Well we’re at the end of 2013 and what better time to look back at my 10 best theatre, tv and film moments of the year, some of which I reviewed, some of which I didn’t.
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 Studios. 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 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 theatre 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.
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.
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.