Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Who View: The Invasion Of Time

Tom Baker's Doctor isn't quite himself in The Invasion of Time as he returns to his home planet of Galifrey to take presidency, banish his companion Leela (Louise Jameson) to the wasteland  and drop the force field around the planet of the Time Lords to make way for an invasion force lead by The Vardans then ultimately The Sontarans.

Sounds great doesn't it? Re-watching 1977's The Invasion Of Time on DVD this week, I discovered why I have stayed away from this story since it aired in 1977, it makes no sense to me whatsoever.

The Doctor is collaborating with a shimmering tin-foil like alien race called The Vardans in the first few episodes which despite looking totally unimpressive, sound it too, (their voices don't even come across as menacing). When they eventually arrive on Galifrey there are only three of them, (a nod to The Dalek invasion of Auderley House in Day of The Daleks no doubt) and appear to take human form, The Doctor himself, even admits hey are rather disappointing to look at.

The Galifrey scenes are equally unimpressive, shifting between what looks like an old Top Of The Pops set, endless corridors of a disused hospital, a quarry and an elaborately designed lead coated room with clock cogs and wheels (the budget clearly used on designing this).

Once The Doctor comes to his senses and Leela musters up some help from the quarry (I mean wasteland) the Vardans are banished by the end of episode four. Hooray! Not quite - perhaps the most dramatic point of the story occurs at this episodes climax when The Sontarans arrive.

Unfortunately it doesn't get much better after that, we have four Sontarans invading Galifrey, (as opposed to seven guards and around seven Time Lords). The action then shifts to The TARDIS for the next two episodes as The Doctor and his friends take refuge in it, except because of industrial action, the scene shifts back to the disused hospital to make up alternative corridors and rooms. Unconvinced? So are The Doctors friends as they criticise the look of it "I'm a time traveller, not a painter and decorator" pleads The Doctor.

The story wraps with Leela's departure to stay back and marry the guard commander Andred (who?, exactly!) and K9 also decides to stay too, but we know he'll be back the next season with a MK II version.

Although The Invasion Of Time left me wondering what was going on most of the time, I think the concept and story is a great idea. Particular highlights are John Arnatt as Borusa and Milton Johns as the sneaky Castellan Kelner. My whole issue is the final execution was unconvincing from the poor excuse of invaders The Vardans (who lacked conviction) to the rasping Sontarans (who lacked numbers). In fairness, I'm aware the production of this story was hampered by industrial action and was a hasty rewrite because another tale was going to prove too much to make. Fair enough, but surely it must have crossed someones mind that invading The Doctor's home planet might be also quite ambitious to do effectively?

Leela's departure was also unconvincing and not fitting with such a great character, I think Louise Jameson has it right that Leela should have been killed off saving The Doctor's life, although that would have been nigh on impossible given the fact that Leela was more than capable of taking out the entire Vardan and Sontaran force on her own. The Doctor's farewell to her seems detached and unmoved.

Not the best example of Tom Baker era Doctor Who, but certainly a good example of cast and crew muddling through to make the best of a story hampered by industrial action.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Theatre Review: Eric and Little Ern, Newport Riverfront

Morecambe and Wise were the funniest comedy double act on television during the 1960s and 70s and even though their partnership ended when Eric Morecambe died of a heart attack in 1984 their popularity has endured.

Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens stage presentation Eric and Little Ern is therefore most welcome. A tribute to Morecambe and Wise’s greatest comedy moments combined with dialogue of what Ernie might have said to Eric had he had the chance to see him one final time.

The opening scene, set in a private hospital room has an ailing Ernie visited by Eric (in Doctor Coat) and transformed back to Morecambe and Wise’s glory days. Classic scripts from the pens of Eddie Braben and Hills & Green were thrown into the mix including Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Eric’s throwaway comment when a police car siren wails past the hospital window, “He’s not going to sell a lot of Ice Creams going at that speed.”

Of course, it’s not just the dialogue that makes Eric and Little Ern brilliant, its Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens delivery and portrayal as the duo. Everything is there from the face slapping to the adjusting of Eric’s glasses via Des O Connor jokes and dance routines.

Sunshine and laughter certainly came into the Riverfront Theatre as the pair kitted out in trademark suits performed famous Eric and Ernie routines in the second half of the show.

Let’s hope it’s not too long before this brilliant show returns to Wales, as Eric Morecambe might have said, “Keep going you fools!”

Sunday, 12 October 2014

CD Review: Madness - One Step Beyond (35th Anniversary Edition)

One Step Beyond is 35 years old, yet this special edition release containing the original album, a 14 track 1979 rehearsal tape and comprehensive booklet comes marching onto the review desk with all of the Madness charm and charisma while still bustling with excitable energy.

As debut albums go, this ones a gem, it contains four (now classic) hit singles One Step Beyond, My Girl, The Prince and Night Boat To Cairo and demonstrates the bands creativity as they marry the world of ska with storytelling in Bed and Breakfast Man and Mummy's Boy.

The band also demonstrate themselves as excellent instrumentalists turning Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake into an upbeat ska track.

Much of Suggs and Co's popularity grew from their television appearances and comic pop videos making them the heroes of many a schoolboy across the UK and we have several here on an additional DVD including an appearance on Top of The Pops that got them banned for several weeks.

You'd be mad to miss this release, even if you bought it on vinyl the first time around, this is all you'll ever want and more from Madness' One Step Beyond.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Who View: Kill The Moon

Perhaps the most surreal Doctor Who episode so far this series, Kill The Moon sees The Doctor,  Clara and Courtney on a space shuttle heading for a crash course with the moon in 2049.

Coming across Captain Lundvik and two other astronauts on the shuttle, the group crash land on the lunar surface.

Finding a mining base full of corpses and vicious spider-like creatures poised to attack, Clara finds herself given a dilemma that only she can decide the outcome as The Doctor disappears.

The Doctor seems to have acknowledged here that he maybe interferes a little too much and steps away from an earth shattering predicament, needless to say it backfires as it displays how much The Doctor is depended on to solve scenarios. With Clara basically threatening to disassociate herself from The Doctor , I am almost at liberty to plead give him a break for at least a week.

This episode seemed a little implausible despite having some fabulous mutant spiders in it, I'm also getting a little tired of the current Doctor companion dynamic, or lack of it, Capaldi's Doctor almost screams independence for me, maybe Clara and The Doctor really do need some away time from each other.

Monday, 6 October 2014

CD Review: R.O.C. By R.O.C.

The genre unspecific R.O.C. have reissued their 1995 debut album before releasing a new EP on us before the end of 2014.

This album is a mixture of installation pop, samples and instrumentals, much of which wouldn't sound out of place on a movie soundtrack with a disturbing plot line.

Desert Wind, Hey Chick and Dear Nicky are perhaps the most accessible tracks reminiscent in places of Saint Etienne while Excised and Thirteen Summers seem to either be self indulgent or possess moments of experimentation that remain curiosities rather than classics.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Television Review: Cilla

I rarely watch any ITV drama these days, mainly because I usually hate the dumbing down of the channel's television output and increase in commercial breaks within their programmes.

However, I made an exception in the case of Cilla, the dramatisation of the early music success of Cilla Black and her relationship with road manager/ boyfriend/ future husband Bobby Willis and manager, Beatles Svengali, Brian Epstein.

All to little is made of Cilla's chart hey-day in the 1960s. It was an era where her popularity rivaled that of British contemporaries Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw and Lulu. Audiences tend not to remember Cilla beyond her 80s game shows Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise

My early memories of Cilla are still very much of her as a popular singer turned TV star, fronting her own prime-time TV show in the early 70s, singing duets with either Cliff Richard or Marc Bolan and surprising unsuspecting members of the public by tapping on their door on a Saturday evening as they were watching her show (she never came to our house which as a five-year-old I always hoped she would!). So, a drama on Cilla's early years was certainly going to have some appeal to me.

Cilla redresses the balance of any preconceived ideas today's audiences may have on Cilla Black, peeling back the veneer of tv presenter and game show host  to the sassy Liverpool girl that sang at Liverpool's Cavern Club in the early 1960s alongside Kingsize Taylor, The Big Three and a (then) little known group called The Beatles.

The drama follows Cilla's struggles and how she was supported and encouraged by Bobby as well as close friend Ringo Starr. Cilla's failed audition with Brian Epstein, her eventual chart success and the struggles that followed including an unsuccessful bid for American stardom. There are also glimpses into the sad private life of Epstein, something rarely given so much detail in Beatles dramatisations but perhaps given more clarity here.

The lead actors really make Cilla compulsive viewing for anyone who has a love for 1960s music. Sheridan Smith is excellent as a young Cilla, making her believable while bringing a natural sassy flare to the role. Smith also rises to the challenge of showing how Cilla's public persona evolved as well as displaying her unseen behind the scenes ruthlessness in the third episode. The treat undoubtedly is Smith's renditions of songs such as A Shot Of Rhythm N Blues, Anyone Who Had A Heart, You're My World, Step Inside Love and Burt Bacharach's marathon Alfie recording session.

Similarly Aneurin Barnard brings Bobby Willis from the background to the forefront, highlighting how he really pulled things by emerging as a strong person from  a difficult family background to ultimately been the rock Cilla needed in her life. There are also teasing glimpses of Bobby's talents as a singer and songwriter and how he could equally have been a star in his own right.

Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein and Elliott Cowan as record producer George Martin help add authenticity to the drama, while the recreation of Cavern club and Iron Door performances in earlier episodes brought a vital energy to Cilla's story. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Cilla, both her and Bobby's story was one that clearly had to be told and proved compulsive without the usual need to have an overblown sex, drugs and rock n roll storyline.

Cilla was all the better for focusing on the energy of the music and the evolving love between Cilla and Bobby, set against the atmospheric backdrop of 1960s Liverpool lovingly recreated by the shows designers. As John Lennon wrote in 1967, "Love is all you need" and that was certainly put into this dramatisation.

CD Review: Heartleap by Vashti Bunyan

Incredible to think that Heartleap is only Vashti Bunyan's third studio album since Just Another Diamond Day in 1970.

Vashti's work goes right back to the mid 1960s and fans of her breathy angelic vocals and searching lyrics will welcome Heartleap

The album is almost reflective in feel with track highlights Across The Water, Holy Smoke and The Boy and worthy of a listen in quieter moments.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

CD Review: Unravelling - We Were Promised Jetpacks

Unravelling is Scottish Indie rockers We Were Promised Jetpacks third album release. 

Contrary to the album title this release finds the band very much together, mixing strong power house rock with driving guitars and vocals that sway between the undeterred focus of Safety In Numbers to the melancholy of Moral Compass, itself a track that could easily find itself swallowed into the soundtrack of a moody American drama series or film at some point in the future.

A version of this review by Andy Howells appeared in The South Wales Argus supplement The Guide on October 3, 2014

Who View: The Caretaker

The Doctor going undercover is always tricky. Previous incarnations have tried it, think The first Doctor as The Regional Officer of The Provinces in The Reign Of Terror or The Third Doctor as a milkman or a cleaner in The Green Death. The truth is, The Doctor is way too loud and proud to be inconspicuous which is probably why Clara in full teacher mindset is concerned when he turns up as a caretaker at Coal Hill School in last weeks Doctor Who episode.

The Doctor is on the trail of the Skovox Blitzer but perhaps just as worrying for Clara is The Doctor's meeting with her new boyfriend Danny Pink.

As so far proven with this series of Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi is doing something quite different with his interpretation of The Doctor. I say different, there are many elements of other early Doctor's existent within this incarnation, Hartnell's tetchiness, Pertwee's matter of factness and Tom Baker's unpredictability.  Capaldi's additional Scottish eccentricities do make him a very different emotionally heightened Doctor, with quick elements of sardonic wit in places. 

I get the impression this Doctor is already keen to move on from his past, and I think that also means Clara Oswald, herself seemingly changing from the last series, no more an impossible girl, but more grounded and slightly predictable.

The Caretaker however, still produced some great moments, particularly between The Doctor and Coal Hill pupil Courtney Woods, recalling Doctor Who's original Grandfather - Granddaughter dynamic between The First Doctor and Susan, (or even Peter Cushing's 60s film Doctor and the younger Susan) with an almost comic edge.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Theatre Review: Simon Callow in The Man Jesus, Newport Riverfront

What a scoop for Newport Riverfront to play host to Matthew Hurt’s play The Man Jesus (Saturday, September 20, 2014) - a dramatic, energetic and funny one-man performance by the enigmatic Simon Callow.

Callow took the audience back some two thousand years to witness key moments in the life of “The Man Jesus” through the eyes of the people who knew him including his birth mother Mary, half-brother James, John The Baptizer, Simon, Judas Iscariot, Herod and Pontius Pilate.

In a day and age where people seemingly have less time and inclination to either embrace the Bible as anything but one dimensional stories, it was refreshing to see Simon Callow bring these scenarios to life with undeterred enthusiasm.

The play twisted and turned from comedy to drama.  Herod’s apparent compassion “I love my father – he’s dead!” was a stark contrast to Jesus causing a riot in the temple , which involved Callow throwing numerous chairs (a pile of which were his only props) across the stage.

Callow’s performance was faultless throughout switching through a variety of regional accents to bring depth and realism to the characters he portrayed. This was enhanced with careful lighting which the actor utilised to his full potential.

The Man Jesus brought a familiar collection of stories vividly to life through the performance of Simon Callow and deserves to be witnessed as a master class in the one-man performance. Should you have the opportunity to see it in the future – embrace it!

A version of this review by Andy Howells was published in The South Wales Argus on September 24, 2014

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Theatre Review: Role Play, Dolman Theatre, Newport

Emma Hazelhurst and
James Reynolds in Role Play
Photo: Phil Mansell
Writing reviews over the last few years has seen me publish items for the local press and the internet.  In the case of Newport Playgoers' production of Alan Ayckbourn's Role Play back in 2011, I wrote the standard 250 word review for The South Wales Argus and a more detailed review for a magazine content website. As that review has not been on line for some time, I'm reproducing it here.
Between 17 May and 21 May 2011, Newport Playgoers staged Alan Ayckbourn's drama Role Play at The Dolman Theatre, Newport, South Wales. The directional debut from Judith Lindwall focused on the events of a dinner party from hell and the misconceptions of the characters that attended it. 
Along with Game Plan and Flat Spin, Role Play formed the third and final part of Alan Ayckbourn's 2001 Damsel's In Distress trilogy originally performed by The Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. 
The plays were only linked in that they featured a female protagonist in an extraordinary situation, and dealt with several recurring Ayckbourn themes including a lack of communication between individuals, relationships, technology failure and the death of love. 
Role Play is set in a London Docklands apartment and joins Justin and Julie-Ann as they prepare a dinner party to announce their forthcoming engagement. The storm raging outside is almost a prophecy of things to come as the pair attempt to keep up appearances for Justin's sherry drinking mother Arabella and Julie-Ann's parents, Derek and Dee, who are travelling all the way from the North. 
Justin and Julie-Ann's seemingly perfect pairing already has cracks in it. This becomes apparent in the opening moments of the play when the highly strung Julie-Ann panics at the loss of a fork from the dinner set and makes a suggestion  that the couple abstain from sex for the next three months before their marriage. 
Dealing with Julie-Ann's tantrums and his mothers drunken interruptions via the phone, Justin's evening takes an interesting diversion when an ex lap-dancer called Paige Petite from the apartment upstairs spectacularly falls onto his balcony. 
Paige is on the run from her violent boyfriend and his gun toting bodyguard Micky whom shortly afterwards bursts onto the scene. As Micky and Paige await her boyfriends return from Birmingham they decide to crash Justin and Julie-Ann's dinner party which leads to revelations, confusion and much in the way of comedy and drama. 
Cassie Bowkett and Jamie Jarvis brought the characters of prissy Julie­-Ann and Justin to life.  The pair illustrated the couples tolerance of each other via heated arguments and a lack of communication akin to a couple who are closer to breaking up rather than starting a life together. 
Jarvis had some delightful scenes to react to, for as well as an over-bearing girlfriend, his character also has to deal with a bigot, a gun to his head, a drunken mother and a damsel in distress in the form of the plays reluctant heroine Paige Petite. 
Emma Hazelhurst with
Jamie Jarvis & James Reynolds
Photo: Phil Mansell
Emma Hazelhurst endeared the audience with her portrayal of Paige, an East-End girl who has fallen on hard times. Not only did she portray the character with sensitivity but also delivered her humorous lines with a touch of irony.  While making polite conversation with Julie-Ann's parents the judgemental but slightly dim witted Jobson's, they quiz Paige on her career as a dancer "Have you been in anything we might have seen?" "I Hope not" she replies decidedly.  Later on, there's a further wonderful moment, "Do you dance Cappella?" ask the Jobson's.  "No" responds Paige, "I've only been as far as Amsterdam". Hazelhurst as Paige also shined in moments when she wasn't at the forefront of attention reacting to the other characters and getting the chance to turn the tables by performing a lap dance routine much to the shock of the other characters. 
Rose Bissex brought a lot of laughter to the role of Justin¹s confused sherry drinking mother Arabella. Her confusion over who was actually Justin's girlfriend and her drunken collapse at the end of the first act only to be replicated in exactly the same position at curtain up in the second made excellent comedy. 
James Reynolds as Micky with John Sheen and Sue Morgan as The Jobson's also provided strong support and equally had moments to shine in this marvellous production. There was also a fully functional well designed set made up of Justin and Julie - Ann's apartment which allowed the cast to move freely around the stage and disappear in and out of doors as the narrative commanded. 
Although Role Play includes language that some people may find offensive, this is never used to gain cheap laughs. Ayckbourn¹s skillful writing delivers some wonderful scenarios situated around a dinner party from hell and with the skillful cast of The Newport Playgoers at the helm made this a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable production. 
For news on Newport Playgoers productions visit their website


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