Film Review: Rocketman (2019)

Elton John gets in on the self-produced musical biopic game, meaning Rocketman is gonna take a long long time to get anywhere near the truth

“People don’t pay to see Reginald Dwight… 
they pay to see *Elton John*!”

I always find there being something a little suspect about the subject of a biopic being intimately involved behind the scenes, that sense that you’re only being permitted to see a carefully curated version of this particular story (cf Tina the Musical, On Your Feet onstage; Bohemian Rhapsody most recently on film). And Rocketman ultimately proves no exception, with Elton John executive producing and husband David Furnish getting a producer credit, and Wikipedia thus offering up a substantial list of deviations from what actually happened

You might argue that as the film, written by Lee Hall and directed by Dexter Fletcher, isn’t a documentary, it doesn’t need to concern itself with an absolute fidelity to historical record. But I just find it fascinating this need to embellish, so much being smuggled under the umbrella of ‘creative license’ that can’t always be explained away with the ‘needs’ of filmmaking. Things as fundamental as changing the inspiration for Reg Dwight’s stage name from his mentor Long John Baldry to John Lennon, or claiming that ‘Daniel’ and ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’ were the songs he auditioned for with Dick James when neither had been written yet. At what point does that creative license start being straight-up dishonesty? Continue reading “Film Review: Rocketman (2019)”

Film Review: Cats (2019)

Against a barrage of bad reviews, I tried to give Cats a fair hearing. There may have been wine involved…

“I remember the time I knew what happiness was”

I wanted to like Cats, honest. But…but…everytime you look at a detail in this unexpected horror film, there’s something ungainly or odd that distracts you inordinately:

  • the scale of the damn thing. The mind boggles as the cats change from being tiny compared to railway tracks to almost human-sized at Nelson’s Column, bringing almost any object into screen ends up pulling focus as you try and work out wtf is going on
  • why do some of them wear shoes (the ‘street’ cats in trainers, TSwift in heels…?) and of those who don’t, what’s with the toes
  • in fact the whole anthropomorphic thing. There’s cleavage and six packs but no genitals or anuses. You wouldn’t think it would bother you so much but there’s so many lingering shots of these places…! 
  • the dancing cockroaches in danger of being eaten. Whyyyyyyyy?!
  • it’s rather amusing that pretty much every reaction shot of Dench is her looking aghast, we know how you feel Judi

An unfortunate waste of talent all-round I’m afraid.

News: Cats trailer released

The only good thing to come out of the release of the trailer for the forthcoming movie adaptation of Cats is Twitter’s collective response

 

And if you must see the original for yourself…

 

Oscar Week Film Review: Victoria and Abdul

Not even Judi Dench can save this irresponsible look at the British colonial legacy, Victoria and Abdul nevertheless takes two Oscar nominations into the ceremony.

“It is imperative that the royal colon receives a little roughage”

AKA The Other V&A. You can see the rationale behind Victoria and Abdul, allowing Dame Judi Dench to reprise her much-loved role from Mrs Brown with another 20 years under her belt. And directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Lee Hall, hopes were reasonably high.

What results though, is a film that indulges in an irresponsible kind of historical revisionism, a refusal to engage with and interrogate the reality of British colonial rule. Hall’s version of Victoria is allowed to be coyly ignorant of the looting of Indian treasure, a champion of diversity too in an improbable twist. Continue reading “Oscar Week Film Review: Victoria and Abdul”

Review: Network, National Theatre

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”

 With Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, Ivo van Hove re-asserts his place as one of the premier theatremakers working, anywhere. A satire that managed to predict just how powerful a tool populist anger can be when leveraged effectively, it is transformed into the immersive bustle of a TV studio, that of UBS Evening News where old hack Howard Beale – a transcendent performance by Bryan Cranston – has been handed his notice. Though initially appearing to accept it with good grace, he causes an almighty media stir when he declares, on air, that he’s going to kill himself, triggering a most unlikely rebirth as a truth-spilling ‘prophet’.

And as ever, van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld challenge our notions of theatrical space and how it is used. An onstage restaurant puts (some) audience members right in the thick of the action, the fourth wall gets well and truly shattered, and the use of live video and big screens forces us into the role of active observers – as Beale goes live on air, do you watch Cranston himself, do you watch him onscreen, do you watch the team observing him from the producers’ box…the multiplicity of perspectives reminds us how easy it is to manipulate media, how there can always be other sides to the story. Continue reading “Review: Network, National Theatre”

Re-review: Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Duke of York’s

“Today is the day we’ve waited for” 

The main impetus for finally getting round to booking for the West End transfer of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour was to balance all the testosterone from the (excellent) all-male Barber Shop Chronicles, And where better to look than the Our Ladies convent in the West of Scotland and the hugely personable story that its wayward student body tell here. You can read my review from the National Theatre and I haven’t much more to add than to say congratulations to them all on the Olivier Award and get booking for one of the more fun parts of the West End right now. 

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 2nd September

 

 

Review: Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, National

“Fuck the singing, we’re just gonna go mental”

A hit in Edinburgh last summer and arriving at the National after a UK tour, National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre co-production Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is a riotous shot in the arm for musical theatre and all the better for it. An adaptation of a 1998 Alan Warner novel The Sopranos scripted by Lee Hall (he of Billy Elliot amongst others) and directed by Vicky Featherstone (she of the Royal Court), the remainder of the run is perilously close to selling out so I’d buy your ticket now and then come back and read the review!

Our Ladies is a convent school in Oban, on the west coast of Scotland, and its choir are on their way to Edinburgh for a singing competition. But it is less Mendelssohn on their mind than “getting mental”, as their concoctions of cocktails disguised in flasks and lemonade bottles attest and having got themselves booted out of the contest, proceed to do just that, with a view to returning to Oban to try their luck in their local club – The Mantrap – where, rumour has it, a crew of submariners have temporarily put down anchor. Continue reading “Review: Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, National”

Album Review: Ruthie Henshall – I’ve Loved These Days

“It’s like that there’s a music playing in your ear”

For one reason or another, Ruthie Henshall and I had never crossed paths until this last week but with two different performances on two consecutive days, she left me in no doubt as to how well-earned her reputation is. As Sally in Follies, she broke our hearts whilst losing her mind and as Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot, she beautifully embodies the kind of teacher we’d all love to have. So I thought it was high time to indulge in the collection of albums she has released, starting with I’ve Loved These Days from 2013.

Naturally, there’s some indulging of her hard-won stagey credentials with rip-roaring takes on classics like ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ and a highly enjoyable romp through ‘Adelaide’s Lament’. There’s also a nod or two to her theatrical CV – a return trip to Cook County Jail but on the other side of the bars as she tackles ‘When You’re Good To Mama’, knowing exactly of what she speaks. And her current turn in Billy Elliot is represented with an elegantly powerful rendition of Billy’s anthem ‘Electricity’. Continue reading “Album Review: Ruthie Henshall – I’ve Loved These Days”

DVD Review: Billy Elliot Live

“When the stars look down and know our history”

And what history there is to behold – a run in the West End which has stretched for nearly a decade now, a company that ranges from ages 6 to 84 (surely a record!), a live broadcast to cinemas worldwide which was the first event cinema release to top the UK box office and which contained a finale that brought together 25 young men who have all played the role of Billy. That recording of Billy Elliot the Musical has now been released on DVD so that the theatrical experience can now be recreated in the comfort of your own home and allows to see the detail that you may have missed from your seat in the Victoria Palace Theatre.

That’s the crucial bit really. For all those that worry that filmed recordings are going to replace live theatre, there does seem to be a missing of this salient point that not everyone sees the show from prime seats in the centre stalls. The magic of the theatrical experience can and is tempered by uncomfortable seats and unfortunate viewing lines – so a DVD offering close-ups and other unique shots offers a much-welcomed addition to that experience – and as reasonable a deal as £105 is for a family ticket (the starting price I should add), £15 or so enables a necessary widening of access to a show, which captivate a new audience so much they decide to book tickets – this isn’t a zero-sum game. Continue reading “DVD Review: Billy Elliot Live”

Review: Shakespeare in Love, Noël Coward Theatre

“What kind of man would you be without the theatre”

I can’t lie – I had rather low expectations when it came to the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, not helped by rewatching the film recently and marvelling at how it managed to win 7 Academy Awards back in 1999. But I equally have to admit to being swept away by Declan Donellan’s production of Lee Hall’s adaptation which is set to open this week at the Noël Coward Theatre, it managing to find an identity of its own (after a relatively slow start) to try and recapture the hearts of audiences anew.

Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s original screenplay saw Shakespeare as a jobbing playwright, tussling for commissions with friendly rival Kit Marlowe and dealing with a particularly sticky case of writer’s block. With his unhappily married wife and kids sequestered in Stratford-upon-Avon, he embarks on a forbidden affair with noblewoman Viola de Lesseps, who has her own battles to face in being denied the career on the stage that she craves and being married off to the obnoxious Wessex. Their romantic strife thus provides the creative spark for Will to write Romeo and Juliet.

Where the film did work for me was in the overload of Shakespearean puns worked into the script, often wittily suggesting that the bard took inspiration from all around him; where it did not was with the central romance which lacked any real sense of passion for me. Funnily enough, the converse was pretty much true here. Tom Bateman’s freshly appealing Will and Lucy Briggs-Owen’s hugely characterful Viola have enormous chemistry and theirs is a romance to root for.

Instead, the repeated gags of references to other Shakespeare plays prove to be something of a hindrance, occasionally interrupting the flow of the show –(the ‘out damned spot’ bit takes way too long of a set-up although the payoff is fun) – and often falling flat. Without them being cleverly worked in (like ‘tomorrow’ ‘and tomorrow’), they lose their impact, Will just declaring ‘oh brave new world’ as he schtups Viola doesn’t really mean anything at all. Equally, the delayed John Webster joke flew over the heads of the majority of this particular audience!

Fortunately there’s much more to the production as well. Paddy Cunneen’s highly atmospheric music is sung and played live onstage, Nick Ormerod’s inventive design allows for both the intimate and the grand, and the brightness of the supporting cast – David Oakes’ twinkle-eyed Marlowe, Ferdy Roberts’ Fenniman, David Ganly’s Burbage and Paul Chahidi’s Henslowe just to name a few, give real life to the Elizabethan theatrical world.

And this is where the show really works, a Noises Off-esque sequence that takes place backstage as a play goes on is really well put together, combining great humour and pathos, and the rivalries and relationships between the playwrights and theatre managers give rise to a wonderful sense of community, ending up as a love letter to the theatre as much to Shakespeare himself.

Photos: Johan Persson
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 25th October