Monthly Archives: April 2014

Bond in Motion – London Film Museum

2014 was supposed to deliver the 24th Bond film, but after the success of Skyfall, Sam Mendes was asked to direct again so the next edition has been delayed until October 2015 while he completes other work – trivial things like directing King Lear at the National! What to do in the meantime…? Go to the Film Museum in Covent Garden for an exhibition of vehicles covering 50 years and 6 actors. This isn’t about the smooth, womanising aspects of our favourite spy, but purely focuses on the action sequences.

London has hosted a number of Bond exhibitions in recent years; the Imperial War Museum had an excellent show on Ian Fleming a few years back, covering the author’s life in wartime naval intelligence with a bit of book and film memorabilia at the end. Some of the latter appeared again in the brilliant and extensive Barbican ‘Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style’ exhibition in 2012 which had everything from Odd-Job’s bowler hat to Daniel Craig’s pants, as well as then unseen costumes and props from Skyfall. So, is there room for more Bond in London – always!

Bond in Motion begins in a small mezzanine gallery with some of the original artwork and scripts from several films, giving you an insight into the process of creating those iconic action sequences which look something like a graphic novel. There’s also a scale-model of the MI6 building, Vauxhall Cross, used to design sequences in The World is Not Enough.

And so to the cars, villain, henchman or Bond, there’s an impressive selection in the main gallery starting with Goldfinger’s Rolls Royce Phantom III. Across the way another Rolls this time from A View to a Kill in which Bond’s sidekick in murdered in a carwash. Round the corner are Bond’s Aston and Zhao’s Jaguar used in the car-case on ice from Die Another Day with all the gadgets visible. There’s Tracy’s car from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,  Bond’s remote controlled BMW from Tomorrow Never Dies and the little yellow Citroen from For Your Eyes Only, before possibly the most exciting piece of the exhibition, the submarine Lotus from The Spy Who Loved Me.

All that and I haven’t even mentioned the Astons – there are several, including the iconic DB5 from Goldeneye, one from the The Living Daylights and two from the Daniel Craig era; a scraped and battered DBS from the frenetic opening sequence of Quantum of Solace and, more famously, the same model from Casino Royale that holds a world record for the number of somersaults (7 ¾) when Bond swerves to avoid Vesper lying in the road.

If that’s not enough, there’s even more to enjoy among the other vehicles – essentially anything that Bond characters have travelled in – motorbikes, a jet pack, the horse-box aeroplane from Octopussy, the little boat (Q’s retirement ship) from the Thames chase in The World in Not Enough, the cello case from The Living Daylights, a submarine crocodile and, of course, Little Nellie from You Only Live Twice. As you can probably tell, I enjoyed this exhibition, and it’s a rare chance to see a broad collection. Everything is accompanied by clips from the films which is a nice touch and a top-trumps style overview of specifications.

A couple of tiny grumbles though – there’s no obvious curation or order, more on how the stunts were managed throughout the exhibition would have been nice, and you can’t move the information screens along so have to wait until the page you were reading comes round again. But none of that really matters; this is a great opportunity for fans waiting for Sam Mendes to deliver the next instalment. Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, Craig – whoever is your favourite Bond and whatever your favourite film (mine is Roger Moore and The Spy Who Loved Me) this is a comprehensive overview of 50 years of Britain’s favourite action hero and the 23 times he saved the world.

Bond in Motion is at London Film Museum in Covent Garden throughout 2014. Entry is £14.50 with concessions available.

Relative Values – The Harold Pinter Theatre

The British are still obsessed with class. However, this has changed in the last sixty years and whether you believe society is now driven by education, fame or money there’s still a national interest in thinking about where you belong and how this means you should behave. Noel Coward’s Relative Values was written on the cusp of these changes, where the old three-class system evolved into something else. Peppered with references to post-war social upheaval, it accurately presaged the shift of power from the old aristocratic order to a more celebrity-driven world.

Set in a Kentish mansion in 1951, Felicity, Dowager Countess of Marshwood is reluctantly preparing for the imminent arrival of her son the Earl and his latest fiancée, Hollywood actress Miranda Frayle, after a whirl-wind romance. But her plans are thrown into disarray when her ladies maid hands-in her notice after twenty-years of service, because, unbeknownst to her mistress, Miranda is Moxy’s long-lost sister. And if that wasn’t trying enough, Miranda’s former fiancé and fellow Hollywood star Don Lucas arrives to win her back.

This play explores ideas of class and duty, largely supporting the idea that people are much happier in their place. To Felicity a Hollywood actress is completely unsuitable to replace her as the Countess of Marshwood, whilst Moxy cannot pretend to be anything other than a ladies maid. This exemplifies Coward’s own position in 1951 – somewhere between the traditions of the past and the encroaching new wave of plays depicting realistic working-class life. By chance this is geographically represented in the current West End; up the road from the Harold Pinter theatre is Blithe Spirit on Shaftesbury Avenue, or head south across the river to A Taste of Honey, at the National. Relative Values then sits between the drawing-room comedies of the past and the kitchen-sinks of the future.

Like Helen in A Taste of Honey, the inhabitants and guests of Marshwood House learn that trying to break free of your class only leads to unhappiness and everyone usually ends up where they started. But having said all that, this is still a great dramatic comedy, full of the trademark humour but with all of these fascinating themes and social issues bubbling beneath the surface – in many ways it’s one of Coward’s most socially relevant plays, enhanced here by the use of newsreels about daily life in Britain tying scenes together and reminding us of life beyond the elite.

The performances too are extremely appealing; Patricia Hodge is really very good as the Dowager Countess driving between snobbish disregard for her younger successor, and a fiercely feudal need to protect the household. She relies on the advice and counsel of her servants, and throughout this play goes to considerable lengths to preserve their happiness and continued service. This is also Rory Bremner’s theatrical debut as the Jeeves-like butler Creswell, considerably smarter than his employers and hiding his working-class accent beneath a polished and verbose veneer (is this a hint that brains rather than breeding will define society in the future?). Caroline Quentin was sick when I went so Moxy was played very well by her understudy Jody Elen Machin. It’s quite an emotional role, almost dramatic at times so to produce a very accomplished performance at short notice was impressive.

This production has transferred from Bath and it’s important that regional theatre is able to feed into London as easily as West End shows tour the UK. Overall this is well worth seeing, a great cast, lovely set and ample Coward humour. For those looking for a little more substance, there’s plenty beneath the surface to reference wider social changes. Perhaps its key accomplishment is accurately foreseeing a changing societal culture where status based on class is replaced by one worshipping celebrity.

Relative Values is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 21 June, tickets start at £20.

The Great War in Portraits – National Portrait Gallery

You can’t fail to notice that it’s almost a hundred years since the First World War began and already this year we’ve seen several exhibitions and TV shows examining this significant event. Niall Ferguson played devil’s advocate with some of our leading historians, while Jeremy Paxman tried to tell us about the effects of the war on modern Britain…except he forgot that bit and chucked in two minutes at the end. The excellent 37 Days screened over three nights on BBC2 dramatised the political build-up to the war in the UK, Germany and Russia, and many hundreds of hours of television are yet to be screened. The upshot is that there’s a danger of feeling exhausted by the end of the commemorative period in 2018, you may even feel it already and a hundred years ago the war hadn’t even started yet.

That’s not to say that the things being produced are unwelcome, and have so far been of great quality and balance. The National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition is an excellent example of this, walking you through the events of those years using many of the paintings and images already in its collection. You begin with the pomp of regal portraits celebrating the monarchical houses that dominated Europe in 1914 including Britain’s King George V, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas. They represent the old order, of formal oil portraits celebrating the power and grandeur of royal courts, illustrious histories and military might that seemed, from these pictures, that they would endure forever. On the next wall is an unassuming black and white photograph of Gavrilo Princip the man who assassinated the Austrian Archduke, and, in some sense triggered the downfall of that way of life. There’s something quite chilling about seeing photos of Franz Ferdinand and his wife not long before their deaths. But, as this exhibition shows, their deaths were just the beginning.

Once war has begun, we’re shown two types of picture. First the formal portraits of military leaders like Haigh and Hindenbugh painted by official war artists. Although they lack the grandeur of kings in the previous room, they are intended to convey a sense of the sitter’s authority and leadership role. William Orpen painted Haigh in 1918 and I couldn’t help but think had he sat a few years earlier, it would have been a different image. The styling is as you’d expect, but whatever your opinion of Haig, look at his eyes, there’s a sadness in them that hints at the terrible toll of the last four years. Whether that’s Orpen’s addition is for you to decide.

Alongside these images we see representations of the ordinary serviceman presented both as formal glory portraits to celebrate their victories, and as the dead or disfigured on the battlefield and hospitals. These include the incredibly striking Dead Stretcher Bearer which is simultaneously a moving and somehow beautiful image, casting a stark contrast with the formal portraits of war leaders. Changes in artistic styles are represented through pictures including the angular forms of Nevison’s La Mitrailleuse (The Machine Guns), emphasising the mechanisation and fierceness of war. One of the things I enjoyed most about this exhibition is the inclusion not just of these many styles and consequences of war, but of all kinds of protagonists; it’s not just monarchs and Generals, but ordinary men; not just soldiers but pilots, sailors and men from across the Commonwealth. Apart from Chruchill and a couple of photographs, the naval experience doesn’t really feature which is a shame, but NPG is saving them for a naval exhibition in May.

Before you become desensitised to the plethora of First World War activities, go and see this free exhibition. Not only is it a great opportunity to see a really diverse collection of art styles, but it will give you a surprisingly broad perspective of all the people who fought in the conflict as well as mix of bravery and horror that created. If you want to understand anything about the lasting effects of the Great War, then all you have to do is look in Haigh’s eyes.

The Great War in Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 June and is free to enter.

Other Desert Cities – Old Vic

How well do you know your family, and do you think they’d have the same perspective on key events that you do? The way that you remember your childhood or how you dealt with tough times, do you think your parents and siblings think of it the same way? Do they know more or less about it that you do, or perhaps their perspective is just different? These are some of the questions that Other Desert Cities considers when it brings the Wyeth family back together for a pool-side Christmas in Palm Springs.

Devastated by the suicide of her elder brother Henry a few years earlier, Brooke has suffered a period of hospitalising depression and returns home for the first time in 6 years to spend Christmas with her parents, brother and aunt. To deal with her issues, and aided by her recovering alcoholic aunt, Brooke has written a literary memoir about the family and, as she sees it, their cold responsibility for Henry’s political radicalisation and subsequent death. Then comes the snag; the book is due to be reviewed in the New Year and Brooke has not only to reveal her secret to the family, but give them time to read the manuscript and digest its accusatory tone. As events play out and family tensions escalate, Brooke’s blindness is revealed through the alternative perspectives of her relations, and she learns how far parental love has extended.

This is a fascinating production that effectively builds tension by enhancing a number of contrasting factors, most notably in the various personalities on display. Brooke, played by Martha Plimpton, is somewhat earnest, seemingly grounded but also determined to ‘defeat’ her overbearing mother by publishing come-what-may. Meanwhile her surviving brother Trip (who was too young to remember the events at hand) is a producer making mindless TV for the masses, living a shallow existence in LA and wanting an easy life. But it’s their parents Polly and Lyman – the ever brilliant Sinead Cusack and Peter Egan – who are in every sense the real stars of this show. It is their characters and behaviour which drive the actions of the play forward, and trying to understand their motivation is at the heart of Brooke’s memoir.

Lyman is a former actor, Regan-esquely famous for tough guy roles, who moved into politics and local society. On the surface at least, he’s calm and constrained, essential a peaceable man which he maintains by refusing to engage with these tragic memories. Some of the best and most moving moments come when Lyman is forced, by his daughter’s actions, to confront what happened to his family and the part he played in bringing it about. Peter Egan is simply wonderful in this role, first belligerently blocking his ears to his daughter’s betrayal and then dissolving as he’s forced to finally reveal the truth. Sinead Cusack’s Polly is quite a different creature; outwardly made of stone, Polly found limited fame writing a series of films in 70s before becoming a society wife. But make no mistake, she is in charge of this family and her abhorrence of any human weakness has shaped the lives of her children. The scenes between Brooke and Polly are some of the most intense and Cusack maintains a glacial pose whilst still creating a sense of depth and supressed emotion in the character, an inkling of which we see towards the end. This is really great stuff.

The intimacy of this play is aided by the Old Vic’s new ‘round-space’ which, as in 2008 with the Norman Conquests, has reconfigured the traditional proscenium arch stage and stalls, meaning the audience now sees the action from every angle and there’s no way for the characters to escape our insight. It’s a pretty impressive idea and an imaginative use of the space, so I’m glad to see it reinstalled this year. Other Desert Cities is a perfect season opener, full of great performances and plenty to think about next time you embark on a fraught family Christmas.

Other Desert Cities is at the Old Vic until 24 May. Tickets start at £16.

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