Thursday, 30 January 2014

A group of reviews for TheGayUK

I haven't added much to my blog recently, so thought I'd group together here some of my recent reviews for TheGayUK.

The two DVDs that came through my letterbox just after Christmas could not be more different, though both come from our friends over at Matchbox Films.

The first of the two I watched was Having You, written and directed by Sam Hoare. There are some great performances here, from Andrew Buchan as recovering alcoholic Jack, from Philip Davis as his thoroughly nasty and unlikeable father, from Romola Garai, as Jack’s beautiful girlfriend, from the gorgeous Steven Cree as Jack’s business partner and sponsor, and from the ever watchable Anna Friel as Anna, a blast from the past who drops a bombshell on Jack that he finds difficult to come to terms with. 

It’s a gentle, watchable movie, which draws you in, but I confess to finding it somewhat manipulative with an ending that is just a little too pat to be convincing. None the less, worth catching if you have a couple of hours to spare one evening.


Director Beth B brings us Exposed: Beyond Burlesque, an expose of the ‘new’ burlesque scene, which seeks to challenge traditional ideas of body, gender and sexuality. A mixture of interviews, glimpses backstage and filmed performances, we are introduced to an engaging group of individuals, who might also, in other circumstances, be called misfits. According to Mat Fraser, an English performer with phocomelia of both arms due to his mother being prescribed thalidomide during her pregnancy, burlesque is an honest and sometimes brutal art form. It can also be extremely vulgar, which is I suppose the point. There is a lot of naked flesh on show, though very little in the way of titillation. Maybe, to fully experience the power of these acts, one has to be in the audience, but most of the interest really comes from the interviews, and the performers’ often quirky view of life; at its heart a touching little love story between Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz. Truth to tell, it is a little long and could have done with some judicious pruning. I found my mind wandering quite a bit after the first hour.

Matthew Ferdenzi in The Gay Naked Play

In The Gay Naked Play, currently at the Above The Stag Theatre in Vauxhall, Dan (Alexander Hulme) is director of the Integrity Players, a small off off Broadway group of players dedicated to “great art”. The company also consists of his loving (and very pregnant) wife Amanda (Stacy Sobieski) and their friend and leading actor Harold (Lucas Livesey). They have lofty ambitions and a staunch refusal to compromise , but they have one problem. Tiny audiences. And when their sole and major backer, who just happens to be Amanda’s Machiavellian mother Imelda (Ellen Verenieks) withdraws her support, they have an even greater problem. No money. What are they going to do?

Enter Eddie Rossini (Christopher Woodley) and his two cronies, T.Scott (Robert Hannouch) and Edonis (Toby Joyce). Eddie proposes a trashy homoerotic stage version of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” starring porn star Kit Swagger (Matthew Ferdenzi). It’s a sure fire commercial hit, but will the Integrity Players give in to financial pressure and in so doing lose their integrity? I’m not going to give the game away, but I think we can all guess the answer to that one.

Adam Bell’s play is a witty and often hilarious comment on the eternal conundrum of artistic compromise; popularity versus art. The writing itself is often really clever, abounding in quips and one-liners that wouldn’t have been out of place in an episode of Will and Grace

My problem was more with the execution. Director Andrew Beckett has allowed too much of the play to be played on one level, with actors shamelessly mugging and playing too many of their lines out front. The often hilarious antics of T.Scott and Edonis would have benefited from a greater contrast with their boss, Rossini, but he too was encouraged to overplay much of the comedy, which resulted in a lack of contrast. Surely underplaying the role would have made it even funnier. It’s a shame, because the play is a lot of fun, and I feel sure that this cast had it in them to deliver a much more multi-faceted performance.

That said, the audience on opening night enjoyed themselves enormously, and nobody was complaining about Matthew Ferdenzi getting his kit off more than once. Maybe it will settle down a bit in the next few performances.

Free Fall (or Freier Fall, to give it its German title) is an award winning drama from director Stephen Lacant. It has been branded a sort of German Brokeback Mountain, and indeed there are parallels between the two movies, but in some ways Free Fall is more gritty, more rooted in the present day.
Marc would seem to have his life sorted out. He’s doing well in the police force, his girlfriend is having a baby, and they have just moved into a house, next door to Marc’s parents. He is happy (or he thinks he is) and everything is going well for him. He meets Kay at a training camp and the two men become attracted to each other.  Though Marc tries hard to fight his feelings, he later starts a relationship with Kay and subsequently finds his life spiralling out of control. 

I suppose the basic storyline has a certain resemblance to Brokeback Mountain, but there the similarities end. Whereas in Brokeback much of the romance is played out against the magnificent scenery of Wyoming, this relationship is much more claustrophobic, harder to hide as so much of their life is in plain view; not much chance for the men to get away from their colleagues and Marc’s family.

Ultimately the movie is not just about Marc’s coming to terms with his homosexuality, it is more about whether he will allow himself the freedom to walk away from the life that has been set out for him by his parents, his colleagues and his girlfriend. Marc finds it impossible to choose between Bettina and Kay because he can’t decide between the two lives they represent, between comfortable domesticity on the one hand, and freedom, with all the danger and unpredictability that suggests, on the other.

Ultimately that choice is made for him, and though we do not know how life will pan out for Marc, there is a suggestion that he will eventually break free.

With superb performances from the two central actors, Hanno Koffler as Marc and Max Riemelt as Kay, not to mention Katharina Schuttler as Marc’s girlfriend Bettina, it is an engaging and involving movie, beautifully filmed and subtly played out. Lacant directs with a sure hand which is honest and true. Recommended.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

My Best of 2013

Much of the latter part of this year has been taken up with reviews for so I've elected to finish 2013 with a list of my ten best of the year.

A Chorus Line

Sadly, my first choice only managed a run of a few months at the London Palladium, nor is it a show I reviewed myself. The original Broadway production of A Chorus Line opened in 1975 and ran for 6,137 performances, garnering  no less than 12 Tony Awards. It was the longest running musical in Broadway history, until overtaken by Cats in 1997. Here in London it managed a respectable 3 year run, when it opened at the enormous Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1976. The Palladium revival was a loving re-creation of the original, using Michael Bennett’s original choreography (Bennett died in 1987 of AIDS related lymphoma), and it brought back many memories of when I was a young dancer, working in the West End. This revival was every bit as brilliant as the original production and various reasons were offered as to why it was not as huge a success this time round. Apparently it had minority interest (only dancers and people in show business could have any interest in the travails of being a Broadway/West End hoofer); at 90 minutes without an interval, it was too long and attention flagged; it lacked spectacle being set, for the most part, on an empty stage with dancers in practice clothes. But this was all true the first time round, and the show was a huge success back then. Audiences have changed, I suppose. Certainly the second time I attended this revival (on press night) the audience seemed more interested in being seen themselves than watching the show.


I did review my next musical of choice, and am happy to report that it is still running at the Phoenix Theatre, and absolutely demands to be seen. Once was originally a charming indie film, which has been expanded and fleshed out to make a full evening at the theatre. The stage of the Phoenix has been decked out to look like an Irish pub, where members of the audience can enjoy a drink before the show and during the interval. Almost imperceptibly the show starts, while the audience are still making their way to their seats. Not really a musical in any conventional sense, it is original, charming, sublimely poetic, moving, eloquent, and stylish. Don’t miss it.

Of my next three choices, only one is still running in the West End, though the Menier Theatre production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along enjoyed a new lease of life when the production was filmed and shown in cinemas up and down the country. Maybe it will eventually also get a DVD release. It has always been one of my favourite Sondheim shows, though its rather cynical message found little favour among audiences when it was first produced back in 1981, when it ran for 44 previews and only 16 performances. At least Maria Friedman’s debut production for the Menier Theatre did a lot better than that. Given a slightly more upbeat twist by Friedman and via a few deft re-writes by Sondheim, and with some fabulous performances (particularly Jenna Russell as Mary and Damian Humbley as Charlie) this was a sure-fire hit.

Not to be missed was Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Alexi Kayle Campbell’s superb The Pride at the Trafalgar Studos. This superb play that juxtaposes two parallel love stories, one from the 1950s and one from today, deftly reminds us that prejudice is still here, despite the strides we have made in recent years. With fantastic performances all round, this was an extremely memorable night in the theatre.

Still running (though the Apollo has been closed for a while after part of the ceiling collapsed a couple of weeks ago) is the National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Wonderfully inventive, superbly theatrical, this adaptation of Mark Haddon’s popular novel will no doubt run for years. We were fortunate enough to book our tickets a few days before the production won no less than 7 Olivier awards, as it sold out completely after that. I’m sure it’ll be around for quite a while yet though.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Time Rice are back in the West End this year, though not working together this time. Lloyd Webber ‘s new musical Stephen Ward is at present previewing at the Aldwych and Time Rice’s musical version of From Here To Eternity (with music by Stuart Brayson) opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in October. In many ways a reassuringly old fashioned musical (it is not sung through and has a very strong libretto by Bill Oakes), it is a thoroughly enjoyable, brilliantly conceived and executed new show. Let’s hope it has a deservedly long run.

In the cinema, I got the chance to review HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, made for TV, but here given a theatrical release. Stephen Soderbegh’s direction is not always sure footed, and the film drags a little in the middle, which might be less noticeable in the context of a TV movie. He does however get wonderful performances out of his all star cast. Aside from Rob Lowe’s  brilliantly immobile plastic surgeon, there are some great cameos from Dan Ackroyd, Scott Bakula and Debbie Reynolds (remember her?), but the movie succeeds or fails on the work of its two stars, and both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon give faultless performances. Damon is thoroughly believable as the star struck young innocent who gradually descends into drug addiction, and Michael Douglas quite simply gives one of the best performances of his career. It would have been so easy, and so tempting, to overplay the role and come up with a clownish caricature, but Douglas completely avoids that trap, and comes up with a performance of great subtlety, which deservedly won him an Emmy Award.

I didn’t review I Want Your Love which was granted a limited cinema release in the UK. Given the amount of explicit sex in the film, this is hardly surprising. Like Shortbus before it, director Travis Matthews breaks new bounds in how to present sex on the screen. The sex, and there is a lot of it, is real, and we get to see everything; blow jobs, penetration, cum shots, the lot. What makes it different from your bog standard porn movie is that this features real actors, and very good ones at that, pushing the boundaries of what they will do on screen in the context of a role. The sex scenes are handled rather differently than they would be in a porno, and much more sensitively; the connection between the actors, the reactions on their faces rather more important than the sex itself, though the camera doesn’t shy away from that either. There’s not a lot of plot, so it certainly doesn’t keep you on the edge of the seat wondering what will happen next. It’s one of those movies in which people spend a lot of time talking to each other; about their feelings, about their relationships, about work. I found it totally immersing and involving.

How To Survive A Plague - Peter Staley

Though I understand that many will not respond to I Want Your Love as I did, I do recommend unreservedly David France’s masterly documentary How To Survive A Plague. This remarkable movie tells the story of a small group of men and women in America, most of them HIV positive, who battled against government indifference and departmental incompetence, to save their own lives. In so doing they helped save the lives of 6.000,000. Gripping, moving, inspiring, at times emotionally draining, it is a story that demands to be told. Required viewing for every gay man, particularly those under the age of 30.

Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves

And finally to a great piece of television, shown just this last month on BBC4. Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves is an award winning Swedish three parter, based on novelist Jonas Gardell’s trilogy about the impact of AIDS on the gay community in Sweden in the early 1980s. Subtly and sensitively acted, and beautifully filmed, this was great television, the last of its three episodes almost unbearably moving, so much so that I watched it through a film of tears. If you missed its network TV showing, then do not hesitate to buy it on DVD, but make sure you have a box of tissues at the ready.