Over-hyped popular pap or misunderstood Miserables?

17 01 2013


images“Tom Hooper’s film is a colossal effort – after 158 minutes, you really have experienced something. It’s just not clear what”

Peter Bradsahaw – ‘The Guardian’

“…everything is sung through, tunelessly, a technique that sounds just like a particularly affected way of shouting.”

 “Unless you surrender yourself completely to the juggernaut, this Les Misérables is exhausting, if not infuriating (it made me bad-tempered for two days, a personal record.) It’s far too long…”

 David Sexton – ‘The Evening Standard’

“Popular doesn’t always mean pap – and a form which brings such pleasure and joy to so many deserves to be celebrated and treated to … informed critical scrutiny”

Lyn Gardner – ‘The Guardian /TheatreBlog’

downloadIt is said that the shortest correspondence in literary history was between Victor Hugo and his publisher Hurst and Blacket. It followed the publication of his 1862 novel (17 years in the making) ‘Les Misérables’. Hugo queried its reception with a single-character telegram, “?” and the reply came back, “!” – indicating its success.

Even so, it is unlikely the author could have imagined that, 150 years on, the title would be so universally known as to have entered common parlance, simply as ‘Lay Miz’.

Not too many will have read Hugo’s 1,300 page novel but almost everybody is familiar, to some extent, with the Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel  musical adaptation – one that recovered from modest beginnings and indifferent early reviews to become a theatrical phenomenon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust over 27 years on from its tepid, first night, reception in the West End over 60 million people, in more than 40 countries and in 20 different languages, have seen the much-loved stage show.

Sally Frith, from Gloucestershire, has seen it a mere 957 times! And perhaps that is exactly the sort of obsessive devotion from fans that cause certain of us to sneer. If you watched Sue Perkins ‘Climb Every Mountain’ – a Christmas special in search of the real Maria Von Trapp – then you will know exactly what I mean.

king's speechIn the wake of, ‘The Kings’s Speech’ director, Tom Hooper’s recently released movie version of ‘Les Mis’ a lively debate has sprung up between theatre/cinema critics. There are those such as the provocative David Sexton, of ‘The Evening Standard’, who castigate musicals as ‘innately idiotic’ and who disdainfully asks, ‘How can anyone who loves music enjoy musicals?’; while Lyn Barber of ‘The Guardian’ dismisses such  views as high-minded snobbery, born of ignorance, towards an art form that fills so many with joy.

It is a movie and genre that clearly divides opinion. While most reviews are mildly euphoric a significant minority are haughtily hostile.

Musicals are not normally my preferred cinema choice but, then again, I have seen sufficient good ones: ‘West Side Story’, ‘Cabaret’, ‘Evita’, ‘Chicago’, and yes – even ‘Grease’, not to subscribe to wholesale condemnation.

LesMisLogoI have watched ‘Les Mis’ on stage, albeit nearly twenty years ago. I recall it as a moderately enjoyable affair, but one that fell short of blowing my socks off. The somewhat faded memory I carried with me to the cinema, this week, was one of an earnest tale, played out on cleverly constructed sets, carried by a few decent tunes, reprised throughout, and occasionally interspersed with harmonious, uplifting outbursts from a flag waving chorus-line.

Let’s be fair, the storyline, set against a backdrop of events leading up to and including the Paris uprising of 1832, is hardly a bundle of laughs, and to a certain extent my previous synopsis held true with the movie version – but this time around I got a sense of what all the fuss is about. In keeping with Prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, I had my Damascene moment, finding the whole 158 minutes compelling and thoroughly enjoyable. Well pretty much – it was perhaps ten minutes or so too long!

Although some may try, it is unfair, to compare the stage production with the film, they are separate entities and should be judged as such.

Some, such as ‘American Idol’ contestant Adam Lambert, have criticised the screen version of ‘Les Mis’ for its cast of ‘pretend singers’. It is true that the main characters are played by actors not best known for their singing. But this turns out to be strength, as any slight imperfections in their musicality are more than compensated for by the emotional intensity they bring to the performance. Far better, for me, than pitch perfect singing from ‘pretend actors’.

4ca474dd18db2f9f7bf5d4e667ed6faeOne of the much publicised features of this film is that all of the singing was done live on set, to give a raw and real feel, untempered by studio technology.

I admit to having had doubts on this score, particularly with regard to Russell Crowe, an actor whose work I admire – ‘A Beautiful Mind’ is well up on my list of all-time favourites. Of all the cast, his singing was always likely to come under the closest scrutiny, but he pulled off his role as, the morally uncompromising Inspector Javert, with considerable aplomb.

photoFellow Aussie Hugh Jackman is certainly no novice and his intense performance as Jean Valjean hits all the right notes, musically and dramatically – surely a strong candidate for an Academy Award.

Susan-Boyle---I-Dreamed-A-Dream-2009-Cd-Cover-22425Ann Hathaway as Fantine, who prostitutes herself, before dying of consumption, in order to pay for the welfare of her daughter Cosette , is excellent and totally nails ‘I dreamed a dream’ – in an emotional rendition that leaves ‘SuBo’s’ ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ version looking relatively lightweight.

Les_mis_hathaway

So good was Ann Hathaway’s performance that the only criticism being levelled at her is the perfect nature of her teeth!

Eddie Redmayne, last seen on the big screen in ‘My Week With Marilyn’– and in the BBC adaptation of ‘Birdsong’- proved ideally cast as the idealistic, lovelorn,  Marius, a student revolutionary besotted by the adult Cosette, sings surprisingly well. Although, apparently, it needed 21 takes before the poignant, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ met  Tom Hooper’s satisfaction.

Les-Miserables-Samantha-Eddie_510x317I found Amanda Seyfried, as the adult Cosette – rescued from a childhood of mistreatment and misery in the ‘care’ of the Thénardiers, and having blossomed into the apple of her ‘adoptive papa’, Valjean’s eye – rather insipid in comparison to the attractive, sultry, Éponine played by the accomplished Samantha Barks.

A veteran of the stage show, her portrayal of unrequited love for Marius and subsequent, moving, death in his arms, on the barricades, left me inclined to think he chose the wrong woman!

article-2223269-15AEE006000005DC-268_634x521Much needed, intermittent, comic relief from the doom and gloom is provided by the rascally Thénardiers, a second-rate thief of an innkeeper and his unscrupulous wife – an inspired pairing of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Their flamboyant ‘Master of the House’ and ‘Beggars at the Feast’ routines were high spots and I haven’t been able to get the foot-tapping melody out of my head since!

Back at the barricades for a finale reprise of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’, in the ghostly presence of  Fantine, Éponine and Valjean, all bound for Paradise, there was almost a tear in my eye – but only almost!

golden globeIt may not have been altogether uplifting, melancholy it certainly was, while, as a tale of redemption, it failed my old English teacher’s quality control test – “Did it leave you thinking ‘What a piece of work is a man?’But for all that it was pretty flawless as musical drama.

It would have been beyond Victor Hugo’s comprehension that his 19th century literary masterpiece, about the wretched poor of Paris, should enjoy such longevity, through its musical theatre and cinematic renaissance.

While it may remain popular pap to some, the movie is already a Golden Globe winner, in the Best Musical or Comedy category, and it has received 8 Academy Award nominations.

Watch this space…

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‘Twelfth Night’; or ‘What You Will’ – a whole mess of beanz…

6 01 2013

12night‘Twelfth Night’ – Bard sound-bites:

“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”

images (2)

“If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite 

may sicken and die.”

 

Twelfth_cupid_smsp_AW“Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit”

 

“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”

 

twelftnight2_340pxl

“In nature there’s no blemish but the mind. None can be called deformed but the unkind.”

Shakespeare wrote his play ‘Twelfth Night’, or ‘What You Will’, around 1602 – an entertainment for the close of the festive season. In medieval and Tudor times, Twelfth Night marked the end of the Winter Festival, which began on Halloween.

It was a day of reversals, presided over by a Lord of Misrule, where the world was turned upside down. The King and all those in high office would become peasants and vice versa.

A special cake was baked, containing a bean. Whoever found it assumed the role of bean king and ruled the feast until midnight when the natural order of things was resumed.

7400809-venice-carnivalThere are echoes of this topsy-turvy behaviour in Shakespeare’s play, with Viola – a woman dressed as a man, and Malvolio – a servant who imagines he can become a nobleman.

Twelfth Night also marks the feast of Epiphany, a celebration of the Adoration of the Magi – a big event in countries such as Spain – which ushers in the carnival season, culminating in Mardi Gras.

art-1cHere in ‘the Shire’ (and other cider-producing counties) it also heralds the traditional season of orchard wassailing, an ancient custom of drinking and singing the health of fruit trees, to awaken them and scare away evil spirits – ensuring a good harvest in the following autumn.

Splash_2At ‘Clive’s’, our nearby fruit farm (Upper Hook Rd – WR8OSA) this ceremony will take place on Sunday 20th January – led by the local, Worcester based, Faithful City Morris Men – as part of an annual Wassailing and Frost Fair.

www.clivesfruitfarm.co.uk

For most of us, however, Twelfth Night is about remembering to take down the Christmas decorations, for fear of tempting fate and causing bad luck to descend upon our homes in the year ahead.

This morning was, therefore, spent clambering up a rickety ladder to stash away glass baubles in the loft, and dispatching our ‘special’ tree, with its crooked top, for recycling.

monkey-christmas-6inch-4There was also an emotional farewell with the PG Christmas Monkey – who only sees the light of day for a couple of weeks each year!

With journalistic Gem already back, hard at it, in the big city, working her notice on ‘Love It’ magazine, before embarking on fresh and exciting challenges at the ‘Sunday Mirror’; and teacher Nicci departing for Oxford, this afternoon, bracing herself for a busy Spring term, the Christmas holiday will soon become a fading memory.

I took time today to gather up presents, still scattered around the house, and spend a few moments appreciating them. We had made a family pact, we would cut back this year, but I still seem to have been the lucky recipient of many thoughtful gifts.

archie_-_tweeting_is_the_new_bleetingFrom number-one daughter, Nicci, a card – but no ordinary card:

“No ifs or butts… this is a great gift – a goat!

Dad, I know they must be missing you in Africa, so now they have a replacement! This guy is just like you … always bleating on about something (just kidding!) Happy Christmas x”

www.oxfamunwrapped.com

From number-two daughter, Gem:

hd_14a7ba6c6a1a1ffbc90e21f8a1ccf15da signed, Pictogram rock poster by Swedish designer  Viktor Hertz – David Bowie www.victorhertz.com

an ‘On The Road’ travel document case, from the British Library, where we recently saw Jack Kerouac’s original 120 feet long manuscript scroll,

and a Moleskine diary/notebook.

I had my present from Chris back in September – a Tricky Trees season ticket!

dandy_1091434tBut there were still a few surprises under the ‘special’ tree, including the 75th Anniversary ‘Dandy’  Annual and a Heinz Baked Beanz book – with recipes, history, trivia and more…

Funnily enough, that brings us full circle. Apparently, today, 6th January (Twelfth Night) is National Bean Day in the US of A.

So in keeping with the whole bean king/Lord of Misrule role reversal thing, it seemed only right that I should try out an ‘original and best’ Henry J Heinz recipe – chilli bean con carne with cheesy scones…

Serves 4

Scones

  • 250g plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 75g butter – diced
  • 50g strong Cheddar – grated
  • 1 egg – beaten
  • 50ml milk

 

  1. Mix the flour and baking powder in a large bowl
  2. Rub in the butter and add cheese
  3. Make a well in the centre and pour in the egg and milk
  4. Mix the dough until it comes together
  5. Turn out on to a lightly floured surface and roll to a thickness of 5mm
  6. Cut out 8 rounds – 5cm across – & place on a baking sheet
  7. Brush with milk and bake in a preheated oven (200˚C) for 12 mins (or until they sound hollow when tapped)

Chilli con carne

heinz beanz

  • 415g can of (Heinz) baked beanz
  • 2 tablespoons light olive oil
  • 1 onion – finely chopped
  • 2 garlic gloves crushed
  • 500g minced beef
  • 2 tablespoons tomato purée
  • 2 large red chillies – chopped
  • 1 teaspoon hot chilli powder
  • 2 teaspoons dried mixed herbs
  • 400g can chopped tomatoes
  • jalapeño peppers

 

  1. Heat the oil in a large pan
  2. Add the onion and garlic and cook over a medium heat for 5 mins – until softened
  3. Increase the heat to high and add the mince
  4. Fry for five minutes – until browned all over
  5. Stir in the tomato purée, chillies, chilli powder and mixed herbs
  6. Cook for a further five minutes
  7. Add the tomatoes and beanz
  8. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes – until the beef is tender

034-chillicheeseTop with sour cream. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with the scones and separate bowls of grated cheese and jalapeño peppers.

Buen Provecho!





All the World’s atwitter…

26 03 2011

When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

(As You Like It) 

As the phenomenon, that is Twitter, celebrates its 5th birthday I wonder what the Bird, oops – the Bard of Avon would have made of all this tweeting business? I guess it would have been just up his stweet and no doubt he would have been swanning around giving Stephen Fry & co a run for their money.   

It could be argued that Twitter  has its origins in Elizabethan England (the first one that is) and Will was a Tudor tweeter, but with pen and parchment rather than a second generation Ipad. His pithy comments, for more or less every situation, always packed a punch and with Will power he could always nail it in 140 characters or less.

He had plenty of camp followers too, albeit most of them couldn’t read, and I’m sure, never averse to a bit of self-publicity, Will would have been all over Facebook too (complete with the latest etchings). As the man said, All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…” (As You Like It – again)

As it happens we were in Stratford-upon-Avon briefly last weekend, a first opportunity to view the recently renovated RSC Memorial Theatre. There have been major structural changes but I was pleased, simply for nostalgia’s sake, to see that much of the 1932 red brick exterior remains. I wish I could have said, “it beggar’d all description” (Antony & Cleopatra) but it never was a raving beauty!

It has been some time since we took in a performance. The last time was in the winter season of 2004 for a production of ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, in the adjoining Swan Theatre, a more intimate Elizabethan style venue, in the round. Star of the show was the inimitable Judi Dench, playing the Countess of Rossillion.  

As it was a Friday night performance, at the end of a busy working week, we overnighted at the hotel across the road. The following morning wandering down, bleary eyed, into the reception area there was need for something of a double take; standing there, nursing a take away ‘Starbucks’ and psyching herself up for a book signing session across the road, was Dame Judi herself!

Off stage she is a surprisingly diminutive figure. I recalled we had bumped into her on a previous visit to Stratford many years previously. She had been in town doing a bit of pre performance shopping prior to a 1976 matinée of ‘King Lear’.

Those were the days when you could buy unreserved standing tickets on the day of the performance, which we did. Three and a half hours on your feet is probably not the best option for watching KL’s descent into madness. Donald Sinden took the title role while Judi, a young rising star, played his unsympathetic daughter Regan.

My first encounter with Shakespeare, at Stratford, was on a school trip to see ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (October 1968) and to be honest, for me at that time, it pretty much was. I’d tagged along largely because a day out of school had taken my fancy, as had one of my female classmates who had also signed up for it.    

It’s fair to say I wasn’t a great lover of Shakespeare back then, although I was ‘studying’ Romeo and Juliet for O-level. Somehow or other I was even allowed to take English at A- level too, and it was in the 6th form that I began to develop a belated interest in, and love of, the works of England’s greatest ever wordsmith.

Whilst I remember something of that first visit Stratford experience, I recall little of the performance (well nothing actually) so out of interest I Googled the RSC archives to peruse the cast list. It was directed by Trevor Nunn (hey Nunny no) and the lead roles of Benedick and Beatrice were played by RSC luminaries Alan Howard and Janet Suzman, who was shortly to become the first Mrs Nunn. Interestingly the current Lady Nunny- no , the lovely and talented Imogen Stubbs, was but 8 years old at the time.    

What surprised me more, however, where some of the lesser lights treading the boards that day: Helen Mirren (Hero), Ben Kingsley, now Sir Ben, and Patrick Stewart (Conrade and Borachio – followers of Don John). I was totally oblivious to the fact that I had been in the presence of the future Queen, Gandhi and the captain of the Starship Enterprise. What an awesome combination     

Apparently when Patrick Stewart took on the unlikely role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek the Next Generation (1987-94) he made the tongue in cheek observation:

The fact is all of those years in the Royal Shakespeare Company — playing all those kings, emperors, princes and tragic heroes — were nothing but preparation for sitting in the captain’s chair of the Enterprise.”  

Stratford and its town have provided many happy memories over the years. When Chris and I first hooked up, as Birmingham students in the early ‘70s, one of our first dates was an afternoon out in my old Triumph Herald (poser or what?) to Stratford, on a cold but bright afternoon. We bought a sliced loaf from the supermarket to feed the ducks and sat by the fire eating toasted teacakes in Anne Hathaway’s Tearoom, which is still going strong.  

To borrow from Will, or was it David Essex? It might only have been a Winter’s Tale, but we must have enjoyed each other’s company – it’s our 33rd wedding anniversary this weekend!

I recall some years later, shortly after we were married, working and living in Solihull, having friends over for a meal. The wine was flowing and we finished up talking ourselves into a challenge to walk to Stratford the following Sunday morning!

Setting off around six o’clock in the morning we were supping our first pint in the Actors’ Bar at the ‘Dirty Duck’ just after opening time. Luckily we had arranged a lift for the return journey!    

Some years later (in the mid to late 80’s) I was called to interview for a headship in Stratford and somewhat bizarrely found myself being interviewed by a school governor who in her working life takes the part of  Radio 4 soap character , Kathy Perks from the Archers. To be honest I don’t follow it so I wouldn’t have known. Needless to say I didn’t get the job, it was something of a shoe in for a local candidate; anyway I didn’t know enough about Ambridge!       

Having just unearthed a pile of old RSC programmes from the study, flicking through them has been a trip through the Who’s Who of the best in British stage and screen.

1976: Years before his knighthood and still firmly in the closet, Ian McKellen played along side Francesca Annis – critically acclaimed star crossed lovers in Trevor Nunn’s R&J

1977: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – an enterprising performance from Patrick Stewart as Oberon King of the Fairies, while Richard Griffiths made an ass of himself as beefy Bottom the Weaver;              

1982: Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusak were booked in as B&B in Terry Hands’  ‘Much Ado…’

1984: Adrian Noble’s ‘Henry V’ with the dynamic young, upwardly mobile Ken Branagh in the title role, supported by the brilliant booming, bearded Brian Blessed (Duke of Exeter) and Patricia Routledge, keeping up appearances, as Mistress Quickly

1996: ‘As You Like It’, with Niamh Cusak stirring the odd heartbeat, as Rosalind, and David, ‘the Doctor’, Tennant materialising as jester Touchstone

1998: ‘The Tempest’ (my favourite Shakespearian play) with David Calder’s aging Prospero orchestrating events on his isle “full of noises, sounds and sweet airs…” where nothing is quite what its seems…      

1998: The ever versatile Robert Lindsay on tour, ‘in the winter of our discontent’, as Richard III but alas no ‘Power to the People!’      

1999: The late Alan Bates, for me a screen star and ill at ease on stage, as Anthony sparring with the excellent Frances de La Tour’s Cleopatra, certainly no Elizabeth Taylor  in the looks department,  but a performance that rescued the production from a severe case of rising damp (She’ll always be Miss Jones to me!)   

2000: ‘Time Lord’ Tennant again, this time as a Romeo suitably  full of passion and angst

2004: The formidable talent that is Anthony Sher, a brilliantly Machiavellian Iago, stirring up ‘the green eyed monster’ within Othello.         

I’m afraid that whatever else Robert Lindsay does he will, for my generation, never shake off his 70s sit-com role as ‘Wolfie’, Citizen Smith, urban guerrilla and revolutionary leader of the Tooting Popular Front. Whenever I visit Gem, in Balham, I have to stop myself from raising my arm in salute shouting, ‘Power to the People!’ as I emerge from Tooting Broadway station.    

Lindsay was born and raised in Ilkeston, not too far from my starting point in life but significantly distant i.e. over the border in ‘Rams’ country. I’d never realised until now that Citizen Smith wears a black and white scarf; clearly a case of a Wolfie in Sheep’s clothing!

Time doth move on apace. Just a quickie on the sad demise of the legendary Dame Liz Taylor; not a great actress, though probably under rated and she did pick up a couple of Oscars along the way, but certainly the last great Hollywood star of her generation. She was certainly drop dead gorgeous in her younger days and, perhaps unfairly, will probably be remembered more for her eight marriages, including going for a Burton twice, and an extremely public private life.

No doubt, the great man would have tweeted thus: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth)

So, at last, ‘tis time to bid thee farewell; parting is such tweet sorrow…