Sunday, 17 December 2017

Film Review: Crooked House (2017)

"The murderer is never the one you initially suspect"

A real treat here for fans of Agatha Christie as Crooked House is one of the few novels of hers that has yet to be adapted for the screen. With a screenplay by Julian Fellowes, Tim Rose Price and Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the latter of whom also directs, a curious release strategy sees it materialise on Channel 5 in the UK despite it being blessed with the kind of castings and high production values that you'd've thought would be destined for the cinema.

The story begins as so many of them do, with a murder. This time it is wealthy 80-some tycoon Aristide Leonides who kicks the bucket and the finger of suspicion doesn't know where to point as it could any one of the disillusioned family members who also lived in the sumptuous family pile. His grand-daughter secures the services of a private investigator to look into the case discreetly and thus the mystery begins.

Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

"I know your moustache..."

What to do when you want your new film to be a new version of one of Agatha Christie's most famous whodunnits? Well if you're Kenneth Branagh, you call in some of your mates to play the main characters, friends like Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, and Willem Dafoe. Plus you can also get some real talent to fill the minor roles - blink and you might miss the likes of Paapa Essiedu, Miranda Raison, Hadley Fraser, Adam Garcia, even Sergei Polunin.

But if you're Kenneth Branagh, you also cast yourself as Hercule Poirot and as he's directing himself, there's a sense that the sharing of some much-needed constructive feedback didn't happen. For as his ridiculously huge moustache is placed front and centre in scene after scene, this Murder On The Orient Express feels nothing so much as a vanity project. Which is all well and good if you like that sort of thing, and I quite like Branagh as it happens, but it is absolutely fatal in a story that is intrinsically about the ensemble.

Hear some of the songs from The Grinning Man, done rather differently

"First you must come with me and see what I've found"

The producers of The Grinning Man must have been really really happy when Hamilton announced that it was delaying its opening night so that it would fall into the same week as theirs. Fortunately, The Grinning Man gets in first and has a few days' grace and it is also taking a little inspiration from the hit Broadway show in the way it is presenting its score. So where Lin-Manuel Miranda called in mates like Alicia Keys, Usher, Kelly Clarkson and The Roots for The Hamilton Mixtape, The Grinning Man has released a set of clips of West End stars and celebrities singing their own versions of some of the songs from the show.

It's an intriguing move, especially as Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler's score is not yet widely known, but it is also a fascinating one as the likes of Matt Lucas and Hannah Waddingham, Kelsey Grammer and Louise Dearman put their own stamp on some of the best tunes whilst never straying too far from the gothic darkness of the source material.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Review: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Brockley Jack

"We'll put some ginger in the good lady's gravy"

After The Box of Delights last week, I got to take another trip back into childhood favourites with this adaptation of Joan Aiken's 1962 novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the Brockley Jack. Part of her Wolves Chronicles (my favourite of which, pointless trivia fans, is Black Hearts in Battersea) set in an alternate 1830s England, here an invasion of wolves is terrorising the countryside just at the moment that two young cousins have been abandoned into the care of a governess with sinister plans.

Already a tale of stirring adventure, the joy of Russ Tunney's adaptation for the stage is that it revels in its theatricality, taking a much different but no less effective route. So a company of five take on the numerous roles, original compositions (by The State of Things' Elliot Clay) and folk songs haunt the storytelling, and there's much used of shared narration, enhancing the already magical feel. And with a cleverly designed set (by Karl Swinyard) that allows for the inventive evocation of train carriages, stately home boltholes, silvery forests and more besides, there's much to enjoy here.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Review: Pinocchio, National

"Do you want puppets?"

No matter the weather, as you walk into the Lyttelton's auditorium for Pinocchio, you’ll find that it is snowing. A simple trick but one that inspires just the right childlike wonder for an adaptation of such a popular fairytale, but it is also a sense of magic that John Tiffany's production of Dennis Kelly's adaptation sometimes struggles to hold onto, as darkly disturbing as it is exuberantly heartfelt.

That darkness comes from several directions. The narrative cleaves closely to the moral instruction of a fable so Pinocchio's struggle with the dark side is presented as a straight-up choice between good and evil - make the wrong choice in dealing with the Fox or the Coachman and things could end up pretty grim, as we witness in a particularly brutal bit of puppet mutilation (it shocked even me!).

Review: Beauty & The Beast (A Musical Parody), King's Head

"What would Jane Austen do?"

Having embraced my inner Scrooge this Christmas by deciding not to see any productions of A Christmas Carol or any pantos either, my resolve was tested by the return of Fat Rascal to the London stage, a young company devoted to create "fresh and funny feminist musical theatre" and whose ode to the vibrator was an unexpected pleasure (ooh-er) last year. This year they're blessing us with fewer sex toys in the form of Beauty & The Beast (A Musical Parody).

And not just any Beauty and the Beast, a gender-swapped one that gives us a Jane Austen-obsessed Beau, a swash-buckling Siobhan in place of Gaston and a Beast who is no less fearsome for being of the female variety. And though it is in the late-night slot at the King's Head, bookwriters Robyn Grant and Daniel Elliot never make the mistake of overloading the smut (as many an adult panto is wont to do), preferring instead to just be really, really funny.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Review: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Christmas Round Robin Letters, Hope

"Jamie stayed and explored Peterborough, which has a Waitrose. He can’t resist a good Waitrose”

From the minute you walk into the Hope for A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Christmas Round Robin Letters, you know something special is afoot. Chairs are draped with blankets and cushions, bowls of Quality Street twinkle like fairy lights, and we're heartily greeted like old friends by the couple whose front room we're entering. It's a warmly convivial beginning to a warmly convivial show.

A Curmudgeon's Guide... is based on a book by the late, lamented Guardian diarist Simon Hoggart, where he collated some of the more extreme examples of the Christmas round-up-of-the-year letter that people have received. Gently poking fun at the humblebrags and hubris they contain, Scott Le Crass has fashioned an intimate two-hander which looks lightly at that all-too-human need to share.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Review: Thirty Christmases, New Diorama

"Don't be a prick at Christmas"

As many of us lurch from swapping random Secret Santa gifts at office parties to necking eggnog at pantos (just me?!) in preparation for the culinary bliss that is my dad's Christmas dinner, it is easy to forget that the festive season is necessarily a happy one for everyone. And it is this feeling that Supporting Wall's Thirty Christmases (in association with Arts at the Old Fire Station and the New Diorama) is concerned with exploring, through this bittersweetly wry and affecting comedy.

Written by Jonny Donahoe and directed by Alice Hamilton, it's the story of siblings Jonny and Rachel who haven't spent Christmas together in nearly ten years due to a big falling out. Through the efforts of their mutual friend Paddy, they've come together to delve into their shared past to try and work out their issues, for it turns out they've never actually had a conventional Christmas at all, due to a chaotic upbringing by their single-parent socialist firebrand of a father.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Review: Little Women the Musical, Hope Mill

"Somethings are meant to be"

Finally made my first trip to the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester's fringe powerhouse which has been firing transfers down to London with quite the regularity. I wanted to experience the theatre for itself though and having heard great things about Little Women the Musical, didn't want to miss out in case this is the one that doesn't actually make its way south (although it should, it really should!).

With a book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, this musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s much-loved novel is a wonderful piece of adaptation. Streamlining plot whilst simultaneously enriching character, it translates the travails of the four March sisters into a warm and witty couple of hours and naturally makes you cry just as much it gladdens the heart.

Review: Guys and Dolls, Royal Exchange

"The passengers were bound to resist"

Michael Buffong's reinterpretation of Guys and Dolls, a co-production between the Royal Exchange and Talawa Theatre, is just that, a bold re-envisioning of the classic musical that consequently comes up with something different. That's the point. So it may take a second to recalibrate, to adjust to these portrayals of familiar characters but in doing so you get to embrace something fresh and new and really rather exciting.

Moving the show from Times Square to the heart of the Harlem Renaissance in 1939 allows Buffong to employ an all-black cast, infuse Frank Loesser's score with jazz and gospel (new orchestrations by Simon Hale) and introduce a vibrant choreographic vision (by Kenrick Sandy) that draws on several decades of dance history. The result is less-concept heavy than you might expect and often, explosively good fun.

Album Review: Rachel Tucker - On The Road (Deluxe)

"Will I ever be more than I've always been?"

Proving that you don't need to win the reality show that you're in to set your career, and that it's your talent that matters, Rachel Tucker's success is testament to just how far hard work and a hella big voice can take. Headlining shows in the West End and Broadway, including playing Wicked's Elphaba in both, 2017 has seen her play a series of dates on a UK tour with musical director Kris Rawlinson, which in turn produced an album - On The Road - which has recently been digitally released with some bonus tracks in a deluxe edition. 

Reflecting the diversity of a live show, the record opens with a potency and confidence that could see her take her place among the Rat Pack as she swings confidently through classics like 'Miss Otis Regrets (She’s Unable To Lunch Today)' and 'The Candyman'. New musical theatre gets a look in with the searching emotion of Dear Evan Hansen's 'Waving Through A Window' and then the intensity is dialled down for a moment with Randy Newman's heartbreaker 'When She Loved Me'.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Review: Daisy Pulls It Off, Park

"Buck up kiddies"

Theatres that aren't putting on pantomimes face something of a dilemma - what do you do to ensure you capture audience attention in this most lucrative of seasons? Some theatres like the Almeida programme counter-intuitively whilst others go for alternatively festive fare (see Wilton's Music Hall and the Christmas-set The Box of Delights).Or you can do what the Park have done and put in family-friendly fare like Daisy Pulls It Off.

It's a nifty move as this type of play - an Olivier winner from 1983 no less - fulfils much of the same purpose as panto, in its endearing daftness as it evokes a world of 1920s jolly-hockey-sticks adventuring and in its slyly subversive sense of humour which manages that thing of making the kids laugh on the one level and letting the parents get their giggles in a naughtier, bawdier way. It's all rather silly but good fun with it.