Monday, October 24, 2011

Picturing Montmartre: Toulouse Lautrec and Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge at the Courtauld Institute ;Degas and the Ballet:Picturing Movement and the Royal Academy; Midnight in Paris(2011) dir.Woody Allen; French Cancan (1954) dir. Jean Renoir

A couple of exhibitions and films I've enjoyed recently featured the Parisian artists' quarter, Montmartre, in its glorious turn-of-the-century heighday.

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge was lavishly supplied with background information about the artist and his favourite muse. Jane Avril, not her real name, worked as a part-time prostitute before she entertained customers by dancing at the the Moulin Rouge. Toulouse Lautrec himself was an alcoholic and died young,from syphilis. A sense of decadence presided over the exhibits, reinforced by newspaper cuttings and articles that suggested Jane's gawky but frenzied dancing style and her emaciatied appearance was caused by infirmity. The paintings depicted a cast of grotesques, customers and entertainers alike.

There was relatively little information about Degas at the RA, and, for some visitors, too few of his paintings. He seems, going by the evidence, to have been not so much a stage-door Johnny as a backstage Peeping Tom with an eye for young girls in unusual poses. The emphasis in this exhibition was on early photography and its ability to capture movement, a quality that was to prove so useful to painters.

More prosaically, I once stayed in Montmartre on a home-swap holiday. Streets in the area consisted mainly of steps leading up to the great white dome of the Sacre Coeur, with a terrace in front that afforded a view of Paris stretching to the horizon.In the surrounding area, it was easy to imagine oneself back to a time when artists contributed to the Bohemian atmosphere of its cobbled streets and cafe-lined squares.

In a nearby 'place', artists had set up easels under the trees and drew portraits for tourists. Small shops had street displays of prints, with more inside including Monet's Waterlilies, Van Gogh's Sunflowers, plus tiny statuettes of Degas' Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.

Both exhibitions place the artists' work in the context of their time, a mileu explored to comic effect in Woody Allen's most recent film, Midnight in Paris.

Given a double dose of nostalgia and fantasy, it's no surprise that the protagonist, a would-be novelist played by Owen Wilson, is whisked back in time to meet habitues of the quartier who include Lautrec, Degas and Salvador Dali, as well as literary giants Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

Bohemian decadence and nostalgia have their attractions, but for sheer charm I'd back Jean Renoir's film, French Cancan, which I saw at the BFI a few weeks ago. In the film, Jean Gabin plays the founder of Montmartre's most famous nightclub with a cool-eyed insouciance, but the real triumph is the studio recreation of Montmarte, whose streets and characters echo well-known artististic portrayals, and the final twenty-minutes of high-kicking exuberance, when the signature dance is performance before an enraptured audience in a packed Moulin Rouge

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

When Bobby Met Dora Delaney: Fanny's First Play by GB Shaw at Pentameters Theatre

North Londoners are spoilt for fringe theatres, but I haven't met a homelier venue than the Pentameters, a couple of minutes walk from Hampstead underground station and attached to a popular pub.

The 60-seater space is straight out of Alice in Wonderland: like an untidy living room where children are about to put on a show. Three rows of chairs with a mix of cushions are ranged on steps opposite a shallow stage. Cardboard boxes under each seat apparently hold programmes from previous productions.

The stage set itself is sparse: a table with fold-down flaps and a lacy cloth, on which stands a tiny bell. Five Edwardian dining chairs with green velvet seats are set nearby. Dark, striped wallpaper and an oval mirror with an elaborate gilt frame complete the decor; in fact, the theatre's proprietor, Leonie Scott-Matthews, comes out at the start to apologise, explaining that Fanny's First Play is a touring production, and Pentameters' normal staging is usually more detailed. She reappears at the end, too - a charming personal touch, I thought.

Chatter drifts through from the pub's street tables during the performance, but that's alright, because the plot has a dinner party going on in an adjoining room. The pub is handy, too, on a warm night, except for the charge of £10 for two drinks and a packet of admittedly superior crisps. 'That Duvel is 8.5%,' remarked my companion, who stuck to the bitter. I balanced the bottle on the step beside me for the second half.

The relaxed atmosphere was superb, as was the play. One of the lead actors was weak, so I gave it four stars out of five in my review, but on reflection that was a bit mean.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Baker's Wife at The Union Theatre

It seemed a bit unlikely that a musical would fit into the tiny Union Theatre, where we'd last seen an excellent production of Somerset Maugham's For Services Rendered. The Baker's Wife was adapted into a musical in 1938 from a film by Marcel Pagnol but not staged until 1989, directed by Trevor Nunn at the Phoenix Theatre. It only ran for a month because despite winning an Evening Standard award it was losing money.

The theatre space was completely changed, with the seats in straight rows instead of arranged in a horshoe shape as they had been for the Maugham play, and the air dark with billowing smoke. Whoever was working the smoke machine for the rehearsal had overdone it, so the first scenes took place in light more reminiscent of a London fog than a Provencal afternoon. Later on, there was supposed to be a fire in the bakery, but no extra smoke was needed.

The rendition was competent for the slight tale of a discontented wife, although the ensemble routines seemed cramped. As it was press night, the management provided cakes in the cosy bar, to chime with the bakery theme. I was disappointed not to have wine, but was feeling peckish so that when a sweet almond and cherry slice proved to be the best I've ever tasted I overdid it by eating two pieces.

Last time we'd approached the theatre from the Waterloo end of Union Street,walking along The Cut but this time we came from London Bridge. All the pubs round Waterloo had been crammed to the rafters but on this occasion we spotted a quiet little place in Union Street in the other direction, called The Charles Dickens, where we enjoyed a peaceful pint while we discussed the play. Oddly enough, the beer was called Oscar Wilde.

My review appears on the Remotegoat website.