Thursday, 28 February 2013

Musical Theatre: Love it or Hate it? Why do you have to choose?

I find musical theatre a divisive subject, squished between serious theatre and opera, and frowned on from both sides for being, heaven forbid, 'popular'. The thing that confuses me is that people think it's a case of liking all musicals or none. People assume because I often go to musicals that I'm a musical fanatic who likes everything I see. I do know people like that, but isn't that a bit like thinking that because I go to the cinema I like every film I watch? 

There's a real stigma attached to liking musical theatre. I've had people tell me they hate musicals, but the one time they did actually go to see one in the west end, they really loved it. Friends who love jazz music and the great American songbook have told me they don't like the songs in musicals. Other's have snobbily tell me that musicals are artistically inferior to opera, an opinion that seems to have stemmed from watching lots of opera and very few musicals.

But it works the other way as well. Musical fanatics are shocked when I tell them I dislike a show, or want to have an intellectual conversation about the pros and cons of a particular production. 

Les Miserables is one of the few things my husband and I strongly disagree on: my husband adores it and I... don't. We've seen it together several times and while I really like some of the songs, I just can't get past the fact that the characterisation and storytelling is appalling: the women are utterly two dimensional and it's never properly explained what the climax of the piece, the barricade, is actually in aid of. What are the students fighting about? Most people who watch it actually think it's about THE French Revolution (the fact characters wear crinolines dresses means it's obviously not, but apparently not everyone dates period pieces by the costumes.)

My husband and I disagree a lot about musicals. I hate Rogers and Hammerstein and he loves them, I like Gilbert and Sullivan whom he can't stand, but we both adore Stephen Sondheim. We have both seen enough to make informed choices, and we enjoy enough of the shows we do see to keep going back and giving new shows a try. Sometimes it's a car wreck, and sometimes we have experiences that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

I suspect when most people say they hate musicals they mean 1940s musical films, of the type starring Doris Day, or they harbour high school memories of being forced to perform in or watch a terrible production. Schools tend to pick  shows which can support a large supporting cast and even bigger chorus, and songs that the Mums and Dads can hum along with. But don't judge an art form on amatuer productions. While I am a huge champion of good amateur theatre, I don't believe being unpaid is an excuse for some of the rubbish that's out there. Minimal resources can be the birth of fantastic creative decisions and some people who actually prefer a well paying job to a difficult career in the arts, are very talented performers. Some of the best, and the worst, productions I've ever seen have been amateur or or semi-professional.

There's also the case of seeing a bad professional productions: I'm a massive Stephen Sondheim fan, but after seeing an average version on stage, and then the film, I concluded that I just didn't like Sweeney Todd. As a final attempt, after rave reviews, I saw the Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton West End version last year and it will go down as one of my top 5 theatre experiences of all time. But I will never see another version of Sweeney Todd again, because it's such an easy piece to get wrong. It requires such a fine line of combining almost opera singing, with intensely powerful acting without spilling over into melodrama, that few performers, let alone directors, have the understanding or talent to carry it off.

Enjoyment is also vastly dependent on where you sit; I've seen two versions of We Will Rock You, once from the third row and once from the balcony. Needless to say I enjoyed the high energy, rock musical much more sitting inches from the stage.

As someone who loves clothes and costumes, it's impossible not to love musicals. But I tend to like the two extremes: 1930s big, glamorous, jazz inspired musicals with copious amounts of sequins and feathers, or very modern, minimalist musicals that are practically plays with well-developed characters and storylines, which just happen to have songs. 

Film musicals can be just as great, or even better, than seeing them in the theatre. One of Australia’s best known and respected film critics, David Stratton has always declared 'Singing in the Rain' is his favourite film of all time, the clever parody on film history and transition to 'talkies' is disguised as light and fluffy entertainment. Some of my favourite movie musicals I've never had the chance to see onstage, such as Pal Joey or The Slipper and The Rose (I know it's trashy, but I've loved it since I was five). I've avoided watching Top Hat, Singing in the Rain and The Sound of Music on stage, because even though they look beautiful from the pictures, I'm just not sure I want to see people who aren't Julie Andrews, Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire pretending to be them. I have no problem with a different interpretation of the same script, but no interest in watching a lukewarm remake of the film onstage. I'm aware this makes me unusual in the world of musical go-ers, so I choose not to see productions which sell themselves on this premise. Cabaret and Chicago are good examples of shows that work independently and successfully in both genres because they don't try and be carbon copies of each other, but allow the medium to tell the story in different ways.
So stop being a culture snob. Maybe it's time to give musical theatre a second chance?

Here's my Top 5 Musicals for People who think they hate them:

A Little Night Music

You may have worked out already, I think Sondheim is a genius, and I think this is his best work. I saw the West End Trevor Nunn version of this a few years ago and it was possibly the greatest theatre experience of my life. This clever examination of love and lust is beautifully told, as the characters try and work out what they really want in a partner. Anyone who can watch Send in the Clowns sung in context and not cry is very hard hearted indeed. I wouldn't necessarily recommend Elizabeth Taylors version in the film, but if you can't get to a stage version it will do. It may not be everyone's taste, but it's Sondheim's ability to make musicals seem like a play with well thought out plot and character (even when sometimes they're not) and his phenomenal use of harmonies, that makes him stand out from the crowd.

Pal Joey
Frank Sinatra playing a womanising, con-man, nightclub singer, with Rita Heyworth and Kim Novak completing for his affections: What’s not to love? Also starring beautiful costumes by Jean Louis, the majority of the songs are sung in the context of performances, so there's no big spontaneous dance numbers to scare off the cynics. This is Sinatra at his absolute best, charming but a bit of a arrogan bastard. The songs by Rogers and Hart, Hammerstein's predecessor, include The Lady is a Tramp, My Funny Valentine and Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. Oh, and there's also a lot of references to 'stripping' in that wonderful, burlesque, PG way that makes taking a glove off the sexiest thing in the world. I adore proper old school 30s musicals of Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby: Top Hat, Royal Wedding, etc but for me it will always be Frank Sinatra who takes first place in my heart. While we're on the topic of old school movie musicals, I have to give an honourable mention to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, famous for Marilyn Monroe singing Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, but also starring a brilliant a Jane Russell.

Singing in the Rain

It had to be done. But apart from the dream ballet sequence I don't know anyone who doesn't like this film. The adorable Debbie Reynolds, the funny man Donald O'Connor and the king of musical theatre films, Gene Kelly. It was a toss-up between this and The Wizard of Oz as a classic movie musical everyone loves, but the way Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont manages to steal this film from under the noses of the three powerful leads, makes this film the masterpiece that it is. I think I speak for everyone when I say 'Oh Pierre, you shouldn't have come'.


Beautiful, funny, risqué, poignant, and political: surely this is the ultimate in musical theatre. Liza Minnelli proved she wasn't just Judy Garland's daughter in the movie, and yet the stage production also manages to stand alone as a masterpiece without trying to simply copy the film. Legendry director and choreographer Bob Fosse directed the film. Kander and Ebb's music is wonderful and catchy, but with serious themes so it never crosses the line into corny. When I saw it in the West End I couldn't speak for about 10 minutes after I left the theatre, which is really saying something. Chicago is a very similar vein of musical, emphasising the fun and glamour of serious subjects in a subversive way, but for me Cabaret is the superior of the two. If you're a fan also watch Christopher and His Kind (2011), based on the life of writer Christopher Isherwood, whose book the musical was based on. It stars Dr Who's Matt Smith and tells the story of the author’s time in Berlin which inspired the fiction. 


There has been a new wave of musical theatre with a much more comedic, audience friendly trend. There is a self-awareness to these shows, almost mocking the genre. The Producers, Avenue Q, Legally Blonde and Matilda all are fantastic examples of this. They are a reaction to the serious, self-important Andrew Lloyd Weber/Cameron Mackintosh musical successes of the 80s/90s, particularly The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. And this is a genre that's getting the non-musical fan's bums on seats. I think 'Gay or European?' in Legally Blonde is one of the funniest songs I've ever seen, but for me Matilda has that extra heart, so that you cry as well as laugh, which makes it superior.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Charles James and Fishtail Gowns

Silk ballgown from 1954

Warning this article contains Frock porn - no not like that - there's not a nipple to be seen - just stunningly gorgeous frocks for you to lust after.

There's no denying the Fishtail is the shape of this seasons red carpet, anyone who's anyone has been seen on the Golden Globe and Oscars red carpet sporting this seasons must have. But there's no master of the fishtail like fashion designer Charles James. Although he was born and raised in England, his career is American based, and he is considered to be Americas first, and only real, couturier (as in using 'couture' techniques - a very complicated definition). His career spanned the 30s, 40s and 50s as he dressed the high class society women of America in his beautiful and unique gowns. His knowledge and use of cut, shape and structure is second to none.

While Charles James is known by those with a good knowledge of fashion history, the fact he is not an international household name the way Dior and Balenciaga are for their similar gowns of the period is a little perplexing. I think there's two reasons for this. Firstly he was largely based in America in a time when fashion was still firmly ensconced in Paris fashion houses, and secondly, his label has not outlived him to be reinvented by new generations. In an age when haute couture exists largely to convince us to buy perfume and handbags, it's nice to look back at the genius of a time when couture was truely appreciated as an art form.

All the gowns featured on this page are designed by Charles James. 

Fishtail gowns are very popular. Buy they need to come with a warning. I've seen bridal articles that claim they're the new A-line, the perfect shape, that they suit everyone.

They don't.

They're very hard to carry off, especially if they are not expertly made. Not all gowns are created equal.

To combat so much fullness below the bum you need to at least appear to have curves in all the right place: big bust, small waist and slim enough bum and hips to ensure that the emphasis in that area is flattering. A good dress will give the illusion of that, even if you don't posess them naturally. If in doubt, the most important thing is to make sure the dress pulls you in and emphasises the waist, or you will look more toilet brush than sex siren. This is a design for a true hourglass figure; apples, pears, and very boyish figures should approach with caution.

'Tree' - 1955

'Tree' 1955




The fishtail itself comes in many shapes and sizes. Some are barely more than A-line, skimming the bum before sweeping out again, sometimes the fullness will come out from the knees. There are dramatic froths, gradual tulip or bell shapes, and some are basically bustles or trains with most of the fullness coming out at the back. There are also 1930s shaped fishtails which are slinky and sexy and leave little to the imagination: think Mae West. These gowns require you to think very carefully about your lingerie.

Butterfly 1954


A certain amount of height is needed for successfully carrying off a fishtail gown. Not actual tallness so much, but your body needs to be proportionately long to your build. Someone who's 5'7" can look taller in a photo if they are willowy, than a 5'11" stockier shape. The longer you look, the more dramatic and beautiful your frothy fishtail will appear.

Marlene Dietrich 1934

Lisa Fonssagrives 1948
Fishtail coat anyone?

And here's Marissa Tomei wearing one of his vintage gowns to the Oscars in 2011.

Which gets me thinking, which would I chose to wear. It would have to be the green one at the top. Which one is your favourite?

Monday, 25 February 2013

Standing out on the Oscars Red Carpet

There's going to be a lot of talk about who wore the prettiest designer frock on the red carpet. But it all gets a little samey after a while. Here's my take on the people who stood out for looking amazing on the red carpet by not going for the traditional red carpet look.

Emad Burnat, co-director of '5 Broken Cameras'  which was nominated for best Feature Documentary brought he wife Soraya and son Jibreel with him on the red carpet. Her stunningly detailed traditional Palestinian dress, showing that sometimes a headscarf can be an elegant red carpet accessory.

Rachel Mwanza who starred  in Best Foreign Film nominee Rebelle (War Witch). Rachel is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and was an illiterated street kid before being cast in the film. Love the African print and highlights of red.

Bombay Jayashri, looking stunning in a pink and gold sari, was up for Best Original Song for singing the lyrics to "Pi's Lullaby" from The Life of Pi.

And I have to give an honourable mention to Helena Bonham Carter in Vivienne Westwood who actually is wearing a cohesive ensemble on the red carpet. I think this is the best she's looked in years, while still staying 100% true to herself.

And it wasn't just the women:

Best Actor Nominee  for 'The Silver Lining's Playbook' Bradley Cooper was not only the most sophisticated man on the red carpet with with waistcoat and shiny shoes, but also had the most attractive accessory any man can have on his arm, his mother Gloria. I suspect she chose her shoes for comfort.

Who doesn't love a man in a kilt - Here's Seth McFarlane's dad Ron.

Ok - and just because it has to be done, here's my nomination for best frock:


 When wearing this Naeem Khan dress it helps to look like George Clooney's latest lady friend Stacy Keibler, but this gown is absolutely stunning from every angle.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Finding the perfect 'Local' to match your wardrobe.

The beautiful art deco benches at my new local - LOVE the red leather
Some people are 'Foodies'. I would say my husband and I are 'Drinkies'. Beer, wine, coffee - all the drugs. We can't get enough.

Our nights out revolve around venues where we can try lots of craft beers. Our holidays usually centre around visiting art galleries and museums in between cafes and pubs, or tours of wineries. Of course eating nice food with drinks is always a bonus, but the drinks menu is as important as the food. One of the highlights of a weekend in Bath a few weeks ago was to get a really good long black coffee in a cafe directly opposite the Roman Baths. Jacob's Coffee House is possibly the closest I've come to a decent Antipodean style cafe in the UK, which is amazing simply for being directly in front of one of the country's major tourist attractions (usually a reason to believe the food is overpriced and awful).

My husband makes Home Brew, I dabble in preserves, discovering recipes for using each weeks organic veg box and baking. To me it's all part of loving sewing and crafts. Its being able to create unique quality products for your own enjoyment. Often we prefer to stay in for coffee, wine or beer drinking because our own selection is better quality than shop bought options, without a retail markup, and much much more convenient.

But I love dressing up and going out. It's the holy grail to find somewhere that meets your tastebuds needs, but the vintage fashion conscious Drinkie also wants a venue that's will look good with her ensemble. You don't want your wallpaper to clash with your shoes.

I live in Twickenham, Englands home of Rugby. There are many pubs, but they're mostly aimed at drunken Rugby fans. The Fox has recently been done up nicely, but just this year a pub has opened that I am finally happy to call my 'Local'.

The amazing wallpaper pictures at Ales and Tails

When we first went into 'Ales and Tails' we were quickly rebuked for congratulating them on being a decent pub in Twickenham - No. They are a bar/restaurant. They specialise in ales, cocktails and dining. After this initial wanky introduction I'm glad we persevered. I'm still curious about the difference but I think it a bar basically means it looks better and keeps the less appealing clientel away. We've been there 4 times now, twice for dinner and once for a party and every time has been fantastic. The food is good English fare. It's not mind blowing, but it's good solid food, but when you can combine it with the extensive ale list it's just about perfect.

But for me the appeal has as much to do with the most wonderful vintage styling. When you understand that I cannot remember the last time I had a handbag that wasn't red leather, and about 50% of my shoes are red, you will understand why I adore the red leather benches. The lighting is quirky - the crystal decanter lampshades are my favourite. The styling is a good mix of junkshop oldfashioned and clean modern space. Even when busy it manages to feel spread out and not too overcrowded or noisy. The fact I like that I think means I'm getting old, but I'm ok with that. On Friday and Saturday nights when we've been in they've had a dj playing decent background music. I'd much prefer it if they got a jazz quartet in, but they're still new.

It reminds me of my favourite designed bars in London: Powder Keg Diplomacy in Clapham Junction, which is slightly more colonial designed and has an amazing Victorian glasshouse diningroom. I'm not sure, but I have a feeling they're ultimately run by the same people. Either way I don't care.

I finally have somewhere within walking distance that is worth dressing up and leaving the house for.

Powder Keg Diplomacy - I wish I had room for a Gramaphone light fitting in my house

Powder Keg Diplomacy - The amazing indoor dining room with Victorian glass and wrought iron greenhouse styling

Powder Keg Diplomacy

Friday, 22 February 2013

Why Snow White and The Huntsman Should Win the Costume Oscar

There, I've said it. And I've probably jinxed it and someone else will take home the Academy Award on Sunday. I apologise to Colleen Atwood. I know I've complained about pretty dresses winning costume awards, but Snow White and the Huntsman isn't pretty dresses, it's phenomenal costume design.

I'll admit it, I'm not the target audience for this film. When I first saw the trailers my reaction was 'Who in their right mind is going to believe that anyone thinks Kristen Stewart is more beautiful than Charlize Theron?' But it did have Kim Hyde from neighbours in it  (yes I am aware that's not his real name) and I love an Aussie making good in Hollywood story. So when it came out on Sky I watched it expecting it to be a bit of mindless trash and I absolutely loved it - for the costumes.

(My husbands reaction on walking in half way through was 'What is it kiss a dead girl day?)

For the record, my feelings about Kristen Stewart are pretty similar to Keira Knightly, so the appeal of the leading actress had no impact on my loving this and not Anna Karenina.

I'm a bit late jumping on the Colleen Atwood bandwagon for the simple fact I'm not a huge fan of most of Tim Burton's work, the director who she is most associated with. I feel he's become a bit of a parody of himself lately. I blamed Atwood for the 'Yawn, there's ANOTHER pair of black and white striped trousers' that's become a bit of a theme in his recent years. But after watching Snow White and the Huntsman, and In Time (which I argue is one of the best costumed sci-fi films ever - will post about it soon), two highly trashy Hollywood blockbuster films, I realised she simply is the most phenomenal costume designer of our time. What she does is make the most beautiful over-the-top costumes look like clothing. She uses subtle details and clever palates so that even while you are saying 'Wow that costume is amazing' there is never the slightest wink or nod from the costume designer saying 'See what I did there'. Because that's what I find boring about costume design: when designers and directors want you to notice how clever and pretty they're being. Atwood doesn't play for tricks. You have to realy understand costume design to notice how clever she is.

The entire film has a very muted palette. Sometimes when people choose palettes they don't understand the difference between only using 3 colours and having a subtle tonality theme underlying the entrie look. There are a lot of colours and contrasts in this film, but the muted tones show us the story is taking a more gritty, realistic angle on the classic tale.

I love the way Atwood worked with Snow White's (Kristen Stewart) costume. It looks good, tells a story, but above all is practical. When we see first Snow White she's wearing a dress that meets all audience expectations of an opressed fairytale princess, with the puff sleeves and laced bodice. It's detail is beautiful: the contrasting colour on the underside of the slashes, the use of different patterned leather, stitch detail and seaming in the bodice. Atwood is very good at putting subtle details around the neckline to draw focus to the face and add interest to close up shots. But the colours are muted, suitable for her imprisonment and also making sure the complicated design and texture don't distract from the story. It is also similar to the servants costumes, showing how Ravenna wants to see her step-daughter.

When she rips the skirt off, there's a logic to it. The girly dress suddenly turns tomboy.

Speaking to Grazia, Atwood said "I knew that was going to happen in the story, so that was the way I backed into it.  I put flat boots.  I put legging so when she fell and stuff I didn’t have to worry about underwear showing.  I made the costume out of materials that blended with the environment and that would hold up under the situations that I had to put the costume through.  I made about 20 of those.  When you’re doing that, you source the materials that you can find and that you can duplicate times twenty.  Within the dress and within the underdress and within the pants, there’s all kinds of stretch panels that are hidden in seams so it’s totally flexible.  You’re able to lift your arms over your head.  You’re able to shoot a bow and arrow.  You’re able to move in the costume which is very important for the actors."

Similarly the boys costumes are manly, muted and texturely detailed. The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) has a leather jerkin that looks like he's worn it every day for years. It has pockets and belts and straps, but they are all practical for a huntsman. I love costumes that are broken down to look lived in, and leather is one of the hardest fabrics to get right because it's such a time consuming process.

But it's Ravenna (aka the evil queen) played by Charlize Theron who's costumes really stand out.

‘‘Every costume had a feeling of not quite what it seems,’’ Theron said in an interview to The Boston Globe. ‘‘In a way, these dresses were like torture devices for Ravenna. I love that because I feel like Ravenna was, in a way, more torturous toward herself than to the people she was killing.’’

Every costume befits a woman obsessed with her beauty: a queen ruling over her kingdom with a very tight control. Because Ravenna is the ultimate control freak - of herself, her creepy brother, her step daughter and her kingdom. The crown is heavy and sharp, and there's a lot of hard metallic surfaces. Even when there's soft edges like in the beautiful wedding gown, its controlled by the hard cage-like shoulders made out of bones. There's a lot of animal references: feathers, beetles, bones, quills, leather, fur and sequins used like scales. The costumes tell of her vanity, dark magic, obsession, control and heartlessness. And they're also some of the most incredibly beautiful fantasy gowns I've seen on film.

Look at the tiny bird skulls used as decoration