Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Duke of York’s Theatre

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Six catholic schoolgirls in uniform arrive on stage to sing a hymn, Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes”. They have angelic voices, it is beautiful. After the song they begin to talk, the language is sinful and the subjects are carnal. The juxtaposition is funny and moving.

This play is the story of their day trip to Edinburgh to sing in a choir competition. Over the course of this twenty four hours they meet various characters from the places they visit. These characters are played by the girls themselves and this combined with the strong accents and dialect made following the action hard work in places. However, the script is witty and coarse and the singing is fantastic, especially the classical pieces and hymns. Many of the rock songs are Electric Light Orchestra covers.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is a well observed play. It is insightful, in that it makes us aware of the difference between the world that their convent schooling is preparing them for and the actual world that they will inhabit when they leave. This play makes you question how qualified ecclesiastic schools are at preparing children for a life in a secular society.

An entertaining and thought provoking show, with a very talented cast. I am sure we shall hear of many of these actors again.

Victim (dir. Basil Dearden) 1961

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Victim is a classic movie in so many different ways. It is a great representative of the black and white, crime thriller, genre of the early 1960s. The storyline is good, it is well told and the suspense will keep you interested right until the finale.  It is a fantastic British movie, made in the Pinewood studios with high production values. It has all the hallmarks of British film making at the time. The dialogue is clipped and the characters are bristling with repressed emotion.

It has a wonderful setting with splendid views of London just before the start of the swinging ’60s. St Martin’s Lane and Cecil Court are still recognisable, with Oliver! playing at what is now the Noel Coward Theatre. There are also nice shots of Millbank, Soho and the Thames. The pub scenes were filmed in a real pub, The Salisbury, on the corner of St Martins Lane, which was a gay pub until the 1980s. The pub is still there today and still has the Victorian fixtures and fittings seen in the film.

 

Victim has a courageous and dashing performance by Dirk Bogarde who risked his matinee idol status by taking on such a controversial role. He was a male romantic lead, so playing a man with homosexual tendencies, constrained though they may have been, would have put this career in jeopardy. He is excellent in the role and apparently he added the line “I wanted him!” which almost had the film banned. Sylvia Syms puts in a good performance as his unfulfilled wife, wavering between hurt and compassion. The whole cast is excellent and there are recognisable faces throughout the film.

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This was a shocking film when it came out in 1961 and it almost did not get past either the British or American censors at the time. It was the first film to use the word homosexual and it was the first mainstream movie to allude to it in a non negative manner.  It was this, that made it a danger to public morals and gave it the X rating that it received when it was released. Homosexuality is not the direct subject matter, but a blackmail ring that was targeting the frequenters of a gay pub. This was a common occurrence at the time as homosexual relations were an offence that could land one in jail and would certainly ruin a career.

While this film, itself, did not advocate gay rights, its sympathetic portrayal of some gay characters allowed the conversation to begin and this will have helped to bring about the change in the law six years later. Victim often appears in lists of all time greatest films, and it was certainly a brave and groundbreaking piece of film making.  Whether you are interested in the history of cinema, or the history of gay rights then you should see this movie. It is being shown currently at the BFI on the south bank as part of the gross indecency season, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, but it very often included in retrospective seasons of gay film, British film, or classic crime thrillers.

Of course, most importantly of all, it is a very enjoyable film to watch!

Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh) 2011

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Weekend is a beautifully written and wonderfully acted film. It was made and set in 2011. Two guys hook up in a bar on a Friday night and the film is the story of their gradually developing relationship between then and Sunday evening. Although In many ways it is a universal love story, it is firmly rooted in the British urban bar scene of the time, both in the casual drug taking and in the way that they have sex first and then begin to get to know each other afterwards. Andrew Haigh, the director has gone for ultra realism in his film style and this almost feels like a documentary in places.

The two leads, Tom Cullen and Chris New, both put in great performances, as they need to for this realism to work. They are fully committed to their characters and you believe in them wholeheartedly, coming to care for them as they risk sharing their vulnerabilities with each other. It is a warm film, and we get to know them, as they get to know each other. They both appear well rounded and honest, even though our knowledge of them is limited, and we want their burgeoning trust in each other to be repaid.  However it is a cold world and they have known each other for a weekend…………

This is not just a gay movie, but Weekend is one of the best British Gay Films and deserves to be commemorated as such. It is currently showing at Picturehouse Central as part of the 50 years since decriminalisation series. It is also showing on the BFI player as part of their LGBT+ series, also commemorating 50 years since partial decriminalisation. Whatever platform you choose to see it on, it is certainly worth watching.

Girl from the North Country, Old Vic Theatre, London

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Girl from the North Country contains three or four intertwining stories. These are slight, almost sketches really, but are beautifully told so that we care about the people we see on stage. It contains about twenty songs from Dylan’s back catalogue. These are used, in  an abstract way, to accentuate the drama rather than to move the narrative forward. It would be misleading to call this a musical, it is more a play with musical accompaniment.

The prose and the songs complement each other very well. Given the quality of the cast, the strength of the acting is no surprise. The singing, orchestration and choreography are the revelation. There are some amazing voices in the ensemble. Shirley Henderson and Jack Shalloo, in particular, shock when they sing, but every song is delivered well. The impact of a downtrodden, beaten character suddenly opening their vocal cords is not to be underestimated. Even the songs that I already knew, appeared to be given new life in the context of the play.

The reception of the audience was good, it is not too often that the whole audience stands at the end. I enjoyed this show, Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan are a combination that go together very well.

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.

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.