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FILM:May 2012

Once upon a time there was a beautiful film actress called Julia Roberts, who became old enough to play the mother in a film…. In MIRROR MIRROR (cert. PG 1hr. 46mins.) Julia Roberts narrates the story and begins by telling it from her point of view. Roberts plays the Wicked Queen, who has been left to bring up her step-daughter, Snow White (Lily Collins) after her husband the King has mysteriously disappeared.

Although Snow (as she is known) is the heir to the throne, the Wicked Queen actually rules the kingdom. She is greedy and spends money that she does not have. She obtains money by imposing taxes on the very poor people under her and we see them suffering as she systematically robs them. From time to time the Wicked Queen consults her magic mirror (which is portrayed as a mirrored image of herself) to find out who is the fairest in the land.

She is none too pleased to discover it is now Snow White because she is getting older.

Snow accidentally meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) without knowing who he is. The Queen, learning of his wealth, wants to marry the rich, handsome Prince. When he is reluctant to commit to the older woman, and is already in love with Snow, she puts a spell on him, which makes him behave like a dog, adoring the Queen as his master. In addition she sends her trusty courtier, Brighton (Nathan Lane) into the woods with instructions to leave Snow to be eaten by a terrifying beast. Taking pity on her, Brighton frees Snow and tells her to run away.

However, when he returns to court he pretends she is dead and the Queen and court believe him. Rescued by a group of seven rebel dwarfs, Snow persuades them to help her get rid of the Wicked Queen and save the Prince. Now it is up to Snow White and her little friends to rescue the Prince and restore just and sympathetic rule to the kingdom.

The dwarfs each have individual characteristics which suit their (new) names including Wolf, Napoleon, Grub, Butcher and Chuckles. In fact all the cast perform well and as much fun as possible is extracted from the script. The film uses lovely images to illustrate this fairy tale and the costumes - from the huge dresses worn by the Queen to the more modest outfits of Snow - are all absolutely beautiful.

Looking very much like Julie Andrews and with some of the same tongue-in-cheek attitude, it is good to see Roberts using her acting skills in a comedic role which really suits her. Made for children, but with much to appeal to adults, the film, which is directed by Tarsem Singh, is gorgeous to look at, witty and well acted. This is definitely one for parents or grandparents to take the youngsters to.

In spite of its three Oscar nominations (Glen Close for Best Actress, Janet McTeer for Best Supporting Actress and the Make-up artist), there has been very little publicity about ALBERT NOBBS (cert. 15 1hr. 42mins.). It has been designated an art-house film, which is a pity as there is much to appeal as the story is straightforward and easy to follow.

Janet McTeer (left) & Glen Close

Glen Close, who has been personally nursing this story for 30 years, ever since she appeared on stage in the play, is middle-aged Albert, who has been living as a man in order to have a job in poverty stricken Dublin in late nineteenth century Ireland. She is working as a waiter in a hotel run by domineering and mean Mrs Baker (excellent Pauline Collins). Albert has forgotten what being a woman is until she is discovered by Janet McTeer's Hubert, another woman, but one who has made herself a real life as a man with a wife and a nice little home.

So far Albert, who is alone in the world, has been working and saving for her dream of having her own business. Now she wonders if she can have a different life involving young Helen (pretty Mia Wasikowska). The supporting cast are all really good and Close is excellent as the diffident Nobbs. But the real find is handsome Janet McTeer who is outstanding as a rather lovely looking man with a good swagger and other male attributes! The film may well take some time to come to the attention of cinemagoers. In the meantime it is well worth the effort to seek it out - maybe a bit further afield - until it eventually comes near where you live.

Although Werner Herzog doesn't present a straightforward documentary film about capital punishment in INTO THE ABYSS: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (cert. 15 1hr. 46mins.), through his examination of the people involved and the fall-out from a triple murder in the USA, he presents a persuasive case for its abolition. He attempts to show why it is wrong for the state to legalise the death penalty even though a terrible crime has been committed. The senseless murders of a housewife and two teenage boys took place in Conroe, Texas in 2001. Michael Perry and his friend Jason Burkett were both convicted. Some 10 years later Herzog interviews the two perpetrators and speaks to some of those associated with the crime, including the daughter and sister of two of the victims, the Prison Chaplain and the new wife of one of the prisoners.

Perry talks of his imminent execution and says that he will find peace in death, but laughs when Herzog tells him that he will be medically examined to make sure he is fit to be executed. Herzog asks the Prison Chaplain, who attends state executions, "Why does God allow capital punishment?" but gets no answer. Baby-faced Michael Perry, who has been on Death Row for 10 years and is now awaiting execution in eight days, says, "I am either going home or Home."

Jason Burkett was saved from the death sentence and given life-imprisonment for 40 years because of his father's moving testimony about his son's deprived childhood and how he let him down. Melissa Burkett talks to Herzog about meeting and marrying Burkett in prison, without ever having touched him. Now she is pregnant with his baby by artificial insemination.

Fred Allen, former leader of the group which straps down a man about to be executed in Death House, describes the execution procedure and says that he undertook over 120 executions. He stopped (at the loss of his pension) after putting to death his first woman, "Nobody has the right to take another's life."

Perry was executed as determined and Melyssa gave birth to Burkett's son. Herzog states quite clearly that he is against the death penalty, not for the usual argument about whether a person is innocent but because it is wrong to kill another. The film is frequently moving and always emotionally involving. It is extremely well-crafted and has many touches of humanity and insight into the hearts and minds of the two main protagonists as well as those who have suffered because of the senseless killings.

Michael Perry

This film will linger in your mind for many a month; just don't let it keep you awake at night!

Kevin Macdonald's exploration of Bob Marley gives a very clear view of Marley as a singer, political activist and representative of his beloved Jamaica, In fact the visual images of the island in MARLEY (cert.15 2hrs. 24mins.) are so impressive that I want to buy my ticket to go there now!

Director Macdonald uses some excellent archive material which not only shows Bob singing, but also with his long-term wife Rita, who also worked as his backing singer, and members of his group, The Wailers. Macdonald is keen to get across the enormous impact that Bob had on the whole world and how he remains a legend some 31 years after his death.

With extensive interviews with Marley's wife, children, "baby mother" and other girlfriends, friends and musical colleagues, Macdonald is able, to a large extent, to show us what made Bob the legend he is. We see how he gradually became successful, always putting his music first and caring little for wealth.

Even when he went to America, he returned to Jamaica, "for more freedom." When he became rich, he had queues of people outside his home each day waiting for handouts and he gave to all. We are shown how Marley was affected by having a white father and being put in the position of a half-caste.

What remains in my mind is the fact that Bob had 11 children by 7 different partners and was religious! Apparently all his women adored him and his long-suffering wife was even called upon to remove young women from Bob's dressing-room from time to time!

He had a concern for peace and worked to bring a non-violent ending to the conflicts in his country. At one point he brought the two opposing political leaders together on stage and got them to join hands. He was really very modest - at one time agreeing to be the backing act for the Communards although he was the bigger star. It was a sad day not only for his own people but for music lovers everywhere when he died of cancer at only 36.

Music, speech and pictures are well-blended in the film. Although the film is very long, it is well-shot, with some great archive footage, truly absorbing and gives us a fascinating study of a music legend.






If you are looking for something with an educational element, do try THE KING'S SPEECH (Wyndham's Theatre booking until 21 July*).

The King's Speech: Charles Edwards with Emma Fielding

When Bertie (as Prince Albert is known by his family) is unexpectedly thrust into the limelight, he is petrified that his speech defect will stop him from ruling in a proper manner. He already suffers because his brother David (King Edward V111 for a short while) decides to abdicate in order to marry the twice divorced Wallis Simpson. Luckily Bertie has a sympathetic and resourceful wife, Elizabeth (Bowes-Lyon), and she finds him an excellent speech therapist.

That Lionel Logue is Australian and has aspirations of going on the stage is somewhat off-putting, but Bertie perseveres in spite of Logues's unconvential teaching methods. Logue believes in informality and wants the prospective King to reveal all his childhood secrets. The somewhat repressed Bertie finds this very hard and gets out his cigarettes. Horror! "No cigs" barks Logue to the amazed Prince who has been told by other speech therapists that smoking would assist his speech-making. We see how childhood traumas have brought about the King's stammer and it is only by systematically working on freeing the Sovereign from his fears that Logue is able to help the King deliver his coronation speech without trouble.

Charles Edwards catches King George V1's diffidence combined with his supreme belief in the divine right of royalty. Emma Fielding looks like the late Queen Elizabeth. Jonathan Hyde's Logue is a good match for Edwards and combines gritty determination with a sympathetic personality. While not as moving as the recent film, the play is worth seeing for the performances and demonstration of an unusual form of teaching.

* It will now close at London's Wyndham's Theatre on May 12. Producers of the show said in a statement: "Two years ago, originating producer Michael Alden was ready to put the play on and the film came along and blocked its path."At the start of this year, we believed that enough time had passed between the film and our opening. This clearly was not the case.

"We are extremely proud of what we have accomplished. It is a production of genuine quality that has been critically and publicly acclaimed across the board."

From the moment one enters the Unicorn Theatre, one can feel the excitement and joy of the children about to see a show especially for them. There are adults around to help them make pirate hats and eye patches before they are ushered into the auditorium. And then the show itself…THE LEGEND OF CAPTAIN CROW'S TEETH (until 15 April) is the first of many productions to be headed by Purni Morell in her first Unicorn season as artistic director.

The tale of nine-year-old Will (Alasdair Hankinson) and his family on holiday in a caravan near submerged rocks, known as Captain Crow's Teeth and their encounter with the frightening Captain Crow who after 300 years is still searching for the cabin boy who attacked him with an axe.

My companion, Daniel Heywood aged 12, really enjoyed the play, particularly as he knows the book by Eoin Colfer on which it is based.

Miles Yekinni (Dad) and Alasdair Hankinson (Will) in The Legend of Captain Crow's Teeth at the Unicorn, London Photo: Robert Day

He liked "the amount of audience inclusion was just right, there wasn't so much that it made the play cheesy but wasn't so little that the audience weren't sitting there doing nothing." Daniel also appreciated the stage layout which managed to combine various locations. He comments, "The stage lay-out was really cool and the play was just the right length for children my age because any longer and we get bored but any shorter and it wouldn't be worth the journey. My favourite part was the bit where the cast squirted us with water pistols because lots of boys love getting squirted with water pistols. I also like the fact that their summer holiday was almost precisely the same as my own summer holidays." The small cast performed well taking on more than one role in some cases. Daniel and the audience enjoyed the spooky atmosphere of the play, which was very well lit with excellent sound.

Daniel: "I like the fact that the author left the play on a sort of cliff hanger. Were the pirates real or not? We will probably never find out."

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs is presenting a new play by Nigel Gearing, BLUE HEART AFTERNOON (until 12 May). Set in Hollywood in 1951, just at the time there was a second wave of investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) into communism in Hollywood. Ernie (Stephen Noonan), an Oscar-winning songwriter tells the audience his story. Although the incidents within the story are not easy to follow, the outline is clear. We find that Ernie was somewhat ambiguous in support of his colleagues accused of communism and is now worried that this might affect his future career. He is visited by ageing German Diva (Sian Thomas) who is looking for a vehicle to boost her career and by the Ingénue (Ruby Bentall) who is searching for her first break.

Also wandering on to the stage from time to time is Harry (Peter Marinker), who, although dying, is still a studio mogul. It would have been interesting to hear more about the activities of the HUAC. There are some witty one-liners and hints of sexual shenanigans with Ernie and the Ingénue and the Ingénue and the Diva and a most unusual twist at the end.

The set is beautiful, with a wide vista outside and seating area with a piano on a dais. The acting is uniformly good with a lovely emphatic performance by Thomas and a naïve-seeming Bentall (who was so good in Lark Rise to Candleford). Worth seeing just for the performances and the set!

Alan Ayckbourn is always exciting to watch and here at the Tricycle he is directing a play that he has written for the Stephen Joseph Company in Scarborough. NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH (until 5 May) is set in the Bluebell Hill Development and shows newcomers, Martin and his sister Hilda getting to know their neighbours and learning about the vandalism and hooliganism, along with "drugs and incest" around the Development.

The neighbours fill them in at their first house-warming party and then gather to explore further as Martin establishes a neighbourhood watch scheme. A mixed bunch of neighbours includes a former security expert and various gossip mongers.

Mild-mannered Martin joins in as the group gradually becomes bogged down in bureaucracy, setting up a discipline and punishment committee and putting up a kind of border control.

It ends terribly as the police come in and shoot Martin in a weird kind of foretaste to the tragedy in Florida where a "community watch co-ordinator" killed Trayyon Martin.

Ayckbourn's 75th play is another of his bleak comedies and, although there was laughter I found it moving and interesting but not very amusing.

The ensemble acting is a treat and the author is obviously able to get the set, the actors and the pace exactly to his own liking. Matthew Cottle as Martin and Alexandra Mathie as his sister are particularly good.

It's amazing what the Young Vic has managed to include in its 80minutes production of WILD SWANS (until 13 May). Like many I suspect, I have heard of but not read Jung Chang’s memoir.

On a stage full of Chinese people, we see a market place crowd and are introduced to the main characters, part of a family whom we follow from 1948 to 1978. Chang tells the story of her own family. In short scenes from various years, we see Shou-Yu (Orion Lee) who is the father of the author (here called Er-Hong and played by one of the stars of the Harry Potter films, Katie Leung) asking the Communist Party for permission to marry De-Hong (Ka-Ling Cheung).

Wild Swans at the Young Vic

De-Hong, who, along with her husband, is a loyal member of the Party, is punished because her mother (Julyana Soelistyo) was once a warlord's concubine and thus is considered a member of the privileged class even though she was forced into it.

Shou-Yu is later arrested and sent to a labour camp because he criticises Chairman Mao, who he blames for taking grain from the farmers and selling it to buy nuclear bombs. De-Hong is made to kneel on broken glass. Er-Hong herslf has to undertake menial work before finally being granted permission to leave to study in Britain.

Director Sacha Wares has mounted a visually exciting production with design by Miriam Buether (watch out for these two when it comes to the next lot of awards) which is executed with extraordinary precision. A plain backdrop is washed with water to reveal - like transfers - a set of propagandist posters. We then see a scene of water both on the stage and on video film in the background, depicting the labour camp where Shou-Yu is sent. Even the crowded station has blocks showing film of people moving about.

The wonderful staging makes it seem like watching cinemascope with lots happening on the wide stage. The company makes use of a community chorus of Chinese Londoners. They play in various scenes and also work diligently to clear earth from the stage, get rid of water, paint the background as well as singing. There is, indeed, excellent acting all round, which helps the production - part of the World Stages London season highlighting the cosmopolitan diversity of the city - to show the various stages in China's progression from communism, Chairman Mao and the cultural revolution to the gradual easing up of the harsh regime after his death. Highly recommended.

Like Shakespeare there have been many different interpretations of Chekhov's play, UNCLE VANYA.

This new translation by Mike Poulton is admirably realised in Lucy Bailey's revival at the Print Room (initially until 28 April, returning 18 June to 7 July). With the audience seated on all sides, we get a real feeling of the claustrophobia of the group living and working together - not exactly in perfect harmony. Vanya (Iain Glen) realises that he has virtually wasted 25 years in toiling on the country estate owned by his brother-in-law, a Professor with a young wife. He now hates the pompous Professor (David Yelland).

Iain Glen and David Shaw-Parker in 'Uncle Vanya'

Matters come to a head when the Professor and his wife, Yelena (Lucinda Millward) come to stay. Both Vanya and Dr Astrov (William Houston) fall in love with her; Astrov rejecting the sad, rather plain Sonja (Charlotte Emmerson), Vanya's niece, in the process. When the Professor announces that he wishes to sell the estate to give himself extra cash to live in town, Vanya's frustration boils over. We see the results of years of monotonous existence and lack of emotional fulfillment.

Iain Glen is excellent as Vanya and is more than adequately supported by Houston's Astrov and a quiet but most sincere performance by Emmerson. The smaller parts, too, show the results of Lucy Bailey's diligent work and I particularly admired David Shaw-Parker's clumsy and amusing Telegin who visibly suffers when nobody remembers his name, and David Yelland's self-admiring Professsor.

Furniture is moved around and, with a few tweaks, one room turns into another. The sounds of life going on outside the house, including birdsong, are skillfully produced and the whole atmosphere of the play brings this slice of Russian existence to life.

Chris Larner performs his one man AN INSTINCT FOR KINDNESS, which he also wrote, at the Trafalgar Studios , London (until 28 April and then on tour around Britain. For details see http://www.aifk.co.uk/tour/)

In 75 minutes Chris tells how his ex-wife, Allyson, with whom he had remained friends, got him to promise to help her get to Dignitas in Switzerland if the pain and discomfort from multiple sclerosis became too hard to bear. He manages to show both his wife's agonies and horrible distortions as he explains her toilet problems and worry about going outside as she gradually worsens.

The time comes when she calls on him to help her and, even though he realises that he might be prosecuted for his assistance, Chris agrees. He acts out the different stages in their preparations, dealing with the mountain of paperwork, the journey and step by step road to the final act. He also shows how their grown-up son, George, supported his mother and her decision to end her life right up until the last moment when he found that it was too hard for him to travel with them, although Allyson's sister, Vivienne, went along. George became so distressed, in fact, that he made a number of phone calls to his mother in her last hours pleading with her to change her mind, but Allyson was quite sure what she wanted to do. She had already signed statements to Dignitas and to social services saying, "I am of sound mind and being of sound mind I want to die." He takes Allyson in a wheelchair and comes home with an empty chair.

Chris really knows how to put his and his ex-wife's story across effectively and along with the many emotionally moving moments there are some humorous ones such as Allyson deciding that she doesn't need to floss her teeth on her last day alive. Chris gives us some ideas to chew over: is it the right thing to do, being uppermost, but he and Allyson were absolutely sure that she was in such agony that only the only option was to release her.

To put Charles Dickens' A TALE OF TWO CITIES on stage is difficult enough. To then make it into a musical is doubly difficult. The Charing Cross Theatre, London (until 12 May) has done both and on a very small stage.

There is not much room for the characters to emote and unfortunately the director, Paul Nicholas, has them fairly static almost the whole time. Steven David Horwich and David Soames have written the book and David Pomeranz the music for this production. Most of the singing is fine, although the songs are not exactly hummable. I like Jonathan Ansell's Charles Darnay - good voice and pleasant to watch and Michael Howe, although much older than Darnay, is a strong Sydney Carton. The women have a harder job but Jennifer Hepburn trills nicely as Lucie and Pippa Winslow is an amusing Miss Pross.

Jonathan Ansell (Charles Darnay) and Jennifer Hepbun (Lucie) in A Tale of Two Cities

I rather enjoyed the rumble of the trains overhead and the intimate nature of the surroundings. Unfortunately the very small stage and content of the story make it appear like a poor man's version of Les Miserables.

There is plenty above to watch outside the home, both in the cinema and in the theatre. But how about a quiet read at home? The Theatre Book prize, organised by the Society of Theatre Research held their awards this week. Mouth-watering books on the theatre and theatre research were described by the judges and of the six shortlisted books, the winner was David Weston with Covering McKellen: An Understudy's Tale, his description of spending a year as understudy to Ian McKellen during the tour of KING LEAR. For details of the rest, visit the Society's web site, www.str.org.uk

Carlie Newman

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