Review – West Side Story, Northampton Filmhouse, 24th December 2021


West Side Story“I didn’t cry, mum!” said the little boy in front of me as we got up to go at the end of seeing Steven Spielberg’s remake of the legendary West Side Story on Christmas Eve. His mum had obviously told him that he would cry, and he was truly proud to have kept a rein on his juvenile emotional reserve. To be honest, it never remotely occurred to me that I might cry either – and I have a tendency to get a bit emosh when the stakes are high.

SharksWest Side Story and me haven’t really seen eye to eye over the years. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought me the soundtrack album one Christmas in my early teen years, and I dutifully played it as I knew a lot of the songs; but it never really hit home. The only song that I did enjoy playing, because it stood out as a beacon of irreverent fun, was Gee Officer Krupke; and it was a delight to revisit it in this film. It’s always fascinating when you know a song from a musical but you don’t know how it fits into the musical – and when you finally find out you go “ahhh, so THAT’S how it fits”. Ah yes, that’s the other confession. I’d never seen the original film; and the only time Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to see a production of West Side Story on stage, we left in the interval because our seats were so far back in the Gods at the Milton Keynes Theatre that we might as well have been in a different county.

Anita and BernardoI expected to suffer a similar disconnection whilst watching the film; but in fact we were both totally engrossed with it. West Side Story is one of the best examples in theatre or film that confronts you with the strongest of juxtapositions. The most beautiful melodies and songs, photographed with the most beautiful cinematography, and the most delightful dance sequences; all set against the most horrible of stories. That contrast between beauty and ugliness hits you right from the start and never lets up – and it’s genuinely shocking.

JetsI knew, obvs, that West Side Story was an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but I didn’t realise quite how much the antagonism between the Sharks and the Jets was based on pure and simple racism. Of course, the Jets may pretend that it’s about territory, but that sounds like the equivalent of 1950s Brexit mentality to me. The Native New Yorker Jets are born no-hopers in the worst part of town, and whilst their previous generations worked hard to make a decent life for themselves, this bunch just resent the incoming Puerto Ricans and blame them for everything. On the other side, the Puerto Rican Sharks are taking what little the New Yorkers had, won’t integrate, and resent everything back. Acting out that antagonism through the medium of dance is incredibly effective and powerful; but nothing compares with the moment the knives come out and mutual destruction is the only certainty. Given its closeness to Romeo and Juliet I was completely surprised that the character of Maria does not take her own life at the end. That’s my lack of knowledge about the previous versions of the show – she never does. It’s a fascinating story decision taken by the original creative team and respected ever since.

Jet DanceThe big numbers are sensational, where Justin Peck’s choreography all but steals the show. America, danced out in the middle of an intersection takes your breath away; Tonight flows with optimism and love; the simplicity and purity of Maria is just delightful; A Boy Like That/I Have a Love crackles with warring resentment and then reconciliation; Gee Officer Krupke brings out the humour and the fact that – just maybe – deep down inside them there is good. For me, only I Feel Pretty doesn’t quite work – even though its timing is hugely ironic as the gang leaders lie dead on a warehouse floor – but that’s purely my hang-up, I’m not that fond of the song. Somewhere is sung by Valentina and not by Tony and Maria as in the original film or by Consuelo in the original stage production. As someone who dislikes songs being given to other characters – What I Did for Love in the film version of A Chorus Line being sung by Cassie is simply unforgivable – if this change of emphasis with this song disappoints you, you have my full sympathy.

Riff and TonyThe performances are all excellent; Mike Faist is outstanding as the manipulative but over-reaching Riff, Ansel Elgort superb as the quietly optimistic Tony, David Alvarez a strong and intimidating Bernardo, and in a delightful doff of the cap to history, Rita Moreno is extraordinarily powerful as Valentina, having of course played Anita in the original film. It’s not polite to mention a lady’s age, but she’s 90 for crying out loud.

MariaWith a fascinating stroke of modern awareness, the peripheral, outcast wannabe-Jet, Anybodys, is played as a trans character by non-binary actor Iris Menas, which adds another dimension to that character’s relationship with the rest of the gang. Josh Andrés Rivera is excellent as the mild-mannered Chino, who becomes more self-assertive as the film progresses, with fatal consequences. But for me the real acting strength in this film came from the sisterly partnership of Ariana DeBose as Anita and, in her movie debut, Rachel Zegler as Maria. They shine in everything they do, and when they combine for A Boy Like That, the tension sizzles off the (virtual) celluloid.

Tony and MariaLike the boy in front of me, I also didn’t cry at the end. You just couldn’t. They’re all as bad as each other and you could see a mile-off that they were all intent on self-destruction for the sake of their racially-skewed gang memberships. I really did hope, however, that after the cops come at the end of the film, they cart Chino away for a very long spell in the Pen. Coward, shooting Tony in the back like that. No excuse.

A superb film, immaculate in all departments. And with really, really, horrible content.

Stills from the film are of course the property of the production company

Not More Theatre and Dance Memories?! January to September 2000

  1. Last of the Red Hot Lovers – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 27th January 2000

There was a time when all you had to do was wait a couple of months and a new Tom Conti production would come around. The man was never shy of work, that’s for sure. He led the cast in this production (which he also directed) of Neil Simon’s 1969 comedy that ran for almost two years on Broadway but by 2000 had started to creak at the edges. Very much a family project, with Tom Conti’s wife Kara Wilson and daughter Nina Conti also in the cast. Maybe it was that family cosiness that meant the production lacked a certain bite.

  1. Without Trace – Vtol Dance Company at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 15th February 2000

VTol returned to the Swan for another Swan Dance season performance, Mark Murphy’s Without Trace which told the tale of Beth, who “for no good reason, simply decides to disappear” and it’s described as a “hitch-hike into an unknown country of self-discovery.” I confess I can’t remember much about it, but VTol were always good value for some intriguing and thought-provoking contemporary dance. The performers were Graham Cunnington, Christine Devaney, Anne Gilpin, James Hewison, Joanna Holden, Robert “Hacker” Jessett, Ben Joiner, Eric MacLennan and Will Sneyd.

  1. West Side Story – Milton Keynes Theatre, 26th February 2000

There’s something about West Side Story that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I get. It wasn’t helped by the fact that we only had seats in Row G of the circle, which at the Milton Keynes Theatre is like being in another county. I remember we both found this extremely boring, and, given that I had to be up early the next day to go to a conference in Torquay, we decided that leaving at the interval would be a good thing, so we did. I don’t recognise any of the cast names, but I do see that the assistant director/choreographer was Craig Revel Horwood, and I know from more recent experience that his choreography and my expectations don’t always crossover.

  1. Gasping – Milton Keynes Theatre, 7th March 2000

I don’t think our luck continued much for our next show at Milton Keynes, Ben Elton’s Gasping, which had enjoyed a successful run in London in the early 1990s. A satire on capitalism and commoditisation, my memory is that it was too “clever-clever” and not quite funny enough. However, my memory could be failing me. David Haig led the cast, and it was directed by Paul Jepson.

  1. Great Expectations – Northern Ballet Theatre at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 11th March 2000

Artistic Director Stefano Giannetti’s stunning visualisation of Dickens’ Great Expectations as a ballet was a vivid and exciting piece of dance, set to music by Elgar. The cast was led by Daniel de Andrade as Pip and Charlotte Broom, with a young and much missed Jonathan Ollivier as Drummle.

  1. The Merry Widow – The Australian Ballet at the Sydney Opera House, Australia, 11th April 2000

We travelled to Sydney for my brother-in-law’s wedding, and whilst there we took in the Australian Ballet’s production of Lehar’s Merry Widow at the Opera House, with choreography by Ronald Hynd and scenario and staging by Robert Helpmann. Whilst this production had its first performance way back in 1975, ours was the first performance of that spring (or rather, as it was Australia, autumn) season. The lead dancers for our performance were Lisa Bolte, Miranda Coney, Steven Heathcote, David McAllister, Nicole Rhodes and Justine Summers.

  1. The Car Man – Adventures in Motion Pictures at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 23rd June 2000

This was the 34th performance of Matthew Bourne’s enduringly popular contemporary dance version of Carmen, with a superb company led by Scott Ambler, Saranne Curtin, Etta Murfitt, Arthur Pita and Ewan Wardrop. Absolutely brilliant. I’ve still only ever seen this once, that needs to be rectified!

  1. Spend Spend Spend – Piccadilly Theatre, London, 8th July 2000

We caught this production of Steve Brown and Justin Greene’s brilliant musical shortly before it closed and I’m so glad we did. Full of brilliant songs, characterisations and performances, it starred Barbara Dickson as Viv Nicholson and Steven Houghton as Keith, and with other great names in the cast such as Rachel Leskovac and Jeff Shankley. Fortunately we bought a copy of the CD at the theatre because it’s never been available anywhere else since. Definitely deserving of a revival!

  1. Dinner with George – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 17th July 2000

The Churchill Theatre Bromley launched this touring production of Guy Hemphill and Bryan Hands’ comedy Dinner with George, an old-fashioned farce that shook no trees and I can’t remember a thing about it. However, I can tell from the photographs and the programme design that it probably wasn’t as funny as it thought it was. It starred Peter Baldwin (Derek Wilton in Coronation Street) and Marti Webb.

  1. Why Me? – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 4th September 2000

Research tells me that this comedy by Stanley Price “follows the life of redundant civil servant John, a bitter recipient of a ‘tarnished chrome handshake’. John struggles to keep his dignity and sanity in the face of his wife’s successful business, an adulterous affair, the incipient break-up of his marriage and regular visits from his mother-in-law.” It starred Tim Brooke-Taylor, Susan Penhaligon and Carmen Silvera. The only thing I can remember about it is that we saw Tim Brooke-Taylor in the theatre bar afterwards.