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Twelfth Night

The perfect start to Kwame Kwei-Armah’s tenure at the Young Vic – a great big populist hit. This 90-minute musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, which loses much of the verse but none of the story, is bursting with energy and fun, joyous and uplifting.

It’s a musical comedy, so the spotlight is on the antics of Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia’s maid Maria and the trick they play on her steward Malvolio (the contemporary take on yellow stockings and crossed garters is delicious!), but the love triangle of Orsino pining for Olivia whilst she’s attracted to Viola as Cesario who is herself infatuated with Orsino is handled brilliantly. When Viola’s supposedly dead brother Sebastian turns up, and Malvolio uncovers the plot against him, the resolution is rather moving, despite the comedy.

Designer Robert Jones has built a whole Notting Hill street (with the Duke of Illyria its pub!) in the Young Vic auditorium; an absolutely brilliant set. The eleven Shakespearean characters are supplemented by a thirty strong community chorus who fill the stage and are so good you’d never know it wasn’t a professional one. Shaina Taub’s score is fairly vanilla pop, as is Lizzi Gee’s choreography, but they both do the job and its well sung, played and danced.

The performances are outstanding, led by Gerard Carey as Malvolio, one of the finest comic performances I’ve seen in a lifetime of devotion to theatre. Gabrielle Brooks is simply brilliant as Viola / Cesario, handling the frisson with Orsino superbly and her reunion with Sebastian movingly, with beautiful vocals. Natalie Drew and Rupert Young are both superb as Olivia and Orsino. The comic duo of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are finely played by Martyn Ellis and Silas Wyatt-Barke, and there’s a lovely Feste from Melissa Allan, who sings beautifully.

Oskar Eustis co-directs this captivating piece with Kwei-Armah, who co-conceived it with Taub. A treat.

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Sketching

What a great idea to create a modern stage version of Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, his short pieces for newspapers which preceded his first novel. Another great idea to get star playwright James Graham to nurture eight young writers, each to contribute a story to accompany his four, and to stage it at Wilton’s, a very Dickensian venue which was around when the original sketches appeared.

The twelve tales cover a diverse range of subjects, from a troubled relationship played out during a Mayoral election, through the life of a Scottish drag queen to a sophisticated crime and the sighting of a rare songbird. Instead of telling them sequentially, though, they are interwoven, and this is where it went wrong for me, as it made for a fragmentary evening of uneven writing.

The five performers do very well, switching characters and stories with the turn of a head or the donning of a hat, and Thomas Hescott’s staging, on a raised platform which dealt well with Wilton’s usually challenging sight-lines, using minimal props but excellent projections by Daniel Denton, served them well enough. In the end though, the constant switching between stories inhibited your enjoyment of them and eventually became irritating.

An ambitious and clever idea that sadly didn’t live up to its promise.

The Rest of September

Opera

ENO took Britten’s folk opera / operetta Paul Bunyan to Wilton’s Music Hall, where it somehow fitted like a glove. It’s an odd mythical concoction about the American Dream, but its real strength is its lyrical score, which showed off the young singers and chorus brilliantly. It seemed darker than the previous two occasions I’ve seen it, which seemed appropriate given recent events.

My 2018 Proms ended on a high the night before the Last Night with a lovely performance of Handel’s Theodora by Arcangelo and five excellent soloists. Despite being a chamber ensemble and small choir, they filled the RAH. The countdown to Proms 20-19 begins!

My only visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff this autumn was for Prokofiev’s epic War & Peace. It’s a flawed opera, with the first half a series of scenes lacking cohesion, and I thought their decision to translate it into English was a mistake as it came over as clunky, but the soloists were terrific and above all the second half showed off both the chorus and orchestra to thrilling effect.

Classical Music

For some reason, I was disappointed in the Berlioz Prom. It wasn’t the musicianship, which was extraordinary, but maybe it was a programme of lesser Berlioz. I just didn’t think it did The Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Elliott Gardiner, favourite Joyce DiDonato and viola player Antoine Tamestit justice. The rest of the audience and the critics appeared to disagree, so maybe it was just an off night for me.

A double-dip of two Proms in one evening proved very rewarding indeed, starting with a superb performance of Britten’s War Requiem from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra & Chorus, probably my favourite choral work, and continuing with 60 mins of 850 years of late night polyphony from the ever wonderful Tallis Scholars; it’s amazing how those 30 or so voices fill the Royal Albert Hall.

The Parry centenary concert at Wigmore Hall was a delightful way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon. Songs by him and his friends and contemporaries were beautifully sung by Louise Alder & Nicky Spence accompanied by William Vann and it was all very uplifting. Back in the same venue the following lunchtime, soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Joseph Middleton gave another lovely recital of English song from Purcell to Ireland, Walton and Michael Head, an early 20th century composer new to me. The folk song encores proved to be the highlight.

Art

As if to compensate for the hugely disappointing exhibition at the Weiner Gallery, Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33 at Tate Modern was a real treat, with artists new to me as well as those like Otto Dix I’ve seen vast amounts of this summer. Across the Bridge, Artist Rooms: Jenny Holzer was worth popping into, though much of it goes over my head.

A visit to Cornwall meant a second visit to Tate St. Ives, which had a hit-and-miss exhibition of Patrick Heron. I loved some of the colourful abstractions, but much of it left me cold.

Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings at the Royal Academy covered his illustrious career from before the Pompidou Centre to The Shard by focusing on sixteen projects, built and unbuilt (yet). The trouble was it was all very static – each project a table on which there were notes, drawings and models with more drawings and photos on the walls around. The most interesting project was one I’m unlikely to ever see, in New Caledonia, in the Pacific Ocean! For architects and architectural students only, I’d say.

Film

BlacKkKlansman wasn’t an easy watch, but its humour and its chilling ending were enough to make it well worth seeing.

I enjoyed The Children Act, the second film of the summer featuring the consequences of Jehovah’s Witnesses fundamentalism, especially for Emma Thompson’s deeply touching performance.

Crazy Rich Asians was a great advert for the Singapore Tourist Authority, but I rather overdosed on rich Asians, crazy or otherwise. It had its funny moments, but there weren’t enough of them to warrant the reviews that sent me to see it.

Eastern Star

Guy Slater’s play tells the fascinating true story of a young BBC World Service reporter who found himself a key player in the 1988 Burmese student uprising, and how it haunted him for twenty-five years until he returned to the country on the anniversary of the event. It packs a lot into seventy minutes.

Christopher Gunness found himself in the right place at the right time, from a journalistic point of view. He was given special insight and access and was able to report what he saw to the world. He developed a friendship with a local Human Rights lawyer, U Nay Min, code-named Eastern Star, who unbeknown to Gunness was subsequently imprisoned and tortured. He carried home feelings of guilt without knowing the full story, and was banned from the country by the military regime.

Twenty-five years later he is invited back as a guest of honour, no longer a persona non grata, when he tries to reconnect with U Nay Min, and is puzzled by his rejection. He does eventually agree to meet and tells the full tragic story of his life after Christopher had left.

Michael Lumsden and David Yip are both excellent in the lead roles and there’s fine support from Patrick Pearson as Gunness’ Canadian husband and Julie Cheung-Inhin as U Nay Min’s niece and carer. Slater directs the play himself. There’s a small exhibition of photographs of the 1988 events upstairs to accompany it.

It’s a great tribute to Gunness that he supports the play on what is now the thirtieth anniversary. I was very glad I caught it during a short run at Tara.

An Adventure

This new play has an epic sweep, crossing three continents and more than sixty years to tell the story of a young Indian couple’s journey via Kenya to the UK through the changes in all three countries. I was enthralled.

It starts in Ahmedabad in 1954 as teenager Jyoti chooses between five suitors, deciding on Kenyan Asian twenty-something Rasik. It’s a year before she joins him in Kenya to begin their life together, where they become farmers and befriend and employ David, but it isn’t long before they leave the country amid the turmoil of the Mau Mau uprising. Their destination is the UK and there we see them in the late 60’s and 70’s making a life for themselves, Rasik training as a surveyor and Jyoti becoming a union activist fighting exploitation of Asian women, both on the receiving end of racist abuse, bringing up two girls and buying a home. The play ends as we flash forward to the present day, looking back at their adventure, new facts revealed.

It’s beautifully written, very mature and assured for a young playwright, particularly well structured. Madani Younis’ production is set on a square stage with the audience facing each other on two sides and screens on the other two. With very few props, locations are conjured up by what covers the floor, with the impressionistic projections adding atmosphere. The simplicity of the design allows the story to shine unencumbered, both the personal tale of the couple and the political and societal changes in all three countries.

Anjana Vasan is excellent as the assertive, feisty and independent Jyoti, as is Shubham Saraf as the loving but much put upon Rasik. In Kenya, Martins Imhangbe creates an imposing presence as David and in the UK, daughter Sonal is played with cheeky youthfulness, very much her mother’s daughter, by Aysha Kala, who doubles up as Jyoti’s niece back in India. When we move to the present day, Nika Aalia and Selva Rasalingham take over as the older Joyti and Rasik. A fine ensemble.

A candidate for the year’s best new play, I have a feeling we’re going to be hearing a lot more from playwright Vinay Patel.

Anthony & Cleopatra

This play was made for a stage like the Olivier and Simon Godwin’s excellent production, superbly designed by Hildegard Bechtler, makes great use of the space. Add in a set of great performances and you have a fine A&C.

It’s modern dress but feels timeless. They make great use of the revolve and drum to create some strikingly different settings from Rome to Alexandria and at sea. It starts tentatively, but when it gets into its stride it’s captivating, with the political & military and the relationships given equal attention and sitting comfortable together. Intimate scenes between Anthony and Cleopatra and battle scenes at sea and on land both work superbly, and Michael Bruce’s music adds much to the atmosphere.

Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra is very much in control, feisty and determined, but palpably in love with her man. She shows us many facets of Cleopatra in a passionate performance which swept me away. Ralph Fiennes has great presence as Anthony and also shows us a multi-faceted character who’s clearly torn between his loyalty to Rome and his love of Cleopatra, and when he’s with her he behaves like he’s the luckiest man in the world. There are so many fine performances around them that it’s impossible to mention them all; an excellent ensemble indeed.

When you have a bit of a Shakespeare habit, as I do, it’s rare to see something as fresh as this. Terrific.

Poet in da Corner

This was one of those punts where I didn’t really know what I was in for but had a suspicion it might not be for me, but hey I like a bit of theatrical adventure. Good to report it paid back.

You wouldn’t need a whole postage stamp to write down what I know about grime, but I took a twenty-something, so I had a short course before and after (there are so many musical genres and sub-genres these days, its very complicated). Debris Stevenson starts by telling us she studied classical poets but learnt more from grime artist Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album Boy in da Corner and she was going to give us her take on it.

Once you work out it’s the true story of her early life, you settle into a fascinating tale told in rap, dance, dialogue and music with three others – Kirubel Belay, Cassie Clare & Jammz – playing people in her life like her mum, brother and school friends. It’s a clever and audacious combination of ingredients that come together to create something rather fresh and original, though some of the rap was so fast, with lots of impenetrable slang, and it did feel like Part One, ending as it does before she even goes to University. I very much liked Jacob Hughes’ black, yellow and white design.

When we were asked to get to our feet, I looked around to see an extraordinary combination of reactions from Court regulars and newbies and it all seemed rather surreal. Great to see something genuinely original and very different on this stage though and me, an unlikely recruit. I think my grime name is gonna be Gazza.