Angels In America, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Angels in America is operatic in its scale. It has huge universal themes, it takes on religion, politics and the future of the planet. At its core though, are three individual small stories that investigate the meaning of love and abandonment. It can be at times; grandiose, bombastic, histrionic and at others; tender, bitchy or warm. The show is set in 1985 New York at the start of the AIDS crisis, with Ronald Reagan just having been elected for his second term.

It is an awe inspiringly big production. The set is amazing. There are not many theatres in the world with stages large enough to contain the more expansive pieces, but there are also intimate scenes set in small a room or around a single hospital bed. I will be surprised if Ian MacNeil does not win an award for his set design. The direction is very clever, the angel is astonishingly large, when it arrives, yet the scene involving a small puppetry diorama is equally compelling.

The cast is astounding and their performances are excellent. Every single person in the production is at the top of their game, so it almost seems unfair to pick out favourites but…. Andrew Garfield is a revelation, I’d only seen him as Spider-Man before, and this is quite different! Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is fab-u-lous (three full syllables) as Belize, he is given some of the best lines in the show, and he delivers them well.  Nathan Lane plays Roy Cohn and manages to make him cruel, contemptible and charismatic.

This show is a marathon at over seven and a half hours for both parts, but it passes surprisingly quickly. I did not feel the time going at all. I commend its ambition, I admire its uncompromising stance and I revere its wonderful production values. Angels in America one-off theatrical experience.

Michael Clayton (dir. Tony Gilroy) 2007

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The story of a giant multi national company and the lawyers who sold their souls to defend them. Let’s get the bad out of the way first, the storyline seems a bit hackneyed now and there are a couple of minor plot holes where you have to work to suspend your disbelief. However, these points aside, this is a most enjoyable film. This movie is a thriller and although we aware right from the start which are the good guys and which are the baddies, we are never quite sure how it will all turn out.

The acting is spectacular. Tilda Swinton won, a well deserved, Oscar for her portrayal of a stressed out legal advisor. George Clooney and Tom Wilkinson were both nominated for theirs. The script is great; sharp, real, and occasionally bruising. The direction is clever and taut, even though it is just under two hours long, there is no let up in the action. It is hard to believe that this is Tony Gilroy’s first film, you wonder how he managed to get a studio to trust him with either the budget or stars. However the trust was justified,  he manages to keep the viewer on edge, even though you can sometimes guess where the plot is going. The ending is quick, clean and satisfying.

This film was on many best of year lists, it was nominated for 7 Academy Awards including best film and best director.  Michael Clayton is a classic example of its genre, definitely worth watching.

St James’s Park, London

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St James’s Park is the most tourist friendly park in London. It is relatively small, 1Km at its longest edge. It is a pretty, tranquil, well maintained green area joining many of the most viewed attractions in London.

It has Buckingham Palace as the western side, the north border is  the Mall, containing St James’s Palace and Clarence House, with Trafalgar Square on the North East corner. Horse Guards Parade is on the Eastern edge, where you can see the Changing of the Guard and the Trooping of the Colour. The South East corner has Westminster Square with the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Cathedral.

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The park itself is beautiful too,  with plenty of shade from sycamore trees lining Birdcage Walk, which used to be where James the first kept his exotic bird collection. The park still has pelicans which are descended from the ones given by Russia to Charles the second in 1664. You can watch them being fed every day at 2.30pm.  There is plenty of other wildlife and you will need to protect your picnic from both squirrels and pigeons, who have become used to being fed by visitors to the park.

There is a beautiful ornamental lake, with two small islands. The lake can be crossed by a bridge. The Blue Bridge is its official name, but it is sometimes called by the more romantic name Bridge of Spies,  the views from this bride are small but spectacular. Buckingham Palace is framed by trees looking west. Looking east, The London Eye is flanked by the turrets of the Old Admiralty building and could be mistaken for a scene from a Disney movie.

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The gardens are always well maintained and the flower beds are full of flowers in season whatever time of year you visit, though they are at their most colourful in spring and summer. Pall Mall the wide road on the northern edge of the park gets its name from, Paille Maille, an early form of croquet, as it was originally laid as a lawn on which to play.

If you want to combine a day of iconic London attractions with a day in the park, St James’s Park is the one to choose!

Queer British Art, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1

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Queer British Art at the Tate is a fascinating exhibition, it is more of a history of homosexuality in Britain told through artistic pieces. Some of the exhibits aren’t very queer, until you know their story, and some of the exhibits wouldn’t be  artistic in themselves, until they are included in this exhibition.

Is the door of Oscar Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol art? Perhaps not, but it does fit well in this show. Is Gluck’s paining of a vase of lilac roses queer? Not unless you are aware it commemorates the beginning of her affair with the florist, Constance Spry. This is one of those shows where the notes accompanying the piece are often equally as important as the piece itself. There is a box containing 200 military buttons each of which represents an illegal sexual liaison with a man who was wearing it.

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There are many fabulous pieces here including four early Hockney’s and two Francis Bacon’s. There is a glorious photo of Quentin Crisp as a young man, he was really only famous in later life and this picture shows how beautiful he was. This exhibition is full of wonderful bits of British Queer history, some of which one will never have the opportunity to see again. It has the actual card that the Marquis of Queensbury left for Oscar Wilde calling him a “posing sodomite”. This led to the court case that had him incarcerated in Reading Gaol.

There are eight rooms here, packed with interesting items, so make sure that you leave yourself time to take it all in. It is rare that this tight man would go twice to a paid exhibition, but I  fully intend to return before it closes on the 1st of October.

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I think you should look upon this as a historical exhibition rather than an art exhibition, but either way, I recommend it highly.

The Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush, London.

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The Bush Theatre has just had a big refurbishment. The first thing you notice when you arrive on a warm sunny evening is the new terrace and bar. It is the perfect place to meet people, as it catches the evening sun before the show begins. Inside, the bar area is sparse and pared back, there are not many places to sit here, but this is well designed to keep the area relatively clear, because as well as the terrace there is also the library room, a bright, airy seating area with books on the history of theatre on the walls.

The Bush has a tradition of putting on innovative and challenging new shows. There are now two theatre spaces, the main theatre holds 180 and the smaller studio 80. The main theatre is flexible with its set up and on the evening that I attended the stage was in the centre. It was set up as a house and we had to walk around the back of the house, past the back door and pink flamingo, to look in the front room. Every seat has an excellent view and your proximity to the performance makes you feel a part of the action.

They have some great pricing offers, one clever one is the “Count me in” deal – where you pay £10 in advance for the show, but your seat is not allocated until the day of the performance. The front of house staff and the bar staff are friendly and helpful. The Bush Theatre is a lovely asset to the local area and I look forward to returning many times in the future.

HIR by Taylor Mac, Bush Theatre, London

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Hir is challenging and confrontational. In Paige Connor, Taylor Mac has created a 21st Century dramatic monster. Released from years of oppression and abuse by the happy accident of Arnold Connor’s stroke, she is using her new found freedom to wreak revenge on the world in general and her husband in particular. Ashley McGuire is exceptional as Paige, she exudes a logical, manic cruelty. Her youngest child is transgender and she uses the politics of gender fluidity like a weapon, which she swings to beat back the wrongs of a society that she believes kept her in thrall for the majority of her life.

Arthur Darvill is also good as Isaac, the eldest child. He is the foil, having come back from a war zone, he has tried the new world and wants things to be much as they were before he left. He tries to be the voice of reason but is left defending a damaged premise, this cannot end well…….

All four actors put in great, intense performances. The direction and the set are disordered, but this is by design and it suits the scattergun effect of the plays arguments, hitting out at any targets as they appear. There are many very funny, if bitter, exchanges. The dialogue is clever and angry. The subject matter captures the zeitgeist, it starkly points out challenges facing our changing society. The subtitle of the play is  “Make America Punk Again” and it really does have a punk ethos, enraged and shouting about the state of the world, without finding, or even looking for, any solutions.

It is uncomfortable to watch, but be in no doubt, this is a great play.

Side Effects (dir. Steven Soderbergh) 2013

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Side effects is an interesting psychological thriller. The story is good; with a number of twists and turns along the way. The subject matter is pretty dark; involving the marketing and side effects of prescribed medication.

None of the major characters in the film are nice people, all of them are manipulative and duplicitous, so it is hard to feel empathy when bad things happen to them.
Having said that, Rooney Mara and Jude Law both put in compelling performances. Steven Soderbergh is a reliably good director, and the direction of this film suits the subject matter well. The setting is modern urban and you are made to feel the adversity and frustrations of their day-to-day life.

The dialogue is sharp and the story is clever, a Hitchcock style chiller, that enjoyed a revival in the 1980s, but is out of fashion now.  I dislike how calculating everybody turns out to be; every character is using everybody else with no regard to their welfare or needs. Perhaps this is a comment on the pharmacological industry, but it feels implied of the world in general and this is too dystopian an outlook to make easy viewing. The problem is, the acting and directing are good, so you can see their motivation and at times it is tempting to believe that it could be true.

In summary, this is a well made movie, that seems little too cold and analytical for its own good now; however, in the future, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible,  that this might be one of those films that we look back on as capturing the mood of the world at that time. I hope not, but I want someone remind me to watch it again in 15 years time.