A Christmas Carol – The Old Vic

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Rhys Ifans as Ebenezer Scrooge

A Christmas Carol has recently regained something of a minor resurgence this year, its powerful message about peace on earth and goodwill towards men has proven transcendent and urgent in the shaky time we are facing both socially and politically in the late 2010s. With new stage productions currently in both London and Stratford Upon Avon, the soon to be released The Man Who Invented Christmas, a new meta-fantastical film about the writing of the story and a BBC film in the works produced by Ridley Scott and Peaky Blinders scribe Steven Knight. This is evidence enough to truly reaffirm the Christmas classic’s permanent place in British culture. The new Old Vic production of the story adapted by playwright Jack Thorne (currently well known for his co-writing of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child) and directed by the current artistic director of the Old Vic, Matthew Warchus not only stays faithful to the story’s Victorian roots, but Thorne’s writing also manages to bring it up to date with today’s societal values without being cloying or patronising. This is truly Rhys Ifans’ finest moment as an actor, never have I borne witness to a depiction of Scrooge where we not only pity him, but we learn more about his own personal psychology which is laid bare in this production.

This Scrooge is flippant and angry, but also very much a victim of society, not only of his abusive debt-ridden father’s financial expectations, but also of his own dreams that prove to mean less with age as he proceeds to destroy the relationships once held dear. His personal relationships with Bob Cratchit, his deceased sister Little Fan, former flame Belle and his employer/father figure Fezziwig are given much more expansion and depth than in most adaptations. We get more glimpses of the love he once had been offered throughout life but turned away. The artistic decision to cast actresses Myra McFadyen and Golda Rosheuvel as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, leads Thorne and Warchus to also explore the question regarding the lack of maternal influence that Scrooge didn’t have in the original story. Their presence suggests a “what if” regarding whether his life had been different with a mother figure in his life. It’s a question that we will be certainly asking long after. Speaking of the Ghost of Christmas Future, there is a twist in regards to the Phantom’s presence, go and see the show to find out.

Rob Howell’s minimalist “in the round” set design envelops the audience both in the stalls and on stage, but the stripped back nature of the show gives more rawness to the emotions and thematic nature of the story than what is usually expected in A Christmas Carol. I was lucky to be sat on stage where most of the action had me gripped from start to finish. Despite the unexpected but meaningful climax to the story, (which I will not spoil) and with the help of a truly strong ensemble cast consisting of actors Eugene McCoy, Erin Doherty, Melissa Allen, Alex Gaumond and John Dagleish. This is truly a transcendent production of A Christmas Carol that is both human and also manages to feel festive and contemplative. Confirming that once again that Charles Dickens stands with Shakespeare, as a storyteller for both the past and modern times.

A Christmas Carol runs at The Old Vic until 20 January

St George and The Dragon – National Theatre

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St George and The Dragon is both a missed opportunity, as well as a structural, tonal and thematic mess. One of many new autumn plays at the National Theatre, playwright Rory Mullarkey’s take on England’s famous folk legend about the knight St George who slew the dragon, rescued the fair maiden and saved a village in the process is lost amongst an array of admittedly good ideas. Some of the writing wouldn’t look out of place on a miniseries for Channel 4.  Yet its theatrical presentation is at odds, half the time I couldn’t make out whether it wanted to properly tell the folk-tale, use the tale to parallel the division of England in modern times or go for “Highlander-esque” hijinks. The story begins with the titular knight (John Hefferner making the best of his painfully vanilla role) enlisting the help of a village to slay the dragon and rescue his love interest Elsa from being sacrificed. Once everything is said and done, he is called away by the Brotherhood while imploring the village to build upon their freedom and make England a better place. The general thrust of the play involves the village constantly growing and thriving, but events repeat themselves causing the dragon to return in different forms. From an anthropomorphic beast, to a stingy Victorian land owner and finally something more internal to reflect the damaged post-Brexit times.

Fish out of Water stories are common in storytelling and I don’t necessarily have a problem unless done poorly. In the play’s case what it was trying to illustrate in a meta-theatrical way was how out of place George’s ideals are slowly becoming with the economic growth of England and the historic societal shifts in the general British public. If it wasn’t for the fact that these sociopolitical connotations of the play have latched onto something as fantastical and chivalrous as St George and the Dragon we would be talking about an entirely different British play. What irks me the most is why they didn’t just tell the general story? With two acclaimed people in theatre such as director Lyndsey Turner (Hamlet) and production designer Rae Smith (War Horse, Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, Girl From The North Country) working behind the scenes on the production you would think this would be up to National Theatre standards.

Lyndsey Turner’s directing while competent doesn’t salvage the material and Rae Smith currently one of the best working designers in modern theatre delivered a design that felt sixth-form and unfinished. Normally she creates some of the most outstanding sets imaginable. Her design contributions for Sir David McVicar’s production of Richard Wagner’s The Ring Cycle for Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg won the Grand Prix for Outstanding Achievement in Opera in 2011. The rest of the cast do fine with their roles, but you have to wonder if the material had been better written they could have been an exceptional bunch. This isn’t one of the worst productions in London I’ve seen this year, that honour goes to the Apollo’s recent production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But however the play is an overall disappointment, no energy, no sense of wonder and certainly no originality. A big waste of creative and theatrical potential.

St George and the Dragon runs at National Theatre until 2 December

Shakespeare’s Globe paved the way to London’s theatre scene

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If ever there was a theatre that would mark the beginning of London’s theatre scene, and establish William Shakespeare’s prominent career as a playwright, one would turn their eye towards the famous Globe Theatre. The history behind this famous venue, still standing in Blackfriars for the last twenty years dates back to the Elizabethan age and around the time when England was thriving as a country under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The original Globe was rooted in English Renaissance, which derived from several medieval theatre traditions such as the mystery plays. Which were complex retellings of legends and biblical stories, additionally the italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte and the elaborate masques frequently presented at court came to play roles in shaping the public perception of British theatre. In time and before the reign of Elizabeth I, companies of players attached to the households of leading noblemen began performing in various locations seasonally.

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These tours replaced the performances of the morality and mystery plays by local players and a law in 1572 eliminated the remaining companies lacking the formal patronage by deeming them vagabonds. In spite of hostility from the City of London authorities, the companies maintained the pretense that their public performances were mere rehearsals for frequent performances before the Queen. With the development of private theatres, drama became more oriented towards the tastes and values of upperclass audiences. The first proper theatre as we know it was built in Shoreditch in 1576, the owner James Burbage had obtained a 21 year lease to build the first playhouse that was aptly named “theatre”. By 1599, Shakespeare who had been acting with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men since 1594 paid into the coffers of the company a sum of money amounting to 12.5 percent of the cost of building the Globe. This investment gave Shakespeare and the other leading actors equal shares in the company’s profits and their playhouse.

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For all its hurried completion, the Globe was a triumph and its first decade of use made it not only a favorite with generations of theatre goers, but within Shakespeare’s company. However in later years, the troupe paid a lot to keep it going particularly in 1608 when they could fulfill James Burbage’s original plan for the indoor Blackfriars Theatre, the members chose to extravagantly operate two theatres together. Using the Globe Theatre for the summer and the roofed Blackfriars for Winter. They transferred full-time to the Blackfriars in 1613, after a fire burned down the theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. By then the Blackfriars theatre was already bringing in better profits than the Globe since its smaller house size was compensated by its higher prices. The Globe Theatre was rebuilt a year later in 1614, twenty eight years later however during Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanic rule, along with so many theatres in London the Globe was forcibly closed on the authorization of British Parliament. It was demolished two years later, and its exact original location was unknown to the public until 1989.

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By 1970, an actor named Sam Wanamaker was driven by the notion of reconstructing a replica of the original Globe, for the next 20 years he would pursue the ambition in organizing a recreation of the famous theatre. Sadly before he could see the realization he passed away in 1993, the current Globe theatre currently standing in Blackfriars would not be completed until 1997. To this day it is used as both a theatre and an education resource center, where people can come to learn about Shakespeare and his thirty seven plays. It has also been a starting ground for the careers of famous British born actors such as Mark Rylance, Michelle Terry, Tom Burke and even Richard Madden. In 2014, a replica of the famous indoor candlelit Blackfriars Theatre was opened to the public and named the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in honor of the famous actor.

The history of the Globe remains integral to London’s theatre scene, without the theatre or indeed the works of William Shakespeare, the West End certainly would not have come to fruition in the following centuries. In modern times and in its current incarnation, the Globe continues to be a source of inspiration and fascination to generations of theatre-goers.

Articles Cited:

  1. Gurr, Andrew. “Globe Theatre.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 20 May 2016, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Globe-Theatre#ref90165. Accessed 30 Sept. 2017.

2. “English Renaissance theatre.” English Renaissance theatre – New World       Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/English_Renaissance_theatre. Accessed 30 Sept. 2017

3. “The Globe Theatre.” PlayShakespeare.com: The Ultimate Free Shakespeare Resource, http://www.playshakespeare.com/study/elizabethan-theatres/2189-the-globe-theatre. Accessed 30 Sept. 2017.

4. “The Old Globe Theater History.” The OLD GLOBE THEATER History, http://www.william-shakespeare.info/william-shakespeare-globe-theatre.htm. Accessed 30 Sept. 2017.

 

 

 

Alice’s Adventures Underground – The Vaults Theatre

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is widely considered a remarkable piece of British literature; in modern times it has constantly been a mainstay of the pop culture zeitgeist. The book has been reinterpreted for various film adaptations, most notably: Walt Disney’s famous 1951 animated feature film, Jan Svankmajer’s surrealist 1988 film and the most recent but critically-maligned 2010 film adaptation by Tim Burton. The current revival of The Vaults’ immersive Alice’s Adventures Underground which was a sell-out success in 2015, gives audiences a chance to explore the psychedelic and nonsensical world of Carroll. True to the spirit of the book, you are given a choice at the start: Drink Me or Eat Me, choosing either means one experience will end up remarkably different than the other. For the most part, it is dependent on the card number and symbol you are given. You could end up taking part in an espionage plot to steal the Queen of Hearts’ tarts, hear a story from the wise old caterpillar, be a witness to the nonsensical ramblings of The Mad Hatter and even hear the musical lament of The Mock Turtle. The possibilities are endless in this production.

I have become very fond of immersive theatre having seen The Guild of Misrule’s The Great Gatsby, in which the concept of audiences being part of the story and contributing to the action adds a new layer to the theatrical experience. This new aesthetic allows people to be part of the production and even gain empathy with the psychology and individual dilemmas of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters. It can come as somewhat of a surprise to some of Carroll’s literary devotees that Alice is more of a minor character in this production making it all the more easy for the Audience to essentially to fill in the post. This thankfully plays into the climatic trial scene, as a plot twist regarding the eponymous Alice is unraveled. Samuel Wyer’s production design which traverses The Vaults’ underground tunnels, is both intricate and enrapturing which balances well with the self-assured direction of both Oliver Lansley and James Seager. The cast of ensemble actors go toe to toe on both guiding and creating mischief amongst the audience, and the use of puppetry and improvisation is spot on.

It was deservedly nominated for an Olivier award in 2016 for Best Family Entertainment, which is evidential on the strength of the production itself. For the much younger theatre goers, there is a softer sister show titled “Adventures in Wonderland” that exists alongside this production for ages 5-10. Which has a much tamer approach for those who could potentially be unsettled by aspects of the main show. Running until possibly the last and final time in London on 23rd September, Alice’s Adventure’s Underground is an important date that you don’t want to miss. Rarely will there ever be an immersive show (apart from Gatsby) that can truly rival the current wave of West End shows.

Alice’s Adventures Underground runs at The Vaults until 23 September

Adventures in Wonderland runs at The Vaults until 3 September

Starlight Express to return to the West End…in workshop form

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Starlight Express, the roller-skating musical fantasy by Andrew Lloyd Webber, was announced on 11th August to be making a comeback at The Other Palace Theatre in the form of workshop performances. A workshop is a process in theatre, where a creative team constantly tweaks and makes changes to a show in development based on audience input. These workshops which will run from 14th to 16th of September are involving “members of the original creative team” of whom will be re-exploring the classic musical. Which takes place in a child’s dream where a group of anthropomorphic trains are racing to become the fastest engine. In 1984, the idea of a musical involving roller-skating trains despite Lloyd Webber writing it for his then-young children, seemed very farfetched and heading for failure. Surprisingly, the musical through word of mouth, managed to run at the Apollo Victoria Theatre for 7,408 performances, before closing in 2002. In the time since its premiere, it has undergone a lot of revisions to the songs, musical score, story and even two to three minor characters have been cut. Yet in spite of not being critically praised as: Cats, The Phantom of the Opera or Evita, the musical has retained a strong cult fanbase. It is still playing in a purpose-built theatre in Bochum, Germany since 1988.

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Electra, the flamboyant electric train makes his show-stopping entrance with his song AC/DC.

With that fanbase in mind, as well as the fact that Starlight has not been performed in a full-scale London production since 2002, could the workshops be evidential that the musical could potentially be revived for a new generation of West End audiences? There is acknowledgement that the market for nostalgia is high even in the medium of theatre. Revivals are and have been business-driven ventures for theatre producers, while they never last long, they resonate with audiences. Although Cats played two limited 2014-15 season revivals in the West End, the audience demand for it was so strong to the point where a return to Broadway came swiftly the following year. There is also timing and the years that have passed since a musical originally came to a close. For example, having finished its famous 2012 revival at the Adelphi Theatre, no one expected Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd to make a return in the form of an immersive production that happened to be set in a local Tooting pie shop in South London. The success of this production created by the Tooting Arts Club, prompted Cameron Mackintosh to arranged a limited season transfer to Shaftesbury Avenue, recreating the pie-shop in the process. This year, the production has since transferred to the Barrow Street theatre Off-Broadway.

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John Napier with his model of the original West End production of Starlight Express ©John Napier – 1984

Also technology has advanced since 1984, and what the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent production of The Tempest has proved despite being a work in progress, was that the use of technology through motion-capture effects could enhance a stage production. With consideration to the fact, that John Napier‘s original scenic design for Starlight cost a breathtaking £2.25 million, the argument would be that attempting to convert another theatre into an immersive roller derby like the Apollo Victoria would seem unlikely, considering the risks that were taken in overhauling the original venue. Though I imagine there would be compromise, involved on staging the musical’s spectacular race sequences, as the thrill of being a witness to the live performers skate around the auditorium, was what made audiences come out in droves. Potentially and inevitably, the motion capture special effects could take precedence in the possible revival. It is too early to tell at this juncture, whether or not these workshops will signal the return of Starlight to the West End.

They could be just another in a long line of planned revisions for the long running Bochum production, however as I have said before nostalgia is often a big trend amongst audiences. With Hair soon to be making a big London comeback at The Vaults this year in October, it’s safe to say and to quote one of the songs from Starlight: “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Starlight Express workshop runs from 14-16 September at The Other Palace

Original scenic design by John Napier courtesy of johnnapierstages.com

 

The Pet Shop Boys saved Dusty Springfield’s career

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There are often unlikely collaborations, involving artists and bands from different generations, backgrounds or genres. These collaborations can range from brilliant to bad, to downright bizarre. One of the best that I can think of, is the entirety of the 2007 album Raising Sand which featured the unusual pairing of Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin) and bluegrass icon Allison Kraus. On paper this shouldn’t work, but the chemistry between the two artists shone through on the songs, greatly complemented by the lush music production by T Bone Burnett and the album skyrocketed to #2 in the UK and US, and earned a Grammy Award in 2009. The worst, no doubt, is the misguided coupling of Metallica and Lou Reed on the album Lulu, which was incomprehensible, directionless and did nothing at the time to propel the group or even re-introduce Lou Reed (who died the following year) to a new generation of music listeners. The less said about it the better.

This particular collaboration however, is from 30 years ago and produced not only one of the most enduring songs of the 1980s, but further boosted the careers of artists who were two decades apart. It is impossible however, to talk about the particular song: What Have I Done To Deserve This? without delving into one of the most famous singers of the 1960s, Dusty Springfield. Dusty (born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien) built up a career as a singer throughout the late 1950s, singing with the short-lived pop group The Lana Sisters and her group The Springfields. Around the time of Beatlemania in the sixties, she was gaining success as a solo artist through her collaborations with Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Pino Donaggio and Vito Pallavicini. Her most notable songs were The Look of Love, Wishin’ and Hopin’, Goin’ Back, I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself and You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.

Her big US breakthrough arrived in 1968 with the album Dusty in Memphis, where she worked with producer Jerry Wexler who had worked with some of the big names in R&B and Soul such as Ray Charles, The Allman Brothers and Aretha Franklin. The lead single from the album, Son Of A Preacher Man became a huge trans-atlantic radio hit. Despite being a native of West Hampstead, Springfield’s singing voice felt rooted in the traditions of American soul. She admitted that she was: “a great admirer of artists from Motown, particularly Mavis Staples and what they shared in common was a kind of strength I didn’t hear on English radio.” Following up from the success of Dusty in Memphis proved inconsistent, unfortunately her life was onset by personal struggles stemming from her difficult childhood and drug issues. While she still continued to record, her moments of success became isolated and she failed to re-capture the stardom that she had once enjoyed. The early to mid 1980s seemed bleak for Dusty’s career prospects until a chance meeting with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe paved the way for new career heights.

The Pet Shop Boys had a major hit with the 1985 song, West End Girls and were recording their second album Actually upon being connected to Springfield. Tennant had wanted to collaborate with Springfield from the get-go, but her management only became interested after the success of their debut album Please. The resulting song “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”, co-written with Allee Willis (who also wrote songs with The Rembrandts, Earth, Wind and Fire and The Pointer Sisters), gave Dusty a new generation of fans and charted at #2 in both the UK and US. The song lyrically entails a tempestuous love affair between a man and a woman. Willis spoke of the relationship in the song as: “a dysfunctional one and the couple don’t have the strength to get out, ” as evidenced in the famous closing lyrics:

We don’t have to fall apart, we don’t have to fight 
We don’t need to go to hell and back every night 

The contrasting vocal stylings of Tennant and Springfield complement the song and the production by Stephen Hague, which bridged the gaps between their two distinct musical eras. The song’s success ensured a new lease of life for Springfield’s career, and three years later she released her first album in eight years Reputation, which received songwriting and production input from Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe on songs such as “In Private” and “Nothing Has Been Proved”. “Son of A Preacher Man” in 1994, also had revived interest upon being featured on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Sadly the resurgence wasn’t to last, in 1995 after recording what would be her final album, Dusty Springfield was diagnosed with breast cancer and tragically four years later, passed away on 2nd March 1999 at the age of only 59.

Years after her death, Dusty Springfield is still widely recognized as a key figure in British soul music. Beginning eight years after her death, a second short-lived revival in the UK would follow, producing the likes of Amy Winehouse, Estelle, Duffy, Paloma Faith and, for better or worse, Adele. In 2009, the Pet Shop Boys performed the song live at the 02 Arena with Dusty Springfield projected on the screens of the stage, giving confirmation that some musical collaborations can stand the test of time and still have an impact with listeners.

 

The Pet Shop Boys are courtesy of EMI and Parlophone

Dusty Springfield is courtesy of Atlantic and Parlophone

 

Articles Cited:

      1.”Dusty Springfield.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 28 Apr. 2017. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.

      2. Holden, Stephen. “Dusty Springfield, 59, Pop Star of the 60’s, Dies.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Mar. 1999. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.

      3. “What Have I Done To Deserve This? by The Pet Shop Boys With Dusty      Springfield.” Song Meanings at Songfacts. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.

      4.   “Dusty Springfield – New Songs, Playlists & Latest News – BBC Music.” BBC News. BBC, 27 June 2017. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.

RSC’s The Tempest – Barbican Theatre

 

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Left to Right – Mark Quarterly as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero in RSC’s The Tempest

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest by and large, has been both a platform for theatrical effects and also one of his most curious pieces of theatre. In the special effects department, thanks to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s three-way collaboration with the computer company Intel, and Andy Serkis’ motion capture company The Imaginarium Studios, the production currently running at The Barbican is a triumph. Utilizing various digital projections, encompassing the ship-wreck beach set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis, the motion capture effects lend a mystical and wondrous presence to Prospero’s island. The fluid movement and timing goes hand in hand with Mark Quarterly’s whimsical and scene stealing performance as the fairy Ariel, his partially motion captured movements are evidential that the new ways of achieving theatrical effects through computers can be possible and could provide similar opportunities for future productions.

As a play, The Tempest is very limited on plot, neither having the familial strife of The Winter’s Tale or the psychology of Hamlet. What it does have going for however, is the invitation for audiences to experience the wonders of the island, much in the same way as A Midsummer Night’s Dream indulged in the frolics of the fairies. Connecting the two plays, places authorial context on Shakespeare’s bookended life, beginning his career as a young man and stepping away from theatre in his autumn years brought in the powerful parallel to Prospero snapping his magic staff. Simon Russell Beale is in fine form as the eponymous Duke of Milan turned power-weary magician who is coming to terms with his loss of influence and the inevitable loss of imagination. At times however his performance felt dwarfed by the sheer scope of the production’s effects. Thankfully his final scenes and soliloquy are all the more moving as the night of theatre draws to a splendid close.

The rest of the company did well in their supporting (if thin) parts, being something of a surrogate for the audience as they experience the trials and strangeness of the Island. Gregory Doran’s direction doesn’t break new theatrical ground, but is efficient in the handling of both performance and technology. I hope that computer effects for theatre can reach the full potential in bridging technology and live performance. It’s still a work in progress, but experimentation has been the key to elevating the medium. Despite its shortcomings, whether it is in regards to the material or the crowd pleasing special effects, there is something magical and sublime about The Tempest that still has audiences enraptured four hundred and six years since its premiere.

RSC’s The Tempest runs at the Barbican Theatre until 18 August

The Black Cauldron’s failure changed Disney in a big way

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In the years following the death of Walt Disney, the company were at a stand still, lacking in creativity and without a sense of direction. Their films were not performing well and they seemed to be behind the times. Audiences were changing and with seismic pop culture events in the seventies such as Star Wars, the new wave of American filmmakers and Disco, Disney was regarded as a relic of an era long gone. As the decade and a half progressed, the implication was that the company could never recover and that anything that could remind audiences of their golden era seemed unlikely. Production on their twenty-fifth feature film, The Black Cauldron began with a sense of optimism, but proceeded to plummet. The film is regarded as one of Disney’s big failures and many film and animation historians have regarded it as the film that nearly killed Disney and its animation department. But is the film really as bad as people thought? With every failure comes a story behind it and one that is both fascinating but also a case of what could have been.

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Fflewdur, Taran and Eilonwy discover the “fair folk” in one scene from the film.

The Black Cauldron is Book #2, in a somewhat obscure but well-regarded fantasy series rooted in Welsh mythology, called The Chronicles Of Prydain by an American author named Lloyd Alexander. The series centers around a young boy named Taran and his coming of age journey, (all too familiar in fantasy) from youth to maturity. He starts out as an assistant pig keeper, but dreams of being a grand warrior. His companions included Princess Eilonwy, a girl his age, Fflewdur Fflam, a bard and minor king, Gurgi, a wild beast-man and Doli, a dwarf. With promise of something great, Disney under Walt’s son in law Ron Miller, optioned the film rights for The Chronicles Of Prydain. The only problem was, that although Miller was excited about the project possibilities, back in the mid seventies Ron didn’t think that the then-new guard of animators were ready to take on the big project.

mbcb0Taran and Eilonwy as sketched by Disney animator Milt Kahl.

To the chagrin of the animators, Miller had them work on much smaller lower tier projects; most notably Pete’s Dragon and The Fox And The Hound. As he felt his “Walk before you run” approach, was the prudent course in restoring the company’s greatness. One of the then up and coming animators, Don Bluth, grew tired of the creative decline of the company and promptly left Disney in 1979, taking thirteen other disheartened animators with him. By the time production began on the film, things were already starting to unravel. Joe Hale, the producer of the still developing project, made changes to what was originally a sprawling story, under the pen of Lloyd Alexander and promptly capsulized characters and story elements. The direction soon began to become disjointed; what was trumped as “a classical fairytale combining the most exciting elements of Snow White and Fantasia”, now became severely over budget and inconsistent in theme.

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Concept art of The Horned King by Mel Shaw.

Exacerbating things was the regime change, under the then newly appointed Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Wells. Katzenberg, upon seeing the finished version, deemed the film “dark and troubled” and wanted to re-edit the film. When met with opposition, he went into the editing room and cut twelve minutes of footage. Upon release, The Black Cauldron received mixed reviews (apart from a positive review from Roger Ebert) and bombed at the box office with an overall gross of $21.3 million. At the end of the whole debacle, the animators were moved from the studio, to a warehouse where they would begin to create wonders for the company in the next four years. Watching the movie, you can see that the animators had their hearts in the right place, the visualizing arresting character animation and the sense of atmosphere is evidential, which is certainly the case in any of the terrifying scenes featuring The Horned King (originally a minor villain in the books upgraded to main villain status here).

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The grisly looking concept art of the three witches by then Disney animator Tim Burton.

However story is always key, and you get an impression that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. So much that you aren’t able to distinguish what they were going for in terms of theme – a dark fantasy film or a traditional Disney film. The characters more thoroughly established in Alexander’s books, here seem to all be in search of both identity and purpose. Take for example, how the characters in the books undertake so much development and change and then compare it to the film. Thanks to how much Joe Hale abridged a great deal of the story, you don’t get a semblance of a connection or attachment to them. It’s bad enough that the only character you end up liking is the main villain The Horned King (voiced with breathy and creepy conviction by John Hurt), who also isn’t properly developed.

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The Horned King summons his army of the dead from the cauldron in the film’s climax. 

For all the film’s faults however, you can tell they were really trying to make a good film under a mountain of creative discord and executive pressure. Even after everything had been said and done, the film still does have its fans and may have been more ahead of its time than we thought. In 1997, after much fan demand and after years of being hidden away in the Disney Vault, the film was released on VHS and has since been re-released on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital download. In spite of its cult status, the film’s turbulent production history fated it to be the “black sheep” of the Disney animated canon. In the aftermath of the film’s failure, the company was re-shaped in the intervening years to become more Hollywood minded and since the success of the Disney renaissance era films, has evolved into the multi-media conglomerate most people know of today. As of 2017, the Walt Disney Company still maintains the film rights to The Chronicles Of Prydain. Given how much society and technology has changed since 1985, they could make a more faithful adaptation of the book series. Last year plans were announced for a possible live-action film series. Could Disney possibly achieve what eluded them back in 1985? Watch this space.

Concept art and stills are the property and copyright of Walt Disney Productions.

Articles cited

1. Hill, Jim. “The Black Cauldron” : What went wrong. N.p., 9 Feb. 2006. Web. 14 July 2017.

2. Kois, Dan. “Revisiting The Black Cauldron, the movie that almost killed Disney animation.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 19 Oct. 2010. Web. 14 July 2017.

3. Ness, Mari. “A Demoralizing Disaster: Disney’s The Black Cauldron.” Tor.com. N.p., 08 Oct. 2015. Web. 14 July 2017.

4. Gibron, Bill. “The Black Cauldron: The Less than Wonderful World of Disney?” PopMatters. N.p., 17 Sept. 2010. Web. 14 July 2017.

5. Bey, Adnan. “The Black Cauldron and the Seven Standards of Disney.” The Artifice. N.p., 28 July 2014. Web. 14 July 2017.

King Kong (A Comedy) – The Vaults Theatre

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Mel Brooks once famously said “a good parody should be funny without the viewer watching the subject it’s parodying.” While this philosophy is still true in some cases, it still is based on whether or not the jokes are original or organic. The Vaults, a theatre company in Waterloo, whom I’ve really come to admire for their alternative take on theatre didn’t quite hit the mark this time. King Kong (A comedy) as penned by Daniel Clarkson the same writer behind the hit “Potted” stage shows (which I’m sure were much funnier), tries but never truly does anything creative or new to send up cinema’s most iconic giant ape. I happen to be a fan of King Kong, I have seen the 1933 original by Merian C. Cooper and, for all its flaws, Peter Jackson’s 2005 film. Going in I had the knowledge of what I remembered from seeing both and felt confident that this stage show could deliver a good satire. The story remains pretty much the same, and follows filmmaker Carl Denham’s gamble on sailing to Skull Island to make a motion picture, only for said filmic ambitions to get thwarted when the characters fall foul of the mighty Kong. If you’ve seen both films, you know what happens of course. They take the gorilla back to New York and the rest goes south from there.

The slapstick humour of this show seemed very rooted in the stylings of vaudeville comedy and one liners reminiscent of The Marx Brothers. But whereas the humour in the films of The Marx Brothers was based around natural timing, the jokes here lacked the same punch. A smile only crept in here and there for me because there were times where the production seemed to be improving and then slid down the slope when something barely close to brilliance was surfacing. The production felt like a series of sketches trying to find a cohesive whole, and the intentionally minimalist set felt more at home at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The fourth wall jokes got old fairly quickly and the deconstructive self-awareness towards the 1933 film’s original time period and gender politics seemed forced rather than modernized. I know that the gender politics in the original film weren’t at all politically correct, but there still needs to be some originality and sense of wit around that particular subject.

I know that a parody can be good in the medium of stage theatre; I have seen The Play That Goes Wrong which handled its subject of Agatha Christie and the dire pratfalls of staging an Amateur Dramatics Society production with an amount of freshness while maintaining sustainability. Also most importantly it provides a relatable human focus on the characters. While I applaud the actors here for doing well with the direction and material, I never felt really any connection to the recognizable characters beyond exaggerated caricatures. Some may argue that in a comedy you don’t need to feel much except laugh. The dilemma is that without the necessary substance, you’re not going to be able to care about the people or even laugh.  Funnily enough a reference was made to The Vaults’ other current production Alice’s Adventures Underground. That may in fact be a clue that there is another production worth investing your time in.

King Kong (A Comedy) runs at The Vaults until 27 August

New Radicals: You Get What You Give

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Everyone has a particular song which has a personal meaning, the time and place can have a hold on how valuable that song was. Was it a time in the summer or an early childhood memory of a year gone by? It can vary depending on your memory. A particular memory for me was from the year 1999, despite being too young to remember I recall that it was a great year for mainstream music. Artists ranking in the UK charts at the time ranged from mainstream pop singers (Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys and Madonna), Big Beat DJs (Fatboy Slim, Armand Van Helden), Britpop’s remnants (Manic Street Preachers, Blur, Stereophonics), up and coming rap stars (Eminem), the one acid jazz band (Jamiroquai) and even latin and country music. It was a year of a lot of variety and range, rarely if ever seen in a year of mainstream pop music. It also saw the arrival of bands such as Muse and Travis; the former would become more famous through the majority of the next decade. There was however one little band from Los Angeles, that would gain the spotlight for one particular song and then promptly disappear in the midst of their success. The band New Radicals, were most certainly a band that had the potential to be something bigger beyond their sole album Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, and a great majority of their (sometimes politically heavy) tracks are evidential of frontman Gregg Alexander’s artistic ambitions which will be covered in a later section of the article.

 

On first listen, the song isn’t vastly different than your typical song of the summer that pops up in the charts; it has an overall general airy feel good vibe with a sound that varies between Alternative and Pop sounding. It’s no surprise that it managed to chart at #5 in the UK and #8 in Billboard’s Modern Rock charts. The music video, filmed at the Staten Island Mall in New York feels like a scene lifted from a typical 1990s teen movie, of youths rebelling against the uptight establishment adults. What makes the song stand the test of time however, are the overall universal lyrics that could be fundamentally interpreted as something of a pep talk you’d give to someone in times of a crisis, or a transitional time in one’s life, be it graduation, moving away or starting work. The sing-along chorus illustrates the song’s testimonial and anthemic message in an uplifting and encouraging wave of motion.

You’ve got the music in you
Don’t let go
You’ve got the music in you
One dance left
This world is gonna pull through
Don’t give up
You’ve got a reason to live
Can’t forget
We only get what we give

While so many songs have faded from public memory, the meaning behind this song ages extremely well like fine wine, and takes its cues musically from other timeless eras and sounds: more specifically blue-eyed soul. Despite the uplifting and positive message, it is somewhat neutered by the following off guard outro which many could debate sealed the band’s fate as a one hit wonder.

Health insurance rip off lying FDA big bankers buying
Fake computer crashes dining
Cloning while they’re multiplying
Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson
Courtney Love, and Marilyn Manson
You’re all fakes
Run to your mansions
Come around
We’ll kick your ass in

Gregg Alexander admitted that he wrote the outro as an experiment to test which area of subject matter the public would focus on, the social problems in America or the celebrity bashing. Predictably enough most people focused on the latter. When asked about Alexander, an irate Marilyn Manson responded: “I’m not mad that he said he’d kick my ass, I just don’t want to be used in the same sentence as Courtney Love.” He even added that he’d “crack his skull open if I see him.” Alexander however has since in recent years apologized to Beck and Hanson, even working with the latter on writing the song Lost Without Each Other for their 2004 album Underneath. The break-up of the New Radicals was without any strife or in-band conflict, it simply came down to the fact that Gregg Alexander began to tire of touring and being the frontman in the middle of an album cycle. In a press release, he announced his intention to go into music production and songwriting for other artists:

“I’m going to be turning 30 next year, and realized that travelling and getting three hours sleep in a different hotel every night to do ‘hanging and schmoozing’ with radio and retail people, is definitely not for me,” he wrote. “Over the last several months, I’d lost interest in fronting a ‘One Hit Wonder’ [sic] to the point that I was wearing a hat while performing so that people wouldn’t see my lack of enthusiasm.” 

After that he withdrew from the public eye and immersed himself in the studio. Throughout the first three years of the 2000s he wrote songs such as Life Is A Rollercoaster for Ronan Keating and Murder On The Dancefloor for Sophie Ellis Bextor. In 2003, he won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals for the song The Game Of Love by Santana which featured Michelle Branch on vocals. All was quiet on the press front until 2014, when Alexander came out to promote the soundtrack for John Carney’s 2013 film Begin Again, for which he had a hand in co-writing the songs alongside fellow ex-New Radicals members Danielle Brisebois and Greg Nowels. The film’s particular song Lost Stars earned Alexander and Brisebois an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. Overall a really good outcome and achievement.

 

In spite of the 1990s being long gone, why does the song in my opinion hold up and what personal meaning does it have to me which I’ve taken to heart? I believe universal appeal encapsulates it, and how unlike a lot of other songs from the particular year of 1999, it had no set demographic. While I’ve forgotten the specific time and place, I do remember hearing this song as a kid on the radio and its shelf life since its year of release has been surprisingly long. You can still expect to hear it on Absolute Radio 90s and has made various lists of the greatest songs of the 1990s. Despite Alexander’s success as a songwriter, you have to wonder whether the New Radicals could have been a much bigger band, and Alexander’s subsequent songwriting for other artists could be considered the blue print for what never materialized. Still whatever did or didn’t happen, this song will continue to evolve and endure, even as this current decade of mainstream music draws to a close, becoming both a nostalgic artifact and a song that transcends any era.

Articles cited:

1. Zaleski, Annie. “New Radicals’ only hit,.” The A.V. Club. N.p., 28 July 2015. Web. 05 July 2017. <http://www.avclub.com/article/new-radicals-only-hit-you-get-what-you-give-was-se-222559&gt;.

2. Nme. “RADICAL CAREER MOVE.” NME. N.p., 04 Mar. 2009. Web. 05 July 2017.

3. Staff, MTV News. “New Radicals Discuss Slighting Marilyn Manson And Courtney Love, Manson Responds.” MTV News. N.p., 02 Dec. 1998. Web. 05 July 2017.

4. Bassil, Ryan. “Revisiting the New Radicals Song That Taught Us How to Navigate the Future.” Noisey. N.p., 19 Jan. 2017. Web. 05 July 2017. <https://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/article/8qqada/revisiting-the-new-radicals-song-that-taught-us-how-to-navigate-the-future&gt;.