Sunday, 14 July 2013

More things I've done this year...

Inevitably, when you don't write about things as they happen, you forget some minor details. Like, oh, I don't know, seeing Helen Mirren in the flesh(!) and so on. Since my previous post, several people have reminded me about things I didn't mention, so this post will hopefully cover that. To be honest, though, if you can think of anything else, don't bother reminding me. I seriously can't be arsed to write a third post in this style now.

First up...

Louis C.K. @ The O2.

If you haven't heard of Louis C.K. you are missing a real treat. Louis is a big hit stateside, where his show Louie has been airing for the last three years on the FX network. Last year Louis won two Emmys, one for his network show and the other for a stand-up special. I've been a fan of his since I stumbled across him by accident one day when I fell into a YouTube black hole. His brand of humour is very sardonic and cynical, which as anyone who knows me will testify, is right up my street. What I love most about him is the fact is that he may say some shocking things sometimes but never just for the shock value, something that many other comedians are guilty of these days (yes, I'm talking to you Frankie Boyle). Louis is simply saying the things that many of us secretly think, but would rarely have the bottle to voice. I'll let the man himself explain...

Louis had the O2 in stitches, including my boyfriend who had never even seen any of his material before that night and is relatively difficult to please when it comes to comedy. I have no idea how I managed to forget to write about such a fantastically funny gig. Next time Louis C.K. is in the U.K. make sure you go see him if you get the chance.

Mies Julie @ Riverside Studios, Hammersmith.

Back in my uni days ( I studied August Strindberg's masterpiece, Miss Julie. I'll be honest, over the years, I had forgotten much of the storyline apart from a particularly upsetting scene involving a bird, and the grisly, bloody climax. But when my uni bud Ilona told me about a new production that placed the action in post-apartheid South Africa, I was intrigued enough to get a ticket.
Essentially the story remained fairly unchanged from the Swedish original. Julie is the daughter of a wealthy white South African landowner who has recently suffered the humiliation of a broken engagement and is struggling to find her place in the world. John is the son of Julie's father's housekeeper, Christine. (In Strindberg's version John is called Jean and he is the fiance of her father's servant, Kristin). Over the course of the play, most of which takes place in Julie's father's kitchen, Julie and John embark on an ill-fated flirtation that predictably ends in tragedy. This definitely isn't an uplifting piece of theatre, but it is shockingly thought-provoking and this particular production was heartbreakingly realistic. In fact, I found myself unable to give a coherent verdict on what I had just seen for some time after the final curtain.
Hilda Cronje was absolutely mesmerising as Julie and I certainly predict that hers is a name to remember. I would have liked to have seen her and her co-stars, Bongile Mantsai (John) and Thoko Ntshinga (Christine), rewarded with a standing ovation at the play's close but I was informed by the leading lady herself in the bar afterwards that, ridiculously, "they don't do that kind of thing in Hammersmith."

War Horse @ The New London Theatre, Drury Lane.

For the first time in several years, both my brother and I were in the country for my dad's birthday so we decided to take him along to the stage version of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse. Having seen the film last year, I couldn't imagine how the staging worked in such a small theatre and wasn't sure it could live up to the Spielberg standard. I'm sure everyone has seen the brilliant puppetry of Joey at some point when the show has been promoted on TV, but it honestly blew me away to see how much they are able to achieve on stage. The set is mostly barren so it is hugely important that the audience are able to lose themselves in the performances and use their imagination for many things. This is a big gamble as it relies massively on stand-out acting from all involved, both the actors and the puppeteers, but the gamble pays off. The cast are terrific and the puppeteers are so incredibly skilled at bringing Joey, Topthorn and the various other animals to life that you are able to forget their presence entirely.
I didn't realise that there was so much music in the stage version but I was pleasantly surprised at how much this added to the story as it unfolded. It was beautifully emotive and at times, uplifting. Of course, the subject of the first world war is never a cheery one and as an animal lover, I find it particularly hard to think of all the bewildered, innocent animals that have given their lives in the line of battle, but what makes War Horse such a brilliant piece of storytelling is that the action is largely seen through the eyes of one such animal. It tells an important side of the story that is naturally overlooked a lot of the time in the face of such a devastating level of loss of human life.
On exiting the theatre I heard some grumbles from a couple of people that it "wasn't as good as the film," but personally, I don't think that the two are particularly comparable even though the story is the same. What can be achieved on film is entirely different to the stage and Hollywood special effects are a world away from Drury Lane. Judging the play in it's own right, it is a resounding success and I, for one, loved it.

The Audience @ The Gielgud Theatre.

I am hanging my head in shame at forgetting this one. It only bloomin' stars my screen idol, Helen Mirren! Reprising her role as the Queen! ZOMG! I even got to see it from the comfort of a royal box! (Although we will skip over the fact that I almost spilled red wine over the balcony onto Dame Helen herself, and had to be restrained by the boyf from attempting to sneak a forbidden photo of the lady in action).
Peter Morgan's imagined tale of the relationships between the Queen and the various prime ministers who have served her during her 60 year reign is the perfect showcase for Helen Mirren's talents. She effortlessly transforms from the young princess grieving her father, the King, suddenly finding herself thrust into the role of monarch, into the wise Queen of 60 years who has seen many a prime minister come and go.
Speaking of the Queen's transformation, the costume changes are almost like some sort of magic trick. They take place on stage, whilst Geoffrey Beevers as the Queen's equerry and the play's narrator is setting up the next scene for the audience, and they are so swift it almost beggars belief.
Whilst it's easy to focus on the magnificent Mirren, the entire cast is worthy of praise, particularly Haydn Gwynne as Margaret Thatcher who so embodies the Iron Lady that it is all too easy to forget that it isn't the woman herself. Nathaniel Parker as Gordon Brown and Edward Fox as Winston Churchill deserve special mentions and Friday Night Dinner's Paul Ritter is superbly comic as John Major, but it's Richard McCabe as the Queen's allegedly favourite prime minister Harold Wilson who steals the show. His chemistry with Mirren is wonderful and the relationship depicted between the working-class boy turned Labour leader and the monarch is beautifully observed. The scene in which the Queen first notices Wilson's creeping alzheimers related memory lapses is extraordinarily touching and pitched just the right side of sentimental.
I was a little miffed that Tony Blair receives only a passing mention and is not actually portrayed but to be frank, the play loses nothing by avoiding getting bogged down in the politics of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The play is by turns heartfelt, heart-wrenching and hilarious. The young Princess Elizabeth makes appearances throughout as the Queen's very own Jiminy Cricket and the scene in which she recalls her beloved nanny telling her that once she is Queen she will never again be called Elizabeth by anyone outside of her immediate family is particularly gut-punching. The biggest laughs of the evening come from Paul Ritter's John Major and from a scene in which the Queen's mobile phone rings to the tune of Gangnam Style (for which she blames on Prince Harry).
I suspect there was a minor rewrite at some point to include a mention of the Thatcher funeral, an event that I'm fairly sure took place after the play began it's run, but Thatcher comes in for the hardest line of forced civility between herself and the Queen. An idea which seems at least somewhat based on truth, coming from the idea that the Queen was never fond of her only female prime minister and may even have spoken informally of her disapproval. Of course, as with the play as a whole, we are to assume that the dialogue in these meetings has been entirely imagined by Peter Morgan, but I can't help but hope that he isn't too far off the mark.
Helen Mirren is as brilliant as you would expect and I was thoroughly chuffed to have been able to see both her and the play live. If you haven't been able to get tickets or you live too far away to make it to the Gielgud, then maybe see if you can find a screening at your local cinema as part of the National Theatre Live season.

An Audience with Helen Mirren @ The Gielgud Theatre.

Amazingly enough, a mere couple of weeks after seeing Dame Helen in The Audience, I was fortunate enough to hear her speak about her life and career on the very same set at the Gielgud. In aid of the National Youth Theatre, where Mirren began her own career, she was interviewed on stage by the NYT's vice president and artistic director, Paul Roseby.
As a huge fan of hers, I was slightly nervous about whether she would live up to my expectations as herself, but I needn't have worried. She is wise, witty and tremendously like-able. In all honesty, I didn't learn much about her that I didn't already know (like I said, I'm a massive fan) but it was just a thrill to see her in such a relaxed, informal situation and hear her talk so candidly. It is such a pleasure to see that someone can be so successful on both sides of the pond and yet retain their ordinariness. On that note, I think my favourite ever Mirren Moment™ was the night she won the Oscar and casually went for a McDonalds straight after, proudly plonking her statuette on the table next to her whilst she munched on her burger.
If you are interested the NYT has more detailed reviews of the event on their website:

...and I think that really does bring us up to date now. I'm off for a cuddle with my cat and a nice cold drink before tonight's episode of The Returned. Toodles!

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