Tuesday, 24 August 2010


(If you're not a cat lover, you might want to skip this one. If you're a sentimental cat lover, you might also want to, for different reasons.)

At the risk of depriving many stand-up comedians of their routines, the difference between cat and dog people is a simple one. Dogs are low-status and adoring, for people whose central need is to receive affection; cats are high-status and aloof, for those whose need is to give it.

I've always been a cat person; my family acquired the first pair when I was five and have had a regular overlapping parade of them since then, some adopted from friends, some just wandering in.

A couple of months ago, Skittles, our cat for the last ten years, died. A few weeks later, my housemate heard of a work colleague who'd developed an allergy and was therefore looking for a good home for Matilda, tabby, long-haired, four years old, and beautiful.

We installed her initially in the back room. Used to living in a flat, she tended to stay indoors most of the time, only exploring the back garden when chivvied out. She quickly found a preferred place to sleep, lying at the top of the stairs, one paw languidly outstretched. When stroked or tickled, she'd stretch across the floor, lashing her tail like a dog.

Last week, my housemate came downstairs in the morning to discover Matilda lying in her habitual place, warm and dead. She'd lived under our roof for a little less than a month.

The vet told us that she died from a rush of fluid into her lungs, consistent with either an undetected heart condition or a sudden infection - in other words, it wasn't our fault. My housemate had ordered some cat treats by mail order. They arrived the day after her death.

Increasingly, I find that the things that cut me up are less to do with man's inhumanity to man (that's just depressing), and more with the occasions when people mean well but still get nowhere - couples who love each other but can't make their marriages work, projects that fail despite the commitment of all concerned. I remember as a teenager being very affected by the chapter in 'Far From the Madding Crowd' where, after Boldwood's death, his wardrobe is found full of clothes meant for his intended wife, and labelled 'Bathsheba Boldwood'. The combination of love and pointlessness still upsets me.

I do realise that there are many events more tragic than the death of a cat, even a beautiful long-haired tabby. But still, I feel a sadness, and it'd be dishonest to deny it. In an era of obsessive positive thinking, it's worth remembering that, sometimes, things go wrong, and there's nothing we can do about it. Sometimes, in small things as much as great, life's a bitch.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Little Shop of Horrors - a tale of two endings.

Courtesy of YouTube, I recently watched the original ending to the 1986 film Little Shop of Horrors. This follows the stage musical in killing off all the main characters, and showing a world taken over by mean, green, people eating plants. This ending played badly with test audiences, and got replaced with Rick Moranis, as our hero, discovering a way of defeating the plants, thus becoming an unlikely cinematic cousin of Howard Keel in The Day of the Triffids.

It's always tempting to get on a high horse when Hollywood changes an ending, and plenty of the YouTube posters do just that. Personally, I think the producers were completely right to alter the stage conclusion for a film, in a way that says something quite interesting about the two media.

A little bit of history here - Little Shop of Horrors was originally a 1960 horror/comedy, shot in two days by legendary schlockmeister and cheapskate Roger Corman to take advantage of some sets he had left over from another film. Scripted by Charles B. Griffith (who had used more or less the same plot for A Bucket of Blood the previous year), it's a Faust-variant, about a downtrodden florist's assistant, Seymour Krelbourn, who discovers fame and fortune thanks to an unusual plant in his basement, which after a time, starts to demand human blood.

Seymour becomes one of the cinema's few sympathetic mass murderers. Like David Warner in From Beyond the Grave or Claire Higgins in Hellraiser, he kills to keep another character alive - on one level, he's a symbol of everyone who's ever done a job they hate for the sake of a mortgage, a child, a spouse, or - given the film's Jewish milieu - a nagging momma.

When Howard Ashman and Alan Menken adapted the film as a stage musical in 1980 they played down the Jewishness, but raised the racial stakes in other areas, adding a girl group-style chorus (called Crystal, Chiffon and Ronette) and giving the plant musical and speech patterns ('No shit, Sherlock!') that make it clear that, in this case, green is the new black.

Located in a 1960 that had become a period setting, the musical shows an Eisenhower-era America that's just about to be blown apart, not just by carnivorous plants, but also by MLK, Malcolm X and Motown. The film version makes the connection explicit by having the plant voiced by Levi Stubbs, of the Four Tops.

On stage, the plant is unquestionably the star, whether played by a multiple-operator puppet or - as in a superb production I saw in Edinburgh in the late '90s - by the whole cast as a green-clad chorus, gradually adding members as new victims get eaten. When Seymour sacrifices Audrey (the heroine) to the plant, it's an epiphany, accompanied by apocalyptic Phil Collins-ish drums.

Frank Oz, director of the 1986 version, argued that the stage ending works because the audience knows that Audrey and Seymour are going to be back for the curtain call, which isn't the case on film. I think there's a more profound difference, to do with the way that we participate in the two media. As a theatre audience, we take on a collective identity, sharing time and space with the performers; in the cinema, we remain a group of individuals alone in the dark. (There are exceptions - when I saw The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, the audience emerged from the cinema like a group of people who'd been through a war together.)

In the cinema, we tend to favour the individual, even if he's a murderer, over the group; in the theatre, it's the other way round. In the film version, we want to see Seymour and Audrey survive and get together; on stage, it's the plants that we're (ahem) rooting for.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Measurement Shop, at Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre

The credit crunch, whatever else it ends up doing to the the arts, has been great for pop-up theatre - all those boarded-up shops provide ready-made performance spaces, with a set of associations that are, if not exactly better than those of a purpose-built theatre, certainly different.

So far this year, I've seen a tribute to Hoagy's Nest an imaginary '70s children's TV show, in Brixton Market, and debbie tucker green's Random in the Royal Court's Theatre Local at the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Currently running next door to the Court's temporary space (if you're reading this before 6pm on Thursday 5th August) is The Measurement Shop, an installation/performance by the Tangled Feet Theatre Company.

The project explores different aspects of the idea of measurement - in the shopfront, you deal with the more literal side, getting measured and weighed, totting up the hours of sleep you had, the time you spent on a mobile phone and the number of times you've been in love. We were asked to think of two things we measure every day - I came up with money on my Oyster card and coffee into a mug.

At regular intervals, visitors are ushered into the back of the store for a performance, where the ideas get more abstract. We see the life of an imaginary character told entirely in terms of weights and measures, from being weighed at birth to being measured for a coffin. A dance piece deals with the measurement of recovery, we're taken into a darkened room and hear a talk on the criteria by which we measure progress, and finally, in the last room, asked to give our own idea of the hardest measurement of all, that of happiness.

It was a thought-provoking show, especially the last part, and started me wondering about the whole concept of measurement, and evaluation. When coming up with the two things I measure every day, I started with things for which there is an objective, or at least agreed, standard - money (on my Oyster or in my wallet), time (the minutes before I have to get up) and food (the number of eggs into a saucepan). But it's true that, like most people, I often try to measure things that aren't so easy to quantify - happiness, success, my own worth (and, like most people, I'm generally unsatisfied with the measurement, certainly of those three).

In some ways, I'm envious of people who judge themselves in terms of money or social status - at least they know what game they're playing. The rest of us have to make up our own rules - deciding whether we're leading a worthwhile life by standards that we have to set for ourselves - a fellow director once told me that the two criteria by which he judged his success in the world were 'standing ovations and female orgasms'.

One of the stranger responses to Vince Cable's recent proposals for a Graduate Tax was a letter in the Standard protesting that this would penalise people who opted for courses that led to a larger income. The writer's assumption seemed to be that making money is not just expedient, but actually virtuous. I find myself wondering mischievously if part of the appeal of monetarism is that it eliminates existential angst - if earning money is the central virtue, you're saved the trouble of wondering whether you're living a worthwhile life. It's like the more authoritarian kind of religion, only with solvency occupying the place that obedience does for the devout. The rest of us have to work out how to measure our own lives - a bit trickier, but, in the end, a little more adult.