Review – Café Society, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 19th September 2016

Cafe SocietyHere’s the second of two movies in one week because I basically forgot to redeem my final two free visits to the Errol Flynn Filmhouse and I didn’t want to lose them before my “Friends” year ends. The first was The Shallows, not perhaps an obvious choice for us, but exciting to watch and it hugely exceeded our expectations. Again, I’m not sure if Café Society is a film I would have otherwise chosen to see, but it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve seen a Woody Allen film and so this was a good opportunity to put that right.

Jesse EisenbergI was a big admirer of Mr Allen in my youth. As a way-ahead-of-my-time youngster in the 1960s, I loved the trendy glamour of What’s New Pussycat and the trendy slapstick of Casino Royale, which was one of the first films the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me to see at the cinema. I adored Annie Hall and was moved by Manhattan, enjoyed Zelig and took the young Miss Duncansby – before she became Mrs Chrisparkle – to see Hannah and her Sisters. But I don’t think the young Miss D was anything like as keen on Woody Allen as I was. And consequently I think that might have been the last time I saw one of his films!

Kristen StewartIt’s a relatively simple and agreeable tale of Bobby, a young Jewish guy, who leaves New York to try to find some kind of fame and fortune in Hollywood, spurred on by the fact that his uncle is a massively successful agent, on whose coat-tails he hopes to ride for a bit, to get some contacts and make a life for himself. The uncle’s secretary, Vonnie, is tasked with the job of showing Bobby around the town, and, being a Woody Allen film, Bobby falls in love with her. However – naturally – she has a boyfriend. Relationships come and go – the secretary falls in and out of love with both Bobby and her boyfriend, and, several years later, both Bobby and Vonnie are married – although not to each other – and an uncertain ending leaves you hanging as to how things might get resolved – or not.

Steve CarellIt’s a very enjoyable film, although, despite the relationship difficulties depicted and the personal sadness experienced by some of the characters, not remotely challenging. I thought more could have been made of the difference between Bobby’s tough working class NYC home life and the glitzy glamour of his Californian Lifestyle, but I guess that wasn’t the film Woody Allen wanted to make. Cinematographically, it looks lush throughout, although a tendency to over-sepia-ise some of the scenes (presumably to help with setting the 1930s vibe) got on my nerves a bit once I had identified why everything was appearing so orangey. There’s a very classy jazz soundtrack – primarily, but not exclusively, piano – which really nails the vibe, even though it was a little repetitive for Mrs C’s taste.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen StewartIt’s 1930s New York, so there has to be a gangster – and he comes in the form of Bobby’s brother Ben, ostensibly a decent family man but with a predilection for handing out summary executions with comedic brevity. Bobby’s background family are very credibly realised, with a fine pair of performances from Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as his rather downbeat parents – think Caroline Aherne’s The Royle Family set in the Bronx. And there’s a hilarious scene early on with a beautiful cameo performance by Anna Camp as the willing but rather unprofessional prostitute Candy, that gives you an excellent insight into both the irascible side of Bobby’s character and the shallowness of the Californian way of life.

cafe-society-distinguished-guestsBut the film succeeds most in telling the general awkwardness of the ménage à trois that is Bobby, Vonnie and her boyfriend, “Doug”. (He’s not really Doug.) Kristen Stewart gives a really thoughtful performance as Vonnie, totally Torn Between Two Lovers as the old song goes, trapping her whirlwind of emotions beneath a calm façade that never takes anything for granted or even insists on being treated fairly. Steve Carell gives a good performance as the spoilt and over-successful agent Phil, flourishing under professional pressure but falling apart when it comes to personal relationships. And Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as the gently neurotic, sexually confident and eventually nightclub owning Bobby, in a role that – having missed out on seeing Woody Allen’s gradual development throughout the decades – I see as being precisely the same kind of role that Mr Allen would have written for himself back in the 70s. Talking of which, I only realised afterwards, when doing a little research before writing this post, that Woody Allen is the narrator of the film. I certainly didn’t recognise his voice. But he does a good job, with some nice levels of understatement and comic timing.

Blake Lively in Cafe SocietyThis isn’t a film that’s going to shake the world, but as a gentle and attractive snapshot of America in the 30s, it’s 96 minutes spent in the company of entertaining characters in a privileged environment that balances fantasy with reality – and comes down on the side of a comfy cushion somewhere between the two.

Review – Uncle Vanya, Vaudeville Theatre, 2nd January 2013

Uncle VanyaIt’s always a delight to get your teeth into a meaty chunk of Chekhov, and I wasn’t that certain if I’d ever seen a production of Uncle Vanya before. If I have, it was a jolly long time ago. Mrs Chrisparkle was pretty sure she had never seen it. So, with a rather exciting looking cast it was an obvious choice for one of our three nights in London at the beginning of January.

Ken StottWritten as the 1800s turned into the 1900s, the play is chock-full of the themes you would expect to find in your average Chekhov. Unrequited love, people growing old tragically alone, the pompous pretensions of the middle classes, selfish older people, too much vodka and forestry. Never forget the forestry. Remember the Cherry Orchard, which ends with the trees being chopped down, representing the end of the old order? In Uncle Vanya you have the woefully underachieved Doctor Astrov, Anna Carteretwho likes to spend his time tending the forests, which activity is obviously attractive to the downtrodden Sonya, who admires and values his hard work. Today you would guess they would both work for the Forestry Commission. The forests that surround the Serebryakov estate depict life – but still, dull, fruitless, dark, never changing life. The kind of life that bored, sad Yelena has married into; she who is a beacon of light for both the doctor and the useless eponymous uncle (actually brother-in-law as far as Yelena is concerned), but a light neither of them will ever get to see by.

Paul FreemanNo one gets a happy ending but nevertheless it’s not a depressing evening. It’s a fascinating play that gives you loads to think about on the way home, and its flashes of humour are very believable and provide dramatic highlights in this production. It’s thoughtfully and gently directed by Lindsay Posner with no wacky modern ideas of souping it up. Christopher Oram’s sets are very realistic and claustrophobic, but they take a helluva long time to shift from Acts 1 to 2 and 3 to 4, to the detriment of the dramatic tension on stage, which begins to ebb away as a slight impatience for the next scene arises. If the slow scene changes are a subtle way of telling us that life in 19th century Russia moves at a snail’s pace, it doesn’t work.

Samuel WestOne other aspect of the general design that I wasn’t entirely happy with, is that there are a number of moments when a character either observes something without other characters noticing, for example Vanya catching Astrov and Yelena in an embrace, or when someone talks about another character out of their earshot, as when Vanya criticises his brother. The Vaudeville stage isn’t that wide, and with the sets as detailed as they are, it is fairly impossible to provide enough visible space between the onlookers and the others to give a credible impression that one bunch of actors can’t see what’s going on at the other end of the stage. Yes I know this is one of those theatrical things where you have to suspend belief, but actually I found it quite hard to suspend it to that extent.

Anna FrielKen Stott is a brilliant Vanya. He’s gruff and blustery, passionate and outspoken, but it’s easy to see that’s mainly a front and that deep down he’s a pretty inadequate human being. He could have done something with his life – maybe – his criticising mother (a suitably stern and grumpy Anna Carteret) certainly thinks so; but then he’s 53 and she still doesn’t treat him as an adult, so I don’t suppose he cares what she thinks. He is equally critical of Serebryakov, who has enjoyed some distant success, and Ken Stott plays Vanya’s dismissiveness of his brother’s achievements with a very credible glee. The scene where Vanya shoots his brother is a delight; both Mr Stott and Paul Freeman as the hideously self-obsessed Serebryakov react hilariously to the outcome.

Laura CarmichaelTwo other scenes that worked really well – and brought out the humour in the sadness – were the encounter between Astrov (Samuel West giving a great performance of charming inanity) and Yelena (Anna Friel giving equal weight to the character’s mischievousness and sense of total defeat) when she feigns interest in the doctor’s map collection in order to get his attention, ostensibly to find out if he fancies Sonya. He goes all anorakky about it and she fails to convince any interest in the dull old maps whatsoever; June WatsonMrs C and I both recognised some of the worst defects in our own personalities there, just as I expect millions of people have done for the last 114 years. I also very much liked the scene in Act Four where Vanya and the Doctor are sitting side by side on Vanya’s bed and he can no longer control his great sadness at the way life has turned out. It was a very moving conversation, played to perfection by Messrs Stott and West.

Mark HadfieldLaura Carmichael plays the hopeless Sonya with quiet dignity and gives a very convincing performance of someone who clings on to the tiniest hope even though she knows it’s absolutely fatuous. June Watson’s Marina is a kindly and strong old Chekhovian retainer and the always reliable Mark Hadfield brings out both the humour and the weakness of the wretched old landowner Telyegin.

All in all it’s a very satisfying and straightforward presentation of a thought provoking and still relevant play. Definitely recommended.