Friday, March 18, 2011

Reviewing just got easier (in a way)

I used to do regular website reviews but stopped when the main site I wrote for ran into problems. It was nice to go along to shows for a while without the need to spend two or three hours actually writing the review in exchange for two complimentary tickets.

Now I'm delighted to be accepted as an 'official reviewer' for a website called Remotegoat.

First I had to write a test review so I chose a venue in nearby Brockley. I didn't realise the play was the third in a trio of competition-winning plays by South London playwrights.

As it was a Wednesday night I decided no need to book, even though the theatre is tiny. But I met a stressed out young woman in the pub bar worried about getting in. It seems she'd booked tickets for herself and four colleagues in error for the night before and come along hoping to change the tickets but heard it was fully booked. She was upset because the producer's sister was a colleague. It was touch and go, but all got in.

Beforehand we had a chat with her and her pals about what it was like to live in Brockley. Really good, it seems, especially since the East London rail-link opened.

Another young woman sitting next to us said her tutor at Roehampton had written the play and she'd travelled from Wandsworth. People at big theatre events are polite enough as a rule, but can't compare with the enthusiasm and interest of the audience at a local event.

We both enjoyed Keeping Mum, a play about a Caribbean couple, newly arrived in England, facing the coldest winter on record (1962-3).

My first 'official' review was of a play I picked from a long list of local and West End events. I was attracted by the novelty of a 'site-specific' play that had a contemporary political theme.

As it was to take place in an Office block near St James's tube station I immediately thought to ask my young friend Joanna the Westminster guide, as she's an office worker and this is right in her territory. I told her on Facebook to be prepared for 'bad language, violence and sexual content.' It couldn't be any stronger than some of Roy's film choices.

I thought Quango 93 was a great example of experimental theatre and I'd like to see more of the group's productions. They originated in Newham, a borough I used to teach in.

The upside of reviewing for Remotegoat is having the website managers forward requests to the event managers. The downside is having to learn the site protocol and deal with the automated submission/request system. After a couple of date mix-ups, though, I've arranged a couple of future events, one local and one in the West End.

'Once a month is enough', said Roy. 'You don't want to become stressed.'

But I think once a week, with the following morning free to write the review, will be fine.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

A Conversation with Shirley Anne Field at the Cinema Museum

Ever since the National Film Theatre went all shiny and commercial,there's been nowhere for real cinema fans (as distinct from the blockbuster-and-pop-corn throng) to feel at home in London. All that changed for me on Saturday when I stepped into the shabby splendour of the Cinema Museum in Kennington. Housed in the old Lambeth Workhouse, unfunded by public money but stuffed with souvenirs of cinema's heyday, its second season of cinema events has just got started.

The walls of the cavernous upstairs interior were lined with decorative bricks and tiles but you can only see the tops. The rest are filled with shelves full of cinema memorabilia, with more spilling onto the the floor space. Usherettes in uniforms from the 1940s hover, and old movie cameras lean against one long wall. Along the opposite wall stands a refreshment trestle, loaded with home-made cakes and sandwiches; behind it, tea and coffee urns manned by volunteers. Rows of chairs face a low dais at one end of the hall with a screen on the wall behind.

Most of the audience for Saturday's event were in same age-bracket as the guest speaker, Shirley Anne Field. They were the children of the same pre-TV generation as myself.It emerged during the Q&A session afterwards that some had even worked with the star.

Shirley was a charmingly indiscreet raconteuse, sharing anecdotes from her long career, starting when she was one of the 'special' girls, or starlets of British cinema. As we were to learn, they were treated as anything but special, often badly-paid and overworked. Clips from her scenes in films such as Alfie(1966), My Beautiful Launderette(1985) and Hear My Song(1991) were interspersed with reminiscence. Stories about a quarrel in a caravan with Lawrence Olivier during the making of The Entertainer(1960), or being upstaged by Steve McQueen, carried a flavour of sharing backstage gossip with a friend.

I was thankful that my friend, Joanna Moncrieff, who organises some excellent London walks, introduced me - it made for a perfect venue to celebrate Roy's birthday. I'm looking forward to the rest of the events advertised in the Spring Season programme. In between times, I'll just have to make do with visits to Cineworld.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Jekyll and Hyde: the Musical at New Wimbledon Theatre

Wimbledon Theatre last night was buzzier than most West End shows I've been to in quite a while.

Maybe the atmosphere brings out the best in the players but it was certainly a very impressive performance from Marti Pellow in the title role - the 'mad scientist' who falls foul of his own experiment, and from the supporting cast, including impressive sopranos Sarah Earnshaw and Sabrina Carter, playing respectively his fiancee and his unfortunate lower-class playmate.

Well-meaning Dr Jekyll, a scientist in Darwinian mode, is convinced he can separate good from evil in human nature so the bad part can be eliminated. The exposition of the plot and and songs was very clear, from Jekyll's initial appeal to a hospital board to allow him a human guinea-pig, to his eventual downfall. Upper-crust gatherings alternate with backstreet slums and and taverns until Jekyll's nature is overcome by his alter-ego Hyde and he keeps to his laboratory, venturing out only to murder enemies of society and abuse the prostitute girlfriend he picked up in a tavern. His behaviour comes to mirror that of the society he rails against.

Robert Louis Stevenson's story reminds us of our debt to Victorian writers for the creation of so many atmospheric works. Dr Jekyll synthesises a youthful Sherlock Holmes, a driven Doctor Frankenstein and a Charles Dickens charged with reformist zeal. On the darker side, Edinburgh-born Stevenson touches on Burke and Hare's gruesome activities, while the ghost of Jack The Ripper seems to hover over the stage.

Marti Pellow, who started as a singer with 'Wet Wet Wet', carries the role with assurance and his voice ranges form poignant sincerity to a deranged shout without losing clarity.

Mark Bailey's set seems underlit and confining in the first Act and only reveals its amazing versatility, with some projected image help, after the interval. Few of the songs are lyrical but the love duet 'Take me as I am' has strong emotional appeal and 'In his Eyes' is a touching paeon to female devotion. One of the best chorus songs is the tavern song, 'Bring on the Men', delivered in a 'Cabaret' style, and 'Facade', about public corruption, sung by a chorus of cockney street vendors.

My only complaint is that in the transition scenes there was not enough difference in the visual appearance of Jekyll and Hyde - mussed hair and the donning of a fur-trimmed cloak didn't do it for me. Arguably as I was at the back of the stalls I missed the full effect, but I heard laughter from further forwards as Jekyll emerged apparently none the worse after his doubled-up groaning. Arguably, too, it was more in keeping with the theme of how deceptive appearance can be.

There's an excellent programme with full information about all the cast, musicians and creative team, and I'd thoroughly recommend the show - the audience at Wimbledon were certainly enthusiastic. I'd hesitate to take young children because of a shocking throat-cutting scene towards the end. It plays all this week in Wimbledon and then moves for a week's run at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley.