Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Emmys Best Dressed

I miss awards season.

There's just not enough pretty in the world without it, y'know? People need more excuses to wear ridiculously expensive OTT gowns and for that to be ok. We've had nothing like that since Cannes. Sigh.

Luckily, for reasons best known to someone else, the Emmys (and the MTV VMAs but OMG did you see the car crash that was that red carpet?!) have their ceremony outside of awards season providing a little glamour fix to keep me going. It's not high high fashion - no Dior, no Chanel, no Gucci Premiere, only one Armani Prive - but it's something.

Here's my pick...

January Jones in Prabal Gurung

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My favourite of the 8 million red dresses on the very red Emmys carpet. I love the detail of the fabric, I love the high-low hem and I love the overall impact that this gown has. It's definitely the biggest 'fashion moment' of the lot.

Jessica Pare in Lanvin

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Opting not to wear a gown, this classic Lanvin LBD is gorgeous. No fuss, no messing around, just understated elegance. There wasn't much black on the carpet this time so nice to see it being used to effectively here.

Heidi Klum in Zac Posen

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Heidi so often looks like mutton dressed as lamb so it's nice to see her in something much simpler. This dress is all about the fit - which is perfect - and finding the right shade of red to match her skin tone. I'm also a tiny bit obsessed with the cape detail. Good to see something less structured from Zac Posen getting a red carpet outing too.

Amy Poehler in Theia

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We don't often see Amy P in all out glitz but man does this look work for me. I love the delicate beading, minimal styling and the silver against her skin tone is beautiful.

Sarah Paulson in Armani Prive

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One of the few people to wear a traditional fashion big gun, I love this intricately detailed gown. Red and black is a fantastic combination and this is such an effective way of using it. The Gothic net overlay is to die for.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Review: Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies

As I imagine I've mentioned many times before on this blog, Hilary Mantel is my favorite author and Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are my favourite books. Ever. (Sorry, A Song of Ice and Fire.)

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way. Both books have legions of fans and have won the Booker prize. And now both have been adapted for stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company (and screen too - the BBC’s take is currently in production).

The phrase ‘adapted for’ is often enough to strike fear into the heart of book lovers, particularly when the book or series in question is one you really love, but when it’s done well it’s exhilarating to see the characters you love so much brought to life. It’s a risky business though, especially with books as popular and critically acclaimed as Mantel’s. I doubt I’d have been the only one who would've been devastated if these plays hadn't done justice to the books.

Thankfully, this isn't a concern: the plays are utterly, utterly fantastic.

Unusually for me, the first thing I want to rave about is the direction. The source books are long, there’s no getting away from this fact. There’s easily five or six hours of material in each and I was concerned about how this would be condensed into watchable plays. Obviously there are some cuts - mainly to secondary characters and their scenes - but the action is so swiftly paced that these are kept to a minimum. But the action doesn't feel at all rushed though, it just feels urgent. This sense of momentum is helped along by clever stage direction in which characters who are in successive scenes rarely actually leave the stage. They walked to the edge of it, turn round and come back, which sounds daft but actually really works in keeping the play pushing forward. The completely bare ‘concrete’ set helps here too - as there are no changes in scenery, and only the occasional prop, the idea of the characters entering and leaving different rooms or buildings is visually less important. Who cares if they go off stage or not?

With source material as good as these plays have, it would be deeply depressing if they weren't well written. And thankfully they are. Mantel writes excellent, punchy dialogue and much of this is incorporated wholesale into the script, which is uniformly brilliant. The thing that really struck me about the writing though was the difference in tone between Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. This is evident to an extent in the books but was really emphasised in the plays, with Wolf Hall being almost a knockabout comedy while Bring Up The Bodies something much darker. That’s an oversimplification of course, most of my blogs are, but there was a marked difference and it was worked very effectively, really adding depth to the characters’ development and story.

Excellent writing deserves excellent acting and these plays have the latter in spades. I said in a post earlier this week that My Night With Reg must have one of the best ensemble casts in London and surely Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, who share one cast, have the other. There’s not a single weak link amongst them, even though most also have the challenge of playing multiple roles (often multiple important roles too: the actor who plays Cardinal Wolsey in both plays also has Archbishop Warham in the first and Sir John Seymour and the jailer at the Tower of London in the second for example!) It feels rude to single any one person out from such an outstanding ensemble, but Nathaniel Parker and Lydia Leonard are a perfect Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn capturing with fantastic effect the arc of their relationship. Parker’s Henry was particularly good, I felt, in Bring Up The Bodies where he’s allowed to show a bigger range of emotion - from besotted to angry via afraid and injured (physically and emotionally).

The one person who it would be rude not to single out, though, is Ben Miles. His Thomas Cromwell is spectacular. It’s a huge part in terms of sheer amount of lines, he’s rarely off stage in the entirety of the almost six hours combined running time, but it’s even huger in terms of the range and depth of character. He plays Cromwell as an East End wide boy type - in no way how I imagined him but, if you think about it, exactly what he was - all quick wit and cunning. In Bring Up The Bodies the character effortlessly develops into something darker and more ruthless. Nothing about his performance feels forced or obvious, it feels natural and completely believable. It’s genuinely scintillating stuff to watch and a performance that demands attention (and surely some awards). I could rave about him for days but I imagine you’d all get bored and wander off. Suffice to say I was impressed, almost Branagh-levels of impressed.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, taken as one piece of work as they should be, is by some distance the most enjoyable, exciting and technically accomplished theatre I've seen in London this year. I would also recommend seeing the two plays in one day as I did because I can only imagine how awful the anticipation of seeing the second one is if you have to wait. I mean I only just lasted the three hours between matinee and evening. It’s really, genuinely great stuff that everyone - familiar with the book or otherwise - should definitely see. 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Review: My Night With Reg

First things first, this post is about a play. Not anything else you might have been thinking of. Just to clear that up. 

Moving on...

My Night With Reg is an early 90s play by British playwright Kevin Elyot. It follows a sextet (great word) of gay men over four years of their collective life and individual lives. Over the course of the play (a short course it should be said, the play is only about 110 minutes long and runs sans interval) it is revealed that all but one of the group - uptight, chaste, sweet Guy - have slept with the titular but absent Reg. There’s flamboyant David, who is Reg’s long term partner; rich kid John, the object of Guy’s unrequited love, who is having a 6 month affair with Reg; odd couple Benny (an alpha male bus driver) and Bernie (“he redefines dull”) who’ve both had one night stands with him; and naive new kid in town Eric who also has a one stand stand with Reg but doesn’t even get to know his name. In the second scene of the play it is revealed that Reg has died of Aids.

This isn’t an ‘Aids play’ in the same way that, say, Angels in America or The Normal Heart is though. It’s not angry and it’s not political. Aids is never directly mentioned once, the power and weight that the word undoubtedly carries is implied through the excellent writing and acting instead. It is a tragic play, certainly, but it’s also a very funny comedy of manners. A tragicomedy that actually works, that rare thing.

This is a phenomenally well crafted play with beautiful dialogue, both funny and tragic. It plays on its themes of love, loss and betrayal subtly but fully. The scenes between Guy and John in particular are fantastic, Guy’s all consuming love for John being both the source of much of the humour and even more of the tragedy of the play. Trying very hard to avoid the dreaded spoilers, there are two deaths in this play and the contrasting ways that John reacts to them is heartbreaking. Although the play is set in the 1980s, the way it deals with its themes so sensitively allows it to still be 100% relevant today - despite it’s love of The Police.

It helps that the cast must surely be one of the finest ensembles on the London stage right now. They are all excellent, but special mention must go to Jonathan Broadbent’s adorable, neurotic Guy and Julian Ovenden’s complicated John. The former in particular could easily become an unbelievable stereotype in less skilled hands, something that would be a disaster for the heart of the play and that Broadbent deftly avoids. Ovenden’s John almost crumples before your eyes over the course of the play, starting off as the cocky, unreliable cad about town but ending as a heartbroken, scared shell with every single one of his insecurities, fears and losses written on his face. He also looks pretty damn good naked, just FYI (if you’re not ok with some fairly prolonged male nudity then this is not the play for you).

If I had to criticise, then the play’s third scene (which I’m trying very hard not to spoil) is fairly predictable once you realise what situation is being played out. That doesn’t diminish its emotional impact for one instant, though. And I did have some issues with the character of Bernie, who is so boring and socially unaware that he does at times feel a bit like a caricature. That said, his moment of real emotion (again, avoiding spoilers) is beautifully written and acted. Minor quibbles aside, this is a really excellent evening of theatre.

I’d urge you to go and see My Night With Reg, but as it’s playing at the tiny Donmar Warehouse the whole run is already inevitably sold out. The Donmar does do seated and standing day tickets though if you have the patience for such things. It’s certainly worth it.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

A day out at Arundel Castle

West Sussex is a lovely part of the world. Really, properly lovely.

I’ve lived here for just over 13 months now - that’s gone crazy quick! - and I love it. It was a big risk for me packing up my life in York (also really, properly lovely by the way) and carting it 250 miles down south but it was absolutely the right move for me. I’m 100% happy here.

That said, I definitely don’t make the most of living here. I have a list of places in I want to visit and explore that’s as long as my arm and just keeps growing. My average week goes thusly: I work 9-5 Monday to Friday, fall asleep on the sofa after doing some yoga most evenings and then spend the weekend either in London or catching up with sleep and housework. I really must try harder.

For once, though, this weekend I managed to cross somewhere off my ‘to visit’ list. And it was one from the very top of that list too - Arundel Castle.

Before we start let’s just get one thing clear: this is not the castle from Frozen. Similar name, different spelling and, crucially, Arundel is actually real. Arundel is a medieval castle dating back to the 11th century and the seat of successive Dukes of Norfolk from the Howard family. Although the original castle is medieval - and some of it still stands - the majority is the result of centuries of renovations, most notably in the Victorian period.

And it is stunning. Approaching the castle from the entrance to the estate is like approaching Hogwarts from Hogsmead.

Look at that. A proper castle! It’s a shame that photography inside the building wasn’t allowed as that was beautiful too. In particular the chapel - the big rectangular bit with huge stained glass windows on the left by the tower in the photo above - is breathtaking. The stained glass is so beautiful (and I went on a gloriously sunny day which really showed it off) and the vaulted ceiling constructed from stripes of white and grey stone made me almost literally drool. I love a good vaulted ceiling, me.

I also neglected to take any photos in the separate FItzalan Chapel - a smaller, less ornate but no less interesting chapel in the grounds of the castle which houses the remains of generations of Howards - because I always feel a bit weird about taking photos of tombs, however beautiful they might be. You’ll see it’s pretty exterior in several of the following shots though.

I did manage to take some photos from the castle’s keep. One of the oldest parts of the building, the 144 rickety stairs are well worth it for the beautiful views.

The view out to sea, across Arundel town
I’m not much of a gardener, but the grounds at Arundel are amazing. They’re fantastically varied for a start. Some parts are left almost wild, there’s a traditional rose garden, a fantastic kitchen garden (with the best purple sprouting broccoli I’ve ever seen!) and fascinating glass houses growing everything from chillies to peaches.
Apples growing in the kitchen garden
But the undisputed highlight must be the Collector Earl’s Garden. What looks like a traditional formal garden turns into much more than that on closer inspection of the beautiful, colourful plants and novel display.
Apples growing in the kitchen garden

Impressed with the intricacy of the stone work in all these photos, right? Wrong - none of that is stone, it’s all carved wood. Such a simple, clever and unexpected idea!

One of my favourite parts of the garden were the innovative grottos.

The inside of this grotto was thatched in moss and dried leaves

The stunning shell covered one was originally constructed for a performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream as a grotto for Oberon. Isn’t it cool? I love the ‘floating’ crown.

The gardens also offer superb views of Arundel’s beautiful cathedral, which I didn’t have time to visit on this occasion but will definitely go back to check out.

The cathedral and with the Midsummer Nights Dream grotto in front

So basically I’m a big fan of Arundel Castle. And the rest of Arundel for that matter. I’d highly recommend a visit - there are direct, reasonably quick trains from London Victoria - and at £18 for the whole castle, grounds and ‘out buildings’ it’s a great value day out.