Saturday, 30 April 2011

'Aliens', GFT, 29/4/11

Last night I attended a screening of 'Aliens' at the GFT, the first time that I had seen the film on the big screen.
Before the screening members of the UKCM (United Kingdom Colonial Marines) patrolled the building in full Colonial Marine armour. Quite lucky really as there was also a xenomorph in attendance who scared the odd person.
Fun was in the air as we all piled into the auditorium which was packed ...

The Film began, but with no sound, prompting jeers from some audience members and a mass clapping in objection which led to the jibe 'in space no one can hear you clap' from one viewer.
The sound was quickly restored but later on their would be several interruptions of the film in the first half of the movie. Fortunately the attending audience was in high spirits, cheering when the film returned.

Again I noted detail in the picture that I'd not noticed in home viewings and the sound design was also somethign that came across as far more impressive than ever before.
Viewing such a film with an audience is always a treat as the collective feeds into the sense of dread and expectation that the movie breeds. I would notice my heart begin  to race in the tenser moments and the battle sequences were truly something to witness.
There is, of course, the famous line that 'Ripley' spits as she faces the alien Queen, 'Get Away from her, you Bitch!' which has to be one of the most triumphant lines in cinema history. This line was greeted by cheers from the crowd as the finale began proper ...

So despite the problems with the print (or the staff?) this was another thrilling adventure to the cinema which has reinforced my belief that some things really are better when seen on the big screen, with an appreciative audience. Like live theatre it is that collective experience which informs the pleasure of the viewing, and whilst one can appreciate and enjoy a movie in the privacy of one's own home, that pleasure is enhanced within the appropriate environment and with like-minded people.
I only hope it's not too long before I get to experience this all over again ...

Thursday, 28 April 2011

John Parker, Stephen Tate et al 'Trial Before Pilate/Superstar'

Another video created from the 'Jesus Christ Superstar' Original London Cast album.
This is the 'Trial Before Pilate' leading into 'Superstar':

Pilate - John Parker
Caiaphas - George Harris
Jesus - Paul Nicholas
Judas - Stephen Tate

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Paul Nicholas 'Gethsemane'

Another video I have fabricated.
This is Paul Nicholas, London's original 'Jesus', performing 'Gethsemane' from the Original London Cast album of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'.

This is one of my favourite recordings of this song, with the orchestrations being quite exceptional, giving the piece a sense of majesty and drama that is certainly missing from later recordings.
The images I've used are from various 'Jesus Christ Superstar' productions and I've added a few pieces of religious art for good measure!

Friday, 22 April 2011

Dana Gillespie 'I Don't Know How To Love Him'

Okay, so I have put together this video as I haven't been able to find it otherwise online.

Dana Gillespie played 'Mary Magdalene' in the Original London Company of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'.

The London Cast album is one of my favourites and the soundtrack to this video is taken from that album whilst the pictures are from various sources, but all are related to the OLC.

This is my first video, and I think it turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. And I do!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Elisabeth Sladen R.I.P.

Elisabeth Sladen passed away this morning having fought cancer for some years. She played Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, one of the most popular ever. And my favourite.
I am greatly saddened at the news and wish those she leaves behind only the best.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

'Alien', GFT, 15/4/11

Last night I saw 'Alien' on the big screen for the first time.
Screened from a 35mm print at the Glasgow Film Theatre the cinema was packed for the late night showing.

I've always been a fan of the 'Alien' series, even if they've declined in quality in the latter half of the episodes. I will say right here and now that I do not count the AvP films as part of saga, but rather as trivial entities based on commercialism and the need for greed.

'Alien' is my favourite of the franchise as it has, in my opinion, the most original materials that create a wonderfully thrilling and satisfying whole. H R Giger's designs are truly exceptional as is the production design as a whole. The cast are excellent, music is atmospheric and chilling, direction first rate and even the special effects, although somewhat dated, hold up pretty well.

Seeing it on the cinema screen, it's original home, was quite an experience; having only seen it on VHS, DVD and television broadcast the scope is increased, the detail in the film is greater, the sound is all encompassing and the shared experience is galvanising. The atmosphere in the auditorium is palpable and I was pleasantly surprised to find the tension built up throughout the film was increased when one views it as a collective experience. Yes, there was the odd laugh at some of the special effects, but there were also still the shocks and awe. Seeing the alien landscapes, the alien derelict and it's pilot, not to mention the titular creature itself enlarged before you was something I'm glad I was able to experience.

I now look forward to seeing 'Aliens' in the same manner ...

Monday, 11 April 2011

Jim Sharman 'Blood & Tinsel - A Memoir'

Jim Sharman is the director of 'The Rocky Horror Show'; the film adaptation; 'Hair' in Australia, Japan and Boston; the Australian and London premieres of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and numerous other theatrical endeavours.
The book is an auto-biography, or ‘memoir’, and deals with Sharman’s life and work including his youth spent in the carnivals through his work on the seminal rock musicals of the 60s and 70s, to his return to his native land, his depression. We also have insights into his relationships, both personal and career related. 
Yet for all that, Sharman is a writer whose style is easy, informative and interesting; you want to know more about this man, yet at times he doesn’t quite give you enough to satiate your appetite.

His insights into theatre and, to a lesser extent, film are not at the level of academic research but are insightful enough to make you appreciate the genius that can lurk within someone’s mind. He is quite matter of fact about certain aspects of his life, including his sexuality and his relationships with people. One certainly gets the impression that Sharman is someone who’s been able to take out of life all that he can, appreciate what comes along, yet know when it’s time to let go and say goodbye. This view was something totally alien to me, but I read and thought and what I love more than anything in this book is how, throughout his life and work, Sharman looks with an eager eye; learning and gaining insights into humanity itself.

I finished the book wanting more and more yet coming away from it all with a sense of wonder and fascination at how intricate, complex and joyous the world is. I often hear how informative, how insightful some directors can be and reading this overwhelming book I can clearly understand why.

Jim Sharman is one of my favourite directors, yet I’ve never seen (nor probably ever will) one of his productions as he chooses to work exclusively in Australia - a great loss to the rest of the world – yet reading about his work, reading his insights behind what he does leaves me in awe at this theatrical magician, hoping that his work will cross the oceans once more ...

Sunday, 10 April 2011

'Chess The Musical', Glasgow King's Theatre, 9/4/11

So I saw the show again in Glasgow some months after seeing it first time around. The Auditorium was packed and who should be there also? Only Benny Andersson! I don't believe he'd seen this version of 'Chess' before and I gather that he enjoyed it.

Much that I said in my previous, Edinburgh, review still holds true, but I found the show sharper and more focused, especially choreographically, this time. The music sounded amazing and Sarah Travis' orchestration is truly wonderful. I still have issues with the dance interludes, the song re-ordering etc. as before but I do feel the video played better this time 'round.
One thing I never mentioned before was how pointless it is to have Freddie apply exaggerated make-up and snort cocaine before the interview; we already get that he's a bit fucked up, so what is it trying to say? Is it an attempt to explain, somewhat, why Freddie's behaviour can be so erratic? Because he's a dope-fiend? It doesn't really wash with me. One has only to look at some of the real-life Trumpers of the world to know that there are some people who just are obsessive, dangerous and unpredictable. Unless, of course, that particular scene is all for Walter's benefit who seems to have some sort of sexual fascination with the American at this point. Walter becomes incredibly creepy and disgusting at such times. Power over people is obviously a turn on for him. Saying that I found that Walter (James Graeme) being played with an English accent really does nothing for the plot - it is much more appropriate that he be American as per the original; as the idea of an Englishman and Russian making deals has no real power in the cold war story. The whole purpose of Walter and Molokov is to represent the politic machinations of the time and the change in Walter's nationality negates that immensely.

The cast overall, however, were far more at ease with their roles than previously although this meant that at times Daniel Koek as Anatoly was a bit too over-the-top, too often for my liking. His ad-libbing with vocal lines and timings also left me a bit underwhelmed at times, though when he's on fire he's on fire!

The whole production is somewhat heightened so the cast do need to be 'bigger' than the norm but there does come a point where it just becomes a bit annoying. Shona White, as Florence, was also at risk of the same but managed to just about toe the line and reign herself in before she goes too far. James Fox's Freddie was again a standout and his manic characterization perfectly suited the production and the role even if he does slap his hands once too often.
David Erik's Arbiter was excellent again and the entire ensemble shone even better than before. Poppy Tierney as Svetlana and Steve Varnom as Molokov were both notable despite the odd dodgy Russian accent. Varnom's mic also suffered some issues during the evening which makes me think that the free-floating head mics that are typically worn these days (the type that follows the jaw line) aren't necessarily better than the type that is glued to an actor's face; at least then the mic is harder to knock or move.

Sound and lighting design were crisp and exciting, more so than I had previously noted, and I found the production as a whole was funnier than before whilst, with sharper choreography, the dances (although quite dramatically redundant) were excellently executed.

I still feel the last half of act II is a bit rushed and truncated, never really allowing time for any sort of exposition on the state of the relationships between Anatoly, his wife and his lover. Also; the newscast dialogue, primarily spoken by Walter, is often stunted and could do with being sped up a little, although I'm sure this is the fault of director Craig Revel Horwood and not the actors. As they are, these speeches slow the flow of things and, being necessary for exposition, should be worked on more; if only to sustain audience attention. That said this is still a truly wonderful show and the friend I took, never having seen 'Chess' before, understood what happened onstage perfectly, saying that the physical direction certainly helped.
I really hope that it gets a shot at the West End, albeit with some tweaking especially in that last quarter.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Book

There is a saying that the three most important things in a musical are book, book and book.
The ‘book’ (or libretto) is, in essence, the glue that holds all the separate parts of a show together: It’s the narrative structure that allows the story to be told without being simply an amalgamation of dances, songs and dramatic scenes. The story is the skeleton which the musical, choreographic and dramatic materials are attached to.  Important aspects of the book include telling the story clearly (and concisely), allowing situations in which song and/or dance can tell the story and push the plot forward. It is also usual that it is the book that creates characterization whilst the songs create an emotional climax/release. Since a musical is a collaborative art form it is usual that the book writer and song writers will work together to ensure that a transition from dialogue into song and vice-versa is as easy and as natural as possible. Likewise all disciplines, be they dialogue, music, lyrics, dance, should work together and sympathetically toward the same goal of telling the same story. There may be places where one speciality is better at telling the story than another, so some form of diplomacy is required.
It is often the book that is criticised for a show failing although there are many successful shows that have weak books and many more short-lived shows with strong books.

I write about the subject of ‘the book’ because I was reading about some of the works of Tim Rice and the subject struck me as an intriguing one: Rice’s work, I think, epitomises the two extremes in the argument of the need for and success of ‘the book’.

Rice is heralded as being innovative in having discarded the book when he wrote the lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music for Jesus Christ Superstar, which was initially written for record before being produced theatrically (although this was the ultimate aim from the point of view of the writers). Rice himself has written that any innovations that he and Lloyd Webber initiated were happy accidents along the way of creating the record and were not necessarily their intent.

Looking at the lyric booklets provided with the album there certainly are no stage directions, but there are descriptions of days and places such as ‘Bethany, Friday night’ (used in the 1972 London production as displays). But are detailed stage directions a necessary part of what constitute the book? Reading Rice’s lyrics one certainly gets a sense of what’s happening and what needs to happen from a directorial point of view, and this can also be said of the works of Shakespeare who never wrote any stage directions himself: I recall learning in university how the ‘sacred’ texts that we take for granted as being written by Shakespeare were in reality reconstructed from several sources including actors’ rehearsal copies, leaving the possibility that those actors tweaked their own lines, that lines originally excised by the author were retained having appeared in earlier versions etc. etc.
The place, times and even entrances and exits of characters were created after Shakespeare originally wrote his words. So Shakespeare basically wrote only the words spoken by his actors. Clearly this is enough for any director as we continue to have endlessly inventive productions of Shakespeare whose words are enough to let a director, and an audience, know what is going on and what needs to happen on (or off) stage. Do Rice’s words serve any less?
Yes, a dramatic play and a musical book are different things, but do they not serve the same purpose; as a means of telling a story?
So did Rice really eradicate the book? Or did he simply, accidently, re-write what it constitutes? Opera librettos are really nothing more than the lyrics and the same can be said here: Superstar is an opera in the idea that it is told entirely through music and lyrics. The same is true of Evita whose Lyric booklet does have more detailed stage directions than Superstar. But like any good opera, directors continue to find new ideas and create new productions all the time.

Where Rice is applauded for doing away with the book for Superstar and creating a clear, concise structure through lyrics he is often criticised for the book in the musical Chess (music by Bj√∂rn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson), a musical of some length with minimal dialogue.  Many complain the plot is too complex or even unbelievable; accusations that Rice has refuted and proffered evidence against. The history of Chess as a show is far more convoluted than its plot; hence its history of being constantly reworked by director after director, starting with the first; Trevor Nunn (don’t get me started).  Chess was produced, like Superstar and Evita, as an album first and that album too had a book containing the lyrics, though there was a note indicating that the album was not the complete show. Included, however, was a complete synopsis of the story together with the full lyrics, together with stage directions as in the Evita booklet, of the music and scenes contained on the records (many of the stage directions were carried through to the published script) and reading the synopsis and lyrics one has a clear idea of what is going on in the story.

When it came to be staged the plot was reworked slightly in parts, lyrics were altered and song order rearranged – all per director request (much to Rice’s later regret). I shan’t go into later Chess variations (i.e. Broadway and beyond), some of which had Rice’s input, many of which did not, but I shall concentrate on the original London production which is the closest to the original album. Rice published the London Chess script in 1994 with a few more, very minor, alterations from the original London script (these include returning the original lyrics to ‘The Story of Chess’ and eliminating the meeting of Florence and Svetlana – a few lines of dialogue only - during ‘I Know Him So Well’ which served no real purpose).
Reading the published script it is easy to follow the story, so long as you pay attention to the lyric, and although Rice chooses not to always immediately give reasons for a character’s actions, he does offer consistent insights into behavioural traits, allowing a spectator and an actor to assemble a whole character, whilst his lyrics offer both clear and metaphorical commentary on both character and action. The least well written part is that of Svetlana, if only because she has little time in the show, and is not often referenced while not on stage. Many have said that the Sydney production, reworked by Rice with director Jim Sharman (who also directed the 1972 productions of Superstar in Australia and London), solved the issues of the book including expanding the Svetlana part, but I honestly believe that the London book is not as flawed as many make out.
Rice’s stage directions are basic and brief but are clear enough as any other libretto I’ve read and they allow leeway for a director and his/her designer. Perhaps at times some actions and plot exposition need reinforcing to ensure that an audience can understand (as one really must pay attention to the lyrics in Chess, even the abstract and metaphorical ones – and what’s wrong with that?) but Rice refrains from writing complex stage directions telling a director what needs to happen physically onstage to do so, while a good director will have little trouble coming up with something that will play sympathetically with the score, without altering a lyric or a melody, and certainly without screwing with plot as has often happened.
Rice reworked Chess for the 2008 Royal Albert Hall concert in an attempt to create a definitive, and clearer, version of the show. Rice admits that the concert didn’t completely meet his aims but he has said that it’s the closest that’s been achieved so far.  The current UK tour directed by Craig Revel Horwood reworks the show again, and not always to its betterment in my view (see my review), and often undoes some of Rice’s efforts in the concert version (including reinstating long, dramatically unnecessary, dance sequences that Rice excised – but then Horwood is a choreographer), although it is a thrilling and exciting production. And it’s true that most revivals rework shows these days, though I wish they’d consider what they do with more care.
Reading the libretto of Chess I wonder how close a director needs to adhere to the stage directions in order to clearly tell the story. I have experienced productions of Chess that don’t strictly keep to the stage directions and so long as the lyrics are left alone the story flows quite easily. So again, the lyrics (and dialogue in Chess’ case) are more important to the story telling and any embellishments on a director’s part should only serve to enhance that telling. And this is true of all the musicals cited here.
So here we have Rice lauded for doing away with the book and its inherent problems when writing Superstar and blasted for trying to create a complex and detail-rich story, asking the audience to think, when writing Chess. When thinking about Chess and why people are often confused by it I often wonder that perhaps it’s laziness on an audience’s part, as though they are unable to put the lyrical pieces together to come up with the whole. After all, it is all there!
I wonder that, where an audience is willing to pay attention and listen to what is said in a play, they expect a musical to just wash over them with only the minimum of attention required. The 80s heralded the mega-musical and Chess certainly was one of these, but it actually does demand something more from an audience than was usual; respect for the text.  Perhaps it is because the book is a little more complex and demanding of an audience that Chess is less attractive, whereas Superstar is simpler, both plot wise and lyrically and one doesn’t necessarily have to hear every word to know what’s going on. Whatever the reason both scores are excellent both musically and lyrically.

It is interesting to note that Rice is rarely credited as being the author of ‘the book’ for these two shows; in America Tom O’Horgan is often credited as writing the book for Superstar, having contractual billing as ‘Entire production Conceived and Directed by’. But having written the book? Hmmm, I wonder. In Chess’ case, on Broadway at least there certainly was a book credit – the script was rewritten by Richard Nelson who was brought in by Trevor Nunn to basically rewrite Rice’s plot. Originally - prior to previews - Rice and Nelson were both credited as book writers but, ultimately, only Nelson was credited come opening night and, apparently, Nelson’s contract means that only his script can be used in the US and his name is credited even if his script is not used. Thankfully this does not apply to the original UK version which was written by Rice, who is not often even credited with the book. And if Rice is not credited here then no one is.
Another bookless musical? Chess?  I don’t think so: Its book is detailed and complex and, given the necessity of the plot, remains surprisingly clear and uncluttered (despite its turbulent history and development) allowing the story to move along.
These days song lyrics are more than simply entertaining words – they are text that allows exposition, character and plot development. So rather than recreating the book, perhaps Rice, together with Stephen Sondheim, simply reinvented the lyric and its importance.

Friday, 1 April 2011

PMOS presents 'Oliver!', Glasgow King's Theatre, 29/3/11

I have never been a fan of Lionel Bart's 'Oliver!' having found it far too saccharine an adaptation of the novel. Even performing in the show in my college days did little to make it more attractive to me, although the second act was more dramatic and darker - always an appealing thing for me.

Director Alasdair Hawthorn, in the programme notes, writes that he had always wanted to bring the darkness and grit of the original book and the David Lean film into the typically light and frothy musical version which has always been an audience favourite.
The script in this production has been reworked slightly with Bill Sykes being introduced in a new scene in the first act. While this enables a sense of danger to be established earlier than usual the addition requires additional scene changes which sometimes interrupt the flow of the show, though I'm sure that this will be improved upon as the run continues.
The directorial concept continues with some of the character designs, many looking like some of the grotesques originally illustrated by George Cruickshank for the original serial.

The above shows Fagin as Dodger introduces Oliver to the gang. Utilising some clever make up Iain Usher's Fagin is both comedic and dangerous as he inhabits the illustration brought to life.

Usher's portrayal is effective and confident and the same can be said of all the cast including the Mr Bumble of Bob McDevitt and Patricia Welch's Widow Corney.

The exaggerated grotesqueness of the cast is perfectly displayed in the portrayal of the Sowerberry undertakers and their entourage who are all played to dark and comedic perfection led by Iain Condie and Susan Kernohan.

Judith Miller and Richard Magowan as Nancy and Bill Sykes, respectively, are both well presented and Magowan's portrayal is as dark as the production gets, his Irish accent bringing another air of freshness to the production.

The company of children are enchanting and Lawrence Clark as the Dodger is quite excellent, bringing a real sense of mischief and showmanship to the role.
Andrew Salmond's musical direction is top notch and much must be said about the work that he must have done on the score as the music and songs have all been reworked somewhat.

Although the show is certainly more than the sugar coated treat of old I don't feel that the production is as dark as I wish it were. Certainly there are moments but the nature of the songs, the script and, in this case, the lighting (which was a bit too broad at times) and to some degree the direction of the performances simply will not allow any real broad strokes of black. There were moments that dragged and the show did take a little while to get moving, but as I've previously noted, these are problems which will probably be rectified as the run goes on.
As an aside, I have always felt the reprise of 'Reviewing the Situation' to be a bit of an anti-climax end to the show, at least as always staged with Fagin vanishing into the sunset, and I have longed to see someone stage the fate of Fagin as per the novel, something which could lend itself, albeit as a dark and empty hope on Fagin's part, to that final reprise. But alas, I shall have to wait ...

Despite the flaws I enjoyed this presentation of 'Oliver!' more than I could ever have hoped, ironically because of the humour, although I did appreciate the attempt at revisiting the darker side of Dickens.
The work gone into preparing this production is evident and and kudos to all involved as they've certainly presented something that can stand out from all the numerous productions of this show, even if it perhaps doesn't quite live up to its artistic aims.