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Postcard from London – January 2013 – A quartet of Sir Tom Courtenay

Former RADA boy, Sir Tom Courtenay, took to the stage at the small 150-seater RADA Screen cinema for a Q&A after a screening of Quartet.

Sir Tom appears not to like answering questions about himself. Then, he doesn’t appear to like answering questions about any one else in the Quartet cast either. But he does seem to like talking about Dustin Hoffman, Quartet’s director, and some of the other luminary actors he has appeared with over the years – Sir Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, Michael Williams – and some of his early mentors at RADA.

There are four sides to this confounding and complex actor.

1. Impersonator par excellence

During the course of the chat, he manages to bring to life on stage the spirits of Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Alec Guinness, Michael Williams and Dustin Hoffman.

A chance question about method acting raised a hilarious story about Dustin Hoffman dealing with Sir Larry on the set of Marathon Man. According to Hoffman, director John Schlesinger was unsure of how to approach ‘the world’s greatest living actor’ to tell him to tone down his performance a notch. Hoffman stepped in to coerce Sir Larry with some fleet of foot flattery which had the desired effect.

You feel that if someone could structure a one-man show around the characters Courtenay has met and worked with across the years, it would be a warm and funny way to spend a couple of hours. Highly entertaining and enlightening. But, you get the feeling that Courtenay would never allow it.

When advising the young Tom on how to survive the humiliation of working with actors who may be more popular and successful but who you think is not up to your standard, you feel that Sir Tom would heed the sage words of Sir Alec who said: ‘One learns to keep one’s trap shut!’

2. Grumpy old luvvie

When asked by a young RADA student what advice he has for young actors starting out: ‘Think again. Really.’ He spoke about the gaps in between jobs and then the disappointment when a pet project falls flat – as his one-man show did in New York. He obviously has not forgiven the Americans for not ‘getting’ his show.

3. Bright young brat

While Courtenay is an old RADA boy, he seemed highly uncomfortable with the whole episode of being back at his old school, and the nearby College where he started out, enrolling only to be near to RADA anyway and spent all his time at the Drama Society keeping a check on the competition in RADA’s halls before being accepted himself a few years later. He said he’d spent five years all told at both educational establishments. And he didn’t seem to enthuse over much learning he’d done there – most of the stage techniques fell by the wayside as the tide turned and parts ‘for Northern boys like me’ started turning up in films.

His lack of similar success to contemporaries like Finney, Bates and Caine is said to be of his own choosing. Instead of tackling London’s West End, Courtenay went to Manchester and worked in small theatres like the Royal Exchange. He never courted Hollywood either.

While he feels guilty at his success, he envies those who have taken the Hollywood parts and made a success of it – something he tried but didn’t like. ‘I couldn’t get on in LA,’ he said, ‘You can’t walk there. You go for a walk, you get arrested.’ But then he revealed the envy when talking about a part he’d recently turned down. ‘I just didn’t think the part was real enough. Someone else took it. I think they were nominated for an Academy Award. Ha! I don’t know why I’m laughing.’

And, like most actors, with his excess of self-confessed arrogance comes a good helping of insecurity. He still feels like he has not achieved success as an actor. A young girl asked him if there was a performance where he feels he has achieved that success. He said it was on stage in ‘Moscow Stations’ as the drunken Venichka Yerofeev en route to Moscow. In that character’s despair Courtenay said he found the truth.

And getting to the truth seems to be the key to his idea of successful acting. He felt he didn’t do it in his early film roles, including Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I can only shake my head incredulously. Perhaps Sir Tom should let his audience, or his directors, decide when those moments have been reached. I’m sure we could sit down with Dustin Hoffman and agree on several moments in Quartet alone.

4. Artist ready to retire

Someone asks a sensible question about the renewed popularity of films featuring older actors and whether he thinks this is an optimistic trend. He flinches at the mention of the Marigold Hotel saying ‘I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel it was real.’ And, ‘well, it’s not up to me to say really. I hope so, I’d like to be optimistic.’ Nevertheless, he tried to explain the recent trend for stories about older characters. ‘When I finished drama school and was looking for work, all the Northern and working class writers were coming up and the same for the actors. Now all the writers are older, that is what they are writing about. That’s just what happens.’

An audience member commented that Pauline Collins character was her favourite and the only one who addressed the realities of growing old. Tom was dumbfounded: ‘Well, what do you want me to say? She is very good. It was my idea to cast her in that role.’

He enjoyed talking about the process of making the movie. ‘When I was younger I used to hate all the sitting around on a film set. I thought it was a waste of time. Now it’s my favourite part.’

He was on much more comfortable ground talking about the director, Dustin Hoffman. ‘Dustin is the real hero of the piece. He made it happen.’ And his Hoffman impersonation is superb, capturing the energy of the man and his ‘pocket dynamo’ personality. How did Hoffman deal with the many real musicians and singers who are extras in the cast?

Courtenay holds his arms up at right angles and makes a screen that frames his head and neck. ‘Dustin said to them: See this – this is all there is. Be still and say the words.’ Great screen acting advice for those of a dramatic persuasion who have never acted on screen before.

 ‘Can we finish?’ he squirms signalling his wish. And so, the session ends.

Cheers for now, Beth



Postcard from London – August 2011 – The vitals of revivals

My hairdresser on Dean Street is a star establishment – this week they moved my appointment so I could squeeze in a sneaky 5.30pm performance of Betrayal at the Comedy Theatre. And this is not the only classic revival taking place – a short walk around the corner at the Haymarket you can see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Stoppard (which I did, recently).  Directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, this 1966 black comedy is starting to show signs of age. Perhaps we’ve seen too many imitations and this surreal style of comedy has dated. Chris Andrew Mellon, who stepped in to fill the boots of Tim Curry as The Player, is the standout, maximising his short time on stage. It’s an excellent and enjoyable production, but, like the play-within-a-play setting, something is amiss. We are not supposed to distinguish between R and G– they mix up their own names in fact – but it starts to feel strained when the performance tones of Jamie Parker and Samuel Barnett sound the same as well.  I love these two former History Boys; they are quite something. The potential is clear, but perhaps their relative inexperience leaves them a little lost and unsure. It’s as if Stoppard hands them ice-skates, but then places them in a snow drift on a very thin rollercoaster frame – they struggle to stay on track. The repetitions of phrases and words that make Betrayal so strong seem shaky and uncertain here.

And so – to Betrayal. Pinter’s 1978 piece has lost none of its power. If Stoppard left his actors on skates, Pinter gives his performers a solid safety seat in which to speed to their confrontations with betrayals of trust, friendship and self. Pinter’s words and gaps provide a stable tracking, allowing his actors to shine – provided they know where to tweak the nuts and bolts and add a squeak of oil. Director, Ian Rickson, must be very happy indeed with his cast. Kristin Scott Thomas is as pitch-perfect as finely cut crystal – cool but sympathetic as the woman surrounded by men, but in need of love. Ben Miles provides the punch of the archetypal Pinter alpha-male, and Douglas Henshall is as warm as a whisky chaser embodying everyone’s ‘best man’ – caught as much in mateship as in love.  

While Stoppard has us hovering around the fringes of existentialism, Pinter hones right in on the heart – reasons to revisit the genius of both writers. You have until the end of August – and you could see both plays the same afternoon, provided you don’t have a clandestine meeting or hairdressing appointment.  Right! I’m off, and, having dealt with that retro-revival, I think I should ask for a brand new do. What do you think?

Cheers for now, Beth


Postcard from London – Woody Sez, March 2011

Woody Sez: the words, music and spirit of Woody Guthrie – An ensemble cast of American roots music multi-instrumentalists prove that an unabiding passion for your subject matter can elevate a biographical piece to inspiring theatre. This is not an ordinary stringing together of songs, Mama-Mia-style, to tell a story. This production uses nearly 30 of Guthrie’s songs to bring his story to life and explain the foundations of his underlying themes and commitment to human rights. The show also uses Guthrie’s own words from radio broadcasts and his articles for The People’s World to get across his humour and intelligence.

The New-York-based Paul Lucas Productions present the show with the Melting Pot Theatre Company, a professional, not-for-profit theatre group that delves deep into American history and the events that shaped the nation.  I can only guess that their current tour is a result of a successful UK debut at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007.

This is an understatedly talented ensemble cast, but special mention must go to David Lutken, an actor and musician whose connection to Woody goes back 20 years with Woody Guthrie Publications and history lessons for school children in the US. He takes up the challenge of narrating Woody’s story as well as bringing the man himself to life. He imparts the music and the tragic life of the man without over egging the performance. His sturdy back-up team were in fine voice, tackling fiddle, guitar, banjo, double bass and spoons to bring the songs to life.

The troupe received a standing ovation, not just for their joyful musical performance, but partly in thanks for honouring the subject matter and illuminating their passion for Guthrie and telling his tale in such a warm way.

Cheers for now, Beth 

Postcard from London – Jersey Boys – Oh what a night! March 2011

Jersey Boys: the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

It seems like Jersey Boys has been playing at the Prince Edward Theatre for years. I’ve walked past it just about every other week while taking the shortcut through from Denmark Street to Bar Italia on Frith Street or my hairdresser’s on Dean Street – the songs of Franki and the boys pumping out onto Old Compton Street to compete with the surrounding buzz, the ticket touts trying to convince the passing tourist trade to take their chance and see the show.

So, why have I resisted this show for so long? Well, to start with, who knows anything about the Four Seasons? You’d recognize Franki Valli but you could be sitting beside one of the Four Seasons and not know it. Then, the price of a hit show – even the cheap seats ain’t that cheap, if ya know what I mean. And when you visit the show’s website, it is overloaded with promotional videos, phone apps, competitions and special offers: it’s a commercial cacophony, not unlike the mix of Four Seasons songs which, although great, always remind me of 1970s slumber parties when my mates and I would be stuck listening to the local radio for sustenance.   

But I have to admit, once you actually commit to the show, these niggling weaknesses all turn into strengths. It’s great that you don’t know a thing about the band’s story; that holds your interest in a straightforward narration of the chain of events. The art deco glamour and glitz of the wonderfully opulent theatre make you feel like you’ve invested good money in an extravagant treat; just the remedy we need in these boring and depressing times of austerity. And the commercial nature of the songs is what makes the show toe-tappingly infectious, especially when performed by a live band.

And what a band! I thought the cast of The Buddy Holly Story were talented. This cast gives them a run for their money – and then some. I defy even the inclusion of the pop star cred of Jon Lee to top the cast I saw – notably Ryan Molloy as Franki, Matthew Wycliffe as Bob Gaudio, Jon Boydon as Tommy De Vito and Eugene McCoy as Nick Massi. These guys are so talented I didn’t even realise they were all from the UK and NOT from New Jersey.

So, lessons learned: sometimes the hype is there for a reason, and sometimes you shouldn’t tar ALL 1970s hits with the same brush – ya know what I mean?

Cheers for now, Beth 

Postcard from London – Robert Lindsay shines as heartthrob Onassis, January 2011

One of my Christmas stocking fillers one year was a book called Heartthrobs. Inexplicably, positioned after Paul Newman was Aristotle Onassis. I quickly flipped over to Pablo Picasso. But what a Hollywood obsessed girl doesn’t understand about the allure of power and money, the Woman’s Day knows only too well. And what the play Onassis does very well is hint at the dangers of that allure.

Just in case you still miss the point, a Greek chorus – Onassis’s entourage of minders, accountants, drivers, pilots, cooks and nannies – is there to remind you with their Greek songs and myths, along with a stunningly simple stage design featuring a surround of glittering water with a back projection of crashing waves. And we all know what happens to sailors who follow the sound of the Siren’s songs.

Robert Lindsay certainly has the on-stage charm to reignite Onassis as a heartthrob. Having seen an early live taping of the My Family sitcom, I can say that Lindsay is a perfectionist. Retake after retake, his fellow performers would have to maintain consistency while Lindsay built up the nuances, the gags, the’ ticks’ that would make the final take’ tock’. As Onassis, he balances a complex and mainly dislikeable character by using humour and charisma to sweeten the undertone of violence. He meticulously positions his Aristotle as a ‘classic’ – somewhere along the longitude of ‘classic Greek clown’ and the latitude of ‘classic wife beater’. He uses the pool of water on stage like Pontius Pilate, cleansing himself of his sins. And it does hold the audience’s intrigue, knowing as the play unfolds, that he is certain to crash on the waves.

Martin Sherman’s play allows us the frivolous fun of playing voyeur to the famous affairs with Maria Callas and Jackie Kennedy. But then he uses Onassis’s circling shark to draw us into a very dark world with the allegations that payments Onassis made may have contributed to financing the assassination of Robert Kennedy, a man he detested. Christina Onassis is conspicuous by her absence in the story, possibly because it is said that she commissioned the book Nemesis by Peter Evans which Sherman’s play is based on, after coming across evidence of her father’s possible connection to Kennedy’s death.

The women in this play are but minor roles. Lydia Leonard as Jackie O and Anna Francolini as Maria Callas both rise to the challenge of bringing these two icons to life, Francolini relishing Callas’s operatics more than Leonard’s Jackie O, who needed more help from  the costume designer to fill the glamorous shoes. But perhaps this is the point – no one can live up to that amount of glamour and fame.

After he marries Jackie, it becomes obvious that, like Icarus, Onassis has flown too close to the sun, ironic since he knew and loved his Greek myths. Within a few years, Onassis, his son, his ex-wife and his lover, Maria Callas are all dead. And the Kennedys – well, we all know what happens to them. Whatever else you can accuse him of, Onassis lived a life. And that is possibly why a 1970s publishing editor deigned to classify him as a ‘heartthrob’.

Cheers for now, Beth 

Postcard from London – El Greco: legendary! August 2010


When old Rat Pack palster, male vocal hipster, Buddy Greco hits the stage at the Leicester Square Theatre, he coolly takes a seat at his piano amid whistles and applause from a small but enthusiastic crowd. We pretend we are at the Copa Room at The Sands; a famously intimate venue. We’ve just been entertained by London’s ‘original’ Rat Pack tribute act, and now it’s time for some of the real deal. To start with, you could be forgiven for spying that Buddy’s not exactly, shall we say, as ‘glossy’ as his publicity snap. He’s more distinguished, his hair’s a little greyer; maybe he’s a little world-wearier? Fear not! The twinkle in his eyes a-lights as soon as he tickles the ivories. The years fade away and all you see is a young, hip, wise-talking wise guy, ready to charm you with his wit and woo you with his songs. Yes, that’s right, Buddy Greco is 84 years old this month but, thankfully, is showing no signs of ever slowing down. (He and his wife, the singer Lezlie Anders, will joke that this is due to the fact that he can’t afford to – he has four ex-wives and many children to consider after all! More of the fabulous Ms Anders later.)

A performer since the age of four (on his father’s radio show in Philadelphia) Greco became an arranger-singer-pianist with Benny Goodman and his band at the tender age of 16. Buddy went off with his own band in the early 50s, eventually taking up residence in Las Vegas in the 60s (to put you in the picture, his most successful single was The Lady is a Tramp) a stint due to which he can now lay claim to the honour of being the last surviving Rat Packer, having turned up on stage with Sinatra and Co at The Sands in that hep-cat heyday era.

Weathering the intervening decades by continuing to wow them live in the States and Europe, Greco is now riding the swing revival wave. And may I say, Mr Greco is a sight and sound to behold. Every song is a standout, a surprise, a treat and another chance for Greco to charm us, the audience, by now firmly in the palm of his hand. Highlights might be: Girl Talk; Misty; Yes, Sir, That’s my Baby (where audience participation was insisted upon) and an absolutely finger-snapping version of Me and Mrs Jones – where the singer joked ‘And if you think you know the words and feel like singing along: don’t!’ He certainly out-cooled and out-crooned today’s retro lounge lizards like Connick Jr and Buble.

Lezlie Anders had already treated us to her Peggy Lee tribute, a sultry segue between the Rat Pack and Greco the Great. As she returned to the stage for a final few numbers, Greco was seen snapping from the piano, urging the band to keep up with him as he set a mean tempo. Greco and Anders obviously enjoy playing together and it shows – our leading man was suddenly stripped of a further decade, his warm grin an instant facelift. The couple have now made a second home in London and will be touring Fever: a Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee, later this year: stay tuned!

For more than 20 years, Greco has been closing his show with a high-octane instrumental version of Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park. Highly unusual, and a song that’s not to everyone’s taste. But Greco’s repertoire is like the man himself – distinct. And so we were treated to this strange but aptly unique choice, a showcase of Greco’s energy, his enthusiasm and passion for the power of music. By now his band were definitely having trouble keeping up the pace!

Happy Birthday, Buddy!

Cheers for now, Beth 

Postcard from London – Arthur Schnitzler resurfaces in redux at the Young Vic, April 2010

Unrequited love’s a bore … and poor Christine (Kate Burdett) has got it pretty bad for Fritz (Tom Hughes)  in Sweet Nothings, a new interpretation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Leibelei (1895) by David Harrower. Unfortunately the tumble for Fritz is ill-timed just days before he meets his fateful end in a duel with an enraged, cuckolded husband. The love affair is over before it starts: After a brief, flirtatious party at Fritz’s luxurious Viennese apartment, the couple get together only one more time when Fritz visits Christine’s modest bedroom before disappearing into the night forever. The big question is: So what?

You see, when Tom Stoppard adapted this play as Dalliance in 1986, he used the days between the challenge and the duel to build the love affair between the two characters. Fritz is a young cad whose designs on Christine are a mere flirtation to distract him from an obsession for a married woman. To his surprise, he finds himself falling in love with this simple, lower-class girl. Unfortunately, in Harrower’s version, the couple meet only twice in scenes that fail to nurture any real feelings, convey passion, or show the conflict that the society’s class and honour systems would have caused the relationship.

This production never conveys that sense of another time, never fully transporting us to the era when conventions demanded dueling as a solution to moral dilemmas. It all seems young and modern, and ‘whatever’, which is entertaining (particularly Natalie Dormer’s wonderfully comic performance as thoroughly modern Mizi) but seems ajar to the twilight time of Schnitzler’s dusky jewel-like writing.

The credibility is not helped by phrases such as ‘wham, bam, thank you m’am’ in the script, or that the crucial scene between Christine and Fritz (the only time we will see if there is a sensual connection) is comically reminiscent of the ‘love’ scene in the film, Twilight: young man unexpectedly appears in girl’s bedroom only to back off and disappear into the night, leaving unresolved lust. Unfortunately, the charming Tom Hughes, on this occasion at least, was no match for Robert Pattinson’s brooding vampire and seemed less likely to inspire passion than Pattinson’s wax work – recently unveiled to frenzied crowds at Madame Tussauds.

It’s not his fault. You can’t act what is not on the page. Even Romeo was allowed to consummate his love for Juliet: and this is Schnitzler after all! Why are the cast given sweet nothing to do? Perhaps the fault lies with the touch of sang-froid that European director, Luc Bondy, lent to the production? Yet, when older actors (Andrew Wincott as the husband, Hayley Carmichael as neighbour and David Sibley as Christine’s father) appear on stage, their experience milks the weak script, there is sadness and laughter and I finally stop cringing in my seat. 

With all the sweet nothing happening in this overly long, two-act play, it beats me why Schnitzler keeps resurfacing in redux. My guess is that directors and designers can’t resist the challenge to create a little smoked glass stage curio, a delicate snow-globe of dreamy twilight time.  And producers are tantalized by the box office potential of Schnitzler’s reputation for frank sexual dealings and scenes of a sensuous nature.

Sir Ian McKellan and Richard Wilson, sitting a few rows behind me, appeared utterly unmoved, or did I just catch them sighing with the relief that their jobs  as seasoned stage performers are not exactly under threat;  not just yet anyway!

Cheers for now, Beth