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FILM:January 2015

Here's a round-up of the end of the year and beginning of 2015 in film land.

It's a long time since we have seen a good film musical. Now two have come along: first we have INTO THE WOODS (cert. PG 2 hrs. 5 mins.), the adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's stage musical.

It's an expertly made version of the stage show and manages to condense the musical without losing any of the major story points. It is virtually a story told in two halves, both of which combine various Grimm fairy tales into one story. At the base is the tale of a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who long for a child. When the Witch (Meryl Streep) gives them the opportunity to fulfil their wish, they grab it and set out to complete the tasks she gives them. These involve the other characters so we have golden-haired Rapunzel, Little Red Riding hood and her red cloak, the Wolf (a camp Johnny Depp) and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her handsome Prince (Chris Pine). There is also Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk) and his mother and all meet up in the woods.

Then suddenly, as in the stage version, all becomes sour and the Prince turns into an incipient adulterer and other characters and story lines become darker versions, including the stepsisters of Cinderella - who have cut off parts of their feet earlier - being blinded by birds.

Director Rob Marshall has managed to make an excellent film of a difficult musical, keeping Sondheim's rhythms, musicality and storytelling qualities and enhancing them. As I remarked at the Press Conference, "the film has caught the essence of the stage show."

James Corden & Meryl Streep

In that press conference Marshall said that he had needed to condense the stage version, but he has managed the changes really well and the cast more than do justice to his concept. They all sing well, in various styles. The big surprise is Streep's lovely voice which, being an actress, she uses to great effect to put across her character of the wicked witch.

Mainly sung, the story is easy to follow, and is beautifully made and a joy to watch. Altogether a most impressive film.

Then we have ANNIE (cert. PG 1 hr. 58 mins.), which, although not quite in the same league as Into the Woods, is most pleasant and a film that can be enjoyed by the whole family.

Mind you I'm a great fan of little Quvenzhané Wallis (who had an Acaemy Award nomination and was so good in Beasts of the Southern Wild). Here she stars as Annie, the young parentless child who lives in a foster home, run by money-grabbing, fame-seeking Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). In spite of the rather grim surroundings, Annie remains upbeat and sings along happily with the other orphans. She is street wise and negotiates the streets of New York with ease.

Quvenzhané Wallis & Jamie Foxx

Set in 2014 the updated story now has Jamie Foxx playing the part of the kind rescuer, Will Stacks, who is a New York mayoral candidate and also a very rich business tycoon. Annie believes that her parents are out in the world somewhere and never loses hope that she will find them. When Will Stacks is advised by his scheming campaign advisor, Guy (Bobby Cannavale) to take Annie into his home in order to enhance his campaign, and, assisted by attractive Grace (Rose Byrne), he reluctantly does so, Annie grabs her chance to search further for her parents. As Will Stacks falls for the little girl, the audience is torn between wanting Annie to find her parents and at the same time hoping she can stay with lovely Stacks.

Lots of well-known songs put into an admittedly over sentimental film, directed for all the sugariness it can get by Will Gluck, the charming cast - in particular young Wallis - ensures that the film will make you leave the cinema in a happy state of mind, probably singing 'the sun will come out tomorrow.'


Angelina Jolie's film of the real-life story of the Olympic champion and war hero Louis "Louie" Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) is a good attempt at putting on screen the amazing story of one man's battle throughout his life. In UNBROKEN (cert.15 2 hrs. 10 mins.) Jolie - who has directed and produced the film - shows how Louie trained hard to reach the pinnacle of athletic success in the Berlin Olympics. Later he survives 45 days in a raft, alongside two fellow airmen, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock), in the open sea after his plane crashes in World War 11, only to be taken prisoner by the Japanese Navy and interred in a prisoner of war camp run by a sadistic Japanese commander (Miyavi). In spite of good intentions and excellent acting by the whole cast, somehow Jolie's film doesn't hold together. While the brutal scenes in the POW camp are well filmed, the movie is too lengthy and requires the audience to concentrate for a long time.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (cert 12A 2 hrs. 3 mins.) in which we see Stephen Hawking as a young man (beautifully played by Eddie Redmayne) meet, fall in love and have three children with Jane (the excellent Felicity Jones), is now on release. While Stephen battles with the growing disabilities of motor neurone disease and Jane fights to keep her husband alive, we observe the relationship of the couple in this most unusual marriage. Jane enables Stephen to produce the amazing discoveries which form his life's work as a theoretical physicist. Sure to attract an Oscar nomination for Redmayne, there should by rights be one for Jones too. Well-directed by James Marsh (who gave us the wonderful documentary Man on Wire) the film is highly recommended.

BIG EYES (cert. 12 A 1 hr. 46 mins.) tells another story based on real life. Here we have Margaret Keane (a lovely performance by Amy Adams) conned into agreeing that the pictures she paints are the work of her second husband Walter Keane (portrayed in a villainous over the top characterisation by Christoph Waltz). Eventually Margaret is forced to confront her husband and the world with the truth behind the famous pictures of children with huge eyes: they were painted by her and not her husband. She admits that she has benefited from Walter's ability to commercialise her work but has been hidden throughout while Walter has basked in false fame. This is a fascinating story which is well-directed by Tim Burton (without the appearance of Helena Bonham Carter, sadly).

If you get the chance to see the documentary THE GREEN PRINCE (cert. 15 1 hr. 41 mins.), do grab it. This is the (again) true story about a Palestinian activist who became a spy for the Israeli Secret Service. Directed by Nadav Shirman the inter-action between 'The Green Prince,' Mosab Hassan Yousef (the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement Hamas) and the Israeli Shin Bet agent Gonen Ben Yitzhak, who risked his life to help Mosab, plays like a thriller and is equally as exciting to watch as any of the current offerings.






A round-up of shows which have recently started:

Let's begin with two shows for children. First a seasonal pantomime, performed without any TV references or very crude innuendos, JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (Park Theatre, London until 4 January 2015 Box office 020 7870 6876).

In its intimate style, this reminds me of the traditional pantomimes of old. The small cast (all five seen in picture left) play various roles and there is a lot of fun and audience participation. Director Jez Bond has dealt with the show imaginatively and certainly updated our initial expectations.

From the start when the actors perform a scene from Hamlet instead of the panto we are constantly surprised. With minimum props but lots of costumes the five actors, particularly the Dame played by Michael Cahill, are very lively and they cope well when children are brought into the playing area to take part in a scene.

The children present in the audience loved the show and the adults around me seemed to find equal enjoyment.

THE SNOW DRAGON (St James Theatre until 4 January 2015 Box office 0844 264 2140) is not a pantomime, but a sweet little story aimed at very young children.

The story tells of Billy the goat who finds out that the Snow Dragon will bring him treats on New Year's Eve. Not being able to wait until morning Billy ventures out, only to meet a pack of wolves. Nothing too frightening happens and the audience is made to hope that Billy will be safe.

Suitable for 3 year-olds upwards, I took Lisa aged 10, who enjoyed it, liking the noise made by Billy the goat as he slept! It is the right length, at 50 minutes running without an interval, with lots of action. It is easy to follow, she thought, and we always know which character is which. The very small cast - of three- play all the parts and director Toby Mitchell manages to juggle the story and the actors so that everyone is in the right place suitably attired at the right time! The moral, which is pointed out at the end is "Do as you would be done by." This is a lovely little play, delightful to watch.

I saw Tiger Country when it was originally on at Hampstead. Now here is our reviewer SHARON MIICHAEL's take on it:

TIGER COUNTRY (Hampstead Theatre until 17 January 2015 Box office 020 7722 9301) written and directed by Nina Raine, returns to the Hampstead Theatre after a short and successful run in 2011.

Raine, whose last play Tribes, won her a nomination for an Olivier Award for best play, takes us on a somewhat disconcerting and realistic journey of the present day stresses and strains of a National Health hospital and the people who work within it. She gives us black humour, empathy and the realism of an underfunded national health service. The pace of the play is fast moving, mirroring the atmosphere of an accident and emergency, operating theatre and the slender moments between life and death.

As the play unfolds, the narratives of some of the hospital professionals are untwined and revealed. The controlling ambitious Urologist registrar, Vashti, superbly played by India Varma, struggles with professional conflict, discrimination based on her sex and background and her personal dilemma when her aunt undergoes an operation, which potentially could provide grounds for negligence action.

Delightful and passionate Emily, (Ruth Everett, who was one of the original cast) is a new junior doctor. Profoundly concerned about her patients, she questions both her own medical competence and the seemingly uncaring brusque decisions of others she works with as she attempts to save the life of a 24 year old woman. We meet a doctor who himself has been diagnosed with lymphoma on his neck, medics who readily swop patients to ease their workload, and see an operation which nearly goes badly wrong when a man's testicle is being removed.

Perhaps this play is not the best to see if one is due to spend time in a hospital. It is absorbing and well written and insightful. Who knows, the impact of Tiger Country may contribute to hospitals no longer needing notices to remind people that hospital staff should not be abused or assaulted!

The St James Theatre Studio, London had a very pleasant show on until Christmas, NOEL COWARD'S CHRISTMAS SPIRITS, which as performed by Issy Van Randwyck and Charlotte Wakefield with Stefan Bednarczyk as Noel Coward brought the words and music of the master to life. Between them, without gimmick or explanation, they call up Christmas voices and songs from long ago. Using words and music from others as well, we get a glimpse of Coward and his times, in this case Christmas 1940.

I thought that nothing could portray the story of the boy who has scissors instead of hands better than Tim Burton's film of Edward Scissorhands. However, Matthew Bournes' ballet EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (Sadlers Wells, Londons until 11 January 2015, then touring. Box office for Sadlers Wells: 0844 412 4300 Web site for touring info: new-adventures.net/edward-scissorhands) brings new life to the Burton film. While the spirit of the film remains in Bourne's adaptation, the poignancy is somehow enhanced by the music and dance.

The story remains, starting with a prologue showing how the creator of the boy loses his own son, also called Edward, who is struck by lightning while playing with scissors. Consumed with grief, his inventor father creates a boy with a stitched-together body. Interrupted in his work, the inventor dies before replacing the scissor blades at the end of the boy's arms with hands. Out in the world, Edward is taken in by kindly Mrs Boggs (Etta Murfitt), and the boy falls for the daughter of the house, Kim Boggs (Kerry Biggin). Of course it is dangerous for Edward to touch anyone. First winning the love of the community by performing tasks to assist them like hair-cutting, he later falls out with the townspeople and is chased away.

All this is shown in dances and there is one particularly tender one with a duet among dancing topiary. The dancing is always inventive and the characters well-differentiated although this can be difficult with six different families on view. I like the way the dancers act their parts, and don't just move beautifully. Dominic North can not only dance superbly but also act and we see his yearning and then devotion to Kim Boggs. Kerry Biggin is sweet as the girl who falls for Edward - she bounces around in the crowd scenes and then moves tenderly with Edward.

Etta Murfitt (Peg Boggs), Dominic North (Edward) and Gavin Eden (Kevin Boggs) in Edward Scissorhands.

The set, by Lez Brotherston, which basically shows middle-America with identical looking houses - miniature candy-coloured villas - in a row, is very pretty. Colourful costumes help to differentiate the families. Do try to see this, either in London or on tour.

It was 2011 when Rupert Goold first astounded us with his production of The Merchant of Venice at Stratford-upon-Avon. Now with many of the same cast, the RSC production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Almeida Theatre, London until 14 February 2015 Box Office: 020 7359 4404) comes to the Almeida. Although it worked really well at Stratford, there is something about the intimacy of the much smaller Alemeida theatre which gives the play more immediacy so that it comes across with all its high energy and excitement intact.

Susannah Fielding (R) as Portia & Emily Plumtree (L) as Nerissa

Rupert Goold's most exciting production sets the tale in modern Las Vegas. It starts with an energetic scene in a Las Vegas gambling casino with much movement and even singing, in a gentle American accent, from an Elvis impersonator, who later turns out to be Launcelot Gobbo (the excellent Jamie Beamish, who was in the RSC Stratford production), servant to Shylock, a wealthy property owner and money lender.

Portia (a very amusing performance by Susannah Fielding, who was also in the original production) chooses her future husband through a reality show. She has abundant blond hair and looks like the heroine of LEGALLY BLONDE. We see her other side when she pretends to be a young male lawyer in order to rescue her chosen husband's friend. Each of her suitors has his own particular style - the Prince of Morocco is a boxer in glittering shorts and boxing gloves.

In a change from the original casting, Ian McDiarmid now plays Shylock. His is a sensitive, serious study of the Jew who lends money to Antonio (who has insulted him in the past), in order for him to help his friend Bassanio win the hand of Portia. Demanding a pound of flesh if Antonio is unable to repay the debt on time, he suffers at the hands of Portia disguised as a male lawyer. For once Portia looks like a realistic man. While the whole production is aimed at comedy there are some moving moments, including Shylock's despair when he realises his daughter has run off with a Christian AND stolen his money and jewels. While Shylock is referred to as a Jew and uses bits of Jewish prayers, he is not caricatured.

Although most of the Shakespearean dialogue fits in well, there are some oddities like "on the Rialto." However, everything about the show is innovative and exciting, including the jazz musicians, and the sets. When I originally wrote about it I finished with, "After seeing this vibrant production it will be difficult to ever see the 'normal' play again! I urge you to go and see it for yourselves!" I can only re-iterate this.

Another transfer from Stratford: this time the RSC's productions of HENRY 1V PART 1 and HENERY 1V PART 2 are at the Barbican theatre, London until 24 January 2015 Box Office: 0844 800 1110) . I didn't see the plays at Stratford so am very glad that the RSC has brought them to London. In particular Antony Sher's Falstaff is a performance of such magnitude that it will be hard for anyone else to follow him in future.

In PART 1 we see Henry 1V (Jasper Britton) preparing for war. Prince Henry (Alex Hassell), his son, who is often referred to as Harry or Hal, continues to enjoy himself with his great friend Sir John Falstaff (Antony Sher) and his mates including Bardolph (Joshua Richards ) and Mistress Quickly (Paola Dionisiotti). As the real prospect of war grows, Harry needs to face up to his responsibilities to his father and to his country.

PART 11 finds King Henry's health failing but he is worried that his son Henry will not be able to manage to rule the country in the serious manner it demands. Falstaff, meanwhile, who has been sent on a recruitment drive outside London, is happy to enrich himself first and cheat the country out of money. Hal has to finally face up to choosing between his carefree life with Falstaff and their group of friends or ruling over England in a suitably regal manner.

Antony Sher as Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal

Gregory Doran brings a distinctly modern touch to the proceedings although it hasn't been re-vamped in the way that The Merchant of Venice has. A fine start sees Prince Hal rising from a ruffled bed alongside some fairly exposed ladies! All the scenes with the Prince and Falstaff and with Falstaff and his mates are full of life and often very amusing.

It was good to see both plays in one day as one could then see how Part 2 continued from exactly where the first play concluded.

Hassell is most attractive as the Prince and manages his change from the carefree young man to the more serious person who is on the threshold of taking over the throne of England. The drunken friends of Falstaff are well played and it is good to see an older Mistress Quickly in Paola Dionisioti. There is a beautifully performed scene with Henry 1V and his son when the King says, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

Antony Sher, who is padded to present a substantial figure, uses an upper class voice which seems appropriate as he is Sir John. He gives a rounded (in all senses) performance and has tremendous stage presence. We can hear every word clearly - which is not always the case with today's actors! (Actually Hassell speaks clearly too, which is only to be expected from an actor trained at the Royal Central School!). Sher's Falstaff addresses the audience directly and simply and uses no great flourishes. He is moving in the scenes at the end of Part 2 when he is thrust aside by his former friend, now King Henry V. He shows what a consummate actor he is nowadays and it is well worth visiting the plays just to admire this great performance.

Also recommended

HOPE at the Royal Court (until 10 January 2015 Box Office 020-7565 5000) comes across as a play likely to be presented by the Tricycle Theatre, dealing, as it does, with political matters. Government cuts force local Councils to make dramatic cuts to their budgets. In this play by Jack Thorne we see one local council - in this case a Labour one - battle to save 22 million pounds. The Government makes them undertake the most terrible choices - whether to close a day care facility for those with learning difficulties or cut libraries and street lighting.

The subject matter is bang up to date and, although there is a lot of talk, Director John Tiffany manages to bring action into the play and the actors come across exactly like real Councillors battling against the odds in a working- class area.

Hampstead Theatre continues to present experimental plays in their Downstairs Theatre. Their latest ELEPHANTS (Hampstead Theatre until 17 January 2015 Box office 020 7722 9301), dealing with a gathering at Christmas, is Rose Heiney's first play. She has, however, written for TV, including for Miranda.

Given an excellent production by director Tamara Harvey and a very good cast, including Imogen Stubbs, Bel Powley and Antonia Thomas, it is a most interesting play full of salient points about relationships between husband and wives, between siblings and even between friends. I believe that we shall see and hear a lot more from this writer.


Carlie Newman

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