Some years back, I interviewed Rabbi Jonathan Black for radio, making a cameo appearance in EastEnders conducting a Jewish wedding. Not already a viewer, I duly researched by watching an omnibus edition and learned how you ‘gotta talk’. Jewish (non-Orthodox) playwright Stewart Permutt did his research by consulting a Charedi friend. So there’s a real authenticity about his protagonist Gideon – what brands of bread and crisps he can eat (Kingsmill and Walkers) and what he cannot drink from (glass).
This was the 10th anniversary of the Tel Aviv University (TAU) Trust’s gala UK showcase for students of The Steve Tisch School of Film & Television. Almost every Israeli film produced in the last 10 years has been made by alumni of the school and the evening gives an opportunity for four aspiring filmmakers to show their developing talent in a series of shorts.
This year the chosen films represent not only life in contemporary Israel for both Arabs and Jews, but also a documentary and a surrealist feature. There’s no doubting the creativity and originality of the work and it’s not surprising that previous entries and their directors have gone on to be recognised internationally.
What better way to open The Other Palace (formerly St James Theatre) than with a wild party? Michael John LaChiusa’s musical takes on Joseph Moncure March’s 1920s poem and paints an unglamorous picture of the dissolute decade with a cast of unsympathetic and pitiless characters. Guys and Dolls it ain’t!
Lush romantic stories are bread and butter to composer/lyricist Maury Yeston, and he writes scores to match. His elegiac music conjures time and place and whether the place is the doomed Titanic ocean liner or Grand Hotel Berlin 1928, the first half of the 20th century seems to be his preferred time.
Hitler apologist David Irving would have loved to have his day – or days – in court face to face with Deborah Lipstadt, the historian he sued for libel for labelling him “one of the most dangerous spokesmen of Holocaust denial”. It is more a strength than a weakness of the film charting Irving’s high-profile defeat by Lipstadt’s team of lawyers that Lipstadt herself maintains a dignified ‘silence in court’.
With its stellar writing team – music and lyrics Burt Bacharach and Hal David, book Neil Simon (based on Billy Wilder’s screenplay for hit comedy The Apartment) – this musical set in early 60s New York is as lovable and eager to be loved as any pedigree pup. It boasts a hero of self-deprecating charm in Chuck Baxter, insurance company junior and wannabe executive dining room key holder. Happily for Chuck, he already holds the keys to a Manhattan studio apartment, discreet walking distance from the office. Jaded middle-aged senior executives aspire to these keys to happiness in their turn for the odd hour’s dalliance with their very personal assistants before they go home to their wives. Chuck seems to hold the keys to his own advancement – the promises are the promotion his superiors offer in return.
The theatre is a storage room in an LA veterans administration hospital. The date is 11 November 1989 – Remembrance Day. Three veterans of three different conflicts, emblematic of a 20th-century world torn apart by war, represent the soldiers scarred by their experiences in the theatre of war. Sporting poppies, they prepare in this makeshift waiting room to be decorated for valour. Private Leslie R Holloway, who saw service (and unnamed horrors) during World War I, is slumped in a wheelchair when Sergeant John MacCormick Butts breezes into the room in his brash suit. His voice is even louder as he whiles away the time by cheerily proving that his prowess at the piano is equal to his prowess in World War II, accompanying himself reprising rousing ditties from different conflicts, from Keep the Home Fires Burning to Over Here. His best endeavours are not enough to rouse Holloway, however, so it’s a relief when the immaculate, dapper figure of Colonel Walter Kercelik marches smartly into the room, so highly decorated during the Viet Nam War that he’s appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
What follows is an unravelling that is as unpredictable as it is terrifying, until it becomes apparent what deep psychological traumas all three men have endured. The sort of damage evident in Holloway’s slouched form is disguised by Butts, with his over-cheerful bonhomie, and Kercelik with his extraordinary outward self-control, encyclopaedic retention of facts and glowing efficiency.
There will be beautiful, insightful and loving obituaries about Rabbi Lionel Blue, the much loved minister, teacher and, famously, speaker on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, from those who knew and loved him well over many years. He was known for his jokes, his insights and his honesty about his homosexuality. Sadly he passed away on Monday 19 December, aged 86. I myself encountered Lionel only at the very end of his life, when he was living in a home in Golders Green, coping with the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease, the cruel condition that rendered it so hard for this extraordinary communicator to do just that, for it made not only movement but also speaking extraordinarily difficult.
To Powell and Pressburger go the plaudits for moulding Hans Andersen’s fairy tale with its hard magic into an allegory of art versus life. To Bernard Herrman the plaudits for writing film music that brilliantly conjures mood and emotion, atmosphere and character. And to Matthew Bourne with his creative team, led by designer Lez Brotherston and composer/orchestrator Terry Davies and with his close-knit family of dancers, goes the glory for taking all this magic and distilling it into two hours of transcendent storytelling that ravishes the senses.
Reviving Murray Schisgal’s 1964 show, unashamedly a mix of absurdist humour and traditional Broadway comedy, is a gamble, especially given our current perspectives on matters of love, sex and the human condition. In lesser hands the gamble might not have paid off, but director Gary Condes has a fine understanding of the material and nudges his cast to find just that right blend between reality and cartoon that made the play a hit over 50 years ago.