Saturday 10 October 2009

Theatre: The Sound of Music: UK tour 2009

For about a year, my best friend had been promising me a trip to see The Sound of Music if we could find a localish production. I thought it unlikely because of something to do with the licence: it was being performed professionally in London's West End, so I thought amateur companies wouldn't be allowed to put it on - my dramatic society just about got away with Oliver! last year.

But we were saved a trip up to the Capital when The Sound of Music came to us, or as close to "us" as you can expect, doing a run at Southampton's Mayflower Theatre. As it was running for a month, the end of September until the end of October, I decided to make a birthday trip of it.

Before, I had only seen the film, so wasn't quite sure what to expect. The opening certainly wasn't expected - instead of Maria whirling around the hills with the title number, the nuns were wandering around the stage singing nun-ish things in latin with beautiful harmonies.

Alas, after that opening, the song, "The Sound of Music" didn't quite live up to expectations. Connie Fisher ('er off the telly) had a very sweet, pure voice, and from here on I have no problems with her, or the show at all, but after the harmonies of the nuns' song, it didn't quite seem like the big theatrical number that it is in the film. After all, it is a solo, and Connie Fisher isn't Agnes from Terry Pratchett's Maskerade - she cannot sing in harmony with herself. I also had a fear, at first, that her voice wouldn't carry over the orchestra. This was only a momentary worry, I stress, and my only other criticism of the show is that it was over too soon.

Connie is absolutely lovely as Maria. She plays the part very much like Julie Andrews in the film, with, if it's possible, more childlike energy and mischief. I found her very believable as the devout, well-meaning novice who just can't stay out of trouble.

Michael Praed played Captain Von Trapp, and to him, too, could be applied the overused adjective "lovely." There is more of "the political stuff" in the stage show than in the film, and here we really got to see the strength of Von Trapp's character as he stood up to Max and Baroness (here only called "Frau") Schraeder's advice to keep his head down, compromise and not to anger the Nazis. It is made explicit here that it is Frau Schraeder's different political views that ultimately cause Von Trapp to call off the engagement. Yet we see a vulnerability to the Captain as he debates whether to accept the commission to keep his family safe, or to stand firm in his beliefs.

There was a wonderful scene around the "Something Good" song, where Maria talks about how dancing with Von Trapp was very different from the last time she had danced, as a very little girl. Von Trapp asked her, "When you were a very little girl, did a very little boy ever kiss you?" The horror and disgust as Maria replied "Ye-es." was brilliant, before Von Trapp assured her that that was different too.

The wedding scene was beautiful. Perhaps my favourite piece of music in the entire film and show is when she walks up the aisle while the nuns sing the reprise of "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" (answer: marry her off.) Inexplicably I found tears in my eyes at that point. Perhaps it was the absolute joy of the occasion, and the knowledge of what was so shortly to come. I was glad they didn't have the changing tone of bells as in the film, for that would have finished me off.

The most powerful part of the musical, for me, was when the scene changed from the Von Trapp family demonstrating to the Nazis what they are to sing at the music festival, to the festival itself (not here the escape attempt pushing the car as in the film.) The spotlights became brighter, and the stage adorned with banners of the swastika. Being in a theatre audience in actuality brought us considerably closer than any other setting or media to tell the story.

The supporting cast were all spot-on with their portrayals of the characters. Among the children, special mention should go to the little girl who played Gretl - she could not have been more than six or seven, but she was note-perfect, and her yodelling was superb. Unfortunately, I don't know which actress performed the day I went to see the musical, as the six younger children shared the roles between three actors per role, due to the work involved for school children.

Thursday 8 October 2009

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

When you read a lot of books, it is inevitable that many of them leave you disappointed. Occasionally, however, a book comes along that is close to perfect. I found that two years ago, unexpectedly, when I reached the end of A Tale of Two Cities. At the beginning of last year, Markus Zusak's The Book Thief left me speechless. And a few weeks ago, I discovered The Little Stranger (which has now been nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and I will be disappointed if it doesn't win.)

The Little Stranger is a ghost story of sorts, set just after the end of the Second World War, in Hundreds Hall, an old house whose family are losing control of it. The Ayres family have the house, but not the money to run it, and strange phenomena start occurring. The narrator is one Doctor Faraday, the son of one of the former maids at Hundreds who becomes friends with the family. As he becomes more intimate with the Ayres family: the widowed Mrs Ayres, her son Roderick and daughter Caroline.

The novel reads as though it were written at the time in which it is set. Waters not only uses the vocabulary of the era, but stylistic conventions. For example certain words are not spelled out, but contain dashes. Similarly, when characters mention a recent scandal, the name is omitted.

The central character in The Little Stranger is not Doctor Faraday, or any one of the Ayres family, but Hundreds Hall itself, which takes its place in a long line of old crumbling houses in the Gothic tradition, from Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto to Stephen King's Overlook Hotel. The atmosphere of the house begins as one of shabby nostalgia, a sorry memory of grander times. Waters skillfully evolves that atmosphere, through one of intrigue as Roderick starts to think that there is something wrong with the house. At first the signs are petty, seemingly harmless, such as furniture moving, and corresponding marks. These uncanny occurrences become more malevolent and when Dr Faraday notices dark marks all over the walls of Roderick's bedroom, spreading like mildew, like the "infection" Roderick feared. A creeping terror came over me as I read of those marks, which I knew corresponded with something terrible that would happen.

Sarah Waters never fully explains the "ghost," if ghost it is. Doctor Faraday, a man of science, stubbornly resists, in the face of evidence, that there is anything supernatural taking place at Hundreds Hall, and there is no moment of realisation. Traditionally in Gothic fiction, if the narrator is a scientist or a doctor, it is to add veracity to the tale - but Dr Faraday refuses to see what does not fit into his understanding. Waters through other characters suggests identities or explanations - Mrs Faraday believes the ghost of her late daughter Susan to be haunting her old house, and some of the clues seem to point to that, but others make no sense at all. Other characters suggest Roderick to be "haunting" Hundreds, or Caroline's repressed feelings. But Waters never gives an explanation. I started the novel wanting to know the answers, but when I reached the end I realised that a definite answer would be inevitably disappointing, while an open ending leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions, if they want to. Besides, I could not imagine a moment of realisation coming to Faraday - it would not fit with the novel or the character, and would be too tidy. Is "the little stranger" a straightforward ghost? Is it, like Poe's House of Usher, the house and the family, the one inextricable from the other? Is it some force influenced by one, or more, of the characters?

I read an interesting blog article by someone who goes by the name of "The Little Professor"  which suggests that the "Little Stranger" is Faraday himself. This was a possibility I had considered myself on reading the novel. After all, everything starts after Faraday starts spending time at Hundreds, and the idea of living at the Hall and restoring it to its former glory becomes an obsession with him - he becomes engaged to Caroline, but his love for her is unconvincing. It's the house he wants, not her.
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