Saturday, 15 January 2011

Cultural Obituaries

It’s been a tough time for the arts as three great proponents of culture have died recently. Elisabeth Beresford (August 1929 – December 2010) wrote an enchanting ‘Magic’ series, but is best known for her wonderful Wombles who made recycling and environmental concerns the norm for children decades before Al Gore got in on the act. I have already raved about these cuddly conservationists before so will leave it at that.

I was also sad to hear of the death of Dick King-Smith (1922-2011). When I worked at a book shop in Manchester, I knew that if children had already read Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Michael Bond, then Jill Murphy, Michael Morpurgo, Morris Gleitzman or Dick King-Smith would be my next recommendation. Well-written stories with solid, memorable characters and cheerfully direct narration; I like them so I’m sure that the little people must have!

Bad news comes in threes, apparently, and the death of Pete Postlethwaite (1946-2011) rounds out the triumvirate. He was an amazing and versatile actor whom I admired in everything I saw. From early appearances in Coronation Street; Victoria Wood on TV; Minder; The Professionals; Lovejoy; Boon and Casualty to later roles in sci-fi rehashes, he always portrayed complete commitment and belief in his character. He achieved greatness through hard work and self-belief, taking a job in a sheet-metal factory to pay his way through Bristol Old Vic theatre school, before starting his career at the Liverpool Everyman theatre.

Unfortunately I never got to see him on stage, although his list of theatre credits is impressive: Scaramouche Jones; King Lear; Coriolanus; Duchess of Malfi (Antonio); Titus Andronicus (Aaron); Henry V (Exeter); Richard III (Hastings); Macbeth (Macbeth and Banquo – in different productions); Cyrano de Bergerac (Baker); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Bottom); Every Man in His Humour; The Tempest (Prospero); The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (Ray Say). He worked with some of the best theatre directors around – Adrian Noble; Trevor Swann; Peter Brook; Trevor Nunn; Bill Alexander; Terry Hands; George Costigan; Greg Hersov; Sam Mendes – which only adds to his impressive CV.

Descriptions of his physical appearance are none-too complimentary – including a face like ‘a stone archway’ and ‘a bag of spanners’ – but no-one can doubt his acting ability (Steven Spielberg called him ‘the best actor in the world’) or his popularity (he was awarded an OBE in 2004). He is probably best-know for his film work; he appeared in over 100 films including The Usual Suspects (one of my favourite films), The Constant Gardener (a wonderful film despite the dreary title), Amistad (Spielberg’s well-meaning but glib abolition drama) and Among Giants (the only film I’ve ever seen about painting pylons, also starring Rachel Griffiths, with whom he gets a love interest).

Daniel Day Lewis generally receives all the credit for In the Name of the Father; a terribly flawed film which nonetheless captures a time and feeling in history, due in no small part to the stoic heroism of Pete Postlethwaite’s Giuseppe Conlon. He is indubitably the best thing in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet for the ADHD generation, and I most recently saw him playing a cameo as the dying father who is behind the whole plot in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending Inception.

I shall remember him best, however, for his depiction of Danny the band leader of a miners’ band in the brilliant Brassed Off. With the perfect blend of pride, humility, and sensitivity, he delivers one of the best screen-monologues ever. Take it away, Pete!

Thursday, 13 January 2011

'Tis a Silly Show!

Monty Python’s Spamalot
The Ambassador Theatre Group Ltd
New Victoria Theatre, Woking
20-25 September 2010

Because the musical ‘lovingly ripped off from’ Monty Python and the Holy Grail is co-written by Eric Idle, it retains the essence of Flying Circus, while introducing a new musical theatre element. From the opening scene of the peasants debating the flight mechanics of different swallows, interrupted by King Arthur, his faithful servant Patsy, and his invisible steed (represented, of course, by clattering coconut shells) we are in familiar territory.

Much of the enjoyment of the show comes from working out how on earth they can stage your favourite scenes, such as the Black Knight (‘it’s just a flash wound’); the killer rabbit; the Knights who say ‘Ni’. These are all excellently and amusingly rendered with the correct amount of silliness, although the witch burnings are sadly cut ‘for health and safety reasons’.

Plenty of dialogue is lifted directly from the film, so you know what they are going to say next, but they do it so well! King Arthur is the lead as he never was in the film, and stand-up comic Marcus Brigstocke’s quick wit, comedy timing and audience-interaction are spot-on. Todd Carty may forever be Tucker Jenkins to my mind, but he also makes a credible Patsy, by both name and nature faithfully following his master. Hayley Tamaddon is simply brilliant as the Lady of the Lake – a demanding diva with a powerful voice and overpowering ego.

All the actors double up, as they did in the original, to play minstrels, mothers, fathers, French taunters, various other knights, and Tim the Enchanter. The sets are superb, and the clever use of staging makes steps across the stage seem like epic treks. Costumes and choreography are equally glitzy and flash, especially in the riotous He is Not Dead Yet or the sumptuously silly Knights of the Round Table. While this is a first-rate feel-good musical, it also mocks the entire genre and ridicules an art-form that attempts to take itself seriously.

One of the tasks that the knights must perform to obtain the Holy Grail (along with producing a shrubbery and chopping down a tree with a herring) is to perform a hit musical. In the song, You Won’t Succeed in Showbiz they regret that they won’t be able to rise to this challenge as it doesn’t matter how good your actors, songs or show is; no one will come and see it if you haven’t got a star. This tongue-in-cheek attitude (as they are surrounded by stars of stage and screen) is carried through to the singing of I’m All Alone by the entire company.

In her fairy godmother moment, the Lady of Lake delivers Find Your Grail; a delightful climb-every-mountain-achieve-your-dream song. Hayley Tamaddon is equally impressive in her sardonic duet with Marcus Brigstocke; The Song that Goes Like This, which mines every cliché of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber songbook, because as we all know, “Once in every show/ There comes a song like this/ It starts off soft and low/ And ends up with a kiss”. Her scene-stealing moment, however, is The Diva's Lament in which she bemoans her lack of stage-time; “Whatever happened to my part? It was exciting at the start. Now we're halfway through Act 2/ And I've had nothing yet to do.”

It is that absurdity that makes the show what it is; in fact King Arthur reflects, “Let’s not go to Camelot; ‘tis a silly place”. The cheap puns are duly groaned at from the expensive forest rather than an extensive one, to a cymbal chiming when King Arthur requests a symbol. Sir Lancelot (a versatile Graham MacDuff) pondering why someone has swallowed the missing mug when the knights are asked to search for the grail within themselves, is something you might hear down the pub, if you lived in a village with a load of very funny and irreverent inhabitants. The humour only misses its mark on one occasion – the stereotypical gay characters are dated enough to remind you that the author is from the Are You Being Served? generation.

On the whole, however, this is a high-energy, fast-paced show with an electric blend of highbrow and slapstick humour. The second act opens with Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, even though it is from The Life of Brian. This can be forgiven, as it adds to the overwhelming feel-good factor of the old-fashioned, entertaining musical – as they used to be before they got too bombastic.

Incidentally, I was lucky enough to go to an ‘assisted performance’ where a lady interpreted the whole show through sign language at the side of the stage. Although I don’t speak any sign language (apart from a couple of select words taught to me by my cousin), I found her compulsive viewing. She did a brilliant job of delivering the spoken word to another audience and her performance of the new expression from the Knights who no longer say ‘Ni’ was spectacular.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Stanley Spencer

At the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, the exhibition in the little building is Stanley and the First Mrs Spencer, reflecting the influence of Hilda Carline on his work. I really like the way he interjects religious scenes into everyday compositions, often with particular reference to his local village - or is it the other way round?

I like The Scarecrow, Cookham (1934). The Royal Academy rejected two of his paintings before accepting this one; his consequent resignation challenged the Academy's attitude to modern art. Spencer painted from what he knew and he said of this scarecrow, 'Left and deserted as it was, it seemed daily to become more a part of its surroundings. In the evening he faded into the gloaming like a Cheshire cat.'

In paintings such as Hilda and I at Burghclere (1955), he aints scenes of domestic harmony - the whole family (including the cat) is highlighted by every detail of pattern and texture. In Domestic Scenes: At the Chest of Drawers (1936) he presents himself as a diminutive man dominated by an exaggeratedly large woman - a recurring theme through his work. His Self Portrait (1923) and Hilda's Portrait of Stanley Spencer in the same year show the same view but demonstrate their quite different techniques.

View from Cookham Bridge (1936) is another favourite of mine, possibly because the quintissential summer view of the riverside of Cookham is full of naturalistic detail: the punts in the foreground; the currents on the river; the boatyards and hedgerows full of flowers; more formal walled gardens and grassy fields in the distance; the belltower of the church peeping over an uneven red roof... It's all so very familiar.

Roy (1907) is a delightful pen-and-ink drawing of a young boy leaning over the back of a pew in the village church of Holy Trinity. Spencer returned to similar motifs after many years, so there is a similar figure in In Church painted in 1958.

Spencer didn't live to complete his final work - Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta (1952-9). This is a massive canvas and there are pictures of him paiting it while up a stepladder. Christ preaches to the assembled villagers (some wealthier folk in boats, while others picninc on the banks) from a basket chair in the old horse ferry barge. In 1952 Spencer made sixty chalk drawings as the basis of this picture to be transferred to the canvas to create a complex figure study.

The exhibition notes explain, 'Spencer grew up in the golden age of the Thames Regatta, when the river became not just a route for commerce, but a place of entertainment and leisure. Rowing and other skills, previously the province of paid watermen, became popular pastimes for amateurs. Attracting 10,000 people at its peak, the regatta at Cookham followed an established pattern, with races followed by a concert and fireworks. As in Spencer's Regatta series, fashion dictated that gentlemen wore white strousers, striped flannel coats and straw hats, and ladies elaborate hats and full-length dresses.

Another of his deservedly famous paintings, The Last Supper (1920) has pride of place on the wall. Christ sits before the wall of the grain bin in a Cookham malt house. It is beautifully simple, illuminated by golden light, and the disciples' outstretched legs and bare feet meet in the middle under the table in an earthy and rustic fashion.

Far more stylised, Wisteria at Englefield (1954) is full of exquisite, painstaking detail. It apparently took him five weeks to create this stunningly realistic image of chestnut, wisteria and ceanothus both highlighting and obscuring the red brickwork of Englefield House.

The Gallery also includes studies for the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere. This chapel was built specifically to house Spencer's war paintings - arguably his finest achievement. I particularly like Map Reading, in which an officer consults his orders and map while the men rest during a pause on a route march, and Bedmaking, as seen by Spencer at a hospital ward where he was ent to recover from malaria.

Other paintings in the series include such commonplace activities as filling the tea urns, washing and shaving, eating bread and jam, sorting the laundry, scrubbing the floor, and filling water bottles. The pictures capture the camaraderie and companionship of the men rather than the horrors of war.

Before going home I went for a walk through the village with its intricately tiled roofs, large green and friendly pub, then I strode through through brick alleyways and across fields of wheat and stubble accomapnied overhead by wheeling red kites. Sir Stanley Spencer described Cookham as 'a village in heaven' - indeed, if there are villages in heaven, they look like this.