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FILM:July 2014

Clint Eastwood's JERSEY BOYS (cert. 15 2 hrs. 14 mins.) makes a good stab at giving us a glimpse into the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons from their petty criminal background in New Jersey to big success in the 1960s. Director Eastwood has adapted the very successful stage show to give us an enjoyable, though not particularly deep, movie.

Eastwood uses the stage show's format of having each member of the band talking directly to camera, each narrating part of the story. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) is a real junior ne'er-do-well in New Jersey. He steals goods and then sells them. However, he is keen on music and together with his mates Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) come together to play and undertake minor crimes, backed by the mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). Through Joe Pesci (Joey Russo), later on the famous actor, they meet up with song-writer/singer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) whose participation and contribution to the group through his writing leads them to produce the hit songs Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry, and Walk Like a Man. The Four Seasons become highly successful to the detriment of Frankie's marriage and eventually leading to discord within the group.

All the musical numbers have been recorded live, and, as with Les Miserables, this brings a special quality to the songs. In particular John Lloyd Young as Frankie catches the star's falsetto tenor. The band's performances of the songs are all staged in a professional manner and provide energetic interludes in the story.

Jersey Boys suffers from a somewhat weedy script and undramatic story line. While Walk the Line, the film about Johnny Cash, put across a strong dramatic tale, here the lives of the Four Seasons boys are muted. This might well be because Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio are producers on the film. We are never completely sure if the film is mainly about Tommy DeVito - a charismatic performance by Piazza - who insists on being in charge and is only saved from disaster by the boys showing that their New Jersey connections and loyalty to friends is more important than money.

Or about Valli, whose love story with Mary Delgado (Renee Marino) is given space early on in the film, but whose separation is handled somewhat summarily.

I like the use of muted colour particularly early on; it gives a period feel to the film. The best presentation of a song actually comes at the very end of the film when the whole cast perform a great version of Oh What a Night. You'll enjoy this movie more if you accept that it is not a musical where the songs progress the action, but a story interspersed with musical numbers.

Which is more important in a marriage, the wedding or life together after the big day? Doug Block has been filming weddings for some 20 years; all kinds of weddings with an assortment of couples. He goes back to his original footage of a handful of the 112 he has filmed to examine the wedding day footage and then, in the documentary, 112 WEDDINGS (cert.PG 1 hr. 30 mins.) which he wrote, directed and edited, he interviews the couples some years later. Doug elicits some very candid responses to the questions he poses to the 10 couples he has chosen. Doug Block has been videotaping weddings as a side line to his other activities and has found that he formed a bond with his couples. He uses this ability in his interviews.

Most of the couples present very different answers as he questions them about their expectations before they married, whether what they hoped for in marriage actually happened and if they are content now. All the couples look and act in an exuberantly happy manner as they pledge their love to each other on their wedding day. Later we wonder just how they thought it would last as we hear stories of ill-matching, coping with depression, infidelity and the life-threatening illness of the child of one couple.

It is sad to see that the wedding of Jodi and Michael hasn't worked out as Jodi expected. Their young daughter has special educational needs and, although Jodi saw herself as using her business and medical degrees in a career, she has, of necessity, become a stay-at-home mum. One of the most moving is that of Olivia and Dennis whose daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumour at three years-old. Dealing with her and just keeping going has brought the couple closer together.

Janet and David were married for seven years before divorcing. We feel worried when we see David showing Doug his stack of pills on his wedding day. Another sufferer, Danielle has a paralysing form of depression but husband Adam sticks with her although at times he has to care for her and their child as though he has two children.

An even sadder case is that of Sue and Steve who are currently in the throes of getting divorced after 19 years of marriage. We, the audience, become a bit voyeuristic as each one tells their side of the divorce including Sue's graphic account of how she learnt of her husband's infidelity.

My favourite couple are Janice and Alexander, who were completely against marriage when Doug first filmed them in their elaborate partnership celebration. But now, 13 years, later for "practical reasons" with two teenage daughters they have decided to have a proper marriage ceremony. We can see they are still devoted to each other.

The film includes a lesbian couple who marry to achieve an equal place in society. The film concludes with one new marriage: we see the days leading up to Heather and Sam's wedding and their joyous anticipation of marriage lasting for ever.

Director Doug Block has edited his film well so that we don't see the footage of any of the wedding day speeches (which most of us know only too well) but look simply at the couple as they exchange vows, kiss and skip off. In the interviews, because we are shown the couple sitting side by side on a sofa, we can observe their body language and interaction as well as hearing them speak.

We have seen that happily ever after is complicated to say the least. Doug is the narrator and a major presence throughout, commenting on the marriages of the interviewees and also on the institution of marriage. And what of Doug Block? Well, he has been married for 28 years and at the very end of the film writes "for my wife Marjorie."

Most of BELLE (cert. 12A 1 hr. 44 mins) takes place at Kenwood House, which is on Hampstead Heath, London.

After her mother's death Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the daughter of a Royal Navy officer and an African woman, who was a former slave, is left by her father with her great uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson) at Kenwood House which in 1769 is on the edge of London. She is brought up to be a companion to her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). While the family accept her they are so fearful of other people's opinions that Dido eats separately when there is company.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw & Sam Reid

The girls are pursued by fortune hunters but Dido develops an interest in the case concerning the wrongful deaths of a large number of slaves on a ship that her great-uncle is dealing with in his role as Lord Chief Justice. She also falls in love with a lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid) the son of a poor parish priest. Based on the true story of Dido Belle - a portrait of the two cousins was, until recently, hung in Kenwood House - Lord Mansfield is influenced in his decision, which helped to end slavery in England, by caring for the intelligent and very beautiful Dido. Ably directed by Amma Asante, Tom Wilkinson gives another of his fine performances, but Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the real star.






Here is a round-up of what is new in the theatre:

Brian Friel's adaptation of Ivan Turgenev's novel on to the stage, FATHERS AND SONS (Donmar Warehouse, London until 26 July. Box office 0844 871 7624) exactly captures the right tone of the Russian author.

Anthony Calf as Nikolai & Joshua James as Arkady in Fathers and Sons

Set in 1859, two university students visit their families. The play starts off with Arkady (Joshua James) visiting his father's house with his friend Bazarov (Seth Numrich). Arkady is surprised to learn that his father, Nikolai (Anthony Calf) has made his serf-lover (Caoilfhionn Dunne) pregnant. Bazarov comes up against Nicolai's brother, Pavel ((Tim McMullan), a dandy who disagrees with Bazarov's political views.

Bazarov is a nihilist who believes that traditional Russia should be done away. His friend, Arkady, thinks Bazarov is a genius and passionately supports his views.

When Bazarov visits his own parents, he resents his father (Karl Johnson), who is so proud of his son, for his ineffectual behaviour with his servants and the way he administers medicine in his position as the local doctor. His mother (Lindy Whiteford) is equally doting on her son.

The play is beautifully written and Lyndsey Turner manages to highlight the small nuances so that all the characters get their moments and are in turn very well portrayed. This is a true ensemble piece of theatre with the cast working well together. They are assisted by a stage suggesting its Russian location with wooden slats all around.

Seth Numrich has an impeccable English accent and looks as handsome as he did in Sweet Bird of Youth. He has the right blend of brashness and impetuosity for the part. He is well matched by Joshua James who portrays the virtual worshiping of his friend in a clear and non-showy characterisation. There is a nice cameo from Susan Engel as a somewhat confused elderly princess and Karl Johnson, who we are more used to seeing on television, is most moving as the adoring father. Anthony Calf manages to convey Arkady's father's hesitation over life itself and Caoilfhionn Dunne's servant shows in her body movement her timidity at taking a full part in the life of the main household. Altogether a fine play beautifully performed.

The reaction of some people to THE CONFESSIONS OF GORDON BROWN (Ambassador Theatre (30 July. Box office 0844 8112 334) reminds me of the audience's reaction to broadcaster Brian Hayes who used to do a talk show on LBC: right-wing people thought he was too left-wing and left-wing folk accused him of putting forward right-wing views! Here the reaction has been similar - while many of us thought that Kevin Toolis's play showed a distinct anti-Brown bias, other have described Toolis as left-wing!

In his satirical play, which apart from a brief prologue from Toolis himself, is all about Ian Grieve as Gordon Brown, the former Labour Leader who succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister, and shows him looking back on his career as he waits for a meeting to start . The play is a monologue by Brown, and shows him looking back on his career as he waits for a meeting to start. We find that Gordon is hard-working and extremely ambitious. He also - at least in this interpretation - likes being a public figure and having the power that's invested in the leader of the country.

We are given bits of information about how and why Gordon became the Prime Minister and his rather fraught relationship with Blair. Some of Gordon's foibles are revealed but also his genuine wish to serve his country. I liked the Brown definition of how to win power, "height, hair and teeth". Grieve captures Brown's mannerisms and doesn't overdo the mouth twist.

This is an entertaining and occasionally revealing portrait of an honest, worthy man who was a very good Chancellor of the Exchequer but never achieved greatness or popularity as Prime Minister.

MR. BURNS (Almeida Theatre, London until 26 July 2014. Box office 020-7354 4404)

It is surprising to see this play at the Almeida because, after a series of hits, this seems to be a dud.

Following a catastrophe there is no electricity and in the first act a group sit around a bonfire in near darkness telling a Simpson episode. For those not in the know, Mr Burns is Homer Simpson's boss, the owner of the nuclear power plant where Simpson works.

In act two, which takes place seven years later there are more re-creations, but this time concerning adverts as well as the Simpsons. Long lists of food and drinks are given.

The third act is 75 years later and is the liveliest of the three with lots of movement and song and a cartoon car (see picture above). There are good designs and costumes and, indeed, a cartoon feel about the scene. I am not sure what this has to do with a post-electric age. Mr Burns appears here and raps at the end. The final part is very pretty with coloured blinking lights on stage and all around the whole auditorium.

Mind you after two and three quarter hours with two intervals - and I've not been to anything with two intervals for many years - I was more than happy to get to the end. The first act was so dark that it was difficult to see anything and the Simpsons re-creation was fairly meaningless unless you are a Simpsons' devotee. The long lists of food and drink in act two were most uninteresting. In fact the only part worth watching was the attractive ending (by then some of the audience had departed). I must say though that during the intervals and also, surprisingly, at the end the theatregoers present were having intellectual conversations about high and low culture, which not-so-apparently is a theme of the play. For those who are really knowledgeable about and enjoy the Simpsons, go and see this; for the rest…give it a miss.

Although the very short run of THE C21 MERCHANT OF VENICE (Drayton Arms, South Kensington, London) has now finished, director Carol Allen and the producers, are hoping to put on further performances in the near future.

Sara (Shylock), Basssanio, Antonio

Carol Allen has adapted Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice to bring it into the modern age. Most unusually Shylock is a Jewess called Sara (Claire Garrigan) and the shipping merchant Antonio a Muslim. This production shows that the main themes: the power of money, racial prejudice and the expectation of a parent for their child are still of major importance today.

That the play works so well is mainly due to the performances of most of the actors. Garrigan is particularly fine as the female Shylock and we believe that she has been badly treated by the other racial groups and therefore feels justified in seeking revenge. When her daughter not only falls in love but elopes with one of Antonio's friends taking her mother's jewels with her, Sara feels entitled to insist on getting her pound of flesh.

Bassanio (Charlie Frost) is good looking and has a very pleasant demeanour. He works well with the Portia of Komal Amin. I liked the young lovers - Jessica (Sofia Stephanou), the unhappy daughter of Portia and Lorenzo (Richard Armah), her attractive suitor.

The main criticism of the production is the numerous scene changes. Actors come on after each scene to re-arrange the furniture, hang signs and so on. At a time when most sets are simplified to one basic set with just the odd chair, often brought on by the actor who is going to use it, this production, while looking good, suffers from the many gaps between scenes.

I must add, however, that on one of the hottest nights of the year, in an upstairs room, the whole audience returned after the interval having been outside and gulped some fresh air!

Once again the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park has come up with a straight play. HOBSON'S CHOICE (until 12 June. Box office 0844 826 4242) is a lovely comedy written by Harold Brighouse in 1915 but actually set in the 1880s. It has now been updated to the1960s.

Apart from the change of period, it is an excellent production: funny with a lot to say about female empowerment.

Henry Hobson (Mark Benton) rules his three daughters with a rod of iron, telling them what to do in his Salford boot maker's shop and deciding that, because it is cheaper to keep his daughters there, none of them should get married. He likes drinking rather too much. Led by the eldest Maggie (Jodie McNee) they rebel.

Willie, Hobson, Maggie

Maggie decides that she will marry Willie Mossop (Karl Davies), an exceptionally fine boot maker who is underemployed and under paid in Hobson's shop. In spite of his protestations that he is already engaged to someone else, Maggie merely orders him to "get loose of her."

How Maggie turns Mossop from a meek, mild, undemanding young man into her worthy masterful husband is the gist of the comedy. There are so many amusing scenes that we forget we are in the open air and truly believe we are participating in the lives of these Salford characters.

The revolving set is evocative of the changing area and the actors are absolutely on the top of their form here. The use of song is a master stroke and Benton is most believable as the rough, bossy father who has to succumb to the modern age. Jodie Mcnee is excellent as Maggie who seems to be all master until she shows a soft side with Willie on their wedding night. The sweetest person is Willie Mossop, played in the most charmingly attractive manner by Karl Davies. The rest of the cast are all completely in character.

My only quibble is with the updating. The 1960s saw the start of real freedom for women - the pill was available and they were able to earn their own money. To update this play misses out on the way that the sisters were reliant on men, particularly their father, to give them food and house and clothe them.

But sitting in the lovely park, watching a masterful production, with some great 1960s music, quickly makes one forget one's dislike of the updating and just enjoy this terrific play.

THE VALLEY OF ASTONISHMENT (Young Vic, London until 12 July 2014. Box office 020-7922 2922) brings together Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne in an exploration of the working of the brain.

In this amazing production, 89 year-old Brook shows that not only is he able to mount an extraordinarily good production but can also give us an astonishing theatrical experience. In just 75 minutes the directors shows us how synaesthesia works, how one sense in humans is stimulated by another.

We see Sammy Costas (Kathryn Hunter) who sees words as images and has the most phenomenal memory. She becomes the subject of various experiments by neurological scientists and, having lost her job as a journalist (she describes her boss thus: "His strident voice made big yellow splashes."), eventually ends up as a music-hall performer. Although this seems a wonderful gift, she becomes very troubled by her inability to forget. We are also introduced to two other characters.

Kathryn Hunter and Jared McNeill in The Valley of Astonishment

Suddenly Brook and Estienne surprise us with a fun session, almost an interlude: Marcello Magni, a one-handed magician, treats us to card tricks, involving audience members and a lot of humour. The show is interspersed with excerpts from the Conference of Birds (hence the title).

The setting is very simple with just chairs, a small table and a coat stand. Music is integrated into the whole production - but not just ordinary music. Here there are a variety of styles beautifully performed by two musicians, Raphael Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori.

Kathryn Hunter is excellent as the main character and the only female. She is so expressive with a body and face that are in continuous motion expressing all her feelings. Jared McNeill and Marcello Magni support her by playing a number of different characters. For a lesson in how to give an audience a truly great theatrical experience, visually as well as through expert performers, do go and see this production.


Carlie Newman

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