Singin’ in the Rain

Singin In The Rain

I love MGM musicals, and I’m a bit of an Adam Cooper fan, so I was rather excited to be seeing Singin’ in the Rain this week. It’s an excellent production, with a strong ensemble and some great individual performances. Adam Cooper effortlessly carried off his role as suave, charismatic silent movie star Don Lockwood. Katherine Kingsley gave an equally impressive performance as his co-star Lina Lamont whose unfortunate New York accent puts her at threat from the imminent rise of the talkies. She has real comic talent and makes some astonishing sounds as the vocally challenged star.

Daniel Crossley gave a spirited performance as Don’s friend Cosmo Brown, while Scarlett Strallen had a real air of Debbie Reynolds about her as Don’s love interest Kathy Seldon. Cooper, Strallen and Crossley have great chemistry, as demonstrated in their brilliant rendition of ‘Good Morning’, and seem to be having as much fun as the audience.

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Cooper’s ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ sequence was stunning, though it was hard to concentrate as my location at the front of the stalls meant that I was sporadically sprayed with water (those in front of me were soaked). The ensemble finale also resulted in a liberal dousing of the audience.

The musical is cleverly staged, and just the smooth-running of the show is a feat in itself – comprising as it does of stunts, perfectly-timed comic sketches, complex choreography and black and white footage. These all come together in a joyous romp of a musical; Singin’ in the Rain has all the charm of the film, and is the perfect show to raise your spirits.

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Parade’s End

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From its announcement, Parade’s End has inevitably drawn comparisons with ITV’s Downton Abbey. I enjoy Downton, but it’s completely outclassed by Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s work. I hadn’t read it before I learnt of the BBC adaptation but, borrowing the books from the university library, I found them deeply engaging as a portrait of the tumultuous state of the aristocracy, and the country, in the early twentieth century.

Downton tends to cover social change with quite inconsequential details such as the addition of a telephone to the house, and Sybil’s involvement in the Suffragette movement seems intended largely to generate drama and familial discord rather than to make any insightful point. While Downton portrays the period in a descriptive way, Ford’s work is a detailed exploration of the decline of the aristocracy, the impact of the First World War and changing social ideals.

Both Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens and Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia give excellent performances; these characters could have been distinctly unlikeable in the wrong hands. Cumberbatch was the obvious choice for the conservative, intellectual and emotionally repressed Tietjens, and he certainly delivered in his portrayal of the complex emotions suppressed behind Tietjens’ controlled façade. Hall gives Sylvia, portrayed unsympathetically in the books, enough likeability to prevent us from condemning her outright as she amuses herself at the expense of others.

The BBC drama adopts the fractured structure of the novel, flitting between time and place at the start of the first episode. It certainly demands your attention, but is easier to follow than I feared it might be (perhaps aided by the fact that I have read the book). While the first episode largely sets the (rather complicated) scene, I’m looking forward to the next instalment, which promises an increase in the action and the onset of war.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

 Having both really enjoyed the book when it first came out, the National Theatre’s charming adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time had a lot to live up to, but it didn’t disappoint me and my friend Amy when we saw it this week at the Cottesloe.

Luke Treadaway gave an astonishing performance as Christopher, the 15-year-old boy with Asperger Syndrome who discovers his neighbour’s murdered dog and sets out to investigate the crime. His abrupt and persistent questioning unearths rather more than he had intended, and soon family issues are added to his case. Treadaway was believable and likeable as a boy who struggles to understand the world around him, and is in turn misunderstood by those he meets. While at times Christopher resorts to violence and physical coping mechanisms, he can also be very articulate as he explains his difficulties in coping with the chaos of the world.

The dramatisation of the novel, which was written as though by Christopher, means that there is more opportunity to empathise with those around Christopher, in particular his parents, who are struggling to cope with his behaviour. Both Nicola Walker and Paul Ritter gave nuanced depictions of parents who want the best for their son but are struggling to deal with the demands his behaviour places upon them, and are sometimes pushed over the edge (a metaphor that the very literal Christopher would struggle to understand). The distantness of Christopher from his parents makes the moments when they connect with him all the more poignant.

The staging was excellent, and encapsulated the ordered and clinical nature of Christopher’s world, as well as providing the backdrop for numerous changes of scene. The production was dynamic, and I particularly enjoyed the sequences depicting Christopher’s imaginary career as a astronaut and his foray into the threatening world of the train station. Both brought to life the way that Christopher experiences the world. In the programme, Mark Haddon provides an interesting commentary on his novel, while Marcus du Sautoy discusses Christopher’s interest in mathematics and Simon Baron-Cohen expands on the characteristics of Asperger Syndrome.

For those interested in autism, the BBC recently showed an excellent documentary on children with autism, which demonstrated the broad range of characteristics that the spectrum covers. It also gave the perspective of those around someone with autism, and further explores the effect that it can have on daily life.

The National’s production made use of the benefits that dramatisation brings, to tell Christopher’s story to the best advantage; it is a faithful adaptation that, while a different experience to reading the book, is equally as good and it has definitely inspired me to reread the novel.

Timon of Athens

The National Theatre has produced Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as part of the London 2012 Festival and, as with the BBC’s Shakespearean offerings, has provided a lot of extra material that makes the play more accessible. In the Olivier Exhibition Space The Making of Timon has been produced in association with the British Museum, who is also holding an exhibition of its own – Shakespeare: staging the world. The National’s exhibition covers both the world that Shakespeare was writing in and the processes involved in the making of the new production.

While the section on Shakespeare’s world was interesting, what really caught my attention was the part of the exhibition focussing on the National Theatre’s production. It was fascinating to see how props were constructed, the designs for the set, as well as rehearsal schedules and annotated scripts. It was also interesting to hear from those involved in different capacities in the production and see their perspectives on the play and their jobs.

National Theatre programmes are always informative and good value, but the Timon programme is particularly good. There is an article by Peter Holland on the play, an extract from Simon Russel Beale on acting Shakespeare and a collection of views on Timon from contributors including Karl Marx. All were helpful, not presuming that you already know anything but not dumbing-down either.

While I have nothing but praise for the content accompanying the production, I have to admit that I was less taken with the performance itself. I found it all a bit soulless and emotionless. Perhaps the play’s focus on materialism, and the shallowness of the characters’ lives and friendships, made this inevitable. I’m not sure that the problems I had aren’t intrinsic to the play; none of the characters are especially likeable and there isn’t really much action. The National’s production, set in the modern period, was nicely designed with minimal but expensive-looking sets and Simon Russel Beale did give a good performance as Timon, with the presence to carry the production.

I think that more theatres should follow the National Theatre’s example in providing extra support material for their productions. The Globe is also very good at this, and always has excellent articles in its programmes. As someone who has only been attending the theatre for a few years, and is eager to learn more about the productions I see, I am always grateful for informative programmes. Programmes and exhibitions such as the National’s are invaluable in ensuring that everyone in the audience gets as much from the performance as they can.

The Last of the Haussmans

Having last Tuesday watched the distinctly average Rock of Ages, this week I was reminded of the power of a good play at the National Theatre. The Last of the Haussmans, Stephen Beresford’s first play, had plenty of laughs as well as some rather poignant moments. As a brother and sister return to their decaying family home to assist their terminally ill mother, long-standing tensions rise to the surface and the characters crumble under the pressure of their increasingly complicated circumstances.

Each of the characters was deftly fleshed out by the excellent cast; Kinnear’s delightfully camp junkie Nick is obviously troubled, but Helen McCrory as his sister Libby, while apparently more grounded, is also facing her own problems (many of them relating to her rebellious daughter Summer). Walters was perfectly suited to the role of aging hippy Judy, overseeing the family drama (much of which she has created) while trying to hang onto the freedom and idealism of her youth.

The Last of the Haussmans at times explicitly questions the Sixties generation and the lack of impact that their idealism had, and explores the lost hopes of their more radical days. As Nick points out, once ardent proponents of freedom and peace, many of his mother’s contemporaries have scaled back their aspirations and are running donkey sanctuaries. Yet the play is in the main a depiction of the fraught relations within this dysfunctional family, as the impact of the Sixties generation is explored implicitly through the lasting repercussions of Judy’s lifestyle on her children. Nick and Libby’s drug use and casual sex demonstrate some of the more lasting cultural legacies of the Sixties, even if politically it was superseded by Thatcherism and New Labour.

Even without the general issues that The Last of the Haussmans raises, the family politics would be enough to sustain the play; the questions surrounding the legacy of the Sixties are interesting, but more importantly the drama is thoroughly entertaining. Considering that this is Beresford’s first play, I think that we can expect to see plenty more of him in the future.

Rock of Ages

I’d never had any interest in seeing Rock of Ages the musical, but an excellent offer for top-price stalls seats (£17 each!) meant that this week my friend Amy and I headed to the Shaftesbury Theatre. I hadn’t got high expectations of the show before I arrived, but it was an entertaining enough way to spend an evening. I’m 10 years too young to feel any nostalgia for the music (the audience was full of thirty- and forty-somethings) and while I was familiar with most of the songs, they didn’t have the familiarity of the Abba and Queen songs that sustain fellow jukebox musicals Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You.

Shayne Ward has been used, along with fellow cast member Justin Lee Collins, as one of the main draws for the show. He lacks charisma and believability as a rock star, although for the majority of the audience just his presence on the stage seemed enough. In contrast, Oliver Tompsett as Drew provided consistently excellent vocal performances while Amy Thornton, understudying the female lead, was a likeable presence with a strong voice. Nathan Amzi (understudying Simon Lipkin) also seemed to relish his role as Lonny.

It was all a bit juvenile, with puerile humour and lots of basically-naked girls prancing around. The derivative plot contained snippets familiar from many other musicals, and even then I’m sure that Legally Blonde wasn’t the first to point out the stereotypical similarities between gay and European men, or that Billy Elliot was the first to feature riot police or comedy dance fighting. At least it doesn’t take itself too seriously, with references to the show’s frivolity. While it certainly doesn’t score any points for originality or depth, the audience was packed and there was a lively atmosphere in the auditorium, and this seems to be enough to sustain Rock of Ages as a popular success.

Ben Miller – It’s Not Rocket Science

Although I’ve not paid much attention to science since I gave it up after my GCSEs, Ben Miller’s new book, It’s Not Rocket Science, is perfect for the science novice – it’s entertaining, informative and easy to understand. I find scientific ideas interesting, but at school science never particularly engaged me. Miller’s approach is to skip the First Principles, ‘to throw you in at the deep end’, and give just enough details for the reader to be able to access the more fascinating areas of science. He describes it as ‘eating the pizza topping and leaving the crust’, and it is definitely a more engaging way to approach the subject for a broad audience.

Miller clearly believes that science is for everyone. Just as you don’t need to be an archaeologist to appreciate how amazing it is to look at an artefact that’s thousands of years old, you don’t need to be a scientist to appreciate how amazing the Large Hadron Collider is. And, if you don’t know what the LHC is, or why the Higgs Boson is so important, Miller is there to explain it all. His purpose is ‘simply to entertain you’, rather than to educate; ‘this is not a science lesson. This is a science orgy’.

Miller hopes the book will act as a ‘gateway drug’ into science for his readers, and he provides a further reading list organised by topic. I can certainly imagine that for many the book will encourage them to continue reading. The book is easy to dip in and out of it – I read most of it on the train on the way to work. It covers a vast range of scientific areas, taking us from atoms, electrons and quarks, via DNA, to space travel. There is something for everyone, and Miller encourages people to dip into science rather than taking it on as one colossal entity.

I attended Miller’s talk at the Royal Institution, where he spoke knowledgeably and entertainingly about science and his career. There was also discussion of the increasing prominence and popularity of science within popular culture. Miller identified Brian Cox as a key factor in popularising science, and I think that the ease of communicating complex ideas that characterises Cox’s documentaries is also found in It’s Not Rocket Science; it’s Miller’s own contribution to the continued resurgence in popular science.