Review – Saving Mr Banks, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 23rd December 2013

Saving Mr BanksBack in 1982 I was invited to an Honorary Degree Ceremony at the University of London’s Senate House. HRH Princess Anne was there to bestow the honours; among the recipients was Peter Parker, at that time Chairman of British Railways. Why am I telling you this? Because there was a military band present at the reception playing light classics to accompany our glasses of champagne and the song they played that most sticks in my mind as being a brilliant choice for such an occasion, was a wonderful oom-pah version of “A Spoonful of Sugar”.

Emma ThompsonOne of the things I really enjoyed about Saving Mr Banks was the opportunity to get a little more insight into Robert and Richard Sherman, who wrote the music for not only Mary Poppins, but also, inter alia, The Jungle Book, The Happiest Millionaire, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – four of the most entertaining film music scores you could imagine. Actually I found it impossible to keep my feet and legs from twitching musically as the film showed some of the songs being put through their paces in the Disney studios’ rehearsal room; sorry to those seated around me. But just to put on record; how much cheer and happiness has been spread around the world due to the Sherman brothers’ partnership – thanks for everything you wrote.

Tom HanksBack to the matter in hand: Saving Mr Banks is a delightful, thoughtful, and emotional film that takes the experiences of Mrs P. L. Travers as she visits Los Angeles to discuss and collaborate with the Disney creative team who hope to get Mary Poppins on celluloid; and contrasts those experiences with her own childhood in Allora, Queensland (which I think counts as back of Bourke) and her close relationship with her father. It could have been just a standard biopic – there’s a lot of humour to be drawn from the prickly Pam Travers resisting the perceived tastelessness of the Disney machine – but by delving deeper into her emotions and unfinished family issues you get a greater understanding of her priorities and motivations. As soon as you see her pelting pears into the Beverly Hills Hotel swimming pool, you know that there’s something not quite right going on. She equates the character of Mr Banks with her father; loving, but stuck in a starchy job that makes him absent and prone to irascibility. We also meet her Aunt Ellie, who suddenly appears at the house to help her mother with the chores whilst the father is languishing in his sickbed. She has a black coat, a carpetbag and an umbrella with a bird’s head as a finial. Yes, it’s the real Mary Poppins.

Jason Schwartzman and B. J. NovakIn Allora, the young P. L. (or Ginty as she was known then) witnesses the slow decline of her father’s health, caused or at least exacerbated by his dependence on alcohol. She sees him lose control at work in the bank and get fired (subsequently to get reinstated by his begrudging boss); she sees him passionately advocating bank accounts for children as a way of introducing them to a mature way of life; she sees him fall off the stage at a fair where he is awarding the prizes; and she sees the devastating effect of his alcoholism on her mother. The scene where her mother has finally come to the end of her tether and walks out on Ginty really had me watery round the eyeballs, soft old thing that I am. Hence the older P. L. prefers to take tea rather than alcohol in bars, has an aversion to that particular fruit, prefers children to be treated as adults and has the need to protect the reputation of Mr Banks as not a monster but as a kind man who likes to play. It takes the Sherman Brothers’ “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” to turn P. L. around and give at least some form of consent to the film being made, as it finally affirms to her all the good qualities she remembers of her father.

Colin FarrellMind you, P. L. (don’t call me Pamela) isn’t the only one to have issues. Although it’s never directly stated, you definitely get the feeling that Uncle Walt also wants Mr Banks to represent Disney-the-man in some way. P. L. doesn’t want him to have moustaches – flashback to a conversation Ginty has with her clean shaven father; whereas Walt insists on the moustaches, proudly massaging his own set back into place. Moustaches win – and David Tomlinson gets to play the iconic Mr Banks. The chief strength of the film is in the development of the characters – not only the way P. L. comes out of her shell and starts coming to terms with her past, but also how Walt also learns how not everybody responds to Disneyfication in the same way.

Paul GiamattiAt the heart of the film is a stunning performance by Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers. She absolutely conveys the tight-lipped disdain of anything American and open-hearted, and bitterness of someone who can’t quite allow others to enjoy themselves; and it’s consequently beautiful when she finally lifts some of her own veils, playing in the grass with her driver Ralph (very thoughtfully and kindly played by Paul Giamatti) and even adding a drop of whisky to her tea. It’s a really convincing and masterful performance. Tom Hanks is exactly how I would imagine Walt Disney to be on a good day, when he’s trying to get what he wants by being nice – totally convincing. He even managed to make the only really sloppy/sentimental speech in the entire film (when Walt is delivering his final syrupy salvo to make P. L. see sense) sound bearable.

Ruth WilsonJason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak make very credible Sherman brothers, spending day and night pounding at the piano, changing something good into something perfect, trying to charm their esteemed guest into accepting their work. There’s a very funny scene where Mr Novak, tired and fed up, challenges P. L. on one of her quibbles, and she just dismisses him from the room like a naughty schoolboy, and he slumps off, speechless. The shared facial expressions between the brothers speak volumes throughout the film – an excellent pairing. There are also very moving performances by Colin Farrell as the father, pathetically inadequate without the boost of alcohol yet with a heart full of love and kindness, Ruth Wilson as her exhausted and frayed mother and Annie Rose Buckley as young Ginty, wide eyes taking in all the happiness and sadness that constantly besets her; even if in her first few scenes her happy face expresses not so much an unquestioning love for her daddy but more “I can’t believe I’m actually acting with Colin Farrell!”

Annie Rose BuckleyThis is a really affecting and thoughtful film. If you like Mary Poppins then you will find this a fascinating background accompaniment to an old favourite. Even if you don’t, it’s still a great insight into how a creative writer can look upon their fictitious creations as part of the family, to be protected at all costs. And Emma Thompson’s performance is one of the best I’ve seen for years. Terrific!

Review – Candide, Menier Chocolate Factory, 21st December 2013

CandideOnce again the Menier proves itself to be the most versatile of spaces. When you descend the steps to the auditorium you never know whether you’ll be walking left, right or straight on; seated in front of a traditional stage or in the round or in traverse; with acting areas just in front of you or all around you. If you’re a regular attendee at the Menier there’s a particular thrill you get when you enter the auditorium just to see how they’ve jiggled it all around this time.

Fra FeeFor this lively production of Candide, the Scottish Opera version of 1988 (the programme gives you a good history of the various different stages this show has endured over the ages), our arrival is greeted with garlands and pendants surrounding a central square area to suggest an eighteenth century fête. The seats are partly recovered with colourful glittery material (not overly comfortable to be honest!) and the whole place has the feeling of middle Europe celebration. We are in Westphalia, which I always thought was as imaginary as Ruritania, but is apparently an area of north-west Germany. But not for long, as jolly musical number after jolly musical number takes us on a tour of Europe, then (after the interval) South America, stopping by at Surinam before our finale in Venice.

Scarlett StrallenCandide is, of course, probably the best known work of Voltaire, and a copy of it has sat on my bookshelf since 1979, when I bought it because I thought it was something “I Ought To Read”. I regret that, to this date, it retains the same status. It’s a kind of semi-picaresque story where our eponymous hero follows his fortune all around the world, he and his circle getting into the most ridiculous scrapes that would prove fatal for the rest of us, but he (and they) nevertheless bounce back time after time again, smelling of roses and playing the national anthem on a penny whistle (figuratively speaking). Voltaire’s main task is to satirise the “this is the best of all possible worlds” philosophy of the tutor Pangloss, of whom and of which Candide is a devotee, and to highlight the resilience of human nature as literally nothing seems to damage the indomitable spirit (and indeed unbreakable bodies) of Candide and his pals. In that respect, the show is very faithful to the book, (as far as I can make out without having read it) with its pacey progress through a whirlwind of globetrotting adventure. I think its pace is vital to the success of the show; if it were to get ponderous you’d start thinking too deeply about its nonsensical coincidences and Lazarus-like risings from the dead, and that would probably spoil it. With Cunégonde, Maximilian and Parquette constantly re-appearing, Mrs Chrisparkle was reminded of Nicholas Nickleby’s happy-ending Romeo and Juliet, where everyone bounded back to life at the end because they didn’t take the poison or the sword wound was just a scratch. Except for poor Tybalt, of course.

James DreyfusI mentioned the jolly songs; to be fair, not all the songs are jolly. For every two or three jolly songs, I’d say, you get a sincere and meaningful ballad sung by Candide. I don’t mean to pick a fight with Leonard Bernstein over his score. It starts off very promisingly with the well-known overture that most orchestras like to include in their more upbeat classical concerts; it goes on to include a few witty patter songs, and some wonderful juxtaposition of comedy with tragedy, as in the blissful “Auto da fe” where members of society have a great time watching the Spanish Inquisition at work; and it also has some stand-out individual moments, such as Cunégonde’s Glitter and Be Gay (like an eighteenth century version of Madonna’s Material Girl) and the Old Lady’s “I am easily assimilated”. You can also see the expert hand of Adam Cooper at work with the choreography in some of the bigger numbers, enabling grand dance gestures to develop in the small space available to fantastic effect. However, I did find that whenever the character of Candide felt the urge to sing something sincere about love or his lot in life, the songs got a bit, well, boring. Sorry. No one’s fault except Bernstein’s, or possibly whichever of the wide choice of lyricists credited to this show might be responsible for the words in those particular songs.

Jackie CluneThe only other slight quibble I have with this production is the decision to have some of the action take place on what is effectively a narrow balcony that goes all the way around the back of the auditorium behind the back row of seats, means that no seat actually has an unobstructed view of all the action. We sat in row A, as we always do, because I like to get as close as possible to the action, but it meant that several times we had to turn around to see what was going on behind us, or, when that got a bit uncomfortable, just go into “radio” mode for a few minutes and listen to, rather than watch, the show progress. For this production, the back row probably gives you the best view of all. Mind you, I’m not complaining about being close to the action. When the characters were introduced to us in the opening song, to illustrate how friendly the lovely Paquette could be with gentlemen, she decided to perch upon my lap and give me a smile and a cuddle. That was nice. I gave her a smile and a squeeze back, and gently inclined my head towards her ample bosom. It was only later on I discovered that Paquette was riddled with syphilis. Thanks a lot Paquette, how am I going to explain that to Mrs C? Actually there were a number of very amusing moments when certain members of the audience were given little tasks. One gentleman became the King of the Bulgars; the lady on the other side of the aisle from me ended up holding the gondolier’s paddle, which was bigger than both of them. Such little tricks all help to keep you involved in the show.

David ThaxtonAs always at the Menier, it’s a company jam-packed with talent and style. Fra Fee (with possibly the shortest name in showbusiness) is perfect in the role of Candide, all wide-eyed innocence and open-hearted good nature. He’s like an Everyman figure into whom the rest of the world collides as he makes his merry way through life; and even if I did find some of his songs a little boring, he has a fine singing voice with perfect clarity and expression. The love of his life, Cunégonde, is played by Scarlett Strallen, fresh from her amazing performance as Cassie in A Chorus Line, and her singing and stage presence are just stunning. She stops the show with her fantastic coloratura in Glitter and Be Gay and conveys both the comedy and the tragedy of the role beautifully.

Ben LewisI was really impressed with the performance of James Dreyfus as Pangloss (and Cacambo, and Martin) – he too has a great voice, a fantastic command of the stage and a natural feel for comedy. The other really superb performance comes from Jackie Clune (great as Billy Elliot’s mum a few years back) as the Old Lady – much fun to be made by the fact she has no other name – who sings fantastically and gives us very funny physical comedy with coping with just one buttock (you’ll have to see the show for more information). If you’re in the front row you might have a very amusing conversation with her just after the interval as she wanders on and starts moaning about the fact that she’s not playing Cunégonde; “what’s the fuss? It’s only a D sharp”. The rest of the cast give tremendous support, with Cassidy Janson a beautiful and mischievous Paquette, David Thaxton a delightfully pompous Maximilian, and Michael Cahill and Ben Lewis taking on eight roles between them, each with their own strong identity and great comic timing.

A perfect choice for a festive season show, full of feel-good factor and a great sense of fun. Fantastic costumes, a great band and some superb performances. Definitely not to be missed!

Review – Sleeping Beauty, Derngate, Northampton, 12th December 2013

Sleeping BeautyFor eleven months of the year, when you take children to the theatre you always remind them to be quiet during the show; if they have any questions to save them for the interval; not to fidget or kick the seat in front of them; and never to take a fluorescent windmill into the auditorium and set it whirring for two hours. During the other month, however, all bets are off, and you encourage them to shout, chat, jump up and down, and whirr. No wonder some kids grow up confused.

Linda LusardiAny children you take to see Sleeping Beauty at the Derngate (on till 5th January 2014) will be in for a real treat. All the usual perfect panto components are there: a dame, a villain, a village idiot, and a fairytale prince and princess. There’s competitive singing, a messy kitchen scene to include porridge down the underpants, a high-tec ghost, loads of “oh yes there is, oh no there isn’t”, a considerable chance of getting water sprayed on you, and some actual real magic too.

Sam KaneThe real stand-out moments of this production though are the two 3D sequences, one in each half. They are completely spectacular. The last time we saw 3D in a panto was at Birmingham about four years ago. I can tell you the 3D aspect of this show absolutely knocks spots off that production. It’s vivid, scary, exciting and funny; and the live action of the cast at the same time integrates perfectly with the visual spectacle. Through the 3D specs, the stage looks so huge and the actors appear so tiny in comparison, it really gives an incredible feeling of power and adventure. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what’s in store in 3D-land, but it’s really thrilling. To be honest some of the younger kids found it a little bit scary. I was sitting next to a little girl who up till then was incredibly confident, chatting away to me and finding the show hilarious; but as soon as the 3D came on she fled for the safety of her mother’s lap. There was a little boy sat in front of Mrs Chrisparkle who was so shocked by the 3D apparitions she thought the poor lad was going to need hospitalising. It’s really impressive technology and great fun. They’re comfortable 3D specs too; it was very easy to wear them over my normal glasses. I can only think that the audience must look hilarious from the stage during these sequences though, as we scramble around in our seats reacting to what’s in front of us!

Andy JonesIf I have a small criticism of the show (and I guess I do), it would be that perhaps the script was not quite as funny as some of the other recent pantomimes we have seen at the Derngate. It was thoroughly entertaining for the kids but we felt there could have been just a few more of those clever lines that appeal to the adults as well. Having said that, there were some great up-to-date references to Joey Essex and Nigella Lawson to which you give a sharp intake of breath at their irreverence; and the show is performed with such a sense of fun and attack that you still have a terrific time.

Shinead ByrneLinda Lusardi as the wicked fairy Carabosse makes a great villain; perhaps the glint in her eye is more knowing sexiness than evil witch, but, on the whole, that’s Not A Bad Thing. There’s a sequence where she’s going to try to make one of the male characters fall in love with her: “oh yes I am”, “Oh no you’re not” scream 1000 kids; “Oh yes I am” she says as she flashes a glimpse of fishnet beneath the gown”; “Oh yes you are” I assert, resisting the peer-pressure of 999 fellow audience members. There’s a lot of fun to be had with knowing that Miss Lusardi is married to Sam Kane, who plays Oddjob, with his nausea-stifling, child-like repulsion at the prospect of a spot of Castle Forest intimacy with her. He and Andy Jones as Muddles make an excellent double act – Mr Kane the straight man and Mr Jones the buffoon. Whether it be challenging each other to a duel, or a splattering of custard pie goo down the trousers, they clearly have a lot of fun doing it, and we have a lot of fun watching it.

Alex Jordan-MillsShinead Byrne is a rather stunning Princess Beauty with a superb singing voice, and Mrs C assures me that Alex Jordan-Mills as Prince William also scored high on the eye-candy rating. Together they’re going to have the most beautiful children. They sang together really well too – achieving lovely harmonies well in excess of the standard that you might otherwise expect in a panto. Phil Hitchcock is an endearing King Stephen who brings real magic to the stage with some brilliant tricks – I’m always a sucker for magic. Even though we were fairly close to the stage in row E, I couldn’t see how any of his illusions worked. It’s a nice touch to have the wicked fairy defeated by the power of good magic too – very appropriate!

Phil HitchcockKim Wall appears as Nurse Dolly. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened the programme to read that he was playing this part as he has long been a favourite actor of mine. He was superb in Laurie Sansom’s Ayckbourn season at the Royal in Northampton in 2009 (before I started blogging); and actually, way back in 1979 when I was a first year student I was invited to watch a rehearsal of a production by a young professional company of Steven Berkoff’s “East” in Oxford so that I could write up an article and review for a student newspaper; and it was a young Mr Wall who played the part of Les. I remember being so impressed by his attack and charisma in that play. I’m not sure if he has played a Dame before, but he looked superbly hideous, had a warm connection with the audience and was full of fun and flirtatiousness.

Kim WallIt’s all backed by a happy looking bright ensemble of dancers and singers, and the children from the Mayhew School of Dance were a delight. It’s a really entertaining show, with some great performances and amazing effects. The production values in the show are top quality, from the sets, to the band, to the costumes and of course the superb 3D. Don’t miss it, you’ll love it! Long live panto!

Review – Gravity (3D), Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 3rd December 2013

GravityCancel that application to join NASA – I’ve changed my mind about wanting to be a spaceman. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be floating around a Space Station somewhere in the vasty void out there, this has got to be as good an insight as you would get from the safety of Planet Earth. Jolly badinage abounds out there between the Space Operatives as they go about day-to-day maintenance in the great unknown, but when debris from a missile strike on a defunct satellite by those pesky Ruskies starts heading their way, things get seriously problematic. That’s when you discover the “gravity” of the situation (geddit?) and Dr Ryan Stone, played with great conviction by Sandra Bullock, ends up having the most unlucky day at work imaginable.

Sandra BullockThere’s no doubt that this is an absolutely extraordinary film. The sense of outer space is vivid, scary, and beautiful, and I haven’t seen such exciting 3D effects since enjoying the John Barrowman Birmingham panto a few years ago. The music and sound effects are also really stirring and exciting – a build-up of rowdy noise will accompany a tense, suspenseful scene, and then will instantly change to silence as our heroes (briefly) escape one calamitous situation before awaiting the next. There’s a terrific juxtaposition between the hugeness of space and the tininess of the spacecraft and the fragility of the human body. I have to say, I had my heart in my mouth for at least half the film.

George ClooneyFortunately I managed to overcome the sentimentality of much of the dialogue as I really wanted to enjoy this film; however its schmaltziness was over-the-top for Mrs Chrisparkle, who found it just too drippy. I guess realistically if you were in their shoes, hanging on a thread in the great beyond, you probably would talk about all those personal issues and have a photo of your family attached to your spacesuit; however, I could sense Mrs C going “oh purrlease” and “oh forchrissake” everytime another clichéd syrupy sentence hit the cosmic vacuum. There is also the pleasure – if that is the right word – of witnessing George Clooney running the gamut of wisecrack from A to Z even when he is at the end of his tether (literally). Is his character’s vain light-heartedness believable under such circumstances? That’s hard to answer.

DriftingThe opening credits are as minimalist as you could ever expect to see, directing the audience’s attention straight to the opening scenario and the uneasily prosaic nature of the standard maintenance work performed against such an unprosaic background. This is basically a two-hander, and it’s not often you see one of those as a film – in fact, I can’t think of another. There are a few other characters who you just hear rather than see, but it’s mainly just Miss Bullock and Mr Clooney versus the universe. As Miss Bullock hops from space station to space station, I was impressed with her ability to operate the machinery when all the instructions are in Cyrillic, but surprised that she wasn’t able to crack the Chinese alphabet. You would have thought that would have been part of the training, just in case. Suffice to say she makes it back, even if not quite on dry land, and boy will she deserve that evening gin-and-tonic.

Visually stunning, an assault on the senses, plenty of suspense and a celebration of indomitable spirit; let down a bit by the sticky sweet script, but pacily packed into a thrilling 90 minutes. I’d definitely recommend it, and go for a 3D screening as the effects work brilliantly.