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FILM:April 2011

Try to see Woody Allen's new film: YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER (cert.12A 1hr.38mins.), which stars a wonderful array of high quality British actors. My friend from drama school, Pauline Collins plays Cristal who tells the fortune of Helena (Gemma Jones), who has been deserted by her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) who is trying to re-capture his youth. He later achieves this in spectacular fashion by marrying a young woman (Lucy Punch), when she is working as a call girl! Meanwhile the daughter (Naomi Watts) of Helena and Alfie develops a crush on her handsome, rich boss (Antonio Banderas) - who wouldn't? Her husband (Josh Brolin) falls for a young woman (Freida Pinto) who he sees playing the cello in the flat opposite. Not so complicated when watching and many actors appear in tiny parts. The acting is of a high standard and the director's touch is still present, although the film is not as humorous as some of his earlier works.

A must-see, too, is the absorbing Oscar nominated documentary WASTELAND (cert. PG 1hr. 39mins.), which shows the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz working with catadores (garbage collectors, or, as they call themselves "pickers of recyclable materials") in the world's largest landfill at the edge of Sao Paulo. Muniz photographs his subjects, then they and their co-workers recreate images out of garbage materials. The results have been shown and sold at prestigious art galleries and some of the subjects have found fame.

Recommended, too: THE COMPANY MEN (cert, 15 1hr. 44mins.) in which Bobby (Ben Affleck) along with co-workers Phil (Chris Cooper) and Gene (Tommy Lee Jones), find themselves downsized. Bobby has to face losing his lovely home and his Porsche. It's good to have an intelligent, well-written story (by writer-director John Wells) to get one's teeth into and one that is made for the more mature movie-goer. The Company Men shows us the agony faced in America by those working for corporate companies which are being downsized because of the current economic recession. Although based on the experiences of a minority group of high-earning top executives in the american business world, the director has ensured that the film has a lot to say to all - particularly men - facing the disappointments and frustrations at not being able to obtain another position. In addition the men have to deal with the embarrassment of revealing the truth to family and neighbours.

Serious movie-goers will also find it worth seeing THE TEMPEST (cert.PG 1hr. 40mins.). Director, Julie Taymor has adapted Shakespeare's play, keeping most of his words but adding in her own and changing them (eg father to mother) as and when she feels it necessary. This is chiefly in the case of the lead character, the usurped Duke of Milan, Prospero who here becomes the female Prospera and is played by Helen Mirren. She is now the widow of the Duke and is his heir. Her treacherous brother Antonio (Chris Cooper) has her exiled because of her interest in sorcery. Saved by the loyal servant, Gonzalo (Tom Conti) she is set adrift in a boat with her four-year-old daughter Miranda and some books on magic and lands on the island where they now live, served by the ethereal spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw) and the half-man half-creature, Caliban (Djimon Hounsou).

Some 12 years' later, Prospera finds out that by chance her enemies, along with Gonzalo and Trinculo (Russell Brand), a court jester and Stephano (Alfred Molina), a drunken butler are travelling by ship near her island. She conjures up a storm and the survivors are brought to the island where they are separated into different groups. Prospera manipulates them to make her enemies understand the evil of their ways.

There seems to be little reason for changing the sex of the main character other than to give Mirren the part. She is actually very good and speaks the Shakespearean verse beautifully; as does Whishaw. Some of the others leave much to be desired in their delivery and Brand is awful when he opens his mouth, although he looks good and moves well and he and Molina work well together but oh, his delivery! Conti gives a solid performance as the elderly Counsellor, as does Hounsou as the "savage and deformed slave." Taymor obviously has a vision for her film, but often the speech gets drowned out by other sounds or music or our eyes are so taken up with looking at the excellent sets and special effects that we miss some of the nuances of the dialogue, except when Mirren speaks as she is always riveting.

Gwyneth Paltrow performs well in COUNTRY STRONG (cert. 12A 1hr. 57mins.) as Kelly, a country music star who is addicted to alcohol. We first meet her in rehab where she has formed a relationship with a talented young country singer, Beau (the very handsome Garrett Hedlund) who is working at the facility. Before she has fully recovered her husband, James (Tim McGraw), who is also her Manager, removes her and takes her on tour. He includes Beau and also his new protégée, Chiles (Leighton Meester). Unfortunately, Kelly is unable to cope with the demands of stardom and is concerned over her husband's lack of affection towards her.

There is some good country music, which is well put across by the actors who all sing their own songs. While no Dolly Parton, Paltrow has a very pleasant voice and Meester is delightful. The real star here is Hedlund, who besides looking good can sing and smiles beautifully!


THEATRE TIP

The long awaited musical of the 1939 film THE WIZARD OF OZ (London Palladium booking until 17 Sept) has finally arrived, starring the winner of the TV reality show, Danielle Hope, as Dorothy and Michael Crawford as Professor Marvel and The Wizard.

With additional songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, it has a cast who sing the songs tunefully and perform with gusto - especially Dorothy's small dog, Toto, who accompanies her down the yellow brick road along with the Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Lion.

There are spectacular sets, which are shown in perspective and amazing effects, including a tornado that seems to come right at the audience. The scene changes are managed most efficiently and the whole production is run with slick efficiency. It is fantastic to watch, and, although the show needs a little extra heart, it should run successfully for a long time.

The production of BLITHE SPIRIT (Apollo Theatre until 18 June) is played for broad laughs and Alison Steadman is in character as the medium Madame Arcati. There are some good characterisations by the rest of the cast, particularly Robert Bathurst as the novelist husband of his second wife Ruth (the splendid Hermione Norris) and the ghost of his first wife Elvira (Ruthie Henshall, looking most ethereal) who is conjured up by Madame Arcati, and returns to play havoc with all their lives.

In fact the lighting and costumes help the atmosphere, although, surprisingly, director Thea Sharrock has opted for a somewhat staid production of the 1941 play, which only really lights up intermittently. It makes the play seem rather dated. A splendid finish, however, makes for an enjoyable, although not very subtle, Noel Coward experience.

THE HURLY BURLY SHOW (Garrick Theatre until 1 May) is a burlesque revue with lovely girls in a bums and titillating show. The star, Polly Rae plays Marie Antoinette, entering with, "Let them eat cock." It would probably be better in a more intimate setting, but the audience at the performance I attended, who were definitely not the usual silent West End participants, seemed very happy with the presentation before them! Even the somewhat ordinary solitary male singer, Spencer Day, was applauded.

If you want to see lovelies jiggling the tassels around their nipples, then this is YOUR show.

But if, on the other hand, you want to see British ensemble acting at its best, go to Terence Rattigan's FLARE PATH (Theatre Royal Haymarket until 4 June) where an excellent cast show us 1942 and bomber pilots waiting with their wives before going on a dangerous mission.

Sienna Miller is excellent as Patricia, a former actress, who supports her pilot husband, the doting Teddy (Harry Hadden-Paton), but also wants to leave with Peter (James Purefoy), the handsome film actor who has come to the small hotel where they are all staying in order to take her away with him. Miller manages to convey inner feelings in a subtle way so that the audience sympathises with her dilemma. Sheridan Smith gives a wonderful portrayal of Doris, the ex-barmaid, now a Countess, the wife of a Polish pilot, whose true emotions she fails to understand. All the characters are given full weight so that we can see their feelings, often suppressed in the very polite English-mannered way of the period.

Trevor Nunn has directed with polish and uses special effects, including film projections of bomber planes flying over and into the audience, in just the right way. This is a very moving production of a well-written play with something to say so many years after the real events have taken place.

You will need to hurry to catch the new production of Spike Milligan's book, PUCKOON at the little Leicester Square Theatre (until 27 March). The story set in Ireland in 1922, and showing the results of the Ulster Boundary Commission's re-drawing of the border so that it passes right through the small town of Puckoon, had the Irish audiences roaring with laughter. The anarchic humour does not work quite so well in the more uptight atmosphere of London's West End, but there is some wit in seeing the locals cope with the fact that the church is in one area and its graveyard across the new border. More importantly drink is cheaper in one corner of the pub than the rest!

While the cast of six play all the parts - often hilariously in a Goonish way, when they have to move between roles, changing hats as they run from one side of the set to the other, in order to converse with themselves - we miss the particular outlandish joy and jokey persona of Milligan himself.

Hampstead Theatre has secured a real winner in Mike Leigh's ECSTASY (until 9 April and then transferring to the Duchess Theatre, West End 12 April - 28 May 2011 ). First performed in 1979, the new production is directed by the writer, who uses dialogue to depict the inter-action of three men and three women in a Kilburn bedsit. As usual with Leigh what is not said is as important as what is. The acting is naturalistic and the characters rounded individuals.

The second act is more amusing with Jean (Sian Brooke), along with her childhood friend, Dawn (Sinead Matthews), Dawn's husband, Mick (Allen Leech) and their recently returned mate, Len (Craig Parkinson), drinking and singing songs together in Jean's bedsitter. As they reminisce about the past we learn more about the characters and come to understand Jean's real desolation. It is harder for the actors to re-create a play that was devised for and by another set of actors, but Leigh has managed to give us a production that appears to spring from the very souls of those in front of us.

HA HA HOLMES! (Warehouse Theatre, Croydon until 3 April. Box office 020 8680 4060) is a clever spoof on Conan Doyle's popular characters. George Savvides reviews: Following last year's hilarious "Ha Ha Hitler," the Ha Ha Boys return to the Warehouse, before they embark on a tour around the country. Writer/director Ben Langley plays Sherlock Holmes while set designer Andrew Fettes plays Dr Watson in this story about "The Beast of the Blistervilles". The clever detective along with his loyal friend and companion must solve the mystery at the Blisterville Hall before the hungry beast devours everything in sight.

Like their previous show the Ha Ha Boys are not that concerned about following a narrative - their purpose is to entertain with as much audience participation as possible. The actors welcome the audience as they enter the auditorium and they soon begin to send up any late comers with such remarks as "The strippers have arrived" or "Here come the male strippers". Langley is a charming performer but he can't resist the temptation of recycling some of his previous gags. The first act is over an hour long and it definitely needs some trimming, while his jokes about Simon Cowell are utterly redundant. Fettes is also a highly accomplished performer and his imaginative set design with a plethora of suitcases is a real gem. But the real star of the show is Fenton Gray who plays everybody else on stage from Sir Charles Blisterville to Dr Mortimer. He brings the house down as Sister Blodwyn Feckme, the flirtatious nun with the short memory. Feckme is a wonderful creation and so is Fanny Stapleton and Gray excels in both roles. It is a very likable show and will no doubt send you out of the theatre with a smile on your face.

The SIGN OF THE TIMES (Duchess until 28 May) allows Matthew Kelly and Gerard Kearns (of Shameless) to play in a gentle two-hander by Tim Firth. We are shown, in the first act, Alan (Kearns), a young man on work experience under Frank (Kelly), an older man and then, in the second act, the older one becoming the job seeker under the youngster.

   

Writer, Tim Firth has not managed another Calendar Girls here, but there are some satisfactory parts, which the actors take full advantage of. Unfortunately, there are some longeurs, which director, Peter Wilson, lets happen. What began as a one-act play has been extended by the author to two acts.

Kelly is very good as a would be crime writer who takes the young apprentice under his wing and then later finds himself the victim of job cuts at a much older age. Kearns works well alongside him and there is one scene towards the end which is worth the price of your theatre ticket. Illustrated above the two men find themselves caught in the large electric O of a sign that is in danger of fusing. Not daring to move, Alan has to agree to do as Frank tells him, with very funny results.

     

Carlie Newman

   
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