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FILM: February 2011

Based on the Shakespeare play of Romeo and Juliet, GNOMEO AND JULIET (cert. & time tbc) is set in the gardens of Verona Drive. We see the development of love between two young gnomes, Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt). Unfortunately he belongs to the Blues and Juliet is part of the Reds

There is a war over territory and the tiny gnomes find themselves in the middle, torn between affection for each other and loyalty to their families. With lots of well-known actors voicing the garden gnomes this can be enjoyed by all. And it certainly was by ANNA and MYAH aged 10 who write: "GNOMEO AND JULIET is a love story for the whole family. Gnomeo, a Blue, falls for Juliet, a member of the hated Reds. They meet on top of a glass greenhouse, both under cover, and it is love at first sight.

But although their love is forbidden, they must see each other. And as Juliet's side-kick Nanette says "Your love is doomed, your love is dead..." They must sneak out in order to see each other and fight for their dangerous love. The film has very funny jokes and it adds its own twist to Shakespeare's famous story. Some moments are completely shocking in 3D, but would still be great in 2D, and some young children might think that their garden gnomes are real. Both Juliet's and Gnomeo's parents are over protective. Juliet struggles to prove to her Father that she is strong and not a fragile little girl. Gnomeo, on the other hand, has a Mum determined to keep him safe, but it is hard when he is always trying to go into the Reds’ garden to set traps. This is a compelling story with a pink plastic Flamingo trying to find love, a talking frog, lawnmower races and a fierce feud going on between two families. Altogether it is a magical movie beyond your imagination.”

GASLAND (cert. PG 1hr 47mins.) is a documentary which will chill your heart. Basically the film shows that drilling for natural gas, in particular "fracking" (hydraulic fracturing, which is a means of natural gas extraction using millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals), is highly dangerous to the health and well-being of the people who live in the areas and their crops, animals and water supplies. One of the most horrific sights is to see someone lighting the water which comes out of the tap: it bursts into flame. It is concerned with a situation in the US but at the end we are warned that a similar disaster could happen in Europe - including the UK.

In spite of a number of flaws, CONVICTION (cert.15 1hr. 47mins.) tells a gripping and often moving story. Using a number of flashbacks and flash forwards, director Tony Goldwyn tells the story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) and her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who are brought up by an inadequate mother (Karen Young) who leaves them to run wild in an uncontrolled manner.

Frequently getting into trouble for stealing from shops and breaking into people's homes, they are eventually taken from their mother and put into separate foster homes. Even when separated they remain close and Betty Anne is called upon to rescue her brother from the police station. However, when Kenny is arrested for the murder of a neighbour, he is not worried as he knows that he is innocent of this crime.

Two years later, a corrupt police officer, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) manages to gather "evidence" which lands Kenny in jail on murder charges. Found guilty on the testimony of his two former girlfriends, Kenny is convicted and given a very long prison sentence.

Although an unemployed mother of two, Betty Anne is called upon to demonstrate her love for her brother after Kenny attempts to commit suicide because he can't bear the thought of spending his life behind bars. She promises him that, if he agrees to never harm himself again, she will obtain her high school diploma, take a college degree and then go to law school in order to gain the skills to set him free. With his promise she sets about achieving her aims, losing her husband and the care of her two boys in the process. It is only with the development of DNA to show the innocence of others convicted of serious crimes, that Betty Anne can begin to help Kenny 16 years later.

Scenes from the childhood of Betty Anne and her brother are well portrayed and Young shows the flaws of a woman incapable of mothering. Swank is obviously the central character and there is plenty of her up on the screen. While competent, there is something lacking in her acting: her eyes do not always mirror her emotions. Rockwell, however, demonstrates some expert acting as he moves from feelings of elation when he expects to be released to utter despair as he realises that his hopes are not going to be fulfilled. Minnie Driver also gives a nuanced performance as Abra, "the other old lady" in the class at law school. She becomes not only Betty Anne's friend but also her co-worker in the search for new evidence with which to free Kenny. Smaller parts including Peter Gallagher as the well-known lawyer Barry Scheck, fighting to prove the innocence of many wrongly incarcerated and Melissa Leo as the cop who distorts the evidence are also well played. The only performance that misses the mark is Juliette Lewis, whose acting is distinctly over the top, as Kenny's dissolute former girlfriend. For the dramatic way in which it depicts the relationship between the siblings and Betty Anne's extreme act of devotion in giving up her own life in her efforts to prove her brother innocent, this film is to be recommended.


THEATRE TIP

There is a holiday feel to Alan Ayckbourn's SEASON'S GREETINGS (National Theatre until 5 February). It takes place over the Christmas holidays when the families of Neville Barker and his wife, Belinda come together to celebrate as in previous years.

Only this year the irritations of one to another come to a head, exacerbated by the addition of a stranger, in the shape of Clive into their little group. Not as dark as other Ayckbourn plays, the dialogue is very amusing and the family and friends, all of whom have different characteristics, are well acted by all. In particular Catherine Tate brings wit combined with vulnerability as the hostess, Belinda, who finds herself aroused by attractive stranger, Clive (Oliver Chris).

Mark Gatiss brings out Bernard’s boring side without being at all dull to watch as he sets up his elaborate puppet show and his wife, the host’s sister (Jenna Russell) just keeps drinking. You might recognise Katherine Parkinson from her TV appearances and she shows that she can act on stage, too, as she almost goes to pieces trying to control her husband, Eddie (Marc Wootton).

Most of us remember the assassination scene and Caesar's cry of, "Et tu Brute" and then the impassioned speech of Mark Antony when he addresses the crowd over Julius Caesar's dead body. Lucy Bailey's production of JULIUS CAESAR (Roundhouse until 5 February) tries hard to show us that there is much more to the play. With a mixture of video projections, which are used to great effect to give the impression of a crowd of people around the main protagonists and strong performances from Darrell D'Silva as Mark Antony and a suave Cassius by John Mackay and above all, Greg Hicks in another strong performance as Caesar, she almost succeeds. The play is still at its strongest in the early scenes but we get a real feeling of the difference between gutsy Mark Antony and the more refined Cassius and troubled Brutus. There is a strong, but sensitive performance of Brutus by Sam Troughton and Julius Caesar comes across as somebody who believes in sticking to what he believes is right even though it might be dangerous for him.

AS YOU LIKE IT (RSC at Roundhouse until 5 February) is a delightful comedy about a banished Duke who is joined in the forest of Arden by his daughter, Rosalind, who has been expelled by her father's usurper. She is joined by her cousin, Celia, and both disguise themselves as country folk and then encourage Orlando, who also finds his way to the forest, to woo the boy, Ganymede, who is actually his love Rosalind, disguised. Katy Stephens is a feisty, energetic Rosalind. Michael Boyd directs a well-staged production, in which he uses live musicians. He also gives a very clear exposition of the relationships between characters and stages a realistic wrestling match between Orlando and the Court wrestler. The difference between the courtiers in Duke Frederick's court and the exiled Duke's retinue is highlighted by the regimental march of Frederick's black clothed courtiers and the casual appearance of Duke Ferdinand's followers in the Forest of Arden. The serious parts behind the lightness are emphasised. While Stephens with a moustache and tiny beard is well disguised as Ganymede, the Celia of Mariah Gale remains the same with only her clothes changing to those of a shepherdess. The emphasis here is on falling in love at first sight and this is well brought out: Rosalind and Orlando, Phoebe for Ganymede (Rosalind), Celia and Oliver (Orlando's once wicked brother who is transformed when Orlando saves his life.) Unusually Rosalind SINGS the epilogue.

There's a tremendous KING LEAR (until 4 February) in the current season at the RSC's Roundhouse home. It is astonishing to see the transformation of Greg Hicks from his early acting days into the towering performance he gives as the lead in the well-constructed King Lear. Director David Farr has given us a production full of moments that explain the characters' motivation and present us with an impression of the harsh territory around them.

Emotionally - with the cruel treatment by his daughters who force Lear out into the open to face atrocious weather and physically by the storm outside. From the little caress that Lear gives his youngest daughter as he enters at the beginning we get an understanding of his special affection for Cordelia. This segues well into the denunciation of her when she can't, or will not, profess her great love for him in the exaggerated manner of her sisters Regan and Goneril (very well-delineated by Katy Stephens and Kelly Hunter).

Every time one sees this play there is something new to discover and in this production it is that the King of France (Brian Doherty) comes across as a very nice person when he chooses Cordelia as his wife in spite of the loss of her dowry. Goneril shows her nasty side as soon as she has been given her father's gifts. She is vicious not only to her father but also mistreats the Earl of Kent (Darrell D'Silvia) and others who are loyal to Cordelia and Lear. There is a horrific scene when Regan and her husband take out The Earl of Gloucester's (Geoffrey Freshwater) eyes when he is betrayed by his illegitimate son, Edmund (Tunji Kasim) as he goes to help Lear. Although so awful to watch it is not as terrifying as the Old Vic's production when eyes rolled across the floor and members of the audience fainted! When Edgar says, "The oldest have borne most" we feel the huge tragedy of Cordelia dying at the end of the play when we so wish for her to find joy once she is reconciled with her father. The only quibble is the mixture of periods in the costumes. What period uses swords and medical drips (Lear in pyjamas with a drip)? While some of the characters wear long robes, others wear suits and spectacles. There are, however, many good touches such as a hat of flowers, which Lear wears in his madness, instead of a crown. The set is simple but appropriate showing the end of an era and significantly the flimsy walls of Lear's kingdom collapsing and rain falling on the King. Although there is the odd touch of dark humour we do not find the comic scenes that are present in other Shakespearean tragedies, such as the gravedigger in Hamlet. The chief joy here is in the playing of the ensemble who work so well together and give excellent performances as individual characters. The difference between this production and the one at Stratford is that the Fool was played by Kathryn Hunter at the Courtyard Theatre and Sophie Russell, who is taller, is not able to capture Hunter's funny little hopping, dancing, singing, Puck-like figure. Cordelia remains a rather too soft performance, but the sisters Regan and Goneril (Katy Stephens and Kelly Hunter) are excellent. The play relies on a special performance from the leading man and Greg Hicks gives us a moving Lear in which he displays a command of Shakespeare's verse which he delivers in a strong voice full of colour in which the emotions of a once-great man who comes to realise, "I am old and foolish" are beautifully displayed. We can believe that he dies of a broken heart after he carries in the dead Cordelia.

TIGER COUNTRY (Hampstead Theatre, London until 5 February),A well-crafted play full of pertinent writing about the National Health Service, the production has a lot going for it. We see a hospital as a workplace with specialists, nurses and other medical personnel. The staff, as in many jobs, work under great pressure, but a slip up here could cause a death – and does from time to time.

The director, Nina Raine, who is also the author, depicts the ambitions, frustrations and day to day sheer hard work of life in a very busy hospital, with accuracy and energy. She has obviously done her research well. The audience sits on three sides and is therefore very involved in the action. Why then do I not recommend it to all? Well, if you want to see the doctors off duty and their relationships with each other 'behind the scenes,' fine. This part is interesting and different from usual hospital dramas as they discuss their relationship to the patients and how hard it is to function within the NHS. But the scenes with patients, while truthful and well-performed, are harrowing, particularly for those of us who have had, or are experiencing now, the traumas of hospital attendance and hospital visiting. You need to know what to expect before seeing this one!

Left to right: Susannah Harker, Andrew Woodall, Christopher Simpson, Joanne Froggatt. Photo: Geraint Lewis

LITTLE PLATOONS (Bush Theatre, London until 19 February 2011) is the second one in the Schools season being put on by the enterprising little Bush Theatre. This new play by Steve Waters looks at a group of parents setting up a “free school” in response to the first acts of the coalition government on education. It examines the motivation behind a group of predominantly middle-class white parents starting their own free school in West London (in fact in the area near the Bush Theatre).

Taking the predicament of Rachel (Claire Price), who, separated from her partner, who has gone off with a younger woman, becomes disillusioned with what the local comprehensive is providing for her son, Sam (Otto Farrant), although she teaches music there. Looking for an alternative she comes across the group of parents, led by Nick (Andrew Woodall) and his wife Lara (Susannah Harker) who are too poor to afford private education for their three children and too snobbish to want them to go to the local multi-racial comprehensive. She becomes very involved with the group and agrees to become head teacher of the new school.

There is a lot of discussion about the merits of different types of schools and the influence of business sponsors. Joanne Froggatt, who plays the teacher in charge of an unruly class in The Knowledge, the other play in this season, gives a terrific portrayal of the Department of Education official, who has to judge the group on its ability to conform to the Government's criteria. Very amusing with good performances from almost all, there is a little too much talk, so that at times, the play can appear as though the characters are giving a series of lectures. But the staging is good and for a bang up to date play on one of the main issues concerning education today, the play has caught the mood just right.

Carlie Newman

   
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