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Friday, 30 November 2012

Theatre - Rats Tales - Royal Exchange

Star rating - 3/10

I love Christmas. I love children. I love theatre. It pains me to be have to be so churlish about something that involves all three but sadly the festive production by my beloved Royal Exchange is a real turkey. And that's from a committed basically not good then.

Rats Tales by Carol Ann Duffy is made up of a hotch potch of different stories, which started out showing much promise with the Pied Piper of Hamelin - a superbly dark tale with a moral lesson I approve of - deliver on what you promise or else. But the first half of the performance dipped after that strong opening with a collection of stories about trolls, dolls houses, and witches which sorely lacked coherence and failed to grip. 

The second half of the play turned into an altogether darker proposition which I felt was frankly unsuitable for children. It included a girl who was being forced to marry her father, and a boy whose stepfather cruelly ignored him to the extent that he became invisible. Call me old fashioned but I just don't think this is the stuff of a family festive offering. And there was a bit of needless swearing thrown in to boot. 

It tried to straddle a fine line between pantomime and serious theatre ended up achieving neither. And its darkness was not at all redeemed by its final contrived happy ending. Which is a shame for the actors who were all perfectly fine, and the lovely accompanying musicians.

The abundance of children at the start and end felt a bit like a school play - and I don't mean that in a good way. And there were nowhere near as many rats as I expected. At one point the overkill on dry ice left the audience spluttering and unable to see anything on stage either. 

I predict that this production will have limited appeal - as indicated by the many empty seats tonight, and is sadly a miss for the Royal Exchange. Bah humbug...

Gigs - BC Camplight - The Castle Hotel

Star rating - 5/10

This was one of those crazy nights where I took a chance on a gig by an artist I knew little about. Sometime it pays off big time, sometimes it doesn't - but it's always interesting. This was not disastrous - not fantastic - but definitely interesting.

Brian Christinzio aka BC Camplight hails from Philadelphia but has fallen in love with the greatest city in the world (sensible guy) and now made Manchester his home. He released two critically acclaimed chilled CDs in 2005 and 2007, which to be honest remind me lots of Badly Drawn Boy in style.  Then he apparently had a breakdown of sorts and didn't make music for a while. Now he's back with a vengeance, and with a new band who are clearly having a ball together.

To be honest their big sound felt a little too big at times for the small back room at The Castle. The drummer (nice Michael Jackson circa Ben T-shirt!) was just awesome but the drum sound crashed through everything else - which was a shame.

BC did a lovely solo number called Atom Bomb which was slow and  melancholic like his earlier stuff. They only performed about six songs so it's hard to tell what his new music will be like. But the crowd adored him, and pogoed like it was 1977 to the rockier numbers.

He threw sweets to the crowd at the end, but personally I would have preferred more music, and possibly a larger room next time. But this is definitely one interesting guy.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Gigs - Tift Merrit - The Ruby Lounge

Star rating - 8/10

At the Ruby Lounge this weekend Tift Merrit demonstrated not only what a beautiful clear voice she has, but also just how good her songs sound when she sings them live with her band. It was a chilled, intimate easy Sunday evening atmosphere with seats, tables, candles and everything.

And you wouldn't think it to hear her, or see her youthful exuberance, but this talented American alt-country singer  has been producing consistently great music for a decade now. The beautiful title track from her first record all those years ago, Bramble Rose, was one of the highlights of the set. She does sad and haunting very well, like Drifting Apart from her latest album Traveling Alone  - and it had a simply gorgeous pedal steel accompaniment. As did the beautiful Sweet Spot.

She does a great line in relationship observations - Too Soon to Go, and  Traveling Alone sounded particularly good. But she can also rock it up with the best of them as on Still Not Home. As is so often the case many of the tracks sound so much better live with a great band than they do on record - good as they are.

Tift Merrit may not be one of the most famous female country singers around, but she is probably one of the nicest. Her easy, charming manner transmits to her band and her audience. Aside from her lovely vocals, she's a talented musician and song writer too - if she's slipped under your radar so far, and like me you are a sucker for a beautiful voice and a spot of pedal steel,  then you are advised to check her out.

DVD - Free Men - directed by Ismael Ferroukhi

Star rating - 7/10

Tahar Rahim was simply unforgettable in director Jacques Audiard's  2009 A Prophet. He has the lead role again here in a film about a lesser known part of World War II history - the role the Algerian immigrant community played in the French Resistance movement against the occupying Nazis. 

Rahim plays Younes, a fictional character who helps to relate real life historical events, who is a petty criminal simply trying to wheeler deal his way to making enough money in Paris to allow him to return to Algeria. Arrested by the police, he reluctantly finds himself as a spy on the comings and goings at the city Mosque as a way of avoiding further police attention. It's a role he soon throws off however, as he finds the resistance characters sheltering there far more of an attractive proposition than the murky Vichy state machinery. 

He befriends Salim, a talented and charismatic Algerian singer, who as a Jew is in danger from the increasingly anti-Semitic activities of the Germans army. And he develops a mutual respectful relationship with the head of the mosque, even though the latter is aware of Younes's previous disloyalty.

Rahim is very convincing, although the role is not as powerful as that of Malik El Djebena in The Prophet. And there is solid support from Michael Lonsdale as the mosque leader; and from Mahmud Shalaby as Salim. Free Men could probably have benefitted from a bit more tension; some of the plot developments felt a bit telegraphed. But it's timely to be reminded of the role of the Algerian community in the French Resistance movement. 

Monday, 26 November 2012

Films - The Master - directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Star rating - 8/10

Cards on the table - the unique and wonderful Joaquin Phoenix can do little wrong for me (odd mockumentary aberration of 2010 I'm Still Here aside - there's no need to dwell, he is forgiven). And Philip Seymour Hoffman can be relied on to deliver consistently brilliant performances. So the prospect of this heavy weight double act did hold much promise.

The story is one whose telling has been long overdue in Hollywood - the fictional tale of a cult and its charismatic leader who come to dominate, domineer, and control those who come within their orbit. Of course it's a thinly disguised and scary picture of Scientology and its creator L. Ron Hubbard, who have wielded such influence among many in the acting fraternity for a long time.

Seymour Hoffman is superb as Lancaster Dodd, who wins over followers with his charm and charisma, and loses his temper quite marvellously in the face of any dissension or opposition. Into his path comes alcoholic and unhappy ex navy drifter Freddie Quell, played with his usual remarkable ability to totally inhabit a role by Phoenix. The film centres around their developing relationship, and how Dodd uses Quell's vulnerability and loneliness to spectacular purpose by manipulation, friendship and  sheer force of personality. Their relationship does not disappoint, and they light up the screen when together.

In the face of such brilliance, it would be easy to overlook the great acting of Amy Adams as Dodd's wife. Adams is a brilliant chameleon actor, and excels yet again, as she has so many times since her extraordinary performance in Juno, in the role of his subordinate but feisty and influential partner.

It's a film that stays with you long after the credits, and which does not spoon feed you, which is definitely a good thing in my book. Paul Thomas Anderson knows exactly what he wants to do with the script, and on the whole produces another excellent and potentially award winning film, following on from his great There Will Be Blood. He does know how to get the best from a strong lead, as he did with Daniel Day Lewis that time around.  

The Master is a tad overlong, and therefore loses its impact slightly towards the end. But the period 1950s detail and colours are sumptuously beautiful. And this is a slight defect which doesn't significantly detract from wonderful, just  wonderful performances by Phoenix and Seymour Hoffman. And it's a serious and cautionary tale to boot.