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FILM: FILM: October 2009

Julia Child became a celebrity author and chef in the fifties, when she introduced French cuisine to America. Julie Powell is a young woman, who found fame in New York in 2002 by cooking her way through all the recipes in Child's books and writing a blog about them, which became a best seller. Nora Ephron's film, JULIE & JULIA (cert.12A 2hrs. 3mins.) is the real life story of them both.

Julie and julia

When Julia's husband's job takes him to Paris the couple discover the joys of French cooking. Meryl Streep is gloriously funny as Child, a colourful character with a bossy, booming voice that always sounds slightly inebriated and a blissfully appalling French accent. Her performance veers towards going over the top but never quite does. Her relationship with her devoted husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) is delightful and the recreation of a now much changed France as it was in the forties and fifties is nostalgically evocative.

Amy Adams is very engaging as Julie, who stuffs herself and her equally devoted and very cute husband Eric (Chris Messina) with every one of Julia's butter and booze laden recipes without apparently putting on an ounce. She's right: butter does taste better than oil and her boeuf bourguignon looks delicious, but, unlike other food themed films, this one doesn't go overboard on shots of glorious food - it's far more about the people. Ephron directs with aplomb and has written a very witty script with convincing characters. She tells the two stories skilfully about people who never meet, moving smoothly and clearly between them, though it's disappointing that even at the end the now aged Julia and her young acolyte don't even exchange correspondence, just as they didn't in real life.

A science-fiction film with a difference, a thriller set in the world of aliens - both of these can be found in DISTRICT 9 (cert.15 1hr. 52mins.), in which over a million alien refugees, in the form of prawn like creatures, have landed by mothership in Johannesburg. Once there they are quickly transferred to a shanty town (the District 9 of the title) where they scavenge for food and live a life completely separated from their host civilians.

District 9

After some 27 years Wikus (played by Sharlto Copley), the project leader of the Multi-National Union corporation is made responsible for transferring them to a large concentration camp. When Wikus accidentally becomes infected with the alien virus, he finds himself changing into a creature and pursued by MNU forces. The obvious apartheid connection is subtly portrayed and the movie is shot in a believable documentary style. Excellent performances by a largely unknown cast provide further realistic touches which make the film exciting and also give it a contemporary theme.

Do try to see FISH TANK cert.15 2hrs. 4mins), the latest film by Andrea Arnold, who brings her usual gritty realism to the story of 15-year-old Mia who lives with her mother (the excellent Kierston Wareing) and younger sister, Tyler (scene-stealing Rebecca Griffiths), in a high rise council flat in Essex. She's a rough, foul-mouthed product of an equally rough, swearing mother who shows her little affection. When shown kindness from her mother's new boyfriend she responds over-eagerly leading to near tragedy. There is a wonderful central performance by untrained new actress Katie Jarvis as Mia, who is near perfect in the part, except that she is supposed to be a good dancer which is not demonstrated here. Michael Fassbender plays the boyfriend in an entirely different manner from his angry hunger striker in Hunger. Although depressing in its depiction of an unhappy relationship it is excellently crafted and I hope you can find it locally.

Also recommended: Sam Mendes' amusing road movie, AWAY WE GO (cert.15 1hr. 37mins). like the other end of bookends to Revolutionary Road in that this is a light look at a relationship, a young couple who are expecting their first baby set out to discover who are their real friends and where they can set down roots after his parents (hers are dead) announce that they are moving to Antwerp for a couple of years before the baby is born. They meet up with some very quirky former friends and colleagues before they make a decision. With good photography and delightful performances from, amongst others, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolphe as the couple and Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara as his parents, it should have particular appeal to anyone who has ever had a child.

For fashionistas we have THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE (cert.12A 1hr 25mins), a documentary about Anna Wintour, the Editor of Vogue. Although out in cinemas it is also available on DVD from 21 September. Full of interesting insights into Ms Wintour, her staff and designers it will probably only really appeal to those interested in fashion.

Also recommended: THE SOLOIST (cert.12A 1hr.56mins.) is based on the true story of journalist Steve Lopez who finds a schizophrenic musician playing a violin with two strings on the streets of Los Angeles and writes a column about him. Both the men gain much from the friendship that develops between them. Directed by Englishman Joe Wright, there are some good scenes around a homeless shelter, and the parts are well-acted by Robert Downey Jnr (as he gets older reminding me of George Clooney) and James Foxx. And in time for half-term a delightful new version of the film TOY STORY IN 3D (cert. U 1hr. 21mins.), while HEART OF FIRE (no cert. 1hr.). 32mins.) tells of the child soldiers in Eritrea and, in particular, the difficulties faced by little Awet (an extraordinarily gifted performance by 10year-old Letekidan Micael).

Finally, DORIAN GREY (cert. 15 1 hr. 42mins.), based on the novel by OscarWilde: I found it exciting, even though I know the book well. Ben Barnes makes a lovely Dorian though without a great deal of charm and there is a particularly good performance from Colin Firth as Henry Wotton, who leads the naive Dorian into his wicked ways. Under the direction of Oliver Parker, the film has atmospheric photography showing London and other parts of England in Victorian times.

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL takes place 14-29October. There are lots of really good events including free screenings, a talk for seniors etc. Information, tickets from BFI South bank tel. 020 7928 3232


THEATRE TIP

If you hurry you may be able to catch a delightful production of HA HA HITLER! (Warehouse Theatre, Croydon until 11 October, then touring*). Ben Langley has directed a lively crew in this spoof escape yarn set in 1942 in German occupied France. With the minimum of scenery on moveable boards and a little choreography, the 4 actors three men and a woman, involve and elicit laughs from a participative audience. The cast even manage to mention Croydon a couple of times - they will have to be sharp to keep abreast of all the places they are visiting in the next few months! If I tell you that the place where they are held is called Chateau Plonke and the German in charge is General Von Schnitzershitz, you will know what to expect! Added to this there is a great effect of seemingly real snow falling at the end of Act 1.

*UK TOUR 2009/10 Oct to Feb 2010 visiting Blackfriars Theatre, Boston (Box Office 01205 363 108), Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham (0121 200 094), Pavilion Theatre, Worthing (01903 206 206), The Lights, Andover (01264 368 368), Dunstable Grove Theatre (01582 602 080), Dunstable Grove Theatre (01582 602 080), Dunstable Grove Theatre (01582 602 080), Hull New Theatre (01482 22 66 55), Newark Palace Theatre (01636 655 755), Banbury Mill Theatre (01295 279 002), Solihull Arts Complex (0121 704 6000),Bognor Alexandra (01243 86 10 10), Camberley Theatre (01276 707 600), Sedbergh People's Hall, Cumbria (015396 20788), Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge (01394 615 015),Bedford Corn Exchange (01234 269 519), Preston Charter Theatre (0845 344 2012), Lichfield Garrick (01543 412 121),Kings Lynn Corn Exchange (01553 764 864) ,Southsea Kings Theatre (023 9282 8282), Redhill Harlequin Theatre (01737 276 500),Horsham Capital Theatre (01403 750 220),Castle Hall Hertford (01992 531 500), Margate Theatre Royal (0845 130 1786), Lancaster Grand Theatre (01524 646 95),Stockport Plaza

THE DRUNKS/ THE GRAIN STORE (RSC Stratford-upon-Avon Courtyard Theatre until 1 October): The RSC Company is celebrating Russian Theatre with two new specially commissioned plays. Brothers Mikhail and Vyacheslav Durnenko's dark comedy, The Drunks is translated by Nina Raine and given an ambitious production by Anthony Neilson. Ilya (Jonjo O'Neil) is a young disillusioned war hero who returns to his small provincial town after fighting on the front line in Chechnya.

The Drunks and the Grain Store

Not only is his wife living with another man but she has also told their son that Ilya died in the war and he unwillingly becomes the town's centre of attention as well as a pawn in the petty rivalries and political ambitions of the Mayor (Brian Doherty) and Chief of Police (Darrell D'Silva). It is a very entertaining play which brings to mind Gogol's The Government Inspector but with a much darker edge. The talented actors imaginatively take over the stage from the very first moment while O'Neil makes an effective and suitably vulnerable hero.

Natal'ia Vorozhbit's The Grain Store benefits tremendously from Sasha Dugdale's poetic and sparkling new translation and Michael Boyd's terrific production. The flexible space of the Courtyard is used superbly by Boyd and his opening scene simply takes your breath away. Kathryn Hunter sitting on a large swing descends from the ceiling as she prays to God for her family's protection both past and present. It is a beautiful theatrical moment and also very touching. Then the story goes back to 1929 the time when Stalin first launched his catastrophic plan which demanded possession of all Ukraine's grain. His appalling order had devastating results for the whole country particularly in a small village where almost the whole population died from starvation. The play is not as bleak as it sounds and is performed with great humour, wonderful energy, with a clever combination of music and dance. Hunter who uses her physical theatre skills to great effect here is magnificent as Gavrilo the tiny and mischievous soldier who is caught up in these unfortunate events.

George Savvides

At his Press conference, Michael Boyd, Artistic Director of the RSC, announced that the two plays will return next season and will also probably come to London during the 10 week run at the Roundhouse.

The

Another excellent production at the National Theatre (until 7 October then touring*): Hanif Kureishi's THE BLACK ALBUM, based on his novel of the same name, set in 1989 shows the effect of racism on a young Asian who goes to college in London. He arrives from Kent full of enthusiasm, willing to work hard to please his mother. Then he becomes part of a group of anti-racists but also forms a relationship with his white college lecturer. His Muslim friends want him to turn to religion and work against his white acquaintances. Torn between the various strands of his life Riaz (a lively portrayal by Alexander Andreou) is forced to make a decision when he is drawn into the repercussions of the outcry over the fatwa against the author of The Satanic Verses. Kureishi's work always makes one think and this is certainly a thought -provoking production.

*20-OCT-09 to 24-OCT-09 West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre 0113 213 7700, 27-OCT-09 to 31-OCT-09 Liverpool Playhouse 0151 709 4776, 10-NOV-09 to 14-NOV-09 Oxford Playhouse 01865 305305, 17-NOV-09 to 21-NOV-09 Warwick Arts Centre 024 7652 4524, 24-NOV-09 to 28- NOV-09 Bath Theatre Royal 01225 448844

A production that is well worth reviving: Philip Ridley's THE FASTEST CLOCK IN THE UNIVERSE (until 17 Oct) was premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 1992. Set in the East End in a converted East End warehouse with an excellent set full of many detailed items of furniture and an array of stuffed birds, the narcissistic Cougar (a very attractive Alec Newman) is preparing for another party. Although in fact 30 Cougar keeps celebrating his 19th birthday. In this he is aided by his long-suffering and ever-loving partner Captain Tock (a moving performance by Finbar Lynch) who prepares his cake and drink in preparation for the seduction of a young boy. But the boys get ever younger, and, this time, Cougar is faced with a disaster in that 15 year-old Foxtrot Darling (good-looking young Neet Mohan) turns up with the pregnant fiancée of his dead brother. Jaime Winstone bursts on to the stage like a whirlwind and gives the most delightful portrayal of the 17-year old Sherbet. They announce they are in love and will marry with all the traditions associated with a conventional union. As Sherbet produces hats and party items along with more sinister revelations about Cougar, the play becomes menacing as well as thrilling and includes some very violent moments. Well directed and acted, the play more than justifies its reputation.

AN INSPECTOR CALLS (Novello, until 14 November) is also revival. Stephen Daldry's 1992 production was rightly praised at the time for its innovative introduction of three time frames: 1912, when the main action takes place, 1945, when it was first produced and 1992, the present (at that time). The wonderful set of a slightly tipping house on stilts, with the outside and downstage a waste area inhabited by a crowd living in the 1940s complete with sirens sounding at the beginning (when JB Priestley actually wrote his play). This small house (actually a mansion) is still lived in by the Birling family who, on the night Inspector Goole visits, are entertaining the fiancé of the daughter, Sybil.

An Inspector Calls

The self-satisfied family talk about the future which they see as all good. When the house opens up and the family step into the rubble we see them starting to confront the real world. We learn through his conversations with Inspector Goole that Mr Birling is a magistrate and former Lord Mayor and he is most unhappy at suggestions that he is any way connected with the suicide of Eva Smith, one of his workers who he sacked when she asked for higher wages. The other members of the family find that they, too, are involved in Eva's subsequent life as a shop assistant and later when she becomes pregnant, and eventually dies.

The play is brought up to date when the house lights are turned on and the Inspector directly confronts the audience reminding us that we are all responsible for each other. The play's dialogue is, at times, a bit dated but Daldry's use of the wonderfully evocative set and somewhat melodramatic music that accompanies his production bring out the thriller aspect of the play - the "what is going to happen next?" aspect - and the acting all round is spot on with a smart but sinister Inspector from Nicholas Woodson and a feisty daughter and son played by Sandra Duncan and Robin Whiting respectively. Do go and see this - it will be an experience to remember, I promise you!

It is very difficult to live up to a well-loved film and for many people THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (Wyndham's, until 14 February 2010), will always be a favourite movie. However, the play is not without its own merits. Set in Shawshank Prison, Maine USA, former banker, Andy (Kevin Anderson) finds that he has to struggle to protect both his body and his belief in himself. Wrongly found guilty of the murder of his wife and her lover, he suffers at the hands of a group of bullies, led by the vicious Bogs (Joe Hanley), who bash him up and - in one very graphic scene - rape him. Andy also forms a friendship with Red who acts as the 'fixer' in prison and can get anything an inmate wants, for a price, even the tools Andy says he requires for his hobby, chiselling stones. The main difference from the film, apart, of course, form the audience's active involvement in the live story taking place before them, is that this play returns to the source, the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Rebellion by Stephen King along with a very moving performance by Reg E. Cathey as Red. Both actors look like their movie counterparts, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, but the memory of Tim Robbins in the part of Andy makes you wish for a stronger performance by Kevin Anderson. Cathey, however, has a dangling looseness about him and the audience finds itself really touched by his characterization of the convict, Red, who keeps getting refused parole and we are genuinely moved, as he is, by his relationship with the financier.

Somewhat different, the new production of INTO THE WOODS at the Landor Theatre, London (until 17 October), is full of vigour and excellently sung by the quite small cast. Demanding a large orchestra the Stephen Sondheim musical here gets just a - very effective - piano. It is often fairly difficult to understand the meaning of a Sondheim musical but everything is completely comprehensible here. The lively first act where we find a mixture of fairy stories told alongside the story of the baker's wife and husband who long for a child and are forced to promise to fulfil a witch's demands and everything ends happily, gives way in the second act to a more gloomy story whereby the fairy tale ending of Act 1 develops into a rather miserable tale of betrayal and lack of love. The only flaw was the good looking set of large fairy tale books which lined the back of the stage but took up about a third of the width so that the cast could hardly move and certainly couldn't dance.

However, all of them sang beautifully and I was particularly impressed by Rebecca Wicking as Little Red Riding Hood and Lori Haley Fox's wicked witch. Director Robert McWhir has done marvellously and the show certainly deserves to move to a larger more central venue than Clapham. Incidentally, the nearest station closes at 10pm and the show finished at 10.20pm! May I put in a plea to start earlier or persuade Transport for London to keep the station open until a more civilised time.

Another small theatre which puts on some excellent productions is Hampstead's New End theatre, which, until 10 October, is presenting DREAMERS. Three short plays by Tennessee Williams have been brought together and the whole performance runs for 80 minutes. The first, This Property is Condemned, has a young couple who meet as she walks on a railroad in Mississippi near her home, which has been condemned as it is in such a bad state of repair. Willie (Anna Doolan, a debut performance which shows the fragility of the character, but sometimes loses the American accent) gets by with eating leftover bits of food and selling her sexual favours to gentleman friends of her dead sister. However she refuses Tom (the first of three good characterisations by Jos Vantylear).

I expect most people have come to see Susannah Yorke as Mrs Hardwicke-Moore, a kind of much older Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire in The Lady of Larkspur Lotion. This lady, too, deludes herself into believing she has a wealthy lover who owns a plantation in Brazil. She can't pay for her room in New Orleans and is assisted by a young alcoholic writer (Jos Vantyler again) who attempts to stand up for her against their landlady. The Larkspur lotion of the title is, in fact, a treatment for body vermin.

The last - and probably least satisfactory - has a somewhat disjointed couple who fail to connect after he has spent a night drinking in a brothel and she dreams of escaping to the seaside. Unusually for Williams, Talk to Me Like the Rain is set in Manhattan. Lysette Anthony puts across the woman's dissatisfaction with her lover and her life, while Jos Vantyler tries gamely to convey the lack of focus of the man, but both of them struggle in this too short play. A full house enjoyed a chance to see rarely performed Tennessee Williams plays in a worthwhile production by Ninon Jerome that gave a real feeling of the American South in the first two plays.

Carlie Newman

   
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