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FILM:May 2011

The Western has been a traditionally male genre of film with men as the protagonists and aimed at the male cinema-goers. MEEK'S CUTOFF (cert. PG 1hr.44mins.) gives us women as the leading characters and deals with their take on the masculine world as well as the way that they cope with the difficult environment. A group of seven are crossing the Oregon plains in three wagons on their way to the west in 1845. The film starts in virtual silence with just the sounds of the creaking wagons as we see three families making their slow way along the Oregon Trail to the West.

They are led by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who has got them lost, but assures them that he can find a cutoff or shortcut that will save time.

Thomas Gately (Paul Dano) and his wife Millie (Zoe Kazan) are the youngest couple and find the whole experience most bewildering. William White (Neal Huff) and his wife Glory (Shirley Henderson) are more mature and very religious. They are accompanied by their young son, Jimmy (Tommy Nelson). The rebel of the group is Emily (Michelle Williams) married to Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) who is not such a strong character as his wife. When a native American (beautifully played by Rod Rondeaux) is captured, most of the group realise that he could be a better and more successful guide than Meek and they have to make a decision about whether to use him or not. Meek, who has traditional views, including racist behaviour towards the captive, wants to kill the Indian.

The women work well together as they cook side by side in the near darkness and later support each other by sharing their meagre rations and helping to move heavy wagons which after a time have to be emptied of most of their goods. We observe the women from different angles as we peek under their big bonnets, which have peaks at the front and cloth at the back of their necks. The acting is of a consistently high standard and all manage to convey not only their individual characteristics, but also the period feel and hope and desperation of people trying to find a better life.

Kelly Reichardt's real strength lies in her ability to create, through her use of the huge expanse of land that we see and the sounds which come to us often in waves from the men in the distance to the quiet conversation of the toiling women, the feel of hard living in a very difficult terrain. There are some beautifully placed and edited shots. Although the film is set in land that makes it seem a Western, it is far from the usual genre in that what we have here is the story of a journey of hardship told in a lyrical vein. The film ranks as one of the best films this year…so far

In a somewhat different vein, the prize winning (London Film Festival, Cannes) documentary, ARMADILLO (cert. 15 1hr. 40mins.) shows a group of Danish soldiers as they prepare to go to war in Afghanistan. They patrol and finally engaging in fighting. Director, Janus Metz went right into the heart of the forward operating base of Armadillo, Helmand province and shows the soldiers trying to get information from the locals. The villagers explain that the soldiers come asking for assistance and then they go away and the Taliban appear and inflict deadly harm on them. There has been controversy about the soldiers shooting the captured, wounded Taliban. Far from being charged, some received medals and we are left to wonder if they acted correctly in a war situation.

Worth catching at the end of May is a terrifically acted and photographed re-issue of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 APOCALYPSE NOW (cert.15 2hrs.33mins.) with Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando. The film is concerned with the war in Vietnam - but has much in common with our present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Already re-issued is the USSR's 1925 film BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (cert.PG 1hr. 11mins.), which is extraordinarily good. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein with Edmund Meisel's original orchestral score, it tells us about the navy mutiny that sparked off the Russian Revolution. There are many memorable scenes in Eisenstein's innovative masterpiece. If you have already seen the film in the past, you will no doubt remember the Odessa Steps sequences. The image of the pram careering down the steps at the climax of the massacre of Odessa's citizens will definitely remain with you.






It's a time of austerity and there is a royal wedding looming. This is the background for BETTY BLUE EYES (Novello until 22 October). Sounds just like now, doesn't it? Except that we find talk of rationing, Attlee and the recent war. In fact, this musical version of the lovely film, A Private Function, is set in Yorkshire and deals with a pig being illegally reared by toffs for a wedding banquet in 1947.

Keeping to Alan Bennett's satire, the show covers small-town snobbery, the difficulties of feeding a family on post war rations and the greed of local bigwigs for status and gratitude. It is very well performed, particularly by Reece Shearsmith and Sarah Lancashire as the chiropodist and his wife, who steal Betty, the pig (a fantastic animatronic creation complete with fluttering eyelashes) when they are denied an invitation to the banquet. Adrian Scarborough is very funny as the meat inspector who prowls around like Inspector Clouseau. While this is no Billy Elliot, the music is tuneful and the choreography inventive.

Another full-of-fun musical is Gilbert and Sullivan's IOLANTHE (Wilton's Music Hall, E1, until 7 May: box office 020 7702 9555). Presented by the all-male company who staged the wonderful Pirates of Penzance the cast still have male haircuts and make-up and no bosoms, but wear women's clothes and - if they are playing females - sing soprano.

Sasha Regan once again directs with great enthusiasm and the choreography, although simple, is effective and the dances and songs, such as "We are dainty little fairies" are performed very slickly.

Shaun McCourt as the Lord Chancellor and Christopher Finn Iolanthe (see picture) perform well together, while Alan Richardson manages the high falsetto for Phyllis almost all the time.

Alex Wetherill is an outrageously camp Fairy Queen. The costumes and lighting and general effects are devised to bring out the humour and it is, indeed, all great fun. Christopher Mundy, the pianist, who is the sole musician and all the actors perform extremely well, and, of course, we have the terrific music and lyrics of G & S.

Closing early as it has been panned by most critics, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (Novello until 21 May) is a completely sung musical - but without any particular hummable tunes - based on the lovely 1964 film, which was directed by Jacques Demy and starred young Catherine Deneuve. It tells the story of young lovers, 20-year-old garage mechanic, Guy and 17-year-old Geneviève, who works in her widowed mother's umbrella shop.

Guy vows to remain true when he leaves for a two year stint in the army in Algeria. However, when she realises she is pregnant with Guy's child, Genevieve has to choose between waiting for him or marrying a rich diamond merchant.

I came out wanting to re-visit the original film. But the show looks good and the two leads, Carly Bowden as Genevieve and Andrew Durand as Guy, sing and perform sweetly and Joanna Riding gives a good performance as Genevieve's still amorous mother.

It is a great pity that the excellent SHARED EXPERIENCE have lost their Arts Council funding. The theatre company appears to tick all the right boxes: innovative, new writing performed by a dedicated experimental group. An example of their work, BRONTE, written by one of the artistic directors, Polly Teale, and directed by the other Nancy Meckler (with whom I learnt Yoga in an adult education class many moons ago!)

can be seen at the Tricycle Theatre (until 30 April, then touring Richmond Theatre, 10-14 May, Box office 0844 871 7627 Theatre Royal Bath 17-21 May, Box office 01225 448 844 West Yorkshire Playhouse 24-28 May, Box office 01132 137 700 Glasgow Citizen 1-4 Jun, Box office 0141 429 0022 and Yvonne Arnaud Theatre 7-11 June, Box offfice 01483 440 000).

The play gives an insight into the lives of the three sisters, with particular emphasis on the descent into alcoholism of the only boy, Branwell (Mark Edel-Hunt), who is not able to match the creative genius of his sisters. Showing the individual characteristics of the sisters are Elizabeth Crarer as Emily (although I didn't like her urchin haircut), Kristin Atherton as Charlotte and Flora Nicholson as a very young Anne.

For Neil Diamond fans, a show based on his album, BROTHER LOVE'S TRAVELLING SALVATION SHOW is now touring in its own big top. Starring Brian Conley as Brother Love, the show celebrates the songs of the singer in a concert form. Directed and choreographed by the excellent Craig Revel Horwood, it has much of his outrageous camp theatrical flourishes. It is difficult to make every song different and yet Revel Horwood's staging manages to achieve this. Darren Day shows that he can act a song as well as just sing and Ben James Ellis also does well in the musical stakes. The real star is, course, Conley, who is one of the most exuberant performers around.

He prances around the stage and talks to the audience from time to time. He also conducts a general participation song and everyone waves their arms to "Sweet Caroline." Whenever he is on stage, there is certainly an extra buzz.

There are some lovely instrumentalists, led by the Musical director, Richard Weeden. Although the costumes are, at times, over the top, they seem to suit both the performers and the overall staging. The big top travels with the company so everyone can enjoy the setting of a concert tour with an additional zing. Although I didn't start out as a Neil Diamond fan, by the end of the show, the songs were buzzing in my head and I felt very much a part of this flamboyant celebration of 60s music.

Following performances at Leeds Castle and Cheltenham Racecourse, the nation wide show travels on to:19-24 April Beaulieu, Hampshire; 6-30 April Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire; 3-8 May Rockingham Castle, nr Corby, Leicester; 10-15 May Goodwood Racecourse, West Sussex; 17-22 May Royal Sandringham Estate, King's Lynn

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE has arrived at the New Red Lion Theatre under the direction of Henry Filloux-Bennett. Amazingly this loud, somewhat drama school type show has already been extended until August 2011. This is a new version by Red Lion Theatres, and features all 37 Shakespeare plays and some sonnets in just 110 minutes,

complete with Titus Andronicus re-imagined as Gordon Ramsey's The F Word, all of the history plays as a Rugby match, and the world's shortest performance of Hamlet, at just 43 seconds long. The three actors, James McNicholas, Owen Roberts and Lucy Wooliscroft emote for all their worth, but some of the shouting is a bit too much to bear, especially the repeated screams by the actress. I must admit, however, that those around me seemed to derive a great deal of fun from the show and as it is sold out, perhaps there is something there that I have missed!

Hampstead Theatre's production of Mike Leigh's ECSTASY has transferred to the Duchess Theatre (until 28th May).

The RSC now brings its company's two plays to Hampstead. The first of these is Rona Munro's LITTLE EAGLE (until 7 May), which celebrates 50 years since Yuri Gagarin went into space. Unusually Munro's play concentrates on the life of the rocket designer, Sergei Korolyov, who we first see a prisoner in the harsh environment of the gulag in 1938.

Needed to oversee the construction of inter-continental long-range ballistic missiles, Korolyov is moved to Moscow. In addition to his contracted work, he also designs what is to become Russia's first space rocket. Yuri Gagarin is chosen from the small group of trainee pilots, who Korolyov dubs his "little eagles" as they have to be small enough to fit into the space capsule. In 1961 Gagarin, a tractor driver's son, (considered a more appropriate candidate than a better educated cosmonout) becomes the first man to orbit the earth. We learn something of Korolyov, the man as well as the chief designer who strives to perfect his space rockets and at the same time take care of his young cosmonauts.

The play begins with Stalin delivering a political speech and the second act opens with Khrushchev (an imposing Brian Doherty) addressing the United Nations about Cuba and the need to avoid war. While Khrushchev supports the space programme with enthusiasm, his successor, Brezhnev, is far from happy about the money and effort being expended while the Americans forge ahead. The stage is basically one design, but there is a lovely effect when the men are hoisted aloft into space and stars twinkle around them. The picture above shows a model of the spinning Sputnik.

The play is well-written and director, Roxanna Silbert manages to invest sufficient interest into the diverse elements so that it is always interesting and we learn about the space race and the politics - particularly the Soviet relationship with America. Darrell D'Silva delivers another of his energetic performances and once again Greg Hicks mesmerises in two small parts (a fellow prisoner in the gulag and an anti-space work General in Moscow). There is also an effective cameo by Noma Dumezweni as the doctor who enables the prisoner Korolyov to survive in the gulag and later treats him for heart attacks in Moscow.


Carlie Newman

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