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La Cage Aux Folles tells the story of Georges, a night club manager (played here by Adrian Zmed) and his romantic partner and star attraction Albin (John Partridge). Happily together for 20 years, their lives are thrown into disarray when Georges’ son Jean-Michael (Dougie Carter) wants to marry a young woman named Anne, but her ultra-conservative parents do not approve of homosexuality (or much else it appears). Jean-Michael wants Albin to stay away when Anne and her parents visit, as they believe that his biological parents are still married. This naturally leads to devastation for Albin, who has raised Jean-Michael as his own for years, and also paves the way for a hilarious evenings of misunderstanding, mistaken identity and shocking revelations.

During the show, the audience are treated to a smorgasbord of highly imaginative, colourful and flamboyant dances by Les Cagelles, the dancers at Georges’ nightclub – a group of young men who dress like beautiful young woman. Albin of course is the club’s star with his alter-ego Zaza, a bitchy, vulnerable and extremely funny drag queen. Stage veteran Marti Webb also appears as restauranteur and friend of the couple, Jacqueline.

I loved the show – the songs, which include the showstopping I Am What I Am as well as others like With Anne On My Arm, Look Over There and The Best of Times, were all performed to perfection. John Patridge’s rendition of I Am What I Am moved me to genuine tears.

Despite the subject matter, this is most certainly a comedy, and Partridge and Zmed make the most of their roles, with Patridge (as Zaza) riffing with the audience for some time in the first half of the show. The more farcical elements are in the second half with the visit of Anne and her parents.

The show got a standing ovation at the end, and it was well deserved. If you want to hear some beautiful musical numbers, watch some spectacular dancing and have a good belly laugh, you should definitely try and see La Cage Aux Folles!

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In this second novel featuring the indomitable Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective receives a letter from a gentleman named Paul Renaldo who begs for Poirot’s help, saying that Renauld’s life is in danger. Poirot and his friend (and the novel’s narrator Captain Hastings) hurry off to Renauld’s home in the north of France, but when they get there they find that he has already been murdered. And so begins an investigation which has more twists and turns than a labyrinth, and is hampered by an over zealous and unfriendly Parisian detective named Girauld.

There are plenty of possible suspects, and several red herrings throughout the story, but leave it all to the ingenious Poirot to untangle all the threads and get to the truth. Of course you know at the start of the book that he will solve the mystery but the real pleasure is in seeing if you can solve it before he does. In my case the answer was…no. I thought I had sussed out the reason for the murder and the identity of the murderer, but I was completely wrong on both counts.

I enjoyed the book, but I’m not sure I liked it as much as Poirot’s previous (and first) outing, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which also had lots of suspects and red herrings but was somewhat less convoluted than The Murder on the Links. If I’m honest, it felt almost as though Christie was a bit too clever when writing this one. I still liked it though, and I still love Poirot – he is such a lovable character. I can’t say the same for Captain Hastings, who if anything came across as rather bland. I do think Agatha Christie must really have had such a quick and intelligent mind, and I look forward to reading more of her books very soon.

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This is the story of Henri Charierre, known as Papillon (which is French for butterfly – he had a butterfly tattoo on his chest) and his incarceration in a French prison in 1930 for a murder which Papillon has always denied committing.  During his subsequent years of imprisonment, he spent time in many prisons and penal colonies, which had varying degrees of cruelty and inhumane treatment.  Papillon made several attempts to break out of the various institutions, with varying degrees of success.

The veracity of the story has often been questioned, with Papillon himself saying that it is about 75% true, while more modern researchers believe that parts of his story which he claims happened to him, were actually about other prisoners.  Either way, it’s an interesting adventure, and you have to admire his grit and determination to become a free man.

I enjoyed the book overall, although I found it took a long time for me to read.  There was so much information in parts that I had to take it slowly, to make sure I took it all in.  Charierre himself is an engaging, if occasionally self-aggrandising character, and certainly a good storyteller.  I liked the fact that although – especially in the beginning of the story – he was concentrated on his anger on the people who had wrongly incarcerated him (such as the Judge, prosecutor and people on the jury during his trial), and his determined to exact his revenge, over the passage of time, he came to focus on the kindnesses shown to him by various people, and was not lacking in compassion for others.

This was definitely a book worth reading, and the ending was particularly uplifting.  I would definitely recommend it.  (However, readers ought perhaps to be aware that the author occasionally uses some outdated and distasteful racial descriptions.)

 

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The book (apparently semi-autobiographical) tells the story of Dick and Nicole Diver, a glamorous couple, who seem to have it all – wealth, beauty and the admiration of all who know them.  The first part of the book is set near to Marseilles, when a young, emerging film star named Rosemary Hoyt, meets the Divers and falls under their influence, quickly convincing herself that she is in love with Dick.  At the end of the first section of the book, a specific incident occurs, which has a huge impact on Nicole.  The second  section of the book then goes back to when Dick and Nicole first met, and the reader learns that all is not as it initially seemed; the circumstances of their falling in love  throw an entirely different light on their relationship.  The third section of the book deals with the disintegration of their marriage, and the how each of them deal with it.

I was really looking forward to reading this book, because I loved The Great Gatsby, and thoroughly enjoyed Flappers and Philosophers (a collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories).  However, I struggled somewhat with Tender is the Night, and at times it felt like a chore that I had to get to the end of.  I think this is partly because none of the characters are very sympathetic, or even particularly likeable.  It’s difficult not to compare Dick Diver with Jay Gatsby, but whereas with Gatsby, as we learned more about his past, it made me warm to him, with Dick, as the layers were peeled away and we learned more about the man underneath, it made me despise him.  His behaviour in the second section of the book – the ‘flashback’ section – made him appear sleazy and willing to compromise his morals.

That said, I still find Fitzgerald’s use of language to be beautiful and emotive; at times it is pure poetry, and this is what really kept me reading.  The use of the flashback worked for me, although it temporarily put the brakes on the narrative.  There is another version of the book where Fitzgerald swapped the first and second sections around, so that the story was told in chronological order.  This version was apparently not well received, and I think I can see why.  The way the book is written, we see Nicole and Dick as a couple to admire and perhaps envy, then the rug is pulled out from under us as we learn more about the origins of their relationship.  This effect would be lost if the reader knew the truth from the beginning.

My favourite part of the story was the third part of the book, where the balance of power in their marriage shifts, and only one of them benefits.  I’m glad I read the book for this final section, and because some of Fitzgerald’s descriptions of moments and feelings are so wonderfully written, but the characters did not move me at all, and my main feeling once I reached the end of it was one of relief.

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This film is not the first big-screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, but is probably one of the most talked about versions.  Having seen the show on stage years ago, I was eager to see the film, although I did approach with some caution, knowing that it was well over two hours long, and that there is virtually no spoken dialogue in it; this is a musical in the fullest sense of the word.

Briefly, the story, which is set in France in the 1800s, is about a man named Jean Valjean, who gets out of prison after serving a lengthy sentence for stealing bread for his sister’s baby.  He breaks parole and becomes a successful business man (and Mayor).  However, when he agrees to take care of a dying lady’s child, the decision changes his life forever.  He also has to deal with a policeman named Javert, who is obsessed with tracking down his former prisoner Valjean.

The main stars of this film are Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, Amanda Seyfried as the adult Cosette (the young girl who becomes Valjean’s ward), and Eddie Redmayne as Marius, a young man who falls in love with Cosette.  Supporting roles are played by, amongst others, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, as Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (the cruel couple who look after the child Cosette until Valjean rescues her from their clutches); despite being unpleasant characters, they also provided a fair amount of comic relief, and Anne Hathaway, in an Oscar nominated (and deserving) performance as Fantine, Cosette’s mother.

The film is a sweeping epic, covering not just the stories of these characters, but the story of the French revolution, with the tragedy and bloodshed that it brought.  The singing, for the most part, is excellent.  Jackman and Hathaway in particular, have beautiful voices, and both brought tears to my eyes.  Jackman has been nominated for an Oscar for this role, and deservedly so.  (As I write this, the Oscars are nearly two months away, and my money is on Daniel Day Lewis winning for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln.)

As shocking as it is to me, the weakest link in this film is the usually reliable Russell Crowe.  However, that is not to say that he was not good, or that he did not play the part well – he did, but he is surrounded by people who took my breath away with their performance (In other words, the weakest link is still pretty strong!).  Crowe’s singing voice is not the best, but he holds his tunes well, and acquits himself in the role.

This is not a film for everyone – it’s sad, it requires investment from the viewer (this is not a film to kick back and relax with), and if you don’t like musicals, you should avoid it at all costs!  But I think it’s one of those films that if you like it, you will love it.For my part, I found it moving, glorious and unforgettable.

Year of release: 2012

Director: Tom Hooper

Producers: Nicholas Allott, Liza Chasin, Angela Morrison, F. Richard Pappas, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron MackintoshBernard Bellew, Raphael Benoliel, Francesca Budd, Thomas Schonberg

Writers: Victor Hugo (novel), Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, William Nicholson

Main cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Smaantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Anne Hathaway

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Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer head up the cast of this story of scheming and sex, set in pre-revolutionary France. Close plays Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, an outwardly respectable lady, who sets out to avenge a former lover by asking Vicomte Sebastian de Valmont (Malkovich) to seduce her former lover’s new fiancee, the young Cecile (Uma Thurman). Valmont in turn, decides to seduce Madame de Tourvel (Pfeiffer), for nothing more than the fun of it….but neither Isabelle nor Valmont has reckoned on their personal feelings getting in the way…

Well! I wasn’t sure what I expected from this film, but what I got was a steamy, seedy, decadent story of two rather unpleasant individuals who seem intent on humiliating and debasing their peers, simply for the fun of it. But that is not to say that the film is not enjoyable; I actually found it very gripping, and at times amusing. Malkovich seems to relish playing the villain – he’s just so good at it, and far sexier than such a dastardly character deserves to be. Close really shows off her acting chops here – she is brilliant, managing to convey such feeling with just a subtle change of expression. Pfeiffer too is great – this is possibly the best acting I have ever seen her do.

Swoosie Kurtz heads up the supporting cast admirably, and Uma Thurman plays the innocent (but soon to be corrupted) Cecile very well. Keanu Reeves plays the unsuspecting and innocent young music teacher who falls for Cecile, but who is used as a pawn by Isabelle and is drawn into her world of deceit.

I’m not sure that this is a film I would watch again, but it is certainly a film that I would recommend people to watch at least once. Enjoyable, if not exactly uplifting.

Year of release: 1988

Director: Stephen Frears

Producers: Norma Heyman, Hank Moonjean, Christopher Hampton

Writers: Choderlos de Laclos (book), Christopher Hampton

Main cast: Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman, Keanu Reeves, Swoosie Kurtz

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A disclaimer: If you are hoping to find a positive review of this book, you may want to stop reading right now.  I really did not like this book at all, for many reasons, and I always blog with honesty about films and books.  Many many people have praised this book, and this review is entirely my own opinion!  Please understand that I have no criticism of France or French people – my problems are entirely with this book and the author.

The book is part memoir, part diet advice.  The writer, talks about how France does not have the obesity problem which the US – and increasingly the UK – has.  She attributes this to the French attitude to food and eating, and suggests how everyone can adopt the same attitude, and in so doing, maintain a healthy weight without depriving themselves of the food they love.  Sounds great?  Well yes, but I have a few problems with this book.

First, the author (correctly) starts off criticising crash diets, pointing out that they rarely work long term, and can lead to a cycle of bingeing/dieting.  While this is absolutely correct, she then goes on to suggest that the eating plan laid out in this book should start with a weekend of eating nothing but leek soup – made with leeks and water.  In other words – a crash diet!  Not only is this unhealthy, but it is also possibly the first step on a binge/diet cycle, which is the very thing that people should be avoiding!  (She also speaks with delight of how she lost weight after several days of eating just yoghurt and a peach for lunch – this is hardly a varied diet, and should not be advocated.)

Second, while the book contains many recipes, some of which admittedly do sound lovely, there is nothing here that you won’t find in other decent cookbooks.  At one point, the author suggests piling salad leaves on a plate, adding tomatoes and crumbly cheese.  In other words – make a salad.  This is hardly radical or new advice.  The author also constantly mentions alcohol, to the point where I actually wondered if she had a drink problem.  It seems that she does not consider a meal worth having if there’s not champagne or wine involved.  There is in fact a whole section dedicated to champagne, and the author seems to practically worship the drink.  (She is the CEO of a champagne producing company, which also made me think that she might have her own agenda in such blatant promotion of the fizzy stuff.)

Third, while the author is married to an American man and actually lives in America, I found her attitude to the USA (and to a lesser extent the UK), to be very condescending.  The message seems to be – America is backward and silly, and France is brilliant and better in every respect.  She described how she visited a friend who was in hospital in America, and took a bottle of champagne as a gift, only to be told by the nurse that she couldn’t take the champagne in.  The author seemed utterly aghast at this, and compares it unfavourably with what she calls the French attitude (and which I suspect is really just her own attitude).  She is absolutely correct that there is an obesity problem in America, and Britain looks to be heading the same way.  I have no issue with her pointing this out, and suggesting the possible cause of the problem.  But her constant criticism of American attitudes, American lifestyle -in fact anything American – did get wearing after a while. 

Additionally, the dietary advice provided is somewhat obvious – eat more good stuff, eat less junk, and exercise.  Hardly news for anyone hoping to lose weight.  What the book fails to do is address the psychological reasons that people gain weight.  She is correct that people should not expect to have to give up simple pleasures like good chocolate or the odd dessert, but the problem is not that people don’t know that such things should only be an occasional treat – the problem is how to get your head around the issue.

Finally – while it is obvious that the author had a very privileged upbringing, and still has plenty of money to spend on the very best quality fruit and vegetables – she seems to forget that most of the advice she gives is just not reasonable for people living on an average salary.  While she can hardly wait to tell the reader that she eats at restaurants 300 days or nights per year, she also regularly mentions how people should spend more to get the best quality.  This may well be true, but for many people, the things she suggets are just not realistic.  In the aforementioned section devoted to champagne, Guiliano recommends buying a particular brand (surely not coincidence that it’s made by the company she works for) and using it to cook with and drink with the meal – this is just not practical for most people, and not affordable either.

There was one part of the book I enjoyed – in the chapter about chocolate, the author discusses the history of chocolate, and how it became the food we all know it as today.  She also says that rather than eating the cheap chocolate which is so widely available today, people should have the best quality chocolate, but only in small amounts (which I tend to agree with).  This particular section was interesting, but sadly not nearly good enough to make up for the rest of the book.

I was very disappointed with this book, especially as I had been looking forward to reading it.  I did not and do not need or wish to lose weight, but I had a very uneasy love/hate relationship with food in my teens, some of which occasionally crops up to this day – and I had hoped to find at least some insight into the psychological causes of such relationships with food.  Unfortunately, I did not find this at all.  I’d love to be able to recommend this book, but unfortunately simply cannot do so.

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