Review – A German Life, Bridge Theatre, 4th May 2019

A German LifeJust like everyone else in the Bridge Theatre last Saturday night, at the moment that tickets for A German Life went on sale a couple of months ago, I was poised over my computer keyboard, with about five browsers open, desperately hopping from page to page to find the shortest queue so that I could book our tickets. The reason, of course, was that this was to be a solo performance by the one and only Dame Maggie Smith, in her first stage appearance in twelve years, and who knows if and when any of us would get the chance to be that privileged an audience member again? And it’s only on for five weeks! Panic!

Dame Maggie SmithI’ve seen a few memorable solo performances over the years; Edward Fox as John Betjeman in Sand in the Sandwiches, Michael Mears’ moving account of First World War conscientious objectors in This Evil Thing; Meera Syal’s Shirley Valentine; Leonard Rossiter’s Immortal Haydon; even an Evening with Quentin Crisp and Barry Humphries’ marvellous Dame Edna shows. But none of them can hold a candle to the great Dame Maggie, in almost 1 hour 40 minutes of total concentration and immaculate characterisation as Goebbels’ private secretary, Brunhilde Pomsel, who died in 2017 at the age of 106.

There sits Brunhilde, at her dining table, in her elegant, formal apartment, the set designed by Anna Fleischle but inspired by Fräulein Pomsel’s own rooms, talking candidly to an unseen interviewer about her life and times. And what life and times they were! She’d have you believe that she became caught up in the Nazi administration rather innocently and naively, caring more about Frau Goebbels and their delightful children, than any of the evil activities of the Third Reich. Naturally, we’re a little suspicious of her insouciance, but why would we disbelieve her after all these years? Many of her friends and acquaintances were Jewish, and she seems to take their gradual slipping out of circulation as some kind of sad inevitability.

What Christopher Hampton’s terrific script, drawn from Brunhilde’s own testimony, achieves most acutely is how easy it is for society to drift into fascism and hatred of one’s own fellow man. Of course, it couldn’t happen today, she says, much to the regretful laughter and uncomfortable buttock-shifting of the audience. There’s only subtle, moderate and implied criticism of her wartime activity, because, there but for the Grace of God go many of us, I suspect.

I had seen Dame Maggie once before on stage, in Edna O’Brien’s Virginia, back in 1981; it’s in the vague recesses of my memory but I think the play itself, the life of Virginia Woolf, underwhelmed me, although, as a 20-year-old chap, I probably wasn’t its target market. A German Life, however, is an extraordinary theatrical experience; a gripping narrative told with immense dignity and restraint by one of our finest actors. You can’t take your eyes off Dame Maggie’s face, with all her expression and stolid resilience slowly leaking through her eyes and her words. So much so, that you don’t notice the fact that the floor has slid extremely slowly towards you, so that during the course of the evening, she’s getting closer and closer to us; an extremely clever device that subtly keeps us locked in to the performance – although I’m sure we don’t need it.

I was struck by her vocal delivery throughout the entire performance. To emphasise both the age of the character, and how she’s thinking hard before she responds to her unseen questioner, she gives much more weight to an adjective in the phrase than the noun. It’s all about her describing what she saw and how she felt, more than simply naming it. She revels in the adjective; after a short pause, the noun is often thrown away. Once you cotton on to that style, it brings you even closer to the character and her vulnerability.

A technical masterclass from the 84-year-old Dame Maggie. The feat of memory, to recall all those lines, apparently effortlessly with no cues from other performers, is astounding in itself. But it’s so much more than that. Tour-de-force isn’t enough; it’s simply extraordinary. Unsurprisingly, the run is totally sold out, but some day seats are available from 10am. Get queuing!

P. S. Don’t be alarmed when Dame Maggie confesses that she’s lost her thread, it’s Brunhilde talking – you’re in very capable hands.

P. P. S. Talking of Edward Fox, it was (perhaps unsurprisingly) quite a star-studded audience as I spotted the renowned Mr Fox in the bar and Sir Trevor Nunn heading towards the toilets. All human life was there!

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 5th April 2015

Second Best Exotic Marigold HotelAs you may or may not know, Mrs Chrisparkle and I are great fans of anything to do with India. It’s our favourite country to visit, the people are lovely and the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells on every street are enough to stimulate the most jaded of brains; although whilst I am sure there are plenty of eclectic hotels like the Best Exotic Marigold (or indeed the Second Best Exotic Marigold) we’d prefer to stay in an Oberoi or Taj, if that’s ok with you.

Dev PatelWe saw the original film on TV last year. I thought it was charming, heart-warming, gently funny and an incredibly accurate representation of India. I also don’t know anyone who saw it who wasn’t delighted by it. The film was a relatively unexpected commercial success, grossing $138m on a $10m budget. No surprise, then, that they got their heads together to come up with a sequel. It’s been out a while now, and we missed it when it first came to the Errol Flynn; but word reached us that the new film was still delightful, but not as delightful as the original. It’s usually the case with sequels.

WeddingIt’s not vital to have seen the first film, but I think it would help, if only to understand better the characters and relationships behind the names. Sonny (who runs the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a quiet, idyllic but somewhat chaotic establishment, catering for an energetic, adventurous, and retired clientele) is now in a working partnership with Muriel, one of the original clients. They fly to San Diego to seek financial backing from a large conglomerate to buy and convert a dilapidated hotel so that Sonny’s dream of entrepreneurial empire building can become a reality; cue lots of great lines for Maggie Smith about how much she enjoyed America, (not). However, the path of true business never runs smoothly, and a combination of hotel inspectors (or are they?), rival purchasers and the usual shenanigans of the residents of the hotel get in the way. To add to the proceedings, preparations are underway for Sonny and Sunaina’s wedding. There’s an engagement party, and a family party – but with all the distractions and a jealous groom will they actually make it to the wedding day, and will Sonny’s dream of being a multi-hotelier be realised? You’ll know after 2 hours and 2 minutes.

Wedding partyFor the most part, the story is wafer thin and what little there is is overwhelmed by a few additional distracting side-plots. There’s a sequence where Norman mistakenly encourages a taxi-driver to murder his girlfriend Carol, and then spends a lot of effort trying to stop him. As a plot it goes nowhere and I found it rather tedious. The whole “which, if any, of the guests is the hotel inspector” storyline also goes on a bit long and, to be honest, we don’t really care. What we do care about, a lot, is the characters. The film is peppered with some wonderful creations, the majority of them with the first flush of youth a long way behind them, and we really want them to carpe diem and make the most of the time that’s remaining. The on –off relationship (mainly off) between Douglas and Evelyn has you tearing your hair in frustration that she won’t commit to him. The return of his ex-wife Jean demanding divorce drives it home that it’s even more important that they get on with life.

Ronald Pickup and Diana HardcastleAt the other end of the “dalliance” scale, Madge has been stringing along two Indian suitors mischievously simply because she can but realises that when it comes to the crunch neither of them is what she wants. The resolution to this problem, whilst telegraphed a mile off, is beautifully realised. And the character of Muriel has developed from the difficult, complaining old biddy she was into a wise Everyman figure who watches the action from the side-lines. Despite that gruff exterior, she genuinely wants people to make the best of what they’ve got, and not fritter away their time like she did. The dialogue is very well-written and brings the characters to life, and it goes without saying that the cinematography is beautiful and makes you long for India itself.

Penelope WiltonBut for me, three stand-out performances drive the film onwards, and, frankly, you’d enjoy it no matter what the script contained. Judi Dench is exquisite as Evelyn; bold and capable in the world of work but tentative (and hating herself for it) when it comes to love. You can’t imagine Dame Judi putting in a performance that wasn’t just instinctively Dame Judi. Her elegant voice can capture the full range of emotions from self-doubt to self-confidence, imbued with cheekiness or sorrow all in the same sentence. Eloquent and understanding, more than capable of defending herself in argument, but essentially fragile and needing reassurance. It’s a beautiful performance.

Judi Dench and Christy MeyerAnd it’s a fantastic juxtaposition with Dame Maggie Smith as Muriel, dismissive of waffle and impatient with incompetence, never one to pull any punches whilst talking to those who might consider themselves to be her superiors, all the while looking mortality in the face with quiet dignity. Whilst Dame Judi is always Dame Judi, Dame Maggie can be anyone. As a wonderful contrast to her Downton Abbey character, here she is a commoner, with a down at mouth accent and shabby of appearance, but never dull of wit. The third outstanding performance is by Dev Patel who, as Sonny, absolutely encapsulates that tendency of spirited and ambitious young Indian people to deliver outspoken superlatives, massively overhype any project and never let a silence go uninterrupted. His balance of being both deeply in love with Sunaina but also a useless fiancé means we can all recognise aspects of ourselves in his hopelessly ham-fisted relationship. He’s also really funny – and a convincing Bollywood dancer too.

Judi Dench and Celia ImrieBill Nighy is back, still playing Bill Nighy, playing Douglas, stumbling over himself to do the right thing and say the right words, attempting to conceal crestfallen feelings when things don’t work out right: the epitome of middle-aged male vulnerability. Penelope Wilton is spot-on as ex-wife Jean, using attack as the best form of defence in attempting to secure a divorce, giving an appearance of cheerfulness which is as hollow as their ex-marriage. Celia Imrie has her usual knowing sexual predator look on her face even when she’s been sprung, when her two suitors turn up at the same time – but she does it awfully well. Ronald Pickup as Norman and Diana Hardcastle as Carol play a couple going through a hard time but not expressing it to one another, and it’s very touching.

Judi Dench and Bill NighyThe big additions to the cast for this film are Richard Gere as Guy Chambers, whom Sonny instantly suspects is the hotel inspector and therefore stumbles over himself, Basil Fawlty-style, to over-ingratiate himself with him; and Tamsin Greig as Lavinia, ostensibly at the hotel to check if it will be suitable for her mother. For a comic actress of Ms Greig’s quality she is woefully underutilised but carries off her disappointed, shocked but far too well-behaved to complain persona with her usual aplomb. Mr Gere is excellent as Guy, the debonair traveller, rising to the challenge of asking Sonny’s mother out for a meal, dealing with all the attention he inevitably gets because of his looks with refined false modesty. Lillete Dubey (Mrs Kapoor) is slow to react to his charms at first, and a difficult conquest to make, but then goes the way of all womankind when they encounter Richard Gere.

Dev Patel againLike its original, it’s a heart-warming and charming film; it’s never going to count as one of the finest films of all time but there’s plenty of character development and universal truths to get your teeth into. Plus the thrills and beauties of India. What more could you ask?