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Comfort and Joy - a Tonic!

My interest in amateur theatre continues thanks to some very good friends of mine so we ventured out again by visiting (after another carvery you understand…) the very good Theatre 62 who perform out of the Wickham Theatre Centre in West Wickham, Kent.

As I have blogged before, Theatre 62 is the kind of theatre that gives amateur dramatics a very good name indeed. Whilst its surroundings are modest, everyone involved in the enterprise is welcoming and passionate about what they do- from the box office staff, to those serving in the bar, to the actors on stage.

This time we were watching Comfort and Joy- written by the ‘Rochdale Cowboy’ himself Mike Harding (you must remember him from his hit ‘Rochdale Cowboy’ which managed to get to No 22 in the charts in 1975) and although best known as a folk singer, has written a number of very good plays-including this one in 1997.

Describe as ‘a chaotic Christmas comedy’ it was great pre Xmas fare to watch and the best thing I have seen at Theatre 62 (so far!). It is set in a North of England  household over a 3 day xmas period and when I tell you that in the play we are introduced to a verbose dog called Trumpton, two cats who have had an accident in a car, stick insects who are confused with a bowl of Twiglets, and a turkey that ends up halfway down the outside path, you will realise that we are in British Farce territory.

Martin is perhaps the richest character on stage who is a Irish philosopher of sorts but also a keen Marxist and thinks he is a dab hand at repairing anything on the cheap- in playing him Howard James does not waste the great material he is given .  Not far behind him is Goff (Bernard Hariss) who is a kind of pre Victor Meldrew- cantankerous, a perpetual moaner and reactive to the core. They are very well supported by an ensemble cast who occasionally fell over their words (but this was the first night). Highlights for me were Sharon Hawkes as Fiona (Goff’s daughter who relocated to Australia with the man he did not approve of-mainly because he thinks he stole his saw….) and Diane Carters as Kathy who has relocated ‘down south’ and has returned as a very ‘sloane ranger’ Joanna Lumley type. In fact Bernard Harriss is almost upstaged by the performance of Crispin (Paul Newton) as Kathy’s  equally posh ‘friend’ who enters the living room with rather a lot of ‘doo doo’ and is the brunt of many a joke at his expense.

But the loudest laugh could be heard from the visit of locals Monica (Christine Lever) and Chapman (Tony Skeggs) who are less neighbours from hell but more like residents of ‘weirdsville’, with their penchant for angels having been kidnapped by the ‘mother ship’.

Overall, it is a very funny play with no pretensions of being too clever for its own purposes. It is a very broad farce using Christmas and fraught relations as its backdrop. It may be clichéd in places (Crispin and Kathy are the  kind of posh fools who it is easy for working class characters to make fun of ) but if you do not take it seriously then there is a lot to laugh at and be happy with.

A great pre Xmas tonic that went down very well thank you!

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Murder On The Orient Express (2017) is the 2nd film version of the Agatha Christie novel that was first published in 1934. Often referred to as “the most widely read mystery”, it was said to have sold 3 million copies when the previous (1974) film version of the book was released. I wonder with the rise of the digital age whether Ms Christie’s estate will see a similar rise?

The 1974 version that starred an unlikely Albert Finney as Hercules Poirot was a sumptuous affair as I recall (it dates me to say that I remember seeing it with my Father at the old Granada Welling (that is in Kent if anyone asks!). It had an outstanding international cast that included Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark and John Gielgud.  Ingrid Bergman in fact one an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress playing Greta Ohlsson

In the 2017 version starring and directed by our own Richard Branagh (with the most outrageous moustache in his portrayal as Poirot), we have another international cast assembled although to be fair, they are not as prestigious as the previous version. We have Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer and The Force Awakens Daisy Ridley who all do a fine job but somehow they lack the gravitas that the 1974 version had.

Traditionalists will be relieved that the film broadly follows the great detective’s novel plotline although some changes have been made to freshen up the lack of diversity for a modern audience. Gone is the Swedish Greta Ohlsson and in is Pilar Estravados a Latino (Penelope Cruz) whilst Colonel Arbuthnot (the role previously played by Sean Connery) is now a Black ex-Army medical doctor played by Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.

So, for those not in the know, the film opens as our Belgian detective Poirot is asked to solve a crime of religious theft in Jerusalem, although he seems more concerned about how accurately his boiled eggs have been cooked. Having solved the crime in the Holy Land, Poirot is feeling the pace somewhat and is desperate for a holiday of some kind, but……………………… He is persuaded by an old friend (who just happens to run the Orient Express) to come on-board as it travels from Istanbul to Calais. Whilst on the famous train, Poirot is offered a job to protect the life of Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) a businessmen who is sailing to close to the wind in his affairs but his offer is rejected. Then Ratchett is found dead in his compartment stabbed 12 times and Poirot reluctantly agrees to investigate the case when the Orient Express becomes derailed following an snow avalanche- and so the mystery has to be solved ……………….

If you have seen the earlier film (or several TV versions including the David Suchet one) or read the novel, you will not get anything new from the Branagh adaptation. Branagh though is excellent and whilst he will not get you to forget the Suchet version, he does a clever thing in focusing on Poirot’s OCD tendencies, so you tend to forgive even the incredible moustache he somehow wears. Of the ensemble cast, Daisy Ridley shines out and shows that her film debut in the Star Wars franchise was no mere fluke –the lady can act and sizzle on screen. Michelle Pfeiffer is no Lauren Bacall but Judi Dench, Oliva Coleman and Derek Jacobi keep us all interested and believe in the characters.

Like its 1974 predecessor, Murder on the Orient Express is a joy to the eyes –it may lack the great theme tune that Richard Rodney Bennett gave us before but its photography (Malta, New Zealand and France) is magnificent and if you can see it in the 65mm film gauge version you will be especially impressed.

In the end I enjoyed this version but there is nothing exceptional to see here.

6 Days (2017)

6 Days (2017) is a strange film in that it is a high quality film that premiered at the London Film Festival this year, got OK reviews and has a very impressive cast (Jamie Bell, Martin Shaw, Martin Strong et al), yet for all of that is not getting a cinema release in the UK. It has been sold to Netflix yet it deserves a wider theatrical audience in my view.

The film –which is a UK/New Zealand co-production- focuses on the 6 days in 1980 when the Iranian Embassy in London was taken over by an Iranian Arab group taking 26 hostages including a diplomatic police officer (PC Trevor Lock) and famously ended when the SAS raided the property ending the siege. 6 Days centres on a) the political aspects of negotiation with Willie Whitelaw the then Home Secretary (played by the late Tim Piggott-Smith) insisting that Margret Thatcher’s Government would not negotiate with terrorists, b) the attempts by the Met Police negotiator Max Vernon (Martin Strong) to end the siege peacefully and c) the SAS plans and then attack on the Embassy-forefront in this is LCpl Rusty Firmin (Jamie Bell) who leads from the front.

If you know anything about the 1980 siege you will be pleased by this recreation as it pretty much follows the siege as accurately as any film could with very little fictionalised –always an issue when retelling a true event. The film is very strong on the time, period and fashions (BBC reporter Kate Adie in skirt and high heels and quite a bit of male side burns too) but at its strongest when dealing with the planning and action of the SAS. Jamie Bell in particular is outstanding and has come a long way from his role in Billy Elliott. Martin Strong is as either very good as the Met Police negotiator who feels he has failed to end the siege peacefully, and in one of his last roles before his death Tim Piggott-Smith is very reliable as the Home Secretary.

So, 6 Days is a fine movie that it is well worth searching out – especially if you subscribe to Netflix!

Callan at 50

After the very successful London Film Festival that covered a large portion of October 2017, I caught up with the interesting although ‘hit and miss’ British Film Institute (BFI) season of ‘Who Can You Trust?’. The season has included the usual 1970s conspiracy theory thrillers such as ‘Klute’ and ‘All The Presidents Men’ as well as an interesting group of TV work including ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Danger Man’. My choice was the ‘Callan at 50’ with a rare public screening of an episode from Series 3 (‘suddenly – at home’) made in 1970.

The episode was a change of pace for the Callan series (1970-72) which for those who not familiar with it, starred Edward Woodward as a disillusioned agent (David Callan) working for ‘The Section’ which was a no holds barred part of British Intelligence (MI6/SIS)-essentially an execution cell. Callan is aided by a petty thief simply known as ‘lonely’ (Russell Hunter – who plays him as a Glaswegian cockney). Callan’s real enemies though tend to be internal ones – his boss Hunter and fellow operatives James Cross and Toby Meres.

In the episode to a pretty much full house at the National Film Theatre (NFT), Callan is directed by Hunter (William Squire) to stop a widow of a late Foreign Secretary (Zena Walker) taking part in a documentary series produced by a so called filmmaker who is actually a cover for a foreign agency. The unexpected happens though as Callan falls in love with the widow-which is code for her to be taken out therefore ruining a romance for David Callan.

The writing by Callan creator James Mitchell was first rate and the performances of Woodward, Hunter and Zena Walker were strong enough to get the viewer engaged and be on Callan’s side of the argument throughout.

Afterwards there was an excellent panel introduced by the BFI’s TV guru Dick Fiddy consisting of James Mitchell’s son (Peter), the ‘suddenly- at home’ director and TV/film veteran Piers Haggard and able hosted by the writers of the Callan ‘bible’ (‘The Callan File- the definitive guide’) Robert Fairclough and Mike Kenwood.

There was some initial hesitation by Peter Mitchell about how he saw his father’s creation but he soon settled into his groove ably assisted by some amusing anecdotes by Piers Haggard. It was universally agreed that a lot of the success of the show came down to the central relationship between Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter as they battled the internal politics of ‘The Section’ and trying in vain to progress in life.

Peter Mitchell revealed how he is working with Big Finish Productions to release new Callan material and that is something to look out for. Overall a really enjoyable afternoon spent in the company of Callan and its creators. So much so that I have gone out and brought ‘Callan-This Man Alone’ which is a 2016 documentary of the series…..