Sunday, February 19, 2012

“Hay Fever” – the challenge of a Life of Bliss

We are now so used to Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” being a frequently produced and popular part of his oeuvre that it seems extraordinary that there were so few professional productions for nearly forty years after its first appearance in 1925. The new production at, appropriately, the “Noel Coward Theatre” is the third I have seen in the past year (those at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick and the Rose Theatre, Kingston were the other two). The play is borderline farce/comedy with not much of a plot but plenty of brilliant writing giving the opportunity in a few of its roles for the actors to shine. The central character is the Grande Dame of the theatre Judith Bliss – a role which offers actresses of a certain age a splendid opportunity to strut their stuff. However rather like Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest” the casting of this role often falls to someone who is, shall we say, a little too mature for the role. Edith Evans was 76 at the National Theatre’s famous revival in 1964 and Judi Dench 72 in Peter Halls’ production of 2006. Mrs Bliss’s daughter Sorel is 19 so such casting stretches credulity, or biology, somewhat! There is no such problem for Lindsay Duncan who, at 61, plays the part for the first time in Howard Davies’s new production. Indeed not only does she seem wholly believable as Sorel and Simon’s mother but the fact that she is pursued by an ardent admirer, Sandy Tyrell , for her beauty and physical attraction as much as for her fame seems wholly believable as well.

Lindsay Duncan is marvellous – a quite restrained performance given the potential for over-acting that lies in the part. Coward is sometimes accused of misogyny (wrongly in my view) and Judith Bliss is certainly something of a monster – a show-off and incredibly self-obsessed. But in Lindsay Duncan’s hands you feel that there is not just parody but transparent parody in the behaviour of the character. In other words her public, in this case her family and their unfortunate weekend guests, expect a certain performance from her - and by God they are going to get it! The artifice extends to all four members of the family who live their lives on the cusp between reality and fantasy – often tipping over completely into the imaginary. At the start of the play Sorel and Simon are seen behaving like characters in a play, which of course they are - but there is a sort of play within the play in their mannered and “actory” behaviour. Freddie Fox’s fidgety and feline Simon – part camp, part Puck – is a little strange at first until you realise that he is just “acting”. However whether he is really pursuing and/or being pursued by Olivia Colman’s racy Myra (who uses "sex as a sort of shrimping-net" according to Judith) is not clear.

In “Hay Fever” the female characters are far stronger and more interesting than the men. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is terrific as Sorel and her pretend seduction of her mother’s paramour Sandy Tyrell is nicely judged. Olivia Colman confessed to being nervous on the preview night I saw, partly because her husband from “Rev”, Tom Hollander, was in the audience. Well if she was it enhanced rather than detracted from her performance as Myra. And she looked stunning in a beautiful little black dress! Amy Morgan as the flapper Jackie Coryton looked very pretty and was appropriately overwhelmed by the play-acting around her. And Jenny Galloway’s as Clara, the no nonsense dresser turned general factotum, was very good as well. The male characters are much more of a problem and rather anonymous. Even an actor as skilled as Jeremy Northam struggled to make much of the bland and dull Richard Greatham and the same applied to Kevin R McNally’s preoccupied and introspective David Bliss and Sam Callis's puzzled Sandy Tyrell.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge told me after the performance that Howard Davies directed them not to be overly “Noel Coward” in what they did – so we did not get any Coward speech patterns or mannerisms from any of the actors. This is not to say that the play is naturalistic or is in any way meant to be telling a credible real story – it is fantasy and farce alright, but of a measured kind – not least in Lindsay Duncan’s very subtle Judith. The tradition of Hay Fever is that is played as a rather extreme comedy of manners – post Wildean, but with some not just epigramic links with Oscar. The connection comes also from the fact that the main characters are, as they are in Wilde, of a class and a standing that sets them apart. This generally means that the speech patterns are upper middle class and the setting is comfortable bordering on the lavish. In Howard Davies’s production the former certainly applies – all of the characters apart from Clara and Jackie speak and behave as if shortage of money is not one of their problems. However the setting, by Bunny Christie in this production, does not conform at all to this tradition. Instead of the play taking place in an elegant drawing room with French windows opening onto a lawn rolling gently to the river the set here is a sort of bohemian tip. One of the cast, who better remain anonymous, likened it to me as a sort of Shoreditch Warehouse. The intent was presumably to premise that because the lifestyle of the Bliss’s is bohemian therefore they would live in chaos in a tumbledown mess of a house. This just doesn’t work – not least because the social life of a retired Grande Dame actress and a successful author would involve plenty of home entertaining - and they would want to take every opportunity to show off a bit by having an elegant and well-furnished house. The embracing of the freedoms of a bohemian lifestyle needn't mean the absence of Liberty's.

The set aside this is a very good production and a thought-provoking interpretation of Noel Coward’s memorable play. Coward has plenty of style and show in all of his work but for all that he was deep down quite a serious man – and his talent was far more than “just” one to amuse. There is a serious undercurrent in all of Noel Coward’s work and in Hay Fever we see witting and unwitting cruelty as well as a studied contempt at times for those not blessed with the thespian skills, and “couldn’t care less” attitude of the family Bliss. When the four guests creep out at the end we feel a sense of relief for them and hope that the experience was not too scarring. Meanwhile we suspect that the family is quietly contemplating who their next victims will be!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A big splash of colour to brighten our grey times–Hockney at the RA

Art is very personal. That is its strength. If we all reacted in the same way to an artistic stimulus it would stop being Art. A “Stop” sign at a road junction isn’t Art - it is intended that all of us will respond identically to it. We will stop. But “Rigoletto” or “Emma” or “Macbeth” or the “Mona Lisa” are not “Stop” signs - they are creative works that will inspire subtly different response from us all. And do gifted artists know more than those of us who do not have such gifts? Perhaps in a way they do but what about Benjamin Britten and Brahms? Britten was a great composer – perhaps the greatest British composer - but he hated Brahms. Does that mean that because Britten knew all that there was to know about composition, and I know nothing, that my approval of Brahms is just ignorant and unworthy? NO. It simply means that Britten and I have different views on the subject – although I suspect that my approval is the majority view and Britten’s disapproval is uncommon, even perverse! In “The Old Curiosity Shop” Dickens tells a tragic story culminating in the death of the heroine Nell Trent. A tear jerker of course - but remember what Oscar Wilde said “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

This preamble is intended to justify the fact that this brief review is about the Hockney exhibition “A Bigger Picture” at the Royal Academy despite the fact that the reviewer is less than competent in drawing and painting (that’s a euphemism of course – “utterly without talent” would be more accurate). Prepare yourself for an “I don’t know much about Art but I know what I like” piece. Or not. You can stop reading now if you like - I won’t be offended. Does Hockney only want his work to be seen and commented upon by the great and the good of the Art world? Well probably not and certainly not the critics – or all of them. Take Andrew Lambirth in “The Spectator” who ended a coruscating review of Hockney’s exhibition with the words that the artist is “… overrated, overindulged and over here. Couldn’t he go back to Los Angeles?” Well! Mr Lambirth is a pukka Art critic so he knows a bit – but like Britten on Brahms I can choose to disagree with him – and I do.

“A Bigger Picture” is astounding and at the private viewing that I went to almost everyone was smiling some of the time. Not because the painting are overtly funny – although there are a few good jokes – but because the scale and the colour and the imagination and the effort so vigorously on display makes you want to sing with joy. Well you don’t do that at the Royal Academy of course so you smile instead – and maybe do a little discrete jig whilst you’re about it. The paintings are mostly landscapes and mostly quite recent. This is what David Hockney has been working on for the last few years in his home from home in Bridlington. If I was to declare an interest it would be as a fan because at least two on Hockney’s works would be amongst the eight in my “Desert island Paintings” – if such a programme existed. “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy” (1971) and “A Bigger Splash” (1967) are sublime – in my humble opinion (as the critics never say). I do not revere these paintings as one might be supposed to revere a da Vinci or a Turner. I just like them a lot. Would I want to do a jig in front of “The Last Supper”? Well maybe. But I doubt it. Great Art (capital A) of course and it has its place. As does Hockney who, I suggest, may be no less technically competent than Leonardo was. Would the latter use an iPad, as Hockney does so skilfully, if he were around today? I suspect that he would – he might even have invented it I suppose and sold his invention to Steve Jobs.

This review has no real artistic underpinning. It is perhaps more suitable for a fanzine than a “serious” magazine like the one Mr Lambirth writes for. But I can only say if you can beg, steal or borrow your way into the Royal Academy before 9th April please try and do so. We need some colour and some fun in these grey and trying times. And courtesy David Hockney some is available. Go!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Frankie and Johnny–twenty years on


Twenty years on – and “Frankie and Johnny” has arguably improved with age. This is because it deals with the rawest human emotions and vulnerabilities and shows that when life is tough the need for community is greatest. Even if, maybe especially if, the members of that community are as dysfunctional and scarred as we are. For many of the characters in this movie life has been very tough indeed. The restaurant where Johnny gets a job, and where Frankie works, is at the centre of the lives of many of its regulars. It does not have “Community Centre” on a sign above the door – but this is, in effect, what it is. The tolerant proprietor, Nick, sympathetically portrayed by Hector Elizondo, has built that community and he is as protective of his customers as he is of his staff. Nick is a Greek-American and it is subtly suggested that the customers and employees at his little restaurant are a sort of extended Greek family - although in fact they are as ethnically diverse as New York can be.

“Frankie and Johnny” is above all about loneliness. Frankie has a real family – we see them at the beginning at a christening – but it is clear that they have their own lives and that Frankie, partly out of choice, is not really part of that world. As the film develops we start to realise that Frankie’s introspection and the barriers she erects around herself are attributable to a couple of failed relationships in the past. In one her partner left her for her best friend and in the other she was physically abused to the extent that she cannot have children. Johnny is equally damaged. We see him released from prison but it is not until quite late in the film that it is revealed that his crime, whilst serious, was a one-off fraud and that he is no serial offender. In prison he learned to cook and that is now more than just a job to him – it has become a passion. Johnny was married but his wife left him and took their two children into a new relationship. There is a brief poignant vignette when Johnny watches his children with their mother and new “father” in an American dream suburban family scene – complete with white picket fence. He leaves without revealing his presence.

From early in the movie it is clear that Frankie and Johnny are made for each other. Despite the wounds they carry (actual physical wounds to her head in Frankie’s case) they are good caring people – albeit that like Nick they do this without wearing a “Social Worker” badge. Frankie has a moving relationship with a Gay neighbour, Tim (Nathan Lane) that manages to avoid being patronising or clichéd. Similarly her bonding with her fellow workers is natural and important to them all – not least Cora the archetypical strong, no-nonsense New York woman who, deep down, is as lonely as she is. Like all the characters Cora is deeper than, and different to, her veneer. When a woman heavily pregnant with twins comes to the restaurant she touches her belly and says “People think I'm a tough bitch, but it ain't true. Shit like this chokes me up.”

That Frankie and Johnny will eventually end up happily together seems obvious form the start, but that doesn’t always happen in the movies does it? Along the way they battle, largely out of fear on Frankie’s side. Johnny ardour is declared early on and we don’t doubt that it is genuine. Frankie is more circumspect – unsurprisingly given the extent that she has been damaged by her last relationships. So whilst the romance is strong a happy ending is not certain and when it happens we are grateful because it is uplifting to think that even if the barriers are high they can sometimes be removed in the interests of true love.

The casting of Frankie and Johnny is very good and all the minor characters, however crazy they may be are utterly credible because they are so well played. As for the leads both Pacino and Pfeiffer give sensitive and credible performances although both of them are so devastatingly good looking that they do seem a bit out of place amongst the ordinary New Yorkers who are very “West Side” in appearance rather than Upper East. Not many of them shop on Fifth Avenue whereas Frankie and Johnny do look a bit like people who habitually do this, except on dress-down day. Nevertheless although they are younger and lovelier than the characters in the original stage play (“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune”) this works fine and doesn’t detract from the heart and the humanity of the story.

A year or so after Frankie and Johnny was released the long running TV series Friends premiered. One of the central characters in Friends was, of course, Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) who was initially a waitress in a Coffee House with a history of complex and damaging relationships behind her. Rachel Green is not Frankie – but there is a strong parallel not least because it is “friends” in both cases who provide the support when it’s needed. Frankie says at one point “I'm afraid. I'm afraid to be alone, I'm afraid not to be alone. I'm afraid of what I am, what I'm not, what I might become, what I might never become. I don't want to stay at my job for the rest of my life but I'm afraid to leave. And I'm just tired, you know, I'm just so tired of being afraid”. The message of Frankie and Johnny is that friends can reduce that fear. Love can take it away.