Category Archives: Reviews

Kooky, creepy, and totally brilliant

The Addams Family Musical (Cardiff Millennium Centre until 12th August 2017) is a clever, funny, and highly entertaining musical take on the franchise that started as a series of magazine cartoons before progressing to TV series and films. Originally launched on Broadway in 2010, the UK touring production opened in Edinburgh in April 2017. The musical opens with the annual gathering of the Addams Family (those alive, those dead, and those still undecided) at the family vault in a cemetery near the family home in Central Park, New York. We learn that Wednesday Addams, the (original emo child) has fallen in love with an all-American guy from the mid-west. Wednesday has invited her beau and his parents to dinner at the Addams Mansion that evening, and implores her parents to just be ‘normal’ for the evening. Wednesday emphasises the extent of the gulf between her family’s love of the ghoulish and macabre, and her boyfriends more traditional family values with the line : “We are what we are, and they’re from Ohio!” The rest of the plot plays out in a series of increasingly funny scenes as the two families become acquainted and as each learns a lot from the other about the true values of honesty, love, and the changes that come as children become adults and forge their own paths.

The casting for this UK touring production is excellent. Carrie Hope Fletcher gives a wonderful performance as Wednesday Addams, neatly capturing a young woman struggling with the emergence from sulky adolescence into womanhood. Samantha Womack* is stunning as Morticia Addams – all moody darkness and brooding suspicion. Les Dennis is literally unrecognisable as Uncle Fester – and effectively acts as narrator for the piece, neatly linking scenes and acts and generally gluing the whole plot together. Oliver Ormson neatly encapsulates just the right amount of ‘cool’ and gormless as Lucas Beineke, the boy who has stolen Wednesday’s heart; and Grant McIntyre (Pugsley Addams) is perfect as the irritating younger brother who does everything in his power to break up the relationship between Lucas and Wednesday – fearing that the ‘loss’ of his older sister to this interloper will leave him abandoned and with no-one to torture him! Charlotte Page (Alice Beineke) is arguably the most accomplished vocalist in the show, and gives a great performance as a the strait-laced, greetings-card verse mid-west mother, whose repression and frustration is only fully revealed when she accidentally drinks a potion intended for Wednesday that takes down all her inhibitions.

However, the real stars of the show (for this 50-something father at least) were the two fathers : Cameron Blakely (Gomez Adams) and Dale Rapley (Mal Beineke). I’m definitely biased, but their differing portrayals of 21st century men, husbands and fathers, caught in the competing challenges that each of those roles brings; struggling and (despite everything) managing to make a mess of most of it, resonated strongly! It’s fair to say, though, that Gomez also gets all the best lines, including my favourite : “What I lack in depth I make up for in shallowness!”. I’m stealing that as my personal tagline.

Finally, a word for the musicians. The music throughout the show is uniformly outstanding, made all the more so by the fact that there is a full, live orchestra. In a world where digital recordings are increasingly the norm for touring productions, it was a pleasure to hear live music – and to hear it played so well.

 

* declaration of interest : I have been completely in love with Samantha Womack since her selection to represent the UK at Eurovision in 1991 – views expressed here may, therefore, not be entirely objective!

Passchendaele, Hedd Wyn, and enduring beauty

The centenary of the start of the battle at Passchendaele carries a particular poignancy in Wales. Amongst the first wave of casualties was Ellis Humphrey Evans, a farmer from Trawsfynydd in the foothills of Snowdonia, who wrote poetry as Hedd Wyn, and whose poem “Yr Arwr” – “The Hero”, would have seen him receive the Bardic Chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod. Ironically Hedd Wyn translates as Blessed Peace, but it is clear that the reluctant soldier found little peace or blessing amidst the mud and squalor of First World War Belgium.

There is, however, an enduring and heart-rending beauty in the poetry that Evans left behind, and which is exemplified in his poem titled “War” (this translation by Louis Flint Ceci) :

Alas, this is an age so mean
That everyman is made a Lord,
For all authority’s absurd
When God himself fades from the scene.

As quick as God is shown the door
Out come the cannons and the sword:
Hate on hate on brother poured
And scored the deepest on the poor.

The harps that once could help our pain
Hang silent, to the willows pinned.
The cry of battle fills the wind
And blood of lads–it falls like rain.

In common with other First World War poets, Evans struggles to reconcile the peaceful orderliness of the world he has left behind, with the godless devastation of the battlefield. The observation that the suffering and pain of war falls disproportionately heavily on the poor and least powerful, is one that is repeated throughout the poetry of the time (and has been borne out in every conflict to the present day).

The senseless loss that is represented in Passchendaele is perhaps best described by Evans’ cousin, Gerald Williams, who still lives near the Gwynedd farmhouse that Evans’ was forced to leave on conscription : “All the cream of the young men had been killed – a whole generation wiped out – for what? I don’t know – it doesn’t make sense whatsoever. I don’t understand war at all.”

 

Dunkirk : some thoughts

Christopher Nolan has written and directed a thoughtful and visually stunning piece of cinema in “Dunkirk”. In contrast to the graphic and (frankly blood-spattered) portrayals of the second world war in films such as Saving Private Ryan and Fury, Dunkirk focuses not on the physical trauma of the events of May/June 1940, but rather the emotional and psychological impact. The film focuses exclusively on the behavior of allied (mostly British) soldiers and airmen, and the civilians who sailed the flotilla of small craft from the south coast of England to Dunkirk to assist with the evacuation. There is barely sight of a German soldier until the closing frames of the film. The ‘good guy : bad guy’, Allied forces : German forces, narrative that so often permeates film dramatisations of events from this period in history, is therefore noticeably absent from Dunkirk. Instead, the tensions and ethical conflicts are all played out amongst the soldiers and civilians on the British side. Thus, we see French soldiers prevented from embarking onto British ships in the initial stages of the evacuation; and soldiers from different units being turned away from a line waiting to go on board because they aren’t “Grenadiers”. The opportunism (borne out of desperation) that leads two privates to pick up a stretcher and run across the sand to get a casualty on board a hospital ship (hoping that this would be their ticket out) only serves to highlight the ethical and moral compromises that are made in the name of survival. The fact that the two soldiers, having delivered the casualty, are then ordered off the ship and back to the beach seems scant reward for their efforts, until the ship itself is then bombed and sunk while still at the jetty waiting to depart. This is one of a number of episodes in the film that brings into sharp relief the randomness of war and the way that casualties occur. Soldiers who are injured but survive the bombing on the beaches, then drown when their hospital ship is sunk at sea; the only civilian casualty in the film is killed accidentally in a scuffle involving the boat’s owner and a survivor picked up from the sea en route to Dunkirk; a Spitfire pilot shot down over the channel is on the verge of perishing when he is rescued by a passing small boat. To this extent, at least, Nolan captures perfectly the lottery of life and death in the theatre of war.

Similarly, the scene in the Dutch trawler where soldiers who have sensed an opportunity to escape under their own steam, then turn on each other seeking a scapegoat when the trawler becomes target practice for unseen but advancing German troops, demonstrates the all-to-human trait of demonizing the ‘other’ when things go wrong. In this case, the ‘other’ taking the form of a French soldier who has ‘borrowed’ the uniform from a dead British soldier in order to try to get off the beach. Ultimately, the French soldier dies not at the hands of one of the group, but drowning as the trawler sinks under the incoming tide as water pours in through the bullet-ridden hull.

If I have a criticism of the film then it’s around the fact that there is little character development and so it’s actually quite hard to feel any particularly strong sense of emotional attachment to, or even empathy with, the main protagonists. We learn right at the end of the film that the eldest son of the owner of the small boat through whose eyes the account of the evacuation fleet is told, was an RAF pilot who was killed in the early days of the war; and we get some insight into the fears that evacuated soldiers had about their reception back home having retreated in the face of the Germans and needed to be rescued (unfounded fears as it turns out). Beyond that though, we learn little to nothing about the backgrounds of the main characters. That was doubtless deliberate as Nolan sought to focus on the ‘here and now’ of the situation facing the soldiers on the beach; but it did leave me feeling more like I had watched a drama-documentary – engaging me on an intellectual level; rather than a piece of cinema that works both intellectually and emotionally. I was reinforced in my view that war is wholly barbaric and utterly de-humanizing, but I can’t say that I was particularly moved by or sad or even anguished at the plight of any of the individual characters.

Overall, Dunkirk is a good film, succeeding in depicting historical events accurately and immersively, without over-playing things. Perhaps, though, it’s just a little too cerebral to be compelling drama.

In praise of… Manchester Museum

I have been at a conference at Manchester University for the past two days. The conference has been based at the Manchester Museum, which is managed by the University as part of its public engagement activities. We were very lucky last evening to have the opportunity for a private tour of some of the Museum’s collections, before being served dinner in the main gallery.

The Museum was originally established by the Manchester Natural History Society and the Manchester Geological Society to House the collections of various businessmen and collectors from the northwest of England, during the 19th century. The Manchester Museum building as it is now was designed by Alfred Waterhouse and opened in 1890. Waterhouse was the architect of the Manchester Town Hall, the Natural History Museum in London’s Kensington, and Strangeways Prison in Manchester. The distinct architectural vernacular that is the hallmark of each of these buildings is repeated on a much more human scale in the Museum building, with a full height atrium running through the heart of the space, and galleries open to the atrium and running around all four sides.

The museum’s collections inevitably reflect the eclectic tastes of the original collectors, with taxidermy examples of animals and birds from all four corners of the globe, recreations of dinosaur skeletons, and an actual skeleton from a sperm whale that was originally washed up on a beach in North America and brought to Manchester for display. Elsewhere, there is an extensive Egyptology collection, displays of Native American clothing, and examples of rocks from meteorites, and other planets in our solar system. It’s not often that you get the chance to touch a piece of Mars!

If you’re in Manchester with an hour to spare, I heartily recommend the Museum as a place to visit. And it’s free!

Michael Buble at the BBC

So this evening we’ve caught up with the Michael Buble programme that was broadcast on the BBC in the UK yesterday. Apparently he’s quite good looking (so Mrs P. says anyway – I don’t see it myself), but either way, he’s got a fantastic singing voice and is a peerless performer. We had the great privilege of seeing Buble perform live in Birmingham in December 2014, and he owned that stage – holding a packed arena in the palm of his hand from the first note to the last, some two hours later.

Watching the programme tonight has added poignancy given the news that has broken today that Buble’s three year old son has been diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment in the US. It’s tempting to fall into the trap of believing that celebrities are somehow immune from the challenges and traumas that afflict the rest of the population. In reality, of course, not only does ill-health make no distinction between those who are famous and those of us who are not, but for the famous, their battles with illness are played out in the full glare of media attention.

So this evening, as we sit and marvel at Buble the showman, out thoughts are with Michael the father, his wife, and little Noah as he undergoes treatment.

In memory of Wilfred Owen

A short post today in between meetings and before I spend an evening talking with prospective medical students and helping them prepare for applications to University next year. It’s humbling to think that the sixteen and seventeen year olds that I will be talking to later – full of hope and expectation and with their whole adult lives ahead of them – are the same age as many of the men that went to their deaths in the trenches of France and Belgium during the Great War. Owen himself, one of the greatest English language war poets, was killed in action one week before the Armistice in November 1918. This poem is titled Futility.

Move him into the sun–
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds–
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,–still warm,–too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
–O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?