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FILM:December 2012

It is not often that I will go to see a film twice, but I so enjoyed ARGO (cert. 15 2 hrs), at the London Film Festival that I have seen it again. Ben Affleck directs and stars in the political thriller which, more than most allegedly "true" stories, tells the real tale of the siege in Iran in 1979 when the American Embassy in Tehran was stormed and 52 Americans taken hostage.

Ben Affleck in Argo

Six Americans manage to get out of the Embassy and make their way to the Canadian Ambassador's house where they are hidden by the Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) and his wife Pat. Asked for help, the CIA bring in Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), an "exfiltration" specialist who devises an extraordinary escape plan. The idea is for the six plus Tony to pose as a Canadian filmmaking team looking for locations for a science fiction film, a kind of Star Wars. With the help of his Hollywood friend, make-up artist, John Chambers (John Goodman) and film producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) a pretend film is set up, with a script, storyboards, costumes, advertisements and everything to make it appear genuine. Lester: "If I'm going to produce a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit." From then on it's all nail-biting tension as Mendez and the CIA work to get false passports and establish a credible alibi for the six Canadians, knowing that any discovery will result in death, not just for the six but also for the Ambassador and Mendez himself.

Ben Affleck directs with the right mixture of humour and drama. The photography involving the main locations of Washington DC, Hollywood and Iran - all set in the late 1970s and 80s - is excellently achieved. What looks like archival images are actually all re-created here. There are lovely performances from Goodman and Arkin. Affleck shows a man who is cool even as he puts his life on the line.

We know that Christmas is approaching as decorations are put up in the streets, and shops have Christmassy themes. People begin to rush around shopping and buying presents - well, some do, others of us wait until the last day! Especially those of us busy watching Christmas linked films. And the first of these, called somewhat unimaginatively, NATIVITY 2: DANGER IN THE MANGER (cert. U 1hr 45 mins.), is out now. Those of you so inclined might remember the first one - well, it was 2009, so you would be forgiven for forgetting.

David Tennant and Marc Wooton in Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger

The first Nativity starred Martin Freeman as Paul, a teacher who wanted to be an actor. He has split up with his girlfriend who works for a Hollywood film company while he teaches in a local state primary. Their former best friend, Gordon is a master at the rival private school. When the two schools are set to compete for the best review for their nativity play, it is Paul's turn to direct and he boasts to Gordon that a 'big shot' from Holly wood is coming to film his play. Unfortunately the manic Mr Poppy (Marc Wooton) overhears and spreads the word and Paul is forced to confess to the Head who cancels it. The play does go ahead, of course, and all ends successfully.

Martin Freeman being busy filming The Hobbit, we now have a new teacher in the main part, the equally lovable David Tennant (of Doctor Who fame). Many of the other characters are the same, in particular the annoying Mr Poppy (Marc Wooton) and Mrs Bevan, the Head, Poppy's Aunt Pat (Pam Ferris). Also back is Mr Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), the music teacher of the rival posh Oakshott School.

Having been thwarted in her attempts to hire another supply teacher for St Bernadette's, following the departure of Mr Maddens (Martin Freeman in the first Nativity), because of the antics of her nephew, the classroom assistant Mr Poppy who frightens off teacher after teacher, Mrs Bevan is delighted when well-presented Mr Peterson (David Tenant) takes the job. Determined to do the right thing, Mr Peterson refuses to have anything to do with Mr Poppy's idea of his class entering the National Choir Contest, "a song for Christmas." Mr Poppy tricks the teacher into hitting the road with the choir. Travelling by the Duck Tour amphibious vehicle (and very good too - you can go for a trip on one near the Big Wheel, South Bank, London), the group travels towards Wales. When the bus runs out of petrol, they continue on foot and even on dinghies through water and up and down mountains until they reach the castle in Wales where the concert is being held. And all this with a bunch of very young children, an unaccompanied baby (don't ask!) and a donkey which they acquire on the way.

Donald Peterson has left his very pregnant wife at home and also his visiting father (Ian McNeice) who praises Roderick, the identical twin brother of Mr Peterson (who he thinks is a loser for working in a primary school). As luck would have it Roderick (also played by Tennant), a world famous composer and conductor is the choir master of the prestigious St Cuthbert's College. There is a race against time as the competition starts as the St Bernadette choir arrives.

Jessica Hynes joins the cast as "the Voice of an angel," the host of the singing competition and Joanna Page plays the pregnant wife of Donald Peterson. Both perform amusingly in very small parts. Ferris is fine as the Head trying to control her nephew and Tennant is charming as the new teacher and his twin brother, and the children are delightful. I find Marc Wooton's Mr Poppy very irritating and so the film, in which he plays a major part, is somewhat annoying at times. However, for children and all those who enjoyed the first film, Debbie Isitt's style of directing which gives the actors free rein to improvise, is lively and probably enjoyable.

Commissioned to produce the official film of the XXXth Olympic Games, which was held in London in the summer of 2012 director Caroline Rowland decided not to make a film showing just the highlights and some of the main events of the Games because people will have seen these on their television sets. Instead she has taken a completely new angle and in the documentary FIRST: THE OFFICIAL FILM OF THE 2012 OLYMPIC GAMES (cert. Exempt 1hour 49 mins.) she showcases twelve first-time Olympians from around the world.

Laura Trott

Of course, when she started to look closely at her chosen athletes, she had no idea how they were going to fare. For those of us who can't remember all the heats and runners up in the variety of sports highlighted here, it is exciting just to watch as the stories unfold and see whether the dream of each young person is realised. There are others that we will remember immediately: Laura Trott, who won Gold for Great Britain in the Omnium of the Women's Track Cycling, undertaking the many events leading up to her medal; Missy Franklin of the USA, who at only 17 won four gold medals in swimming events.

And we will surely never forget David Rudisha from Kenya who, against great competition, managed to win the Gold medal in the 800m Athletics. And - almost our own - Katie Taylor of Ireland who managed to achieve her dream of bringing women's boxing into the Olympic Games and then actually winning the Gold medal in the very exciting final of the Women's Lightweight (60kg) Boxing.

We might not, however, recall so vividly those who just missed out on a Gold medal, including Qui Bo who was beaten in the Men's 10m Platform Diving and was disappointed with his Silver medal. There are the others amongst the first timers who didn't get that far. After training for four years, Majlinda Kelmendi, who competed in Women's Judo as part of the Albanian Olympic team as her own country, Kosvar, is not recognised as being a 'country' by the Olympic movement or, indeed, the UN. She was eliminated in an earlier round. In a field dominated by Usain Bolt and his fellow countrymen, GB's James Ellington strives as hard as he can in his first Olympics and is proud to have taken part and achieved some success in the 200m Athletics even without winning any medal.

All the twelve first time Olympians talk about their dreams before the Games and have a brief reflection following their events. There is no other narrator and the stories they tell are in their own words. The excitement of each race is brought out vividly as is the personality of each one. In each case we begin in their home country before they leave for London. There are some interesting interviews with the families of the Olympians with particularly telling pieces from the parents of Caroline Buchanan, Australian BMX competitor and the father of Chad le Clos who foresaw his son pushing the mighty Michael Phelps aside (not literally) to win a Gold medal in the Men's 100m Butterfly Swim.

The director has used contemporary music (rather intrusive on the advance DVD I saw, which was not finished off properly) as a background. There is an original score by Sacha Puttnam, son of David.

The DVD comes out on 26 November so you have a chance to view it in the cinema and then own a copy for yourself to remind you of a glorious summer of sport.






A trio of musicals this month: DADDY LONG LEGS at the excitingly new St James's Theatre, near Victoria, (until 8 December) is a most unusual little musical. Almost like a chamber piece, it stars just two excellent performers, Megan McGinnis as the orphan Jerusha and Robert Adelman Hancock as her benefactor Jervis "Daddy Long Legs."

Starting with Jerusha in an orphanage in 1908, we follow her as she is taken up by a philanthropic young bachelor who pays for her education. Jerusha imagines him to be old and bald and doesn't recognise the uncle who visits one of her fellow students. He falls in love with her and faces a dilemma in confessing who he really is. It is especially difficult as he insists that she send him regular letters detailing her activities and she confesses to her benefactor that she is keen on Jarvis.

John Caird directs this (mostly sung) play with the right amount of understanding of Jean Webster's original book and makes us forget the somewhat sleazy cinematic version with an ageing Fred Astaire and young Leslie Caron. McGinnis has a truly lovely voice and is also able to put across the emotions of a young naïve girl coming to terms with a more sophisticated lifestyle.

Hancock is very good-looking and conveys the split in his character with conviction. The couple have a great chemistry together and this charming play is more enjoyable than some of the huge musicals in other parts of town.

George Savvides reviews:

DREAMBOATS AND PETTICOATS (Wyndhams Theatre until 19 January 2013) is a hugely entertaining musical which began life at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley in 2009 before moving to the West End, first at the Savoy and later at the Playhouse Theatre. Now it is playing at the Wyndhams and even though Sean Cavanagh’s pleasing set design may be slightly compromised in order to adjust to this petite but attractive theatre it is still a very enjoyable show. It is written by the winning team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran who penned “Birds of a Feather” and “Love Hurts” amongst many others. The action takes place in 1961 somewhere in Essex and tells the story of Bobby (David Ribi), a shy but talented teenager who dreams of being the next Billy Fury. But first he must win the National song writing competition via his local Youth Club and perhaps also find a girlfriend...

The likable script is more or less an excuse to feature and celebrate the best rock 'n' roll songs of the era which vary from "Let's Dance" to "Bobby's Girl" and "Let's Twist Again". The cast album is now available on CD and is a must for any music lover. The names of the characters are carefully selected and Ray (excellently played by Rob Eyles) Bobby's best friend sings his little heart out when he believes that his girlfriend, Donna has abandoned him.

Susannah Allman as Sue and Sam Attwater as Norman

But to his pleasant surprise she comes back after a visit to the ladies. There are also delicious references to movies and television of the era -"I have just seen "Psycho"; it is so frightening you'll sleep with the lights on for a month". "I don't suppose this new series "Coronation Street" will run". Bob Tomson's staging is hardly the most innovative but his production does exactly what it says on the can -good, clean fun- to which his talented cast add energy and brio.

George Savvides also reviews BUT I CD ONLY WHISPER (Arcola Theatre until 1 December)

The action of Kristiana Colon's lyrical play takes place in 70's America despite the modern and rather pretentious title. It tells the story of black Vietnam veteran Beau Willie Brown (Adetomiwa Edun) who is held in custody after he commits a brutal and unspeakable crime. Meanwhile the cool and overtly patient Drummond (Cornell S John) is summoned to get the truth out of him.

The staging of Nadia Latif's production is simple- a platform, two chairs, a stool and a window take centre stage for the central characters while there is space at the back or on the sides of this studio theatre for the other actors to parade rather aimlessly or stand in spotlights delivering their speeches.

There isn't much interaction between the actors who are mostly lit dimly and moodily in order to enhance their characters' bleak predicament. There is no doubt that Colon's writing comes from the heart but ultimately this is a series of monologues. Edun is an eloquent performer but sadly fails to convince as a psychologically wounded and fragile anti- hero with whom it is difficult to identify. The other characters are also thinly sketched apart from Crystal, Brown's passionate lover who is superbly played by Emanuella Cole. But her performance is not enough to raise the temperature in this uneven production.

And then we have SCROOGE (London Palladium until 12 January 2013), which is really a grand vehicle for 75 year-old Tommy Steele.

He has performed this musical before and in his individual way, does alright here. It is cheerful and, on its own terms, a Christmas treat for fans of Tommy.

Returning to the West End he plays the miser as a miserable old man with a strange, uneven walk and a voice somewhat lacking in musicality. The traditional-looking Christmas is replicated here in an attractive set - with the changes from scene to scene managed seamlessly - and chirpy characters.

Tommy Steele as Scrooge

The Dickens story is well told in Leslie Bricusse's version which follows the outline of the tale with the moral that giving is pleasurable. The illusionist Paul Kieve delivers some terrific effects, including Jacob Marley appearing through a wall, spinning the Ghost of Christmas Past into view on a revolving chair and conjuring objects form thin air. Steele has a lively personality which is on show throughout. This is a decently made family spectacle which is undemanding to watch.

Anna Friel as Yelena and Ken Stott as Vanya in Uncle Vanya, at the Vaudeville theatre

It is difficult to present Chekhov in a new way without appearing gimmicky. At the Vaudeville Theatre we have a new translation of UNCLE VANYA (until 16 February) which delivers a straightforward exposition of the play with strong performances in a realistic setting.

Vanya (Ken Stott) works hard to keep the estate, which he looks after on behalf of the absent professor, Serebryakov, in good condition to give money to the professor and look after the needs of his niece, Sonya (Laura Carmichael), mother, Madame Voynitsky (Anna Carteret) and old Nanny, Marina (June Watson).

Life becomes difficult when Serebraykov (Paul Freeman) returns with his new second wife, the beautiful young Yelena (Anna Friel) who captivates Vanya and also fascinates Vanya's friend Doctor Astrov (Samuel West). Their easy country life become more complicated as Sonya is in love with Astrov in a quiet, unobtrusive way; indeed, so quiet that Astrov has no idea that she loves him and visits as a friend.

Matters come to a head when Serebryakov announces that he and his wife need more money and so he has decided to sell the estate. While Vanya's mother, the mother of the professor's first wife who was Sonya's mother, thinks that the professor is absolutely wonderful, Vanya is so full of anger that he is rooted to the spot until he bursts out and expresses his love for the estate and tells the professsor of his hard work so that the professor can live in luxury.

While the various sets are most attractive, with silver birch trees on the front curtain which closes during scene changes, unfortunately, there are too many of these changes and they break the atmosphere of the play. A recent production at The Print Room managed to put this play on without any big changes at all, just the odd bit of furniture coming on or off the acting area.

The acting, however, is of a very high standard. Stott is able to bring out the comedy in his character and West's Astrov is so full of his own ideas on changing the rural landscape that he doesn't notice Sonya pining for him or that Yelena is bored when he tries to explain his theory to her. Friel looks lovely and shows how she is really bored by staying in the country. She is not interested in either of the men who court her and just wants to leave. There is a lovely performance by June Watson as the old Nanny fussing over her charges and she actually looks Russian as she carries the samovar! Laura Carmichael (of Downton Abbey fame) looks just right as the modest Sonya and her acting is fine, but in her speech at the end of the play she is a bit too soft and some of her words are lost. Lindsay Posner's production is straightforward and makes the play easily comprehensible. Combined with the high standard of acting on display, this makes it an Uncle Vanya to cherish.

Quantum physics and the idea of divergent, convergent and parallel times combined with the life of a beekeeper sounds somewhat heavy for a West End play. However, the little gem which is CONSTELLATIONS (Royal Court at the Duke of York's until 5 January 2013), is funny, interesting as well as moving at times.

Marianne (Sally Hawkins) meets Roland (Rafe Spall) at a party and then they meet again and again. Later we see them moving in together, then betrayal and after that then various endings. Each scene is played in a number of ways. Although this sounds tricky, it works well and we learn different things about each character through the various expositions including at and after a ballroom class. Marianne is a cosmologist who is exploring multiverse theories - choices people make existing in parallel universes.

Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall in Constellations

Nick Payne has drawn his theories into a play that is warm, funny and ultimately touching. The simple design has the stage festooned with balloons and is very attractive. Apparently when it was on at the Royal Court, Constellations was a much more intimate affair, but it works fine on this stage.

Spall and Hawkins are very good in their parts. Sally Hawkins has the right touch of gawkiness mixed with vulnerability and a certain air of goofiness, while Rafe Spall also brings an air of vulnerability into his characterisation and shows different sides to his personality as the parallel scenes unfold.

At just under an hour and a half, this little gem packs a lot into its running time and is highly recommended.

Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon in All That Fall.

ALL THAT FALL, which will sadly have finished its short run at the Arts Theatre by the time you read this, provides a real lesson in acting by two of the best British actors around: Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins. It is another short play, a radio play by Samuel Beckett, first broadcast by the BBC in 1957. Directed by Trevor Nunn as a play for radio (there are microphones hanging down and the players seemingly read from scripts, with sound effects in the background), Eileen Atkins plays an old woman, Maddy Rooney, walking along an Irish country road to the railway station to meet her blind husband (Michal Gambon) off a train. On the way she encounters various people who she knows.

As usual with Beckett, it is a complicated script but the two main characters bring out the storyline and make us understand - even though the ending is ambiguous - the reason for Mr Rooney's delayed train. Beckett illuminates the foibles of old age and also shows us the emotions behind seemingly simple acts. Just by reading a script Gambon conveys the misery of old age and how being blind has prevented him from foreseeing a tragic event. Atkins is good in a homely comedic manner when she encounters her neighbours. The other somewhat eccentric characters are well portrayed, too, by Frank Grimes, Gerard Horan, James Hayes and Catherine Cusack.

I would be surprised if this 80 minute play is not revived or even made into a TV production, which, if it starred 72 year-old Gambon and 78 year-old Atkins would be well worth watching.

A children's play which has something to say to all of us, GOODNIGHT MR TOM (Phoenix Theatre until 26 January 2013) is about evacuees sent from London to Dorset during the Second World War. To a background of news about the state of the war on the radio, including the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, we meet William Beech (played by Ewan Harris at the press performance) who is fostered by the virtual recluse, Tom Oakley (Oliver Ford Davies). With songs from the villagers in between scenes and a little tap dancing by Zach (a very lively competent performance by William Price at the performance I saw) we watch Tom arrive in the village of Little Weirwold at the beginning of September 1939 just before William's ninth Birthday. Tom Oakley still misses his wife, who died alongside their baby son some 41 years before, but reluctantly takes William into his home. "Call me Tom", says Oakley, "Okay, Goodnight Mister Tom" replies William, who has escaped from an abusive mother - he has extensive bruises on his body when he arrives and she has sent a belt for use by his carer.

William gradually gets to know the villagers and becomes friendly with the extrovert Zach, who is billeted withTom's neighbour, Dr. Little. The children carry their gas masks everywhere as people fear that the Germans will drop poison gas bombs.

At one point William is called home to his mother in Deptford and there finds her with a small baby. Tragedy is averted by the timely intervention of Mr Tom who has come to genuinely care for his charge.

Ewan Harris as William, Oliver Ford-Davies as Tom and William Price as Zach in Goodnight Mister Tom

The set is ingenious with a revealing section rising from the Dorset setting to show the living quarters in London. David Wood has adapted Michelle Magorian's 1981 novel and manages to make it moving but without sentimentality. He is helped enormously by a stellar cast. Oliver Ford Davies gives us a sad old man who grabs his chance to help a small boy in distress in a straightforward way with no false sentiment. The boys are very good in demanding roles. The play deals with tough issues - child abuse, religious intolerance (Zach is Jewish), isolation, loneliness and old age. And, of course, we have an attractive dog, only this one is manipulated by a puppeteer and is very funny. This is a family outing which will make a great alternative to the pantomimes around.

Or the whole family could go to the lively production of KISS ME KATE at the Old Vic Theatre (until 2 March 2013)

I had forgotten that there were so many lovely songs in this show - each one a hit. The book, by Sam and Bella Spewack has its own little story. Sam and Bella who were estranged at the time, came together to write Kiss Me Kate and were reunited both professionally and personally in the process.

Basically this musical is the story of the out-of-town tryout of a musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and the activities of the performers on and off stage. Directed by Fred Graham with himself as Petrucio (Alex Bourne is Fred and Petrucio in The Shrew) it stars his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi as Katherine (Hannah Waddington is both Lilli and Katherine).

Hannah Waddingham as Lilli Vanessi and Alex Bourne as Fred Graham

Matters are complicated as Lilli is being courted by an army General and Fred is keen on the pretty ingénue, Lois Lane, who plays Bianca in The Shrew (Holly Dale Spencer). Events offstage begin to imitate those on stage.

The beauty of the music and lyrics by Cole Porter is that each song, frequently arising from spoken dialogue, furthers the actions of the play and music and song fit seamlessly. Once again director Trevor Nunn comes up with a triumph. Seen at Chichester earlier this year, the cast work so well together that there is chemistry not just between the male and female leads but between all the main and lesser characters. The minor characters seize their chance to have a show stopper and Jason Pennycooke, who plays Fred's dresser Paul, certainly makes the most of singing and dancing his way through Too Darn Hot. Clive Rowe and David Burt give us a riotous version of Brush up your Shakespeare, which had the audience cheering loudly.

Hannah Waddington not only has a thrilling voice but is also a most competent actress so that her songs are put across well musically and also have dramatic impact. Tall, good-looking with a glorious voice -Alex Bourne acts as though he was born to play this role! Holly Dale Spencer shows that she is an up and coming comedic star in the making - and she can sing well, too! Her song I'm always true to you darling in my fashion shows Lois Lane to perfection.

Although the stage sometimes looks a bit crowded there are some lovely touches such as the paper and material tree at the dinner after Bianca has married. There are some great numbers which are well sung and danced and a lot of comedy; what more can you ask for in a night out at a fantastic musical?

Another one for the family, although this one is aimed clearly at the over 6s, Mark Twain's story has been adapted into a play, THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (Unicorn Theatre until 13 January) by Jemma Kennedy.

The story takes place when King Henry VIII is on the throne. A pauper, Tom Canty (Nichole Bird) by chance meets Prince Edward (Danielle Bird) who is the heir to the throne. Amazed to find that they look exactly alike, the young boys swop clothes. First the servants then the King believe them to be the other and Edward, now dressed as the poor boy, is thrust into the street while Tom is lauded as the King's son. Tom's father also mistakes the Prince as his son and as he is a nasty character (picture above) treats him badly. It is 1543 and the Prince finds himself caught up with street villains while Tom has to cope with the public hanging of these villains.

The set is clever in that two intertwining walls open and close to reveal the various scenes. Beginning with the actors in basic white costumes they change into the characters they portray as the play progresses. There is music and song throughout and the actors move into the auditorium for time to time so that the audience feels as though they are part of the story.

It certainly helps that the two boys (supposed to be 9 years-old) are played by real-life twins Danielle and Nichole Bird (I look forward to them playing Shakespeare twins in appropriate plays as it would be good to have couples who really look like each other). The boys here actually look identical. There is a very good portrayal of Tom's father, and also King Henry by Nicholas Boulton and the other members of the cast take on various roles with enthusiasm. Selina Cartmell's lively production sees a number of women's roles taken by men.

This is another excellent show put on by the Unicorn theatre which deserves a good audience over the Christmas holidays.

Lastly, a word about a show for adults: running at just over an hour THE CARD SHARP SHOW (Mayfair Theatre until March 2013*) gives us Steve Truglia, an accomplished sleight of hand expert and close up magician, talking the audience through the colourful history of gambling and cheating with cards, and its influence on modern close up magic.

In a very interesting manner, Steve talks us through the development of card "shark" exploits from the Middle Ages through Wild West Saloons and on via murderous gangsters to the present day. As he speaks, Steve illustrates the various techniques with packs of cards and volunteers from the audience. He has written the show himself and is both amusing and technically brilliant at performing.

To bring the action even closer a multi-media show brings us live camera action on the huge screen at the luxurious Mayfair Theatre. It is expensive, but Steve is most accomplished and it is fascinating to watch.

*The Mayfair Theatre,The Mayfair Hotel, Stratton Street, London W1J 8LT Ticket prices: £60 for front three rows, £50 for all other seats

Sat 15 Dec - 7.30pm,Wed 26 Dec - 7.30pm & 9pm, Mon 31 Dec - 7.30pm & 9pm

2013 - All Shows start at 7.30pm

January: Fri 11, Fri 18, Sat 19, Fri 25, Sat 26

February: Sat 2, Fri 15, Sat 16, Fri 22

March: Fri 1, Fri 8, Sat 16, Fri 22


Carlie Newman

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