Theatre Reflections – Farewell to the glorious Groundhog Day! London will miss you.

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I rarely write about the same show twice, but if you are going to revisit the same production, what better one than Groundhog Day? Having been lucky enough to nab a ticket for tonight’s final London show during public booking, and the front row no less, I couldn’t let the moment pass without reflecting on what has become one of my most loved shows.

I fully admit, I did not think I’d like it. I’d seen the film and hadn’t been that bothered about it in 1993. How on earth would it ever work without being excruciating and irritating? I am however a huge admirer of Tim Minchin and his ability to make words funny, sharp, cutting, but also deeply emotive. I’d loved Matilda and so curiosity made me buy my first ticket for an early July preview.

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My hopes were raised when at a night at the Old Vic, before the musical opened, Mr Minchin sang “On and On” (or Ned’s song) and “Seeing You”, as well as bringing the brave Georgina Hagen down from the circle to sing “Nancy”! All three songs were wonderful and all my fingers were tightly crossed that perhaps this new musical could be something special.

Seeing as tonight was my fourth trip to the show, you can guess what my reaction was! There are so many wonderful aspects to Groundhog Day as a musical. You get to know the community in a way you can’t in the film (which I actually rewatched this weekend to find I really do prefer the stage show) and I genuinely think Andy Karl’s portrayal of Phil Connors really is that of a man who you see change for the better. I don’t really think that about the film. He may get a bit nicer, but I could easily see him reverting back after a while! During this musical, you see Phil Connors the unlikeable, arrogant man he is to begin with, become someone who learns to appreciate those around him and how life is worth living; we just need to live it as the best person we can possibly be. It’s a powerful, uplifting message from a show that so beautifully moves from a very, very funny show in the first half, to one with a strikingly moving and emotional second act, culminating in its heart-warming and hopeful ending.

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Andy Karl & Andrew Langtree

The script is wonderfully written by Danny Rubin, who picks out all the best bits from the screen and the builds on them to make the overall story richer in so many ways. I love that Larry the cameraman gets a happy ending here and seeing the story of Ned’s life is one of the most moving moments of the piece (special mention to Andrew Langtree whose beautiful rendition of his song struck a chord with me every time).

I also love Rob Howell’s set. The deconstructed bedroom, which starts to fracture as Phil begins to lose his mind is very effective and I love the colourful wall backdrops for the bars and café. There’s colour and sparkle with each set change and the floor revolve allows time to pass visually at certain moments too. Congratulations to Paul Kieve too for some wonderful illusions. I admit, I think I’ve worked them all out now, but the reaction you have to them on first viewing is fantastic!

Together with such brilliant music and lyrics, which get cleverer every time you hear them, it’s the perfect combination. There’s a country-style song, one that’s more of a rock number and some quieter more reflective pieces too, which with songs such as “Nancy” still manage to highlight some important issues in society, while remaining witty and engaging. Not many people could get the balance right, but that’s the genius of Tim Minchin for you.

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The brilliantly funny bar scene!

The ensemble cast are wonderful, bringing even the smallest character to life, to add another layer to Punxsutawney. Georgina Hagen makes us think again about the ditzy blonde, the comedic timing of the three actors in the bar scene bring to life one of the funniest parts of the show and Carlyss Peer brings Rita up to date for today’s audience, as a woman who isn’t going to easily fall for Phil’s lines and would rather be alone than in a relationship without love. Huge credit must however go to Andy Karl. I hadn’t heard of him before seeing the show (a crime I know, but all his stage work has been in the States), but he’s certainly made quite an impression on London theatreland and I now cannot imagine anyone else in the role of Phil Connors. It’s such a brilliant performance. Every facial expression, exasperated and sarcastic line, not to mention capturing the wit, arrogance and emerging heart of this man. You really do like him by the end and the moment he realises the next day has arrived is so lovely, it brings a tear to my eye.

The affection London has for him and all the cast was clear in the Old Vic tonight. It was such a special atmosphere, as we said farewell to a show that I dearly wish was staying much longer than two months. During the final curtain call, the cast threw buckets of fake snow over Andy Karl, who in turn threw it on the conductor, before saying a final farewell to the stage by making a snow angel!

The show now heads to Broadway, arriving at the August Wilson Theatre (formerly the home of The Jersey Boys) for previews, before opening on 17th April 2017. All I can say is that I hope New York appreciates it. To whet your appetite here’s a couple of videos, the first is of Ms Hagen singing “Nancy”  https://youtu.be/tzJ3n1Mf1dM and the second is Tim Minchin singing “Seeing You” https://youtu.be/2hwE-dgis6Y – I can only hope a London cast recording will become a reality!

Oh and in case you were wondering – the chance of me heading to NYC to see the show there? – 100%!

Television Preview – The Fall series 3, plus Q&A with Allan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan

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As I took my seat in the auditorium at the BFI in London tonight and the lights went down, I felt a little apprehensive and perhaps a bit nervous. I was after all about to sit and watch the first episode of series three of The Fall in public; this being the series which in previous years has had me watching from behind a pillow! However, it was too tempting to miss, particularly as this preview screening was to be followed by a Q&A with the show’s creator, writer and director Allan Cubitt and stars Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan (more on the Q&A at the end of this post for those interested).

Although I don’t plan to give much away about what happens in the first episode (and have not referred to anything we were told was embargoed), I will mention some aspects of episode one here and will also try and set out at the end as much detail of the Q&A as I can so some may class this as containing mild spoilers if you wish to know nothing before tuning in.

Disclaimers out of the way, the third series of the BBC’s superb psychological thriller, picks up exactly where we left events; Rose Stagg has been found, but Paul Spector and DS Anderson have been shot. The stakes are high for Stella Gibson as the man she has pursued over the previous two series is rushed to hospital and a desperate battle to save his life begins. As a result, this episode of The Fall finds us in very different territory to previous episodes, in a sense becoming more of a medical drama. Be warned if you are squeamish of hospital scenes as there’s plenty of blood and guts here!

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The dramatic end of series 2!

As well Spector’s fight for life, this opener does set the scene for other storylines that are likely to play out in this series. There is of course Rose Stagg, the woman to survive Spector, who will no doubt have to come to terms with her terrible ordeal, together with her husband (played wonderfully by Jonjo O’Neill). There are also those others affected most profoundly by Spector, particularly his family (I can’t help but feel so sad for his children, who surely cannot remain shielded from the truth in today’s media world) and Katie (still played brilliantly, to the extent I wanted to shake her in to seeing sense, by Aisling Franciosi).

Then of course there is Stella Gibson, who remains one of the most fascinating, strong and multi-faceted characters on television. Gillian Anderson is (unsurprisingly) on excellent form here, in a role she knows so well by now, as we see her emotional reaction to recent events. It’s particularly interesting when she is asked why she reacted with anguish when Spector was shot and you do wonder perhaps if her answer is the whole truth (although Gillian herself says that it is so I believe her!).

One of my favourite moments of the episode was the simple touch of Stella taking the missing person poster of Rose Stagg from the hospital noticeboard; this woman at least she was able to save. There is also a lovely moment between her and Rose’s husband. As she gives him advice on how he should be there for Rose, I again found myself curious as to Stella’s own history. We know she used to have her own rubber band on her wrist and this scene again brings our questions on Stella to the forefront. Creator Allan Cubitt confirmed we would learn a little more, but he and Gillian Anderson have always felt that one of the strengths of the character was the enigmatic nature of her life, so I cannot imagine we’ll ever really know her, and perhaps that’s how it should be. John Lynch also returns as ACC Burns, who finds himself having to defend Gibson’s decision to take Spector to the woodland, which resulted in the shooting. It will be interesting to see how she stands up to any attempts to blame her for what happened and how that will affect her relationship with Burns.

Overall, this is a great start to the third series, laying the base for events to unfold over the coming weeks and it is credit to Cubitt’s style and the characters he has created, that despite Spector being in no position to harm anyone in this episode, I still found myself tensing when nurses went near him alone! It did feel a bit slow in places, but was still an absorbing hour of drama, containing strong performances from its cast. I’m certainly intrigued to see the path the story will take this series and hope the BBC hurries up and announces an airdate!

 

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(L-R) Alan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan (better photo of him below)

 

Q&A with Allan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan

Below is as detailed a record of the Q&A as I can write. The BFI usually uploads its Q&A segments to its website, so I’d keep an eye out for this in the future.

1. Discussing the medical aspects of the series

As this episode takes place predominantly in the hospital setting, the Q&A began with a discussion of the medical element of the series as a whole. Allan Cubitt explained how The Fall has always had a medical element, in the context of while Spector took life, others were trying to save lives. He referred to Sally Ann Spector’s work at the hospital and the deliberate cutting between scenes in which the baby died in the neonatal unit in series one, with Spector’s terrible crimes, in order to convey the enormity of what Spector does. He also talked about having to direct a medical drama for the first time with this episode, which was a new experience for him.

He also touched on how those in the medical profession in Northern Ireland have understood the dilemma of treating patients such as Specter for a long time, particularly during the Troubles and indeed reference to putting clinical need above morals when it comes to medical care is discussed in the episode.

2. Redemption for its characters?

The panel was asked if they thought there was any redemption for any of the characters this series and they all said yes, although refused to say which characters! On being asked specifically if he thought there was anything redeemable about Spector, Jamie Dornan admitted it was hard, but when playing him, he did think there were aspects of him that were commendable (albeit very few!), those being the traces of him being a good, loving father and that he approached his career with professionalism, providing a good quality of support to families who’d been bereaved.

3. Man, monster & method?

Linked to the discussion of the redemptive qualities (if any!) of Spector, Dornan was asked if he felt Spector was man or monster and his approach to playing him. He made clear that it would have been wrong to play him as a monster and that there had to be relateable aspects to him. When playing the scenes with his children, Dornan played them as a father and nothing else, as why would he? In those moments Spector is just a father and a husband and he was keen to avoid the “monstrous” tag. On being asked whether he used method acting for the part (basically meaning staying in character the whole time), Dornan laughingly said he didn’t stay in character all the time, as he probably wouldn’t still be married if he had! He spoke about all actors having their own method, but explained how after all these years he now has ways of locking in to Spector’s psyche without too much build up.

Cubitt also complimented the emotional depth of his lead actors, speaking about Dornan’s personal reaction when they were filming the scene from series two in which Rose Stagg is screaming at the camera. Apparently Dornan watched Valene Kane’s performance on set, with his head in his hands because it had affected him so much, but yet then he was still able to deliver his scenes as Spector talking to the camera afterwards. Cubitt also spoke about Gillian Anderson having not seen those scenes in advance of filming the moments where Stella watches the tapes for the first time, meaning her response to them was genuine, again highlighting the empathetic and powerful actors he has as his leads.

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(L-R) Alan Cubitt, Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan

 

4. The ease of becoming Stella?

Gillian Anderson spoke about it being easy to “put on” the character of Stella now, saying that on going to the wardrobe fittings (at Selfridges apparently!), as soon as the clothes are on, she becomes Stella. Cubitt agreed that the look created for her really worked, as on arriving in Belfast she is presenting a face to the world of a woman doing a professional job.

5. Stella’s relationship with Spector?

As mentioned above, there is a scene in which Stella’s relationship with Spector is questioned, in light of her “anguished” reaction to him being shot. Stella justifies this by saying she didn’t want it to end without him facing justice, as the families needed that closure. On being asked whether she thought Stella’s answer was the truth or whether there was an unhealthy fascination with him, Gillian Anderson agreed that Stella is fascinated by him, but is obsessed with bringing him to justice. It’s hard for Stella to grasp that he may get off without punishment by dying and Anderson thinks Stella made the right choice to go to help him in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Anderson also highlighted that Stella is a character with flaws, such as her decision to sleep with DS Anderson (Colin Morgan) in series 2, but Cubitt commented that he hoped the characters are true to life in the sense that they are flawed.

6. Stella’s character and background

The panel agreed that Stella Gibson is an important character to have on our screens, as a strong woman in the police force, who is comfortable with who she is as a woman. Anderson admitted that she hadn’t met anyone quite like her and that there were aspects of Stella that aren’t her, but would be fun to adopt. She also spoke about how it is more interesting for the audience not to know her background, although agreed we do learn a little more this series. Cubitt agreed that he’d wanted things to unfold gradually and that the enigmatic nature of Stella has always been important. He talked about there being a scene in which we were to see her call her mother, but that they didn’t keep it, as it would have given an idea of her class and background and that it’s more interesting to wonder what her life away from Belfast is like. We assume she has no partner or children, but on the other hand it wouldn’t totally surprise you if that transpired (he stressed that wasn’t a spoiler / hint at all for the series).

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7. Media criticism of The Fall

The criticism the series has faced in the past was also discussed, particularly those press articles which had criticised it for being misogynistic and glamorising violence against women. Cubitt spoke about how much it had upset him on a personal level, as he was the writer and creator so whose fantasies were they saying they were if not his? It was personally insulting, but he didn’t see people who held those views changing them during series 3, as if people have such a “reductive and simplistic” view then a few more episodes of drama wouldn’t change it. To him it is absurd. He spoke about how he’d been contacted by people who had also praised the emotional truth of characters such as Katie and he highlighted how frequently Stella talks about the idea of men, women and violence, raising this topic in a clear and intelligent way. Cubitt also reminded the audience that Spector says he doesn’t hate women, he hates everyone, including himself and that in fact the most violent we see him is when he kills Joe Brawley. It was a fascinating section of the Q&A, which could have become a whole separate conversation on its own.

Audience Questions

It was then time for the audience part of the Q&A, which thankfully was filled with intelligent and interesting questions.

8. As an icon and role model since The X-Files, does Gillian Anderson feel a sense of responsibility when choosing her roles?

Gillian admitted that she did feel a certain sense of responsibility, but that even if that wasn’t the case, she would probably still choose the same roles as she has done, because those are the roles she is attracted to.

9. Is this the final chapter of The Fall?

Although the BFI audience tonight was urging the panel not to answer this question, Anderson pointed out they’d been answering it all day, so we’d read it tomorrow anyway! All Cubitt would say is that series three was not necessarily the end of The Fall. I guess we’ll all have to watch and see!

10. What made Allan Cubitt think Jamie Dornan was Paul Spector from his original audition for another role in the drama?

Allan Cubitt was asked what he saw in Jamie Dornan’s audition tape that made him right for Spector, seeing as Dornan had originally auditioned for the role of James Olson. Cubitt spoke about having met Dornan before and wanting to bring him in to audition, but then realising he wasn’t right for the part of Olson. His extraordinary presence on camera convinced Cubitt straight away that he was right for Spector, but that it was felt by others that Dornan should come back and audition again for the role. He did and Cubitt was quite adamant that this was the right actor (to the extent it was Dornan or no one for him) and that on sending the tape to Gillian Anderson she also agreed. Cubitt also commented that as the actor would need to spend 50% of the time on screen alongside Anderson as Stella Gibson, he needed someone with just as much emotional depth and that Dornan had that. He also enthused about the stunning casting for series three.

11. Does Gillian have any advice for young actors when facing rejection?

Gillian’s advice was perseverance and not to take rejection personally as it can be a gift. As long as you leave an audition knowing you gave it everything, the rest is out of your hands.

12. How has Jamie’s view of playing Spector changed since series one, in light of him becoming a husband and father?

Jamie was reminded that at the launch of series one, he’d said he couldn’t relate to Spector as he hadn’t killed someone, wasn’t a husband and wasn’t a father. Now two of those facts have changed (don’t worry, he still hasn’t killed anyone), has his view of the character changed? Dornan agreed that a lot had changed for him since The Fall had begun and that having children is like a reset button for your life (in that everything changes in an instant), but that actually you see less of Spector being a father this series. He spoke about drawing on his love for his niece when he was filming those scenes for series one.

13. Had Allan Cubitt always intended the role of Katie to develop the way she has?

Cubitt said that he had the notion that Katie’s role would develop that way and that throughout The Fall there is the theme at play of people not being parented completely. Katie, for example, has lost her father, something Spector cruelly reminds her about in series two. Cubitt spoke about being fascinated by what Spector thinks of Katie, as she is not on his radar as a victim because he sees her as a child and that it is this warped view that Stella calls him out on. Cubitt wanted Katie to go on a complex journey where she is ultimately learning that there are dangers in the world.

14. When he knew the end game, how did Cubitt map out the story when he had no idea about the number of series he would have?

Cubitt recalled being asked to write for the second series of Prime Suspect, in which he had four hours to map out. That experience had made him realise that that amount of time uses a lot of story! He explained that although he knew the story beats for The Fall, he had also known that there would be detail along the way that he would have to invent and that as characters are invented, they started to dictate side plots as well.

………………………

Sadly that was all the panel had time for tonight. As is always the case with the BFI’s previews and Q&As, it was a fascinating insight in to the making of this excellent British drama. No air date was confirmed for The Fall tonight, but hopefully we won’t have too long to wait to find out what the next chapter has in store for Stella Gibson and Paul Spector!

If you have yet to watch The Fall, in the UK it’s available on Amazon Prime and via the BBC Store. The teaser trailer for series three can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/Su8qOzmIRL0

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – My top 20 films to see!

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Friday night was the members’ programme launch of this year’s BFI London Film Festival (running from 5th October – 16th October). It was the second year that I had been along to hear the festival team introduce the programme, as well as to see the screening of trailers and clips from a selection of films from across the festival strands (which for those new to the festival, include themes of Love, Debate, Laugh, Dare, Thrill, Cult, Journey, Sonic, Family, Treasures and Experimenta as well as the gala screenings and competition entries).

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This being the 60th anniversary of the festival, there is to be a new venue added to the list of participating cinemas. As well as the other 15 venues this year (including, the lovely Prince Charles Cinema for the first time too), there is to be a purpose built temporary cinema, constructed in the Victoria Embankment Gardens (see photos above), which will seat over 700 and have Dolby 7.1 surround sound and 4k digital projection. It certainly sounds as if it’ll be an exciting venue and I hope I’ll be able to see something there over the fortnight of the festival.

As I did last year, I thought I’d select my top 20 films from this year’s programme. With over 240 films on offer, it’s not an easy task and I’d say there is even more that is tempting me this year than in recent years. However, these are the 20 that have caught my interest the most and will be on my watch list for the future if I don’t manage to secure a ticket in October.

1. Una

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During a recent trip to NYC, I was able to see the stage production of David Harrower’s play Blackbird. On discovering that theatre director Benedict Andrews is making his feature film debut with an adaptation of that play and that it will be shown at the festival, this went straight to the top of my list. The story centres around two characters, Una and Ray and without giving anything away about the plot (read my review of the play if you want to), this promises to be a powerful, emotionally charged film, with two wonderful actors in the central roles (Ben Mendelsohn from Netflix’s Bloodline and Rooney Mara).

2. La La Land

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Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in this love letter to LA and the Hollywood musicals of yester year. Stone is Mia, an aspiring actress and Gosling a pianist, for whom romance blossoms, in the second film from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle. From the clip I saw on Friday, this looks to be something quite special and I’m very much hoping to acquire a ticket for one of its three festival screenings. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/V4HL9QE3ZAU

3. A United Kingdom

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As this is the festival’s opening gala, nabbing a ticket is likely to be more of a challenge, but I’m very excited to see this film whether at the festival or on general release. Based on the true story of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), who fell in love and married a London office worker, Ruth Williams, in 1948, causing a stir in both the UK and Africa. Starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, from the trailer this looks set to be a moving and inspiring story of love against the odds. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/url66-67O90

4. Snowden

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It seems everyone has heard of Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who leaked NSA secrets on a huge scale and with Oliver Stone at the helm and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role (not to mention Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto in the mix too), this looks to be a very promising political thriller. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/QlSAiI3xMh4

5. Brimstone

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I know I’m getting older when Dakota Fanning is no longer the child actress we’ve all seen grow up! Although I have been unable to find a trailer yet for this film, everything I have read to date about Brimstone suggests this could be her finest performance yet. She plays Liz, a young, mute midwife in the American West, whose past life comes back to haunt her with the appearance of a new preacher in her town (played by the brilliant, and apparently in this story terrifying, Guy Pearce). I’m almost certain this won’t be an easy watch, but it is a film that already intrigues me enough to give it a try.

6. Trolls

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As for something more cheery, you can’t get more colourful than Trolls! Those of us of a certain age remember when these strange creatures with brightly coloured hair were all the rage in bedrooms across the UK and now they are back in this DreamWorks film, which brings together a host of stars including Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel and James Cordon. It’s sure to entertain all ages (although with only one screening during the festival itself, this may be one that has to wait until its final release). Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/xyjm5VQ11TQ

7. Arrival

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After the recent uproar regarding this film’s poster choices, I’m looking forward to seeing the European premiere of this new science fiction movie starring Amy Adams as Dr Louise Banks, a linguistics professor enlisted by the US Government to decipher the language of the newly arrived alien species, whose crafts have appeared around the globe. With support from Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, I’m hoping this is a more intelligent and engaging sci-fi film. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/ZLO4X6UI8OY

8. Scribe

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I hadn’t heard of Scribe (which also seems to go by The Eavesdropper) until I read the festival programme brochure, but this French/Belgium film has sparked my interest. The story revolves around a middle-aged man, who after a difficult period is offered the job as a scribe for an eccentric businessman. However, life takes a darker turn when one of the private calls he is transcribing leads to murder, in a film that the BFI brochure says pays homage to political thrillers of the 1970s.

9. Lion

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Lion was added to my watch list after I saw the trailer for it on Friday evening. British actor Dev Patel plays Saroo Brierley, on whose memoir the film is based. Saroo was separated from his mother and brother in India when he was five years old, after becoming trapped on a train he had fallen asleep in. Transported hundreds of miles away and all alone, he was eventually adopted by an Australian couple (played by Nicole Kidman & David Wenham), but 25 years later, he begins the search for his family. I have a feeling this one may make me shed a tear or two. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/-RNI9o06vqo

10. Queen of Katwe

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My tenth choice is another film based on a true story. Queen of Katwe is about a young Ugandan girl (played by Madina Nalwanga), who on finding a chess club run by a football player turned missionary, discovers she is a natural player with huge potential. With such talented actors as Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo involved, I have high hopes for this one. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/z4l3-_yub5A

11. Nocturnal Animals

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Tom Ford’s new film is an adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, in which fiction and reality blend together, as gallery director Amy Adams turns to the manuscript of a novel written and sent to her by her ex-husband (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) when her current marriage hits a difficult path. With such a strong pair of actors in the central roles, I’m hoping there will be a trailer of this film soon to give even more of an insight in to what is already an intriguing premise.

12. The Pass

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I’d intended to catch The Pass at the BFI’s Flare festival earlier in the year, so I’m thrilled to see it’s part of October’s film festival programme. Based on the play by John Donnelly (who has also written the film’s screenplay), which I loved last year at the Royal Court, it’s the story of a young footballer (Russell Tovey reprising his stage role), who over the course of the story (and the years it takes place) grapples with his desires and his inability to face them. If this film is half as good as the stage production, then festival audiences are in for a real treat.

13. Nocturama

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Nocturama has intrigued me, but I’m still debating whether I’ll have the nerve to go and watch it during the festival! As this year’s Debate strand gala it will certainly generate quite a lot of discussion due to its subject matter, which centres on a group of young people, who despite their diverse backgrounds, have come together in Paris to “set the city alight” and following their mission they hide out in a department store. Billed as a controversial film that will be disturbing and compelling in equal measure, I will be very interested to see what reception this film receives. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/H-6EEsn3Akc

14. Free Fire

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At Friday’s programme launch we were also treated to an exclusive look at the new trailer for Ben Wheatley’s latest film Free Fire (so new it seems, that I cannot yet find it online). Following the success he had at last year’s festival with High-Rise (you can find my review of that here), Wheatley’s new film is an action thriller which sees how an arms deal in a deserted warehouse goes awry as the bullets start to fly! If the trailer is any indication, then this is set to be a bloody, but also darkly funny film, which also has a superb ensemble cast including Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer.

15. The Autopsy of Jane Doe

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The BFI warned on Friday that this film is not one for the squeamish or faint-hearted, so whether I’ll pluck up the courage to see it in the cinema or wait until I can watch it at home in the future remains to be seen. My bravery aside, this is still one of my choices from the festival programme. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch play a father and son, who work together as coroners and one night are faced with the body of a Jane Doe, whose body defies medical sense. This looks to be a gory and nerve-shredding film experience, but if you’re brave enough, be ready to buy a ticket.

16. Gleason

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At last year’s film festival one of my highlights was the documentary He Named Me Malala, which I found both moving and inspiring (read my review here and go and watch it immediately). If any documentary is going to have the same effect this year, I think it will be Gleason, which is all about the American football player Steve Gleason, who at 34 was diagnosed with ALS. Filmed over five years as he battles against the disease, while becoming a father, this looks to be a hugely powerful and emotional film, which will make its audience cherish life and not take a moment of it for granted. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/WgkQU32XSFQ

17. A Monster Calls

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I haven’t read Patrick Ness’s book on which this film is based, but on seeing the trailer I’m very much looking forward to its release. Conor is bullied at school, while at home his mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from a terminal illness. In a fantastical turn, a strange tree appears (voiced by Liam Neeson and brought to life with some wonderful effects), offering him an outlet for his imagination as he comes to terms with the reality that he will soon lose his mother. Tissues at the ready everyone! Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/gXRrcXHD3UQ

18. Chi-raq

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This is a film I would almost certainly have overlooked had it not been for the programme launch. The title, a blend of Chicago and Iraq, highlights the sad fact that there have been more gun-related deaths in Chicago in the last 15 years than there were in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Through a hip-hop musical reimagining of Aristophanes’ Greek play Lysistrata, Spike Lee introduces us to a group of women, who so angered by the constant violence between two rival gangs make a pact – unless there is an end to the violence, there will be no more sex for the men and to top is all off, Samuel L Jackson is on hand to act as the chorus! This sounds as if it will be an imaginative way of bringing the serious issue of gun violence to everyone’s attention. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/Jo7nvjZmE1Q

19. A Quiet Passion

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Cynthia Nixon stars in Terence Davies’ film about the life of the American poet Emily Dickinson. I don’t know much about Dickinson, but the combination of Davies, Nixon and the wonderful Jennifer Ehle (she’ll always be Lizzie Bennet to me!) to name just a few involved in this story, already has me adding A Quiet Passion to my festival ticket list. Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/eKJpx8FYp54

20. Porto

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Playing within the First Feature Competition strand of the festival, Porto is the story of a love affair between Jake (Anton Yelchin) and French archaeologist Mati (Lucie Lucas). I was saddened by the news of the tragic death of Yelchin earlier this year, as he was an actor who only seemed to be growing in talent with each new role he took on and this will undoubtedly make the festival’s screening of Porto all the more emotional.

………

So those are the 20 films that have most caught my attention and it will be from these that I try and whittle down a schedule that will work across the fortnight. As the variety of films on offer this year is so strong, there is bound to be something for everyone and I strongly recommend you take the time to read through the festival brochure for yourself. You can pick up a copy at the BFI Southbank or download it from the website below. Any films I do see, I’ll make sure to review for this blog during October.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 5th – 16th October 2016. Public booking opens on Thursday 15th September. For further information (including membership for access to priority booking) visit the festival’s website here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Theatre Review – The Bodyguard starring Beverley Knight (Dominion Theatre)

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After missing this musical the first time around, I was pleased to have another chance. I admit, I was sceptical about a musical adaptation of the classic 1992 film, but with such a talented singer as Beverley Knight returning to the role, I was prepared to give it a try on its return to London this summer.

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The fiery opener of The Bodyguard!

The show broadly follows the story of the film. International singer and actress Rachel Marron (Knight) is at the height of her fame when her manager insists they employ a bodyguard due to threats she has received (the extent to which even she isn’t fully aware). That bodyguard is Frank Farmer (Ben Richards). Marron does not want him invading her life and he grows frustrated by her attitude. However, over time a respect and attraction starts to grow between them.

As a musical, the story of The Bodyguard works well and in order to ensure plenty of musical numbers, the songs made famous in the film (including Run To You, I Will Always Love You, Queen of the Night) are also supplemented by others from Whitney Houston’s back catalogue of classics, meaning the evening becomes a true celebration of the late singer’s work, with classics such as One Moment In Time and I Wanna Dance With Somebody right through to the last single she released before her tragic death, Million Dollar Bill.

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Beverley Knight (Rachel Marron) & Ben Richards (Frank Farmer)

Story-wise, I was pleased with the choices made overall. The differences to the film on the whole make sense. I won’t spoil them all, but unsurprisingly we don’t have the scene with a boat exploding on the lake in the wood on stage! There is also some streamlining in terms of the villain (with only one here, rather than the film’s twist of the initial crazed fan, not being the one trying to kill Marron), which makes things less complicated for the musical.

The set and staging works well, with some fantastic pyrotechnics for Marron’s concert opening (which interestingly is where they choose to use my favourite song from the film, Queen of the Night), effective, yet simple sets for other locations, such as the Marron house and various dressing rooms. The log cabin set from later on is also very good indeed. Projections are used throughout the show, mainly to show the audience what the stalker is doing at his desk and it is these projections which were the weak link for me, as they tended to come off as a bit cheesy, rather than chilling. They also really do not need the projected montage sequence at the end, which effectively replays moments from the show on the screen, as if some form of music video. I see that that’s what they were going for here, but it just didn’t work for me and was far too cringe worthy!

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Beverley Knight (Rachel Marron) & Rachel John (Nicki Marron)

That slight criticism aside, the biggest assets of the show are the acting and singing talent of the leads. First and foremost Beverley Knight is excellent in a role which is synonymous with Whitney Houston. She is able to play the role of Marron convincingly and crucially has the voice to match. It takes someone with a lot of talent to come on to a stage and give those songs as much as Houston did and Knight succeeds every time. Ben Richards is also very good as Frank Farmer, conveying both his harder edge and softer, more caring side through scenes with her son Fletcher and as the two grow closer. He is also able to bring some humour to the character, particularly in the scene in which Farmer and Marron go on a date (which here is set in a bar on karaoke night, rather than in the restaurant setting of the film), which became one of the show’s highlights for me and was very well received by the audience. Huge praise must also be given to Rachel John, who plays Marron’s sister Nicki. She too has an incredible voice and her duet with Knight is another crowd pleaser.

So, overall I thoroughly enjoyed my night at the Dominion Theatre (my first ever visit there too). I’d been unsure whether the show would ruin my memories of the film, or if I’d find it impossible to look past the original movie and see the story in another medium, but I needn’t have worried. The story works just as well on stage and with such superb vocals from its lead actress, you can’t help but be engaged by it. It’s certainly worth a visit whether you’re a lover of the film, a Whitney fan or someone coming to it fresh and by the final encore you’ll be on your feet dancing and singing along with the rest of the audience!

The Bodyguard continues its run at the Dominion Theatre and is currently booking until 7th January 2017. Running Time: 2 hours 25 mins (including an interval). For more information and availability, (note Beverley Knight does not perform at all performances), visit the website here: http://www.thebodyguardmusical.com/home.php

Theatre Review – No Man’s Land starring Ian McKellen & Patrick Stewart

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I had been anticipating the arrival in the UK of this production of Harold Pinter’s 1974 play ever since its 2013 Broadway run and thanks to the wonderful decision to tour the production around the UK, I was able to see it at the Lyceum in Sheffield, in advance of its arrival in London next month.

I didn’t know anything about the play before the show and I think it’s fair to say that having now seen it, I’m still not entirely sure what it was about! Thankfully though that seems to be the common reaction from anyone watching No Man’s Land, especially for the first time.

The play takes place in the Hampstead home of Hirst (played Patrick Stewart), who after meeting him in a pub, has invited another man, Spooner (played by Ian McKellen) back to his home for another drink (or three!). As the evening draws on and moves in to the following morning, we watch as the complex dynamic between the two of them unfolds, particularly when they are joined by two younger men (played by Owen Teale and Damien Moloney), who supposedly work for Hirst, although even this doesn’t ever feel certain!

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No Man’s Land is a very strange play. There is no clear path as to where the story is going and you are never really sure whether what you are seeing is even reality. Have Hirst and Spooner only just met that night, or have they been literary rivals for years? Is one man weak compared to the other and if so which one? Over the two halves of the play we see each of Stewart and McKellen take on the role as the more dominant, more confident man, which adds to the complex nature of Pinter’s work. Just when you think you at least understand the personalities of the men, Pinter wrong foots you and has you yet again questioning exactly what is unfolding in front of you. It’s possible that the whole play could just be happening in Hirst’s mind, as he nears the end of his life, in the no man’s land between this world and the next.

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Ian McKellen & Patrick Stewart 

 

Due to all of these uncertainties, No Man’s Land is not an easy play  to watch, simply for the fact that it challenges its audience; it makes you think, assess, question and ultimately remain unsure as to exactly what you have seen! It therefore won’t appeal to everyone, but although it frustrated me and wasn’t as funny as I’d hoped, I enjoyed the fact that it left me wanting to read more about the play and what others think about it.

The biggest attraction here is of course Stewart and McKellen, two of our finest actors and they are, as usual, wonderful to watch together on stage. I’ve been lucky to see them both on stage before, both separately and together in Waiting For Godot and it is always a thrill, even when the material is a little surreal! This play provides each of them with the opportunity to portray almost two different men, with McKellen the more dominant and in control in the first half, before the tables turn in the second, transforming Stewart’s Hirst, from a frail man to one very much the master of his home and all those in it. Crucially too, the play provides the opportunity for both humour and moments that are much more disturbing in tone and together with Owen Teale and Damien Molony (both of whom are very good in their supporting roles), all four actors do a wonderful job of bringing these complex men to life.

So, did I enjoy No Man’s Land? Yes and no. It wasn’t what I’d been expecting and although I was frustrated by the surreal nature of the play, I thoroughly enjoyed watching such superb actors spark off each other and I’m sure fans of both of them will revel in the opportunity to see them live on stage. If you’re prepared to spend a night at the theatre that will pose more questions than it answers then it’s worth a visit, especially when its tour is providing the opportunity for audiences outside of London to see it too.

No Man’s Land continues its tour at the following venues: Brighton Theatre Royal (22-27 August); Cardiff New Theatre (29 August – 3 September); Whyndham’s Theatre, London (8 September – 17 December). For more details, visit the website here: http://www.nomanslandtheplay.com

Theatre Review -Groundhog Day (Old Vic) is another triumph for Tim Minchin!

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Before posting a review of this latest new British musical, it seemed appropriate for me to take a second look, almost four weeks after I saw a very early preview. I admit when Tim Minchin first confirmed he was working with director (and now artistic director of the Old Vic) Matthew Warchus, on a musical of Groundhog Day I was sceptical. Could it really work? I hadn’t been a fan of the film on original release, so wasn’t sure if it would even appeal to me. However, knowing how talented Mr Minchin is and after falling for Matilda (his first stage musical success) upon first seeing it in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2010, I had all my fingers crossed for this show.

Thankfully, I can categorically say that Groundhog Day has only grown stronger over its preview period and is one of the brightest stars in London theatreland at the moment.

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Andy Karl & Carlyss Peer

 

For those unfamiliar with the 1993 film, it centres on Phil Connors, a grouchy, arrogant and rather rude (albeit in an amusing way for us) weatherman, who is grudgingly dispatched to the small American town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for its day in the country’s spotlight – Groundhog Day! Every 2nd February, all eyes turn to this small community to see the weather prediction of Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog, who supposedly predicts when spring will arrive. Connors has no time for such silliness and cannot wait to return to civilisation. However, he soon realises he has a terrible problem – the next morning he wakes up on Groundhog Day again and the next day and the next. The question is whether Phil will ever understand what he needs to do in order to break this surreal loop!

It was a bizarre film, but it really does work as a musical. Danny Rubin, who wrote the film, is ideally placed to retell the story in a new medium and combining his script with Minchin’s quick, intelligent, witty lyrics and perfectly pitched emotional music, results in an absolute triumph and possibly my favourite show of 2016.

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Building a musical which is based upon repetition of scenes could have resulted in something that felt a bit dull, but the production sparkles from start to end. Once the premise has been established the whole day isn’t repeated. Instead the quick cuts to repeats of certain moments create some wonderfully funny scenes. One in which Phil takes his producer Rita to dinner to try and get her in to bed is just one example, as we see Phil trying to refine the night over a number of occasions with disasterous results!

With such a strong foundation through Rubin, Minchin and Warchus’s direction, the show needed a strong lead actor to bring its central character to life and thanks to this show, I have discovered the brilliance of Andy Karl! He is superb as Phil Connors, bringing every facet of the character to life. He is certainly a character who develops so much over the story and Andy Karl is more than up to the task of conveying everything from his arrogance and somewhat unlikeable behaviour, through to his kinder side, as, whether he can see it or not, Phil starts to care about the town he is trapped in. As an audience you can’t help laughing at some of his antics and find yourself warming to him as the story moves along. I admit I also envied his ability to say anything he felt like, no matter how rude!

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Danny Rubin (Book) & Tim Minchin (Music & Lyrics)

 

The whole ensemble work so hard to bring vibrancy and life to even the smallest of characters, but special mention must go to Carlyss Peer as Rita, the young woman who helps Connors become a better man, along with Andrew Langtree (who as Phil’s old high school classmate delivers one of the most moving songs of the production in the second half) and Georgina Hagen, as Nancy, the young, blonde woman, longing to be seen for more than her looks. She opens the second half with “Nancy”, another of the show’s more heartfelt songs. Crucially for me, most of the catchy songs from this musical have stayed with me over the last few weeks and a cast recording cannot come soon enough!

Credit also must be given to Rob Howell’s fantastically inventive set, full of colour and able to transform the stage quickly from one location to the next. I also loved the comical use of miniature houses and vehicles, particularly in a car chase and also when the news van is caught in the snowstorm. It’s so silly, but so much fun!

Groundhog Day is a wonderful addition to London theatreland and although it’s soon destined for Broadway, I can’t help hoping that perhaps we’ll get to keep it here just a little longer. People deserve the chance the see it and with a current closing date of 17th September that really isn’t very long at all. So, my advice to you is book your tickets quickly, before this production sells out (which is almost certainly guaranteed following its strong reviews). The cast and creative team have managed to bring to life a show which makes you laugh (a lot!), smile and even shed a tear. You leave the Old Vic with a smile on your face, having seen something quite magical. I’d be quite happy if it was Groundhog Day every day! I’m already looking forward to experiencing all again….and again…..!

GroundHog Day continues its run at the Old Vic Theatre until 17th September 2016. Running Time is 2 hours 35 minutes approx. (including a 20 minute interval). For more information and ticket availability visit the theatre’s website: http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2016/groundhog-day/

Book Review – Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse

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My local bookshop, West End Lane Books in North West London, is wonderful at arranging events with some of the finest writers around and a couple of weeks ago we were treated to readings and discussion with two such authors. One of these was Lucie Whitehouse, who talked about her latest book Keep You Close and having just finished it, I can guarantee you are in for a thrilling read from the first page to the last.

Rowan Winter grew up in Oxford. Her mother died when she was young and her father travelled all the time, meaning she kept to herself – until she met Marianne Glass and soon, not only were the girls close friends, but Rowan became almost part of the Glass family. Ten years later, Marianne has been found dead, an apparent fall from her flat and although they hadn’t spoken in a decade, Rowan suspects there is more to Marianne’s death. She knows Marianne had severe vertigo and never went near the edge of the roof, so how could she fall?

Keep You Close is a brilliantly written book, in terms of plot, character and construction, as Lucie Whitehouse skilfully weaves the past and the present together, while always suggesting that there are still secrets the reader has yet to uncover. I find so many books, although great reads, give their endings away too obviously and it is wonderful that this novel doesn’t do that. There were moments that really did make me stop and go “Oh, now I see! How clever!” which is all down to Lucie Whitehouse’s cleverness in constructing her story.

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Author Lucie Whitehouse

A key to any novel is its characters and one of the strengths of Whitehouse’s novel for me was the fact I genuinely liked Rowan. She was flawed from the outset, but I couldn’t help but like her because she was so believable. As the book moved forward, I was desperate for her to discover the truth so that I would know too! Marianne was also a very real presence in the story despite her death at its start and I very much enjoyed the way her life, both when she knew Rowan and just before her death were weaved in to the story in order to build the mystery and anticipation.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Keep You Close. With interesting characters, an intriguing mystery and a pace that builds the further through you go, it’s the perfect psychological thriller, which keeps some surprises up its sleeve until the end!

If you’re already a fan of Lucie Whitehouse or, like me, hadn’t read one of her novels before, but love a great thriller, then this won’t disappoint. I’ll certainly be reading more of her work and recommending this book to friends and family.

Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse is published by Bloomsbury and available from all the usual book stockists.

 

 

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