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FILM: March 2009

At 78 Clint Eastwood both stars and directs the excellent GRAN TORINO (cert. 15 1hr.57mins.). Eastwood plays a bigoted racist, Walt Kowalski, a Korean war veteran. We first meet him at the funeral of his beloved wife, after which he finds that he is somewhat isolated in a community where his neighbours are mainly immigrants. His next door neighbours are from Hmong, South East Asia and Walt will hardly speak to them. He prefers talking to his dog and exchanging scowls with the grandmother next door. When the young son from next door, Thao, falls in with a bad gang of lads and attempts to steal Walt's car, a 1972 Gran Torino, which Walt helped to build on the assembly line where he worked until he retired, he is forced to become involved and gradually gets to know the family next door.

Gran Torino

He assists young Thao to get a job and instructs him in ways to be a man. He is helped by his barber friend and the Priest, who was very friendly with Walt's wife and tries to get Walt to take confession. Walt also forms a particular friendship with Thao's older sister and finds that he becomes closer to the Hmong family than to his own grown-up children and grandchildren.

A good script and a modest performance by Eastwood give a tough edge to the film, though at the beginning I was a little concerned that Eastwood would be in his Westerns persona. In fact the minor parts are also very well acted and Eastwood as director has managed to get very strong performances from the mainly inexperienced supporting cast. Although, as usual, Eastwood has a good ear for the music, much of it by his son Kyle Eastwood, he is also able to employ silence when necessary to great effect. As usual, too, the photography - here under the direction of Tom Stern - is excellent.

Also recommended: directed by Steven Soderburgh,. CHE : PART TWO (cert 15 2 hrs 7 mins.) again stars Benicio Del Toro as Guevera, this time fighting on behalf of the poor people in Bolivia. More satisfactory than the first part, perhaps, because there is no bad acting from the man playing Castro and also because this period is, perhaps, not so well known.


ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (cert. 15 1hr.30mins.) is a delightful, amusing study of the 1980s Canadian heavy metal band attempting a come back from their present obscurity. Now in their 50s, the film comes across as a spoof but is supposed to be all genuine!


Most of the capital's theatres offer concessions to pensioners - and if they don't, complain and let us know! Some theatres have special facilities for disabled people. One particularly good venue on both counts is the Young Vic's new building which has disabled loos and accessibility to all areas.

king lear

KING LEAR (until 28 March), which stars Pete Postlethwaite, makes good use of the stage, with steps leading up at the back. The audience sit on three sides and nobody is far away from the action, which proved a bit much for one man on press night: he fainted during a very bloody scene where one of Lear's daughters, Regan (Charlotte Randle) and her husband gouge out the eyes of the Earl of Gloucester (a strong performance by John Shrapnel).

There are some good touches from Director, Rupert Goold, who uses snatches of the tunes "My Way" and "And now the end is near" during the play. He makes the whole play accessible for a modern audience and those present sat absorbed for nearly 4 hours. And the King? Postlethwaite is not McKellan but has a good stab at the role and is suitably aged though not the "more than four score" referred to.

Another older person is shown in the portrayal of Quentin Crisp in RESIDENT ALIEN (New End Theatre, Hampstead, to 5 April)). Bette Bourne catches the inflections in Crisp's speech almost to perfection and gives us a sympathetic portrayal of the flamboyant homosexual. Bourne himself is quite a character and Tim Fountain who wrote and directed the play uses his personality and the actual words of Crisp to show how Crisp spent his time in New York at the end of his life.

A very different Alan Ayckbourne is seen in his play WOMAN IN MIND which he directs in this London production at the Vaudeville theatre. When I first saw this play in1986 Julia McKenzie played the part of a woman who has an imaginary family on stage with her while she tries, not very successfully to deal with the problems surrounding her and her actual family in real life. It is unusual to see Janie Dee, another actress better known for her musical roles than straight acting, in the part of the wife. However, she pulls it off with sensitivity although, to me at least, doesn't have the same powerful tug on the emotions as McKenzie did in the 1980s.

Here Ayckbourne directs his own play with a good cast and a stand-out performance by Paul Kemp as the accident-prone doctor. There were also more amusing moments than I remember from the earlier viewing. I don't think the sloping stage with a lot of grass assisted the production very positively.

DAMASCUS (Tricycle until 7 March), Philip Howard's acclaimed production of David Grieg's play was premiered at the Traverse in 2007 and now comes to London via New York, Canada and Russia before a tour of North Africa and the Near East. The original Traverse Theatre cast reprise their roles and Paul Higgins plays Paul an agnostic English teacher from Scotland who arrives at a hotel in Damascus in order to sell English textbooks to a language institute. After his return flight is delayed because of a bomb at Beirut airport he meets his Syrian contact Muna (Nathalie Armin) and begins a relationship with her as well as negotiations about his education material. They may have to make some changes to the textbooks but their difference of opinion, like the complexities and misunderstandings of relations between the West and the Arab world, soon escalates. Muna immediately objects to some of his material: "You can't promote individualism. You cannot discuss Israel. And you come here to tell us about human rights". Grieg's eloquent and intelligent play explores the power of unsaid things and the forms of censorship in the Arab world, in particular the secular. It is a suitably topical play beautifully acted, directed and designed and very much worth seeing.

George Savvides

The excellent THE PITMEN PAINTERS, showing older miners in 1934 learning art through doing it themselves has returned to the National Theatre. This not only shows the educational aspects of learning at any age and for everybody, but also how art has an emotional aspect and learning about painting affects all who try it. The artists became known as the Ashington Group. A wonderful cast and production in this play by Lee Hall.

There are many really good plays on offer this month; one of the very best is the Lindsay Posner directed production of Arthur Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE (Duke of York's). Ken Stott - who I wouldn't have rated one of my favourite actors before this - gives an excellent interpretation of Eddie who will not admit his feelings towards his niece, Catherine (Hayley Atwell).

A View From The Bridge

First staged in 1955 it depicts the lives of longshore men of Italian descent and their lives in the dock area in Brooklyn beneath the famous bridge. Eddie takes in the illegal immigrant cousins of his wife, Beatrice (most movingly played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Marco (Gerard Monaco) is working to support his wife and three children back home, where he hopes to return while Rodolpho (Harry Lloyd) wants to remain in the USA. Soon, however, he and Catherine fall in love and Eddie becomes jealous and tries to prove Rodolpho is homosexual. There is always the danger of the two brothers being discovered and deported. Stott is only small in stature but gives a towering performance in this well-written play. Good, too, to see Allan Corduner in a meaty role as the lawyer who tells the story of Eddie's downfall. There is a simple but effective set.

There is another play, which is also set amongst the longshoremen of New York but ON THE WATERFRONT (Haymarket) is a very different kind of production. Here we have a typically (in the best use of the word) Steven Berkoff production in that it is not realistic but stylised and choreographed to bring out the very core of the play which is based on Elia Kazan's 1954 film. As with A View From the Bridge the play references the McCarthy witch-hunts and many considered the film to be Kazan's justification for his role as a 'friendly' witness. The ensemble double as dockworkers and gangsters and, in both roles, act as a kind of chorus commenting on the action. Music, including, drumming, highlights the action. Simon Merrells brings off the Marlon Brando role of Terry Malloy with great panache and is good looking in a positive way rather than a carbon copy of the film version. Even his line, "I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody." comes across freshly. He shows Terry's conflict between doing what he knows is right and helping Edie (played with conviction by Bryony Afferson) find out who killed her brother and betraying his boss, Johnny Friendly, a member of his own family. Berkoff, as Johnny, uses his whole body to show the menace of the character in his energetic and almost over-powering direction of the play

THREE DAYS OF RAIN shows James McAvoy in a new light. I hadn't seen him on stage before only as a most effective film actor. Here his double portrayal of the son of a recently deceased famous architect who didn't really know his father intimately, coming to terms both with his death and the fact that he felt his father never really cared much for him and in the second act playing his own father when young is a real challenge. The first part takes place in an almost empty loft in Manhattan, where Walker (McAvoy) is joined by his sister Nan (Lyndsey Marshal) and friend Pip (Nigel Harman), who sees his own father's business partner as a much warmer person. In the second part the same three actors play different roles and we see in McAvoy's architect, Harman's own father Theo and Marshal's femme fatale who comes between the two how the origins of the later conflict began in 1960, during which the "three days of rain" occurred. The three act well together and McAvoy is particularly strong and almost manages to nail the father's stutter, though I would question its complete lack at some points.

At the GLOBE PRESS LAUNCH we learnt that amongst other goodies Ellie Kendrick (who has just finished being TV's Anne Frank) is to play Juliet under Dominic Droomgoole's direction, and Frontline a series of vignettes about multi-ethnic life in Camden is to return. The end of the season sees an exciting sounding new play by Trevor Griffiths around the life of Thomas Paine which is to be directed by Dromgoole, who announced the programme along with 18 year-old Kendrick and Griffiths.

Also recommended: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW RSC at the Novello): well. this is a difficult play for we women to deal with. At least there is no beating here, although as my (female) companion remarked Katharine is deprived of sleep and starved so we have domestic violence there.

The Taming of the Shrew

Having said that the RSC mounts a competent production and I particularly enjoyed Michelle Gomez' feisty heroine in the early stages, although the foot under Petrucio's (a lively, macho Stepehn Boxer) hand later on made the gorge rise somewhat! The same company performed The Cordelia Dream at Wilton's Music Hall, now a theatre, earlier in the year, but this showed their talents to somewhat better advantage.

THIS ISN'T ROMANCE (Soho Theatre) deals with the difficult subject of carnal relations between a brother and sister, albeit they were separated as small children. Miso (Jennifer Lim) has returned to Seoul after living with adoptive parents in England. After 25 years she meets with her brother (Mo Zainal) who is angry at having been abandoned as a small child. In-Sook Chappell deals with incest head-on in her first play and there are very moving, powerful performances from the two leads. The audience sat in frozen silence when I saw the production by Lisa Goldman.


Carlie Newman

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