Friday, 25 May 2018

Workin’ in flickers… The Biograph Girl, Finborough Theatre

For the finale I was in close proximite to Sophie Linder-Lee and, blasting out a triumphal Workin’ in Flickers, she looked straight at me, completely in character and totally in the moment with a look of pure joy in celebrating performance and the legend of The Biograph Girl herself, Miss Mary Pickford. It’s dangerous being in the audience at the Finborough, you just might leap up and join in and, whatever else happens, you won’t fail to be uplifted!

Lillian Gish was in the audience at the Phoenix Theatre when Victor Spinetti’s original production opened in 1980. Silent film fascinates because whilst it is now almost out of human range it is so visibly still with us; giving us a chance to really see how our grand and great-grandparents lived. Cinema was not only a new medium it was also a new artform and from the very beginnings in the 1890s to the birth of bigger business in the 1900s, it struggled for legitimacy against traditional theatre and publishing. There’s been nothing like it since… at least until the world-wide web.

Composer David Heneker was born in 1906 and was old enough to remember the Great War years and the flourishing of the studio system that let to the increasingly commercialisation of film but the truth is that even in the noughties film was big business; it just hadn’t been tamed yet. Heneker is best known for writing Half A Sixpence and he also wrote Expresso Bongo (which I love).  The libretto has been revised for this production by its original co-writer Warner Brown and includes songs cut from the West End premiere production – so, this is a restored edition in silent film terminology…

Back row - Lauren Chinery. Nova Skipp. Emily Langham. Joshua C Jackson. Front row - Matthew Cavendish. Charlie Ryall. Jason Morell. credit Lidia Crisafulli
In some ways Griffith is the tragic hero of The Biograph Girl, with both Mary and Lillian owing him a debt. Gish was certainly always very loyal but even she moved on, always acting on stage and in memorable films such as Night of the Hunter, The Unforgiven (1960) and her last screen appearance in 1987's Whales of August (at 94!), but DW was a Victorian soul bewildered by the post-war World let alone talkies. He did innovate and was certainly responsible for the consolidation of new technique in his ambitious films of which Intolerance more than the undoubtedly-tainted BoaN can be regarded as the definitive statement.

Based on a true story, with more than a few pragmatic liberties for the silent nerd to spot… The Biograph Girl sings us through the heart-warming story of how these mighty talents helped create the motion-picture world we still inhabit from every wall-mounted flat screen to the mini-cinema in our pockets. It’s quite literally A Star is Born as, in the early days, the performers weren’t named and even Gladys Smith/Mary Pickford was initially only known only as The Biograph Girl.

It’s 1912 and we join the Gish family, Momma (Nova Skipp), Dorothy (Lauren Chinery) and Lillian (Emily Langham who has something of Lil's febrility) an itinerant theatrical family who are in New York and intent on seeing their old stage pal Gladys who’s making flickers. They meet a tall stern man, Mr Griffith (Jonathan Leinmuller) who talks in visionary terms of this new art form and tries to convince Lillian that it can be juts as effective in conveying "thought” as the theatre.

Lillian Gish dances with Mack Sennett even though they never met (it doesn't matter, it works!!)
Their friend bounces into the room and it is Gladys no longer but the newly-named Mary who is earning $300 a week churning out one and two reelers for the Biograph Company run by Griffith. His assistant Rose is well played by Charlie Ryall and his money man Epping by Joshua C. Jackson and, for the silent film buff, it’s lovely to see one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, Billy Bitzer (Jason Morell) as part of the story he played a major part in making… who else kept cranking whilst descending over that massive set of Babylon?!

Griffith convinces the Gish’s that there’s worth in films and has a vision to make art features that take on serious subjects including his adaptation of The Clansman which, for him as a Southern Man, was historical fact (at least in this version). He is sincere and, like many a visionary, is driven by his own ways, leaving others to the highway. Rose, Epping and Bitzer keep him on course but he’s possessed.

Lillian becomes his perfect heroine – delicate, pretty but tough as anything; Gish was almost method in her submersion into character and it’s harder to think of any more challenging subject for an actress but Emily Langham does superbly well with a mix of the resolute vulnerability, unbreakable conviction and total honesty that made her subject so precious. Her voice is clear and true especially on Every Lady, Gish’s love song to Griffith’s leadership spirit… if Lilian sang, she would sound like this.

Emily Langham, Charlie Ryall, Jason Morell and Jonathan Leinmuller. credit Lidia Crisafulli
And, if we had historical record of Mary Pickford negotiating contracts with Adolph Zukor (Jason Morell too) then it would probably be very much like Sophie Linder-Lee. She’s the girl with the curls, 19 going on 12 but with a business head the equal of the head of Famous Players Laskey/Paramount and any other man in Hollywood. Pickford it was who drove the creation of United Artists – with Doug, Charlie and DW – and who continued to produce well into the 50’s… 

Linde-Lee catches her spirit and especially her charm; street smart but caring too. It’s a nuanced characterisation of a complex woman and, again, if we could hear Mary sing… she would have Linde-Lee’s ass-kicking exuberance!  I Like to be the Way I am in My Own Front Parlour: of course she does!

The pace is fast and content so high – from Matthew Cavendish excellent Sennett skit – slapstick, and the full-Buster right in front of us! – to the delicious harmonies of Put it in the Tissue Paper, sung with elegant poignance by Cavendish, Linder-Lee and Emily Langham - my favourite song of the night. Jonathan Leinmuller is well cast as the visionary Griffith, a man who cannot update himself and gets left behind by the change and the people he helped make…

Linde-Lee takes centre stage.
I can understand why Lillian Gish cried seeing that debut performance, Mary had died the year before and she was always loyal to “Mr Griffith”  in spite of the pounding he got for Birth and his slow dissolve out of fashion. But… there’s that shot in Intolerance, as Billy Bitzer’s camera descends from on high over a cast of thousands… that’s genius and that’s the movies!

The Biograph Girl plays on at the Finborough until Saturday 9th June and I would get in quick if you want to pick uptickets!! 

IthankyouTheatre Rating: **** Some of the most important figures in cinema brought to life with much vibrancy, some great tunes and enough energy to light that big sign on the hill.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Love, light and peace… A Sockful of Custard, Pleasance Theatre

Spike Milligan single-mindedly liberated our funny bones for a half century or more, he was the missing link between the Crazy Gang and Beyond the Fringe, a soldier blown up so high in the Second World War that he said he never really came down. 

Spike defined a comic sensibility that was as rock ‘n roll as Elvis or as be-bop as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.Why did The Beatles work with George Martin? Well, part of it was down to his having produced records for The Goons and for the lads as so many others from post-War to baby boom. His was a comedy that liberated itself from formula as surely as be-bop and rock shook free from big bands and manufactured pop. It was a very democratic mind-set, anyone could do it, well, anyone if they were funny enough and, in the case of this Lewisham lad, capable of genius-level silly.

Take Spike Milligan out of British comedy and you end up with less Peter Sellers, an unbearably smug Pete and Dud, Monty Python with no dead parrot and Ricky Gervais either still working selling paper or, at best, flogging minor New Romantic hits on the heritage circuit, bottom of the bill below Haircut 100. Spike’s was a major discontinuity in comic style and, together with other equally talented but perhaps not quite so inventive, he helped change the way we laughed for ever.

In the year of his hundredth birthday, Chris Larner and Jeremy Stockwell put their heads very close together, but not so close as to entangle their beards, and devised a cunning play of some 4.5 metres in length to answer the question of the custard, the sock and much-many more.

A Sockful of Custard manages to convey the essence of Spike without the restrictions of a straightforward narrative; it’s controlled playfulness masking the joyously hard graft of its component players.

Jeremy Stockwell
Jeremy Stockwell plays Spike Milligan and, as with his stint as Ken Campbell, shows what an excellent mimic he is… Spike is so specific that you just have to get him right and, opening the show shrouded in a sheet, Stockwell bravely takes on two of Spike’s iconic voices from The Goons. He nails it and the laughter starts to flow down from the cheap seats in the Pleasance’s Stage Space only to be reflected back Spike-style – by the two performers whose improvisations are so adept and sincere.

Interrupting our dreamy beginning Chris Larner, playing himself or someone slightly taller, strides on stage to direct proceedings by laying out cards which will form the basis of the narrative. There are 4.5 metres of instructions and Jeremy wonders if that’s just too long… It’s the two working out their structure and making a feature of the sheer difficulty in conveying Milligan.

They move from themselves to their characters with masterful ease and always direct to audience. That fourth wall is well and truly trampled especially as a glamorous redhead, let’s call her Catherine, is pulled on stage to help fold Spike’s sheet: it’s all part of the warm-hearted chaos Spike revelled in. 

And my better half’s smile as she tried to grab that sheet was so joyously in the moment, exactly what the veteran of 1940-45 would have wanted.

Spike and his Mum!
There was no containing Spike and after what he had seen, he was clearly convinced that laughter was the only way forward. I hadn’t been aware that he’d performed in Oblomov, at the Lyric Theatre and that his improvisations had created a record-breaking phenomenon.

As Spike plays the title character resolved to spend his days in bed, Chris Larner switches to the hapless thesp designated to play alongside him. He’s an insecure pro and looks out to his imaginary director repeating “is he…, is he…, is he…?” over an over with subtle intonations as he tries to second guess what the man in charge is trying to get him to ask and act. We’ve all done it but not perhaps Mr Milligan who grew bored of the script pretty quickly and proceeded to improvise the play to over four year’s of sell-out success, only stopping it when he’d just had enough.

The magnificent Joan Greenwood starred in the play and was initially very concerned but the mood shifted with her husband Andre Morrell declaring 'the man is a genius. He must be a genius—it's the only word for him. He's impossible—but he's a genius!'

That last sentence may appear to sum Spike up and Stockwell and Larner’s play is so disciplined in its in-discipline  - or vice-versa – that it conveys the unpredictability and raw unevenness of the man’s comedy and it is genuinely thrilling to watch.

Stockwell and Larner
Both recount their meetings with Spike and the mark he left; he respected his audience and was committed to kindness. He wished for “love, light and peace …” an echo of his early years in India and the post-war hopes for a continually-improved World. Now, as much as ever, we need to believe  in the prospect of happiness.

So don’t be daft, go and see these two marvellous men and their tribute to Mr Milligan; if you don’t you’ll never find out about the custard and the socks. And you’ll never get to feel that spirit in the moment.

A Sockful of Custard plays on at the Pleasance Theatre until May 26th and then transfers up to Edinburgh Fringe 2018 from 1st to 17th August at the Pleasance Dome.

Tickets available at the box office or online. The Pleasance is an excellent venue too – three stages and lots of bars!

IThankYouTheatre Rating: ***** Funny, warm and thoroughly engaging. These two work their socks off and Spike is back in the room and he hasn't left me yet...

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Waiting for the woman… Grotty, The Bunker

“You’re only free of this if you meet someone special… but that’s unlikely.”

If the purpose of theatre is to enlighten and broaden the mind, then Grotty does just that. It doesn’t quite tighten the ball-gag in your mouth and slap a dog collar round your neck, but it shows you a lonely sub-culture of torment and terror that is heartbreakingly close to home even for a middle-aged male reviewer.

The publicity sells it like it is: “Welcome to the desert. The London lesbian scene. A couple of little sad old basements that drip with sweat and piss…  The women in black… They are not nice girls. But this is not a nice story.” It’s a world of diminishing returns, a sado-masochistic scene that eats itself as the women gradually work their way around, overlapping and gradually “crossing each other out”.

I’ve no idea if this is the case as I’ve known many people who find their equal and engage in more hugging than thrashing and the more extreme forms of penetration. There is a thriving BDSM sub-culture – or so my hairdresser tells me (seriously!) - but I’ve not seen it. She makes it sound like an adventure but for the women in the play it’s a mask for deep physical and emotional hurt.

The darn talented Izzy Tennyson (Courtesy of The Other Richard)
It’s not all punishment and deliberated perversion though, some of the girls are in it for the love but it seems that our main character Rigby (played by the remarkable Izzy Tennyson who also wrote the play) hasn’t found that path and instead is being passed from woman to woman, a 22-year old lost in grief and unable to function emotionally. Tennyson is a quirky, very physical performer, often bent over, face contorted as she forces out her lines… reaching out desperate hands as her character longs to just touch someone with words that just can’t carry enough meaning.

At the start of the play she is seeing Marian Toad (Rebekah Hinds) who is nice up to a point but keeps the cruellest of company in the form of Natty (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) who through jealousy or sheer spite, constantly rides Rigby; “banter, the evolution of playground bullying…”

Toad dumps her by text, the latest blow to Rigby’s almost non-existent self-esteem but at least she has a genuine pal, Josie (Anita-Joy too) to build her up so that she can be demolished all over again.

Next in line is a severe tattoo artiste, Fern charmingly called The Witch (Grace Chilton) a dominatrix in “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather…” (thanks Lou) who wants Rigby to be her dog (thanks Iggy) offering her more and more outlandish sex toys under the guise of a joke but all the while looking to take her pleasure in more extreme ways.

Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson and Anita-Joy UwaJeh
The Witch once dated The Toad and Rigby feels almost like a conduit between the two, caught in between their sexual pride… there's a battle going on and she's on the front lines.

By now we’re wondering just why this girl is putting herself through so much misery… she only wants these women to show her affection and to hold her tight and yet must endure Fern’s almost poetic description of the luxury of punishment. Then, as Rigby says; “it’s actually a lot easier being an experience rather than a person…”

There’s some light relief as Rigby takes way too much cocaine - waaay, too much - and heads off to a party. She strikes out with one cropped-haired girl and shouts after her: “let me know when your sexuality catches up with your haircut!” … that’s one to cut and keep for later!

She also meets a quietly-spoken straight girl called Elliot (Grace Chilton again) who is not perhaps as straight as she thought… Yet somehow, Rigby contrives to let her slip through her fingers… for the moment. She needs validation “… everything would be so much better if I only had more followers on Twitter...” and things would clearly be better if she went for the girl in the bush rather than the one with whip in hand. But there’s another woman, one who has left a deeper impression on Rigby than anyone else…
Grace Chilton and Izzy Tennyson (Courtesy of The Other Richard)
Skilfully directed by Hannah Hauer-King, who uses the four sides of The Bunker’s stage space to move her performers around, Grotty is indeed grubby but not without hope and lighter moments. This is a completely alien world and yet the feelings and experiences within it are ones we all understand.

Izzy Tennyson (who also wrote Brute, Runts, Career Boy) has crafted a memorable character and one we really root for. Rigby is indeed the "relatable" lesbian that director and playwright have noted is usually absent on stage and screen. That she exists in such ostensibly extreme cultural circumstances is a triumph of the production and by the end we just want her to be happy.

There’s super support especially from Grace Chilton who’s “Witch” has her own demons whilst she is transformed as Elliot.  Anita-Joy Uwajeh takes the biscuits with three roles and Rebekah Hinds’ Scouse accent is 9/10 as the brassy Kate, Rigby’s straight-mate.

Tip of the hat also to Clare Gallop but I can’t tell you why… you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Grotty is on at The Bunker until 26th May and tickets are available from the BoxOffice and online. It's not easy but it is very much worth your attention and time.

IThankYou Theatre Rating **** You won't forget these characters in a hurry. Be kind out there.