Friday, 17 December 2004

Mary Poppins, Prince Edward Theatre

This play in a single moment: The first kiss of a father on his 12-year-old daughter's forehead.

Criticising this play is like battering an already wounded squirrel on a tray to death. The fact is that Mary Poppins will be a box-office draw whether it is any good or not, as people love a covers band. This is Mary Poppins given a weird shine-over by the 21st Century, with elements of it still locked in the Victorian era the original books portrayed. This is a world where chimney-sweeps do achingly inevitable Stomp-style breakdowns in the middle of traditional dance routines, beating on chimney-stacks like bongos; where there is a Jamaican woman selling words in a tent; but where jubilation is still felt at a German bank being fucked over and where Southerners are happy because those factories they bought in the North are making them a lot of money.

And yet, Mary Poppins is still interesting because of that disgusting element that musical theatre would die without - enthusiasm. There are a lot of teeth on display here, many of which belong to Gavin Lee, very good as Bert without ever being Dick Van Dyke.

The film hangs heavy over the play. When a scene from the film is replicated, you compare it to the scene from the film. When one of the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, so handily-asterisked in the programme, appears, you note that "Ah, this is a new song, which wasn't in the film. This is probably why it is a little wordier." To reuse a comparison, watching the play is a bit like watching a Beatles covers band who are all playing Gibson Flying V guitars. You're probably having a good time, but it's just different.

And then there's the problem of the plot. In that there isn't one. I just challenged my housemate and her boyfriend to remember the plot of Mary Poppins, and she admitted that she could only remember the first half-hour, and he mumbled "something about the kid's dad, isn't it?" Yes, incidentally, it is. It's about George Banks leaving aside his old ways and discovering the love of his family. In my view, the rest of the narrative amounts to subplots. The show's new book and songs attempt to give George Banks more to do, and David Haig is pretty good (although he isn't as good as the AWESOME David Tomlinson), but the play still seems to happen sort of incidentally to the famous songs and the flying effects. I guess that's quite "musical theatre", innit?

Ah yes, but that's what we go to musicals for! Shit moving about the stage in an impressive way! Here we have an entire house, a nursery, Bert climbing the walls, Mary flying all over the place, some rather natty spangly jackets, and the constant fear of an actor falling from a great height. This is, of course, all amazing fun. Even the fear of an actor falling from a great height. All of this is done with lovely panache, and is quite pleasant to watch. If I say Laura Michelle Kelly is excellent when suspended from the ceiling, I mean it as a compliment. The choreography picked up, as well... Matthew Bourne (for it is he, the slag) taking his time in the first half with some weird little dance bits, before going for it a bit more in the second half, convincingly redoing the sweeps dance without it being too much of a retarded copy of the film. Apart from the Stomp bit. Which was retarded.

Fundamentally, though, people will go to this play, paying shitloads of money, so they can recognise the famous songs, wistfully reminisce about the first time they saw the film, take the kids, and wallow in plebjoy. Therefore, the question is: Can simple nostalgia keep the run of this show alive?

The answer is: Yes.

Tuesday, 30 November 2004

"Earth Angel", Southwark Playhouse

Together, me and Alex form a rather harsh critical team, much like those unfair moments in WWF tag team wrestling where both members of one tag team are allowed in the ring to totally fuck over some guy, whilst the guy's tag partner has to hang out in his corner, holding that little bit of string. The general idea is that he cleans up all of the wrong and bad ideas in the highbrow, tolerant, experimental theatre realm, whilst I relentlessly mock a production for its desperate, clawing attempts at everyman relevance, pointless nudity and blatant avoidance of fundamental theatre constructs.

Okay, that might all be bollocks. Nevertheless, "Earth Angel" had plenty to whet our collective critical whistle.

Ostensibly a meditation on birth, death and - y'know - being a woman and shit, the posters proclaimed "Delving into the depths of a woman subverted". Whilst we were unsure at the start what "a woman subverted" was, we were keen, if a little trepidatious, to delve within those depths. And delve we did.

The plot: In a series of video projected sequences, a blindfolded woman walks backwards to a bed, covered in earth, full of flowers, burying some objects (or uncovering them... my brain gets screwed with backwards film). Meanwhile, on an identical bed, the same woman does some crazy stuff, unblindfolded, before disappearing into the bed, winding up on a video projection naked, where she turns into a germinated seed.

Oh god, what is one supposed to do whilst confronted by experimental theatre? (Other than howl like a wolf and eat the actor?)

Provoking guffaws of derision at lines such as "Dead! All dead! How long is this going to go on for?! Shit!", poncing about with a pillow on her head, playing with a dictaphone, sticking cotton wool up her nose, sneezing out earth, the sole performer Catherine Hoffmann caused both me and Alex to worry about her actual mental health. Certainly, as I suggested to Alex, "Dude has a womb thing", and boy, did we know it. Big points for pulling a GENUINE MEAT HEART out of a pocket on her dress and burying it in the earth, for screeching like a baby, and for the aforementioned bravura nakedness-turning-into-a-germinated-seed performance.

Additional mentions must go to the guy playing guitar to the left of us. Dude got a delay pedal for his birthday, and he used it with aplomb. Cathedrals of delayed guitar formed an altogether predictable ambient wash over the action, enlivened only when Alex tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the guitarist, who was playing his guitar with a tiny plastic fan. Brilliant.

Oh, and there were THREE people in the audience. And two of them were me and Alex. And people say fringe theatre is in trouble, pah!

Thursday, 30 September 2004


Chinese-language films released in this post-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon age have to fight twice as hard as they would have done in the past - not only against a sometimes xenophobic public unused to reading subtitles and the ponderous pace of many Asian films, but also against Ang Lee's film, which towers over all like... well, like Chow Yun Fat up a bamboo pole.

Last year, a new challenger entered the willow-enclosed sand Chinese garden to battle - Kill Bill, which offered grindcore violence and American wit in place of the deeper philosophies usually on display in these sorts of films. It is, then, strange to see a "Quentin Tarantino Presents" credit on the posters for Ying xiong, as it appears to be exactly the sort of source material that Tarantino drew from for Kill Bill - watching Hero is a bit like eating a lovely piece of chicken after you've just had chicken soup. I trust that you can imagine what this is like.

The first thing to mention, then, is the look of this film. Entirely unlike Western film-making, this is created with a painterly eye - the colours are bold and beautiful, slow-motion shots of billowing silks fill the screen, and the scenery and landscapes of China are simply breathtaking. The Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle is just at the top of his game here. Extraordinary.

The story concerns Jet Li's Nameless police constable and his dealings with the three deadly assassins that attempt to kill the first Emperor of China. The story begins with him arriving at the future-Emperor's palace with the three assassins' weapons, and the story of how he won them is told three times in flashback, each with a different inclination and motive as Nameless grows to respect the King he has previously only served.

So far, so staple - people have compared the story to everything from Rashomon to Star Trek II : The Wrath Of Khan - and the themes are epic ones - duty, service, respect, love, honour - but like a good haiku, the real mark of quality is in the way you depict the rice blossom fluttering to the ground. (And that is beautifully, did I mention that?)

The acting is great - Jet Li can kick some ass and is a pleasingly warm enigmatic figure, without the unpleasant mugging of, say, Chow Yun Fat. Particularly easy on the eye is Zhang Ziyi - given not a huge amount to do but look fine and have lovely hair.

Ah yes. The ass kicking.

Used sparingly and surrounded by superb Chinese philosophy, the invention and panache of the fight scenes are up there with the best this genre has to offer. Wei Tung does things Yuen Wo Ping dreams of, the wire-fu is balletic and graceful and used with restraint, and there's this really cool bit with a stick. The only minor gripe I have is the use of CGI, although I contradict myself wildly by saying the bit with the yellow leaves is worth watching out for.

Taken as a whole, Ying xiong is definitely worth a watch if you're in a worthy mood. Miramax have marketed this well, and the cinema - although filled with Islington trendies on an Orange Wednesday - was full. It's also a film well worth seeing in a cinema - it won't be the same on DVD (or on your computer screen, Limewire-fans!)

Thursday, 9 September 2004

They Might Be Giants, London Astoria

"Thank you, London!" yells John Flansburgh, "And thanks even more for not being Leeds!"

They Might Be Giants had a bad gig last night, in Leeds. They Might Be Giants might be giants, but they are happy to see us.

But before they come on, we have the delights of Corn Mo, the support act. A guy comes on, looking like the hairy, balding, 1980s clone of Meatloaf. He is holding an accordian, threateningly. He plugs in his accordian to the PA system with a painful thunk. The drunkards to my right jeer at him. He looks sheepish. He stands up and starts playing his accordian. He sings, in a high voice, something that sounds like an oratorio. He then ups the tempo, sings "It's Lollipop Time with you!" and it turns out he is a one-man '80s hair metal band. He is fucking awesome. Occasionally, he stamps hard on the ground, and a kick-drum pedal hits a cymbal. Occasionally, he stamps on the kick-drum pedal and fuck all happens. This may be the funniest thing I have ever seen.

Corn Mo sings a song about how people mistake him for the actor Gary Busey. A character in the song says, "Weren't you in that film Silver Bullet with Corey Haim?" Corn Mo says "No".

Corn Mo is my new fucking God. His song about his eighth-grade crush which climaxes with the primal howl "I wanna ball you!" has to be heard to be believed. Click here for his website.

And then... They Might Be Giants. The first time I saw TMBG, they were marooned somewhat carelessly on the Barbican stage after a weird collaboration with the writers of McSweeneys. The second half of the show was a regular, balls-to-the-wall TMBG rock show, and I remember being surprised at how much the weedy, geeky songs on record transmogrified into bona-fide rock monsters on stage - John Flansburgh running around like an overexcitable Dr Fox playing exceptionally bad guitar, and John Linnell... okay, John Linnell was still geeky, but it's hard not to be geeky when you're a lead singer behind a keyboard.

This time, TMBG are close. Worryingly close. Flansburgh looms over the crowd, throwing rock shapes. Again, the superb backing band give the songs real live muscle and power pop is eked from songs that are perhaps a little flimsy on record - "Cyclops Rock" particularly benefits from... uh... rock.

The devotion of the TMBG crowd is also eerie. The ambience is not dissimilar to a sixth form gig by local heroes, writ large. Affection levels are high - each stupid chorus, crap keyboard solo, invocation of clapping or stamping of feet, is received in a party mood entirely unlike a Thursday night indie crowd in London. One gets the feeling that Leeds didn't, like, get it.

The experiments are sublime - the specially-penned song about the Astoria includes the line "In the Astor-i-ay / Where the lit-up sign outside reads 'GAY' / Tonight, we have to play a show" - and the big hits go down so well the floor creaks beneath the bouncing to "Birdhouse In Your Soul". And, what's more, they still seem to be enjoying themselves. Bless them.

Tuesday, 3 August 2004

The Salsa Cellar, Downstairs at the King's Head, Crouch End

How troubling that salsa should be held in a cellar. It's like that Mel Gibson film "Ransom"; you are lead into a cellar, but with jaunty Latin music playing instead of pounding industrial.

The classes before the club night are intended to educate any newbies about the steps, holds and turns neccessary to partake in salsa. Being a belligerent youth, I decided not to bother. Classes are for losers.

I attended the night with Hayley, who is my colleague. I say "my colleague", she's my boss.

This was pointed out in the most brutish way by Hayley herself while we were having a conversation with the guy who runs the joint. "This is Tom," she said, "I'm his boss." I attempted to joke about this, but she was deadly serious. "I had it written into his contract," she said, "that he would accompany me to salsa." I cursed the fact that I had not read the small print.

Salsa is a strange dance. All of the songs are the same tempo (160bpm), they're all in a minor key, and this relentlessness makes for a rather grim night. However, the dance is flighty and entertaining, and occasionally the people who know what they are doing make hilarious errors. One guy leant seductively against a wall, attempting to lure his dance partner into some dirty dancing. She buggered off, leaving him looking not a little twattish.

And that Crouch End experience is carried down into the Salsa Cellar... The people are a mix of young Afro-Caribbean guys looking impressive and skillful, and a load of white middle-aged women looking at the young guys. There are also old white guys with faded t-shirts and grown-out hippy hair; greasy ponytails and glumly-accepted sensible adult haircuts. Where the haircuts are sensible, they are matched with a lurid turquoise short-sleeved shirt.

For the newcomer, salsa is quite a bit like ice skating. You know how the first time you attempt to ice skate, there are always people doing fantastically complicated things in the middle of the rink whilst you're clinging gingerly to the side? And perhaps when you're a little better at it, there's only one move you can do - leaving your left leg static on the ice and pushing yourself along with your right foot. That's what salsa feels like to me. Even when you get the hang of it, you need to put in a hell of a lot of practice before you can skate backwards.

As a viewing experience, however, the Salsa Cellar is entertainment indeed. Plus, there might even be a chance that the middle-aged women of Crouch End might take a shine to you, and let you inherit their estate. So to speak.

Thursday, 1 January 2004

The website of Tom Wateracre

About Me

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London, United Kingdom
Writer, Screenwriter. Born in the late Seventies. Likes marzipan.