilda, but some of the other singing was a bit patchy. There was a excess of female voices– the main male parts were originally sung by castrati – and the women singing them here didn’t feel strong enough in places.

And please can someone tell me why the director chose to make his singers splutter and cough through the later stages of the opera in a haze of dry ice –it was just not necessary, and made them look like extras from an Adam Ant video.

But the absolutely delightful music by Handel was excellent to the last, so maybe I will let him off the dodgy and very slight storyline. Back to Tosca for me then...

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Books - Voices of the Dead - by Peter Leonard

Star rating – 8/10

Having a famous and successful crime writing father in Elmore Leonard has thankfully not put off his son Peter from trying his hand at the genre. In ‘Voices of the Dead’, the first in a two part series, he chooses to the pair the well trodden streets of 1970’s Detroit with a territory less often plundered by modern crime writers - Nazi Germany. 
Harry Levin is in some ways an archetypal detective figure. He is something of a loner, and unsuccessful with steady relationships, but he is not a detective at all. Harry owns his own scrap metal yard, and is only drawn into the world of detection when his only daughter is tragically killed in a road accident. The problem is that the other driver is a German diplomat, who uses his diplomatic immunity to escape punishment and flee back to Germany. 

Understandably Harry decides to take the law into his own hands and to track him down. But being a Jewish Holocaust survivor, the trip back to the horrors of his youth is not an easy one. This plot twist ensures a very original story. My main quibble is that it stretches credulity somewhat when we find out that Harry is linked to the killer diplomat is more ways than one – possibly a plot device too far.

But it makes for a fast paced and entertaining crime novel, with the menace of neo- Nazi influence very well transmitted. And the writing also really successfully depicts 1970’s Detroit. Leonard is obviously a great talent. It’s good to read a politically motivated crime novel, and I’ll definitely be waiting for the sequel to come out to see what Harry does next.

DVD - Dreams of a Life - directed by Carol Morley

Star rating – 8/10

You might think that in our modern world of being constantly socially connected to everyone we know, and plenty of those we don’t besides, that gone are the days when someone could slip out of view; just fade away and die, and lie undiscovered for over three years. You would be wrong, as hauntingly uncovered by film maker Carol Morley in her ‘Dreams of a Life’, just out on DVD, which tells the harrowing story of Joyce Vincent, who died in exactly those circumstances in 2006.
This film is a very difficult watch, although there are thankfully no grim recreations of Joy’s skeleton lying on the sofa in front of a constantly switched on TV, as her flesh rotted away. The grimness here comes from the way this happened as Joyce slipped under everyone’s radar, beautiful and vivacious as she apparently was.

It made me quite angry about the official agencies who should have known that something was wrong but did nothing for so long. Joyce lived in a London housing association flat – why did no-one think to do anything about her ever increasing rent arrears and lack of contact until three years had passed? Her TV was on for all that time why did the electricity company not act when her bills went unpaid year after year? And why did none of her neighbours report the terrible stench or constant noise of the TV that emanated from her flat? It is frankly just beyond belief.

But the more shocking story here is the one where a young woman slipped under the radar of her friends and family, for whom she was actually wrapping Christmas presents for at the time she died. I would like to think that someone would call round to my home if I didn’t contact my nearest and dearest for a few weeks, let alone long months and years. The ex friends, colleagues, and lovers of Joyce all tell their side of their relationships with her in the documentary portions of the film. An image is created of a lovable woman who created an outward glamorous image, but was more than a little slippery, and came and went as she pleased.

They all seemed to suspect an underlying sadness about her, or even more alarmingly, a propensity to choose the ‘wrong sort’ when it came to men. Joyce was apparently the victim of domestic violence at the hands of a man whom no-one was aware of or even know his name. 

And what of her family? Her mother’s death when she was a child obviously had a shattering effect on Joyce, but why did her father and elder siblings let her slip out of view. As they don’t appear in the film we will never know.

This is a sad, thought provoking film that shatters any illusions about community we may have. There was no big society for Joyce Vincent, just a well of loneliness so deep it swallowed her up. Well done to Carol Morley, and the local MP who also helped to shine a light on the case, for bringing this cautionary tale to our attention. Let’s hope someone does pay attention. Women wanted to be like her, men wanted her, but Joyce Morley was still left to rot for three years, and the circumstances surrounding her death will never be known.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Exhibitions - Cotton: Global Threads – Whitworth Art Gallery

Star rating – 4/10

The Whitworth is one of my favourite art galleries – I love the building, the setting, the area, and usually I love the exhibitions. This one should have really inspired – marrying the themes of global artistic material displays with arguably the home of the Industrial Revolution – Cottonopolis. But it doesn’t really take off. 
There are some interesting pieces, like the beautifully vibrant colours of Lubaina Himid, but in truth some of the exhibits are drab, and the curation is uncharacteristically uninspiring. Maybe they just excelled themselves with ‘Dark Matters’, or maybe they didn’t stray far enough away from the textiles which form part of the normal bill of fayre here. Still, I’ll be back for the next one – here’s hoping.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

DVD - The Mysteries of Lisbon - directed by Raúl Ruiz

Star rating – 5/10

Even though I’m a bit of a sucker for art house sub-titled films, and a lover of costume drama to boot, I like to think that I am a tad more discerning than to be fooled by this Portuguese marathon of a film. 
The 70 year old director of ‘The Mysteries of Lisbon’, Raúl Ruiz, who died last year, could have done with a bit of savage editing to make this four and a half hour (yes that’s right – a whole 270 minutes) epic anything like watchable. Every character in the dazzling array of inter connected story lines seems to have a hidden past, a secret to conceal, and a variety of names to choose from. Mystery really seems to be the operative word here. 

It is an adaptation of a novel by Camilo Castelo Branco which has never been available in English translation. A young boy João, living in a Lisbon boarding school in the eighteenth century, laments his lack of a surname, and longs to find out something about his family history. He turns to Father Dinis, who reluctantly reveals that his mother, whom he is fleetingly reunited with before she retreats forever into the seclusion of a nunnery, was the victim of a cruel aristocratic husband, who caused her downfall and humiliation. But the priest has his own hidden story to reveal. 

The plot is confusing, almost baffling, at times, and relies on narrators who turn out to be totally unreliable. The different strands weave together after a fashion, but it doesn’t stay with any of the characters ling enough to elicite real empathy with any of them. It is highly melodramatic, and reminded me more of the Thornbirds than quality drama. 

So the moral is – just because a film is ridiculously long, and plays at an art house cinema near you – it doesn’t mean you should waste a whole four and a half hours of your precious time on it, even when it comes out on DVD and you can suffer it in smaller doses.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Film - Hermano - directed by Marcel Rasquin

Star rating – 7/10

Here’s a Venezuelan film without a kidnapping, but instead it has the gritty, tough violence of the barrio, told via the inspiring story of two brothers and how football offers them a way out of their grim lives in Caracas.
Toddler Julio (Eliu Armas) and his mother find a new born baby abandoned amongst the rubbish, a symbolic detail if ever there was one. Daniel (Fernando Moreno) or Cat as his brother affectionately calls him after the noise he thought he heard when they found him, grows up as a loved and loving member of their family. When the brothers play football together they are unstoppable, with Julio delivering killer passes for Daniel to sublimely score from. 

But director Marcel Rasquin is certainly not making a feel good story here. This is not ‘Bend It Like Beckham’. Instead they play their football in the midst of gang violence and grinding poverty. The football scenes are convincing, which is no small feat in cinematic terms, if a little over long. Although you get the feeling that no-one in Venezuela would think that, as football is a nothing less than a religion there. 

And the chance of a place in the academy of Caracas F.C. becomes ever closer when a talent scout spots the brothers and wants to see more of them. This is a tragic story about violence, loyalty, love and how a passion for sport can change even the most blighted lives. The performances are fantastic, especially from the young leads. It might be a little rough around the edges, but it is another fine example of how so called ‘art house’ films can beat the candy floss and billions of Hollywood hands down.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Film - Pa Negre - directed by Agusti Villaronga

Star rating – 6/10

Pa Negre (Black Bread) is another film in the Viva festival at the Cornerhouse. It is a dark, verging on morose, drama about a Catalan family’s dark secrets during the Spanish Civil War. It won a hatful of Goyas (the Spanish equivalent of the BAFTAs), when it was released there in 2010.
Director Agusti Villaronga doesn’t flinch from graphic, shocking violence from the off – you have been warned. A young boy, Andreu, very convincingly and memorably played by Francesc Colomer, discovers a tragic accident in the woods near his home, the repercussions of which come to haunt his whole family. He initially thinks it is the work of a notorious ghoul lurking in the woods, but then begins to suspect that his Republican father has had a hand in the affair.

The plot is intricate, and difficult to keep up with at times, with a few characters that feel a bit like cul de sacs. Its pace is a little too slow to be entirely satisfying, and it would have benefitted from a bit sharper editing to make its point. There seem to be little redeeming features about any of the characters, and maybe that is the message, that the war drove people to do terrible things that they would not have contemplated under normal circumstances. 

The acting is accomplished all round, and the rural Catalan settings are beautiful, but tragedy lurks in every face and around every corner and it’s not an easy watch.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Gigs - Laura Marling - Manchester Apollo

Star rating – 7/10

This was a less atmospheric occasion than last year’s gig at Manchester Cathedral – but then venue counts for so much – and the Apollo, when fully seated, does not often help to create those special evenings that you remember for a long time. Laura Marling attracts a very eclectic crowd, both new fans and old folkies alike, which is always a refreshing mix. She treated them all to a great mix of beautiful tunes from her three acclaimed studio albums, not to mention a couple of Mercury nods to boot. 
She is a very endearing and confident performer, who does not hog the limelight but shares the stage generously with her five piece band. And boy does she have a large selection of acoustic guitars...

She performed one new song, ‘Pray For Me’, but mainly stayed with tried and tested tracks from her albums. And despite one maverick heckler’s pleas for her to get the crowd going, tonight she preferred to quietly satisfy them – with no complaints. A particular highlight was ‘Night After Night’, which seemed much more powerful and stirring than the very gentle version on her latest CD ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’. ‘Sophia’ sounded  beautiful and confessional. And ‘Goodbye England’ was a poetic reminder of her English heritage and roots.

Laura Marling didn’t set the world on fire tonight, but she did quietly and confidently entertain the Apollo crowd, and give as good a Friday night’s gentle entertainment as it is probably right to expect.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Film - La Hora cero - directed by Diego Velasco

Star rating – 7/10

It’s time for the annual feast of Spanish and Latin American films courtesy of the Cornerhouse’s Viva! Festival. And the phrase, ‘high octane’, does not begin to cover the plot of my first taste of the action in the Venezuelan film ‘La Hora cero’ (Zero Hour). The first time I saw a film set in the suburbs of Caracas, ‘Secuestro Express’, (Kidnap Express) about 6 years ago, it was full on action, violence, with a large dose of social justice thrown in. And this latest offering from that country is in a very similar vein.
The basic plot is that a local gangster Parca, played by the intriguingly named actor Zapata 666,  persuades his fellow gang members to take a pregnant and bleeding girl, who they do not recognise at all, to hospital in a convoy of motorbikes. But all the doctors are out on strike, demanding a wage rise, so they take over a nearby private hospital at gunpoint, take all the patients and staff hostage, and use them as a bargaining tool to get the medical treatment needed for the woman and her baby, who has by now been born in a taxi on the journey in. 

The rest of the story line, or I should really say story lines, as this felt like about six films in one, gets very complicated and at times a bit convoluted. But it could never be called boring. It involves a beauty queen; a Governor who is hiding a secret; a police chief who wants to avoid getting caught up in the politics of it all and safeguard the lives of his officers; and a TV crew with their eye on a big break and the lure of Hollywood – to name but a few. All the characters have complex motives for their actions, with few totally bad or wholly good people involved. But they are all brilliantly no-nonsense Latino types who have absolutely no problem with saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

It’s thrilling, political, funny and very graphically violent. I can’t imagine anything like this being made in Britain. It may not do much for the Venezuelan Tourist Board, but it is a well acted, full on, and highly entertaining start to Viva!  

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Classical - Norma - Opera North

Star rating – 9/10

I don’t go to see opera all that often but when I do I’m a bit of a stickler for only seeing productions that are sung in the language they are written in, rather than being translated into English for our benefit. There are a couple of good reasons for being so picky. Firstly, opera sung in the original language, such as Italian, are just much more beautiful to listen to. Secondly, for non aficionados like me, it’s much easier to follow what is going on by being able to read the surtitles as you go along than to try and hear every word as it is sung, especially as some of the women performers sing in such high pitched tones it can be a bit tricky to keep up with intricate plots. Anything else just feels like dumbing down. 
In my view, Opera North are often a bit guilty of this, but their current production of Bellini’s ‘Norma’ is stupendous, and encapsulates everything that is magical and spellbinding about great opera. It might not be the most famous of operas, but when you hear the sumptuous and entrancing aria of ‘Casta diva’ quite early on in the first act, its familiarity draws you in and its beauty is entrancing. The title role is sung with passion and conviction by Annemarie Kremer, and it is a very big role to play, having been made famous by no less a diva than the great Maria Callas. Of course no-one can match Callas, but Kremer totally does the role justice in her way.

Norma is an opera with a simple plot that is easy to follow. Its setting is Roman occupied Gaul, with Norma being a powerful Druid priestess, whose followers look to her to tell them when to rise up against their oppressors. But Norma is harbouring a dreadful secret love for Roman proconsul Pollione, with whom she has had two sons.  So she is already somewhat compromised, but when she hears of Pollione’s unfaithful promises to a young temple virgin Adalgisa, her world collapses. 

It is a bit like the most perfect of Greek tragedies, Medea, where Jason (of the Argonauts fame) pays for his unfaithfulness with Medea murdering their two children for bloody revenge. But Norma is not just simply out to pay Pollione back, she is in dread of the fate that awaits her children, either in Gaul as the offspring off a Roman oppressor, or in Rome as lowly slaves. So her contemplation of their murder is not simply a pure revenge attack here. But Norma is just as torn as Medea about what she should do. And, unlike Medea, Norma shows complete sympathy for the young woman with whom her lover has lusted. The empathy between Norma and Adalgisa is a pillar of this opera. The blend of the voices of Kremer and Keri Alkema is stupendous. 

The setting is sparse but effective; the music transporting. For me this was simply a perfect night at the opera – a simple and splendid opera, performed brilliantly.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Theatre - Saturday Night and Sunday Morning - Royal Exchange

Star rating - 8/10

Young actor Perry Fitzpatrick proves that he can carry off a big performance in his role as Arthur Seaton in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ at the Royal Exchange.  As the narrator of the play, Perry carries each and every scene with an assured, swaggering, and charismatic performance as cock of the north  - or in this case Nottingham . And I’ve never seen an actor called to get dressed and undressed so much in a single play.
Perry is from Nottingham himself, so this seems a part tailor made for him in every way. Arthur works at the Raleigh cycle factory, and loves nothing more than to spend his wages on sharp suits and beer. He spends his time in a heady cocktail of rebelling against authority, and chasing married women. He’s a bad boy that you can’t help but love for his charm and hidden heart of gold.

Directed by the accomplished Exchange veteran Matthew Dunster, it got off to a bit patchy start. The echoes at the same time as the actors speaking didn’t really work, and the actors coming on in triplicate as the same character seemed unnecessarily diverting. The scenery malfunction with one of the lights crashing to the floor can’t have helped much. But the second half really fizzed along, and the fairground scene at the Goose Fair was brilliant.

There are other impressive performances from Clare Calbraith as one of Arthur’s married love interests, Brenda; especially a long and harrowing scene involving that old wives’ remedy for an unwanted pregnancy - a very hot bath and too much gin. Tamla Kari is spirited as Doreen - the one who finally tames him into domesticity– or at least who thinks she has.

Adapted from Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel, this play is still hard hitting, though obviously now more of a period piece than a commentary on current morality and society, but it’s still seriously good drama. So it’s a major return to form for the Exchange, and a sizzling performance to remember from Perry Fitzpatrick.