Thursday, 29 December 2011

'The Hobbit' by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

Synopsis: The Hobbit is an episodic quest novel set in Middle-Earth. Bilbo Baggins (a home-loving hobbit) is chosen by the wizard Gandalf to accompany a band of dwarves as they seek to reclaim their homeland and the treasure that was stolen from them by the evil dragon Smaug. Bilbo must then journey from the rural, peaceful Shire into darker and more dangerous lands.

This book is often overshadowed by its sequel The Lord of the Rings and admittedly that book is superior to this one. However, The Hobbit is still a fantastic work of fiction and is most definitely a classic in its own right! It's a brilliantly-written and brilliantly-paced book and is so much fun to read! Right from the first chapter it's full of non-stop action and adventure and it's exciting, exhilarating and suspenseful. It was one of my favourite books as a child and I'm still incredibly fond of it now.

On the whole I do personally feel that readers who haven't already read LOTR (or watched its film adaptations) will probably get a bit more out of The Hobbit. For LOTR fans it can be mildly annoying to see the Orcs being referred to as "goblins" and Sauron as "the necromancer". Having said that it was very interesting to read The Hobbit with the knowledge of what its sequel is like. The Elves are much less solemn and ethereal in The Hobbit than they are in LOTR. Gandalf is a lot more mysterious and vague and the dwarfs (or dwarves) are more comical. Also, the tone of The Hobbit is generally more light-hearted and less serious than LOTR. It was intended as a children's book even though it will appeal to adults. Saying that though there are still some dark moments in The Hobbit. Take the chapter 'Riddles in the Dark' for example. This is the one where Gollum first shows up. I'd forgotten just how creepy and menacing his character is and this is probably my favourite chapter in the whole book.

The characters are entertaining in The Hobbit as well although the character development in this book isn't as strong as it is in LOTR. This is the main reason why I think LOTR is the better book. Bilbo Baggins is the best character in The Hobbit and it's probably because his character is the most relatable and the one who develops and changes the most throughout the course of the story. I do think that first-time readers of The Hobbit could be forgiven for forgetting the names of some of the dwarves as most of them are fairly interchangeable with one another but there are dwarves who stand out and are interesting: Thorin Oakenshield, Fili, Kili, Balin and Bombur. Gandalf and Smaug make for interesting characters as well. I am very much looking forward to the Peter Jackson film adaptation of this book. If it's going to be anything like his LOTR adaptations it will be a fantastic film!

Rating: 5/5

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Hair (Stage Musical)

One thing that I love to do when I get the chance is to go to the West End and see a show. I haven't seen a huge amount of shows since I don't live in London and don't have the money to go down there all the time - but over the past two years I've seen the musicals Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, Hair, Les Miserables and The Lion King and the play Much Ado About Nothing. I'll be seeing Sweeney Todd next April too. I've absolutely loved all of the shows that I've seen so far apart from Hair. I was quite curious to see it since it had gotten some good reviews and I hadn't yet seen a rock musical. Well, I can honestly that I'm mystified by all the hype it has. The songs aren't even that good! Yes, Aquarius and Let the Sunshine In are great tunes and the title song is pretty catchy but the rest of the songs are boring and instantly forgettable. Apparently Leonard Bernstein walked out of the show when he saw it back in the 60s because he hated the music and Richard Rodgers and John Lennon weren't fans either so at least I'm in good company!

Another issue that I have with the show is that there is NO real plot or story to speak of. Basically it's about this hippy called Claude who is desperate to avoid getting drafted to the Vietnam War. We get scenes with him and his hippy friends going on about how they love being hippies and hate the war, an extended scene in Act 2 where Claude gets high on drugs and has wacked-out hallucinations, and Claude gets drafted. The End. Now I think the lack of a real plot wouldn't have bothered me so much if the songs had been good (but you already know my feelings on the show's music) and the characters had been likeable or sympathetic. But they're not. Every single hippy is obnoxious, annoying, drug-addled, promiscuous, ridiculously naive, smug and self-righteous. They're all so unlikeable! And the LSD hallucination, which could (and should) have been quite interesting, was just extremely dull. So, yeah, I have a lot of distaste for this musical.

Rating: 2/5 (1 star for the few good songs it had, another star for the decent cast)

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Phantom of the Opera (25th Anniversary Concert)

I know I've already given a brief review of it already but I thought I'd cover the 25th anniversary concert of POTO in more depth. I'm not entirely sure if this will make for an interesting review to read because I love it and have very little to criticise! I love it so freakin' much! It's a million miles better than the 2004 movie or the recent 25th anniversary concert of Les Miserables. I first watched it on YouTube on a video that a POTO fan had put up before the Really Useful Group took it down. Then I went out and watched the DVD. I'm happy to say that the show more than lived up to my expectations : ) I have to say that I was more than half afraid that Andrew Lloyd Webber might go down the George Lucas route when it came to this concert, that he might change some stuff around to make the original musical more backwardly compatible with Love Never Dies. But I have to give ALW credit here because he didn't pull any of that stuff. He didn't have Raoul walking around and swigging a whisky bottle to suggest that he's always been a bit of a drinker (he's always been like that! You just didn't notice before!). And he didn't have Meg stripping to suggest that she'd always had some job on the side in case she didn't make it as a top ballerina.

The only thing that I can really criticise about this concert is that some of the technical stuff is a bit ropey. Some of the projections do look a bit silly at times - and the chandelier doesn't fall! It just sort of... fizzles and sparkles. I've read reviews from people who were actually present at the Royal Albert Hall concert and they did say this was still quite startling; but when you're watching it on screen it really doesn't work and just looks naff. And I reckon newcomers to the show who wouldn't know that the chandelier is supposed to fall at this point would be really confused, especially since there are lyrics in Act 2 that make reference to it being destroyed. I watched the show for the second time with my mom and I had to explain to her what had happened because she didn't get it. I can't say I blame her. Another thing that didn't really make sense is that they don't have the Phantom's mechanical Christine doll in the lair. Why does Christine faint then?

Ramin Karimloo as The Phantom
Apart from that this concert is amazing. Everyone is really well cast! ALW has finally made it up to us for casting Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum in the 2004 movie! The Phantom and Christine in this version are played by Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess. Ever since I'd first heard LND I'd been thinking that Karimloo and Boggess had really nice voices and that it was a shame that they'd never gotten the chance to star in the original musical together. Well I finally got my wish! Ramin Karimloo is an amazing and very intense Phantom. I especially loved his hand movements and glowering eyes during I Remember/Stranger Than You Dreamt It, Wandering Child and the Final Lair scene. He was a million times more badass than Gerard Butler ever was! I especially loved his scream in the Final Lair scene too: "Of this angel in Hellll!" And the fact that he did his best to imitate Piangi's voice in the Point of No Return scene. I really love it when Phantoms do that. Apparently Karimloo has said that he's never going to play the Phantom live again so if you haven't seen the DVD already then this is even more of a reason for you to do so!

Sierra Boggess as Christine
Sierra Boggess was just as fantastic playing Christine as Karimloo was as the Phantom. Any woman who plays Christine Daae has to be able to sing, has to be able to act, and has to look beautiful. Boggess did all of these things brilliantly. Her performance of Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again is spectacular and was probably the highlight of the show for me - and that's saying a lot! Her version of that song is the most beautiful and emotionally-charged I've ever heard. She sings it with so much passion and feeling. The audience go absolutely crazy when Boggess finishes that song. She actually gets more applause at the end than when Ramin Karimloo finishes Music of the Night! I was very impressed with her acting too, you can see that those are real tears in her eyes during the Final Lair scene. And she didn't look too old as Christine either. Sierra Boggess is apparently 29 in real life which makes her about the right age to play Christine in LND - a sequel set 10 years after the events of the original - but I thought that she might look slightly too old to play Christine in the original show. But Boggess has a very young and innocent air and she doesn't look too old at all. She looks much younger! They must have done a really good make-up job on her and I think having her hair down helped too.

Hadley Fraser as Raoul
And then of course there's Hadley Fraser who plays Raoul. I thought he was excellent as well and I really loved his performance. His Raoul comes across as a very manly, strong, determined, no-nonsense type and I loved his voice. He's also very good-looking too! Now as much as I liked Patrick Wilson in the 2004 movie - I actually think that he's one of the best things about that film - he does have a foppish air to him (it's probably the hair). And this is partly why the scene where he beats the Phantom in a sword-fight looks so silly! But Fraser's Raoul isn't at all foppish. He seems like a genuinely worthy foe to the Phantom. Ramin Karimloo and Hadley Fraser are really good mates in real life and play in a band together but you wouldn't be able to tell from watching them in this. My favourite moment from Fraser is in the Final Lair scene. He does something that I've never seen any other Raoul do and I wish more would do it. After the Phantom releases him, Christine actually has to hold Fraser's Raoul back because he looks as if he wants to go to the Phantom and beat him up or kill him or something. He looks absolutely livid! Christine! He just tried to strangle me to death and then kissed you right in front of me! I mean, you would be a bit pissed off wouldn't you?! I really liked Hadley Fraser in this and I was really impressed that he'd never ever played the character before unlike Karimloo and Boggess. The only thing that wasn't so good about Fraser in this concert is that he could have done with being a bit more gentle and sensitive towards Christine at times. In the Apollo's Lyre scene, Raoul sounds annoyed with Christine. His "Christine, Christine" lines sound quite harsh although when he got into All I Ask of You he was fine. He sounded a bit harsh in Masquerade but he was fine when he started to dance with Christine. He was also quite sweet to Christine in Notes/Twisted Every Way when he realised just how terrified she was. I know some POTO fans are complaining about Hadley Fraser by saying that he was too bossy and that he must have been influenced by LND Raoul but I didn't get that impression at all. His Raoul even came across as quite Leroux-ish at times, in the sense that he's so desperate to protect Christine that it's admirable and a character flaw at the same time. 

As for the other actors, well, they're all great too. Madame Giry was played by Liz Robertson. She was in Love Never Dies but she was really good in this and she didn't have a stupid French accent. Wendy Ferguson - who plays Carlotta in this version - was a last minute replacement for another performer but she was really, really good as well and very entertaining. I actually think that Meg Giry's character is boring and mostly pointless but Daisy Maywood - who played her in this concert - has a really nice, strong voice and I really liked her acting. The actors who played the managers in this concert - Barry James and Gareth Snook - I have actually seen live and I was really glad that they were cast in this because I loved them when I saw them at Her Majesty's Theatre. You may even recognise Snook as Bamatabois (the creepy guy who tries it on with Fantine) from the 10th anniversary concert of Les Mis. And some members of the ensemble had actually played leads in Phantom of the Opera before such was the depth of talent. The auctioneer was played by Earl Carpenter who has played the Phantom before. Simon Bailey, who played a fireman in this version, has played Raoul before and was in the show when I saw it performed live. Rachel Barrell, Tabitha Webb (the Christine I saw) and Celia Graham were in the show too.

Liz Robertson as Madame Giry
Wendy Ferguson as Carlotta
Daisy Maywood as Meg Giry
Barry James and Gareth Snook as the Managers
At the end of the show, ALW gives a speech and pays tribute to Cameron Mackintosh and everyone who was at this concert and in the original production. Although this was quite nice I do wish that he could have paid tribute to Gaston Leroux as well. He then introduces his ex-wife Sarah Brightman and she sings the title song with five performers who have played the Phantom before: Karimloo, Colm Wilkinson, John Owen-Jones, Anthony Warlow and Peter Joback. Karimloo and John Owen-Jones were the best singers and I can definitely see why everyone raves about JOJ's Phantom so much. The performer with the weakest voice was Joback which is a shame because he's going to be playing the Phantom soon on the West End. His voice is light and slightly nasal and it didn't contrast well with the rich, powerful voices of the others. They then got Michael Crawford out so the audience could give him a huge round of applause. He didn't sing though. He'd planned too apparently but was too choked-up and emotional to perform.

That's pretty much all I can say about this concert really. Oh, apart from one more thing. If you've read my review for the 2004 movie you may recall how much I disliked them giving Gerard Butler such a wussy-looking deformity. But they didn't do that this time! They take the standard make-up that's used in the stageshow and make it even more detailed for the camera close-ups. It looks really nasty! You can see the Phantom's brain! Looking at this you'd never be able to tell that Ramin Karimloo is extremely good-looking in real life would you?

Rating: 5/5