Review – Paddington 2, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 24th November 2017

Paddington 2It’s 9pm on a Friday. You’ve had a pre-prandial G&T, you’ve enjoyed your dinner; you want a little pre-weekend escapism and a good laugh. Bottle of Malbec and two glasses in hand, we took our seats at the plush Errol Flynn Filmhouse, along with 89 other adults and one child, bless her. You can keep your Blade Runners and your Star Wars…. Paddington 2 is just sheer joy from start to finish.

Paddington the bear himselfI should point out that we didn’t see the original Paddington film three years ago, but my guess is that you don’t have to have seen the first to be able to appreciate any subtle nuances of the second. The story is relatively slight, but bear with me (geddit?) Paddington is searching for a birthday present for his Aunt Lucy because she brought him up well and he’s a decent, kind-hearted animal. He finds the perfect item in an antiques shop – an old pop-up book of London scenes. Paddington falls in love with it. But the price! Where’s he going to get £500 from? So he vows to work for the money and save it.

BuchananSo far so good. Being a trusting and honest bear, he lets slip to Phoenix Buchanan, a narcissistic actor who opens the local carnival, that he’s saving for this book. Unbeknownst to Paddington, Buchanan is also after this book and he decides to steal it from the shop. Paddington is on the scene in no time and runs after the thief – Buchanan in disguise – to catch him. Unfortunately, Buchanan gives him the slip and it is Paddington whom the police arrest and who is sent to prison in one of the greatest legal travesties in the annals of justice. But, as it’s Paddington, everything turns out alright in the end!

Paddington the window cleanerThis is simply one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years. The blend of animation and reality is just perfect. Take the whole hairdresser shop scene as a typical example of its brilliance. When the inexperienced Paddington clings hold of the barber’s erratically over-powered electric razor for dear life, the sight of the rippling, fluttering fur caused by the vibrations brings the house down. The computer that creates Paddington definitely has a grand sense of humour.

paddington 2 palsThere’s a star-studded cast that most other film makers would die for, and a few absolutely brilliant performances. Hugh Grant camps it up out of all proportion as the despicable Buchanan, in a hilarious assortment of disguises, no greater moment than in the finale (don’t leave at the beginning of the credits, whatever you do) when he gets his chance to present a showstopper (choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, I noticed). You’ll never think of FolliesRain on the Roof in the same way again. Hugh Bonneville, as Mr Brown, is also fantastic as he blunders from situation to situation, such as when he badmouths the other prisoners whilst they can still hear him, or when he’s caught red-handed breaking and entering Buchanan’s house. Brendan Gleeson is superb as the intimidating inmate Knuckles, who, it turns out, has a heart of gold after all.

The BrownsDelightful vignettes are scattered through the film, with Jessica Hynes, Ben Miller, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, Tom Conti, Meera Syal, Richard Ayoade, Tom Davis, Eileen Atkins, Joanna Lumley and many more taking tiny roles that just keep the whole thing constantly topped-up with surprise and enjoyment. Giving the bears a voice, there are vocal contributions by Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton as Uncle Pastuzo and Aunt Lucy, and a star performance from Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington; the epitome of decorum and politeness, honesty and decency – but not without a dash of daftness and a measure of mischief. Paul King and Simon Furnaby’s screenplay is marmalade-packed with visual humour and funny lines, including some great set pieces like the barber’s scene, Paddington’s laundry mishap and the steam train chase.

Paddington in the pinkDon’t think you have to have kids to go and see and enjoy this film. It appeals to the child in all of us – and also, in part, to the naughty grown-up as well. We were still laughing about this film 48 hours later. No wonder it’s proving to be a box-office hit. This’ll come back again and again to entertain us during Christmases Future for decades to come. A pure delight!

Review – Rough Justice, Milton Keynes Theatre, 22nd September 2012

Rough JusticeTerence Frisby. The name alone brings back thoughts of the Swinging Sixties. Fashion, pop and innocently risqué sex comedies. To think I was only 8 years old when I was taken to see Frisby’s There’s a Girl in my Soup at London’s Globe theatre (now the Gielgud). It starred West End stalwarts of the time Richard Coleman, Peter Byrne and, over from Australia, Karen Kessey. It was one of those early theatrical experiences that cemented my relationship with the stage, if that’s not too pompous a concept for an 8 year old.

You couldn’t get much of a greater leap of subject matter from There’s a Girl in my Soup to Rough Justice, which originally appeared in London in 1994, and concerns the trial of a media celebrity who has admitted killing his nine month old, severely brain-damaged baby in a fit of… well he can’t actually describe what kind of a fit it was. All the professional evidence points towards the fact that the late infant wouldn’t have had much of a life and probably wouldn’t have made it past 40. Not that that’s justification for murder in the eyes of the law, of course. But anyway, James Highwood, the aforesaid celebrity, insists it’s manslaughter and not murder.

Courtroom dramas are always exciting, and this is no exception. Highwood defends himself without the aid of Counsel, so is bound to make mistakes and put his foot in it even more. His legal adviser is amiable but you sense slightly ineffectual, and the prosecution barrister, Mrs Caseley, is a formidable, word-twisting, humourless adversary who can discern the weak spot in a witness statement at fifty paces. Add to the mix a slightly doddery judge, the occasional outcry from the gallery, and clunking prison door sound effects straight out of the opening titles of Porridge, and you have all the ingredients for an engrossing legal wrangle well told.

The set is simple but works perfectly for the text; two walls shoot in every so often at right-angles to create Highwood’s barren waiting cell for his meetings with his solicitor and wife, then they shoot out again and become part of the backdrop of the court. The lighting too, is simple and clear and is used to highlight Highwood’s loneliness in the dock; but also the house lights dimly come on whenever the judge or barrister are addressing the jury, so that we, the audience, also feel like we’re playing our part (as indeed we will, later).

Tom Conti Highwood is played by Tom Conti and it’s just the kind of role he plays perfectly. An everyman character under duress; an ordinary nice guy pushed to the limits of what life dishes out before you crack. As you would expect, he brings out all the wry humour of the script as well as tugging at our heartstrings with some extreme and highly convincing emotionally-charged scenes. An actor as experienced as Mr Conti, and in a role like this, could very easily have simply “phoned it in”; but I really admired the fact that he gave an absolutely first rate performance to our small Milton Keynes matinee as if it were a capacity Saturday night in the West End. And it was so rewarding to see him do a good play again, unlike…

Elizabeth Payne As Margaret Caseley, acting for the prosecution, Elizabeth Payne gives a very strong performance. Witheringly redoubtable, you would not want to face her in the witness box. It’s no surprise that she didn’t become a defence lawyer. With her superbly clipped tones, and bullying to the extent that the law allows, it’s a very well written role and her performance does it credit. I also liked David Michaels as Highwood’s long-suffering lawyer Jeremy Ackroyd, awkwardly gooseberrying around in the cell when Highwood and his wife meet, and becoming the embodiment of a facepalm emoticon whenever his client says all the wrong things in court.

David Michaels I was very pleased to see another old stage stalwart for the first time in ages, Royce Mills as the Judge. He has a perfect voice and physical presence for the part, and manages to combine kindliness with a robustness that makes you think that he genuinely is a disinterested legal presence; whilst all the while giving splendid facial reactions to the court goings-on. Carol Starks plays Highwood’s wife Jean, with her own demons to sort out, and is very convincing with her tired, scared and complex support of her husband. The other smaller roles are all very well played and I also feel it’s a very assured directorial debut by James Larkin.

Royce MillsThe play ends suddenly, with the verdict. I was expecting some further plot development afterwards, maybe a tying-up of some loose ends; but the play is seen very much through the court’s eyes, and so after the jury have delivered their verdict, its job is done. However, Tom Conti does then come forward at curtain call to address the audience and ask if they agree with the verdict in the play. Considering only the admissible evidence we have seen, we are asked to vote guilty or not-guilty to a charge of murder by a show of hands. I won’t tell you how either the play ends or indeed how our audience voted, but I can tell you that Mrs Chrisparkle and I gave different verdicts. Honestly! I ask you! Did she not hear the evidence?? Mrs C also reported back from a trip to the Ladies’ after the show that, in her opinion, the play had done the impossible; it had encouraged a group of ladies in the toilets who had never met before to discuss the play and whether they thought Highwood was guilty or not. That’s some achievement.

Carol Starks So, it’s smartly written, with a couple of twists, good characterisation and has a thought-provoking ending. At the interval Mrs C and I discussed it avidly trying to work out the whys, wheres and hows of the whole story, and that in-depth discussion carried on after the show as well. A rewarding and well performed play that I would certainly recommend.

How much do you think is a reasonable price to pay for an interval ice-cream? We’re not talking a Heston Blumental concoction here, just one of those innocent looking standard little tubs that appear in an usher’s tray and are about a dozen mouthfuls’ big. Spoon under the lid – you know the deal. As it was a matinee we thought we’d give our livers a treat and swap the Sauvignon Blanc for a Toffee Fudge. Imagine our surprise when the large handful of coins Mrs C offered the usher were not man enough for the job. £3.50 is the cost of a tub of ice-cream – that’s £7 for the two of us. Time after time we saw people approach the ice-cream man, look aghast, and then walk away empty handed. If we were to take Lady Duncansby, the Special Agent nieces plus their parents to the panto in Milton Keynes, that would set us back £24.50 just for seven ice-creams! I can tell you that’s not going to happen – especially as their panto stars (and I use the word loosely) Louie Spence this year. But I fear the Milton Keynes theatre is turning into quite a hostile environment. Our seats in the stalls were absolutely freezing cold. Put the heating on, can’t you! Add to the fact that they have crammed in an extra row of seats to the detriment of audience sightlines and legroom, and now they are overcharging for ice-creams. Our solution, incidentally, was to buy two Sparkling Waters instead, which, including my 10% off for having an ATG membership card, came to £3.60. I do hope Milton Keynes isn’t going to become the Ryanair of theatres.

Review – Smash, Menier Chocolate Factory, April 3rd 2011

SmashI read in the programme that it was Maureen Lipman who had suggested to David Babani when she was appearing in the splendid “A Little Night Music” that it would be a great idea for the Menier to revive her late husband Jack Rosenthal’s 1981 comedy Smash, inspired by his experience of rewriting his TV play “Bar Mitzvah Boy” as a stage musical. Rosenthal’s play turned the character of the writer into a woman and it was Maureen Lipman herself who played the role originally when it did a provincial tour but didn’t reach the West End.

Maureen Lipman was of course a major contribution to the success of “Little Night Music” which transferred to the West End and Broadway and has done a lot of good for the Menier Brand. No doubt Mr Babani was feeling very warm and fuzzy towards Ms Lipman. However, sometimes when one is closely involved in a project, emotionally attached to its creator, or simply grateful for a job well done, you just can’t see the wood for the trees. I can think of no other explanation for mounting a production of this – regrettably – very unfunny and boring play. If I tell you that I preferred “Paradise Found”, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Now, if you’ve read any of my other play comments, you’ll know I’m not naturally vitriolic. I can always find something – SOMETHING – that I love in a stage production. But I think this one has darn near beaten me. Our seating position didn’t help. As a loyal supporter of the Menier (we try to go whenever we can), I always book a Sunday matinee online on the first day that the tickets become available. It’s normally seats in Row A. But you can’t always tell with the Menier as they often – very inventively – adapt the space and change the seating layouts (for example as they did last year with “A Number”). So when you expect their website to sell you the best available tickets and they are row CC, you trust them.

Well I have to tell you our seats CC12 – 13 were totally useless. Back row on the side, close to the end wall which meant that the back third of the stage was totally invisible. I felt very sorry for the two guys to my left who had even more of an obstructed view (although I understand their seats were sold as such, and were cheaper). Our seats were full price and thoroughly inadequate. On more than one occasion I heard an invisible voice on stage taking part in a scene and I had no idea the person was even there. It might as well have been a radio play.

The director Tamara Harvey seems to have only blocked the play from the view of the front of the stage so as a result there were long passages where characters were sat with their back to us. They may have been making facial expressions – we will never know. I estimate about 35% of all the seats in the auditorium were on the side, so it wouldn’t only be us who were ignored this way.

I’m not going to go on about our bad seats, but from our vantage point a) we had a good view of the rest of the audience and saw that a number of them slept through the first act and b) as a stickler for verisimilitude I saw an advert for Google on the inner pages of one of the apparently “1981” newspapers the cast were reading in the final scene. Not good enough attention to detail, I’m afraid.

The alienation I felt from the play was enhanced by having thoroughly unpleasant characters populate it, to the extent that I found it impossible to care about what happened to them. The opening scene has the star composer Bebe (based on Jule Styne) blanking the writer Liz in such an offensive sort of way that I hated his character thenceforward. Additionally, there seemed to be no personal progression for any of the characters throughout the play, despite the fact that the events cover over a year’s timescale. The writer started insecure and ended insecure. The composer started unreasonably bombastic and ended bombastic. Same for the director. The lyricist started – well I don’t know how he started really, I can’t think of any words that sum up such a vacant character – and he ended the same. If everyone’s character ends up in the same place that they started, what’s the point of that?

What appears to be an excellent cast on paper didn’t really translate to the stage either. They didn’t seem to gel as a team. I never got the feeling that any of the characters was actually listening to what any of the others was saying. Now I appreciate that the characters largely had their own agenda and wanted to get their own way within the story but even so I didn’t feel that many of the reactions of the actors to their colleagues’ speeches were really genuine.

Tom ContiAs an actor you can always rely on to provide a star turn, Tom Conti is the best thing about this production. He gives us his New York Jewish act more or less exactly as I remember him playing Vernon in “They’re Playing our Song” over thirty years ago, only older. It’s enjoyable, if safe. His best lines are when he can’t think of what to say, and his words peter out into a befuddled murmur. He does it well – but I think that says a lot (not) for the wit element of the script.

Natalie WalterThe writer Liz is played by Natalie Walter who does the “inexperienced writer abroad” aspect of the role fine enough, but she gave me no sense of despair, anger, frustration, tiredness, or any of another hundred possible emotions when she is found on the floor of her hotel room surrounded by rewrites. It’s meant to be late at night and with urgent work to do for heaven’s sake! She had all the urgency of composing her Waitrose shopping list. The effect on me of her plight was just like A Chorus Line’s Diana hearing the news of Mr Karp’s death, “because I felt Nothing”.

Richard Schiff Richard Schiff took over the role of Bebe the composer pretty late in the day before the show opened, and I think it showed. His prop handling wasn’t great – he gives Liz a boxed bracelet as a gift on opening night, except that he mishandled it and gave it to her with the box half open and the bracelet swinging all over the place, whilst trying to stifle a giggle at his ineptitude. On another occasion, having been seated on an upturned suitcase, he knocked it over when he stood up – that kind of thing. I think he corpsed again in the final scene because of something Tom Conti said to him at the back of the stage – but I can’t be sure as this was in the hidden “dark area” you’re not permitted to see from seats CC12 & 13.

Josh Cohen The role of Mike the lyricist, modelled on Don Black, was so feebly written a part that Josh Cohen playing him seemed to “feeble down” to occupy it. The character keeps on coming up with statements like “I had to turn down 16 black lesbians” or similar nonsense, and I couldn’t work out why he was saying these things. Were they his own private fantasies? Were the stories he shared with his wife? Were they fantasies he wanted to share with Liz? I couldn’t understand their relevance in the play, but anyway they weren’t funny and I was past caring. Sorry, but Josh Cohen had little charisma or stage presence and was frequently not noticeable. It’s the kind of performance I’ve described in the past as being “phoned in”. I’m afraid this was so bland that really it was texted in.

Cameron Blakely Cameron Blakely as the director Stacey was fine to the extent that he had to play an unpleasant man irascibly and noisily. But I didn’t care about the character and when he alluded to a possible affair with Liz it came as a bolt from the blue. Where did that come from? There was no discernable romantic interest earlier in the play. Also in the script were totally anti-British, anti-English comments from Stacey and Bebe. Now this may very well be a true reflection of Jack Rosenthal’s experience, but I felt quite bludgeoned by their constant criticisms of how useless the British are in every job, in every creative sphere, in every attitude. It was really quite racist. Oh yes, and there was a fight scene between all the main characters. Seen from the side, it was one of the most embarrassingly ham-fisted theatre sequences I’ve seen for a long time.

Just before the final scene the sound track failed. The Sound Supervisor came on stage and said due to a technical problem there would be a short break before the production could resume. The audience buzzed with engaged excitement – at last. Given they had no flying cars or descending chandeliers I thought they should just get on with it in silence. Mrs Chrisparkle prayed that if they couldn’t finish the show and offered us tickets for another performance that there would be no convenient dates. But the show did start up again, and there was a clever line spoken by Natalie Walter about a technical fault – if it was quickly ad-libbed that very moment it was very well done. If it was already in the script then it was a sign from the Gods.

So, in brief: a script bereft of wit played by actors portraying tedious characters who didn’t seem to engage with each other very much and who had their backs to me for much of the time. “Smash” for me used to mean dried convenience mashed potato pieces. It would have been funnier to watch one of their old adverts.