Thursday 29 November 2012

Great Comics Part II - Rising Stars

A poorly maintained elementary school ceiling collapses, and at the last moment a young child catches the falling masonry and saves the day.


The boy's name is Matthew Bright. It is the first indication that anyone in the town of Pederson, Illinois, is different, or rather special, and it is one of the key images of Joe Straczynski's comic book masterpiece Rising Stars. The image seems to have its roots in the cover of Action Comics #1 (the first appearance of a slightly better known hero by the name of Superman) and it recurs three more times in the story, even once with a car. It defines Bright, one of the story's key characters, and his determination to put the lives of others before his own.


Tuesday 20 November 2012

The chances of anything coming from Mars twice

Next week sees the release of an updated version of Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War of the Worlds. I'm really quite excited about this. The original is tremendous fun; silly, but gloriously so. A new version is therefore to be welcomed, and I look forward to hearing it.

However, it seems that not everyone shares this view (how dull that would be). The Arts Desk featured it as their disc of the day this morning. I was rather surprised to discover that 'disc of the day' was not, apparently, meant as a compliment since they appear to have awarded it a solitary star. Clearly not to the reviewer's taste, then. For me, unless there are major deficiencies in the new cast as compared with the original, one star would be a travesty. But this isn't a post about the album or the show. If you want that, read what our friend and past contributor Andrew Pugsley had to say when it toured in 2010. Nor is this a dig at The Arts Desk. Rather, it is a riff on their subheadline:

The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, they said. But twice?

Clearly I've been listening to too much More or Less lately, but this got me thinking. What are the chances of anything coming from Mars twice? What follows is a slightly eclectic, more mathematical and frankly very silly departure from our normal fare.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Steel Pier at the Union, or, The Musical as Parable

Once again the Union Theatre has done musical theatre fans a great service by staging the European premiere of Kander and Ebb's 1997 musical, Steel Pier. While the score of the show is not the duo's finest, this actually isn't a problem. Because really, it struck me as the show drew on, this is almost more a play with music than a classic musical. And in that context, the music does exactly what it needs to do, which is drive forward the relationships between the characters. And the characters are completely compelling.

The story concerns a dance marathon at the aforementioned Steel Pier. As the show begins, Rita Racine (Sarah Galbraith) is waiting for her partner to show up. When he fails to appear she finds herself saddled with daredevil pilot, Bill Kelly (Jay Rincon). To tell you any more would spoil the plot, and this is emphatically a show that benefits from one not knowing in advance how it's going to go (although apparently I discovered afterwards if you've seen the film They Shoot Horses Don't They this may give you some clues). Suffice it to say that it's more than a little Capraesque, that the ending brought tears to my eyes, and the moral seemed to be speaking to me.

Director Paul Taylor Mills has assembled an excellent cast. It's always a big test of a musical like this whether the romantic leads can make you believe, and Galbraith and Rincon pass this test with flying colours. Some will possibly find the scripting of their scenes a bit too melodramatic but they're played with enough sincerity that it works. There's a particularly lovely moment when Rincon says something like “You dance like this and in a moment your whole life can change” which is the kind of line that gets me every time. Aimee Atkinson's Shelby has the show's biggest number - “Everybody's Girl” - and duly brings the house down (this is probably the only time you will ever find me pleased to have been sat in the front row), but she is also moving in the scene where we see behind the mask. Also worthy of particular mention is Lisa-Anne Wood's Precious Maguire who gets impressively more ghastly as scene follows scene. The supporting ensemble execute Richard Jones's impressive choreography with remarkable flair considering the space restrictions. But Jones also has a nicely inventive eye for the smaller moments - like the use of a simple white umbrella in "First You Dream".

Saturday 17 November 2012

Howard Brenton's 55 Days, or, We are Bound to the Stake and Must Stand the Course

This is the third unmissable show of the year. It is up there with the West End Long Day's Journey into Night and the Chichester Arturo Ui. That is how good it is.

Howard Brenton's materials are superbly dramatic in themselves. He takes us through the 55 days from the  purge of Parliament for having voted against trying Charles I through to the sovereign's execution. As we watch, men and women wrestle with a fundamental impossible dilemma. How do you deal with a man who refuses to accept that anybody except God has power to judge him. It really is a case of observing the collision of two diametrically opposed opinions. Cromwell in particular, in this version of history, finds it inconceivable that Charles can actually possibly believe what he says – that no power on earth can judge him. Moreover, Cromwell, unlike Charles, is all too horribly aware of the price the Civil War has exacted from the populace of England. Though we see no battles in this production, the weight of the violence, the tearing of society is very present. As long as the dilemma is unresolved, it is clear things cannot be healed.

This is a profoundly political play. Some may perhaps find it too much so, but I found it completely compelling. It is also a play which has resonance way beyond its immediate subject matter, and as with all such plays which are truly great Brenton has no need to spell it out for us, it is there, unavoidable. Have we really shed the delusions of pageantry and monarchy? Did Cromwell succeed in creating a better order? Two moments among scene after scene that capture these dilemmas really stood out for me. First, when Cromwell asserts passionately that after the trial and execution is done Parliament will be sovereign and men will think it glorious to be citizens of England because of her Parliament. Oh, if it were only so. Second, when one of the commissioners, after the decision is made, praises Cromwell and moves to kiss his hand.

Brenton's text is given powerful life by a magnificent company. At their head is Douglas Henshall's Cromwell. When we first see him he is still one among equals, and slowly, inexorably, he becomes the figure to whom persistently, inescapably, eyes turn for guidance. The genius of Brenton's text and Henshall's performance is to sustain one's belief that Cromwell genuinely does not want that power. Henshall delivers a number of speeches with that command that just holds, but I found especially powerful his description of the Scotch boy rebel staring up at him as at some creature of horror. Mark Gatiss as Charles I has in some ways the harder part to sustain – his arrogance and certainty make him more difficult to sympathise with. Yet this doesn't make his performance any the less compelling, and the trouble is that he does have a point – Cromwell and co. find themselves having to bend the law to gain their ends – as the play goes on the gap between them narrows, and narrows.

ENO's Pilgrim's Progress, or Vaughan Williams Fails to Find the Celestial City

I have to begin this review by acknowledging that there are very plainly two viewpoints on this work. There are those who find it a powerfully moving, in many cases deeply spiritual experience. Then there are those, of whom I am one, who do not. Given that there were the usual swathes of empty seats (at least in the Dress Circle) I suspect I am not alone.

The most positive aspect of this performance was the musical performances led by Roland Wood as the Pilgrim. He's not always well served by the direction (when he's armoured up in particular the thing has a rather unfortunate Monty Python air to it) but his diction is excellent, he sings with great character, and has the stamina to carry this challenging role. The various supporting camoes are all well taken, but none of them really have enough time to make a great impression. Of them I especially enjoyed hearing Kitty Whately again, who previously impressed me in Handel with English Touring Opera – though I was fascinated to discover from looking at the programme this morning that she was supposed in one scene to be a woodcutter's boy. Ann Murray also has two nice turns as Madam Bubble and Madam By-Ends. They were ably supported by the conducting of Martyn Brabbins and the singing and playing of the ENO Chorus and Orchestra, all of whom do their best with this problematic score.

About the production I was less convinced. The idea is that Bunyan himself has been imprisoned, imagines his journey to the celestial city, and at the end is back in prison again. Well fair enough. It isn't irritating but I didn't find it very inspired. There was to my mind a lack of a real feeling of a journey. The chorus have some bizarre Selleresque gestural moments. Oh, and big and not terribly effective puppets appear to be in (I couldn't really see why the Pilgrim didn't just dodge round the unmanouvreable Apollyon). The second half generally works less well than the first, the film shots of the First World War trenches didn't really fit, and the arrival in the Celestial City just doesn't come off dramatically.