I thought I had never come across the specific condition of Dissociative Identity Disorder before – and that’s because it’s what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with modern developments! It’s one of many mental health conditions that, if you’re not personally affected by it, you can only thank your lucky stars. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have all those voices tumbling around inside my head, speaking the words of other people, who are not me, but using my brain and my mouth to communicate with the world, testing me with their alternative identities, challenging me with their opposing views.
Amy Da Costa’s one-woman play introduces us to Zsofia, hiding in a corner until the voices in her head agree that it’s safe to come out. She likes to Netflix and Chill with Jacob, and it seems that the two of them have a good thing going until one day Jacob confesses that he has depression; and, whichever voice it was in Zsofia’s head that heard that, didn’t like it. So she refuses his calls and doesn’t see him anymore. Other voices in her head include a well-meaning child and an unsophisticated cockney; there may be more. How can she keep all these different characters, with their various desires and demands, under any kind of control?
Ms Da Costa does a great job in giving all these individuals their own voices and characterisation. When all Zsofia’s identities rub along ok it’s almost comedic at times, as we hear the mundane conversations between two pals that live inside one head. When the voices clash, however, Zsofia’s crisis is very moving and distressing, and, sadly, there is a kind of inevitability that leads to the play’s final scene.
An excellent performance, and with only a table for support – which inventively turns into a bed, a sofa, and a bath amongst others – and which really helps our imagination run wild to appreciate Zsofia’s full situation. A hard, sometimes complex, watch but dealing with this awful condition with honesty and sincerity. Congratulations!
Is there nothing that Dame Judi Dench can’t do? From starring in Cabaret in those early days to being Bond’s head of MI6, now she’s accused of espionage, selling atomic bomb secrets to the Russians. What on earth would M say?!
Red Joan is based on the real-life story of Melita Norwood, the so-called “granny spy” who supplied information to the KGB over a period of forty years, but was never prosecuted. The film tells her story in flashbacks. In 2001, it starts with Joan’s unexpected arrest at her suburban home, and then shows her police interviews where she slowly reveals her involvement in espionage, much to the shock of her solicitor – also her son – who is hearing it all for the first time. Shown alongside the police investigations, we see undergraduate Joan starting at Cambridge, how she meets the very charismatic Stalinists Sonya and Leo, and her subsequent employment at a Government Laboratory and romantic involvement with her married boss. Whilst she’s excited to be doing such ground-breaking work, she’s horrified when the atomic bomb that she’s helped develop is used by the Americans in Japan. And that becomes her motivation for ensuring that the Russians know how to make the bomb too – working on the theory that if both sides have it, neither side will use it. And, as she says in her defence, so far, she’s been proved right.
We’d seen that this film had generally received poor reviews, so were a little concerned at the prospect of watching it. All I can say is, those reviewers must have been watching a different film. Beautifully shot, with lovely lingering views of Cambridge; charming attention to period detail; strong performances from Tereza Srbova and Tom Hughes as the left-wing activists (and conduits to the KGB) Sony and Leo and from Sophie Cookson as young Joan; and Dame Judi on fine form, with the camera ruthlessly up close capturing those wrinkles of warmth and experience. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were completely caught up in its fascinating tale.
Two additional aspects of note: firstly, the astonishment of the younger generation at the achievements and/or activities of the older generation when they were younger. One of the rules of life is that we cannot know or remember our parents when they were young; and if they don’t tell us what they got up to, it’s impossible for us to second-guess. Joan’s son is outraged when he discovers the truth about his mother; and his only question is, to what extent was his father complicit in keeping it a secret too? (Quite a lot, as it turns out.)
The film also showed the absolute sexism of the age, with the assumption that a mere woman couldn’t possibly be a scientist, wouldn’t she much prefer to be operating the new tumble dryer? It’s only when boss Max stands up for her, and praises her brilliant brain in front of those who otherwise would patronise her, that she’s allowed to take her place at the forefront of the research. Men, eh, what are we like?
Coming it a decent 101 minutes, it doesn’t prolong the story beyond our attention span, and, whilst it’s fair to say that you could always do with a little more Dame Judi, the balance between the concurrent stories of her arrest and the development of her spy career works very well. OK, it’s not the paciest of films, but, imho, this is an engrossing and enjoyable film. If you suspect you might enjoy it, then I think you will!
Although I’m now an old hand at the Flash Festival, where the 3rd Year Acting Students at Northampton University perform their dissertation pieces, this is my first exposure to the Fringe Festival, seeing the work of the (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students. And there’s a ton of shows on offer – fourteen in all and I’m (hopefully) going to be seeing all bar one of them – just can’t quite squeeze that last one in, sadly. Many of them I’ll see in the company of my esteemed blogger-in-crime Mr Smallmind, and hopefully we’ll find time to review them all as soon as possible!
The first show was Clickbait, performed by Flashdrive Theatre, a lively, funny and occasionally gruesome fifty minutes in the company of Luke-ing Good Luke and Emmazing Emma, two YouTubers who decide to promote their channels by a series of co-operation videos. Luke guests on Emma’s films, she on his; their popularity explodes so that they become LukeandEmma, their fans become Lemmans, and there’s no stopping their success. At first they fake their “relationship” in order to get more clicks, but romance does indeed blossom, and there’s more than one way in which they can exploit themselves in order to get an overwhelming number of thumbs-up. Is it a guaranteed path to fame and fortune? And are they strong enough to weather the problems that their self-exploitation inevitably causes?
Cleverly incorporating use of live phone recordings, we the audience can see exactly what the YouTube audience sees on their screens, and the play excels in conveying that sense that you can see everything that happens in these two young people’s lives. There’s neither privacy, nor risk that they won’t take. Punctuating the play are scenes from an amusing video lecture on how to be a good YouTuber, bringing in every visual pun under the sun, and entertaining us during the scene changes.
George Henry and Shona Bullas have a great partnership on stage, with no holds barred on the physical challenges the characters give each other – eggs smashed on heads, eating soap powder, covering each other with milk….and they’re the polite moments! The characters’ shared times of physical intimacy are also done with great conviction and just the right level of decorum (or not). The constant conversations between the two characters flowed seamlessly and it was all very well rehearsed and slick in performance.
There’s also an element of challenging the audience with what levels of degradation we’re prepared to witness people expose themselves to – and the sacrifices incurred as a result. I certainly watched some of the #Lemmacon “big challenge” scene through my fingers. It certainly makes you question whether you should encourage young people to demean themselves just for some short-lived and shallow popularity.
That’s put paid to any aspirations I might have had about being a YouTube performer! A very enjoyable, funny (but also sad) play. Great work!
First you get the book. Then you get the film of the book. Then you get the play of the film of the book. Sometimes you get the musical of the play of the film of the book. And somewhere in the middle of all this, new creativity gets suffocated in a cynical desire to rehash the same material just to make money. I ask you, is that right?
Rant over. I’ve not seen the film of The Girl on the Train, but I did buy the book for Mrs Chrisparkle as a Christmas present, in 2017. She hasn’t read it yet. And now that we’ve seen the play, there’s probably no point. However, I got the feeling that the majority of the (nearly full house) audience on Thursday last had indeed either seen it, or read it, or both. Experiencing the same story in a second, third or even fourth format must be like the Arts equivalent of comfort eating. You don’t need it to nourish you, but it can be especially satisfying. So I guess that answers my question in paragraph 1, above.
Rachel has a drink problem. She wakes up one morning on the kitchen floor with an unexplained injury to her forehead and puke in a pizza box. Ex-husband Tom calls to warn her that a witness saw her overnight in the area where a young woman, Megan, was last seen before going missing, so the police might ask her about it. Before long, Rachel has tracked down Megan’s husband Scott, pretending that she and Megan were old friends, and has set up an appointment with Megan’s therapy counsellor. The trouble is, the further that Rachel gets involved with the investigation, the harder it is for her to extricate herself from it…
The first thing that struck me about this story, whilst I was watching it, was its similarities to the Bridge Theatre’s recent production of Alys Always, where the central character finds herself the only witness to a death and then manipulates the truth to her own advantage and financial benefit. Both Mrs C and I thought that the way that Rachel infiltrated Megan’s life, by befriending her husband Scott and challenging the professionalism of her therapist Kamal, was extremely far-fetched. Comparisons are odious, but Alys Always felt the much more realistic of the two plays. However, in the realm of stage thrillers, we both thought Girl on the Train was much more successful than the similarly structured Rebus: Long Shadows that toured a few months back. Most importantly, the final denouement is genuinely exciting and surprising, as your suspicions as to whodunit flip between three people over the final fifteen minutes, until your doubts are finally confirmed.
As can sometimes happen with a touring play, the Derngate stage is much wider than required for this production, and my guess is that if you’re sat on the extreme sides of the auditorium you might spend a lot of the evening looking at blank, black walls. Although, to be fair, the wide stage worked well for the tableau image that starts the second act, with Matt Concannon’s unnamed police officer staring very officiously at us as we made our way back into the auditorium after the interval. Apart from that, James Cotterill’s set is decently flexible, with Tom and Anna’s nice pad stacked neatly behind Scott’s lonely living room, which in turn is stacked behind Rachel’s rather sordid kitchen. Two office chairs dangle in and out to represent Kamal’s therapy suite, and the various train effects, including a bright strip of white light at the end, work dazzle with effectiveness.
Samantha Womack once again omits her Eurovision appearance from her programme bio, but us fans have long memories. She plays Rachel with superb sullenness, a confused, distressed person looking for clues not only to what happened to Megan, but also to pin down her own identity. There’s not a lot of light and shade in her character, but you do make a kind of journey of redemption with her throughout the course of the play. Rachel isn’t a likeable character by any means; but you’ve got to admire her survival instinct.
There’s an ensemble feel to the rest of the cast as their characters drift in and out of Rachel’s life, but I particularly enjoyed John Dougall as D I Gaskill, a meddling little man who delights in leaving his detective work at his front door, and Lowenna Melrose as Anna, Tom’s new wife, who becomes progressively more aggravated at constantly bumping into Rachel everywhere she goes. Oliver Hipwell plays Scott as a cool cucumber, easily manipulated and surprisingly unaffected by his wife’s disappearance; Adam Jackson-Smith is an apparently thoughtful on the surface Tom, but with secrets of his own; Naeem Hayat is convincing as the counsellor Kamal who doesn’t need much to break patient confidentiality; and Kirsty Oswald is an appealing Megan, a free spirit caught up in others’ power games, and whose red dress steadily turns black from the bottom up during the course of the evening. There must be a symbolic reason for this, but I’m blowed if I can work it out.
All in all, a smart little production, that perhaps delivered more than it promised, and I was certainly fully rapt in trying to be one step ahead in solving the crime from my seat in Row F. The company has a gruelling tour that carries on until November, with Newcastle, Dartford, Coventry, Nottingham, Shrewsbury, Dublin, Belfast, Brighton, Sheffield, Norwich, Guildford, Oxford, Canterbury, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Bradford, High Wycombe, Cambridge, Plymouth, Swindon, Bromley, Malvern, Woking, Eastbourne, Cardiff and Blackpool all still to come. If you enjoy a good stage thriller, this is for you!
They say you never forget the teacher who influenced you the most. I was lucky enough to have two. John Steane and Bruce Ritchie, both of whom taught me English literature through O levels, to A levels, to Oxbridge. Sadly, neither of them is with us anymore, but both were inspirational; Bruce was the man for anything 20th century and his passion for Pinter and Stoppard was out of this world. John was the go-to for anything 19th century and earlier; Shakespeare, Marlowe (he edited the Penguin edition), Restoration Comedy, Sheridan – and Ibsen. Yes, it wasn’t all laughs in his lessons (well, actually, it was.) But it was after reading Ghosts in his class that I went out and bought all Ibsen’s plays in various paperbacks. It was also the first time I came across the notion of theatre censorship, which has continued to fascinate me all my life. And that little lad at school was determined that one day he’d see Ghosts on stage.
Who knew that would take the best part of forty-five years to achieve?! But Lucy Bailey’s new production, adapted by Mike Poulton, in the intimate delights of the Royal Theatre in Northampton is definitely worth waiting for. In brief: the late Captain Alving appeared to be a Pillar of the Community (to use another Ibsen title) but in fact was a philanderer and a scoundrel. His wife Helen briefly left him but was talked into taking him back by their friend Pastor Manders, who convinced her that it was simply The Right Thing to Do. When prodigal son Oswald returns home from his life as an artist in the capitals of Europe, it’s revealed that he is suffering from syphilis that he has inherited from his father, so the truth about Alving’s womanising has to come out. Also awkward – he’s falling in love with Helen’s housekeeper Regina, who, it emerges, is his half-sister. The ghosts of the past come back to haunt the present, and the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. It comes as no surprise that this is not a play with a happy ending; although Ibsen keeps its final resolution deliberately obscure.
When you enter the auditorium, you’re instantly struck by the sound of rain. Torrential rain. It’s been raining for days in Rosenvald. Characters arrive and moan about the rain (even if, occasionally, the actors seem to be bone dry – slightly odd I thought). But, in the words of Elkie Brooks, there is always Sunshine after the Rain, and that’s what the physically and mentally devastated Oswald yearns for – the sun. As the stage slowly begins to fill with light at the end of the play, the sun represents the morphia that Oswald begs his mother to administer, which will finally put his mind and body at rest. For most of us, a new dawn would be cause for optimism. Perhaps it is for Oswald too. It’s a heavy symbolism, but then you don’t go to Ibsen for a drawing-room comedy.
Mike Britton’s gloomy set is suitably dour for this comfortable, respectable yet austere household, with a relatively small acting space out front, and a partly-hidden dining room behind, where maids sit and sew and a drunken Oswald gets rowdy-rowdy with Regina. I’m guessing this was deliberately done to make the back room feel further away, but I found myself strangely irritated by the circuitous route that the actors had to make from the back, going around the table the long way in order to get to the front room – it just seemed unnecessarily artificial. I did, however, very much enjoy the change to the set between Acts Two and Three, when the orphanage is burning down. The set swivels by, I’d guess, about 20° to the left, so that the suggestion of flames and ash comes pouring onto the stage; all very effective.
Penny Downie gives an impressive performance as Mrs Alving; at first, comfortable in her position in the household, in charge of business deals to the best of her ability, authoritative with Regina, motherly with Oswald, and treading the difficult line of assertive and malleable in her dealings with Manders. As the “ghosts” begin to return, you can see her world beginning to fall apart, and Ms Downie portrays Helen’s increasing desperation and sadness to delicious effect. As her unfortunate son Oswald, Pierro Niel-Mee convincingly shows us the character’s decline, from his robust defence of his beliefs, through alcohol dependence and the hopeless dalliance with Regina, into both physical and mental torture.
Declan Conlon’s Engstrand is a disreputable rogue, who spins a convincing yarn about his seamen’s mission; his performance is such that you can never quite decide on Engstrand’s level of honesty – which nicely adds to the murkier aspects of the plot. Eleanor McLoughlin’s Regina is a picture of well-maintained respectability and knowing her place until the truth of her parentage is revealed – and then the worm turns with acute pain and fury.
But it is James Wilby’s performance as Pastor Manders that you remember the most. A perfect portrayal of utter bigotry, a control freak who intimidates all those who come into his orbit into submission to his will, a weasel who’ll allow others to take the blame for his own mistakes, simply to preserve his own reputation. Ibsen created a repulsively believable hypocrite in Manders, and Mr Wilby gets that mix of bullying and wheedling perfectly. Some of his comments are so outrageous, within the context of Victorian decency, that the audience is propelled into unsettled, anxious laughter. A great performance.
Disgusting, said the commentators at the time. “An open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly, a lazar-house with all its doors and windows open” (Daily Telegraph). With critical notices like that, who needs enemies? As always, through the passage of time, the play’s true value and significance is now understood, and this production does it complete justice. It’s only on until 11th May, so you don’t have long to catch it, but you really should.
I’ve been an admirer of David Hare’s work right from the start of his career (there can’t have been many 12-year-olds who read Slag in the early 70s) and it’s rewarding to fill the gaps in one’s knowledge by seeing the various gems of his back catalogue. I had never heard of The Bay at Nice, his 1986 one-act play set in a grand but comfortless display room at the Hermitage in St Petersburg – or Leningrad, as it was then. But I rarely pass up a chance to see what the Menier next has to offer, so it was with no preconceptions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I chose to spend our Easter Sunday in Southwark.
The year is 1956. Esteemed art expert Valentina Nrovka has been asked by the curators of the Hermitage to inspect a new acquisition – allegedly a Matisse – that has recently been bequeathed to the museum. There is some uncertainty as to its authenticity; and, as Mme Nrovka knew the artist personally in her youth, it is thought she would see through any deliberate attempts by a faker to pretend to the great man’s work. She is accompanied to the Hermitage by her daughter, Sophia, herself a part-time artist, and full-time disappointment to her mother. Over the course of 75 minutes, mother and daughter dissect their difficult relationship as Sophia’s marriage breakdown and new romantic liaison is revealed, against a backdrop of Communist Party politics, the motivation for creativity, the lure of the homeland, and the valuation of art.
One of the genuinely thrilling aspects of seeing a production at the Menier is the discovery of how they have configured its marvellously adaptable acting space. Fotini Dimou’s set has required the 200-or-so seats to be re-arranged, L-shaped, on just two sides of the theatre, to create a comparatively huge space, filled with coloured, borrowed light, to represent one of those enormous Hermitage galleries. Plush red and gilt chairs have been stacked unceremoniously to one side of the stage, beneath a Grand Master’s work; on the back wall of the stage, double doors that lead to the rest of the museum, the only clue that there’s a life outside. As the late afternoon turns into the early evening, Paul Pyant’s lighting design gradually becomes progressively dimmer, which may imply that the longer you talk about life and art – and the less you actually do it – clarity and understanding of these issues reduces. When Mme Nrovka finally looks at the painting, there’s only enough light for a peremptory glimpse – mind you, that’s all she needs.
Penelope Wilton is simply magnificent as Valentina, a woman who has reached a time in life when she is so accustomed to suppress any individual desires, who values the altruism of self-denial, if it’s to achieve a greater good. Her daughter, she reckons, is shallow beyond belief, following a path of self-interest which both ill-serves her family and prevents her from artistic expression. And she doesn’t like to be shaken up and questioned by what she perceives to be an inferior intellect; and is perfectly comfortable to say precisely what she thinks, regardless of how it might offend or distress others. Ms Wilton delivers Hare’s tremendous lines with natural authority, cutting sarcasm, forceful majesty, and a reasoned spite, in what is probably my favourite performance in a play so far this year.
Giving almost as good as she gets, Ophelia Lovibond is excellent as Sophia; patronised, forced to explain herself, intimidated into defiance against her mother and her strictures. It’s a great portrayal of someone who, in everyday life has all the confidence needed to lead an assertive life but who crumbles under parental pressure. David Rintoul is also very good as her new man Peter, awkwardly hovering in the sidelines, choosing silence rather reacting to a taunt, putting his case plainly, honestly and supportively. And Martin Hutson is also great as the Assistant Curator, treading carefully around the Grande Dame’s ego, gently guiding her in the direction he wants, to the benefit of both self and party.
Despite its length, this dynamic little play packs a real punch and gives you so much to consider, laugh at, and identify with. Richard Eyre’s production is a first-class experience all the way. We loved it! It’s on at the Menier until 4th May, and I’d heartily recommend it.
This was to be the last date in Andrew Bird’s first ever (I can’t believe it was his first ever) national tour, and appropriately enough, for a Northamptonshire lad, he returned to his spiritual home at the R&D. We’d seen Mr Bird do his stuff at Screaming Blue Murders in the past when he entertained us hugely with his twenty-minute sets. But could he sustain an entire evening on his own? By Jiminy he could!
Andrew Bird is a no-gimmick comedian; what you see is what you get. He doesn’t pick on the front rows, because, as he says, you never know what kind of mess you’re going to get into (so sitting on the front row, like we did, is safe!) He’s an immensely likeable chap; the kind you’d really want to spend time down the pub with. His delivery is sure, authoritative, confident and pacey, but never aggressive. And his material is full of the everyday observations that we all have about how ridiculous life is, but could never put into words ourselves. His turns of phrase are immaculate, as is his timing for the killer lines. And there is a warmth in his delivery that reassures you that all the teasing comes from a kind place – unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering how much of his material stems from his domestic bliss with his Slovakian wife and two incredibly difficult children.
Among his gems, we learned how so many of the problems that face women are named after men; how sometimes you can be relieved to be in the company of Millwall supporters; the problems of having a cream coloured settee with infants around; when you should, and shouldn’t, give someone a birthday card; and what you should really be thinking about when you give a sperm sample. I also loved his (100% accurate) portrayal of how posh people treat their friends in comparison with working class people. The beauty of his comedy is its recognisability; the show is two hours of pure truth, bundled together in a fantastically funny package.
When the time came to wrap up, I couldn’t believe the evening had flown by so quickly. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were laughing about it all the way home, and, indeed, a few days later, we’re still quoting our favourite bits. This is a performer for whom surely greatness awaits – if not, there’s no justice in this world. If you get the chance to see him in action, don’t hesitate!
P. S. As this was the end of his tour, he was having the show properly and professionally videod and edited for future audiences to see what they missed. We noted there was a tiny wee camera at the foot of the stage looking directly out at the crowd – and, from what we could gather, aimed firmly in our faces. Apologies in advance if we ruined the video!!!
This was our first exposure to the NMTC Youth Society, and to the Cripps Theatre, and to Disney’s High School Musical – so we had a lot to take in at once! It’s a great show for young people to tackle, because it’s full of activity, comedy, enjoyable songs and great dancing; and it also teaches you a few of those life lessons that most of us don’t get to grips with until we’re far, far older!
In case you don’t know… Troy and Gabriella met over the summer holidays – and, surprise surprise, come September, they discover that she’s moved to be a student in the same school as he is! Troy loves his basketball, and Gabriella’s a bit of a brainbox; but they’re both also attracted to audition for the school musical. But Troy’s father is the basketball coach and he’s never going to allow his son to waste his time on stage; and anyway, Sharpay and Ryan always get the best roles in the school show, so there’s no point trying – is there? If only there were a way that Troy could both lead the basketball team and appear in the show with Gabriella…..
This is a very enjoyable show which appeals to young and old alike, not only because of its musical comedy nature, but also its great advice as to how to live your life. It gives you the confidence to be yourself; it shows that you can, for example, be interested and be good at both sport and the arts; it shows you how to deal with bullies; it reminds you that it’s impossible to please everyone, so, whilst not being spiteful about it, the best thing is to please yourself; and it shows you that when circumstances conspire against you, and you think there’s no way out of your problem – there’s always a way if you think hard enough about it. No wonder it’s so popular!
NMTC Youth Company’s production was a feast for the eyes and ears throughout. Excellent costumes, terrific choreography, a useful and attractive set, and a superb orchestration played by Rod Iliffe and his seven musicians. It had a truly professional feel throughout, and everyone gave a top-quality performance, with confidence and skill to the forefront. I was particularly impressed with how much commitment the young performers gave to their stage presence and to the dancing. The musical numbers filled the stage with excitement and life, and there was always something going on for the audience to enjoy.
Although it’s a true ensemble performance, there were many individual performances to appreciate. Ben Mineards and Eleanor Whitestone-Paul made a strong couple as Troy and Gabriella; they sang with great character and beautiful harmonies, and when they went in for the big kiss, the whole audience ooohed with pleasure! Emily Moss and Henry Patterson were also excellent as the bossy, spoilt, shallow, show-offy Sharpay and her (sometimes) obedient, flamboyant sidekick twin Ryan, delighting in their “baddie” roles. Anya Neal and Matt Dixon were very convincing in the adult roles of Ms Darbus and Coach Bolton; Ms Neal revelling in the artistic nonsense that her character spouts, Mr Dixon very nicely portraying his character’s barely suppressed bullying tendencies – we all know a sports teacher like that!
Abi Faulder was excellent in the difficult role of Jackie Scott, the radio announcer who acts as a running commentator throughout the show; and Kelsi Neilson was also very good as the down-to-earth composer Hatti, always with an eye out for the best interests of her creation and assertively refusing to allow it to be hijacked. I enjoyed Isabel Robinson’s supportive performance as Martha, and Joe Jeffery impressed with both his dancing and his aptitude for the stage comedy.
However, most impressive for me were Troy Anderson and Violet Clarke as Chad and Taylor; engaging, likeable, with superb stage presence, great singing voices and dancing ability. Young Mr Anderson seems to me to be born to entertain – a true song and dance man in the making. But everyone, from the smallest and youngest upwards, put on a terrific show and the audience absolutely loved it. Congratulations to all!
P. S. The NMTC Youth Company is made up of young people aged between 8 and 18 and they’re already preparing for next year’s show. Maybe you should take part?! Check here for updates!
Although Ballet Black was founded in 2001, I’ve never come across their work before, so when I saw they were having a night at the Royal and Derngate, this had to be the perfect opportunity to see what they are all about.
It’s a small company with just seven dancers appearing in the three short works performed in the current tour. I don’t think they’re awash with cash either, so staging and props are kept to the minimum, but that concentrates the mind wonderfully on the quality of the dance and the choreography – and, in this production, some beautifully effective lighting and costumes.
The programme kicks off with a short work, Pendulum, choreographed by Martin Lawrance, whose work with Richard Alston I have long admired. Originally produced for the company in 2009, it features two dancers, Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthuzeli November, probing each other’s character and sizing each other up by means of collaborative dancing together and combative dancing apart. It’s arresting, powerful choreography set to pounding, vibrating abstract beats, which both excites and disconcerts the audience, not least with its surprise sudden ending. Pendulum tests the dancers’ skills to the limit and they gave it all the strength it requires.
No break, it’s straight into the next dance, Click!, which couldn’t be more different. Choreographed by Scottish Ballet’s Sophie Laplane, this is a mainly light-hearted work that examines the various meanings of the word Click – whether it be summoning attention with your fingers, changing from mood to mood, two people just clicking in a relationship, and so on. It’s a smart idea and is carried off with great panache by the five dancers. What really grabs your attention is David Plater’s superbly stimulating lighting design, bathing each of the dancers in their own strong colour that stays with them throughout the dance, whichever part of the stage they occupy. Isabela Coracy leads the group, like a yellow circus ringmaster, dictating the pace and the activity of the other dancers. There’s a wonderfully witty and quirky routine performed by Ebony Thomas and Marie Astrid Mence to The Mudlarks’ Just the Snap of your Fingers, which brought out all the fun of the dancers’ personalities, as well as a beautiful, emotional pas de deux by Cira Robinson and Jose Alves. I thoroughly enjoyed the different atmospheres conjured up by each of the dancers in the different elements of the dance.
After the interval, the final dance is a new work choreographed by Ballet Black’s own Mthuthuzeli November – and the first time the company has commissioned a work by one of its own team. Ingoma (which translates as Song or Anthem, in Zulu) was inspired by the stories of the South African Miners’ strikes in the 1940s as well as Gerard Sekoto’s stunning painting Song of the Pick, which depicts a row of miners, each with their pick raised high above their heads, ready to work in unison for the gain of the white, pipe-smoking supervisor who gazes idly by. That particular stance is very effectively replicated in Mr November’s impressive and bold choreography.
I’d be lying if I said I fully followed the story of this dance, but it’s full of emotional and heart-hitting images and sequences. The dancers rap their rubber boots to create a soft thud that reminded me of their trudging through water; there are stunning tableaux, affecting moments between the miners and their womenfolk; and depictions of grief that have presumably come from the miners’ deaths. It’s a fully charged onslaught of the senses, perhaps made even stronger by the lack of obvious narrative. Scenes from lives over many years, perhaps.
It’s always enjoyable to discover a new dance company – even if they’ve already been going for eighteen years! This is a satisfying triple bill creating a variety of moods and memories. The tour continues to June, visiting Bristol, Cambridge, Derby, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Well worth seeing!
Production photos variously by Rick Guest, Mthuthuzeli November, Tristram Kenyon/The Guardian and Bill Cooper
In which Sir James Bond is coaxed out of retirement after M has been assassinated (by himself) and Agent Mimi has taken the place of M’s widow and fallen in love with Bond’s robust strength and physical magnificence. In order to defeat SMERSH, all British agents take on the name James Bond, but the real Bond finally meets his love child from his relationship with superspy Mata Hari (Mata Bond), and, with assistance from more Bond girls than you can shake a stick at, overthrows the evil plans of Dr Noah, before each and every one of them dies in a massive conflagration. And to think that some of the actors involved in this film actually thought it was going to be serious.
But no. This is the spoof Casino Royale, and not to be confused with the Eon Casino Royale that hit the screens in 2006. Back in 1955, Ian Fleming sold the film rights to producer Gregory Ratoff, but Ratoff failed to secure the funding before he died in 1960. Charles K Feldman then obtained the rights from Ratoff’s widow. Cubby Broccoli offered to buy the rights from him, but Feldman refused, as he had plans to make the film, with Howard Hawks directing and starring Cary Grant as Bond. But with the great success of Dr No, Feldman realised he couldn’t compete with the Eon/Connery/Broccoli/Saltzman team and had to think again. In 1964 further negotiations were underway with Eon Productions to make the film but personal disagreements between the producers made things difficult and, anyway, Connery was looking for a million dollars to make the film – which was outside Feldman’s budget. Eventually Feldman offered it to Columbia, and, as the Bond movies had made the whole idea of spy films popular, decided to make it as a satirical, comedy spoof.
The screenplay was to be written by Ben Hecht, of Scarface and The Front Page fame. However, he died two days before his final version was ready to be presented to Feldman. It was subsequently re-written by Billy Wilder, and then re-worked by the credited writers, Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers. In addition, and for reasons that will become clear, it is said that Peter Sellers commissioned Terry Southern (with whom he had worked on Dr Strangelove) to re-write all the scenes in which Sellers appeared. So, clearly, the script went through several hands before achieving its final version. If that wasn’t confusing enough, the film eventually benefited (if that’s the word) from having no fewer than six directors. Val Guest directed the scenes with Woody Allen and David Niven, and was in charge of stitching the whole thing together at the end. Kenneth Hughes directed the Berlin scenes, John Huston directed the early scenes at Bond’s mansion and the Scottish castle, Joseph McGrath directed the scenes with Peter Sellers, Orson Welles and Ursula Andress, Robert Parrish directed other scenes with Sellers and Welles, and finally, Richard Talmadge, with his speciality in stunt work, directed the final scenes at the casino. Too many cooks? If you watch the film and think it’s unconnected, episodic, bitty and completely out of control, that’s why.
It doesn’t stop there though. Peter Sellers and Orson Welles had a huge on-set falling-out, primarily because Princess Margaret (a friend of Sellers) visited the set and Sellers expected to bathe in her glamour and attention; however, by all accounts she cut Sellers and spent the whole time fangirling Welles. Not for the first time, nor the last, Sellers stomped off the set. That’s why he engaged Terry Southern to write his lines, in order to get the better of Welles and make himself look more important. Sellers refused to be in Welles’ presence, so their baccarat game scenes were filmed separately, with a double standing in for Sellers. There are two versions of the following tale; one is that, eventually, Sellers walked off the set, never to return; the other is that he was fired by Val Guest before the end of filming for being so unreasonable. Either way, it left a whole number of unresolved plot lines hanging, requiring some imaginative deep thinking from the directors as to what to do. No wonder the end of the film just feels like a mindless mish-mash of ideas and lines.
Casino Royale’s original budget was a relatively modest $6 million, but after the rewrites, the stormings-out and all the other tensions and costs, the eventual cost to make it more than doubled to over $12 million. That made it unquestionably the most expensive Bond movie at the time. Its box office take of $41.7 million was nothing like as much as the regular Eon Production films – but at least it was still a profit. Apparently, there was a lot of wastage. Woody Allen spoke of being brought over from America way ahead of when he was required on set, spending weeks in luxury hotels totally needlessly; although, whilst he was waiting, it did give him the time to write the screenplay for Take the Money and Run. And, despite his leaving the production in the lurch a few times, Peter Sellers had negotiated a resounding 3% of gross profits. That’s quite some fee.
The book of Casino Royale was published in 1953 and was the first in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels. There’s very little crossover between the content of the book and this film. In the book, Bond plays baccarat with SMERSH agent Le Chiffre in order to deprive the enemy of funds. Eventually, with a little help from Felix Leiter, he wins, and Le Chiffre is murdered by one of his own agents. Bond and his Soviet assistant Vesper Lynd become lovers; but she takes her own life when it’s revealed she’s a Russian double agent. In the film, of course, it’s Evelyn Tremble who plays baccarat with Le Chiffre, and it’s Tremble with whom Vesper becomes enamoured. Leiter doesn’t appear in the film – and all the other film characters don’t appear in the book!
Despite its very obvious failings, I have a very soft spot for this film. It was one of the first times that I was taken to the cinema as a child – I would have been seven or eight – and of course most of it would have gone completely over my head. However, I do remember laughing at some of the slapstick elements – particularly the out of control milk van. And I absolutely loved the score – more of which later.
Most of the critics at the time weren’t impressed. The Chicago Sun-Times said “this is possibly the most indulgent film ever made”; Variety said it was “a conglomeration of frenzied situations, ‘in’ gags and special effects, lacking discipline and cohesion”, and the New York Times called the ending “reckless, disconnected nonsense”. With the benefit of hindsight, some of today’s commentators have been a little kinder. Cinema historian Robert von Dassanowsky said “like Casablanca, Casino Royale is a film of momentary vision, collaboration, adaption, pastiche, and accident. It is the anti-auteur work of all time, a film shaped by the very zeitgeist it took on.” AllMovie called it “the original ultimate spy spoof”, and “a satire to the highest degree”. My own personal opinion is that it is crammed with excess, a delightful sense of parody, some extremely funny scenes and lines, and it’s 60s Retro of the highest order. Sadly, nothing can cover up its immensely manic, tedious and stupid ending, but you can’t have everything.
As this is nothing to do with the Eon Production films, don’t expect the opening credits to begin with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen. This is pure parody, so we start with a saucy visual joke. Bond – as played by Peter Sellers – meets Mathis of the Special Police in a Parisian pissoir. We can only see them from the chest up. “These are my credentials”, says Mathis, as Bond gazes down towards his nether regions. “They appear to be in order” replies Bond. And it’s straight into the opening titles and the magnificent Casino Royale theme, written by Burt Bacharach and performed by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
The titles feature the names of the lead performers with an embellished (and animated) capital letter at the beginning of their first name – rather like one might see in a lavish old book. However, the animation that we can see inside the letter shows many of the characters strumming on a heavenly lyre – so we know, before it starts, that they die! Peter Sellers, of course, gets top billing, followed by Ursula Andress and David Niven; so, interestingly, James Bond is given third billing in this film. The anarchic animation of the opening credits is pure swinging sixties.
And the locations? Unlike the other Bond films so far, this is a very British-based story. The scenes depicting Trafalgar Square and 10 Downing Street were indeed shot at those esteemed locations. Sir James Bond’s stately pile was filmed at Mereworth Castle in Kent, M’s Scottish castle was filmed at Killeen Castle in Co Meath, in Ireland; other scenes were shot in Killin in Perthshire and Windsor in Berkshire. In the book, the Casino Royale itself is located in the fictional French town of Royale-les-Eaux. However, I can only presume that the casino in the film was on the set of Pinewood, Shepperton or Twickenham Studios, where the majority of the film was shot.
Bond, James Bond. David Niven has a damn good stab at creating what James Bond might have become in retirement (tongue firmly in cheek, of course). Prudish, dedicated to Debussy, and with a disconcerting stammer, all that womanising is way behind him now, and he loves to live a comfortable but reclusive life, with lions on his front drive and a black rose in his garden. Once he’s back in the saddle as head of MI6, he’s self-assured, debonair and really quite mischievous. I haven’t really seen David Niven in many films, but I think he’s terrific in this. He was, of course, a much lauded and experienced actor, having appeared in almost one hundred films between 1932 and his death in 1983. His two volumes of autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon, and Bring on the Empty Horses were massively successful, and he was something of a war hero too, joining the army on the day the Second World War started, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Boo-boos. Continuity errors and mistakes don’t feel quite so important in an anarchic comedy like this, but there are a few moments worth noting. In the scene where Le Chiffre, who is obsessed with magic, levitates a woman over the baccarat table, you can actually see the steel bar that’s holding her up; and when M’s widow enters Bond’s bedroom, you can see the reflection of the cameraman in a mirror on the wall. When the remotely operated milk van is chugging its merry way around the roads of Berkshire, in one scene it swerves and loses half its milk crates into the street; seconds later, it’s fully laden again. Maybe Le Chiffre was working his magic.
The Bond Girl.If it’s a Bond film, it’s got to have a Bond girl, right? This one, as befits its excessive status, has at least four. Agent Mimi is first up – she’s a SMERSH agent pretending to be M’s widow, the Lady Fiona McTarry. She’s desperate to seduce and discredit the very upright Bond – and encourages all M’s “daughters” (eleven of them, aged between 16 and 19 – we are on very shaky ground here) to do the same. But when she sees how successfully Bond “pays the piper” by handling those cannonballs, she can’t hide her genuine love for the man. Superbe! Formidable! Splendide! Bravo! Magnifique!!!! she moans. Agent Mimi was played by Deborah Kerr, a fine, experienced actress, best known for her appearances in The King and I, and on stage in many plays.
Then there’s Mata Bond, his estranged daughter following an intimate liaison with the famous spy Mata Hari. She’s full of spirit but a bit annoyed with him for being an absentee father. But she’s up for a fine piece of espionage as she’s driven to Berlin to infiltrate International Mothers’ Help, an au pair service that is a cover for a SMERSH training centre. Later, she’s captured in a giant flying saucer – it happens; and it’s while on their mission to rescue her that the Bonds all get trapped in the Casino Royale. Mata was played by Joanna Pettet, whose film career started promisingly with a number of good roles in the 1960s, and then she migrated to small roles in dozens of TV series.
Another Bond Girl that Bond really oughtn’t to be attracted by is Miss Moneypenny – in fact, she’s Miss Moneypenny’s daughter, and we probably oughtn’t to ask who her father is. Unlike the traditional Moneypenny, this one’s more prepared to get her hands dirty out in the field. Her finest hour is when she samples all the contenders for a new Bond to be trained to resist the attractions of women; as I say, getting dirty in the field. Moneypenny was played by Barbara Bouchet, who has appeared in dozens of films, mainly in Italy, and who branched out into fitness books and videos and still has a successful fitness studio in Rome.
Certainly not to go unmentioned is The Detainer; the British spy who tricks Dr Noah into taking his own atomic pill. She’s not really a Bond Girl though – because she hardly has anything to do with Bond. She was played by Daliah Lavi, an Israeli actress, singer and model, who appeared in a few films and also found fame as a Schlager singer in Germany. She died in 2017 at the age of 74. Also not to go unmentioned, and also not a Bond Girl, is Miss Goodthighs. She’s a SMERSH agent who attempts to kill Evelyn Tremble at the Casino; so as she’s not working with Bond, but working against him, she’s a baddie. She was played by Jacqueline Bisset, whose film career hasn’t stopped since she appeared in her first movie in 1965.
But we definitely have to include Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd. Ms Andress, of course, played Honey Ryder in Dr No, and so was already a Bond Girl before Casino Royale came along. Vesper Lynd has been tempted back into espionage in return for writing off her tax arrears. She approaches Evelyn Tremble to get him to play baccarat against Le Chiffre (almost a part of the original novel emerging there!) Whilst she and Tremble have a definite dalliance, at the end she betrays him because she is a double agent after all. But, anyway, everyone dies, so what’s the difference?
The Villain. Dr Noah – no real clue necessary to guess where his name came from – has a plan to use biological warfare to make all women beautiful and kill all men over 4 foot 6 inches tall. Much to everyone’s dismay, Dr Noah turns out to be little Jimmy Bond, James’ nephew, who cannot speak in his presence because he’s so overawed. But he is hoist by his own petard when he’s tricked into swallowing his own atomic pill – which causes the grand explosion at Casino Royale and the subsequent death of all and sundry. He was played by Woody Allen, who needs no introduction in the world of cinema. It is said, though, that he was so aghast at the awful management of this film – the on-set arguments, the wasted time, the six directors, and so on – that he vowed never to let anyone else direct a film that he was involved in. So it did contribute something significant to the world of cinema!
Other memorable characters? Casino Royale is so full of tiny roles played by significant actors, that, to be honest, I don’t know where to begin? I suppose first up must be Orson Welles’ Le Chiffre, the SMERSH agent who loves his baccarat not quite as much as his magic. Orson Welles, of course, had an extraordinary career in all the arts – and I believe the feelings between him and Peter Sellers were mutual.
Ah yes, Peter Sellers, who played Evelyn Tremble. A man of amazing talent, and some (obviously) difficult problems. He punched director Joseph McGrath who said he would never work with him again. Some of the frustration in making the film must have come from the fact that Sellers thought this was going to be a relatively straight film, and that he would take a relatively straight and serious role. This was never going to happen.
I doubt if I’ll name all the significant performers in this film. Peter O’Toole, Jean-Paul Belmondo (at the time, Ursula Andress’ other half) and George Raft all make brief cameo appearances with a couple of lines at the most. Racing Driver Stirling Moss doesn’t say a word, nor does M’s driver, John le Mesurier. Flavour of the month at the time, Anna Quayle is a terrifying Frau Hoffner, accompanied by the battery-driven, sex-mad Polo played by Ronnie Corbett. John Huston directed himself playing M; Charles Boyer and William Holden are the other two Intelligence Men in the opening scene. Bernard Cribbins drives a taxi all the way to Berlin; Derek Nimmo is Bond’s new office assistant, Hadley; Geoffrey Bayldon (aka Catweazle) is Q, with John Wells as his simpering assistant, Fordyce. Alexandra Bastedo, she of The Champions, features as M’s “daughter” Meg. Richard Wattis is the British Army officer present at the auction that was to be chaired by Vladek Sheybal (Kronsteen in From Russia with Love). The list goes on, but I’ll stop there.
And what about the music? Now we’re talking. Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack is a sheer joy throughout – and the CD has long been one of my favourite Easy Listening collections. Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass’ rendition of the main theme was a smash hit single, reaching No 1 in the United States, although only No 27 in the UK. Dusty Springfield’s exquisite performance of The Look of Love, whilst never a single success by itself, remains one of her finest recordings and it’s impossible to hear it without all your extremities tingling with joy. The remainder of the incidental music is full of hilarious motifs, sexy arrangements, period pastiches and sheer musical madness. Although they’re not on the soundtrack album, it’s also fun to hear the musical salutes in the film – a brief snatch of Born Free (written by regular Bond composer John Barry) when M is driving past Bond’s lions; a moment from the theme to Moulin Rouge when Peter Sellers’ Evelyn Tremble is pretending to be Toulouse-Lautrec; even the echo of What’s New Pussycat emerging from a manhole cover, a 1965 film which had previously united the talents of Sellers, Allen, O’Toole, Andress, Bacharach and producer Charles Feldman.
There are plenty of opportunities for comedy from the complicated and unlikely gadgets in use – the scene with Q and his assistant is a perfect parody of all those genuine Bond scenes, where army types are trying out the new gadgets, some with greater success than others. And as Sir James points out, early in the film, as he’s discrediting his guests with their feeble spy accoutrements: “You, Ransome, with your trick carnation that spits cyanide. You ought to be ashamed. And you, Smernov, with an armoury concealed in your grotesque boots. Listen to them tinkle. And you, Le Grand, with a different deadly poison in each of your fly buttons. And you, M, with your flame-throwing fountain pens. You’re joke-shop spies, gentlemen.” However, I do like the magnetic buttons that attract the artificial grouse with their built-in machine guns. Very clever.
There’s no point examining the death count on this film as it’s all pure pantomime, everyone dies and, in a sense, no one dies, as we see them in Heaven. However, I do want to share with you some of my favourite lines from the film.
“I present you with the levitation of the Princess Ayisha, an illusion taught to me by an ancient vegetarian in the mountain fastnesses of Tibet.”
“It’s the first john I’ve ever gone around with.”
“Which side do you dress, sir?” “I usually dress away from the window”.
“Listen. You can’t shoot me. I have a very low threshold of death. My doctor says I can’t have bullets enter my body at any time. What if I said I was pregnant?”
“I’m the new secret weapon. I’ve just been perfected.” “Yes, haven’t you?” “They’ve kept me under wraps.” “Lucky them.” “What do you do that’s so secret?” “I don’t do anything. But unless you’re one of them, you do […] You’re really learning to put up quite a resistance.” “It goes against my nature.” “I sense that too. What are you doing after the exercise?” “Getting my head examined.”
“Call me Coop.” “Like something for keeping birds.” “That’s me.”
“What a charming outfit that is. Do you often wear that in the office?” “If I wore it in the street, people might stare.”
“Just how personal is a toupee?” “It can only be regarded as a “hairloom”.
Iffy Material: There’s no doubt that there’s quite a lot of material that has dated badly in a post-Operation Yewtree world. A man of David Niven’s age getting into the bath with a girl of (allegedly) 17 years makes one feel a little squeamish today. And consider this conversation between Agent Mimi masquerading as Lady Fiona and James Bond, describing a portrait hanging on the wall: “To your right, Sir James – Lady Mary, daughter of Lord Douglas McTarry, raped by the Campbells in 1662, in retaliation of which, Lord Douglas sent his only son Hamish out to rape twa Campbell lassies.” “At the same time?” “Eldest first, of course. As prescribed by scripture.” It has an Ortonesque naughtiness to it, but it’s really not acceptable in this day and age.
Awards:The Look of Love was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, losing to Talk to the Animals from Doctor Dolittle. Burt Bacharach’s score also earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Show. Julie Harris was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Costume Design. To sum up: In so many ways, this film is a complete oddity; one of those star-strangled indulgences that no doubt looked great on paper but had a lot of difficulty reaching the screen. For me it has some serious highlights but also a lot of longueurs; but it’s part of my childhood and I love it for that. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions of Casino Royale – and whether you agree with me! Please leave a comment below. Next, we’re going to be returning to the classic Bond films and You Only Live Twice, released just two months after Casino Royale. I’m sure the diehard fans couldn’t wait!
My rating: 4 Sparkles
All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.