Theatre review – Abigail’s Party

Abigail’s Party
Grand Opera House, York

I’ve been a fan of Mike Leigh’s work for longer than I can remember. I’ve spent years quoting lines from his classic films Life is Sweet and Naked, while TV offerings such as Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party are also woven into the fabric of British comedy history. The latter, first televised in 1977, was a glorious satire which gave the likes of Alison Steadman and Benidorm’s Janine Duvitski two of the best roles of their careers. 
It’s something of a dream on stage because of the fixed set – a masterpiece of forced perspective which gives it far more depth than the theatre would normally allow. 
Watching Jodie Prenger swaying to Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby in the opening scenes brings all those memories flooding back. 

But when I think about it, how much of the play do I actually know? Aside from lead character Beverly dominating proceedings like some sort of suburban social ringmaster, arguing with estranged husband Laurence, while endlessly topping up the glasses of willowy guest Sue, neighbour Ange and monosyllabic husband Tone, I realise not much. 
Classic one-word lines such as: “DoyoulikeDemisRoussos?” are just the tip of the iceberg. And then I realise it must be 20 years since I last saw it, probably during the BBC’s Abigail’s Party night, back in the days when they used to have themed evenings. 

So for this Leigh fan, it’s actually a bonus that I don’t know the show as well as I thought. And the fact is that’s probably because not a lot happens. Beverly, a powerhouse performance from Ms Prenger, argues with her husband a lot, albeit with death stares and passive aggressive behaviour; flirts with Tony; patronises Ange, and wields power over divorced Sue like a hammer. Except there’s little depth to Bev. She’s one of those people who is outstanding when it comes to hosting a soirée and keeping everyone’s glasses topped up, but scratch beneath the surface of the facade, and she’s  empty. When things take a dark turn later in the show, she’s all bluster and hot air. 
Director Sarah Esdale does a fine job of keeping things ticking over, which is not easy when part of the show relies on awkward, uncomfortable silences. Daniel Casey (Laurence), Corrie veteran Vicky Binns (Angela), Calum Callaghan (Tony) and Rose Keegan (Sue) ensure there’s rarely a dull moment. 

Okay, the cast were a little drowned out by the music in the first few minutes, so a little more volume would have helped for those of us in the Dress Circle, but it didn’t detract from the entertainment too much. 

It’s easy to do this sort of thing badly, poking fun at the relatively affluent 1970s middle-aged set. Had it been penned now, a lesser writer would have thought a few mentions of Vesta curries, Double Diamond, eight-track tapes and Sacha Distel was enough to keep viewers of a certain age entertained, but it’s a far more subtle drama than that. And like so many classic shows of the era, I’m surprised it hasn’t been turned into a musical. It’s almost begging for it, but the inertia of Leigh’s work is what makes the material work. Tone doing very little for the bulk of the show (as he’d rather be anywhere else) is as important as Beverly being the driving force behind the narrative. She’s the personification of that pre-internet era when three TV channels, LPs and no VCRs ensured that social gatherings were more the norm rather than creating a social channel on Facebook. 

Leigh’s working practices have become the stuff of stage and film legend. Glorious improvised sessions in which actors get under the skin of their characters and the narrative is shaped around them. So as much as Leigh is the author, kudos must also go to the likes of Alison Steadman and Janine Duvitski who helped craft this glorious satire more than four decades ago. Fashions and style may have changed, but the core of the drama is still very relevant. 

Even if you have no idea what Pomagne is, Abigail’s Party is a fizzy, bubbly concoction that might be more dated than disco, but not in a bad way. We all know a Beverly, whether male or female, and she’s the key reason why the show works so well in any medium. 
As great as the cast are, It’s testament to Jodie Prenger that I could have watched the whole show with just her on stage, and the others just heard as voices in the wings until those final few minutes when things go pear-shaped. 
To paraphrase Beverly’s glorious, one-word catchphrase. “DoyoulikeAbigail’sParty? It’s fantastic isn’t it?”


Travel – A Voyage Round New Zealand 

A Voyage Round New Zealand 
By Roger Crow/@RogerCrow

Twenty years ago a guy knocked on a farmer’s door in Matamata, New Zealand. The resident was watching the rugby and was non-plussed when the visitor asked if he could look round his farm. Said visitor was a film scout for Peter Jackson, who was planning a film version of Tolkien’s epic fantasy tome. 

“The Lord of the what?” asked the owner, before his son persuaded him this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The farmer agreed, and before long Jackson and company transformed part of his land forever. 

I get the feeling that story has been told countless times in the years since The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies helped turn Matamata and New Zealand itself into major tourist attractions. 
Wandering around the stunning sets I’d witnessed many times in some of my favourite films is a surreal experience. (The permanent set was rebuilt for The Hobbit films a few years ago). 

It’s still early and the weather is a little overcast in Matamata as coach loads full of tourists like me and my partner take photos and pose by hobbit doors. Even if you’re not a fan, the place is an oasis of calm and very tastefully done. 

This is our third Tolkien-related excursion in as many days, having recently explored the forest in Wellington where hobbits encountered evil Black Riders, and the stunning Mount Sunday, which formed the backdrop for the Golden Hall of Edoras. (The structure was dismantled years ago, but it’s such a breathtaking region, it hardly matters). 
This dream trip is the result of a lot of planning, and even more saving. 
Having turned 50 a few months earlier, my mission was to not let the year go unmarked, but have the mother of all adventures. 

So, after an epic journey from Howden to Heathrow on Christmas Eve (not for the faint of heart), Rachel and I fly to Sydney (via Beijing), and enjoy a few days exploring the iconic Australian city before boarding a luxury cruise liner and setting sail for New Zealand. The trip is nicknamed ’Across the Ditch’, an affectionate term for crossing the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, and vice versa. 

Our home for almost two weeks is the same ship featured in the latest run of ITV’s The Cruise, and for this veteran of assorted other voyages, the Majestic Princess more than lives up to its name. 
Sixteen decks; a glorious main theatre, and assorted dining rooms, eating areas, coffee shop and more mean we’re in our element. 
If nothing else it’s great just to get away from the endless Brexit/Trump nightmare, and with no desire to sign up for a WiFi package, it’s quite easy to be happily cut off from the rest of the world. 

I’d planned on coming to Australia for decades, and though my mid-nineties plans fell through, finally making that dream a reality is a major tick on my bucket list. 
New Zealand, on the other hand, had been a goal since I spent countless hours watching documentaries on Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and how he defied the odds to make the biggest film saga ever made in Australasia. 

Our excursions do not disappoint. Before we even set foot on land, we sail through Milford Sound, a fiord in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island.
This gloriously atmospheric region of fog and waterfalls looks like it could have doubled for any prehistoric movie. It’s an unforgettable experience sunbathing on a luxury cruise liner as the backdrop suddenly turns into a scene from a Hollywood dino epic. Had a pterodactyl soared overhead, I would not have been surprised. 

I discover three sea days is my limit before going a little stir crazy, so by the time we set foot on dry land, it’s a treat to explore moeraki boulders – spherical rocks (or concretions) at Koekohe Beach, in Oamaru (also on the South Island). We later enjoy a visit to a Steampunk HQ. As a huge fan of Victorian-inflected sci-fi and fantasy, this mix of art collaboration and gallery is a genre fan’s dream. 

Oamaru is glorious place, bursting with artsy/crafty shops, second-hand book stores and terrific eateries. 
In the days that follow we also sample the delights of Auckland (Piha Beach, where The Piano was partly filmed), and at the Bay of Islands (our last port day), witness a fantastic Maori song and dance ceremony, and best of all get to to row a Maori war canoe. (Top tip: take a waterproof camera). 

The whole thing is obviously not a cheap experience, but it’s worth every penny, and cruising to assorted ports around New Zealand is a lot more fun and stress-free than driving. 
It doesn’t hurt that we get to enjoy some terrific on-board entertainment, including Steve Larkins’ Mercury Rising, the best Queen/Freddie Mercury comedy tribute act I’ve seen. 

Princess have really upped their game since the last time I sailed with them (on a mini voyage round the UK and Ireland). 
Just the in-room movies left me a happy punter, not to mention Movies Under the Stars – a top-deck communal experience, which is a must for those who love nothing more than crashing out on a sun-lounger with a bag of popcorn, and soaking up a great film. 
Oh, and the beds ensure any initial jet lag melts away like many of the delicious ice creams we obtain on the upper deck. 

Okay, there could have been more choices for vegetarians, but that aside the assorted kitchens do a fine job of catering for the thousands of travellers. 
The room service is also very good, as we discovered on New Year’s Day with a selection of breakfast goodies. 
Celebrating several New Years within a few hours is one of those experiences we’ll not forget in a hurry. Five of them in total, including Blighty’s new year at midday.

While there’s plenty of recreational activities, from ping pong, basketball and swimming to enjoy, sometimes it’s the simplest which appeal most, such as trivia quizzes in the Princess Live studio area. Being a movie and 007 obsessive, I’m chuffed when I walk off with two back-to-back wins, but there’s plenty of head-scratchers which leave us happy just to soak up the atmosphere. 

The acid-test for any great holiday is would we do it all again? Well, we’d go via LA, Dubai or Singapore next time for the variety, but in terms of the cruise, a repeat excursion would be a dream revisit in a few years. 

As intriguing as ITV’s The Cruise is, telly cameras don’t really do the Majestic Princess justice. It’s a glorious way to travel, beautifully designed, and little wonder passengers (such as us) bond with it as they trek from port to port. 
In short: it’s one cruise to rule them all. 

Film review- Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie
Directed by Jon S Baird
Starring Steve Coogan, John C Reilly, Shirley Henderson 
Certificate PG

Years ago a friend showed me one of his mum’s most treasured possessions: a photo of Laurel and Hardy during their UK tour. For this lifelong fan of their work, it’s one of those snapshots I’ve never forgotten, and I’m reminded of it many times during their latest big screen incarnation. 

There were many ways to tell the story of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the greatest comedy double act of all time. Chart their rags-to-riches success story, from their first meeting to their success in Hollywood. Or give viewers a taste of that before cutting to the tail end of their story. A riches-to-rags saga if you like. 

Director Jon S Baird (maker of the outstanding James McAvoy offering Filth) and writer Jeff Pope have given us the latter, a bittersweet series of sketches wrapped up in the narrative, with some often unforgettable moments. 
Steve Coogan is a delight as Stan, the driving force of the operation, who is constantly coming up with gags and sketches for their stage and screen work. However, it’s John C Reilly who steals the show as Ollie. There are times he’s so convincing, I had to remind myself that “Babe” hadn’t been recreated from old footage. 

Following the opening, in which they perform in comedy Western Way Out West, and Stan has issues with director Hal Roach (Danny Huston) over pitiful wages and a lack of creative control, we fast forward a few years to their tour of the UK. Norman Wisdom is the hottest name in British showbiz, and the beloved double act are having trouble selling out small theatres. 

Their champion is Bernard Delfont (an outstanding turn from Rufus Jones), the impresario who is the king of positive talk, while using reverse psychology to get what he wants. They may have been huge once, but Stan and Ollie’s star has faded, so with the aid of some publicity stunts, they manage to attract a bigger audience once more. 
Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are terrific as the women in the funnymen’s lives, and there are several moments which left me more than a little moved. 

The final reel will leave many reaching for the tissues. Stan counting down on his fingers to Ollie during the rib tickling ’double door routine’ is hugely touching. Though not a major moment, it sums up the almost psychic relationship between the duo, and the unspoken support between them. 
It’s obviously not a hugely expensive movie, but it’s made with so much heart and skill, it hardly matters. There is comedy gold here, as well as heart-wrenching screen magic. A love story between two comic behemoths whose legacy was once the staple of British TV, and is now sorely lacking. 
In an age when the Beeb think generic consumer and game shows are more important than classic comedy, there’s little wonder fans like me have to track down classic films on streaming services an Youtube. A pity, as Stan alone was arguably Blighty’s greatest funnymen, and he and Ollie deserve regular screenings on BBC Four if nothing else. 

Film review – Glass

Starring James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L Jackson
Certificate 15
Directed by M Night Shyamalan

In 2000, fresh from the success of The Sixth Sense, M Night Shyamalan made Unbreakable, a brilliant spin on the fantasy genre which asked “What if superheroes were real and just didn’t know it?”
It seemed like the first act of any superhero movie – the teaser for something bigger, like the first X-Men movie. It was begging for a sequel, but MNS seemed in no hurry. 
So while he went off and made impressive offerings like Signs and The Village, fans wondered if they’d ever see an Unbreakable follow-up. 
Then, after what seemed like an age, along came Split, a brilliant psychological thriller which gave James McAvoy the role, or rather roles, of a lifetime. His turns as Crumb, a killer with multiple personalities, helped turn Split into a low budget blockbuster, and in the last few minutes it bridged the gap between MNS’s beloved 2000 movie and something bigger. 

So now we have Glass, what should be the final chapter in a trilogy, and for the most part it’s a compelling mix of smart writing, some hefty action scenes and compelling drama. 
Like all great superhero epics, the more it’s grounded in reality, the more believable the fantasy is, and as ’superman in a raincoat’ David Dunn is locked up in a medical facility with the eponymous villain and schizophrenic Crumb, the scene is set for much analysis. It’s like watching a superhero movie in which the characters’ motives are assessed by a psychologist in a DVD commentary. 

As before, McAvoy is phenomenal, jumping between multiple roles, and occasionally terrifying as the murderous head of his psychotic ensemble, The Horde. 
The Beast is once more an impressive creation, all growling malevolence and straining muscles. It’s hard to know whether it’s CG McAvoy, his face imposed onto a bodybuilder, or the real thing. 
Meanwhile, Samuel L Jackson is as terrific as ever as the titular villain, a mostly trancelike character with brittle bones confined to a wheelchair. And after years of humdrum movies, Bruce Willis slots straight back into his role as Dunn, the gifted security expert who catches bad guys by getting vital psychic clues while having a fear of water. 

The smart thing about Glass is it alludes to yet another showdown in a hi-tech skyscraper that seems plucked from any generic superhero offering, but doesn’t quite go down that path. 
If there’s a fault it’s the third act which goes on a little too long, and a pay-off which seems slightly underwhelming, like MNS didn’t know how to end his movie. (We could have done without his cringeworthy cameo in Dunn’s shop – it goes on too long, though is thankfully not as damaging as Lady in the Water). 

It’s great to see Unbreakable’s young star Spencer Treat Clark after all these years returning as son of Dunn, while Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey is as mesmerising here as she was in Split. 
So it’s not quite a runaway success but certainly light years ahead of MNS’s After Earth, or The Happening. 
And seen in a marathon viewing with Unbreakable and Split, it should leave many a genre fan satisfied. 

Travel: Flying Visits to China 

By Roger Crow

“Just a few more steps,” I tell myself while dragging one foot in front of the other. I’m gasping, partly through exhaustion and partly through amazement. 
Juggling a fake Go-Pro (a cheap waterproof video camera on a selfie stick I nickname Go-Crow) and an IPad that keeps shutting down, probably through the cold), I press on to the next summit. And then another. And another. 

There are walls and then there are great walls. Sorry (not sorry) Donald. Not even the greatest bricklayers or Lego masters on earth can make your bonkers ’vision’ a reality on a par with the Great Wall of China. Not unless you have centuries to play with. 
To put this in context, a day before I walked 10 miles around Sydney, so I’ve certainly had a great warm-up for this Sunday morning constitutional. 
Following an epic flight back to Blighty, I’ve stopped off in Beijing again for a flying visit to one of the wonders of the world. 

The first trip here two weeks earlier was a mix of annoying temporary visa application, tiresome passport control and a huge language barrier with our guide, and everyone else, as we explored Tiananmen Square, the Olympic village, the exterior of the forbidden city, and a marketplace filled with delicacies that made some exotic sci-fi movies look tame by comparison. 

As amazing and disturbing as China is, with its epic architecture, vast wealth and poverty, the overriding feeling on my first trip was cold. It felt like icicles being injected into my legs as I explored the huge streets and bustling marketplaces. 

Being a Blade Runner fan, it also felt like the fantasy of big screen 2019 had become reality in Beijing. The only thing missing was the flying cars. Some of the locals certainly had that replicant quality: fresh faced-troops who looked like they’d stepped off a production line on one street and city-dwellers driving motorcycles with what look like oven gloves attached to the handlebars elsewhere. 

On this return visit in the real 2019, I’m armed with a plan: pyjama trousers under my waterproofs. It works like a dream. 

It took between 1500 and 2000 years to build the Great Wall, contains the bodies of countless workers, and makes the beloved walls around York look like child’s play by comparison. This vast construction at times resembles an MC Escher optical illusion drawing: a wall that becomes a mountain of bricks. A mix of crazy angles to aid rain drainage, and the sort of almost troop-defying steps that underlined its military strength. 

I’m well aware that one false move could lead to a very bad day for me and Rachel. But thankfully we enjoy many an “Ooh” at the spectacle without too many “Aarghs”. 
I’ve saved a minute’s ’Go-Crow’ footage from a two-week trek around Australia and New Zealand for something special, and having tottered around this phenomenal construction, I decide that tobogganing down the epic hillside is just the way to finish off the memory card. 

I’ll admit I had little desire to do the whole Great Wall experience, but thankfully Rachel has planned everything to the letter, so when we touch down in Beijing early Sunday morning and spend an hour applying for another temporary visa from a massively understaffed department, fear gives way to curiosity. 

Thankfully this time our guide speaks fluent English, our driver could give Clarkson a run for his money on any track (essential for Beijing traffic), and an hour after setting off from the airport, we’re at the wall. 

A wall with graffiti scratched into its ancient bricks; names scrawled here and there. It’s like scribbling your name on the Mona Lisa. Thankfully we’re among the first to arrive, so the winter sun and loud tourists aren’t in our faces as we make our various ascents. 
As one of Yorkshire’s least fit men, I’m amazed how relatively ’easy’ the journey is. Yes, it’s cold, and juggling cameras is tricky, but being cooped up on an Air China flight for 10 hours from Australia means I’m ’well rested’. 

That and the fact a fellow local traveller in his sixties or seventies makes the various ascents look like a child scaling a staircase. 

“Let’s go,” he smiles, way ahead of me as I watch him scale the almost vertical steps. I give him a round of applause and press on, counting off the steps in 10 and 15-step increments as my muscles wonder what on Earth I’m doing. 
Sorry lazy legs; this is one easy Sunday morning you won’t win. Bucket list and life goals hash tags are calling. That and a few hundred social media posts. 

After ascending via chair lift (where you literally jump on backwards before it mows you down, and jump off before it knocks you out), the descent via winding toboggan on S-shaped bends is a lot more fun and painful. If like me you suffer pain from hyper-extended legs (horse riding also creates an issue), then you might want to give it a miss. If not then put your accelerator lever forward, braking occasionally) and enjoy. 

The Great Wall of China is an experience that redefines the word ’epic’. It’s a vast slice of history; a tribute to the countless souls who lost their lives in its construction, and 13,170 miles of jaw-dropping insanity. 

Historians of course will have their own take on the experience, no doubt pointing out the political context of the wall, and its price. In which case, great. Happy to watch that documentary on TV at some point. But for this traveller who is just happy to seize the day when flying visits arise, I’ll just say the wall is one of those Maya Angelou moments: “Life is not measured by how many breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
And the wall certainly does the latter. 
My take? Whatever gets you to your various summits, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, embrace the fear and be amazed by the result from the top.