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FILM:November 2015

For the first time I wish we had smell-a-vision as that is the only medium which would do justice to THE LADY IN THE VAN (cert. 12A 1 hr. 44 mins.) ****

I have a friend who lived in Gloucester Crescent, Camden -where the film is set - at the time that Miss Shepherd was in residence. His abiding memory is of everyone holding their noses as they passed the van. The writer, Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), however, did not hold his nose in 1970, but very kindly allowed the vagrant Miss Shepherd (played by Maggie Smith) to park her van in his driveway for 15 years.

Given that the van contained Miss Shepherd's whole life and she did everything inside it, including going to the toilet in plastic bags with occasional turds in the driveway outside the van, it was more than generous, although Bennett insists it was just timidity that allowed the cantankerous, not at all likeable old lady to live in front of his house. His neighbours - a group of well-known British actors including Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour and Deborah Findlay - comment on the activities of Bennett and Miss Shepherd. Just like Bennett we learn only a little of Miss Shepherd's past life: she had been a nun and a gifted pianist.

This Memoir of Bennett's was first turned into a stage play in 1999 starring Maggie Smith and directed by Nicholas Hytner and now Hytner has directed this lovely little film.

Alex Jennings inhabits Alan Bennett so well that when one sees the real Bennett at the end it is difficult to tell the difference. The only part of the film that irritates a little is that Alan talks to himself; fine, but we see two of them, one who lives the life and the other is the writer. Both are played by Jennings.

But Maggie Smith as the lady who lives in the van is just excellent and will surely be up for an Oscar nomination.

As will Saoirse Ronan as the delightfully whimsical Eilis Lacey in BROOKLYN (cert. 12A 1 hr. 42 mins.)*****

The film, based on Colm Toibin's novel, tells the story of young Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) who leaves Ireland to live and work in the U.S.

She gets on well there and meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a charming young man of Italian extraction, and they fall in love. Eilis lives in a boarding house presided over by Julie Walters (very amusing as the Irish landlady looking after her young ladies in New York.)

When Eilis is called back to Ireland in response to a family tragedy, she is torn between returning for ever to her homeland and staying with the attractive young man (Domhnall Gleeson) she has just met or going back to New York and her fiancÚ there.

Ronan is luminous in the part and with no over-acting all her emotions appear in her eyes. Director John Crowley has managed to give us a gentle, romantic film which is moving and absorbing and has no loud bangs or frenetic action or horror sequences. Go see!

Another Oscar nomination? Well, Cate Blanchett in the title role of CAROL (cert. tbc 1hr. 58 mins.) *****, which was on at the London Film Festival and is on general release at the end of the month, is surely worthy of one. This romantic drama set in the 1950s stars Blanchett as Carol, a wealthy socialite in a stagnant marriage, who meets and falls for Therese (Rooney Mara), a young woman working in a department store. Therese dreams of better things for herself while Carol has to fight the prejudice of the legal system and her husband as well as that of friends around her.

Two good actresses melt into their roles and Blanchett is particularly good as the older woman in this relationship. Worth seeing.

Also recommended

Also unveiled at the LFF this year, STEVE JOBS (cert. 15 2hrs. 2 mins.), directed by Danny Boyle and starring Michael Fassbender in the title role, and supported by Kate Winslet as his lifelong friend. The three parts show us the launch of Jobs' three iconic products - the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. We are shown behind the stage presentations scenes of the digital revolution giving us a glimpse of the man at its epicentre. It also stars Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and Katherine Waterston. Always interesting, Fassbender puts in a bravura performance.

TANGERINE (cert. 15 1hr. 28mins.), looks like a documentary but it is actually a film shot completely on a mobile phone! About the transgender community in Los Angeles, it is interesting to see the transgender actors playing sex workers and bringing parts of their own stories to the screen in a fictional story. Also of interest is the setting at Christmas in bright Californian sun.

And get ready for THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 2 (cert. 12A 2hrs. 17mins, the third and last in the series.

Although it is still an adventure, I think it shows more of the characters' emotions and is, therefore, more interesting than just an all-action film. Jennifer Lawrence brings her charms and acting skills to the main part and is nicely backed by Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson.






CATS (London Palladium, London until 2 January 2016. Box office: 0844 874 0667)

I hadn't seen CATS since 1981 when I took my kids (now in their 40s) to see it. We all remembered it as an exciting event. It was with some trepidation that I went to the London Palladium to see the 2014 production which has been revived for this year. In the event I was so pleased to find that it is a superb production with excellent singing, dancing and acting by the whole cast.

Beverley Knight as Grizabella

Putting T.S. Elliot's poetry from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats to music and then dancing the poems sounds a difficult feat and I am sure it must have been for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and his director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Gillian Lynne (who was in the audience on press night looking very much younger than her 89 years), and still working.

Each poem has its own little story - some dramatic, some funny and others just charming. All are danced or just sung with feeling for the words and music that just suits the individual text - almost all have T.S. Elliot's actual words.

There are so many good performances that it seems invidious to just pick out a few. However, among the special ones is Adam Linstead as Old Deuteronomy. He's somewhat swamped by his costume but the old man shines through aided by Linstead's good dark voice. The magician Mister Mistoffelees is well choreographed and danced. I love the poem Macavity so welcomed James Cid's take on the criminal cat: he had the right amount of acrobatic and stealthy skills. Hannah Kenna Thomas is a beautiful white cat. She performs some lovely balletic moves. And of course we have Beverley Knight as Grizabella. She performs so beautifully and is probably the best Grizabella since the opening which saw Elaine Paige in the role. Knight is an actress so the song 'Memory' is not just sung but played in character. But all the dancers/singers in the huge cast are fine and together they display a range of dance skills including tap and - not so successfully - rap dancing. They certainly need abundant energy to perform the show which lasts nearly three hours.

The costumes, which are very 80s with leg warmers for all, are great as is the set, designed by John Napier, of a built up rubbish tip which extends into the auditorium. The lighting and excellent make-up deserve a mention along with the music led by conductor Graham Hurman.

There is free face painting for children, who can see the show for half-price Monday to Thursday. This is a grand show to be enjoyed by all ages. Do go and see it!

Rating ****

Mark Rylance is the draw to the production of FARINELLI AND THE KING (Duke of York's, London (until 5 December. Box office: 0844 871 3051). There is, however, much more to the play than this actor. A sell-out at the Globe's Playhouse Theatre early this year, there is now a chance to catch it here.

Written by composer Claire van Kampen, Mark Rylance's wife, she tells how King Philippe V of Spain (Mark Rylance), who suffers from bi-polar disease, is cured by the singing of the leading castrato of the day, Carlo Farinelli.

Philippe, the grandson of Louis XIV, suffers from acute depression and has bouts of violence when he hurts his long-suffering but very supportive, wife, Isabella (Melody Grove). Farinelli (Sam Crane) gives up his life in the public view to perform basically for one man - the King - and he even accompanies him and his wife when the King decides he would be happier living in a forest.

Rylance, who has an increased following after his bravura performance in Wolf Hall on television, brings a wry humour to the much quieter role of Philippe. We first see him talking to a goldfish in a bowl and follow his antics as he refuses to take on the full powers of King. Rylance manages to show how his character is capable of brilliant thought but also extreme moods when he is without Farinelli's singing.

As Farinelli, Sam Crane brings simplicity to the private person behind the voice. However when the voice is required, counter-tenor Iestyn Davies steps seamlessly into the role and we thrill to the sound of his beautiful counter-tenor voice. We hear lovely baroque music from the little group of musicians led by the Musical Director and harpsichordist Robert Howarth.

It is a beautiful show to watch, taking place, as it does, in the newly altered Duke of York's which has candles to light the stage just like at the Playhouse Theatre in the Globe. The theatre has been given a more intimate feel. If you can get a ticket, I urge you to go and see this.

Rating *****

It seems strange that a stage production can be both realistic yet stylised at the same time. And yet that's just what this production of THE HAIRY APE at the Old Vic Theatre, London (until 21 November 2015. Box office: 0844 871 7628) is.

Eugene O'Neill's play shows how Yank (Bertie Carvel) is a leader of the gang of stokers toiling away in the hell hole that is the hot engine room of the huge ship where they work. The ship is about to sail for New York and the workers have to give all their energy into making sure they get the work done. We see the stokers and firemen feeding the huge fiery furnace in the bowels of the ship. The set is a box-like container in which they work rhythmically and occasionally sing in unison.

Enter Mildred (Rosie Sheehy), dressed in white, the daughter, of a wealthy steel manufacturer who owns the ship. She wants to be of some use and asks for a tour of the engine room. While there she is horrified at the sweaty dirty men and yells out about Yank, "Take me away. Filthy beast."

Yank in turn is upset and leaves the ship to try to find work in New York. Director Richard Jones has the citizens in masks and they, like the stokers, are well-choreographed and march along the streets in slow motion. Wherever he goes in the city trying to get work, Yank is rejected. There is a feeling of class and Yank is definitely below the bottom.

The only one that Yank can relate to is a gorilla that he meets in a cage. But when Yank joins him in the cage, all does not go well even there.

This is an excellently staged production with the early scenes depicting, through the movement of the men, the sudden jolts of the ship and later as Yank moves around the city, the people, as well as Yank, give very physical performances.

Bertie Carvel as Yank gives a wonderful performance - he seems to have grown and broadened since his last stage outing. He uses his body most effectively and his voice, although it is occasionally difficult to make out all the words when the actor is at the back of the stage, is magnificent.

This is one worthy of recommendation.

Rating ****

The play MEDEA (Almeida Theatre, London until 14 November. Box office: 020 7359 4404) is a stupendous play in its original by Euripides. Here it is given a dramatically intense production in a modern version of the Greek tragedy by Rachel Cusk.

There is not a lot of Euripides left here. In Cusk's version Medea (Kate Fleetwood, a writer) has been abandoned by her husband, Jason (Justin Salinger) now an actor, the father of her two children. He has left her for a younger woman. They live in a nice house with a black cleaner, but Jason wants to sell the house and divide the money. Medea feels very alone and extremely angry with her husband.

The Greek tragedy ends with Medea killing her children as revenge against Jason. I must say that the way that director Rupert Goold has dealt with the ending here leads to some confusion and it's difficult to say exactly what occurs at the end of the play.

However, there are many good dramatic scenes on the way. The argument between husband and wife at the beginning is very well conducted with the two speaking over each other and shouting at the same time in a most realistic manner with the sons overhearing their angry words. I liked, too, the chorus of middle-class mummies holding their babies and commentating on the action and, in particular, Medea's behaviour. Medea's parents also comment on their daughter's behaviour as Medea stands there mutely listening.

As presented by Kate Fleetwood in a stupendous performance, Medea comes across with her grief and anger equally truthfully projected and looking vengeful with her long straight hair and cat-like eyes. The other actors are strong enough to back her up.

A stylish set with lighting which changes to a blood-red sky at the end is just right for this version, which completes the Almeida Theatre's ambitious triptych of Greek plays. I just wish the ending had been clearer.

Rating ***

Also Recommended:

Romola Garai is a lovely film actress; now we see that she is an equally proficient actress on the stage. In MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Young Vic Theatre, London until 14 November. Box office: 020 7922 2922) she plays Isabella, the novice Nun, who wants to save her virginity more than she wants to save the life of her brother Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah). Angelo (Paul Ready) who desires her tells her quite clearly that she must yield her body to his whim or her brother dies.

There is an amazing start to Joe Hill-Gibbins' production: a huge number of inflatable naked male and female dolls litter the stage and have to be cleared away as the actors struggle to walk downstage. It's a modern dress production with a lot of Shakespeare cut to enable the play to be performed in less than two hours. But all the actors are good and Garai shines with purity.

Rating ***

The Park Theatre, London presents another of its intelligent plays by a modern playwright. DINNER WITH FRIENDS (until 28 November. Box office: 020 7870 6876) has been written by the American playwright Donald Margulies. The play is about the friendship between two couples - one couple is in a stable marriage and are shocked to learn that their friends are separating. Karen (Sara Stewart) and Gabe (Shaun Dooley) (let's call them the 'foodies') - that's the good marriage - are well into all things concerned with food and seem to be as much interested in the food they are putting on the table as the trouble their friends are in.

Finty Williams (Beth) on the left & Sara Stewart (Karen) on the right

The action starts with dinner given by Karen and Gabe who are astounded when Beth (Finty Williams), who is there alone, bursts into tears and announces that her husband Tom (Hari Dhillon) is leaving her after 12 years of marriage for a younger woman. When Tom later comes to them annoyed that his wife has told her side of the story first, Karen and Gabe look at the state of their own marriage.

Later we see how the Foodies introduced Beth and Tom to each other and somehow feel responsible for the break-up. In fact Tom and Beth find new partners and are more than content with their new lives and it is the Foodies who question their own lifestyle and marriage.

The sharing of honesty between couples, the strength of friendship and the longevity of marriage are all looked at in this absorbing play which allows the four actors to let rip to each other at different times. Director Tom Attenborough acts as the conductor and moves his players around the stage most effectively. Interesting, too, to try and see what, if any, similarities there are between Finty Williams and her mother Judi Dench.

Rating ****

Gather together and get a coach party to go to Glyndebourne - you'll really want to go there after seeing THE MODERATE SOPRANO (Hanpstead Theatre, London until 28 November. Box office: 020 7722 9300). An unrecognisable Roger Allam plays John Christie, the founder of the Opera Festival in Sussex. Christie has inherited Glyndebourne and after he marries decides to turn it into a small theatre mainly to showcase his wife, Audrey (Nancy Carroll, the moderate soprano of the title), who has a small voice. This most English of places was, in fact, only founded with the help of refugees - Rudolf Bing, Dr. Fritz Busch and Professor Carl Ebert - for it was they who persuaded the somewhat stubborn Christie to put on very small scale operas.

David Hare's play brings the whole story to life aided by the excellent direction of Jeremy Herrin. While Nancy Carrol gives an honest interpretation of the tender yet determined Audrey Mildmay who married John late in life, it is Allam's performance that is completely riveting. In rather loose trousers pulled up almost to his armpits, he is old-fashioned in looks and old-fashioned in behaviour, believing in democracy, providing the outcome is what he wants.

I have never been to Glyndebourne, but really want to after seeing this!

Rating ****

A somewhat strange play is nearing the end of its run at the Royal Court Theatre, London: ROOSEVELVIS (until 14 November. Box office: 020 7565 5000) features an actress who plays a worker in a meat-processing plant. She is called Ann and idolises Elvis Presley (both Ann and Elvis are played by Libby King). Ann meets up with Brenda who helps her to travel to Graceland and fulfil one of her dreams - going to Presley's home. Elvis is joined by the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt (both Brenda and Teddy Roosevelt are played by the actress Kristen Sieh).

Referencing the film Thelma and Louise in the way the two women go on a journey, the play obviously looks at gender and also faces issues of loneliness. Using filmed back projections, the design is imaginative and direction by Rachel Chavkin gives an unusual slant to the tale, but the whole show is whimsical and I was not really emotionally involved.

Rating ***

The lovely little Tricycle Theatre also had an unusual play. A WOLF IN SNAKESKIN SHOES (until 14 November), a modern version of Moliere's Tartuffe by Marcus Gardley has a simple set which is almost a trompe l'oeil and very amusing dialogue. Gardley, who also wrote the very fine The House That Will Not Stand, sets this play in Atlanta Georgia.

The farce has as its 'hero' the so-called healer Apostle Tardimus Toof (Lucian Msamati), who sets about curing the millionaire Archibald Organdy (Wil Johnson) who is dying. In the process Toof seduces a number of women while remaining under the thumb of his bossy wife (Sharon D. Clarke).

Some very funny lines and most energetic over the top performances from all, make this play with musical interludes, including great gospel singing, a most enjoyable evening out. Let's hope it is revived.

Rating ****

If you go along to the Vaudeville Theatre, London expecting to see Dawn French do stand-up, you may well be disappointed. While there is a little of the stand-up comedian in her routine, there is so much more in DAWN FRENCH: 30 MILLION MINUTES (Vaudeville Theatre, London until 9 December. Box office: 0330 333 4814). The 30 million minutes refer to the time she has been alive - she is now 58.

Following a long tour, Dawn French now brings her one woman show to London for a four week run. Directed by Michael Grandage (who also has his Photograph 51 running at the same time) this is a classy affair. With background photos and even the occasional filmed clip, the audience is taken through a brief tour of Dawn's life and career. While much of it is highly amusing there are some very serious episodes. We hear of the breakup of her marriage to Lenny Henry after a long period together and with an adopted daughter, Billie. We are also told of the racism that marriage endured. There is a most moving sequence detailing her father's suicide and how she dealt with it at the age of 19.

There is much about her body size and her feelings towards it and her disgust at the way some of the press have written about her and even about her daughter, trying to find out details of Billie's birth mother which Dawn finds disgusting - and so it is.

Dawn is a good actress and is able to bring past episodes to life, although in relating how the Queen Mother came to tea with her family she is aided by an old filmed clip showing the very young Dawn greeting the Queen Mum.

So feeling as though one is getting ever closer to the real Dawn, she is just the sort of woman you would like as your friend. A lovely evening which is well worth catching.

Rating ****


Carlie Newman

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