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Friday, 29 June 2012

Theatre Review: Birds of a Feather

As soon as I heard about this, I knew I had to see it. An onstage reunion of some of my favourite characters from my childhood played by the original actresses? What was there to think about? Nonetheless, a couple of doubts remained. Would Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson and Lesley Joseph be able to recreate their screen magic of fifteen years ago? I needn't have worried.

Tracey Stubbs (Robson) and Sharon Theodopolopodous (Quirke) haven't heard from old neighbour Dorien (Joseph) since the day after the 1997 election. When they receive a letter asking them to visit her at a retirement home they (well, Sharon) are ecstatic at the thought of Dorien being reduced to a care home but the joke's on them when they find her running the place. They accept her offer of employment and everything goes smoothly until poor Mr Zimmerman is found dead in his bed - having changed his will the week before to benefit Dorien. Suddenly she's in the frame for murder. Running alongside this is the fact that Tracey has lied to her son, Travis (played alternately by Louis Dunford and Charlie Quirke), telling him that his dad's dead instead of simply in prison. That lie could be about to come crashing down around her ears.

The script was hilarious. It was typical Birds of a Feather, updated for the modern day. There were references to David Cameron, Little Mix and Greece, amongst other things, and the characters certainly hadn't changed - only developed a little. Sharon doesn't say no to fiddling her benefits if the opportunity arises and has just been sacked from Lidl. Tracey has developed agoraphobia, the only way Sharon can get her to visit Dorien is by sticking a Lidl plastic bag over her head. As for Dorien... Well, she's still tramping around in high heels and very short dresses, though there's something distinctly odd about her hair these days...

The comedy barely slowed throughout the first act, though one of my favourite parts had to be Tracey and Sharon singing to the elderly folk in the home - 'Three Steps to Heaven' and 'Another One Bites the Dust'. However, after the fast pace of the first act, things did slow down a little in the second with a heart to heart between Tracey and Dorien. That moment was certainly needed, bringing emotion to the piece whilst also remaining true to the characters.

Setting-wise, the stage was perfect. The production started off with the familiar theme tune then the stage altered between depicting Sharon and Tracey's living room and the lounge at Dorien's residential home. There were some nice voice-overs to keep the audience happy while the set changes were taking place which worked brilliantly. The audience was in stitches throughout - occasionally making things a little difficult to hear! - and that's the sign of an excellent production. Hopefully, it can also be taken as a sign by television bosses that old-fashioned sitcoms still have their place in modern Britain. Go on, bring it back!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Book Review: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber

I broke my general rule with this one, watching the television adaptation before I read the book. Occasionally I find myself disappointed when an adaptation proves better than the book - not this time. Faber's mammoth book can only be described as a masterpiece of historical fiction though, admittedly, it's not for everybody.

The Crimson Petal and the White tells the story of Sugar, a prostitute desperate to escape the lower levels of London and work her way up. She encounters William Rackham, the heir to a successful business he wants nothing to do with. His wife, Agnes, is labelled as mad by most; his brother, Henry, is desperate to become a clergyman but is also struggling with his desire to commit sins of the flesh with Mrs Emmeline Fox. Sugar manoeuvres her way into William's life then his affections and business dealings and then his home as she takes up the post of governess to his young daughter, Sophie. She proves herself to be invaluable but the fragile life she's acquired threatens to fall apart very easily.

Firstly, there are a couple of things I disliked about the book. The intrusive narrator is a personal dislike of mine and being pulled along by this voice and told what I'm seeing and what I will be seeing was a tad irritating. I can forgive it in Victorian-era texts but not modern texts apparently! My second issue was how much the book traded on the salacious aspects to come in the following pages. Yes, there are many sex scenes and lurid descriptions but as the novel progresses they become fewer as the characters come into their own. The salaciousness leads to a real story and I don't think the hype in the early chapters was necessary to hook the reader in.

What did I love about it? Brilliantly evoked characters, starting with incidental prostitute Caroline all the way up to Sugar and William Rackham themselves. Even the servants of the Rackham household had personalities of their own. My favourite characters were, however, the characters I'd favoured most in the adaptation - Henry Rackham and Emmeline Fox. Emmeline's descent into despair following Henry's death is one of the most interesting representations of grief I've read, certainly worthy of the character and the story. Agnes's chaotic personality was depicted well, while William's dependency colours his character throughout. Sugar shines brightly but is wonderfully consistent, even as her life changes around her.

London is, of course, a character and a detailed one at that. There's nothing laboured about the description of the setting, however, and every reference to the surroundings feels in-keeping with the particular scene. One thing I was unsure about in the adaptation was Sugar's friendship with her young charge, Sophie, which leads to the novel's climax. The novel made this much more believable, with Sugar's connection growing more naturally than it seemed to in the adaptation. Equally, her attitude towards Agnes feels more believable in print.

The trouble with a book like this is that it has to end. Even at 800+ pages it feels too short. Faber has created such an intricate web of character relationships that I wanted to follow them as far as I could. A riveting book till the end, beautifully recreating the London of the nineteenth century.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Classic Film Review: The Vikings (1958)

The Vikings tells the story of two half-brothers who don't know their connection and hate each other. Einar (Kirk Douglas) is the only son of Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) born in wedlock and is lightly mocked by his father for believing he's so attractive that he should shave his beard to show off his beauty. Slave, Eric (Tony Curtis), puts paid to this by setting a bird on his face, leaving Einar permanently scarred and setting up a reoccurring rivalry between the two. This is only enhanced by both falling for the same woman - the prisoner, Morgana (Janet Leigh), taken from the British King with the intention of ransoming her back to them.

Douglas and Curtis do Viking rather well. Douglas, especially, seems to revel in the role, capturing Einar's lust for both battle and Morgana very well. While it would've been easy for his attraction to Morgana to seem contrived, Douglas explores the many facets of Einar's character as the film progresses - excellent warrior, obedient son, forlorn lover - without difficulty. Eric is naturally a more reserved character as a slave and someone who faces death several times within the film, but he gets a couple of humorous moments to lighten what is a very battle-heavy film. The battle scenes themselves are well-staged and the setting is perfectly evoked with some beautiful outdoor locations used. The Vikings may not be historically accurate but it certainly conveys a good sense of what the era was like in a manner perfectly suitable for film.

I was a little unconvinced by the casting of Janet Leigh as Morgana but she does quite well in a film surrounded by men. When Eric is stealing her away from Einar in a small boat, her complaints that she can't row in her bodice lead to her bodice being ripped open - one of the most amusing moments in the film. She's also a little feisty and capable of at least trying to defend herself. Perhaps, in hindsight, Leigh wasn't the best choice for the role but I do adore her and could easily watch her performance again.

The Vikings is both interesting and thrilling. It may not appeal to those who don't like their historical with a dose of Hollywood alongside but the leads give good performances and it's worth watching the battle sequences alone. However, it certainly isn't for everyone and the scenes of men being threatened with hungry wolves aren't for small children - they unnerved me quite enough!

Friday, 22 June 2012

Classic Film Review: The Admirable Crichton (1957)

When I was reading Up and Down Stairs by Jeremy Musson recently (review here), I came across a reference to a J.M Barrie play that I hadn't heard of before which sounded excellent. The Admirable Crichton follows a family shipwrecked with some servants, showing how the servants become the masters in deference to the fact they can actually survive. This 1957 adaptation stars Kenneth More as Crichton with Diane Cilento as Tweeny, his fellow servant, Cecil Parker as Lord Loam and Sally Ann Howes as Lady Mary. I was particularly excited to see Howes in the cast, having adored her from the first time I ever watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

I'm not sure how closely the adaptation follows the original Barrie script but it's an enjoyable film regardless. At the beginning, Lord Loam is keen to try out equality for his servants by inviting them to tea with his daughters. Crichton is alarmed at this blatant disregard of protocol but gets on with it. When one of Loam's daughters is arrested for hitting a policeman at a suffragette march, Crichton subtly suggests they escape the country on the family yacht. Unfortunately, the boat is shipwrecked and Crichton and Tweeny find themselves in the family boat with the father, three daughters and two potential suitors for the daughters. They wash up on a desert island where Crichton's initial attempts to take control are rebuffed by Lady Mary (who has always had something of a crush on him) and he and Tweeney leave for the other side of the island. However, the family are tempted over when they smell pork roasting, although Lady Mary is a little more stubborn than everyone else.

Fast forward two years and the roles on the island have completely changed. Crichton is now known as 'Guv' and, in a complete reversal, it's now Lord Loam bringing his former butler breakfast in bed. Traditional class barriers have broken down - Tweeny is coveted by both her employer and the two suitors intended for her employer's daughters. She, though, is in love with Crichton while he and Lady Mary have seemingly spent two years flirting with each other. This love triangle is actually very compelling and the audience is kept guessing until the end of the film about who Crichton will end up with, especially when the prospect of rescue emerges.

All the performances in this were superb. More's comedic talents are delightfully underplayed while Tweeny was wonderfully overplayed by Cilento. Set in 1905, the film pokes fun at the traditional class distinctions while still creating characters the audience is invested in. It's amusing and certainly a pleasant way to while away a few hours.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

York and Treasurer's House

Yesterday, in a bid to spend some time with my father doing the things we used to enjoy on holidays, we decided to visit York and a National Trust property we'd previously brushed over - Treasurer's House, right next door to York Minster. It hadn't struck either of us in the past as particularly interesting but a closer look at the small print convinced us we should at least give it a go.

In all honesty, we were bowled over. We'd heard the place may have Wakefield links but the sheer amount in the place about Frank Green, son of a manufacturer who used his fortune to buy a house to - basically - house his antiques in 1897, was impressive. Green was the last owner before he handed the property to the National Trust in 1930 and the work he put into refurbishing the house was truly outstanding. Consequently, when he handed the property to the National Trust, he left very specific instructions on how it should be maintained. The controlling aspect of his personality shone through when he left marks on the floor to demonstrate where every single piece of furniture should be - he promised to come back and haunt the place if his wishes weren't carried out!

One of the most important changes Green made to the house was to extend the roof of the Great Hall, essentially taking the floor above out. While this was an excellent alteration in the sense that it increased light to the Great Hall and showcased the beauty of the building, it came with a slight problem: by taking out the floor above, Green had removed the access for the male servants of the house!

Being as interested as I am in Victorian and Edwardian houses, me and my father decided to take the optional attic tour. It cost £3.00 extra but was well worth the money and I'd recommend it to anyone visiting the house. The groups are limited to eight at a time but, luckily, we were the only ones on this particular tour so it felt like a particularly intimate lecture. Although the furniture was removed from the servants' quarters by  Green, the structures remain, however dilapidated parts of them seem. There are a few fascinating things about the servants' quarters, the first of them being how the male servants got from there to the house after the works on the Great Hall. Well, Green put in a walkway along the side of the roof. There's a safety rail and wooden flooring up there now but in Green's day the servants would simply be walking along the lead roof from one small opening to another. Imagine carrying a chamber pot across there in high winds! Secondly, in the female quarters, Green installed a lift, first operated with pulleys before it was electrified. However, they seemed to have had serious issues with people not shutting the door properly down below meaning that the lift just refused to move: as this was the only way of access for the female servants it essentially left them stranded in their quarters!

The tour was full of little titbits like this and our guide was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. In fact, the entire body of staff and volunteers were wonderful. We visited the shop and tearoom - I indulged in a very naughty but lovely cream tea - and finished off the visit in the gardens.

After we'd finished at the Treasurer's House we meandered back down through the streets of York stopping - of course - at a second-hand bookshop to feed my literary appetite. I heartily recommend a visit to The Minster Gate Bookshop, though don't expect to come out of there with much money left! Here's Eeyore posing with my loot.

So I think the day in York was a success and it looks like we grabbed the last day of good weather for quite a while. When it picks up again, I'd really suggest a visit to the Treasurer's House - and don't forget the cream tea! 

Monday, 18 June 2012

Thoughts on Queen's

I turned on the television to check the Queen's final score yesterday afternoon, fully expecting it to have gone into a deciding set, only to find Marin Cilic wandering around with the trophy. This puzzled me, since he'd just lost the first set the last time I checked the score and there was definitely something going on - for one thing, he was booed when Sue Barker tried to get a comment from him. It took a few more minutes to decipher what was going on but it eventually transpired that his opponent David Nalbandian had overreacted to being broken by Cilic and had kicked an advertising hoarding beside the court. Unfortunately, that hoarding shielded a line judge: the hoarding struck the judge, causing him to fall off his chair as the wound on his leg started bleeding fairly heavily. Nalbandian was disqualified, handing the title to Cilic. The Telegraph article includes the video of the moment Nalbandian lost his temper.

What astonished me, however, was not the actual kick but the reaction of the crowd to Cilic. I honestly can't believe they booed him for the fact his opponent ended the match in a sudden and rather violent manner. Yes, they felt deprived of their tennis final; yes, some of them didn't realise the severity of the line judge's injury. Still, wanting a match to go on when someone outside of the two players has been hurt feels selfish beyond belief on the part of the crowd. More than that, it seems like they wanted to reward Nalbandian for his antics. In fairness to them, though, they did boo Nalbandian himself when he waffled on live television and tried to blame the ATP's hectic schedule for his reaction.

All this got me thinking. As a collective, humans are very selfish. We boo if something unexpected goes wrong in a tennis match; we boo if a band doesn't perform the song everyone wants to. What about authors? I would imagine the criticism they receive online is akin to crowd booing. If you write a series which people become invested in and then make an unpopular turn I'd imagine the crowd can be fairly harsh: what were the reactions, I wonder, to the killings of Sirius Black and Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series?

Step back another inch, to somewhere in-between writing and spectacle: television drama and soap. These combine writing with performance and therefore any 'blame' can be spread around a large group. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that actors are criticised in the streets for the actions of their characters - this is a nice way for writers to avoid criticism!

Of course, I don't think there's anything wrong with debate. The recent Alzheimer's storyline in Coronation Street provoked a lot of debate, most of which seemed to shy-away from outright 'booing'. However, the actions of the crowd at Queen's yesterday edged away from polite irritation at the rules (and the right of the line judge to work in relative safety) and moved into outright hostility. What happens if you start listening to the crowd's demands to be entertained? I don't know. But I do know I'm not keen on trying it.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Classic Film Review: Picnic (1955)

The premise of Picnic seemed quite exciting: a drifter comes to a small town on the day of the Labor Day picnic and causes trouble for the citizens. Starring William Holden as the drifter, Hal Carter, and Kim Novak as the girl he bewitches, Madge Owens, this one would appear to be on solid ground. However, it didn't grip me. When you're noticing how bad the camera-work and editing of a film is then it's probably a good bet that the film wasn't up to much. Incidentally, the editing of this one was noticeably bad.

Holden lacked conviction as Hal, I thought. In addition, Hal was supposed to be college mates with Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) but despite Robertson only being five years younger than Holden, the gap was accentuated by Robertson's youthful looks in comparison to Holden's rugged exterior. I just didn't buy them as old college friends and that was the beginning of my issues with this film. As hard as I try, I can't bring myself to like Kim Novak in any role an Madge Owens didn't buck the trend. The problem with any love narrative taking place over just a day means that people have to fall in love quickly and realistically. That didn't happen for me and the much-lauded dancing scene between Holden and Novak left me cold. I couldn't believe them as a couple at all.

This isn't to say that the film was devoid of good points. Rosalind Russell played Rosemary, a schoolteacher who's desperate for her boyfriend, Howard (Arthur O'Connell), to marry her. Their subplot, for me, was far preferable to the mainline storyline. Rosemary's breakdown throughout the day as she gets drunk, dances with Hal and then pushes Howard to marry her was exquisitely acted by Russell. The late-night scene when Howard drives her home and she literally begs him to marry her was heartbreaking and was certainly Russell at her best. Another excellent performance came from Susan Strasberg as Millie Owens, Madge's younger sister. Far more believable than Novak, Strasberg played Millie as the tomboyish sibling who wants to be pretty like her sister perfectly. Credit to Novak here, the love-hate sisterly relationship worked well.

My main issue with this film seems to be that secondary characters were more memorable than the leads. While the leads indulged in a flirtation that lacked chemistry from my perspective, the other characters actually struggled with their lives being touched by this stranger. Perhaps Holden and Novak were miscast, I'm not sure. Nevertheless, this one didn't live up to the hype for me. It's probably personal preference, though, as I've read some rave reviews praising Holden and Novak's chemistry!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Wakefield Drama Festival 2012

I should note that while this year was billed as the 'Jubilee Drama Festival' it's pretty much by chance the two coincided. Aside from standing at the national anthem, there was no Jubilee-related activity. That's why I've billed this as the 'Wakefield Drama Festival 2012'. This is the second year I've attended, thoroughly enjoying 2011 after a shaky start. I think this year felt a little more gruelling than last year but it did have some heavier productions on, adding to the overall atmosphere. I do know that attendance dropped this year - that may have been a consequence of people not wanting to buy seven night passes that interfered with the Jubilee celebrations or they might have been put off by this delightful rain we've been experiencing but, nevertheless, I'd urge people to attend next year if they can. The standard of some productions this year was phenomenal.

Sunday - Terra Nova
This felt like a grim one to start the week on - a dramatisation of the final days of Captain Scott's expedition to the South Pole. Heavy subject matter indeed but relieved slightly by occasional touches of humour and some manipulation of reality. Throughout the play, we follow Scott's wandering mind as he recalls his wife and engages in fantastical conversations with his South Pole adversary, Roald Amundsen, as he tries to keep his team alive. It was at times difficult to watch a story that we know the tragic ending of but Simon J. Vardakis as Captain Scott put in a wonderfully believable performance of a man struggling with his responsibilities and making errors of judgement along the way. The rest of the cast were equally as believable, coping with the time and reality shifts with remarkable dexterity.

Technically, the stage was well-assembled and it won 'Best Stage Presentation' at the end of the week. It even looked cold, covered in white sheeting with two raised sections which allowed Scott's conversations with his wife and Amundsen to be separated from the action. I couldn't fault the script nor, really, anything. The final scenes were so harrowing that I was close to tears, something that's never happened to me in a theatre before. All in all, this was another exceptional production from the company that provided the overall winner last year.

Monday - The 39 Steps
An adaptation of the Hitchcock film with only four actors played to the ultimate comedic effect - what could be finer? Well, not much. The key to this play is for the actors to connect with the audience and they managed it beautifully, particularly the two 'clowns' who had to play dozens of roles between them and jointly took home the 'Best Actor' prize at the end of the week.

There were some ingenious uses of staging to get laughs, including an iconic door that was pushed repeatedly around the stage to hilarious effect. In addition, a wonderful screen at the back of the stage depicted scenes too difficult to construct on stage - a plane crash, the escape across a loch (Nessie made an appearance at this point). Occasionally, however, the tension slipped a bit and a few sections became repetitive and slow. There are only so many times you can laugh at the same thing. There were, though, some fantastic character-switches for the clowns which the audience certainly appreciated. I think the finale set in the London Palladium was well-orchestrated, although the last scene of the piece felt as though it overstayed its welcome. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable evening with some good performances.

Tuesday - Outside Edge
I think the first thing to say about this production is that there seemed to be a catastrophe pre-curtain. An ambulance at the rear entrance twenty minutes before the performance is never a good thing and I think it may have been the director who was taken off. That probably explains some of the issues I had with the play.

There was a fair bit of line-fluffing, including one incidence of the prompter having to dive in. That threw me off a bit but, to give credit to the cast, they recovered well every time there was an issue. Some of the characters were over-played but I suspect they were written that way. The play itself (written in 1979) felt a little dated from time to time but the interplay of the characters and the fundamental natures of the people involved shone through. My favourite performance came from Debby Pickering as Miriam, the long-suffering wife of cricketing captain Roger. She played the nattering, obedient wife to perfection in the first act then, as things began to fall apart as she realised her husband's lies, she morphs into a brittle, sarcastic woman struggling to hold it all in. The action takes place at a cricket club as the players compete against another team amidst failing relationships and injury. Another few honourable mention for acting must go to Helen Binns as Maggie and Chris Harrison as Kevin, both of whom were endearing and funny. A few actors seemed to struggle with the horrible natures of their characters - Ginny and Dennis being two examples - and the play could've done with the nudge from more tension in this respect. However, I liked the building up of Miriam's suspicions throughout. This play is running for a few days at the end of June and it's certainly worth a chance, especially if the cast have taken on board some of the adjudicator's opinions.

Wednesday - Someone Who'll Watch Over Me
This play is based on the real-life experiences of a hostage in the Lebanon. In all honesty, I wasn't expecting this to be one of the highlights of the week: a static set, three characters imprisoned, pain and suffering didn't assist in making me look forward to it. How wrong I was.

I can only remember once being so torn apart by a play and that was when I ventured to London to see Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow. Someone Who'll Watch Over Me was claustrophobic, heart-breaking yet the tension was broken by moments of light-relief as the three prisoners tried to forget the horrific situation they were in. The 'tennis match' between Michael (Derek Smith) and Edward (Simon Reece) was hilarious and the actors should be commended for their ability to switch from despair to humour in the blink of an eye. All in all, I'd imagine the actors were thoroughly exhausted at the end of it but they performed remarkably throughout - there wasn't a slip that I could discern. Something the adjudicator remarked on at the end of the play was that the audience didn't feel as though they were watching a play and that was certainly true - there was no artificiality at all and the actors really became the characters. There was a good use of music throughout, starting with 'Someone To Watch Over Me' (of course) sung by Ella Fitzgerald. However, the most heartbreaking incidence of music came from Alistair Cheetham as Adam, singing 'Amazing Grace' and bringing the curtain down on act one. There are no words to describe the effect that had on the audience. When the lights came back on no one wanted to move. As you can probably tell, I don't have a bad word to say about this production.

Thursday - Charley's Aunt
For me, there's a distinct difference between playing a production written in the Victorian era where the Victorians take the mickey out of themselves and playing it as a contemporary company taking the mickey out of the Victorian era. I realise I have a rather deep interest in this as a student of Victorian literature and it well may be that the flaws that presented themselves to me in this production were invisible to everyone else. Nonetheless, I was disappointed by something I hoped to enjoy.

The play tells the farcical tale of Jack and Charley, two young men hoping to propose to Kitty and Amy respectively before the girls leave for Scotland. Charley's aunt, whom he's never met, is supposed to be coming for lunch and that strikes the boys as the perfect opportunity to speak to the girls. At the last minute the aunt writes that she won't be attending, leaving poor Fancourt Banbury in a predicament as his friends force him to dress up and pretend to be Charley's aunt. Unfortunately, the 'aunt' soon finds herself with two suitors and things take another turn for the worse when the real aunt arrives. I suppose another one of my problems with this one was the over-acting present, especially in act one. Yes, it's a farce but the best farces stem from the dialogue and characterisation and, while the script was good enough, the actors seemed compelled to over-play it instead of letting the script speak for itself. I think the younger actors were guiltier of this than the older ones. There was an over-reliance on exaggerated facial expressions which didn't fit with the moment and, while it picked up a little towards the end, the first half dragged immeasurably. One other thing that irritated me - there was a second interval to allow a set change. Given the sparsity of the set, I rather think that could've been accomplished in a black-out with some music playing.

There were some good performances though, particularly J.E. de Tute as Banbury and K.T. Lowe as the butler, Brassett. They at least seemed to embrace their parts without mocking them from a contemporary standpoint and I was delighted when Lowe took home the 'Best Supporting Actor' award at the end of the week. However, I expected to enjoy this one much more than I did, I'm afraid.

Friday - The Glass Menagerie 
At around two and a half hours long (plus interval) this one was the lengthiest play of the week and, while I understand why it was put on Friday night, by this stage I think the audience was perhaps too tired for such an intellectual offering. That said, it gripped me throughout, though I do have criticisms of my own.

The staging seemed to be tricky if you were anywhere apart from dead centre stalls. There was a curtain across which revealed a table but, thanks to some props to the left, it impaired the view for some of the audience. I spent scenes watching two people with a third frustratingly out of sight. Nonetheless, the set felt authentic and uncluttered at the front. The production's use of music was excellent, but voices didn't always carry far enough - something which one man loudly commented on during the best scene, only to be shushed by everyone around him. Negatives aside, the actors were fantastic. Clare Foster as Laura Wingfield was remarkable, especially in the romance scene opposite Jack Cotton as Jim. I was enthralled during that scene, literally leaning forward in my seat as the tension between the pair rose and fell. One thing this production did exceptionally well was build an atmosphere. The adjudicator remarked that the atmosphere was too level and gloomy and that Amanda's (Margaret Leigh) moments of hysteria could've been used to alter the pace and, although he did have a point, I don't think it caused too much of a problem for me personally. The four members of the cast worked brilliantly together and I came out of this one touched by the performances. Clare Foster took home the 'Best Actress' award for her efforts, something very much deserved.

Saturday - One Big Blow
This isn't the play to go to if you're looking for realism! Six actors playing lots of different roles between them, it's ostensibly the story of a brass band preparing for a competition but, really, the competition isn't the thing that grabs the audience. The a cappella singing in lieu of an actual band seemed like a bad idea in concept but worked exceptionally well in practice. The additional songs the cast sang were both funny and fitting and the physical performances put in by the cast felt exhausting to the audience. It was a difficult one to keep up with at times, with all the character-switching, but it really didn't matter in the end. This one was an hilarious romp with some ingenious uses of bodies instead of props and some brilliant asides to the audience - one character commenting that he couldn't do anything because he was being a lamp in that scene to name but one. Taking the mickey out of theatrical symbolism whilst also incorporating the audience into the production was brilliant and this was an excellent one to finish the week on - light and frothy after something of a heavy week.

I found this year tougher than last but that may have been due in part to the weather. However, the standard of the drama this year was exceptionally high and it was no surprise to me that Someone Who'll Watch Over Me took both first prize from the adjudicator and the audience award (it was certainly my choice!). Terra Nova was given second prize - thoroughly deserved - while One Big Blow took third. My opinion tailed with the adjudicator's on four awards, which isn't bad going. I can only imagine how difficult the 'Best Actor' award was for the adjudicator given the standard of male acting throughout the week. One thing he mentioned in his summing up, though, was that was there was a distinct lack of important female characters this year. I don't know if I appreciated the male dominance as much as he seemed to in all honesty. However, it did mean that when I came across an outstanding female performance such as Debby Pickering in Outside Edge and Clare Foster in The Glass Menagerie it felt like a special moment.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Classic Film Review: Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus tells the story of a group of nuns dispatched to run a new convent and school high up in the Himalayas, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr). The old palace they have been given for the purpose is perpetually windy, an attribute that adds to the tension in the film and is never neglected for a moment. In fact, the sheer love and detail that went into the setting and staging make it a film to remember. Although it was all created at Pinewood Studios, the film has an epic feeling about it, colourful and vibrant with the kinks barely noticeable.

Sister Clodagh faces many tribulations in her post but the worst threat comes from within - Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) develops a crush on local British agent Mr Dean (David Farrar) and becomes jealous of his difficult relationship with Sister Clodagh. This eventually leads to her mental instability taking hold and provides the climax to the film which takes place, rather fittingly, at the bell atop the cliff. Byron makes a thoroughly convincing villain and, although some early scenes seem over-the-top, her final descent into madness is nothing less than terrifying. Equally, the rest of the nuns have their small parts to play as they adjust to their surroundings, my favourite being Judith Furse as Sister Briony. The most intriguing cast member is probably Jean Simmons as local girl Kanchi who absconds with the general's son. It's an entirely silent part, requiring some skill in body language and manipulation of others without ever uttering a word. Having been distinctly unimpressed by Simmons in other roles, I may have come to appreciate her talent as Kanchi.

This film is rightly considered a classic. Everything from the cast to the atmospheric palace to the surrounding area is beautifully arranged. The bell that provides the backdrop for the finale becomes a running motif, as does the wind. The final scene of rain drops falling and then intensifying may be one of the most memorable finales in film history. It's so subtle yet poignant as the nuns disappear into the distance. Definitely one I'd recommend for those who haven't seen it and are interested in tense pieces of cinema.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Book Review: Up and Down Stairs by Jeremy Musson

This book examines the life of the country house servant from the Middle Ages up to the present day with a particular emphasis on using the words of servants themselves where available. Musson demonstrates a remarkable interest in his subject and I can't help but wonder how much research it took to put this informative book together. That the bibliography is eleven pages long gives some idea of the breadth of it.

Inevitably, the earlier chapters are not as involving as the later ones, to me at least. The closer the life of service is to the nineteenth-century ideal which I'm personally so interested, the more intriguing I found the chapters. That said, the progression of servants from being part of the family to merely employees kept at arms length was fascinating. Equally, the frequent mentions of country house architecture in relation to servants helped mould the greater picture of this progression.

There are too many intriguing titbits in this book to pick out. Servant/master relationships, servant pregnancy, servants moving up through the ranks: Musson focuses just enough on one interesting segment before moving on to the next. The chapters that dealt with the breakdown of the servant life thanks to the wars were excellent, linked in as they were to changes in our recent past. In addition, the last chapter about the current situation of servants in country houses was extremely good. I think this book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of country house servants, whether for research purposes or not.

Incidentally, the book includes some photographs. This painting has been haunting me since I first caught sight of it, no offence to the subject Joseph Florance intended.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Classic Film Review: Party Girl (1958)

The first thing I should say about this film is that the title is entirely misleading. The 'party girl' of the title is technically Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse) but she is something of a reluctant participant, encountering lawyer Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor) as she attempts to shrug off the unwanted attentions of gangster Louis (John Ireland). Farrell takes her home to her flat where she finds her flatmate has committed suicide. This draws Vicki and Tommy together but very gradually. There is no big unbelievable flourish to their relationship and the film actually stretches over a few years.

The difficulties in the plot come from the fact that Tommy makes a living out of defending gangsters in court. He has a very unique presence in the courtroom, stemming from an accident involving a bridge when he was younger. He limps and is forced to use a stick. This actually adds to his persuasive courtroom persona but meeting Vicki makes him realise that he has to get out of the murky world he represents. He has surgery to assist his walking and, when he returns to Chicago, he tries to break with mob boss Rico (Lee J.Cobb). That, however, doesn't go down well. Farrell has to deal with threats to both him and Vicki as the film builds to its climax.

This is certainly one that defies easy categorisation. It has plenty of drama, including some graphic threats (and more) about acid and the rest of the mob scenes come across very well. Meanwhile, you have Vicki dancing in a nightclub, the studio making the most of having Cyd Charisse in the cast with some lengthy dance sequences. In addition, the romance aspect of the plot is realistic and Taylor and Charisse work well together. I certainly can't fault it as a piece of entertainment, although I did have some reservations. Primarily, Charisse's acting occasionally strayed out of what was necessary for a scene, leading to some cringe-worthy moments. Taylor, however, consistently under-played his role and really became Tommy Farrell for the duration. There were a few unnecessary scenes (Farrell's wife felt like an unnecessary subplot) and, as I said, the title was a bugbear. All that taken into consideration, I did find it very enjoyable, especially the final few action-packed scenes.

Monday, 4 June 2012


Picture this. After a reasonably good supervisory meeting, and with a book I've been waiting months to get my hands on safely borrowed from the university library, I headed to Sheffield train station in a relatively good mood. I was whistling. I'd bought a new teapot. I was considering throwing caution to the wind and being the kind of fearless person I've always wanted to be. Then, as I made to exit the toilet cubicle in the station I made an error of judgement - I believed I heard a buzzing. I spun around, pulled my Blackberry from my pocket and, well, you can guess the rest. Kerplop.

I was straight after it, of course. Reflex decrees you jump out of the path of oncoming traffic and stick your hand down a toilet to save your expensive phone (at this point I should thank the staff of Sheffield station for keeping their facilities so clean). I swaddled the poor thing in tissue and took it apart, water dripping out of the back cover as I did so. I dried it off as best I could and stuck the pieces in the box with the teapot.

When I got it home I gave it a blast with my hair-dryer. Alas, I already had the feeling that this time I'd well and truly dropped myself in it. I gave it the night to dry off - airing cupboard and then a bowl of rice - and for a few brief seconds on Saturday morning it worked. Then it went kaput again. But at least my SIM card was still in working order. That gave me a little wiggle room. I still have six months on my phone contract and now at least I could get a new handset with the minimum of fuss. However, to utilise the benefits of my contract it had to be a smartphone. I looked at my bank account and grimaced. Then my father stepped in with an offer - a cheap smartphone as an early birthday present. I would've hugged him if we did things like that in our family.

A few hours later I had a new Samsung phone. Although I still have the same number all my contacts got flushed away so I need to build them back up again (email me!). It's a nice phone, although I'm tearing my hair out at the touchscreen keypad. I'm sure I'll get used to it or, y'know, stop texting completely.

As Doris would sing: "Oops, there goes another problem, kerplop!"