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I was so looking forward to seeing MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (cert. PG 1 hr. 54 mins.) as I remembered the first film (which came out in 2008) as such a joyful cinematic experience. But at first I was disappointed. The best songs seem to have been used up in the first film. And then...the exuberance, the actors with their tongues in their cheeks and yes, the music of ABBA all kicked in and I was swept up in this fantasy tale of women coming into their own.

It is set one year after the death of Donna (Meryl Streep). Her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is preparing for a grand opening of the renovated hotel on the Greek island, where her mother was so happy. Donna is upset at the absence of her fiance Sky (Dominic Cooper), who is remaining in the US to establish his career. She is also sad that only one of her three dads, Sam (Pierce Brosnan) is able to be with her.

We are treated to a number of flashbacks to when Donna was young some 30 years before. The young Donna is played by Lily James. She graduates along with her two closest friends, Tanya (the young one played by Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (young is Alexa Davies). They grow up to be the best mates of Meryl Streep's Donna and become Julie Walters as Rosie and Christine Baranski as Tanya. The main bit is seeing just how and with whom Donna became pregnant. Well, first she meets and beds Harry (Hugh Skinner) who grows up to be the businessman played by Colin Firth. Then comes Bill (Josh Dylan), the Swedish sailor who she meets and beds in Greece - later played by Stellan Skarsgard. Finally she encounters - yes, and goes to bed with - Sam (Jeremy Irvine) who turns into Pierce Brosnan. And the flings happen in very quick succession!

Back to the present and Sophie - remember her? The daughter of Donna - is worried that nobody will turn up to her opening. But soon along come Donna's three (now adult) pals and they certainly liven things up. Also arriving are the other two dads, Firth and Skarsgard. So all is set for lots of jollity and, of course singing and dancing. There is an amusing cameo from Omid Djalili as a Greek Customs official. It is hard to resist the sheer excitement generated by the film. The actors, particularly Walters and Baranski are very funny and Lily James shows she can sing and dance. Not always the way with some of the rest of the cast. However, what they lack in musical skills, other actors, such as Hugh Skinner and Colin Firth provide in the comedy stakes.

Director and writer, Ol Parker manages to control his large cast and he allows each of them to have their individual moments of glory. The music is very catchy and some of the best songs here are those we have heard before. The film is topped off, as it were, with the appearance of Cher, who sends herself up as the grandmother of Sophie. And yes, although the Streep character is dead, Meryl does manage to make a brief appearance. Do wait until the very, very end for a post credits funny!

Rating ****

If it wasn't for Elle Fanning, I doubt if MARY SHELLEY (cert. 12A 2 hrs 01 min.) would be lauded in the same way. She plays Mary Shelley - only really known for writing the science fiction novel Frankenstein. Science fiction was unusual 200 years ago but even more unusual was that the book was written by a female. Some might know that she was also the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist writer, and the philosopher and anarchist William Godwin.

Mary's life sounds like a fictional narrative. It isn't and makes a satisfactory film. When she is only 16 she meets the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth) and there is an instant attraction between the two of them. Mary falls in love with him and through Percy gets to know Byron (Tom Sturridge) and Coleridge.

When Mary leaves her home because of her unpleasant treatment by William's second wife - a very unusual part for Joanne Froggatt, known for her performance of the saintly Anna Bates in Downton Abbey) - her step-sister, Claire (Bel Powley) goes along with her and shares digs with Shelley. There is more than a hint of Claire and Percy having an affair.

Mary sticks with Percy even when she finds out that he still has a wife. There is much sadness that befalls Mary and gothic images illustrate her tragedy and give us glimpses of the gothic element of her great novel to come.

Director Haifaa Al-Mansour catches the feminist aspect of the story and shows us how sexist society was at the time that Frankenstein was written. Some of the more private parts of Mary's life are not given sufficient weight and it is hard sometimes to see what attracted Mary to the selfish Percy Shelley. There is some very attractive photography and the movie looks good with lovely costumes and scenery.

Acting is of a high standard with a charismatic Shelley, played bombastically by Tom Sturridge and a lovely characterisation of Claire by Bel Powley. Stephen Dillane shows a loving father, unable to deal with his new wife's antagonism towards Mary. We have, too, a beautifully sensitive portrayal of young Mary by Elle Fanning.

Rating ****

NEVER STEADY, NEVER STILL (cert. 15 1 hr. 41 mins.) Shirley Henderson is a truly great actress. We see this in her latest film Never Steady, Never Still. Following her stage appearance in The Girl from the North where she almost stole the show, in this film she plays Judy, a wife and mother who suffers from Parkinson's disease.

The film moves along two trajectories. The first and main one deals with Judy's life and how she copes. The second is about her 18-year-old son, Jamie (Played by Theodore Pellerin) who has difficulty facing and dealing with his own sexuality.

Living in the sparse land of British Columbia in Canada with her teenage son and husband, who gives her lots of help in his own quiet manner, Judy struggles to complete simple daily tasks.

The couple encourage Jamie to go and work in the oilfields of Alberta, believing it will make a man of him. But Jamie suffers as he is not as brawny as the other lads who make fun and bully him.

After the sudden death of her husband, Ed (Nicholas Campbell), Judy must spend almost all her time alone. Her son is now working quite far away. We feel for Judy as she chops wood, drives in bad weather and cooks for herself. The harsh weather makes some simple tasks, such as closing a car door, even more difficult. The local store sends young pregnant Kaly (well-played by Mary Galloway) to deliver food to Judy. Jamie meets and dates Kaly as he tries to sort out how to establish a sexual relationship with a girl.

Theodore Pellerin gives a sensitive performance as Jamie. But the film belongs to Shirley Henderson who shows the suffering woman with just the right amount of depiction of her disability and dealing with it mentally. The actress has a most expressive face and shows in her eyes the suffering she is going through. As she struggles to do up her jeans, a range of emotions cross her face and we see her tormented as she has to ask her husband for help.

The film is well-written by Kathleen Hepburn, who also directs her first film, and there is as much unsaid as spoken here. The cinematography shows the area really well and I particularly liked the view of the sea all around Judy as she wades in. Sound effects are realistic, too. There are some excellently shot scenes of Judy at her rehab classes. Non-actors, including the director's mother speak about their experiences - how their body seizes up and won't let them move at times. It is recommended.


84-year-old actress, Sheila Hancock, takes on the part of Edie, a woman in her 80s in the film EDIE (cert.12 A 1 hr. 41mins.). When her surly, dictatorial husband finally dies, her daughter pushes Edie to go into an old people's home. But Edie finds an old postcard of a mountain in Scotland. She and her father wanted to climb Mount Suilven in Scotland but then didn't. Now Edie suddenly decides to that going into a Home is not for her and makes her way to Scotland in order to climb 'her' mountain.

Here she meets up with Jonny (Kevin Guthrie) who runs a camping shop. Hiring Jonny as her guide at an exorbitant price, the two are very prickly with each other to start with. Gradually they learn to respect each other for what each has to offer and, in spite of many difficulties, Edie remains determined to scale the mountain.

The film shows how an elderly person can manage difficulties and conquer something, even if they have no confidence at the beginning, and how they can develop a belief in themselves. Although not a very good script, the film is a good study of an older person who is not just a character who sits in the corner of a room while the action continues around them. There's a charming performance by Kevin Guthrie as Jonny, who befriends Edie, learning to treat her as an equal. And then, of course, there is Sheila Hancock whose performance should teach young actresses that less is indeed more.

Rating ***

A look at body image with a new slant, I FEEL PRETTY (cert. 12A 1 hr. 50 mins.) stars Amy Schumer as Renee, a large but attractive woman who hates her appearance. She has serious image problems and lacks self-esteem. Renee is used to being ignored as she waits to be served in a shop. She has two friends who are also not in the looking-beautiful class. Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips play the girlfriends superbly. They support Renee throughout her various crises and these three young women form a nice little friendship group.

One day, while in the gym, Renee falls and bangs her head. When she comes to, she looks in the mirror and gasps with pleasure as she sees that she is now beautiful. The reality is, she has not changed at all; it is only her perception that has altered. She now sees herself as looking gorgeous and is suddenly full of confidence.

She applies for and gets the job of her dreams: she moves from a small dingy office to become a receptionist in the same cosmetics company where she was completely unknown to a front row position in beautiful offices on Fifth Avenue run by an insecure, lovely looking young woman, Avery LeClair (the almost unrecognizable Michelle Williams), the granddaughter of the owner, Lily St Clair (Lauren Hutton). Now that she feels confident, Renee is not afraid to voice her opinions and rises up the ranks as she impresses Avery with the viewpoint of what the ‘ordinary’ woman wants. Her private life also improves beyond her former wildest dreams as she becomes romantically involved with Ethan (Rory Scovel).

How it plays out and what happens when Renee comes back to reality and sees herself as she actually is forms the next stage of this film. The story is romantic and there is a lot of comedy. The big difficulty is accepting that self-confidence can be acquired just by believing in oneself. There are some excellent performances from the main actors but also those in smaller parts act with an understanding of their characters. Well directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, Michelle Williams is most amusing as the woman who heads the company and yet knows that her voice - a small high squeak - and her demeanour is not exactly prepossessing! Rory Scovel, too, gives a good characterisation of an insecure man who falls for the exciting and unpredictable Renee.

The main thing to save the film from becoming an unbelievable romp is Amy Schumer who puts in a well-rounded performance showing the nuances of feeling like nothing and being unloved to suddenly finding her self-confidence and also realising that she is loved by Ethan. As she blossoms we see her flower into a lovely young woman.

Rating: ***

THE YOUNG KARL MARX (cert. 12A 1 hr 58 mins) Directed by Raoul Peck, the film is more about the political life of Karl Marx than his personal life. The Young Karl Marx also chronicles how Friedrich Engels entered Marx’s life and contributed to his literary work.

Feted as the director of the Oscar nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck has co-written a thoughtful movie about how communism was born. Only 26 at the start of the film, we see Karl Marx as a young man living with his wife, Jenny (Vicky Krieps, who was outstanding in The Phantom Thread) and struggling with lack of money.

Meanwhile Fredrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), who is the son of a wealthy mill owner, is unhappy at the conditions that his father's workers must endure. Engels and Marx meet and are at first antagonistic, one towards the other. Engels is very rich, while Marx is living in extreme poverty. However, they grow to admire each other's work and they come together to work on the new ideas of what was to become communism. Marx is expelled by the French and goes to England with Jenny and his children. Engels leaves, too, and they join the League of the Just, a socialist group led by the ideas of Pierre Proudhon (Oliver Gourmet). When they break away from Proudhon, Engels announces that the League of the Just is to become the Communist League.

It's a long film - two hours - of non-stop talk about political theories. The result is the Communist Manifesto and we see Marx hard at work on it helped by Engels. The Manifesto was eventually published in 1848. Marx's wife, Jenny, supports her husband and endures the poverty of their early life together. She continues to support and assist him in his work later. Engels falls for a millworker called Mary Burns (Hannah Steele), who he eventually marries. She, too, is supportive to her husband and his ideas and helps him in his work. Towards the end Karl and Friedrich are two very different men. Apart from their individual contributions to their joint endeavour, the two men and their wives become very close as all four pursue the new ideas. August Diehl's Mark and Stefan Konarske show how different they are. While Marx struggles with poverty for a great deal of his life, Engels has a wealthy family. The relationship between the two men is much more focused on than that of the men and their wives.

The film in German and English, with subtitles, is directed in a style that illuminates the thinking behind the work of Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels. Beginning in Cologne in 1843, it moves along in years and places - we see Berlin and England, and touch on Brussels and Ostend. We're celebrating the 200th birthday of Marx and a lot has changed, particularly recently, as a result of his and Engels work which has had an enormous influence on modern socialism. The end montage illustrates this as we leave the cinema to Bob Dylan's Like a rolling stone.

Rating: ****







THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (Vaudeville Theatre until 20 October 2018. Box office: 0207 099 0930) is certainly a different sort of production from the usual kind. The words remain Oscar Wilde's brilliant dialogue but what happens on stage is far from the ordinary, somewhat staid, play we are accustomed to. The two bachelors, Jack Worthing (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who is in love with Gwendolen (Pippa Nixon) and Algernon Moncrieff (Fehinti Balogun) who later falls for Cecily (Fiona Button) are full of fun. Algernon flirts with his butler, Lane (Geoffrey Freshwater) while John has to find ways of wooing Gwendolen without her mother, Lady Bracknell being aware of their liaison.

Sophie Thompson is a really good actress, but plays Lady Bracknell in a rather subdued manner. While we all wait for the famous line, "In a handbag!" after John, responding to her enquiry about his origins, tells her he was found in a large bag at a railway station, it is somewhat disappointing when that line is almost thrown away.

There is lots of comedy to be found in the other characters, too. Miss Prism, the governess of Jack's ward, Cecily, is a delightfully forgetful woman who shares a secret passion with the Rev. Canon Chasuble (Jeremy Swift). When all the characters converge in the country house where Cecily lives, there is much merriment as they try to work out who is Jack's father and his real name. The two girls, Gwendolen and Cecily, are nicely differentiated in director Michael Fentiman's production. Cecily is young, eager to please her guardian, Jack, and anxious to fall in love. Gwendolen, on the other hand, is fully in control of herself. We can already see some of her mother in her calculated way of dealing with Jack's proposal.

There has always been an undercurrent of homosexuality in the play, but usually one imagines that it is between the two male friends. Here Algernon appears to have a great attraction to Lane and we see them kissing. It puts a different - not very welcome - slant on the butler's position.

Food is constantly being pushed into someone's mouth or thrown around in a farcical manner. The garden is most attractive and that, together with the women's costumes, helps to present the play as a pretty, light confection.

Rating ***

Seven and a half hours of theatre sounds a lot…well, it is a large amount, I assure you. But, as one who sat through the two parts of IMPERIUM (Gielgud Theatre (until 8 September. Box office: 0844 482 5151) on the same day, it didn't seem at all too much. It is now in the West End after a very successful run in Stratford. This fascinating story of Marcus Tullius Cicero is full of intrigue, conspiracy and violence, with some sex thrown in! Each part is made up of three little plays with a short interval between each. Based on the trilogy of novels about Cicero by Robert Harris and adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton, who presented the magnificent Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, it gives a potted history of the life and times of Cicero.

Part 1 is called CONSPIRATOR. It details how in 63 BC Cicero was known as a great orator who became a Consul. He was just an ordinary man, relying on his wife, Terentia (Siobhan Redmond)'s personal fortune to finance his political activities. Cicero (Richard McCabe) makes an enemy of Cataline (Joe Dixon) who continues to conspire against Cicero. The story is told by Tiro (Joseph Kloska), Cicero's former slave and now his friend and secretary.

Part 2, called DICTATOR, is easier to follow, dealing, as it does, with many of the events covered in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. So, we see the assassination of Caesar (Peter De Jersey) and the rise of Mark Antony (Joe Dixon again). Octavian, Julius Caesar's adopted son, schemes to become the ultimate leader.

Director Gregory Doran understands the history of the Cicero Plays, and also the relevance to today. He has chosen a Pompey, played by Christopher Saul with a blond piece of combover hair (apparently the real Pompey did have a quiff), and given him some of the same gestures as the American President! We also have some sex scenes with Clodius (Nicholas Armfield), who brings trouble on Cicero who refuses to defend Clodius' lascivious behaviour.

The acting is all-round excellent with the cast pulling together as a true ensemble. Chief amongst them is Richard McCabe's Cicero. He gives a performance which is not only subtle and emotional but also very physical - amazing how he can keep up his energy over the seven hours. His side-kick, Joseph Kloska's Tiro, is almost equally good as he draws the audience into his confidence as he tells Cicero's story.

The plays are stand-alone so you can see Part 1 on one night and Part 2 on another or you can do the marathon and see the two parts on the same day! Whichever you choose will be a great theatrical experience.

Rating *****

Not having seen Poldark, I wasn't waiting with trembling limbs to see Aidan Turner in Martin McDonagh's THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE (Noel Coward Theatre, London until 8 September. Box Office: 0844 482 5151). In many ways I could appreciate the play more as I wasn't just concentrating on the one character. Although Turner as Padraic, an Irish freedom fighter who is so violent that even the IRA have turned him down, is an actor who is utterly compelling when on stage, there are other aspects of the paly which make this a top quality theatrical experience.

While Padraic's speciality is torture - we see him discuss his various methods as he inflicts pain on his drug-pusher victim who is strung upside down - he has one soft spot, his cat. When he hears his beloved cat, Wee Thomas, is very ill he rushes back home to nurse him.

Unfortunately, Wee Thomas is completely dead. Padraic's father, Donny (Denis Conway), who has been looking after the cat, tells Davey (Chris Walley), who admits having run him over, that his son will be very very angry. Davey, scared stiff, finds a ginger cat and attempts to turn him into black Wee Thomas by coating him with black shoe polish.

It turns out that Donny and Davey are not alone as gunmen burst into the cottage to kill Padraic. Add to this mixture Davey's terrorist-in-the-making sister, Mairead (Charlie Murphy), and the black comedy turns very violent with blood spattered everywhere.

Michael Grandage directs with an eye to the comedy in all the events which take place. He brings out the many unusual twists in the story so that the audience is constantly amazed at what is taking place on stage.

Aidan Turner is a real charismatic presence here and gives a tremendous performance in the lead. But there are also exceptionally good performances from Denis Conway as Padraic's simple living dad and Chris Whaley as Davey, a young man who acts stupidly. There is also a lively, fully developed character study from Charlie Murphy as the budding terrorist leader, who becomes the girlfriend of Padraic.

While the play shows brutality and is bloody to observe, the underlying message is that violence is bad. See it to appreciate the clever writing of McDonagh, who also wrote the recent Oscar winning film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Rating *****

Watching THE JUNGLE at the Playhouse Theatre, London (until 3 November Box Office: 0844 871 7631) you soon forget the uncomfortable seating once the play starts. It is a show that involves the audience completely as it deals with the destroying of the refugee camp known as The Jungle in Calais.

The Playhouse Theatre has been totally transformed. You walk into the area behind the bar at the entrance and are immediately in the 'Afghan Café.' Sitting around long tables almost within the action taking place above and around us, the audience is closely involved as the characters discuss what to do about the imminent threat of the immigrant camp being torn down. Miriam Buether's design extends to the entrance where we come in past some camp beds and tins of food piled on shelves. When we are seated, flyers are handed out inviting us to a meeting. Cups of hot sweet tea are given to those of us at the long tables. Above this area is the circle, now re-named 'The White Cliffs of Dover' where audience members look down on the action. The camp has been set up right at the side of the motorway to make it handy for those who are agile to jump on to stationery lorries. They know of the dangers - in fact right at the beginning the body of a young teenage stowaway is brought into the café area.

By chance the coach taking my group of seniors to the European Parliament in Brussels a couple of weeks ago drove past the camp on our journey. Now desolate and completely laid to waste, we could see the large area originally used and it was noticeable how very close to the motorway it was.

Over 8,00 refuges are housed here, and they manage to live alongside each other with difficulty but without major upsets. Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) acts as our guide through what is happening. Risking their lives to get to the UK, the refugees turn to the British volunteers for help. The play is written so well by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who have admirably researched the situation in France in such detail that we get to learn about the individuals as people not just 'volunteers'. Particularly telling is Alex Lowther as the very young Sam, who has left Eton to come and help at the refugee camp. We meet Beth, a teacher (Rachel Redford), Paula (Jo McInnes) and Derek (Dominic Rowan). The refugees, too, are sharply differentiated. Besides the Syrian Safi, the main ones include the traumatised 17-year-old Okot (John Pfumojena) from the Sudan, lively Afghan 15-year-old Norullah (Mohammad Sarrah) and the owner of the restaurant, Salar (Ben Turner).

Originally at the Young Vic, the play has successfully transferred to a West End venue where it looks set to draw in crowds who don't just want to be entertained but have their minds informed. The production is excellent on all counts. Directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin have assembled a cast of brilliant actors, picked music to blend in with the action and songs that are moving even when sung in another language. The musical direction and composition is by the actor John Pfumojena.

The directors have chosen a designer who appears to know just what the camp should look like and they have even directed the audience to behave as participants in this tragedy of human lives which seem to mean so little to those with the final authority. The excellently designed set and actors who put their very souls into their parts, present us with a play which is very moving. It was noticeable that many in the audience were shedding tears at the end.

Rating ****

AS YOU LIKE IT at the Open Air Theatre Regent's Park, London (Box Office: 0844 826 4242)

Coming to the theatre, you think, "Oh lovely, As You Like It, just the right play for a pretty setting surrounded by trees." And then…what's this, an almost bare stage with water in the front, but it is what's on the water that catches the eye! Floating in the water are lots of empty coke cans, bin bags, and thrown away rubbish of all kinds. But surprisingly all this works. As the play progresses you can see the references to the environment and after the interval the water is clear and flowers appear. Naomi Dawson has designed a set which carefully shows all this under director Max Webster.

The start of the play is the court of Duke Frederick (Simon Armstrong), which is a place where you will find fast food and plastic containers. We can see urban pollution in extremis. This is where the wrestling match takes place and Rosalind (Olivia Vinall) and Orlando (Edward Hogg) fall instantly in love.

In contrast, the Forest of Arden where the Duke Senior (Simon Armstrong again) holds court is a dishevelled place of jollity with communal eating and living.

When Rosalind is banished from the court by her uncle, his daughter Celia (Keziah Joseph) and the clown, Touchstone (Danny Kirrane) accompany her to the Forest of Arden. Here, too, comes Orlando who is escaping his cruel brother. Naturally - being a Shakespeare play - when the characters meet, they don't recognise Rosalind and Celia now disguised as males.

There is lots of fun in this comedy and this is brought to the fore in this lively production. There are attractive, lyrical performances from Edward Hogg and Olivia Vinall as the two main lovers. But there is also a very funny lover in Danny Kirrane's Touchstone, who courts the country lass, Audrey (Amy Booth-Steel), who also gives a very amusing performance. There are some base farmyard-like activities here!


Carlie Newman

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