Orson’s Shadow -Broadway Baby Review

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Orson’s shadow looms heavily in Austin Pendleton’s play about the prolific director; not only over the protagonist but over the entire play which whilst fascinating and faithfully performed, struggles to overcome its creative shortfalls.

Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, incredible icons in their time, brought together in one room. That’s the play’s real hook; an exploration into the lives of these larger than life people. It’s a fascinating subject – when Welles and Olivier teamed up to create a production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Royal Court in London, it did not go well and what might have been a huge moment in cinema and theatre history went largely unnoticed, as did much of Welles’ talents after he was forever in his own shadow after Citizen Cain. Unfortunately, like its titular character, this play, although clearly containing strokes of genius, also often struggles to find its feet.

Watching actors play actors and critics (Edward Bennet is a brilliant Kenneth Tynan, Orson’s dear friend and critic) is often a curious thing. Particularly if you’re an actor or a critic yourself. It often takes you out of the action, reminds you that you’re watching a performance. There’s clearly an awareness of this feeling in the play’s occasional meta structure which breaks out of the drama to allow a character to talk to the audience about dates and personal opinions, as though looking back in a journal. But that’s all these meta moments do and they often feel like missed opportunities. Why weren’t these meta moments turned into striking cinematic monologues to bridge the gap between these theatre and film icons? And delve deeper into the psychological states of these typically tortured artists? They’re not nearly stylistic or committed enough and often just draw your attention to the limitations of the production.

For a play about one of the most innovative directors of our time, the direction is very pedestrian – with props here and there which often get in the actors’ way as well as the audiences sat in the round. The play oddly feels dated, stuck in the time it takes place, which seems at odds with the narrative which constantly reminds us how Welles was ahead of his time.

The actors too, often struggle to find their own skin in these larger than life roles – that’s not to say the performances are not impressive; John Hodgkinson certainly emits Welles – he’s got the trademark sneer down to a T. And Adrian Lukis exudes the theatricality of Olivier with vocal and physical precision. But the problem is we don’t really get to see the real people behind the icons. We just see them as they were most famous for and the performances, at times, border on stereotype imitation. Olivier is flamboyant and whimsical, Vivian Leigh is manic. Of course that’s probably a perfectly fair portrayal, but there seems to be a layer that the actors have not yet fully found and which the script only scratches the surface of. We almost get there with Gina Bellman’s brilliant and disturbing portrayal of Leigh’s manic depression, but the role doesn’t feel wholly hers, but it may yet. There’s a fantastic and heart-breaking biopic all about Vivian Leigh just waiting to be made.

There are fantastic moments. The second act erupts into side-splitting hilarity and aching drama as we watch Welles attempt to direct Olivier, and we see Vivian Leigh lose control. But there’s an unevenness and sad lack of inventiveness to the production. What’s more it feels long and many of the scenes could do with a healthy edit to sharpen up the otherwise intelligent, witty and well observed dialogue.

It’s definitely worth seeing, particularly if you’re interested in Orson Welles (and why wouldn’t you be?) But it feels like it could have been so much more.


Major Tom at Battersea Arts Centre Review

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Told through a journey into the comparable worlds of beauty pageants and dog shows, Victoria Melody’s Major Tom explores how easy it is to become obsessed with personal image and competitiveness.

It’s quite a novelty to walk into Battersea Arts centre and see a bunch of dogs sat on the steps of the old town hall having their pictures taken. The novelty continues when you walk into the space and the Basset Hound, Major Tom, lies by the door looking up at you and letting you pet him as you go in. IT’S A DOG ON STAGE! And he’s a very likeable, very sleepy dog. Victoria Melody warns at the beginning of the show not to get too excited about Major Tom as he’ll mostly be asleep through the whole thing. But that’s not a problem as the audience clearly loves seeing him sleep, wake up, yawn and go back to sleep. It’s clear that Victoria Melody’s Bassett Hound Major Tom is a big draw to the show. After all, he’s got the title.

In Major Tom, Victoria Melody tells the story of how she came to be the owner of such a sleepy hound and how she decided to enter him into dog shows to prove what a unique and special dog he is. After being told a number of times that Major Tom wasn’t good enough to win, Victoria became concerned about the dog’s possible low esteem so she decided to enter herself into a beauty pageant so she could sympathise with the pressure of being best in show.

Major Tom is a relaxed and charming show with smart commentary under its fur. There’s no angry rant about beauty pageantry, just an informed and funny look at some of the things women go through for these pageants. It’s effectively mirrored with Major Tom’s best of show competitions for dogs – One of the show’s highlights is a hilarious side by side comparison of Melody’s and her dog’s preparation for their shows presented like a training montage. It might not be ground-breaking – beauty pageantry is generally considered sexist and objectifying – but one of the strengths of Major Tom, is how Melody demonstrates that the desire to look ‘perfect’ (or fake) and the competitiveness that comes from attaining your ‘perfection’ can be addictive. Particularly when this perfect/fake image is still paramount in mainstream entertainment and effects our general attitudes about self-image.  It’s a very current issue with increasing levels of anorexia and bulimia in the UK and the presence of social media memes such as ‘thinspire’, encouraging people to get unhealthily thin and contributing to a type of eating disorder competiveness. Victoria Melody does a good job of demonstrating how infectious this way of thinking can be whilst still keeping the show funny and enjoyable.

With a clever and current look at the obsession with body image and celebrity, a modest and easy style and a very lovable dog, Major Tom might not win best in show but is well worthwhile for its simple yet honest and poignant qualities.

Major Tom is at Battersea Arts Centre till the 27th of September.

Original article and star rating available at http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/major-tom-/703365

Thinking back over the stage version of Let the Right One In at the Apollo Theatre

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Let The Right One In wasn’t a Hammer House of Horrors cheese-scare. Nor was it a convoluted story about a secret society of vampire and vampire hunters. It was more intimate and so much more refreshing.

Based on the Swedish movie that also has a Hollywood remake called Let Me In, the theatrical version of this Swedish Vampire tale came from The National Theatre of Scotland and was appropriately re-imagined in a Scottish woodland setting.

It’s a refreshing and authentic vampire tale for a generation of viewers vampired out from the likes of True Blood and glossy shallow vampire fests like Twilight and Underworld. With a beautiful story, great performances, fantastic music and imaginative choreography, Let The Right One reminded me of the fantastic potential of a genre I’d all but given up on. The play managed to be fresh, moving and exhilarating all at once. The premise is simple and refreshing – there is a murderer loose in the woods. Lonely boy Oskar is told by his distant mother not to play out there. But he doesn’t listen. The woods are his refuge from the vicious bullies at school and the rottenness of a broken home. In the woods he meets Eli, a strange young girl who has just moved in next door. Oskar immediately likes Eli and Eli likes Oskar. The only problem is it that Eli ultimately turns out to be a blood sucking vampire.

Watching Let The Right One In on the stage felt like quite a unique experience. The stage seems to be the perfect place for this genre, after all, with the immediacy and intimacy of theatre, when done well, where else can vampires be more haunting than on the live stage? – (Except maybe in a real forest, or an alleyway) – But this was no meager scare fest, although there were some truly jumpy moments; It’s wasn’t a Hammer House of Horrors cheese-scare. Nor was it a convoluted story about a secret society of vampire and vampire hunters. One of the strengths of Let The Right One In is in its toned down and very intimate story. This separates it from the majority of vampire stories we’ve been inundated with for so long now, avoiding  the clumsiness and clutter that often surrounds the vampire narrative.  And there’s no acrobatic gun-cata shoot-fests in black leather and sunglasses. – The Matrix is dead, makers of the Underworld series. The 90’s ended and many of us moved on. Also rather refreshing is that as the protagonists are children, Let The Right One wasn’t all about sex, which seems to have become the main focus and selling point for the vampire genre for a long time now. Sex arguably comes into the story, as this is after all a love story, but Let The Right One In is a much more innocent and ultimately, more sinister tale of love, obsession and cruelty.

The stage production made for a very evocative play that stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre. An intriguing and unnerving ambiance was created before the play even began with figures weaving through the woodland set and an eerie soundscape permeating through the auditorium. This feeling was maintained throughout the piece and heightened at dramatic points with the excellent soundtrack. It was also greatly enhanced by the wonderful choreography where the movement was used to communicate feeling and story in visually striking and also abstract ways helping to create a piece of theatre that felt fresh and inventive. It was also as you can imagine, pretty gory in places. Let The Right One In was a wonderful edition to the West End that is over-swamped with easy crowd pleasing musicals. Let’s hope that great works like Let The Right One In continue to make it big and find space on the West End and elsewhere..

If you saw the production and would like to share your thoughts on it feel free to get in touch or comment below. If you missed it watch the original movie and look out for a revival. It’s definitely one to watch.

Ed Fringe 2014 Beowulf the Blockbuster

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I love Beowulf. And to that I owe Seamus Heaney. One of the greatest of great past poets. I watched Beowulf the Blockbuster at the Edinburgh Fringe – managed to nab myself a cheeky return ticket for the completely sold-out show – I was so moved by the piece I decided to write a little bit about it all.

Beowulf the Blockbuster may be one of the finest examples of what is so great about the Fringe. It’s a simple one man show, with a fascinating narrative style that amuses and moves you in striking doses. It’s different from most theatre and yet is routed firmly in aural tradition. The Beowulf saga would have originally been spoken by bards just as the Homeric performers had performed The Odyssey and the Iliad thousands of years ago. And the bards would change the story, adapt it for who they were telling it to and when they were telling it. The original Beowulf tale was likely much more pagan than the Christian hero saga that survives today and of course Seamus Heaney adapted it beautifully. It’s one of the most beautiful works he left us before he left us behind.

So fitting then is it that in Beowulf the Blockbuster, the narrated Beowulf is just that: a tale adapted and modernised for a specific audience. In this play, that specific audience is the dying protagonist’s ten year old son. Da is dying and he needs to tell his son. Instead he tells him one final bedtime story; Beowulf the Blockbuster. He uses the tale as a way of trying to teach his son about life and to try and make him understand that all things must one day come to pass. Passing, as the great storytellers throughout history have always done, the story onto the next generation.

Beowulf the Blockbuster is so beautifully and simply realised by Bryan Burroughs. It is heart-breaking and emotionally shattering. After watching I wanted to find a room, where no one could see me and see what I was feeling. Those feelings conjured deep within and with a knowing of life and loss, its deep pains and what countless more will follow. Everything comes to pass.

But with all the sadness comes so much beauty and humour in Beowulf the Blockbuster that it never stops being enjoyable. Just utterly beautiful. This feeling, this stirring in the soul, this this. This is what theatre at the Fringe can be.

Ed Fringe 2014: Bill Clinton Hercules Review

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“A swansong to the former President and an intelligent meditation on the decay of modern politics”

Bill Clinton was one of America’s glowing presidents, a shining democrat in the fashion of Jimmy Carter and even America’s beloved JFK. But after the scandal with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton’s lasting legacy has been cemented by that one infamous quote, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’. However, there was much more to President Clinton than the stain he left on his intern’s dress. Bill Clinton Hercules is a fascinating one man show that is at once a personal ode to Bill Clinton and an indictment of modern politics filtered through a curious classical intrigue.

According to ‘Bubba’ himself, every year the former president reads Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, an adaptation of the Ancient Greek play Philoctetes in which the deified Hercules appears to convince the Greeks to make peace with each other to achieve victory through unity. This is the democratic notion that the play’s Clinton believes in and it is this Hercules to whom the character relates and wishes to personify. ‘I am Hercules’ says Paisley’s Bill Clinton as he talks about global conflicts and America’s role in them. His ultimate desire is for peace, even if it must be sought through conflict.

But there’s so much more to this play than simple hero worship. It’s a personal examination of Bill Clinton and of the changing nature of politics from the latter years of the 20th century to the present day. Bob Paisley’s performance is very strong; he appropriately exudes sentiment, regret, wisdom and pride during every moment of Rachel Mariner’s brilliant script, and his Clinton impersonation is spot on. Mariner has done her homework and the play is very intelligent and very well informed, gleaning much of its personal content from Clinton’s autobiography. When the play jumps from Clinton’s personal life to American politics of the past, present and future, the observations made are razor sharp and the criticisms piercing.

Smart, funny, moving and exceptionally current, it is fantastically written with a most Bill-thentic performance from Paisley and assured direction from Guy Masterson. Bill Clinton Hercules is a swansong to the former President and an intelligent meditation on the decay of modern politics. It’s a powerful and thought-provoking play that should not be missed.

(Original article on Broadway Baby: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/bill-clinton-hercules/701227 )

Hercules: Another massive misfire or a step in the right direction? A look at the new Hercules film and how it responds to different incarnations of the hero, classical and modern

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Popular entertainment has not been kind to the Hercules myth. Ancient Greek’s most beloved Demi-God has long been the lovable, brainless, joke buffoon of popular entertainment. From the juggling strong man Hercules of the circus to television’s Hercules: The Legendary journeys, and cinema’s animated Hercules from Disney. The sell of Hercules has long been that he’s big, dumb and fun. But in Ancient Greece and Rome, he was a dichotic character comprised of hero worship and unbearable tragedy. Whilst he was the heroic figure of the twelve labours and champion and inventor of the Olympic Games he was also a vicious barbarian and child killer, who slaughtered his own family in a God-driven blind frenzy. He was also originally called Heracles. Hercules is the adapted Roman name.

But the Hercules that most people know today is the cheesy Hercules portrayed in popular entertainment: The Kevin Sorbet hunk-a-Hercules, the Disney ‘zero to hero Herc’ and even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘Nice chariot, but vhere’s yor horses?’ ancient demi-god stuck in the big apple, Hercules in New York. How then, do you present a version of Hercules that is closer to the myths but will also please fans of Hercules’ pop culture history? Of all the possible people, Brett Ratner and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson seem to have provided somewhat of an answer: You compromise.

The result is still a dumb swords and sandals cheese fest, but it’s the closest Hercules has ever been, in modern popular entertainment, to his beginnings. Could this be the start of the popular image and understanding of this figure changing?

For fans of the Hercules myth, informed through pop culture or even historically and academically, Ratner and Johnson’s Hercules should prove rather enjoyable and possibly surprising viewing. As this Hercules is not just a poppy swords and sandals romp. It is largely that, for sure, but it also provides a study of the Hercules myth as a whole, incorporating a good selection of chapters from his illustrious career and exploring the possibilities of the man behind the myth. Where did the myth come from? Was there a real man who was famous for killing a dangerous lion, killing a big boar and doing various other fantastic things? Were his actions exaggerated and did he become the Demi-God myth that we know him as now? That’s what this new incarnation of Hercules tries to explore. And the mere fact it’s been attempted is refreshing.

The movie is an adaptation of Steve Moore’s and Admira Wijaya’s Hercules: The Thracian Wars; a series of comics published by Radical in 2008. It’s in a similar vein to that of Neil Gaimon’s revisionist Beowulf graphic novel and Frank Miller’s 300; Pop culture successes that are, to some degree, historically informed and revisionist.

In fact, Steve Moore’s Hercules: The Thracian Wars, is very well informed. The writer has clearly studied and understood the Hercules myth and tried to create a faithful adaptation of the character in his story. In an interview with Mike Conroy, Steve Moore, explains that ‘the whole story is set, as far as possible, in an authentic Bronze Age setting, c.1200BC.’ Setting it at this time, which is when the original myth stems from and when the classical Greeks set their stories and plays about him, allows us to understand that this man, wearing his lion skin and fighting huge animals, is essentially a barbaric caveman. Throughout history, the Heracles/Hercules character has been adapted and civilised, even by the Ancient Greeks. But what Moore has attempted in his comics is to explore this original barbaric character and present him faithfully, creating something fresh, by looking back to the original stories the character came from and the historical context that surrounded them. Moore’s story is not about a hero, it’s about the barbaric man the Hercules character originated as. Moore comments, ‘I’m not trying to turn Hercules into “a comic book hero” . . . in fact most of the time he’s far from heroic . . . I’m telling a Hercules story that happens to be in comic book format, but even so I’ve thrown out some of the conventions . . . and I’ve tried very hard to avoid intrusively 21st century dialogue or contemporary references’. What then must Moore think of Brett Ratner and The Rock’s poppy crowd pleasing Hollywood Studios movie version?

Moore adds in the interview, before a film was on the cards, ‘. . . if you look at the ancient stories, Hercules was a murderer, a rapist, a womaniser, subject to catastrophic rages and plainly bisexual, and I’ve tried to accommodate all those aspects in my characterization. So if there ever was a human being behind the Hercules stories, I’d like to think he was something like the character portrayed here, rather than the cleaned up “hero” of other comics and TV. Mind you, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend much time in his company.’

It’s unlikely that Steve Moore is overly thrilled with Ratner’s movie interpretation: Ratner’s and Johnson’s Hercules is precisely ‘the cleaned up hero’ Moore had avoided in his story. Ratner’s adaptation is a cop-out really, designed to please the masses. It’s a shame the project wasn’t taken up by the team behind the HBO Game of Thrones’ series, whose characters, like their original book counterparts, are anything but ‘cleaned up’ heroes. Instead Ratner’s is a disappointingly safe interpretation of the hero. The film has a 12A rating and the protagonist is, through it all, an out-and-out good guy.

But then so was Euripides’ protagonist in his tragedy of Heracles; the play from 400BC, where much of our understanding of the Hercules myth, comes from. His Heracles was good. He just had terrible things happen to him. In Euripides’ Heracles, or Heracles Gone Mad, as it is sometimes called, Heracles returns home after completing his final labour to retrieve the three headed dog Cerberus, from the Underworld. But when the hero reaches home, he finds his kingdom has been taken over by a tyrant and his wife and children are about to be murdered. Heracles saves his family and kills the tyrant in his own family home. But just as he is about to perform the cleansing ritual, he loses his mind; thinks his wife and children are his enemies and brutally murders them. He then falls unconscious and when he awakes, is completely unaware of what he has done. That is until he finds what remains of his family. The context surrounding Heracles’ actions is that the Goddess Hera, has put a spell on Heracles and driven him mad. That being the only way she can see to successfully harm him. (Hera hates Heracles as he is the bastard son of her cheating husband, the king of the Gods, Zeus. The Hero’s name, Heracles, means in honour to Hera; a clumsy decision from Zeus in the hope it would appease Hera. It didn’t, and she spends all of Heracles’ life, trying to destroy him) But in modern readings of the play, we can associate post-traumatic stress disorder to Heracles’ actions. And indeed this is the context that surrounds most new adaptations of the Heracles play. At the end of the play, Heracles understandably wants to kill himself, but his friend Theseus, stops him and convinces him to come to Athens, where he will care for him. Theseus is indebted to the hero as Heracles had saved his life, retrieving him from the Underworld when he stole Cerberus.

Euripides’ Heracles was a moralistic figure loyal to family and to his people, and whose suffering and ability to live through it was a symbol of strength aided by friendship and support of the Athenian people. That is one of the earliest incarnations of the character we have. Ratner’s Hercules rings relatively true to that incarnation. As Ratner’s Rockules, is a moralistic hero, who has had terrible things happen to him. Of course, ultimately, Ratner’s movie finds a cheap loophole out of Hercules’ uglier moments. But then there’s room for that when the whole idea of this Hercules is revisionist, questioning what might have been true and fabricated about a possible real man behind the myth. It’s just a shame post traumatic Stress disorder isn’t a more prominent them in the movie. But then, that might not sell as many tickets as the Rock’s new Schwarzenegger wrestler turned actor persona evidently does.

The Hercules from ancient myth has still not been faithfully presented in mainstream entertainment and it’s rare that his tragedies are performed on the stage. Though the plays based on him are fantastic; Euripides’ Heracles was a masterwork of tragedy. Seneca’s Roman version, Hercules Furens, portrays a fascinating analysis of possible post traumatic madness and in a 21st century version of the play from Simon Armitage, called Mister Heracles, our protagonist is a government owned soldier programmed to lose his mind should he desert. But each interpretation is difficult, ugly and rarely performed. Oedipus, Antigone, Medea and Electra are the tragedies of choice in popular theatre. But now Hercules is once again in the foreground of the public consciousness. He’s back in pop culture and for once he is there in a depiction that at least glimpses at the hero’s darker connotations, and is aesthetically closer to the original caveman-like figure of ancient Greece, wearing his lion skin and fighting with a giant club.
What Ratner’s Hercules does do well is bridge the gap between the cheesy Hercules of pop culture and the ambiguous figure from Ancient Greece. Perhaps now the way has been paved for the popular representation of Hercules to be changed from 2 dimensional pop culture icon to the intriguing myth from which he originated. For now though, he’s just The Rock . . . in a Brett Ratner film . . . but still, it’s a step, all be it a big, clunking, clumsy one, but still a step, in the right direction.

Handbagged Review

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Moira Buffini’s Handbagged chronicles and plays with the meetings held between the Queen and Margret Thatcher, during Thatcher’s eleven years as PM. It explores their relationship and their political differences. It’s a fascinating, very Meta political comedy with excellent performances from its cast.

There’s a huge iron structure on the stage which Fenella Lugar’s Thatcher stands in front. After Maggie’s first speech, magnified and propelled through the audience, draws to a close, the lights hit the metal structure and reveal a giant iron Union Jack. An ironwork display of patriotism.

Two chairs and a tea table, Maggie would like to sit but she won’t move the chair herself, one of the men will bring her one over. In the end it’s the Queen herself, who offers her a chair. Like Maggie says, ‘If you want something talked about ask a man, if you want something done, ask a woman.’ When they sit for tea, Thatcher is always on the right, the Queen always on the left, fitting, and clearly intentional, as in their discussions the Queen often veers in favour of the left, trying to stand up for the working classes, supporting labour, whilst Thatcher is of course always on the right. This is where much of the play’s interest and fun stems from.  The relationship is cleverly surmised by the Queen in the play, when she says, ‘meeting one’s PM is like meeting the other side of the coin; we are both Britain.’

The play has a very interesting structure. The old Queen and Thatcher look back over their lives, whilst the younger ones re-enact the meetings between the two. Every so often Maggie or Liz will say something that their older incarnation swears hey never said. At one time Maggie replies to her older self, ‘you bloody-well thought it’.

The complaint of the interval for some of the older members in the audience was ‘it’s a bit wordy’, but then how could it not be? It’s also thankfully very funny, with excellent moments of humour delivered from all the cast. Particularly fun are Jeff Rawle‘s comic portrayals of various historical figures; a slimy Rupert Murdoch, an unintelligible Prince Phillip and his cowboy President Ronald Raegan, complete with cowboy hat.  Neet Mohan mainly acts as the audience’s fourth wall breaking bridge to these figures, forcing issues to be talked about that the Queen and particularly the PM may otherwise wish to avoid. Such as the race riots in 1981 and the minors’ strike, which respectfully becomes a passionate topic. Maggie describes the minors as ‘the enemy within’ and is told endearingly by the Queen, that with the ruthless closing down of the mines she destroyed more than livelihood; she destroyed the dignity of labour.

The performances from the leads are fantastic. Stella Gonat’s Thatcher and Fenella Lugar’s 80’s Maggie are particularly impressive. Its fun, witty and very intelligent, and a great exploration of English politics in the 80’s. Well worth watching.