The Wiz

It’s safe to say that many cinema purists would not stand for a remake of The Wizard of Oz (1939) – unless, of course, the remake in question is The Wiz (1978). Yes, it’s the same old stuff with Dorothy, a brainless scarecrow, a cowardly lion and a heartless tin man, travelling along a yellow brick road to find the mysterious wizard who may grant their wishes…  only it isn’t the same old stuff at all!

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The Wiz is a reworking of The Wizard of Oz as a Motown musical (inspired by the Broadway stage show.) We have Motown legends Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as Scarecrow. It should go without saying that the music in this musical is rather enjoyable (as you would hope!) and that alone makes the film worthy of a trip to the cinema. However, there is much more to The Wiz than just its soundtrack. Directed by Sidney Lumet, The Wiz features wonderful costumes and production design that is even more spectacular that the 1939 incarnation of the Oz fable. One of my favourite aspects of The Wiz is the way that the Land of Oz somewhat resembles New York City – complete with yellow taxicabs and a subway!

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Granted, the film is rather lengthy at 134 minutes, but please don’t let this dissuade you. I know it’s a well-worn cliche, but they simply don’t make motion picture musicals like this anymore. The latest advancements in computer-generated imagery don’t hold a candle to the more opulent scenes in The Wiz. As someone who has experienced it on the big screen, I am at a loss to explain why this film is not more highly regarded by film fanatics and casual viewers alike. I know people have issues with Diana Ross and her performance in the role of Dorothy Gale, as well as her appearance; “She’s too old!” they say. Do audiences really think that Miss Ross is too senior here to play a twenty-four year-old character? Do these same viewers really believe Judy Garland looked age ten (as her rendition of Dorothy Gale was meant to be in the 1939 version?) There is so much to enjoy in this film, and any perceived flaws are simply to be overlooked…

Diana Ross The Wiz Toto

The cast, including Nipsey Russell (Tinman), Ted Ross (Lion), Lena Horne (Glinda the Good) and Richard Pryor as The Wiz, are great fun to behold. And ever since I was a child, the highlight song ‘Ease On Down The Road’ has remained firmly stored in my memory. An ideal follow-up for Xanadu (1980), The Wiz is a fantasy escapist musical that demands to be experienced on the largest screen available. And for perhaps the most thorough online review of the film, complete with many awesome facts about the film, please visit Ken Anderson at Le Cinema Dreams, one of the finest film review sites you could ever hope to read and a favourite of mine.

Written by Mark Vanselow for The Astor Theatre.

The Wiz screens in a double feature with Xanadu Saturday April 12th 7.30pm.

Roller Skating into the Astor…

Following the Oscar season, there is no shortage of hype surrounding winners of those coveted golden statuettes handed out each year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If the Hollywood marketing hype is to be believed, a film’s worth is to be measured by the number of accolades it has received. The Academy Awards is considered by the general public to be the most prestigious of the lot, hence the Oscars ceremony has less to do with recognising the best in the world of cinema, more to do with engineering public perception. Granted, it might not have always been this way, but given some rather curious choices in recent years, it’s difficult to not feel cynical toward the Academy itself.

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The bastard cousin of the Oscars, the notorious Razzie Awards, has played its own role in manipulating public perception, in that it dishonours the so-called worst in cinema for the year. Whereas members of the Academy have become known for collectively making safe, non-controversial decisions when awarding the Oscars, so too has the Razzies become known for making similarly safe, non-controversial choices when acknowledging the worst in cinema. After all, the nominees for the Razzies tend to be films already eviscerated by know-it-all critics. These are films that have long since vacated theatres and have been banished to ex-rental oblivion in video stores across the world. As if these films haven’t suffered enough ignominy – and admittedly the dishonour is not always entirely undeserved – the good folks behind the Razzies see fit to label these supposed turkeys with the kiss of death for all posterity, the dreaded Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture.

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The funny thing about awards is that, much like film reviews in the popular press and box office figures, they actually have little influence over public perception of a film in the long run. In other words, the true test of a film is not how many Oscars it collects, nor is it how many Razzies it can avoid, and it certainly isn’t how much money it can take at the box office. The true test of a film is the test of time. Looking at cinema from this perspective, Xanadu (1980), a film that was savaged by critics, tanked at the box office, and was nominated for Worst Picture at the inaugural Razzie Awards in 1980, stands as one of the greatest films in existence.

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Yes, you read that correctly: Xanadu stands as one of the greatest films in existence – at least of all the films I’ve seen, anyway. [Ed's note: I can confirm Mark's wide and ranging knowledge of cinema!] If the true measure of a film is the sheer joy audiences derive experiencing it many years after  release, then I shall continue to defend Xanadu in the face of its most relentless (killjoy) critics.

Xanadu has outlived the negative reviews, the disappointing box office returns, not to mention the mocking nature of the Razzie Awards, to become something of a cult favourite over the last thirty years. Apart from inspiring a number of Broadway musical parodies in recent times, Xanadu still plays regularly at special theatrical revivals around the world. The Canberra International Film festival included Xanadu in its 2011 programme, as an outdoor sunset presentation. It played to capacity audience (this writer should know – I was in the front row); November 2012 saw Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art present two screenings as part of its retrospective of dance musical films (again, this writer was on hand to experience the magic on the big screen); and now it is your turn to view this infamous motion picture musical and form your own opinions about its merit (or lack thereof) as Xanadu roller skates its way to the Astor.

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Honestly, if you consider yourself to be an ardent cinephile, or you simply enjoy your kitsch in extra large doses, you really should make it along to this rare cinematic event, the first Melbourne theatrical presentation of Xanadu in many, many years. Even if you have never experienced the film, you’re probably familiar with its title number, performed by Olivia Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra. In fact, the soundtrack was incredibly popular back in its day, even if the film fell short of meeting commercial expectations in theatres – even today it’s not uncommon to hear selected music from the film on nostalgia and easy listening radio stations.

The film is pure escapist indulgence, a roller disco fantasy that is essentially a long form music video. The screenplay is to dramatic impact as cotton candy is to nutrition. Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck will never be regarded as one of the great romantic pairings in cinema though. The main thing that matters in Xanadu is the music, and there is no shortage of remarkable songs to be found in this fantastic cinematic realm where dreams come true. For those of you who are curious as to the premise of the film, it concerns a dissatisfied illustrator, Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), who specialises in reproducing album cover art at AirFlo Records. Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly, in his silver screen swan song) is an erstwhile Big Band musician whose heyday was sometime back in the 1940s. Inspired by a celestial being named Kira (Olivia Newton-John), and determined to realise a common dream, Sonny and Danny plan to open a musical palace that shall combine the Big Band music of the 1940s with the rock and disco stylings from (what was then) the present time. Of course, there is more to Xanadu than just its music, as this glorious exercise in psychedelia boasts some of the most fabulous costumes you will ever see – words can’t do the wardrobe for this film justice, you simply must behold the dazzling sartorial creations yourself! The film combines aural and visual pleasure in ways matched by very few other films this writer has ever experienced.

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Pleasure is something far too often overlooked by po-faced film critics when judging films like Xanadu. Films can do many things; they can educate us, inspire feelings of introspection, radicalise us politically, exist as great works of artistry, but sometimes we
indulge ourselves in a certain slice of cinema for the sheer joy of it all. Films that appeal to your own eccentric tastes on celluloid might not tickle the fancy of most published film critics you read, and it’s hard to imagine your garden variety movie reviewer dressed up in tights and leg warmers, dancing to classic melodies from the days of disco! For example, I could never imagine American movie critic Gene Shalit, who absolutely panned Xanadu, as the type of person who would sing into his hairbrush as the film’s soundtrack played on the radio (but that’s also because I could never imagine Gene Shalit owning a hairbrush.)

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Basically, it takes a special type of film reviewer to give Xanadu a fair shake – preferably one whose own life revolves around dancing, leg warmers and spandex – someone who actually gets the charm of the movie. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a film critic more qualified than California-based dance instructor Ken Anderson, author of Le Cinema Dreams film review site, for whom the film (quite literally) altered the course of his life. To visit Ken Anderson’s blissfully entertaining, rather hilarious, albeit highly informative review, please click this link here. Hopefully, you will be inspired to catch Xanadu, the first half of a musical fantasy double feature that also includes The Wiz (1978), on Saturday April 12th at 7.30pm at Melbourne’s own stately pleasuredome where dreams come true, the Astor Theatre.

Written by Mark Vanselow for The Astor Theatre.

Xanadu screens in a double bill with The Wiz on Saturday April 12th 7.30pm.

You can purchase advance tickets here.

Keir Dullea & Gary Lockwood Take the Stage

If there’s one film that gives us goosebumps every time it’s Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, screened here in glorious 70mm film print format with sensational six-track magnetic sound. If ever there were a case to be made for the virtues of the film print then this is the shining example. There’s so much depth to the image and such resonance in the sound that the film really interacts with you as a living, breathing entity. Awe is a word that’s not only fitting but absolutely necessary.

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As a regular fixture in our programming, 2001 has been shown at the Astor many times but what makes this next screening all the more special is that we welcome to the stage actors Keir Dullea (Dave) and Gary Lockwood (Frank). It’s not their first time at the Astor but it’s set to be every bit as special as it was when they first joined us back in 2006. Head to our YouTube channel to revisit their last appearance.

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During their first appearance here, Keir Dullea said of our 70mm presentation that it was the finest he had seen since its premiere in 1968. Certain we can replicate the experience again for him and all of you on April 11th, we screen the film with full overture and intermission, dimming of lights and opening of curtains done precisely to match the way it was seen all those years ago. It’s going to be a sensational evening, make sure you don’t miss out!

2001: A Space Odyssey + Live Q&A with Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood takes place Friday April 11th 7.30pm, with autograph signing opportunities from 6pm **please note that there is a $30 fee per autograph.

Advance tickets available now.

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Perhaps it has something to do with my preference for a mediated experience of life over a lived one – I spend significantly more time in darkened rooms staring at moving images than I do in the company of living human beings – or it could just be the general increasing reliance on technology that led to this morbid line of questioning, but I recently asked myself which five objects I considered most important in my life. Two out of five are Apple products. My British passport, glasses and red lipstick aside (I know, I need a hobby) the most important objects I own are my MacBook Pro and my iPhone 5. While it’s fair to say that they do at least play a significant role in my life in that they both enable me to earn a living, it’s not just work that I use them for. They also ameliorate my relationships with others. If I’m going to be honest, and I’ve already admitted to how much I value my red lipstick , then it’s fair to say that I’m someone who doesn’t build many or lasting human relationships, so using technology to buffer or enhance those relationships can at times feel like a godsend. But then I start to wonder how much of my inability to interact in real life is simply a byproduct of years spent online. Is it a chicken/egg situation? Am I closer to or further away from people than I was before? Is it them or the technology that I’m even having the relationship with? And if it is the technology then what exactly is the dynamic between us? Do I use it or does it complement me? Could we ever be equal?

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I once heard someone say (probably in a movie) that you know you’re in love when you think about the person last thing at night and first thing in the morning. This worries me because it means I’m in love with email. Or Twitter, or FaceBook, or something. And it isn’t a healthy relationship either: while I’m totally dependent, it doesn’t need me at all. And though it enables relationships it isn’t itself a relationship. – Or is it? No, not yet.

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We might not be too far away from actual relationships with technology. And such is the premise for the two films we’re screening this very Friday night, March 21st, 7.30pm. Starting with Spike Jonze’s latest human connection musings in Her where Joaquin Phoenix embarks upon an emotional and physical (yes, sexual) relationship with his operating system (OS), followed by the curious Robot & Frank where Frank Langella teams up with his domestic robot to re-live his jewel heist days, all kinds of questions about technology and our relationships with it crop up. Both films, provocative and funny, will also have you wondering how soon we can expect to get it on with an OS update or when we can start hanging out with our automated domestic help, not least because both are set in the not-so-distant future. Although I suspect Apple still have a lot of work to do because there are a number of kinks yet to be ironed out. For example, I don’t use Siri because he/she can’t understand a single word I say. Is it language, accent or tone? Or is everything I utter just gibberish? For all I know, maybe other humans can’t understand me audibly either; perhaps that’s why I love technology so much, it’s far easier to express oneself clearly when writing in rich text and certainly to understand the world through moving images.

Her and Robot & Frank screen as a double bill Friday March 21st at 7.30pm.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.

Cast your EYE over Samsara

On Thursday night we’re screening Samsara (2011), a visual odyssey that will transport you all around the world. Before the screening we will have a special musical performance from the group  EYE. They’re a three-piece but drummer Matthew has to travel to Tasie so on Thursday it will be a two-piece; Toby and Brice.

They play drone music based on natural and environmental sound phenomena to create improvised audiovisual experiences. They take influence from many music traditions as varied as Hindustani raags, modal jazz, American minimalism, punk, psych
and noise. Sequence 1

We spoke to Toby about EYE and here’s what he had to say,

“The concept with our band is that we always play in conjunction with some video component (making these Astor gigs highly fortuitous). Brice and I make videos to perform with, Brice’s films are all analogue and mine are all digital.

Our tonality is based upon naturally/incidentally occurring structures and sound objects, such as the harmonic series. if at all possible we like to tune to either 50Hz, the frequency of electricity in Australia, or use a Schumann resonance (a set of peaks in earth’s electromagnetic frequencies).

If you want to find out more, here’s some 3D footage of their first gig:

More can be found here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S5o45ymOl8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lioj6Ks0Lq8

They were performing to flyscreen, an experimental film by Richard Tuohy. Richard runs a collective called Artist Film Workshop which Brice is a member of. The group specialise in analogue film technologies, pretty much exclusively using 16mm film. Head  here for the full audio of that set.

Samsara screens Thursday March 6th at 8pm. EYE will perform before the screening. All tickets $12.

Get Ready to Swing!

Every year we host one very special Sunday afternoon session with some good friends of ours. They’re musicians, maybe you know them? Well, when they get into the auditorium to do their thing the acoustics of the building really come alive. The building itself was designed by architect and acoustic engineer Ron Morton Taylor. His plans from so many moons ago (we’ve been standing since 1936 don’t you know?) coupled with those sweet harmonious sounds from the Cairo Club Orchestra brings about one of the greatest aural treats you’ll ever experience. They really do bring the perfect jazzy tunes to the stage to meet our art deco/jazz moderne design.

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Only a couple of weeks away now, we caught up with one of those cool cats from the Cairo Club, and here’s what they had to say about returning to the Astor:

I  like the Astor, ever since I lived in St Kilda as a young man, back when it was a Greek Theatre. The Astor has the BEST acoustics of any indoor Venue in Melbourne. There are so few of these late 1930s Cinemas left nowadays, Geelong lost the Wonderful ‘Corio’ Theatre some years ago. Theatres are a developers delight and as time go’s by there will be fewer of them left. Buck Evans (Piano ) is a veteran of the New Orleans Jazz scene and an Icon of the riverboats on the Mississippi, from Savannah Georgia buck plays a mix of Tin Pan Alley Hits and Stride Piano style, in the manner of fats Waller, James P Johnson ect. Nichaud Fitzgibbon needs no introduction as Melbourne’s most versatile and talented Song Stylist Vocalist.

Now because we’re visual nerds as well as aural ones, we like to make sure that the dizzying heights of their swinging sounds are matched with an equally eye-popping flick. One of the first and still one of the best backstage musicals, much thanks of which goes to Busby Berkeley, 42nd Street (1933) is a perfect film to follow up such an excellent act. The plot centers on the production of a new Broadway musical. There’s comedy, romance, betrayal and shapely legs galore. A priceless piece of early Hollywood fare that’s still first-class entertainment.

You won’t want to miss such a special Sunday afternoon screening, preceded by beautifully music, so make sure you get yourself a ticket. Special Prices, $25/$22, movie only $13.

The Cairo Club Orchestra will perform at the Astor Theatre before a screening of 42nd Street on Sunday March 16th at 2pm.

A Necessary Conversation

Martin Scorsese, a regular champion of that elusive thing we call ‘cinema’, introduced the new 4K restoration of Rebel Without a Cause at this year’s Berlinale. He posed the question, “What is cinema?” Simple yet complex, Scorsese answered himself, giving cinephiles everywhere food for thought, “For me there’s only one answer: it is necessary.”

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From our perspective, as a repertory picture palace, the term ‘cinema’ is more important now than ever before. Whatever we understand it as – place, activity, concept – it’s a living thing insomuch as it’s always in conversation with the world. Just like audiences, experiences and responses, it’s always changing.

This thing we call cinema is so important, especially as we try to navigate our way through its biggest change since the transition from the silent era into talkies. If ‘film’ no longer means the physical medium running through the projector, then maybe ‘cinema’ doesn’t mean auditorium anymore either. Perhaps ‘cinema’ has become more spiritual than that.

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If we start to think about ‘cinema’ as a term that encompasses its historic roots, as well as its social connotations, then we can start to see the picture Scorsese is painting. The reason it is necessary is because it is endangered. With so many film prints continuing to be junked (destroyed), at a rate and with a breadth that far surpasses the current efforts in digital restoration, we are actually losing content. So, what can we do? Well, the first step is to show the studios and those keepers of our cultural artefacts that ‘cinema’ is important to us.

If we don’t celebrate what we do have, it will wither and die. Celebration in our world is valuing and supporting the preservation and exhibition of moving image works – in both film and digital formats. Here at the Astor we try to bring place, activity and concept together so that ‘cinema’ has a home. The restoration work itself is of course important, but what’s necessary is the experience of seeing it, as a communal act, transforming that beautiful concept into a living thing. That’s how we start all our conversations with the screen.

The Astor Theatre is proud to announce the 4K digital restoration of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which recently screened at the 2014 Berlinale, will have its Australian premiere in a double bill with the 4K restoration of East of Eden (1955), on Sunday March 23rd, 7pm.

Written by Tara Judah for the Astor Theatre.

Rob + Sheri Moon = 2 Zombies at the Astor

After House of 1000 Corpses (2003), for those who made it through the experience unscathed, came The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Rob Zombie’s follow-up film about the family Firefly. All your favourites are back in this gore-tastic horror flick including Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie). The blood lust fugitive trio do their best to keep the family together but with the police on their case, things get a little hairy. And bloody.

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Bringing this film to the big screen along with the director and one of its stars are the good folk over at Popcorn Taxi. For one night only we are lucky enough to welcome to the stage a romantic zombie double act: Rob Zombie and Sheri Moon Zombie. Awww, ain’t they a cute couple?

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So, make sure you don’t miss out on this very special event, it’s a one night only kinda thing. Happening Thursday February 27th, 7pm. To get tickets and for even more information – and even more great pics of the loving duo – visit those guys over at the Popcorn Taxi webpage.  

Special Event, Special Prices, No Free List.

** Please note that the Filth/Spring Breakers double bill has now moved to Tuesday March 4th, 7.30pm

No One Breaks Out Alone.

Getting Australian audiences into cinemas isn’t always an easy task. As much as those of us who are in it for the love of film would like for it to be solely about showing great movies to passionate fans, that pesky thing called commercial viability rears its ugly head and often gets in the way. Still, there are battles to be fought – and sometimes to be won – where films on death row are concerned.

Horror fans will remember 2012′s special by-demand screening of The Cabin in the Woods. Previously slated for home entertainment in Australia and in response to an overwhelming wave of requests across social media (especially Facebook), email and in person at the theatre, we were able to secure a theatrical screening. Although Cabin was a unique case – the attendance was astounding and saw our stalls’ doors flung open to accommodate viewers in our traditional two-tiered auditorium – there are occasionally other times when we can bring something slated for palm-sized home entertainment discs onto the big screen via high resolution DCP (digital cinema package). This week’s shining example is Escape Plan.

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When fans heard that Stallone and Schwarzenegger would be back on screen – together – they got excited. Then they got sad when news broke that the film would skip theatrical and head straight to home entertainment. A lot of money goes into theatrical distribution and, due to our population size for one, but also for a number of other reasons, we rarely take any more than 10% of US Box Office figures. Makes for a dicey game when pouring funds into individual titles over here. Still, there are fans out there who are just dying to see these two cinema heavyweights back on the big screen.

Fans took to Facebook once again and started asking us if we could screen the film. As regular readers of this blog will know, we need for there to be theatrical rights and an available theatrical format for us to show any film. Thankfully, Escape Plan had both and the distributor was willing to authorise our screening. Bringing us right up to date, this makes tomorrow night’s screening of Escape Plan a very special by-demand event. You asked for it, we brought it. It’s a team effort; you and us, Arnie and Sly. It’s a one-off so make sure you can attend if you’re a fan!

Escape Plan screens Thursday February 6th 7.30pm. Thrifty Thursday, all tickets $12.

Written by Tara Judah for the Astor Theatre.

 

Let’s Talk About Disney

AladdinDisney

I didn’t get around to watching The Little Mermaid (1998). It might be because – on a very basic level at least – I really don’t want to subject myself to the experience. Eighty-three minutes of phallic symbols? Sigh. I did however make time for Aladdin (1992), which is screening today at 2pm. My viewing experience hasn’t really inspired me to continue on with Pocahontas (1995). I’ve also seen Frozen (2013), screening today at 4pm, and I have to say, not only wasn’t I impressed with its half-hearted attempt to revise gender roles, but I don’t think it hits even the mark of the more recent Disney/Pixar collaborations such as Brave (2012). The absence of Pixar is, in my opinion, glaringly obvious.

Okay, so my aversion to Disney classics is evident and it has already been well documented on this here blog. The intention of these blog posts though was to create discussion and debate – lively, healthy and respectful – about Disney films and their ideological underpinnings. At the Astor we screen a lot of content that we might – as a group or individually within our group – see as problematic. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want people to enjoy the films – far from it. When we love something we share that passion with you. When we have reservations we share those too. We want you to do the same.

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So, instead of offering a reading of Aladdin (and selfishly saving myself the unnecessary pain of continuing in this painful plight), we invite you to make a case for one or more of the films. Tell us why – without simplifying the argument by suggesting that film is for ‘entertainment’ or that discussing agenda and ideology is ‘reading too much into it’ – you think the films deserve their place up on the big screen. Convince us that Disney is ideologically sound. That might be the biggest challenge we’ve posed yet but, if you’re passionate about the films, we want to hear why!

Email your answers, no more than 400 words, to: rsvp@astortheatre.net.au

The most convincing argument will win you a double pass to see Pocahontas next Sunday at 1.30pm!

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.