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This book had been sitting on my shelf for a few years, and I finally decided it was time to read it for several reasons: I enjoy reading Shakespeare and learning about his life, I enjoy watching his plays, historical fiction (particularly when interwoven with fact) is a favourite genre of mine, and recently there have been the celebrations of 400 years since he died. Which I suppose is a slightly strange thing to celebrate, but still.

Not a lot is actually known about Shakespeare’s life, or to put it more precisely, there are large gaps in his biography. This book takes the facts that we do know and weaves a fictional story around them. It never claims to be anything but fictional, but clearly the author has done a lot of research to get as much accuracy in as possible.

I am in two minds about it. On the one hand, there was much to enjoy – the writing was elegant and at times rather beautiful, but also slightly too flowery for my personal tastes. It felt as though 20 words were often used when one would have sufficed. Nonetheless I felt it gave a descriptive portrayal of Shakespeare although there is no way of knowing truly how accurate the portrayal was. Morgan draws him as a serious minded, elusive man who wins everyone’s (almost) admiration, yet never really allows anyone to get too close, except for one person who he regrets letting into his life.

One thing to point out about this book is that it is as much about Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway as it is about him, and a fair amount of the story is also given over to Shakespeare’s friend and contemporary, Ben Jonson. Shakespeare is seen through both of their eyes, and out of all three characters, Anne probably comes across as the most sympathetic.

Overall I would say that this was a middling book for me – objectively I’d say it was wonderfully written, but subjectively I’d say that it wasn’t the best fit for me; however, I enjoyed it enough to want to pick it up each day, but it was so wordy that I couldn’t read great swathes of it in one sitting. Interesting though, and I would recommend it to fans of historical fiction and especially to anyone with an interest in William Shakespeare.

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Despite being acknowledged as an excellent actor both on stage and in films, Richard Burton is largely remembered for his tempestuous marriages to Elizabeth Burton, and his enormous capacity for alcohol.  Melvyn Bragg’s excellent biography delves into his life, to reveal that there was far far more to Burton – that he was a highly intelligent and thoughtful man, a voracious reader, that he was plagued by guilt over his children, and generous to a fault.

Burton’s notebooks (essentially a diary) which he started during his life with Elizabeth Taylor were released to Bragg by Burton’s widow Sally, and here they appear (albeit abridged) for the first time in print.  After describing Burton’s tough but loving childhood and adolescence, and marriage to first wife Sybil, Bragg wisely lets his own writing take a back seat to Burton’s words, as he reproduces large sections of the notebooks.  (It is worth noting that the notebooks have since been released in their entirety as The Richard Burton Diaries; I have a copy of this and intend to read it very soon, but Bragg’s biography is useful in that it provides context.)  I thoroughly enjoyed reading Burton’s words – he was incredibly witty (I laughed out loud on several occasions, particularly when he described social situations), certainly wry, and often melancholy.

The biography is clearly meticulously researched, and while Bragg is never sycophantic, he is always respectful of his subject.  What I did find unusual at first, was that in many ways, it was also a study of Burton the man.  Bragg would offer his own opinion as to Burton’s motivations for certain actions, and it felt as if he was trying to understand certain events in this very interesting life, rather than just relate them.  However, this did not spoil my enjoyment of the book, and actually demonstrated the author’s great interest in his subject.

The book was written with the collaboration of many of Burton’s family and friends, and refreshingly, does not just focus on the more scandalous areas of his life; it concerns itself equally with Burton’s Welsh family, his career, his life after ‘the Elizabethan period’ and of course, his premature death at a time which tragically came at a time when he seemed to have his life back on track.

It’s a thick book – 600+ pages – but so well written, and so very interesting, that I found myself reading huge chunks at a time.  Anybody interested in Richard Burton, or indeed in acting in general, should certainly read this – I strongly recommend it, and will definitely be keeping it to read again in the future.

(For more information about Richard Burton, please click here.)

 

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Halfway through act one of The Play That Goes Wrong, my stomach was aching from laughing so hard.  During the interval, a woman told me that her makeup had washed off, because she had been crying with laughter.  After the show, walking from the theatre, a woman holding her show programme stopped another woman also holding a programme, and the two of them talked about how funny the performance was.  Anyone who has seen The Play That Goes Wrong will be able to understand these reactions, because it is, truly hilarious.

Written and performed by the Mischief Theatre Company, the entire show is a play called A Murder at Haversham Hall, put on by the Cornley Polytechnic Amateur  Dramatic Society.  And as the title suggests, everything that can go wrong does.  The show starts with the director coming on stage to address the audience.  He explains how good it is to have a play where there are enough cast members to fill all the roles (making references to previous productions such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Cat’ or their previous staging of ‘The Lion and the Wardrobe’).

The gags come so thick and fast, with collapsing sets, fumbled lines, cast members being knocked out cold, that it was barely possible to recover from one laughing fit before another one comes along.  Greg Tannahill played Jonathan Harris, who in turn played murder victim Charles Haversham, who has to endure people treading on his hand and  a stretcher which breaks under his weight, causing him to have to try and slide unobtrusively off the stage, amongst other humiliations, and like the rest of the cast, he was wonderful.  Charlie Russell was excellent as a wannabe sex symbol, and the completely inappropriately grief less fiancee of the murder victim.  Nancy Wallinger shone in her role as a harassed stage manager, battling valiantly with a falling down set, and eventually being forced to take over one of the main roles.  I also loved Dave Hearn, as Max, a young actor who is clearly over-awed at appearing on stage, and Jonathan Sayer as a hammy actor who unsurreptitously checks his hands where he has written words he has trouble pronouncing.  Henry Shields and Henry Lewis play Chris – the show’s director who also plays the part of the Inspector sent to investigate the murder, and Robert – who plays an old friend of the murder victim, and they too were terrific.  And Rob Falconer, who played Trevor the stage manager, was also superbly funny.

Prior to the show, Nancy Wallinger and Rob Falconer, in their respective characters, can be seen trying in vain to fix the crumbling scenery, and even got an audience member to come on stage to help.  During the interval, Rob – as Trevor – ran through the audience looking for a dog named Winston (who makes an extremely non-appearance during the play, but does get to take his curtain call at the end).

Of course, the play that the amateur dramatic company are performing is totally unsubtle, and the terrible acting (which is actually demonstrative of the actual cast’s wonderful talents) doesn’t help, and this all adds to the fun.

The audience at Wolverhampton Grand was rocked with laughter throughout, and everybody left with huge smiles on their faces.  I will definitely be looking out for more productions by the Mischief Theatre Company, and urge everybody to try and catch this wonderful show, which is touring before moving back to London’s West End.

Simply wonderful – I loved every minute.

(For more information about the Mischief Theatre Company, please click here.)

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New York drama critic Larry McKay (David Niven) and his wife Kate (Doris Day) live in an apartment with their four rambunctious boys and their pet dog.  Although they have dreamed of moving to a quiet house in the country for years, Larry’s new-found celebrity as a famous critic makes him start enjoying the busy city life.  When they do move to a country house, there is conflict as Kate finds that she likes the life there, while Larry is still trying to maintain the social whirl that is the New York theatre scene.

That brief recap makes the film sound more like a drama than a comedy, but this IS a comedy.  I didn’t find it laugh-out-loud funny, but there were lots of amusing moments in it.  I also think that David Niven and Doris Day are both so appealing and such likeable actors, that I couldn’t help but enjoy watching them, and they do play perfectly off each other.

The supporting cast are good too – Janis Paige as an actress who tries to tempt Larry away from his wife; Richard Haydn as their playwright friend Alfred, who falls out with Larry after Larry criticises his latest production; and Spring Byington as Kate’s mother.  However, my favourite co-star was Hobo the dog, who refused to walk outside, and was apparently spooked by every other creature, including a frog and a squirrel!

It’s not the best film of either Day’s nor Niven’s career, but it is an enjoyable couple of hours, and well worth seeing, particularly if you are a fan of either actor.

Year of release: 1960

Director: Charles Walters

Producers: Martin Melcher, Joe Pasternak

Writers: Jean Kerr (book), Isobel Lennart

Main cast: David Niven, Doris Day, Janis Paige, Spring Byington, Richard Haydn, Patsy Kelly, Jack Weston

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As the title of the act might suggest, Three Phantoms consists of three men who have all played the West End as the lead role in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical, Phantom of the Opera.  With backing singers, including Rebecca Caine, who has not only played Christine Daae in Phantom, but who also played the original Cosette in Les Miserables, they perform a series of songs from many different musicals.  In between numbers, they share jokes with the audience, and anecdotes about their time playing the Phantom.

The Phantoms who were performing when I saw the show were Matthew Cammelle, Stephen John Davis and Glyn Kerslake (it’s not always the same three Phantoms for every tour), and the whole thing was staged by Earl Carpenter, who I was lucky enough to see playing the Phantom himself, earlier this year.

Starting with Invocation and Instructions to the Audience from The Frogs, was a nice touch because it really helped get the audience relaxed and ready not only for some beautiful singing, but also for a lot of fun.  Other songs included Dont’ Stop Believin’, by Journey; Unchained Melody, from Ghost; I Could Have Danced All Night, from My Fair Lady; Big Girls Don’t Cry, from Jersey Boys; a selection of songs from Les Miserables – including a stunning acapella version of I Dreamed A Dream, which brought tears to my eyes – and a selection of songs from other musical adaptations of Phantom, as well as a wonderful rendition of Music of the Night.

Annette Yeo, Mandy Watsham Dunstall and Alistair Barron sang beautifully with the Phantoms, and each had their own moment in the spotlight, with Alistair coming in for some merciless teasing from them!  Musical accompaniment was provided by a single pianist and a single cellist, who were on stage throughout, and the staging itself was beautifully done.

Overall, for fans of musical theatre, this show is a must – a hugely enjoyable afternoon or evening out.  I will definitely be booking to see the Three Phantoms again in the future.

(The Three Phantoms website can be found here.)

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It’s hard to believe that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel is over 25 years old, because in 2013, it still feels as fresh as ever.

Cameron Mackintosh has produced the current show which is touring in the UK, and which I was lucky enough to see at Birmingham Hippodrome, which was an ideal venue in which to see such a spectacular show.

Briefly, the story concerns the mysterious Phantom of the title who falls for Christine Daae, a young chorus girl, who is promoted to lead soprano at the Opera Populaire Playhouse.  The Phantom threatens the life of anyone who comes between him and Christine, but Christine has meanwhile fallen for Raoul, her childhood sweetheart…she fears however that she may never escape the hold of the mysterious Phantom.  (There are far more detailed synopses available online.)

In this production, the Phantom was played by Earl Carpenter, and he was superb in the role.  He elicited just the right amount of fear from the audience, while remaining charismatic and mysterious.  His voice, unsurprisingly, was excellent.  Equally superb were Katie Hall as Christine, and James Bisp as Raoul.  Bisp was actually the understudy, and he was wonderful in the role.  Claire Platt also appeared as the understudy for Carlotta, the soprano who is ousted by the Phantom’s desire to promote Christine.  Carlotta brings comic relief to proceedings, and Platt played the part to perfection.

The supporting cast were also terrific, with not one weak link.

The music is very familiar to audiences nowadays, but it was still mesmerising to hear, and the title song in particular made the hairs on the back of my next stand on end.

Finally, the costumes and stage sets were imaginative and wonderfully designed, with the chandelier which forms part of the story hanging high above the audience.

Overall, it was a wonderful show from start to end, and I would highly recommend it to anybody who enjoys good theatre.  A solid 10 out of 10 from me!

(For more information about this production, please click here.)

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Click here for my review of the 2004 film adaptation.

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MGM made some of the most lavish musicals of the 40s and 50s, and this one is in keeping with that tradition. Fred Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a washed up film star and dancer, who is asked to take part in a stage musical written by his friends. The great director, writer and actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is hired to direct the production, but decides to present it as a modern day Faustian story, and changes it beyond all recognition. As if this wasn’t a big enough problem, Tony also finds it difficult to get along with his leading lady, the ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse).

This is a really a rather lovely film, with some genuinely funny moments, due to an excellent cast and supporting cast. (Buchanan is great, as are Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, who play Tony’s friends, and the writers of the show.)

Astaire, of course, dances beautifully, as does Cyd Charisse. However, as a personal preference, I would rather have seen more tap dancing, whereas here the dancing is more balletic in style, perhaps to accentuate the incredible talents of Charisse. Nonetheless, the dancing is great; my favourite number being the one which Astaire did near the beginning with the shoe-shine man; it was full of energy and really made me smile.

Overall, I would certainly recommend this film, if you are a fan of musicals or comedy. Definitely one to put a smile on your face!

Year of release: 1953

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Producers: Roger Edens, Arthur Freed, Bill Ryan

Writers: Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Alan Jay Lerner, Norman Corwin

Main cast: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan

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