Thursday, 3 December 2015

Tomorrow La Scala! (2002)

One of the great injustices in entertainment in recent years is just how overlooked Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson) is. Whilst Simon Pegg, her Spaced co-star and co-writer, has become the nerdish darling of Hollywood (along with similar prolific work and success for Nick Frost and Edgar Wright) Hynes has remained here in the UK, working regularly and achieving the occasional success - most notably as the PR guru from hell in Twenty Twelve and its sequel W1A - but never really gaining the recognition and accolades she deserves. 

A year after Spaced finished, she took the starring role as the rather daffy director of a musical theatre troupe putting on a show in a maximum security prison in Francesca Joseph's debut film Tomorrow La Scala! I well recall this being broadcast one Saturday evening on BBC2 and finding it a really good piece of work, yet strangely - like much work associated with the actress - it seems to have been largely forgotten about now. I did wonder if its lack of a release to DVD may have had something to do with copyright (the theatre troupe enlist lifers to perform Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) but I've since learnt that this was not, as I believed, a 'made-for-TV' movie, and that it had in fact been shown at Cannes in the Certain Regard section. So, seeing as it is a 'proper film', I really am at a loss as to explain this film's scarcity. 

As someone who has both worked in prisons and in theatre workshops (though not at the same time) I can confirm there's a ring of authenticity to  Joseph's low budget feature, which isn't surprising as I believe it was inspired by her own experience of directing her very own production of Sweeney Todd in Wormwood Scrubs for, and with, the inmates. The key message, that involving prisoners in something worthwhile that they can develop or draw out skills and talents and give them something to feel proud about, is a worthwhile enterprise is something that I personally can get behind, and I feel Joseph film delivers it with a compelling and favourable emphasis.

As Victoria the director, Hynes (though she was still known as Stevenson at this time) is the glue that holds everything together in the tale's ensemble. Whilst some of her troupe either baulk at their close proximity to the convicted murderers, and others embrace them - quite literally in the case of Samantha Spiro's leading lady and wardrobe mistress Jane, who has sex with Kulvinder Ghir's prisoner during a rehearsal - she goes on something of a journey, which scratches the veneer of her woolly liberalism to reveal her deep-seated concerns and prejudices, before she comes to accept the inmates as people in their own right. The prisoners themselves are played by a mixture of strong British character actor talents like Dudley Sutton, Karl Johnson and Ian Burfield, alongside the (at the time) up and coming talents of Mel Raido and a pre-Hollywood David Oyelowo, whilst Shaun Dingwall convinces as a sympathetic prison warder.  It's an accomplished ensemble which helps the film a great deal, especially given that much of the script was semi-improvised.

The film isn't just music and the odd laugh though and it is prepared to go to some dark places most notably in scenes involving one inmate raping another because they were passed over for a lead role, scenes of physical violence and, in one compelling moment, a scene in which a nosey female journalist isolates Oyelowo's character and tries to get him to confess his crime for a headline splash. What is lacking though, is a lack of cinematic style which is why I presumed it was a TV movie made by the BBC in the first place. It seems Joseph has either realised her shortcomings or not had the opportunity to hone her skills much since this, as aside from the 2007 film Four Last Songs (no, me neither) she returned to directing TV for the rest of the 00s with episodes of EastEnders and Mistresses alongside more notably, distinctive fare like the BBC's one off drama Learners which reunited her with Hynes and Dingwall for a light hearted tale about learning how to drive, inspired by her work on the fly-on-the-wall docusoap Driving School in the late '90s.

I've uploaded Tomorrow La Scala! to my YT here

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