Monthly Archives: January 2014

Twelve Angry Men – Garrick Theatre

Twelve strangers are locked in a small backroom in 1950s New York charged with deciding whether a sixteen-year old boy murdered his father. The case against him seems implacable and all these men have to do is unanimously agree on a verdict. When they enter the room eleven of them are wholeheartedly convinced of the boy’s guilty and are eager to get back to their busy lives. The final man, Juror Number 8, is not so sure and, with a life in their hands, insists they at least discuss it before condemning him.

During the next few hours Juror 8, played by Martin Shaw, begins to dismantle the evidence, planting doubt it one mind after the other and exposing the prejudices of his companions. This is an excellent production of Reginald Rose’s original teleplay, full of tension, drama and insight, drawing each man into the spotlight. Christopher Haydon’s direction cleverly balances moments of serious stillness as characters confront each other, with the frenetic frustration of people trapped in a small space from which there is no escape. Choreographing the individual movements of twelve people around the stage is no easy task, yet each one is carefully placed in the spotlight, foreground and background, as the conversation develops.

This is helped by Michael Pavelka’s design – a shabby and claustrophobic space, with a central table that rotates as the action progresses, allowing the audience not only to take in each juror, but shifting our perspective as we too see the arguments circle the character’s minds, dissolving their certainties. It also acts as a ticking clock for the performance, ratcheting-up the tension – time is repeatedly referenced but we know once the table is returned to its original 12 and 6 position, the decision will have been made. And not once did I see it move, so expertly is our attention directed to the dialogue and action.

It’s also not easy to create so many distinct characters, with every single one of them almost permanently on stage. This is one of the great successes of this production – every man is at once anonymous (we never learn their names) and yet separate. Some we get to know immediately whilst others only come to the fore later in the play – and any one of them could be us in the same situation. This is a fine ensemble cast and although it has some star names – Robert Vaughan, Martin Shaw, Jeff Fahey and Nick Moran – there’s not a weak link to be found.

I do love a good bit of dramatic tension and Twelve Angry Men is loaded with it.  It has lots to say about the way our preconceptions guide us, the nature of justice and how the surface of things can so easily be wrong. Added to that a great cast, shrewd direction and a brilliantly tense conclusion it makes for a gripping , thoughtful and highly recommended trip to the theatre.

Twelve Angry Men is at the Garrick Theatre until 1st March and ticket prices start at £19.50. Last Minute tickets were £22.50 for the stalls.

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Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War – Somerset House

For the next four years the First World War will dominate much of the cultural and academic output of the UK as the hundredth anniversary of the conflict is commemorated. The newly revamped Imperial War Museum reopens its doors in July, whilst the BBC has years of dramas, documentaries and events planned to mark the occasion. For some time there has been a visible separation between the public impression of the war – dominated by needless slaughter and disillusioned men in horrific conditions – and the work of historians who have presented a more nuanced picture of men enduring terrible conditions, but wanting to do their duty and ‘see it through’ so that a British victory was the only possible outcome.

By 2018, therefore, it is hoped that many of the long-established myths will lessen their hold, and that the experience of the Western Front will be shared with voices of those who served not just in, and from, other parts of the Empire, but on the home front and in other services – the airforce and the navy – whose contribution to victory was hugely valuable. One key way to do this is to let the men who were there speak for themselves, which is exactly what Somerset House and the National Trust are doing with its current exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s large scale canvas paintings from the Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Painted over six years, these double-hung images fill the room and depict a mixture of scenes from Spencer’s time as a hospital orderly at a former asylum in Bristol, and on active service in Macedonia. Interestingly, rather than showing gruesome battle scenes, these paintings depict the everyday activities and routines that formed the majority of their time at war – reading maps, dressing, laundry and kit inspection. Although you would think these cosy images of domesticity would sit uneasily against such a backdrop, they are, in fact, somewhat reassuring. Although in many ways a highly mechanised conflict, it is exactly such touches of ordinary humanity that make it a fascinating period.

For example, ‘Tea in the Hospital Ward’ shows men tucking-in to bread and jam around a table while others lay on the beds behind. It looks less like a room of wounded men and more a public school dormitory. My favourite showed men dressing under gauzy mosquito nets as they prepare for their morning parade. Whatever you think of Spencer’s skill as an artist and his cartoonish shapes, you can see a clear line from this collection to the work of later artists such as Beryl Cook, and epic tales such as ‘The Vanity of Small Difference’, Grayson Perry’s brilliant quasi-religious tapestry series.

More than anything, this exhibition shows us that the First World War was not an unremitting torrent of slaughter, but moments of high activity punctuated by long periods of near -domesticated stillness. Spencer deliberately chose not to paint battle scenes, but his memorial chapel paintings tell us that there were many other elements to this conflict. By returning the voices of servicemen to the stories of the war – through diaries, letters, art, poetry, oral testimony and the countless other ways in which it was expressed – we get closer to understanding the nature of the war experience and why men continued to fight.

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War is at Somerset House until 26 January and moves to Chichester from February to June.


Gaslight – BFI Southbank

As a film opener, seeing an old woman strangled in her home whilst knitting in front of the fire is pretty dramatic. The assailant is then seen rifling through the house unable to find whatever it was they had just killed for. This isn’t the latest Hollywood horror or gory thriller, it is Gaslight, set in Edwardian England and released in 1940 (not to be confused with the American 1944 version). Years after this shocking event, the house is newly occupied by the old lady’s nephew and his delicate wife, who suffering from delusions and memory lapses, believes she is going mad. Even her staff – maid and housekeeper/cook – know their mistress is not quite normal.

It’s not long before we discover that her husband Paul is actually one of the most sinister villains committed to celluloid, planning to drive his wife to suffocating madness because she has discovered his evil secret. He takes her things and tries to convince her that she’s hidden them. In one awfully manipulative scene, he unsuspectingly hides his pocket watch in her bag and takes her to a society concert. When she begins to enjoy herself, he silently accuses her of stealing it and opens the bag, at which point she becomes hysterical and has to be carried from the room humiliated. As the film progresses the two plots begin to interweave and you final learn how everything connects to the old lady’s death and the gaslight of the title.

Anton Wallbrook was a brilliant choice to play Paul Mallen; his voice is always low and cruel, and his accented speech adds to the pretty menacing air. Diana Wynyard as Bella Mallen did a very good job of being confused and vulnerable, without bordering on annoying which sometimes roles like that can do. Frank Pettingell had all the funny lines as the suspicious policeman drawn to help the defenceless Mrs Mallen, whilst Cathleen Cordell was great as the over familiar maid who, despite his objectionable and sadistic personality, seems more than keen to begin an affair with her employer. The sharpness of these characterisations was clearly aided by the unusual decision to film the scenes in order.

Gaslight is a great thriller written by Patrick Hamilton, whose play Rope was later filmed by Hitchcock. And there are some thematic similarities, particularly in the examination of personality and the almost Darwinian way in which stronger characters dominate and destroy weaker ones. It’s apparently frighteningly easy to convince your loved-ones that they’re mad and who’d argue with the intimidating and creepy Mallen. As with Rope, this filmed version feels very theatrical, and tension is largely built through dialogue, but the final scenes provide some exciting action in a largely subtle and still film. An excellent set of performances and a worthy part of the BFI’s Gothic season.

Gaslight was shown at the BFI Southbank as part of the Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film Season, and is available from their DVD store.


The Artist in Concert – Royal Albert Hall

There’s a nice moment at the beginning of The Artist as the camera pulls back and you realise you’re watching one of the characters own films. George Valentin is a silent movie star and you’re seeing the premiere of his latest movie to an audience of eager fans in a Hollywood cinema while an orchestra plays live music to accompany his film. Below this screening of the The Artist in the Royal Albert Hall was the London Symphony Orchestra reflecting the on-screen orchestra in performing that very score.

The Artist opened to great acclaim in 2011, winning 5 Oscars and focusing on Hollywood’s transition from silent film to ‘talkies’ by charting the fall of one silent film legend and the rise of a young new talent. It has much in common with two of the finest films ever made – Singing in the Rain which deals with the same process, and Sunset Boulevard, looking at what happened to those who were cast aside by the new wave of talking pictures. But I found it interesting because its simplicity seemed so fresh and radical in a world of CGI and meaningless blockbusters, yet, of course, its techniques were actually the oldest form of cinema.

And it is a very charming film, managing to be both lightly comic and very touching. Dialogue cards are used sparingly, so although you see characters talking to each other, you’re just shown things you really need to know. Everything else you surmise from the action, expression and the music which carefully guides your emotional responses.  It’s a great score and even if you turn your TV up very loud, it doesn’t have quite the same effect as hearing it played live.

The Albert Hall is one of the world’s best music venues and although I’m not a concert-goer, I have seen a couple of things there and been surprised by how intimate a venue it is; there’s hardly a bad seat and even at the very back you still feel close to the musicians. I’ve written before about the loveliness of silent films with live music and seeing The Artist here is probably the pinnacle of that, especially having the film’s composer Ludovic Bource and original conductor Ernst Van Tiel performing. This is fast becoming one of my favourite ways to watch films and, for fans, the Albert Hall has scheduled West Side Story with live music in July. As The Artist has shown, traditional cinema techniques are still very effective. Perhaps regular cinemas need to up their game in the presentation of the films they show – not just through digital techniques such as HD but by creating more memorable experiences. Live music is one way to achieve this and it may help to infuse cinema-going with a greater sense of occasion.

The Artist in Concert gave 4 performances at the Royal Albert Hall.


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