Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Stars in Our Eyes review


Sadlers Wells, 2pm, 21 April 2014

Last week, I was proud to see my niece Sian has got what it takes to be a professional dancer.

Sian (second from left), as usual making it all look terribly easy.
(Image: Silhouette Stage School)


On Easter Monday I went along to Sadlers Wells theatre to support my teenage niece Sian Websdale in her first dance performance on a London stage. She's a member of the Silhouette Stage School in Lowestoft, founded by Helen Smith, who teaches her pupils Ballet, Tap, Modern, Jazz, Singing and Drama. Sian and the rest of Silhouette's hard work had brought her and the rest of Silhouette to 'The Stars in their Eyes' Easter gala, run by the company Mardi Gras Dance, to showcase the 'leading ladies and leading men of the not too distant future.'

I've seen Sian dance before – though not as often as I'd like – and I was delighted to see how much she's developed. I'm sure I'm a bit old school, but for me dancing isn't just a case knowing the steps and moving in time with everybody else. The best dancers I've seen gracefully express themselves with their whole bodies, from their facial expressions to the way they stand and pause before another dance move. Ms Websdale showed herself to be a natural in understanding this approach, looking composed, professional and, I'm delighted to say, as if she belonged on stage. It's no wonder she's already won a scholarship to another dance school in Ipswich.

OK, I might be a little bit biased, but it seemed to me that Silhouette – as well as Time Step and Greenhall, two other dance schools whose presentations struck me as particularly good – take the following approach: a) begin by teaching the principles of ballet. Once they've got that (and it shows), the pupils have the fundamental skills to diversify into more modern styles; b) when choreographing a dance routine, sit where the audience are going to be and make sure the whole thing works as a unified spectacle for the people who are going to watch it.

Silhouette's first routine, to the song 'Only in My Heart' (I think that's the right title), used every single one of the dancers, from the youngest at 6 years-old up to Sian's age, in an integrated series of notably classical moves and tableaux. Equally good was their routine to Bjork's 'It's Oh So Quiet', a more upbeat, humorous and equally well put together performance. The same was true of Time Step's take on the soundtrack to the recent movie of The Great Gatsby and Greenhall's interpretation of the Peter Pan story.

The finale, with all the dance schools performing together.
(Image: Mardi Gras Dance)
The weaker routines I saw suffered from a lack of coherence and a tendency to concentrate on a few of the obviously more gifted dancers, while the rest had little to do except bounce from foot to foot, yelp of fill in with a quick back flip. It might be the old fogey in me, but these weaknesses were almost exclusively confined to the troupes who taught modern - and by modern I mean 'urban' - dance styles. 'Seven Nation Army' might be the bassiest indie rock song ever, but on this showing it doesn't lend itself that well to being interpreted through dance.

At the end of the gala, all the dance schools crammed on stage to perform to 'Best Night of Our Lives' (written by Cliff Richard's bass player and sung by Cheryl Baker, no less). If not the best, for all of them, including Sian, it was a night they'll remember all their lives, as will all the proud parents, friends and relations in the audience. It's a helluva thing performing on a London stage, and just to be able to get up there and do it at such a young age, with such obvious joy and enthusiasm, is a landmark moment in anyone's life.

I never got the chance to congratulate Sian afterwards as I lost her in the general, agitated crush afterwards to get on the Lowestoft bus and away - more than understandable, as she'd arrived in London at 9 o'clock. She's at that age, I think, where she doesn't do conspicuous displays of affection from old (and obviously boring) adults, so I'll conclude by saying what I would have said to her then:

Really well done, Sian. Your uncle, Rachel – hell, everyone! – is so very proud of you.

For more information on Mardi Gras Dance:

Saturday, 19 April 2014

REV. review


, 9pm, April 2014

Rev. is one British television's best recent comedies, so this Easter join me in celebrating TV's most lovable and morally confused vicar.

Tom Hollander: putting the 'sus' back into Jesus. (Image: BBC)

I love Rev. Rev. is brilliant. It's promoted as a 'TV comedy', but like all the best series in that category, it's far more than that; like Till Death Us Do Part, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Outnumbered it incorporates social comment, a reflection on the human condition and a memorable ensemble cast of characters and performers. It's most appealing factor, though, is a decent man trying to see the good in everything, but who also has to battle with life's frustrations and his own failings. That's something we can all relate to.

Adam Smallbone, 'from Suffolk', is indeed small of bone and often seems dwarfed by the problems he confronts as the vicar of Saint Saviours in the Marshes church in Hackney (in reality Saint Leonard's in Shoreditch, just around the corner from where I used to work. As a typical lazy agnostic, I never even knew the church was there). Looking like a mildly confused Thunderbird pilot and played subtly and appealingly by Tom Hollander, who co-created the series with James Wood, Adam is the central figure in an 'authentic picture of what it's like to be a frontline urban vicar'.

Most sitcom writers would kill for a line-up like this.
(Image: BBC)

Rev's certainly more topical than The Vicar of Dibley, which, a female minister aside, could have been set any time in the last forty years. Social issues have ranged from a sudden increase in Saint Saviour's congregation because parishioners want to get their children into a good church school – hence the brilliant catchphrase 'on your knees, avoid the fees' – to Adam grappling with whether or not to conduct a gay marriage as his Bishop doesn't approve of same sex unions. Adam himself is no spotless example of virtue and that adds hugely to the gentle humour and drama. He drinks, he smokes, swears, fancies the local headmistress Ellie (even though he's in a happy marriage) and is prone to black bouts of doubt in his Faith. Hollander's performance is all the more effective as he plays it straight.

This attitude extends to the ensemble cast. It would have been easy to go for a gallery of heightened grotesques like Dibley's back-up characters, but Rev.'s are touched by the kind of believable comic surrealism you find in everyday life. This is because so much of the series' content is drawn from interviews with real church ministers. For instance, Simon McBurney's Archdeacon Robert, coming across as a sly cross between Norman Tebbit and Peter Cushing, continually needles Adam over the (small) size of his congregation and lack of financial resources. The show's production team worried that the relentlessly networking and iPhone obsessed Robert would be too over the top, but after the first series went out, the producers met several vicars who insisted that 'the Bishop's attack dog' had obviously been based on their own Archdeacon.

Mick. Enough said.
(Image: BBC)
All the main characters are memorable. The ubiquitous Olivia Colman, as Adam's wife Alex (frankly, I'm surprised she's not reading the news, as she's in nearly everything else on television) is sweet, funny, sexy and keeps going through her faith in Adam's innate goodness, even though that faith takes a battering as the series progresses. Miles Jupp is a joy to watch as the repressed Lay Reader Nigel, jealous of Adam's position and owner of a phantom girlfriend; Steve Evets is perfectly cast as the violent Mancunian down-and-out drinker Colin who is, ironically, the most faithful member of Saint Saviours' congregation; Ellen Thomas clearly relishes her role as the 'cassock chaser' Adoha with an inappropriate interest in Adam's baby, while an unrecognisable Jimmy Akningbola is a revelation as 'Mick'. A strange individual, he turns up at the vicarage door asking for everything from the fare to Southend, to money for giving back Adam's new daughter after he absent-mindedly leaves her outside the local shop in her pushchair.

All of that might might not sound too believable, but, from my own experience of the bizarre situations you can find yourself in after a few ales, not to mention the hair-raising misadventures of my lodger, Rev. completely nails the absurdities of twenty-first century city life.

Archdeacon Robert:Tony
Soprano meets the
Archbishop of Canterbury.
(Image: BBC)
Some people have commented that in its third - and apparently last - series, with Saint Saviours on the verge of bankruptcy and Adam and Alex's marriage under more strain than ever, Rev. has taken a darker path. I disagree: it's just the way things are. Right from the first episode, it was made clear that the Church of England was an institution in decline and being in a relationship with a vicar wasn't easy as he's always on call, so the scenario in the third year feels like a logical conclusion.

That things had clearly changed gear this year could be seen in the episode where Adam joined forces with the local mosque to fund raise for Saint Saviours. It was refreshing to see the Muslim community portrayed as pro-active and open-minded, and there was a bitter-sweet topicality in the Muslims raising more money than the virtually non-existent Christian support, a neat metaphor for the competing religions. Last Monday, though, Rev. approached greatness. George (Nick Sidi) joined the congregation and, as a high flying ex-corporate accountant, potentially offered Adam a way out of the church's financial difficulties. The problem was George was a sex offender; not a paedophile, but a viewer of an appalling '30,000' images of child pornography. However, he'd been to prison, knew what he'd done was wrong and was now in therapy.

Colin: Christianity meets
casual violence. (Image: BBC)
It was compelling the way Rev. handled this subject so maturely and intelligently. Because of highly subtle writing and performing, you weren't sure if Adam was overcoming his natural disgust towards George because of his calling as a vicar or out of self-interest, the reason he didn't tell the church council of Nigel, Colin and Adoha about George's past. Once it was revealed, it was inevitable that the vicar's proposal that George should be appointed as church treasurer would be outvoted, but the irony was that not only were these so-called Christians so unforgiving, but that Adoha, Colin and Nigel are all flawed and dysfunctional in their own ways. The last Adam saw of George was him being chased off the church grounds sporting a black eye courtesy of Colin who, tellingly, thought all 'paedos' were 'sweaty and wore track suits'; for his part, George was glad he'd met someone as apparently non-judgmental as Adam. In art as in life there are no easy answers, but what was especially impressive was that an incredibly contentious issue was handled with sensitivity and realism in what is supposed to be a sitcom. Rev. is clearly not cut from the same cloth as Mrs Brown's Boys.

Third time around, Adam and Alex's marriage is even more acutely bitter-sweet. In trouble for a snog and fondle with Ellie, Adam is thrown out of the vicarage, the cue for some great sitcom moments of him sharing digs with Nigel and Colin. The Smallbone's split, though, remains in your mind due to the way Alex defines her hurt in such an earthily poetic way: 'It's not about the willys and the tits, it's about the hearts, and you've broken mine.'

Nigel: not a man to find
yourself alone with.

(Image: BBC)
As you can see, I think Rev. is something to cherish. Yes, it's a bit of a shame if this series is the last, but, like Fawlty Towers and Spaced, it's quitting while it's ahead and ensuring its reputation will endure. Give yourself a treat and buy the DVDs. The menu on the first series is so funny it'll make you laugh out loud before you even get to the first episode.

And watch out for the nun-shaped salt and pepper shakers and recurring dog poo. Priceless.

Created by: Tom Hollander and James Wood. Director: Peter Cattaneo. Cast: Reverend Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander), Alex Smallbone (Olivia Colman), Archdeacon Robert (Simon McBurney), Nigel McCall (Miles Jupp), Colin Lambert (Steve Evets), Adoha Onyeka (Ellen Thomas), Ellie Pattman (Lucy Liemann), Mick (Jimmy Akingbola)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014



The IMAX, 7pm, 7 April 2014

Derek Jarman's last production is, like the man himself, intense, eclectic and sardonic.

(Image: BFI)

Guests: Keith Collins from the Jarman estate; James McKay - producer; Simon Fisher-Turmer - composer; William Fowler, curator of the BFI Jarman season and Sam Ashby from Little Joe magazine, who assisted in staging it.

My first trip to the IMAX revealed a place like no other I'd been to before. A steep bank of seats in front of a huge, curved screen - the 'biggest screen in Britain,' apparently - has the feel of a high-tech gladiatorial amphitheatre rather than a cinema. The surreal feel of the place is heightened by the random pattern of small lights on the back wall, twinkling like constellations in the night sky. Projected on the screen before the performance was a repeatedly circling pattern of lights, reminding me of a similar effect in the sci-fi puppet series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. A strange place, to be sure, that seemed appropriate for a sold out audience to sit and look at a blank, blue screen for 73 minutes. 

'Blue - an open door to soul.'

Blue is Derek Jarman's last production, made when he was dying from AIDS and taking experimental medication. I hesitate to say 'film', because the definition of 'film' in the dictionary is a 'sequence of images projected on a screen, creating the illusion of movement.' There are no images and no movement here, bar the occasional flicker of light and scratch on the film which indicates that it's actually running through the projector. Rather, the visual aspect of Blue creates a sombre, intense mood as you literally look deep into the blue and concentrate on a succession of monologues.

'I have no friends now who are not dead or dying.'

The way I interpreted Blue was that, with Jarman having lost his sight, I was inside his personal mindset as he reflected on his creative and personal life. The lack of imagery heightens your awareness of sound as the artist's remaining connection to the outside world, as his thoughts move, sometimes randomly, through brilliantly realised aural landscapes. One moment Jarman is listening to the washing machine and the fridge defrosting, or the soothing sound of waves on the beach at his coastal home, the next he's looking inwards, imagining the Garden of Eden or the exotic travels of Marco Polo. On another occasion, a pounding disco beat celebrates the artist's memories of gay club culture as a voice rants incoherently, 'I am a not gay!' The most melancholy colour in the spectrum, here blue covers joy, introspection, theology, history, sex and guilt as, by this point in his life, everything in Jarman's head was coloured by it.

'The further one goes, the less one knows.'

(Image: BFI)
The readings, courtesy of John Quentin, Jarman himself and (briefly) Tilda Swinton, are spellbinding. Particularly worthy of praise, though, is regular Jarman colleague Nigel Terry, who has one of those voices you'd happily listen to if read out a shopping list (random thought: why was this man never cast as Dr Who?) His reading of a very different kind of list, namely a diary entry about the many, truly horrible side-effects of the drugs Jarman was taking, is tempered by the artist's distinctively sardonic humour and Terry brings it to life deliciously: 'I can just see me travelling to Berlin with a fridge under my arm' he says, acidly, at one point. A word, too, for the remarkably atmospheric soundtrack by Simon Fisher-Turner, realised with the help of such notable left-field musicians as Brain Eno, Vini Reilly, Kate St John and Miranda Sex Garden.

'Buddha instructs me to walk away from illness. But he's not attached to a drip.'

Blue ends with an ominous sound increasing in volume and cuts to black, a fairly obvious aural and visual metaphor for death. As a man knocking on the door of 50, I was thinking about Jarman's mixture of philosophical acceptance, sadness and gallows humour, as the final curtain swept towards him, for days afterwards. One things that burns through Blue, even when he's at his worst, is Jarman's fierce intelligence and vivid imagination; as he put it, 'My mind as bright as a button, my body falling apart.' It's a bitter-sweet, brave statement typical of the man's life and work. With more years behind me now than lie ahead, I'd like to think I can make the most of each day to the extent Jarman obviously did.

'Teeth chattering February, cold as death, twitches at the bed sheets.'

(Image: BFI)
I'd started my mini crash course in Jarman half expecting to have my ill-informed prejudices about his art confirmed: incomprehensible, too clever by half and pretentious, particularly Blue. The truth is I've found Jarman accessible, life-affirming and, above all, unexpectedly funny. As someone who's severely lacking in knowledge of British avante garde artists - but who's got an open mind - I can recommend him as a fascinating place to begin your education. 

'Treat my illness like the dodgems - music, bright lights!'

Before the screening, several people came in with tubs of popcorn, proceeding to munch their way through a deeply personal and sometimes traumatic memoir. Somehow, I know Mr Jarman would have enjoyed the peculiarly English absurdity of that.