Thursday, 12 July 2012

'Congo' by Michael Crichton

Essentially a 'lost world' story in the traditional sense, this novel by Crichton is a 'modern' (it is more than 30 years old, now) adventure story where an expedition heads into the Congo jungle to ascertain the fate of a previous expedition whilst also pursuing a particular type of diamond needed to further technology. Along the way there are, of course, obstacles to overcome; including a rival expedition party and the more typical jungle fare such as cannibalistic tribes.
Crichton is, perhaps, famous for his use of modern technology throughout his stories and whether this is so I have yet to see as this is, in fact, my first Crichton novel. It shan't be my last.

My only issue with Crichton and his use of scientific references is that he interrupts the plot to spend pages illuminating the reader of scientific studies and quotes (garnered from the books in the reference section at the rear of the book) to hammer home how real the possibilities and reasoning he writes about are or could be but since the book is presented as a dramatisation of recent events (occasionally he will present a quote from a character after the fact) I can understand that he may be writing along the lines of a scientific journal almost.
Crichton also passes over small details only to reference them later leaving me briefly irritated.
That said the primary plot is clear and the writing is paced well with a cast of varied characters, including what must be one of his most famous; Amy the 'talking' gorilla. When he takes the time to describe an environment or situation it becomes quite compelling and engages the imagination to the fullest. There are few events or details which are hastily written and Crichton seems to be a writer who doesn't wish to over-write, despite all his sojourns into referencing, and although the finale is a little contrived compared to the rest of the novel it still smacks of the realistic tone that Crichton was evidently going for.

So, having wanted to read this novel for some years, was it worth the wait? The answer is a most definite 'yes' and I shall be reading more Michael Crichton some time in the future.

On a side-note; I became aware of this book when the film adaptation was released in 1994. I enjoyed the film, which is very different to the book in many aspects, but am far more impressed with the novel. Inevitable? Probably. But I shall still enjoy the film, which is, of course, an utterly different creature, but is not the most faithful, or original, of adaptations.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

'Blood Brothers', King's Theatre, Glasgow, 4/7/12

This new touring edition of a production nearing its 25th anniversary (though the show is nearing 30) still retains the ability to awe and move with the simplest of means. Here is a show that has no spectacular set pieces to boast of but instead relies on human emotion to stir its audience. And stir it does.
Whilst Russell’s score may be thematically repetitive it is still used quite economically and is employed to great effect striking the right balance between the libretto and itself. Russell must be given his dues for crafting a piece that, all these years later, still stands up as something of an oddity in musical theatre yet is able to boast some wonderful writing on all fronts.

This touring production is led by Maureen Nolan and Marti Pellow as ‘Mrs. Johnstone’ and the ‘Narrator’ respectively. Both are seasoned  performers and Pellow plays his role especially dark impressing upon everything the sense of the inevitability of the events that unfold onstage. Nolan is credible though, as the central figure, she is not as emotionally diverse or as powerful as she could have been. And both these performers struggle at times with the Liverpudlian accent.
Far more successful are the juvenile leads. None more so than Sean Jones as ‘Mickey’, who gives a powerhouse performance in perhaps the most difficult role after ‘Mrs. Johnstone’. His performance is the most tear-jerking of the evening and is closely followed by Matthew Collyer as his twin ‘Eddie’, though that role offers less chance to show off one’s acting chops. ‘Linda’ was played to perfection by Kelly-Anne Gower who embodied everything required, and more, of the part. The company ensemble were no less effective.

The direction is straightforward and unfussy and the simple designs allow the writing and performances to resonate beyond the stage and the situations presented seem somewhat appropriate given today’s economic woes. It becomes so very easy to think ‘there, but for the grace of God … ‘

A minor quibble I have about this production, having not seen it in nearly 20 years (and then in London’s West End) is that the audience at times treated it as something akin to ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ with lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ (to the point where I feared audience participation) and with the actors onstage at times acknowledging them whilst at other times the actors performed certain lines very much ‘playing to the crowds’ as if knowingly playing for laughs. I feel the writing is strong enough that this is overkill but the sell-out audience certainly lapped it up.
And speaking of audience – people really should be more considerate: the tickets clearly say that the show began at 7.30pm and yet half the audience still left it until last minute to make their way into the auditorium and some even later than that! The effect being that the curtain didn’t go up until 7.45pm. If people cannot adhere to the announced time then I believe they have given up the right of entry and the doors should be closed and admittance granted only at the interval. And theatres should enforce such policies strictly.

Theatre etiquette is certainly declining these days. Rant over.

Monday, 2 July 2012

'42nd Street', King's Theatre, Glasgow, 30/6/12

The epitome of 'backstage' musicals, '42nd Street' boasts outstanding musical numbers, some stunning choreography and a cast easy on both eye and ear.

Based on the Busby Berkeley film from the 1930s the stage show first appeared in the early 1980s and was revised and revived in the early 2000s on Broadway. It is this revised Broadway production, directed by book co-author Mark Bramble, that now tours the UK. Or, rather, it is an adaptation of the Broadway production that is touring.
Bramble certainly directs, and assuredly so, but the large-scale sets and lavish costumes that graced the Broadway stage have, inevitably, been cut back here, for practical purposes if nothing else; how the King's theatre managed to squeeze so much set into their tiny wing spaces I'll never know but touring theatre, naturally, hasn't the luxury of being able to use large set pieces in only one theatre for X number of months where there is little thought of varying storage space or the cost and logistics of transporting every week.
That said the costumes and simpler sets are still something of a marvel and very easily evoke the glitz and glamour of those early Hollywood musicals. Roger Kirk's costumes could easily be enough at times but supported by the backdrop supplied by the settings created by Douglas W Schmidt the whole stage comes to life like a living Hollywood film of the golden era. David Howe's lighting design also has moments to shine especially throughout certain musical numbers (go see for yourself) and the classic songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin still stand up amongst the best of them.

The direction is clean, often concise and often has nods to those classic musical films and, tied with the musical staging and choreography of Randy Skinner and Graeme Henderson (original dances by Broadway legend Gower Champion), they form a unified whole designed to grab an audience's attention from the very first image of the line of tapping feet to the last fade to black. Tap dancing has never been my favourite style of dance but here it is presented in such a brilliant way and in so many variations that it becomes exciting and fresh.

The cast are nothing short of excellent and Jessica Punch as 'Peggy' and James O'Connell as 'Billy' lead the way with powerful performances showcasing wonderful voices, outstanding dance skills and acting chops to boot. The supporting roles are performed by a cast no less able and Bruce Montague, Carol Ball and Graham Hoadly exemplify the comedic talents of the cast.
The star billing, however, goes to Dave Willetts as the show director 'Julian' and Marti Webb as (has-been) star 'Dorothy'; seasoned stalwarts who show, quite easily, how talented they both still are: Webb shows off her clear vocals several times throughout the evening and it's good to know that some voices remain undamaged by time unlike others I could name. Willetts brings his sometimes tender, sometimes commanding vocals to bear in a domineering role yet both are still able to allow the juvenile cast to shine in a production that revels in the glories of musical comedy.

A last-minute impulse ticket purchase on my behalf this is a production I look forward to seeing again when it makes its way to Edinburgh.
For a night of entertainment and joy you'd be hard pressed to find something better than this.

'Murder On The Nile', Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 28/6/12

This is the first production of the Agatha Christie Theatre Company that I've seen, having missed all previous ventures and it was certainly a popular production with the audience.

Whilst there are some who will say that Christie's plays are dated and belong to another era, and in part they may be true, it is nice, once in a while, to revisit such examples of theatre especially in a production which understands such shortcomings in the modern world.

Director Joe Harmston's steadfast direction, complimented by the elegant, simple paddle steamer design by Simon Scullion, navigates Christie's script with a direct attitude peppered with moments where some of the larger-than-life characters are played tongue-in-cheek. Matthew Bugg's sound design is evocative of the locale ~(complate with some glorious unidentified Arabian music) and Mike Robertson's lighting and the costume's of Brigid Guy further compliment the production.
There are few moments when the dramatic action begins to lag but Harmston never allows them to last for long.

The cast are very able and engaging, dealing with the archaic dialogue with aplomb. Led by a superb Denis Lill as 'Canon Pennefather', who commands attention at all times, and Kate O'Mara as 'Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes' (complete with lower-case fs), who appears to relish her over-the-top posh snob of a character, the cast manaouvere steadily bringing archetypes to life with realitve ease.

Based on one of Christie's most famous books, 'Death on the Nile', it is easy to see why Christie elected to reduce the large number of characters featured and choose to combine characters and to modify the plot in order to streamline for the stage but it does come across as a not quite successful effort when compared to the glorious cinematic presentations that have gone before. That said it is still an enjoyable romp through whodunnit territory which is something I always enjoy.