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FILM:December 2013

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (cert.12A 2 hrs. 26 mins.) is the second film in the trilogy based on the books by Suzanne Collins. The young ones are already devoted to the books and also the first of the films. This one continues from the end of the first film and to a large extent relies on its audience having seen the first one.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who has won the 74th Annual Hunger Games with her friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has returned home believing that she has now finished with the contest. But President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has other ides and prepares to mount the 75th Annual Hunger Games. Snow is convinced that a rebellion is brewing and in order to stop this and get the public to turn against Katniss, who he feels is the real threat, he has different plans for these Games.

He, assisted by the new games designer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), orders that the winners of previous games should compete against each other and they plan to kill Katniss during these games.

Katniss and Peeta are encouraged to pretend they are in love to keep the public's affection and they also make alliances with some of the other champions. Once again (like the first film) the participants are faced with a number of challenges. Katniss and Peeta work together without really being sure who they can trust.

It is good to see Jennifer Lawrence, a realistic actress, working well in this fantasy. She is ably supported by the two men in her life Hutcherson's Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) who she is very keen on. The smaller roles are played with conviction, too: Woody Harrelson is Katniss' mentor Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks her mother and Donald Sutherland is nicely evil as President Snow.

Directed by Francis Lawrence, the film has a lot of exciting action and should appeal to those who enjoyed the first film. Those who haven't seen it or read the books might well be a little confused.

An exciting film which takes its audience right into outer space - with Sandra Bullock and the lovely George Clooney, who is now somewhat older, - don't miss GRAVITY (cert. 12A 1 hr. 31 mins) and do please see it on a large screen in 3D.

Sandra Bullock drifts weightlessly out of her space suit in GRAVITY

Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock), a scientist, is on her first space mission alongside veteran astronaut, Matt Kowaslki (Clooney) and other astronauts. They run into trouble and the other crew members are killed, leaving the two of them to float untethered and low on oxygen and no longer able speak to Earth as they have lost radio control.

Very little dialogue accompanies the marvellous visuals created by director Alfonso Cuaron.

The special effects make one feel as though we, the audience, are floating around space and can hear the total silence of the atmosphere (or should that be above the atmosphere?).

But it is the imagery rather than the somewhat pedestrian dialogue and simplified story that grab one's attention. This is a landmark achievement by director Cuaron .

Giving an insight to a very different world from that with which most of us are acquainted, FILL THE VOID (cert.U 1 hr.30 mins.) is set in the orthodox Hassidic community in Tel Aviv, This very religious sect has its own rules which its members stick to rigorously and without complaining.

This is director Rama Burstein's first feature film - which she has also written - although she lives and works within the ultra-orthodox community. She tells how 18 year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) has been promised in marriage to a young man her own age, who, although virtually unknown to her, nevertheless meets with her approval and she looks forward to her wedding once details of the marriage contract have been finalised.

Suddenly her beloved older sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth and the whole family is overcome with grief. Shira's match is put on hold while the family mourns their loss. Then they learn that Yochay (Yiftach Klein), Esther's husband, has been approached to marry a Belgian widow. He believes he needs a wife to care for his new baby son.

Shira's mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg) however, is desperate for the baby to remain in Israel and proposes that Shira marries Yochay, although he is a lot older. Shira must now choose her future.

This lovely little film has a good story which is told without any great histrionics. Through the eyes of young Shira we begin to understand something of the pull between the religious rites and needs of the family and doing right by both as opposed to the tug of the young woman's heart which moves her towards romance and the lure of marriage to a young man. Feminists might well balk at the idea that marriages are arranged and that women have no right to choose who they marry, but Burstein tries to show that adherence to a family's moral compass is also worth a great deal and perhaps family comes before personal choice.

The acting throughout is delicate and there is real passion between husband and wife Yochay and Esther and later some smoldering emotion between Yochay and Shira. Humor comes out in the opening scene where Shira and her mother walk around a supermarket trying to identify the young man who is lined up for Shira.

The film is well photographed with good use made of the lighting to view the characters, often through gauze, and all the scenes take place within the home except a couple of short ones inside a synagogue and on the street. The film generated a good response when shown recently at the UK Jewish Film festival. It is on release from 13 December.

Also recommended: the re-release in cinemas, and also available on DVD, of the wonderful GONE WITH THE WIND. At 233 minutes you certainly get your money's worth along with a beautiful performance by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara and good characterisations from Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes - not forgetting his too-good-to-be true wife, Melanie played by Olivia de Haviland. I bet you will cry at some point!

Have a great Christmas - with lots of DVDs to watch and many films on TV and do pay a cinema visit. Enjoy!






The best new musical since Billy Eliot - that's THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS (Young Vic Theatre booking until 21 December box office: 0844 858 8877).

Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, it tells the story of the wrongful arrest and even more shameful conviction of nine young boys (the youngest was 13) who were taken off a train and accused of rape by two white women. Even though one of the women withdrew her allegation, they were still deemed guilty. They had a number of re-trials with a better lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, but still the all-white Juries said they were Guilty.

The show is played as a minstrel show with all except the Interlocutor (Julian Glover) played by a black cast. Even the white women are played by young black actors. Set in the town of Scottsboro, Alabama 1931-1937, the actors move chairs around to represent the train, the courthouse, a prison cell etc. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman there is some real dancing and great singing by all, particularly long-legged Kyle Scatliffe as Haywood Patterson, one of the accused.

It's a fantastically well staged and performed piece of theatre and well worth making a huge effort to get tickets.

In the last few years Hampstead Theatre has rightly gained a reputation as a provider of well-staged and, mostly, well-written modern plays. What is less well known is that they also have a thriving studio theatre. The Hampstead Downstairs space puts on experimental theatre pieces, which don't have official press nights or reviews. There, for the audience to like or dislike, it is their reaction which counts and determines the future of the shows. There is an interesting schedule of plays currently. The first of these is GODCHILD (until 30 November), written by Deborah Bruce and starring Tracy-Ann Oberman as Lou, who is 40 but passes herself off as 36. When her godchild, 19-year-old Minnie (Pearl Chanda) turns up to stay, Lou is forced to confront her own life. As directed by Michael Attenborough it is perhaps more of a conventional play than experimental. Although Lou feels young, she is not and has to deal with her relationships with her long-term boyfriend, Andy (Michael Scheffer) and drug-taking lover, Karl (Chook Sibtain). The two men come across as almost complete opposites, who both attract and are attracted by Lou.

It is great, as the audience, to sit so close to the action. A well-designed set by Francesca Reidy and sharp direction makes sure that the Downstairs space is a place that its audiences will want to visit again.

The next production at Hampstead Downstairs is FAULT LINES by Ali Taylor, directed by Lisa Spirling. It plays 5 December to 4 January. Book tickets at Box Office 020 7722 9301 £5 to £12.

Another small venue, but this time the intimacy of the setting is less appealing. The play on in the tiny studio theatre of the Soho Theatre is BLUEBEARD (until 1 December). Bluebeard is a French literary folktale, the most famous surviving version of which was written by Charles Perrault and first published by Barbin in Paris in January 1697. The tale tells the story of a violent nobleman in the habit of murdering his wives and the attempts of one wife to avoid the fate of her predecessors. In this version - in a monologue spoken by Paul Mundell to the audience - modern day Bluebeard relates his encounters with women; liaisons which are full of full of sexual deviancy and violence. He stresses that the violence and abuse of these women is conducted with their full consent.

Although the show is constructed around the idea of the audience being forced to think about the abuse of women and question what makes the man act in such a horrible way, it is produced in such a manner that the show gives full descriptions of the sexual abuse and violence and makes for a very uncomfortable evening.

Mundell performs very well and the dialogue is clearly written by Hattie Naylor, which in many ways makes the whole show harder to take. The young woman next to me was squirming throughout and I tend to agree with her.

A few months ago we had the film Hysteria, which was reviewed here. The movie's theme involved a doctor who manipulated "hysterical" women by hand in order to produce orgasms. In the new play at the St James Theatre, IN THE NEXT ROOM or the vibrator play (until 4 January 2014 Box office: 0844 264 2140) we see how electricity has transformed the way in which women are treated. The play, written by Sarah Ruhl, is set in New York State in the 1880s. The vibrator is now used and the orgasm is referred to as a "paroxysm."

Jason Hughes, Flora Montgomery and Sarah Woodward in Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room

But the title of the play doesn't just refer to the other room - in this case the doctor's surgery - where the treatment takes place, it is also the case that women are marginalised by being kept in a room other than that where the action takes place. While her doctor husband, Dr. Givings (Jason Hughes) is busy with his patients, his wife, Catherine Givings (Natalie Casey) is frustrated both in her marriage and in her fairly inactive life as a wife and mother. Laurence Boswell directs with a good grasp of the different nuances of the play. We have comedy in the joyful reactions of the women (and one man) to their treatment.

But we also face tragedy with the story of the black wet nurse whose own baby died but now breast feeds the Givings' baby as the wife has insufficient milk. Here we have comments on religion as the wet nurse was religious until the death of her child. There is, too, an examination of the way electricity now plays a major part in the life of the era.

The acting is most competent from all: Natalie Casey plays the tactless Mrs Givings with a sensitivity which allows the audience to recognise her deep unhappiness and wish to have a more meaningful relationship with her husband and baby. The wet nurse, played by Madeline Appiah, is a well-defined character put across most movingly by the actress. There's a good little cameo by the seasoned Sarah Woodward. Somewhat like a minor sequel to the film, Hysteria, this is still worth a visit.

And for an early Christmas treat, do go and see Barry Humphries as he says goodbye to his stage persona: mainly Dame Edna Everage but also other characters including the awful spitting Sir Les Patterson and his brother, Gerald in his farewell tour, EAT, PRAY, LAUGH! It's at the London Palladium (until 5 January 2014 then touring Box office: 0844 874 0743) and is full of laughs and jollity.

Never having seen Humphries on stage before, I was amazed at what a truly consummate performer he is. There is some great acting in the midst of all the make-up and costumes and he can also sort-of sing and even moves well. His Les Patterson is horrible, though, spitting and dribbling all over the audience and I found that part somewhat gross. He is more accessible with Les's Priest brother and a sad lady called Sandy Stone who speaks sitting still. His tour-de-force is, of course, Dame Edna Everage and he gives a wonderful portrayal of the character he has been inhabiting for many, many years.

Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage

He is backed by two girls and two boys who dance around him and seem to be enjoying themselves. Some of his remarks come across as racist but he appears to have no malice in him. I forgot that my companion is a "nudger" and at every risqué joke I got poked in the ribs! This is definitely a show that is not for children.

Above all he makes a true connection with his audience, picking out various members to perform little sketches with him, including a marriage ceremony between two most unlikely participants. He remembers the names of those he has used or spoken to and brings them into his act throughout the evening. He responds well to a seemingly ordinary-looking woman, who surprisingly then goes into a mini-monologue about how she is a Buddhist and wants Humphries to join in a chant with her. He does and brings the House down. I was inadvertently brought under his gaze when he started to look at me as I took notes for my review and he referred to me as "our little scribbler" and "the chronicler."

At nearly 80 he shows the energy of a man half his age, and we all gladly joined in with the gladioli waving at the end!

And for a Christmas treat for the kids - try SEUSSICAL (Arts Theatre Booking until 6 January 2014 Box office: 020 7836 8463). At only 80 minutes with no interval, it is the ideal length for young children and, indeed, the show is most delightful and will appeal to children and their families.

Elliot Fitzpatrick as The Cat in the Hat & Jordan Veloso as Jojo

Bringing to life Dr Seuss's "Cat in the hat" and other stories this version, directed by Kirk Jameson, plays in the daytime and the cast are full of energy and put across the characters with a lively enthusiasm. There are catchy songs and each of the characters is brought alive by the 11 young cast members. The Cat in the Hat (Elliot Fitzpatrick) leads us into the stories which are linked well.

So here is what they call "the theatre for young audiences' version" in performances for the Christmas season.

There's an attractive kind-hearted elephant (David Hunter) and two lovely divas: a female kangaroo, Natalie Green with a real gospel sounding voice, and a male-loving Mayzie La Bird, well sung by Jessica Parker. Small people are present in the shape of The Who, tiny specks of dust which are hard to see, but we are told, "A person's a person no matter how small."

For those who know Dr Seuss' stories, this will be a treat and for those who don't - now is the chance to discover them in a jolly production which is just right for a family Christmas outing.

RICHARD 11 (Stratford-upon-Avon and then the Barbican from 9 December)

Although the play has now finished at the RSC Stratford-upon-Avon theatre, it is about to start in London and I urge you to make every effort to obtain tickets. The RSC's Richard 11 drew in the crowds at Stratford who came to see David Tennant in the title role. And indeed Tennant gives a great performance as the sinful King who rules his kingdom, but only achieves real dignity in his tragic end. With his long flowing hair, Tennant has a striking look. But he is not the sole reason to see this production.

The other actors, major and minor, provide good characterisations. As Bolingbroke, Nigel Lindsay puts in a strong performance and Michael Pennington's John of Gaunt gives a good display as a dying man. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York. He brings out the comedy as well as the sadness of a man caught between loyalty to his king and also to Bolingbroke. And Jane Lapotaire (playing a grey-haired elderly woman), in the small part of the Duchess of Gloucester shows her acting skills in portraying the grieving widow who goes for revenge.

David Tennant as Richard II

But Tenant doesn't just look right; he plays the King with sensitivity, building up to the end where he, unusually for a hero, gains in stature as his downfall looms. He combines jokiness, as when he places his crown on the head of the Duke of Aumerlee (Oliver Rix), with drama, seen when he deals harshly with enemies and potential foes. It's unusual too, to hear Tennant speak in an English, rather than his native Scottish, accent.

Gregory Doran has put together a visual experience in a carefully constructed production, with the intent of providing a story that is clear to all who see it. There is an amazing bit where a bridge descends on mesh wire; the King is dressed in a gold robe; sopranos sing and the trumpeters trump! It is well-staged with lighting, production design and staging all combining into a seamless presentation. There is some beautiful singing from three sopranos in a side balcony.

This is not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays as there is too much of the "my brother Worcester's son's…" type lists, but Doran's direction combined with great performances by Tennant and the rest of the cast, provide an absorbing experience.

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (Gielgud Theatre until 22 February 2014 Box office: 0844 482 5130)

This is the best staged production in the West End today. The revolving stage and back projections along with black and white film, constantly change and build up the tension on stage. Unfortunately the stage events themselves are not so exciting. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, rather than the more famous Alfred Hitchcock's film of it, which came out in 1951, a year after the novel was written, this does have some chills and thrills.

Laurence Fox (left) and Jack Huston in Strangers on a Train

It is a film noir staged as a play. We first meet the two main characters on a train where they first encounter each other. In a fairly light-hearted conversation Charles Bruno (Jack Huston) suggests to Guy Haines (Laurence Fox) that Haines should kill Bruno's dominating father in return for Bruno killing Haines unfaithful wife who is pregnant with another man's child. The result is a nightmare for Haines as Bruno kills his wife and then pursues Haines, entering his life and trying to become part of his very existence.

The direction by Robert Allan Ackerman succeeds in keeping us on the edges of our seats in a number of scenes but the writing somehow lets the play down as the excitement is not given sufficient power to always engross. Quite frankly the set is the most admirable feature of the production. Imogen Stubbs, while looking very young to be Charles Bruno's mother has a gorgeous husky voice and puts across her almost incestuous character with vigour. Huston is sufficiently manic and sinister as Bruno and Fox brings a laid back quality to the ordinary man who finds himself in a nightmare situation. He could probably have done with a more animated display at times.

The set and production design, however, can't be faulted. The stage spins around to reveal different settings for each venue. As the train moves along, a back projection shows the passing scenery. Don't go expecting Hitchcock's film and you should have an interesting night out.

It seems to be quite the thing to translate cinema into theatre and yet another play comes into the theatre this month. TWELVE ANGRY MEN (Garrick Theatre (booking until 1 March 2014 Box office: 0844 412 4662) is, however, different from the film, but really well performed.

Set in the 1950s it gives a good picture of the room in which the 12 members of the Jury (all white and male) sit, walk around, confront each other and generally sweat it out in very hot weather while deciding the fate of a young black man accused of killing his father. Whether he is guilty or not is secondary to the fact of making sure that justice is done. Or so says Martin Shaw as Juror 8, who starts off the deliberations in the jury room by being the only man who questions whether the 16-year old is really guilty.

Twelve Angry Men at the Garrick theatre, London

While most of the others complain vigorously that the case is obvious and the lad is most certainly guilty, Shaw's juror, an architect, says, but look at it this way, and, consider that aspect before bringing in a verdict which will result in a mandatory death sentence.

Shaw's white suit makes him look a bit saintly but he gives a well thought-out portrait of a man who wants to see the right points considered and not rush into a verdict. I liked Jeff Fahey's portrayal of a rough man with his own torments and Miles Richardson as a racial bigot. Robert Vaughn sits quietly as the senior juror, only entering the discussion at quite a late stage with his own well considered views.

In fact the men are all good and Christopher Haydon directs them so that although the audience is stuck in one room with them there is constant movement as the men move around but so does the revolving stage, almost imperceptibly. We feel, too, the heat that the men suffer on the hottest day of the year with air conditioning that doesn't work properly. The dialogue, written by Reginald Rose is well-written, and we are aware that this is the 1950s. We actually see democracy in action. Forget Henry Fonda and the movie and sit back and enjoy this intelligent play in a star-studded production.

Enjoy happy and healthy holidays and prepare to see lots of shows in 2014.


Carlie Newman

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