Review – Rocketman, Northampton Filmhouse, 9th June 2019

Rocketman posterMrs Chrisparkle wasn’t keen on seeing this, but I heard great things, so I took the opportunity to nip into the Northampton Filmhouse by myself whilst she was slaying business dragons in America. I wouldn’t describe myself as an Elton John fan, exactly, but I have a very soft spot for a number of his songs, and I was intrigued to see what they do with all this potent raw material – a life of excess and a musical back catalogue that’s probably sold billions rather than millions.

Taron Egerton and Jamie BellRocketman is, on one hand, a stereotypical biopic taking us through the life of Elton John from his early boyhood up to the time when he crashed into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting bursting with crises. We see his suburban-comfortable but emotionally starved early days, with a distant military father who cannot cope with emotion and a vacuous mother whose only love is for herself – thank heavens for his kindly nan, Ivy, who was the only one to take any interest in young Reggie. We see him taking his first steps at the Royal Academy of Music, then breaking into the music business, getting signed to Dick James Music, starting a writing partnership with Bernie Taupin, making and selling records and – pretty much instantly – hitting America on tour. And whilst his commercial success escalates, his personal life deteriorates; the only constant in his life being Taupin, with whom he famously has never had an argument through fifty years of collaboration – that’s some achievement.

Taron Egerton rockingOn the other hand, the film is a fantasy musical, with much in common with other jukebox musicals, using songs from an artist’s repertoire to complement the various stages of their life. But the first musical number reminded me more of how La-La-Land starts (in other words, brilliantly, then never regaining that opening buzz) with a big song-and-dance extravaganza in the street. Then the rest of the songs are woven into Elton John’s story, some as concert material, but many in a more stylised, almost ethereal manner; and not only sung by John. In fact, one of the most emotionally powerful moments is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, performed by Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin; one of those brilliant cover versions that completely rewrites the original.

Taron Egerton about to fallThe fact that the songs don’t appear chronologically disturbed me a little at first. Your Song (1970), for example, his first hit, is the seventh number to be performed during the film, whilst the first song in the film, The Bitch is Back, wasn’t released until 1974. Of course, that doesn’t matter with a show like Mamma Mia, where there is an invented story around which the Abba songs snugly fit; but that’s not the case for Rocketman, ostensibly a chronological biopic. However, it’s all performed so beautifully well, and the songs fit the various moods of the film so perfectly, that I had to tell myself to stop being so anal about it.

Taron EgertonWhat impressed me most of all about this film was the sheer quality of the attention to detail and its absolute verisimilitude throughout. The three actors who play Elton John at various stages of his life look and sing so very similarly to the real person; they even capture his smile – teeth slightly exposed, top lip lifted up – you don’t realise that’s how EJ smiles until you see the actors do it. The costumes throughout are a perfect mimic of his concert gear; the film’s finale is an (I believe) 100% correct recreation of the promotional video for his 1983 hit I’m Still Standing. That’s all incredibly impressive.

Richard Madden and Taron EgertonAs we know, Sir Elton has led a life of excess; we see the alcohol, we see the drugs. But what of the sex? In interview, Elton John said he had a lot of sex, but the film – despite its regrettable censorship in Russia to remove all traces of gayness – implies otherwise. It would appear that it’s not until he’s the recipient of a surprise kiss by one of the musicians on his first American tour that there’s any uncertainty over his sexuality; and any such doubts are put to bed (if you’ll pardon the expression) when he meets John Reid and, as a result, leaves DJM and takes Reid as his new manager/lover. But that’s all we know of his sex life; you might have thought he was completely celibate outside that relationship, and I have a sense that the film misrepresents his life in this department somewhat. In fact, the only other relationships we see him involved in are with Bernie Taupin’s landlady – that didn’t work, obvs – and the loveless, sterile few weeks of his good publicity marriage to Renate. His long-term relationship with David Furnish takes place long after the timespan of the film has ended. At the end of the day, the film shows that all Elton John ever really wanted was someone to love him, which was something everyone in his life was unable to provide except for Taupin and his nan.

Taron Egerton and Richard MaddenThe performances are delightfully strong throughout. It’s now too late to say of Taron Egerton that a star is born because of his Kingsman roles, but it’s definitely a star performance, with his huge on-screen presence, tremendous voice and just that magic je ne sais quoi. Please read my P. S. below to see how he wouldn’t have got where he is today if it wasn’t for me (I know, I’m so influential). He just exudes quality and authority; he “gets” Elton’s charisma even when he’s portraying him at his most down-and-out. Absolutely first class.

 Jamie Bell and Taron EgertonJamie Bell is superb as Taupin, that ever-reliable presence, a very open and honest guy who’s always the most supportive figure in EJ’s life. You really get the sense of the two of them together as being great mates, getting into a few scrapes but always there for each other – it’s a very heart-warming portrayal. Richard Madden plays Reid as though he’s auditioning for the next Bond movie; terse, arrogant, dynamic and highly convincing. You could really see how he could use sex as a weapon in the war of manipulation.

Steven MackintoshBryce Dallas Howard is also excellent as EJ’s deeply unpleasant mother Sheila, and there’s another mini star turn from Steven Mackintosh as his father; regimented, stiff-upper-lip, finding it impossible to conceal his total distaste for his son’s artistic interests. There’s a truly emotional scene when the successful Elton pays a visit to his estranged father and meets his two sons from his subsequent re-marriage – so, his own new half-brothers – and there’s no attempt to bridge any emotional gap between them, even though we can see how close his father is to his new progeny. You’d be devastated if it happened to you.

Matthew IlsleyBig mentions for Kit Connor and especially Matthew Ilsley as the young Reggies (older and younger) who make those opening scenes of the film such a joy. There are also some fantastic cameos from actors you’d queue to see at the theatre, like Sharon D Clarke as the counsellor, Harriet Walter as the Royal Academy of Music tutor, Ophelia Lovibond as Arabella, Celine Schoenmaker as Renate and Jason Pennycooke as Wilson. Blink and you’ll miss Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s Layton Williams as an American band member. And it’s lovely to see The Duchess of Duke Street herself, Gemma Jones, bringing warmth and character to the role of Ivy.

Bryce Dallas HowardThere’s a point in the film where the pace of the storytelling slows down, roughly coinciding with EJ’s descent into addiction and his increased antisocial behaviour; and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt the film sagged a little during those scenes. Otherwise, it’s an eloquent account of the first two-thirds of Sir Elton’s amazing life (what’s that you say? Leaving room for a sequel bringing us up to date if the film were a success?) and musically and visually it’s astounding entertainment. Plenty of Oscars and BAFTAs up for grabs here I expect. And why not?

the familyP. S. So, Taron Egerton’s first stage role was in The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre in 2012, the year he graduated from RADA. If I may quote myself, “in the smaller roles I thought Taron Egerton, in his first professional stage engagement, shows good promise”. High praise indeed; you heard it here first. None of the newspaper critics commented on his performance. #justsaying

Review – The Last of the Haussmans, Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, London, 7th July 2012

The Last of the HaussmansThere aren’t many clues in the programme or in the rather forgettable title of this play to give you an idea about what it’s all about – in fact I found myself referring to it in advance as simply “the Julie Walters play”, so if you too feel a bit of a blur as to its contents, I’m pleased to inform you, it’s a very engaging tale about an ageing “free-thinking” mother of the hippy generation, her two rather wayward children, the people who love them, the people who abuse their relationships with them, and how one’s passion for one’s cause can both help and hinder the world about you.

Julie Walters This is Stephen Beresford’s first play and he is admirably skilful at creating characters and writing funny but telling scenes. Despite financial strictures Judy hangs on to her ramshackled house to the obvious disapproval of wealthy neighbours. It’s a terrific, detailed set cleverly suggestive of one of those extraordinarily expensive Dorset Sandbanks properties – though the local references are all Plymouth-based – all art deco, garden and outhouses; but shabbily and carelessly furnished and maintained, with plenty of Indian Bhagwan ephemera, hippy bunting and a bottomless supply of alcohol. Judy’s obviously been a trying, difficult, brave, offensive and wonderful person all her life. Inspirational and exasperating in equal measure she steadfastly refuses to dumb down her vision for the sake of practicality. Her children Libby and Nick bear the scars of wayward upbringing and she still dominates their existence, even though they are now well entrenched in adulthood themselves. As the family work out their frustrations with each other over the last months of Judy’s life, Nick comes to the conclusion that they all have to accept they are individually responsible for their own “f***-ups” (his words), and this seems to me to be the main message of this very black and very funny comedy. The excellent set is matched with a well chosen soundtrack – in fact I loved the use of music in this production. Tracks from Judy’s finest hours, you imagine, work with empathy and irony to the on-stage action, and it was great to hear Peter Green’s plaintive guitar chords of “Oh Well” again. I’d forgotten how comfortably you are seated and what good sight lines you get in the Lyttelton stalls, and this production fills the imposing stage admirably.

Rory KinnearThe Lyttelton was packed; primarily I sensed, to see Julie Walters in action – and why wouldn’t you, she’s still a complete star turn. I last saw her on stage apparently performing oral sex on Richard Beckinsale in a hospital bed in Funny Peculiar at the Garrick in 1976, and she’s done awfully well since. Her Judy is a highly intelligent, fearless, erratic and slightly posh version of her creation Bo Beaumont, allegedly the actress who plays Mrs Overall. Julie Walters’ comic timing is immaculate but the role calls for much more than just comedy. She makes you believe Judy’s self-delusions. You share her loathing of the fascists. You are horrified at her deterioration of health and reliance on morphine. You are full of joy at her love for life. It’s perfect casting for this extraordinary character.

Helen McCrory I also very much enjoyed Rory Kinnear’s performance as her son Nick; near destroyed through drug and drink addiction, you can tell he’s been a coward and a reprobate but his characterisation is so real that you warm to him instantly. His hapless attempts at chatting up young Daniel, whom the family allow to practice swimming in their pool, are very funny and his comic business with the can of lager was predictable but very believable. He too has impeccable comic timing, as you might expect from his parentage; and like Ms Walters, his performance reveals both the comedy and the horror of the character’s life and experiences.

Taron EgertonAs Judy’s clearly less-favoured daughter Libby, Helen McCrory makes sure all grounds are covered in her performance from her strict unsentimental dealings with her daughter Summer, her vacillating fondness for the three-timing Dr Peter, and her gooey appreciation of Daniel’s attention, to her every-emotion-under-the-sun relationship with Judy. She’s very convincing, and delivers her hard stark lines with great comic attack. It’s a cleverly written role, as the character develops from the person you think probably has the best grasp on reality to the person who arguably loses grip – and the things she loves – the most. It’s a very effective and hard-hitting performance.

Matthew Marsh In the smaller roles I thought Taron Egerton, in his first professional stage engagement, shows good promise as the awkward loner Daniel who blooms under Judy’s watch and carves out a positive life for himself. His testament, that it was because of Judy’s encouragement and support that he can now meet life’s challenges, was really movingly written and honestly played. Matthew Marsh as Peter looked the part and was suitably creepy and sneaky with his amorous attentions to both Judy and Libby, and his turning away from the family’s needs at the end of the play was unpleasantly disturbing. Isabella Laughland as Libby’s wounded and wounding daughter Summer breathed strong life into the Catherine Tate-style “difficult child” character, and I didn’t foresee the twist as to how Summer would develop, but it was very nicely played. She has a tendency to talk over the laughs of the previous line, though, which is annoying, as I missed the beginning of quite a few of her important speeches. She just needs the confidence to slow the pace down and simply wait.

Isabella Laughland There were one or two aspects of the story that didn’t quite hang true for me; receiving the cremated ashes in an urn on the same day as a funeral is extraordinarily quick work; and why would you arrange for a funeral to take place on the same day you have to move house, that seems to create pointlessly additional stress. Nevertheless it’s still a rattling good story with some fine performances, good characterisation and plenty to watch and admire on stage. Running in repertory until October and definitely worth catching.