Happy 85th Birthday Ronald Harwood 9th November 2019!

Birthday greetings to that prolific and gifted playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood whose interest in the stage and World War 2 as well as the wider political world has gifted us with such profound work over the past six decades. A brilliant adapter of other people’s work also, his majestic achievement with The Pianist reminds us that he always gets to the heart of the matter. Happy birthday Mr Harwood!

Josephine and Men (1955)

Josephine and Men 1955

She had a weakness for the weakness in men! Suave bachelor Charles Luton (Jack Buchanan) tells Henry the Barman (Victor Maddern) the story of his niece Josephine’s (Glynis Johns) romantic escapades. She rejects her wealthy fiancé Alan (Donald Sinden) in favour of his friend David (Peter Finch), an unsuccessful playwright. But when their situations are reversed, Josephine’s interest in David starts to wane because she can’t help but be drawn to underdogs and the police are on Alan’s tail when he turns up at their rural idyll while David struggles to write a new play and Charles is overnighting… As a child she was alarmingly soft-hearted. You might imagine from the poster that this is a British answer to Moulin Rouge but relatively low-powered as this is in narrative impetus it manages to coast on a battery of real charm and a surprising element of jeopardy. Johns is as usual a bewitching delight and Finch enjoys himself immensely. Strangest of all is perhaps the screenwriting team behind this drawing room comedy:  thriller writer Nigel Balchin, Frank Harvey (who would go on to write the brilliant satire It’s All Right Jack) and the director, Roy Boulting. It’s a welcome opportunity to see the great Buchanan and it’s also wonderful to see William (Doctor Who) Hartnell, Sam Kydd and Wally Patch in the supporting ensemble. Gilbert Taylor shoots in colour in a lovely variety of interiors while John Addison provides his typically witty score. A Boulting Brothers production. There is no deadlier creature on earth than a one-woman Salvation Army

All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

Sudden Fear (1952)

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I’m so crazy about you I could break your bones. Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) is a successful and wealthy Broadway playwright who rejects actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) for her new production because he doesn’t look like a romantic leading man. When she meets him on a train bound for home back in San Francisco he insinuates himself into her life and she is swept off her feet, and marries him. He learns that she’s writing her will and intends leaving most of her money to a heart foundation and plots her murder with his girlfriend Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame). However Myra has accidentally left her tape recorder running and finds out their plan. She decides upon one of her own and plots it as she would one of her plays – to kill Lester and frame Irene for it. But while hiding in Irene’s apartment she sees her reflection with gun poised and alters her plan, terrified at what she’s become. Then Lester lets himself into the apartment … I like to look at you. Adapted by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith from Edna Sherry’s 1948 novel, this is a superior noir melodrama, with Crawford at her sensational best in one of her key roles.  Everything about the production is top notch with wonderful design (Boris Leven and Edward G. Boyle) and shooting by Charles Lang, enhanced by the location and night-time street scenes. Palance matches Crawford – talk about a face off! – with some truly creepy affectations; while Grahame is entrancing as ever. But it’s Crawford’s show and the happiness slipping from that classic mask is something to see.  She was directed to an Academy Award nomination by David Miller (he was a very fine woman’s director.) The final sequence – the first half of which has Crawford hiding in a closet; the second with her being chased up and down the streets of San Francisco by Palance – is unbearably, brilliantly tense. Sizzling stuff. Executive produced by an uncredited Miss Joan Crawford.  Remember what Nietzsche says “Live dangerously!”

Arthur Miller: Writer (2017)

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Filmmaker Rebecca Miller’s documentary about her playwright father is a mesmerising portrait of one of the midcentury’s most important artistes and commentators, utilising home movies, letters, newsreel footage, and interviews she recorded with him and his siblings and her mother and Mike Nichols.  Excerpts of Miller’s recording of his autobiography Timebends are interspersed with Rebecca’s own voice to create a narrative. I.  Origins. I used to think that a play was about what was between the spoken lines. Growing up with a sub-literate fabric cutter Polish immigrant father and flamboyant, gifted mother, the young Arthur Miller was accustomed to wealth and comfort but that was all removed overnight with the Wall Street Crash when their circumstances were radically reduced. He worked in factories and read Dostoyevsky on the subway and his life was transformed. He wrote plays in college and married a midwestern Catholic democrat and his politics altered from communism to liberalism because he couldn’t see a place for the individual otherwise. She wanted an intellectual, a Jew, an artist. And I wanted America. That’s Miller not describing second wife Marilyn Monroe, but his first wife, Mary. Between the lines you get the sense that for him, relationships were somewhat transactional.  His daughter Jane recalls thinking that her conversations with him were material: There were times when he was only interested in something because he could use it. II. Broadway. I knew you were worse than most men, but I thought you were better. Mary was his toughest critic, his first play on Broadway was a failure but his second was All My Sons which he wrote in a wooden hut he built for himself. He wrote the first act during one night, the second in six weeks. Then he sat by the phone, waiting. Nichols states of the work that he believed burned out Miller, It’s so close to the tragedy. It’s so alive.  Miller met Elia Kazan and they formed a friendship or even brotherhood that weathered political storms. Kazan introduced him to his on-off lover Marilyn Monroe on the set of the 1951 film As Young as You Feel and Miller told her, I think you’re the saddest girl I ever met. He used the line in The Misfits a decade later when their five-year marriage was combusting. The big thing is not to make simple things complicated but to make complicated things comprehensible. III. PoliticsArt is long, life is short. I forgot the Latin. He says Kazan was the greatest theatre director of realistic material and was dismayed by his decision to name names but clarifies that it was the fault of the HUAC as well as the studio that said he would never make films again if he failed to do so. For Miller, the victims experience guilt – about other things. The guilt of the victim was interesting to me. That is the subject of the allegorical The Crucible, in which he memorialises Marilyn Monroe in the character of Abigail while his own wife is personified by John Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth. He met Monroe in 1951 and began an affair. When they married, he was pursued by HUAC and she posed for photographs with the Committee, helping expedite his suspended sentence while he felt he was reenacting his own play. Even the fascists have to be entertaining. IV. Home. Miller talks about writing on the verge of embarrassment, revealing things that are essentially secret, even in symbolic fashion. He describes to Mike Wallace his failure to create  significant work during the Monroe marriage with the throwaway line, I was taking care of her. He neglects to mention that she was paying his way and getting him writing jobs. However, he also declares, There’s no explaining a person like that. Terrible. Well.  He describes her as being in some ways the most repressed person imaginable. He wrote The Misfits in tribute to her, allegedly, but of course we know that he and John Huston and Eli Wallach conspired to turn her character into a prostitute and it was Gable who saved her from that indignity.  After the Fall in 1964 was crucified because it was such a direct attack on her, with Maggie her clear avatar, Quentin his. He was trying to make sense of the century’s most famous marriage.  Following her death he married Inge Morath, the Look photographer whose father was a Nazi. Miller’s children from his first marriage say Morath made the Connecticut house (that Monroe bought for him) into a home. Do you think Dad had a weak spot for being adored? Rebecca asks his siblings about his marriages. It’s rhetorical.  V. Out of Place. Other than The Price, the Sixties were not happy years for the playwright and the Seventies were downright barren not due to his output but due to the brutal critical reception in the US. Abroad, he was still admired.  He had few friends. He was a very different man at home to the man interviewed on talk shows. It took Dustin Hoffman’s 1985 revival of Death of a Salesman for Miller’s stock to rise again. Rebecca’s younger brother was born in the mid Sixties with Down’s Syndrome and the Millers had him institutionalised. Miller did not acknowledge his existence or even visit him until he was an adult, leaving all that to his wife. Rebecca intended interviewing her father about this but never got around to it while he was alive. He says to his daughter that sons have it harder because there is an element of competition with the father. His older son Bobby produced the film version of The Crucible that introduced Rebecca to her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis.  Teasing the man she knew from the man perceived in the wider world is what this film does best even if it’s limited by their relationship and the lack of emphasis on the content and style of his playwriting. Children create these definitions, says Miller. They have to.  When asked what he wanted in his obituary, Miller responded, Writer.

Wonder Wheel (2017)

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Let me get to the story in which I am a character, so, be warned, as a poet, I use symbols, and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters. Enter Carolina…In 1950s Coney Island Ginny (Kate Winslet) is an emotionally volatile former actress now working as a waitress in a clam house and married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a rough-hewn carousel operator who is stepfather to Ginny’s firebug son by her first husband. She’s having an affair with Mickey (Justin Timberlake) a handsome young lifeguard who dreams of becoming a playwright.  Ginny’s life is turned upside down when Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) from his previous marriage turns up in order to hide out from her gangster husband after giving evidence to the FBI. When Carolina meets Mickey the attraction is immediate and Ginny’s plans to leave Humpty are thrown into disarray … Everybody dies. You can’t walk around thinking about it/You’re talking to a lifeguard.  A tonally awkward and restive work from Woody Allen in which Winslet’s heavy approach shifts the emphasis to Ibsen while everyone else is playing light. (To be fair, the material starts out as a very theatrical setup with poorly staged monologues.) Vittorio Storaro’s odd cinematography with its use of orange and green filters doesn’t help the strangely altering atmosphere. However the film improves overall as it goes along, save for Winslet’s inappropriate pitch, especially when some of the Sopranos goons show up. Timberlake is okay as the Allen avatar, narrating to camera and breaking the fourth wall to put a quasi-dramatic spin on events as he pursues his ‘Masters in European Drama’ but a guy in an auteurist film from Allen falling for a mother and her daughter? I know it’s set at the beach, but it’s still rings too close to home and I don’t mean mine. You’ve been round the world/But you’ve been round the block

Curtain Up (1952)

Curtain Up

One should never do a play written by a woman, they always hold you up. In an English provincial town a second-rate repertory company assembles at the Theatre Royal  to rehearse the following week’s play, a melodrama titled Tarnished Gold. Harry (Robert Morley) the hot-tempered Producer, is highly critical of the play, which has been foisted on him and is unenthusiastic about its prospects. The cast includes Jerry (Michael Medwin) a young and sometimes keen actor, Maud (Olive Sloan) a widowed actress who was once famous on the West End stage, Sandra (Kay Kendall) who is waiting for (and receives) a call from a London producer who calls her instead of her philandering and semi-alcoholic husband (Liam Gaffney), and Avis (Joan Rice) a timid young girl who is quickly realising that acting is not for her. The cast is equally unenthusiastic about the play. Little progress is made. ‘Jacko’ (Lloyd Lamble) the director, is at his wits end and threatens to resign, his regular habit when things go wrong. Things can’t get any worse but then the author of the play, Jeremy St Claire turns up and she turns out to be  a woman – Catherine Beckwith (Margaret Rutherford).  She insists on ‘sitting at the feet’ of the Director. She and Harry are quickly at each other’s throats. Harry tears up most of Act 1 and tells her to do what Edgar Wallace did – disappear into a phone kiosk for a couple of hours and come back with forty new pages. He storms angrily off stage, falling into the pit and injuring himself, literally losing the run of things as his fantastical ramblings take hold. Despite the forebodings of the cast, Miss Beckwith insists on taking over the rehearsal according to her own ideas. She recasts the play as a period piece and introduces new stage techniques. How will it work out? … I think I see the beginning of a plot on page twenty-seven. And we are on page one. Oh joy! Three of my favourite British actors in one film! Morley, Rutherford and Kendall, who don’t have a huge amount to work with in this adaptation of Philip King’s play On Monday Next by Jack Davies and Michael Pertwee (brother of the greatest Doctor Who!) but who do have some sly repartee and physical comedy to play.  Morley/Harry refers to a production of Rebecca – in reality he and Rutherford were in the original London stage production, with Rutherford playing Mrs Danvers. Imagine that! Their clash here is very amusing. Stringer Davis, Rutherford’s offscreen husband, turns up as Avis’ dad just in time to see Jerry kiss his daughter. Kendall has some mini-drama over her husband’s infidelity but it’s her career that’s in the ascendant while he thinks real acting is for cinema – which makes this even more of a mockery of popular theatre. It’s pretty thin stuff, only of interest for the sparky players. The impact is elevated with a Malcolm Arnold score and it’s directed by Ralph Smart.

Neil Simon 04 July 1927-26 August 2018

NS Come Blow Your Horn 1963.jpgNS After the Fox 1966.jpgNS Barefoot in the Park 1967.jpgNS The Odd Couple 1967.jpgNS Sweet Charity 1969.jpgNS The Out of Towners 1970.jpgNS Plaza Suite 1971.jpgNS Star Spangled Girl 1971.jpgNS The Heartbreak Kid 1972.jpgNS Last of the Red Hot Lovers 1972.jpgNS The Sunshine Boys 1975.jpgNS The Prisoner of Second Avenue 1975.jpgNS Murder by Death 1976.jpgNS The Goodbye Girl 1977.jpgNS California Suite 1978.jpgNS The Cheap Detective 1978.jpgNS Chapter Two 1979.jpgNS Seems Like Old Times 1980.jpgNS Only When I Laugh 1918.jpgNS I Ought to be in Pictures 1982.jpgNS The Lonely Guy 1984.jpgNS The Sluggers Wife 1985.jpgNS Brighton Beach Memoirs 1986.jpgNS Biloxi Blues 1988.jpgNS The Marrying Man 1991.jpgNS Broadway Bound 1992.jpgNS Lost in Yonkers 1993NS The Heartbreak Kid 2007.jpgNS Rewrites.jpgNS Memoirs.jpgNeil Simon.jpg

The great Neil Simon has died. The lights on Broadway will dim but our hearts will always beat lighter, thanks to his wit, his genius, his love of the human condition.

I love living. I have some problems with my life, but living is the best thing they’ve come up with so far.

Suicide in Buffalo is redundant.

Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

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You’re the man. You lead. It’s WW2 and famous writer Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) get a distressing telegram. We flash back to the interwar years when a shellshocked Milne, an acclaimed playwright, leaves London for the countryside after experiencing one too many reminders of WW1. Milne’s ever-changing moods affect those around him.  Only his friend Ernest H. Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore) empathises as a fellow veteran. Daphne is a somewhat dim and brittle wife, unhappy and traumatised on her own account after a violent childbirth. Their nanny Olive or Nou (Kelly Macdonald) is the chief caregiver to their son, Christopher Robin but known as Billy Moon (Will Tilston). Daphne tires of A.A. and his failure to write anything and leaves for the city, ostensibly to buy wallpaper. But the wardrobes have been emptied. When Olive leaves to look after her dying mother, the males of the family are left to their own devices and start to spin fanciful yarns about Billy’s collection of stuffed animals.  Milne invites Ernest to visit and they start to put together a book with illustrations around Billy Moon’s relationship with his toys and their outings to the Hundred Acre Wood.  Tigger is better than Tiger. It’s more Tigger-ish. These stories form the basis for Winnie-the-Pooh  and The House at Pooh Corner, published respectively in 1926 and 1928. Milne and his family soon become swept up in the instant success of the books, while the enchanting tales bring hope and comfort but his relationship with his young son suffers as the boy is wheeled out in public to play the character of Christopher Robin and even their personal phonecalls are broadcast … If I’m in a book people might think I’m not real. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Simon Curtis’ film skirts the edges of whimsy and tragedy and finds it hard to balance the demands of both – how do you make a man experiencing PTSD a sympathetic character? He wants the British public to know the reality of combat and the utter waste of the Great War.  I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I need to make them see. Giving the toys a voice isn’t even his idea, it’s his wife’s.  She sends a poem he writes to her into Vanity Fair where it becomes famous, her eye firmly affixed to publicity. The child is chirpy and aggressive. These are real people, the film is telling us, and it’s not all wine and roses creating beloved children’s stories. They make each other interesting and tolerable through the written word in a narrative that expresses the limits of people’s endurance. When Milne tells Daphne he’s going to do a book about the pointlessness of war she is riled and shrieks that he might as well try writing about getting rid of Wednesdays – he might not like them but they always come around. Making this man see what he can do and the imaginative links he forges between his son’s playthings and his own desire for escaping the reality of his past provides the main texture of the work.  It’s very handsomely handled but never comfortable, no matter how often the sun might peep through the Hundred Acre Wood. Gleeson is an actor of narrow range and his performance is paradoxically limited by the writing but it’s an admirable insight into the writer’s life and the perilous attractions of fame. Stop. Look.