Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

“I know your moustache…”


What to do when you want your new film to be a new version of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous whodunnits? Well if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you call in some of your mates to play the main characters, friends like Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, and Willem Dafoe. Plus you can also get some real talent to fill the minor roles – blink and you might miss the likes of Paapa Essiedu, Miranda Raison, Hadley Fraser, Adam Garcia, even Sergei Polunin.

But if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you also cast yourself as Hercule Poirot and as he’s directing himself, there’s a sense that the sharing of some much-needed constructive feedback didn’t happen. For as his ridiculously huge moustache is placed front and centre in scene after scene, this Murder On The Orient Express feels nothing so much as a vanity project. Which is all well and good if you like that sort of thing, and I quite like Branagh as it happens, but it is absolutely fatal in a story that is intrinsically about the ensemble.

Branagh is clearly invested in giving us an in-depth look into M Poirot’s psyche but by allowing him to dominate the narrative so, he neglects to pay the many other characters the attention they need for us to fully invest in the emotional stakes of each of their situations. For that’s a rather important aspect here and one that would keep the storytelling much more engaging, well before the finale finally grabs our attention. As it is, it all ends up rather dull, glamorous window-dressing in pointlessly ugly CGI settings, narrative clarity sacrificed for tricksy camera angles.

Photos: Allstar/20th Century Fox



2018 What’s On Stage Award nominations


It’s that time of year again and getting in early with the announcement of their nominees is What’s on Stage. Voted for by the public, they’re often skewed a little towards the bigger ‘names’ but this year’s set of nominations are relatively controversy-free. There’s something a little odd about the way that regional theatre has its own separate category but its actors appear in the main ones – I feel like regional theatre productions should either be considered entirely in or out, rather than this halfway house.

Naturally, big shows rule the roost – 42nd Street and Bat out of Hell lead the lists with 8 nominations apiece – and they’ve even found a way to shoehorn in Hamilton by nominating it for the two new categories of Best Cast Recording (which somehow includes Les Mis??) and Best Show Poster, thus being able to get round it not actually being open yet and grabbing the requisite headlines once it does, inevitably, win.

Andrew Garfield, Angels in America
Andrew Scott, Hamlet
Bryan Cranston, Network
David Tennant, Don Juan in Soho
Martin Freeman, Labour of Love

Eve Best, Love in Idleness
Imelda Staunton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Olivia Colman, Mosquitoes
Natalie Dormer, Venus in Fur
Tamsin Greig, Labour of Love Continue reading “2018 What’s On Stage Award nominations”

Review: Young Frankenstein, Garrick

“Though your genitalia

Has been known to fail ya
You can bet your ass on the brain”
It’s alive…barely. Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein staggers into the West End after some more time on the operating table since its 2007 Broadway opening (2 new songs are among the changes made) and a short run in Newcastle to tighten the bolts. But for a piece of new musical theatre, it is so desperately old-fashioned that you half expect Russ Abbot and Bella Emberg to pop up and do a turn.
Given that Brooks is now over 90 and that the film on which it is based dates from 1974, it is perhaps little surprise that it feels dated. But also given director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s close collaborative relationship with him, the opportunity to be necessarily brutal about what works and what doesn’t feels to have been lost, lightning really hasn’t struck twice for the creators of The Producers. 
So Transylvania becomes a generic version of Mitteleuropa where four time Olivier nominees are reduced to embarrassing yodelling damsel stereotypes, legends (don’t @ me) like Lesley Joseph are criminally underused as one-note supporting characters, there isn’t a single joke which isn’t milked until it stopped being funny 10 minutes ago, and the best musical number – in this new musical remember – is an extended dance break to Irving Berlin’s ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’.
It’s a really good routine actually, Shuler Hensley’s Creature nailing the joy that good musical theatre can bring, but it only exacerbates how disposable most of Brooks’ score is. There are spots of respite mainly due to the tireless performance level – Hadley Fraser as Frederick Frankenstein (‘it’s pronounced Fronkensteen!) is unflagging as the grandson of Victor who can’t escape his family’s legacy try as he might, and Dianne Pilkington as his heiress fiancée nails a rare musical highlight in ‘Please Don’t Touch Me’.
But when gay jokes and boob jokes and dick jokes are the order of the day rather than the skillful parody of the horror genre that made the film work, when characters are left so flimsy that there’s zero investment in any of them, when there’s so little originality on show when there’s so much potential, even Mary Shelley would be backing away from trying to reanimate this one. 
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 10th February

Round-up of August music reviews

Though I might not have been away for my usual month-long sojourn to France, I kept up with a glut of album reviews to cover the (relatively) quiet period for those of us who don’t put themselves through Edinburgh 😉

Recommended titles
Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs – Live at the Cafe Carlyle
Before After (2016 Studio Cast Recording)
Cabaret (2006 London Cast Recording)
Finding Neverland (2015 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Salad Days (2013 Live London Cast Recording)
The Bridges of Madison County (2014 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
The Hired Man (2007 UK Tour Cast)
The Last Ship (2014 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
The Visit (2015 original Broadway Cast Recording)
War Paint (2017 Original Broadway Cast Recording)

And the rest!
9 to 5 (2009 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Anastacia (2017 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Annaleigh Ashford – Lost in the Stars
Ben Forster – Acoustic Covers 
Ben Forster – Acoustic Covers, Vol. 2
Betty Buckley – Quintessence
Big the Musical (2016 Original UK Cast Recording)
Bombay Dreams (2002 Original London Cast Recording)
Bumblescratch (2016 London Concert Cast Recording)
Carousel (1993 London Cast Recording)
Chicago (1997 London Cast Recording)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2002 Original Cast Recording)
Comrade Rockstar (2017 Studio Cast Recording)
Crazy For You – (1993 Original London Cast Recording)
Dirty Dancing (2006 London Cast Recording)
Fame (1995 Original London Cast Recording)
Gavin Creel – Get Out
Gavin Creel – Goodtimenation
Gavin Creel – Quiet  / Oliver Tompsett – Gravity
Groundhog Day (2017 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Half A Sixpence (2016 London Cast Recording)
Helena Blackman – The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein
Laura Benanti – In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention
Love Never Dies (2010 Concept Album)
Marguerite (2008 Original London Cast Recording)
Marin Mazzie – Make Your Own Kind of Music
Mary Poppins (2005 Original London Cast Recording)
Memphis (2014 Original London Cast Recording)
Noel Sullivan – Here I Go Again
On The Town (2014 New Broadway Cast Recording)
Shona White – I’ll Bring You A Song
Songs From The Musical Wolfboy (2010)
Take Flight (2007 Original Cast Recording)
The Halcyon (Original Music From The 2017 TV Series)
The Route To Happiness (2014 Original Cast Recording)
The Sound of Music (2006 London Palladium Cast Recording)
The Woman In White (2004 Original London Cast Recording)
USHERS: The Front Of House Musical (2014 London Cast Recording)

Album Review: Before After (2016 Studio Cast Recording)

“What’s a few more minutes to wait…a little longer”

Confession time – I’ve had this album for an unforgivably long time, mainly because I managed to forget about it, despite the fact I was meant to be reviewing it. D’oh, and sorry Mr G. And more fool me, because Before After is just lovely, a tragic but hopeful love story, an unconventional timeline and swooning piano and strings orchestrations throughout, it might as well have been tailor-made for me!
Written by Stuart Matthew Price and Timothy Knapman, Before After follows the love story between Ami and Ben through all its trials, as the meet-cute we’re presented with at the top of Act 1 is actually at the mid-point of their story. She recognises him as the love of her life; he hasn’t a clue who she is due to a car accident that wiped his memory; and though she keeps schtum, she asks him out for a drink to see what might happen.
From there, we see how Ami and Ben’s relationship develops under these circumstances, whilst also witnessing how it developed in the past in flashback (there’s a useful synopsis and timeline in the booklet!) and it is achingly well done. Caroline Sheen and Hadley Fraser feel ideally matched as the pair, sharing a palpable chemistry but also able to convey the full weight of the emotional storytelling as it quickly twists and turns around the clock.
Her ‘Daddy I Met This Boy’, his ‘Before After’, pretty much every song they sing together, this is supremely accomplished writing and feels like a potent symbol of what musical theatre can achieve, especially in the strength and innovation of its storytelling. Please someone mount a production of this in the UK ASAP.

Review: Committee… (A New Musical), Donmar Warehouse

“The objective of this session is not to conduct a show trial. We want to learn some lessons.”

There’s a rather lazy trope around ‘unlikely subjects’ for a musical which accompany any show that deviates from the apparent norm. Yet given that the Best New Musical Olivier award winners over the past few decades have covered Argentinian politics, Scouse twins, confused animals, missionaries in Africa and post-Impressionist painters, I’m not entirely sure what counts for normal here!
The latest show to use musical theatre to tackle an ‘unexpected’ topic is Committee… (A New Musical), written by Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke with music by Tom Deering. To take its full name, The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company, it uses Parliamentary transcripts to interrogate the public inquiry into the 2015 collapse of the children’s charity along with the millions of taxpayer money it had been given.
Using verbatim techniques, the show is directly derived from the interviews and depositions to the committee and so the abiding feel, musically at least, is of London Road (another of those atypical musicals), Deering’s score toying with dialogue, echoing phrases to create chorus-like refrains as in the striking opening number ‘We Want To Learn’. Torquil Munro’s musical direction of the piano and strings creates a beautifully lush sound and the musical treatment works well, for the most part.
Dramatically, the focus lies on the charity’s founder Camila Batmanghelidjh (a superb Sandra Marvin) and the chairman Alan Yentob (a vocally sure Omar Ebrahim) as they face questioning from the panel of MPs, led by Alexander Hanson’s Bernard Jenkin. It is fascinating to see the way in which the inquiry tried but failed to get to anything approaching the truth, Batmanghelidjh brandishing a slippery legalese that allows her to dodge much of the serious challenge here and we’re left to really wonder how little responsibility she believes she bore.
But Committee is short, not even 80 minutes, and as the questioning is interspersed with testimony from others who were involved with Kid’s Company, from key workers to Treasury ministers, one realises how thinly the surface is being scraped. Few conclusions are at hand here but also precious little investigation to the many many issues it raises – it thus feels dramatically slight.
It is thus a mark of the strength of Adam Penford’s production that it doesn’t feel unsatisfactory. His experienced cast exude confidence – Hanson is excellent, as are Liz Robertson and Rosie Ashe’s memorable Kate Hoey, there’s sterling work from Joanna Kirkland’s Chief Clerk who sets the scene with great clarity. Robert Jones’ design is also very well done, putting us in the public gallery of the committee room and actually making the side stalls a brilliant place to be (especially if that’s where you end up after a cheeky upgrade!). A fascinating take then, on an interesting story which could be, or should be, further investigated by pretty much everyone concerned, us included.
Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Manual Harlan
Booking until 12th August

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 2

“Some things are worth getting your heart broken for”

David Tennant’s opening season took the template of the opening series and ran with it, Russell T Davies’ vision finding its ideal mate in the Scottish actor. The typically adventurous sweep was tempered with a more tender vision, which considerably upped our emotional investment (previous companions returning, romantic connections whether past or present).

Bringing back the Cybermen was an interesting move, as was the introduction of the notion of parallel worlds (and how important that became…). And if the series-long motif of Torchwood didn’t really pay off, especially not when one considers what Torchwood the show became, the finale to Doomsday is pretty close to perfection.

Episodes, in order of preference

The Girl in the Fireplace
Army of Ghosts
School Reunion
New Earth
The Christmas Invasion
Tooth and Claw
The Impossible Planet
Rise of the Cybermen
The Satan Pit
The Age of Steel
The Idiot’s Lantern
Love & Monsters
Fear Her

Top 5 guest spots

1 School Reunion is a bit of a shonky villain-of-the-week episode all told, but it is completely redeemed by its parallel plot of the show revisiting past companions and the effect travelling with the Doctor has on those left behind. Lis Sladen’s return as Sarah-Jane Smith was simply spectacular and perfect in its emotional nuance.
2 Just as heartbreaking but in a completely different way, Sophia Myles’ Madame de Pompadour makes The Girl in the Fireplace a stirring high-point for Doctor Who in its entirety
3 Andrew Hayden-Smith’s Jake with his excised gay agenda (see below) still manages to come across as a better companion than Mickey with a fraction of the screen time
5 Only a short appearance in The Idiot’s Lantern but Sam Cox’s resigned detective is still top notch

Saddest death

Helen Griffin’s redoubtable Welshwoman Mrs Moore was a standout in the resistance fighters of Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel

Most wasted guest actor

Personally it’s the 5 seconds of Cathy Murphy (Tilly from the amazeballs The House of Eliott) in The Christmas Invasion that annoyed me most, but there’s something a little odd about the way Maureen Lipman’s Wire in The Idiot’s Lantern is portrayed that doesn’t make anywhere near the most of her.

Most important thing that is never mentioned again

Anyone who cracks the Skasis Paradigm (also known as the God Maker or the Universal Theory) would be able to control the very building blocks of the universe. So its a wonder that only the Krillitanes of School Reunion have ever tried it.

Gay agenda rating

D – hardly any gayness in this one, indeed references to a gay coupling between Jake and Ricky in Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel was removed into the world of deleted scenes.

Review: Saint Joan, Donmar

“Must a Christ perish in every age to save those that have no imagination”

 is Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan but very much via Josie Rourke, as the medieval piety of the pre-show entertainment gives way to the uber-modernity of this interpretation with the opening flourish of a tablecloth being whipped away (more impressive than it sounds!). The gods being worshipped here are high finance and business as scenes are set in companies like Vaucouleur Commodities Brokerage and Dauphin Holdings, Evan Davies and Bloomberg news tickers give us regular updates and it is in the midst of all this that Gemma Arterton’s Joan arrives, the sole figure in period dress. 

Dealing with an amusing take on the egg crisis of the first scene, and using Skype to correctly identify Fisayo Akinade’s spoiled manchild heir of a Dauphin in the next, the modern take is clever but there’s a strange tension that never quite resolves. The text has been cut but not completely modernised, so talk of battles and forts sit alongside the rise and fall of stocks and shares and it doesn’t settle into an interpretation that didn’t leave me going ‘you what now’ until it starts to play the drama straight as in the English plot to bring about the downfall of the woman uniting the French against them.

Continue reading “Review: Saint Joan, Donmar”

CD Review: Ramin Karimloo – The Road to Find Out South

“Surrendering to a love that’s pure

Will save the soul of a man I’m sure”
It’s been a couple of years since Ramin Karimloo took The Road To Find Out – East and I was beginning to wonder if he’d gotten lost 😉 For the EP was announced as part of a series of 4, exploring the broadgrass fusion (Broadway and Bluegrass) that he has pioneered over recent years. But he’s found his way, he’s come back to us, and part 2 – The Road to Find Out – South “The Brooklyn Sessions” – has now been released. And following a similar musical path as “East”, it’s another entertaining collection.
Opening with Sheytoons (his folk-rock band with fellow thesp Hadley Fraser) track ‘Wings’ is again a statement of intent about where Karimloo’s heart lies, its plucked banjo strings and sing-along chorus full of rousing warmth. ‘Traveller’s Eyes’ feels equally at home in its dusty cowboy boots, though my favourite of the original tracks is the tender ‘Letting The Last One Go’, co-written with Victoria Shaw, a lovelorn tale of bruised and broken hearts.

And never forgetting his roots, we’re also treated to The Sound of Music’s ‘Edelweiss’ and Show Boat’s ‘Old Man River’. The former is restrained and pretty but the latter is something special, the richness of his voice shown off to its full extent with just an acoustic guitar for company and pure emotion pouring out in a scintillating climax to an already powerfully moving song. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another two years for Karimloo to Go West.

Review: Ramin Karimloo, London Palladium

 “Open up your mind, let your fantasies unwind”

To the casual viewer, Ramin Karimloo might seem like your average, insanely buff leading man with a voice of honeyed gold, but his artistic vision lies far beyond musical theatre into the world of music at large. For he’s a singer/songwriter as well as a performer and as his tastes incline towards the folk and country side of things, the phrase Broadgrass has been conjured to capture his inimitable style – a portmanteau of Broadway and bluegrass doncha know!
And though a couple of less-well-informed reviewers were taken by surprise, it is far from a new venture in Karimloo’s career. His band Sheytoons, formed with fellow MT star Hadley Fraser has been going since 2010, and he’s released 2 EPs since then, The Road to Find Out East and The Road to Find Out South, so his commitment to the cause is most definitely sans doute and live at the London Palladium, it was abundantly in evidence. 

Continue reading “Review: Ramin Karimloo, London Palladium”