Dangle and Sneer
The critics who tell it like it is
Are you sitting comfortably? Of course not. London’s theatres are a disgrace. Admittedly some of them have seen better days, but some have been refurbished in some style – at least as far as the foyers are concerned. The seating in the Palladium is a terrible, and for some reason in the stalls the habit adopted somewhere of placing the rows so that one looks between the two people in front of you and not overt he head of the person directly in front exists. Naturally one gets Mr six foot seven with a bouffant hairdo, or his female equivalent in the seat in front. And yet some theatres have the cheek to charge a levy for improvements on top of the prices they charge anyway, although these days, what with all the deals around does anyone except hapless tourists actually pay the full whack?
Will anybody do anything about it?Probably not. Betjeman could have included a few more targets than Slough for those German bombs. The worst offender is arguably the greatest theatre designer of them all - Frank Machin. But his theatres are listed and changes are not allowed. You try the gorgeous Hackney Empire and see another example of having to peer round some totem pole to see the stage. On the other hand one does wonder why people who are vertically disabled should not sit at the side and think about the rest of us. But you needn't expect critics to worry. We always get good seats. Read someone the other day praising the pain in the eyes of Tamara Rojo, the ballerina, dancing Marguerite, the lady of the Camelias. Well she might have seen the pain in Tamara's eyes, but Dangle was sitting in the amphitheatre at Covent Garden, not being a dance critic, and from there one is lucky to make out the people on the stage have eyes, let alone see what is in them.
The Best of British
The Circle’s Film Awards at the Mayfair Hotel could be called the night of a thousand no shows – weather, flu and residence in foreign parts meant that the winners stepping up in person to accept were few and far between. Sometimes it really doesn’t matter because there to accept the Dilys Powell Award for excellence in film, the Film section’s highest award named after the late Sunday Times film critic, was Helena Bonham Carter. She came, she stayed, she held court. It was not her first time at our Film awards – she was once the recipient of the Best British actress award, an event still remembered by the Film section chairman of the day, John Marriott who, calling her to the rostrum, invited her to accept the Breast British Actress Award. And yes, she remembers it well. She also told us that they are bigger now than they were then.
The Miller's Tale
English National Opera was once a happy home for Jonathan Miller, so we were not surprised to see him in the foyer the other Saturday when his production of The Mikado was being revived for the umpteenth time. It is one of ENO’s cash cows. The gathering matinee throng were delighted to see the great man and he was much chatted to, including by Dangle, or possibly Sneer, who saw him approach the Friends’ Desk. He was not, we suggested, likely to be seeking to become a Friend. He agreed. he was just being friendly. He was not, it seemed, in favour with “that twerp upstairs.” Nor had he ever made a penny out of the production. It seems in the arts world you do not thrive as others have done in the commercial world from the likes of Les Miserables. But there were lots of operas he would still like to do at 79. And we could quote him about the twerp. Miller was in jovial mood, there to take his grand daughter to see the show. On sale at the programme desk was Drama section member Kate Bassett’s biography – alas Dangle and Sneer did not have a copy – Dangle has it already, Sneer was, like most critics, financially embarrassed. But it would make a good Christmas gift.
Come of it Kim
The contents of those potted biographies in theatre programmes are always highly suspect to say the least. For a start, has anybody ever seen any of the films that the authors list – unless they are terribly well known and have dual stage and screen career? But it is not so much what they put in as what they leave out. Take Kim Cattrall, for instance. It was Sex and the City which made her a TV star, and since that ended she has been trying to establish herself as an actress of substance, notably most recently appearing as Cleopatra at Chichester in a Janet Suzman production of Anthony and Cleopatra which started life at the Liverpool Playhouse. All credit to the lady. But in the programme she lists her films, but oddly not the most famous of the lot. Anyone would be excused for not remembering Mannequin, Star Trek V1, Bonfire of the Vanities are But Trouble in Little China, but who has not seen – and enjoyed – the 1984 comedy Police Academy in which she played Steve Guttenberg’s girlfriend? She appeared in non of the sequels, perhaps wisely as the series did, like all series, go downhill, but to leave it out of one’s resume is really strange. Even Maggie Smith stooped to playing stooge to Whoopie Goldberg in Sister Act.
Once More With Feeling
There are times one wonders at what prompts directors to stage certain shows. The Open Air Theatre, which has enjoyed success over the years under successive directors with its musicals, has decided to stage The Sound of Music next year. It may be loved as a film, but as a stage show it has been revived recently and there are many other musicals lost to the public which might benefit from being rediscovered. But then Timothy Sheader chose to stage Ragtime this year, a show which has no resonances for British audiences – most of the real life people are people the sort of people who go to musicals have never heard of. The post war Vivien Ellis musicals ran quite successfully, and while their books might need to be “fixed” that is the case with an awful lot of musicals. So why not The Water Gypsies, Big Ben or Tough at the Top? The songs are good. Or why not try and do something like Pacific 1860, the Noel Coward show which reopened Drury Lane after the war. The score has loads of good songs and the fact that it was not a hit had more to do with the descent on London of the great Broadway shows of the time. Maybe those who hold the rights say no. But has anybody asked? The pint sized Finborough tried Novello’s Gay’s the Word this year and didn’t quite succeed – but it has a charming score, a dreadful book and demands, what the British musical theatre does not currently have, a funny leading lady star. And while we are on about thoroughly unnecessary revivals, the Palladium is giving us next year that sickly hymn to Broadway gypsies, A Chorus Line in which the cast do turns revealing their deep insecurities. Mind you it has to be better than Tommy Steel as Scrooge – to appreciate the full horror Mr Steel in his prime get Finian’s Rainbow, Fred Astaire’s last movie. His performance, a frenzied melange of teeth and tics, sank the movie and his putative Hollywood career. There are some small mercies in this life we suppose.
The Sound of Dissent
There are times one wonders at what prompts directors to stage certain shows. The Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, which has enjoyed success over the years under successive directors with its musicals, has decided to stage The Sound of Music next year. It may be loved as a film, but as a stage show it has been revived at the Palladium within living memory and there are many other musicals lost to the public which would benefit from being rediscovered. The post war Vivien Ellis musicals all ran quite successfully, and while their books might need to be “fixed” that is the case with an awful lot of musicals. So why not The Water Gypsies or London Town? Or why not try and do something with Pacific 1860, the Noel Coward show which reopened Drury Lane after the war? The score has loads of good songs and the fact that it was not a hit had more to do with the descent on London of the great Broadway shows of the time and its slightly old fashioned style - which would not be a factor today. And while we are on about thoroughly unnecessary revivals, the Palladium is giving us next year that sickly hymn to Broadway gypsies, A Chorus Line in which the cast do turns revealing their deep insecurities. Mind you it has to be better than Tommy Steel as Scrooge which will precede it – to appreciate the full horror Mr Steel in his prime get Finian’s Rainbow, Fred Astaire’s last movie. Steel's performance, a frenzied melange of teeth and tics, sinks the show.
At last another of the long running musicals is coming off. After 22 years Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, a tale about twins separated at birth loosely based on the plot of the Corsican Brothers will quit the Phoenix where it has been playing since 1991, having transferred from the Alberry where it opened in 1988. It was the second time in the West End because the show, which started off in Liverpool, had a short run at the Lyic in 1983 starring Barbara Dixon as the mother minus a son. It won an Olivier for best musical and then went on tour before coming back and staying put. Blood Brothers is the third longest running musical in the history of the West End and the mother has been played by a succession of singers Stephanie Lawrence, Kiki Dee, Lyn Paul, Melanie Chisholm, Marti Webb and Maureen Nolan among them. In 1993 it opened on Broadway and ran for 844 performances. Over the years it acquired a cult following and audiences ritually rose to their feet at the end to give it a standing ovation. One is always sad to lose a show, but to quote the old song – “We don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go.” Apart from anything else it will let people see what the Phoenix Theatre looks like again.
Razzle-Dazzle dies - not a day too soon
Let joy be unconfined. Chicago is finally coming off after a fifteen year run in the West End. One can only hope it is a sign of things to come and Blood Brothers, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera will soon go the same way hotly followed by Jersey Boys and all those other shows that have been preventing one visiting perfectly decent theatres and denying all sorts of fine shows out of a home. It has a good score, but when it was staged as a book show with Elizabeth Seal way back whenever it sank rapidly. The thing that turned it into a hit – it has run for sixteen years on Broadway – was to stage it as a kind of concert performance. Bur enough is enough. Once the original stars had gone the producers brought in a succession of wannabees, hasbeens and never will bees, TV faces and film stars whose careers are over to play the leading roles, replying on the dancers to keep Bob Fosse’s choreography re-interpreted by Anne Reinking fresh and the “names” to pull in the punters happy to see a telly face in the flesh. It has taken more than £120 million at the box office and played at three different theatres – the Adelphi, the Cambridge and the Garrick. John Kander, who composed the score, said it had been a great experience, and the fact that the London audience had embraced the show for fifteen years filled him with gratitude and pride. Well he would, wouldn’t he? Latest face to join the show is Robin Cousins the ice skater who will play the lawyer Billy Flynn. Let us hope he can sing. Not that this has stopped some of those who have played the role in the past. Heaven knows David Hasselhoff has played the part, and so, most bizarrely, did Sacha Distel.
The Elephants' Graveyard
Have you ever wondered where old films go to die – the BFI Southbank and the shelves of Amazon apart. The answer is on South American television. That is where you see the films the stars made when it was a case of taking the money and running, knowing, as the more honest of them would admit, that the wretched thing would probably never see the light of day or be seen only by a handful of people so it didn’t matter that it was rubbish. It paid the rent. Their career would not be damaged. Alas, they did not count on television showing films they would prefer to forget - over and over again – not just the bad ones, but films which showed how beautiful they were when they were young. The really lucky star grows old in front of the camera and audiences forget how beautiful they once were because the ageing process takes place before their eyes. It works for most men – and a few women. The sad among the latter strive to stay young in front of the camera playing the kind of roles that made them famous, their faces ever more rigid with Botox. You know who they are.
What can we do about Kevin?
The great Mr Spacey, lord of the Old Vic, was sounding off the other day about the price of tickets in the West End. Fair enough. There is also said to be some trepidation among the managements at the state of business and a fear that come the Olympics it will slump. Whether this is because they do not think those who go to athletic events also go to musicals, or whether they think that, having been ripped off in Stratford and elsewhere the punters have nothing left to get ripped off with in the West End is anybody’s guess. But to Kevin. The other day we went to his theatre to see the Duchess of Malfi – nice production, great leading lady. We sat, as is our wont, in the Lilian Baylis Circle, their euphemism for the Gods, but still the acoustics are fine and the sight lines impeccable. The ticket cost £29, which seemed fair enough except that when we looked at it the face value was £22.50, the balance being made up of a booking fee and possibly, although it does not say so, one of those restoration levies. We had, of course, bought it on line. This is daylight robbery – the Royal Court only charges 50p for on line bookings. So Kevin why not put your money where your mouth is. That way we won’t crack the one about a waste of Spacey.
Are we past our sell by date?
Is there any point in people like us? It is a question posed by Jason Solomons, currently chair of our Film section, in his Trailer Trash column in The Observer. He notes that the posters for The Best Exitic Marigold Hotel (a film which stars a bevy of thespian national tresures including Dames Judi and Maggie and Woman in Black (starring a very small man claiming unconvincingly to be the father of a four year old) do not feature the opinions of critics but quotes from members of the audience. "British film at its best...a joy to watch....film of the year" were words that apparently appeared on the Marigold's Facebook site. Audiences also adored Woman in Black making it the most successful British horror film for 20 years, while Marigold over took it at the box office with takings of some £5m - all achieved without the help of critics whose views on both films were somewhat less than enthuisiastic.
Is this the death of critics, Jason asks? Then he begs to differ, saying what it does is force propert film scribes to sharpen their writingg amd stick to their opinions.
He has a point. Critics have to be worth reading. It is also arguable that their standing would be higher if some, no names not pack drill, refused to pen words designed to appear on posters - employers love this - and also rejected the practice of awarding stars, one of the more meaningless exercises ever devised, but loved by publicists. It saves space and looks impressive but is meaningless and cartainly not criticism. The thing to do is read the small print below the stars, see who awarded them and draw your own conclusions.
As to the end of critics - well this is the age of the instant opinion so perhaps we just have to live with those who twit and blog and hope to survive.
3D or not 3D
One does wonder why the Royal Opera House for its second film in3D opted for the Moshe Leiser/Patrice Caurier production of Madame Butterfly even if it is the most popular of all operas. Their first venture was with Carmen in a Francesca Zimballa production which on stage was pretty run of the mill, even although their was the delight of watching a patently scared out of his wits Escamillo riding a real horse to the bullfight. But the 3D camera took one into the thick of the action on stage and transformed the whole experience. Butterfly, however, has been given a very stark settin and the opera is essentially a series of dialogues between Butterfly and the other characters. There is nothing for the 3D camera to do. The score sounds splendid, Lipin Zhang is a superb heroine, James Valenti, the faithless Pinkerton, suitably dashing and Anthony Michaels Moore is in fine voice as Sharpless, the American consult left to pick up the pieces. The director of the film, Julian Napier, has done a workmanlike job given essentially unsuitable material.
3D gets used by Hollywood mainly to enhance sword, sorcery and Greek myth blockbusters, but these opera films show that it is worth more than being squandered on trivia. In the case of opera it removes the barriers created by the orchestra pit and the proscenium arch.